Asia 101: How Not to Get to Paris

Beijing, Tuesday morning

Why are we in China?  From Sydney, Beijing is not on the way to Paris.  It’s 17 degrees Centigrade, with sunshine and bright blue skies.  Paralympic greeters are all around us.

What’s happened so far:

Update from Paris, Tuesday night:  the Air France flight from Beijing to Paris was fine.  Our journey time was 42 hours, door to door.  As ever, I’m overjoyed to be here.

  • overly-optimistic flight itinerary, with only a 75-minute stopover in Singapore (lesson learned:  never again)
  • Qantas delay in Sydney.  Classic case of 3 bags loaded in error, no passengers attached to them, so had to be off-loaded
  • One hour late arrival in Singapore.  Air France won’t wait 15 minutes despite 50+ connecting passengers.
  • Routing through Beijing “best” of alternatives offered by ground crew at Changi Airport

Changi Airport, Singapore

I’ve always liked Changi Airport.  It’s much like Singapore itself:  well-ordered and clean, with excellent choice and quality of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, and Western food; enough shopping to keep you busy for days (including a favourite book stop); and state of the art technology and customer service.  It’s the first airport I can remember that had free Internet everywhere.

While waiting to learn our fate last night, just looking at the Changi arrival and departure boards reminded me it’s truly at the crossroads of Asia.  Flights to and from around the world arrive and depart 24/7.  From my first business trip to Singapore over 12 years ago, I was hooked.  The names still excite me, whether relatively close, like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, or farther away, like Shanghai or Dubai.

Asia 101

Singapore is to Asia as London is to Europe, a sort of “Asia 101,” especially for Australians and Americans.  It’s a good introduction, because almost everyone speaks English and the central city retains its Asian flair, despite being Westernised to the point that one of our Australian friends said, “I used to like Singapore, until they turned it into Chatswood.”  Chatswood is a Sydney suburb known for its Asian population and vast shopping malls.

Singapore and its airport may not have the funky, developing character of other Asian capitals, and its spotlessness and efficiency reflect its tightly-controlled government state.  But it’s easy to get around, and I’ve always felt safe here, whether arriving with my family at a peak travel time, or by myself on a business trip, alone in the middle of the night.

In the wee hours of this morning, the airport was well-lit, shops open, and staff visible and walking around.\  We weren’t the only passengers, either; a large group bound for Rome was also departing after 1am. 

A Sensual Impression

Changi even feels like Singapore’s hot, steamy self.  From the moment you get off the plane, you can sense the humidity in the air, on your skin, and as you breathe it in, along with the heavy, floral-y smell of the tropics.  I love coming upon the central gathering area, with its stands of purple orchids and green ferns, and sounds of softly-falling water.  In the middle of hundreds of thousands of criss-crossing travellers, it’s an oasis of beauty and peace, if only for a few minutes.

Orchid Garden, Changi Airport Site Photo

 

There used to be a little Jim Thompson silk shop at Changi, where I always wandered around and once splurged on a zippered make-up bag that cost $34 Australian dollars.  It was beige silk with a cobalt blue elephant print, luxuriously soft inside and out.  I delighted in using it every day until I wore it out.

Exception to the Rule

Unfortunately, our experience at Changi this trip was one of utter frustration.  It began with the discovery that although we disembarked the Qantas plane 15 minutes before the Air France (AF) departure time, AF had closed the flight.  We are believers in on-time departure in most cases, but have also understood the situation when we’re due to depart and a pilot announcement comes on about waiting a few minutes for a large group from a connecting flight.

Singapore Airlines ground staff was left with 50 tired, disgruntled passengers, and was unable to cope.  When one French passenger complained, the response was a shrug and, “that’s Air France.”  As time ticked away and nothing happened, it became clear to us that waiting passively was not an option.  It was only because we asserted ourselves that we got tickets and boarding passes for the first flight to Beijing.   

In the interest of not turning this post into a whingey, whiney recitation of every detail that followed, suffice it to say that in both Singpore and Beijing, our group was led all over creation and back again, to waiting areas, ticketing, check-in, passport, customs, baggage, transit areas, transit busses, and airport trains.  As happens in these situations, it became quite amusing at times – like when, with another couple, we practically had to tackle one of the Chinese ‘leaders’ we were following, so she would slow down enough to allow the rest of the group to catch up.

Despite the uncharacteristic inefficiency of the ground staff in Singapore, we did have the unexpected pleasure of the always-outstanding cabin service of Singapore Airlines on the flight from Singapore to Beijing.  If we had only known we’d end up here, we would have gotten a visa and spent a few days in the city.

Welcome to China

We have a 5-hour stopover at Beijing Airport, where I’m writing this.  The terminal is very modern with striking architecture and soaring ceilings, clearly updated for the Olympics.  We felt relatively confident we’d eventually get boarding passes for the Air France flight, and we did.  The Chinese staff are still in friendly mode, with Olympics just finished and Paralympics starting soon.   

I did however try to access WordPress, my blog host, from inside Beijing Airport, and while I could reach other Internet sites such as International Herald Tribune, I wasn’t able to view, let alone get into, my blog or anyone else’s.  I don’t think I was doing anything wrong, so it was most likely “Internet restrictions.”  It was a reminder that personable, English-speaking staff notwithstanding, we still live by their rules.

Our group is significantly smaller in Beijing.  Several members estimated at least 20 of the original 50 didn’t make the flight due to the dithering in Singapore.    

Onward to Air France and — joy of joys — Paris.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Update from Paris, Tuesday night:  the Air France flight from Beijing to Paris was fine.  Our journey time was 42 hours, door to door.  As ever, I’m overjoyed to be here. 

Why Should They Have It? How to Avoid Currency Fees

Sydney

“Why should they have it?”  says my partner, Clive.  They = those who charge outrageous currency fees.  It = our money. 

Clive taught me a simple method, which I think is quite clever, for saving currency fees at both ends of a trip.  When we were planning our first overseas journey together a few years ago, he said, “I have to get travellers cheques.”  Travellers cheques?!? I thought they were a thing of the (distant) past.

The Fee Approach

My financial approach to travel used to be:  1) use mileage-award credit cards as much as possible, to both get the miles and have an automatic record of expenditures; 2) get just enough foreign currency at the departure airport to have as backup at the destination, if needed for initial ground transportation or incidentals; and 3) have an ATM card on hand for emergency cash.  And it’s easy to do wire transfers before a trip.

Depending on which cards are used in which country, my approach involved paying often-exorbitant currency exchange fees.  These are charged by credit card companies on each purchase, exchange agencies who have a captive market (and offer horrendous rates) at the airport, and banks, who always know how to maximise their take.  Wire transfers are convenient, but invoke fees at both the sending and receiving ends.

The Free Approach

Clive’s approach, on the other hand, is to largely pay in cash as he goes.  He keeps a basic record of expenses, not relying on credit card statements, and when he gets home, he has no bills to pay.  He doesn’t have any foreign credit cards, and only uses his local credit card overseas when there’s absolutely no choice.  This means he avoids both fees and poor credit card exchange rates.

There are two design points for saving fees at both ends: 

  • Many banks and credit card companies offer, or include as an automatic benefit, commission-free travellers cheques.  I had always ignored this, since I hadn’t seen or used travellers cheques since a family trip to the U.S. west in 1994.  Clive gets commission-free travellers cheques, in euros, pounds, or American dollars, as part of a standard credit card plan with one of Australia’s major banks.
  • Having a bank account and ATM card in the destination country, which many ex-pats do; the ideal is for the overseas bank to have a good network and ATMs where you’ll be travelling

Then simply do the following:

1)   Estimate amount of foreign currency needed

2)   Get that amount in commission-free travellers cheques, at the bank – which usually has the best exchange rate, too

3)   When you arrive at your destination, deposit travellers cheques — fee-free — into your account there

4)   Use foreign ATM card as needed to withdraw cash – also fee free based on bank limits (unlimited in England)

I’ve been amazed at how easy and cost-effective this approach is.  After years of putting everything on a mileage-award credit card, it seemed strange and almost wrong to me to pay cash for so much – we weren’t getting any miles! – and it had been years since I’d paid cash at restaurants and hotels.

But I learned quickly that it worked fine:  we don’t carry large amounts of cash on hand, we’re not constantly looking for somewhere to exchange travellers cheques, and we just get what we need from an ATM and pay as we go.

Giving Ourselves More

Like most people, we try to work within a travel budget.  I’ve also learned we don’t have to be fanatics, but with a little foresight, we make worthwhile savings (which we can spend on us!).  We also get better exchange rates at the bank; on our last trip we noticed the rate at Sydney Airport was almost ten per cent worse than at the bank.  It’s become a no-brainer to trade last-minute convenience for saving money and avoiding rip-off rates and fees.  And Clive has shown me there’s an over-emphasis on using credit cards to get miles, when sometimes it’s simply not cost-effective.

Initially I thought this approach was more work, but it was only a matter of changing my routine.  If you’re interested in saving money and avoiding currency exchange fees, it might be worth looking into commission-free travellers cheques and deposits into your foreign account.

This has become a key item on our travel planning checklist.

When it comes to your money, why should they have it?

Travel Planning: Vote Early

Australia Ballot Papers for Manly Local Government Election

Australian Ballot Papers for Manly Local Government Election

Sydney

How important is voting?  Today we went to the Returning Officer of the Electoral District of Manly to get our ballot papers for the September 13 local government election.

Clive and I share the longstanding belief that it’s a privilege and a responsibility to vote, whether in person or long-distance.  We’ll be away for the this election and we’re leaving before the pre-poll voting centres open, so we need to vote by post ahead of time.

The biggest differences for me between voting in the U.S. and voting in Australia are:

  • in the federal election, voting is for a party, not a person; the party with the most elected members to the House of Representatives decides who will be Prime Minister
  • there are multiple paper ballots, and some are huge – the one on top in the photo is about a foot high and two feet wide, for a local election
  • the process is much shorter and quieter than in the U.S.  
  • voting is compulsory in Australia; there are accepted reasons for not voting; e.g., illness or emergency, but not feeling like it, not liking any of the candidates, or not being interested in politics are not acceptable; and if you don’t vote, there are penalties

To be technically correct, it’s compulsory to show up, have your name checked off, receive the paper ballots, and put them into the appropriate ballot boxes.  You can leave the ballots blank or write in anything you wish, but you must receive the ballots and put them into a ballot box, or in our case this week, post them in.

In the current local election, the fine for not voting and not having an acceptable reason starts at $55.  If you fail to respond or pay the fine, an additional $50 fine is charged, and if that doesn’t get a response, there’s a potential cancellation of your motor vehicle license.  New South Wales discovered some time ago that tying unpaid fines to license and registration renewal was an effective way to collect large sums.

For our local election, the ballot for 11 councillor positions has 58 names across 9 columns.  There are 3 smaller ballots:  1 with 9 candidates for Mayor, and 2 with Yes/No questions, one a Constitutional Referendum Paper about reducing the number of councillors from 12 to 9, including the mayor, and one a Council Poll Paper about a 4.4% Climate Change Levy to minimise the impact of climate change on Manly.

The whole process of voting and participating in the process feels different in Australia; everyone votes, it’s expected, it’s done without much fanfare or drama, and even with all the usual jokes about write-in comments and candidates, the overall ‘psyche’ is – there’s an election, so you vote.

The Australian Electoral Commission reported national voter turnout for Australia’s 2007 federal election was about 95%.    

A quick Google search led me to the Washington Post , which reported turnout for the U.S. 2004 Presidential election as the best it had been since 1968, about 61%.

Clive has mixed feelings about being in the U.S. in the run-up to this year’s Presidential election.  On one hand, he’s dreading the blanket coverage which excludes all other news, so he’s identified additional ways such as Internet television to ensure we still get world news while there.  On the other hand, he’s looking forward to witnessing first-hand the hype that surrounds the process.

Voting early is included in our travel planning checklist, which I describe further in “A Passion for Travel, Part 3:  Travel Planning Checklist”.

Getting to Paris: The Long Way

 

Sydney

After spending the past two days firstly attending Clive’s youngest grandson’s dedication and then visiting his mother, we are now focusing on our upcoming trip to Europe and the U.S.  This trip will be the longest time Clive and I have been away from Sydney, three months total, September, October, and November.

September 1st, our departure day, is the first day of spring in Australia.  The fourth quarter is my favourite time of year here, so why are we leaving just when the days are getting longer, the weather even more beautiful, and everything blooming?  My dream has always been to follow the sun, to luxuriate in the long twilights and late darkness of the northern hemisphere summer, enjoy the colours of autumn in the U.S. and Europe, and return to Sydney for spring and summer Down Under.

Earlier this year, I left the business world with the hope and intention of spending more time travelling.  As it turned out, Clive and I spent unplanned weeks in the U.S. in May and June, moving my mother from hospital to rehab to assisted living.  My new-found freedom from counting corporate vacation days made it relatively easy to extend our time there, an incredible blessing; sometimes the Universe supports us in amazing, unexpected ways.

Our upcoming trip is primarily to see my mother again, and continue the work that needs to be done in New Jersey.  But it’s not in the emergency mode it was earlier this year, and we want to take advantage of two things:

1.  New Jersey is much closer than Sydney to Paris and England

2.  What keeps travel fresh for us is including something new each trip

Clive’s maternal grandfather and great-grandparents were from Scotland, a country I’ve always wanted to visit.  Clive said he’d like to show some of it to me, and walk in his grandfather’s footsteps in Stirling.  So we plan to do this, as the first week of a 2-week break for “just us” in the middle of our various family activities.

Travel from Sydney

There are a number of ways to travel from Sydney to the U.S. and/or Europe.  The most straightforward is a standard return (round-trip) ticket; e.g., Sydney-New York via San Francisco (our preferred route) or Los Angeles, or Sydney-Paris via Asia:  Singapore, Hong Kong, or Bangkok, depending on the airline.  We have also done a number of around-the-world variations, such as Sydney-New York-London-Paris-Singapore-Sydney, which is cost-effective but tiring when trying to fit ambitious objectives into a limited number of corporate vacation days.

I’m now thrillingly free of years of counting vacation days, and because Clive owns his company he can organise time off, although he says he works for a tough boss who doesn’t pay him when he’s on vacation.   We decided to travel via Paris this time, do two “hops” across the Pond for the flights to the U.S., and spend time in Europe in the middle to break things up:

 

  • Sydney to Paris, via Singapore
  • a few days in Paris, then the first trip across the Pond
  • Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, to spend time with my mother, and get the house where she lived for 54 years ready for sale; visit other family and friends in New Jersey and Connecticut   
  • Washington, D.C. to visit my son in his new city, and catch up with friends there
  • Ipswich and Felixstowe, England, to see Clive’s father for his 89th birthday and go to the Speedway, one of his father’s passions; visit with other family and friends
  • just us:  a week to explore Stirling, Scotland
  • just us:  a week in Paris, then the second trip across the Pond  
  • a month in New Jersey; try to complete work on the house
  • return to England for a final visit with Clive’s father
  • last few days in Paris
  • return to Sydney via Hong Kong

It’s a lot of juggling as usual, and our time in Paris is limited to the days at the beginning and end, and a week in the middle.  I wish we were spending more time in Paris.  But for this trip, it seems we have the best balance possible, given the enormity of the tasks that must be done in New Jersey and the desire to spend quality time with Clive’s father in England.

We’re flying Qantas from Sydney to Singapore, Air France from Singapore to Paris, and BA for the two jumps over the Pond.  We are big fans of Singapore Airlines but neither of us has ever flown Air France; their fares were better this time and we’re looking forward to the flights between Singapore and Paris.    

I’m sad to leave Sydney this time of year, but I know we’ll be back in time for Christmas carols on the beach, watching the Sydney to Hobart yacht race on Boxing Day, and New Year’s Eve on Sydney Harbour.