USA – How to get around in the cities – some apps

To get around easily in the cities, I’ve found out there are multiple ways all using apps. You’ll need an internet connection, which is always a good idea for a long roadtrip.

  • Transit
    • An app showing you all GPS locations of the busses, all the stopnames and durations. You can easily plan your trip with all connections based on your current location and several suggestions. It gives you several options to for example avoid using a subway.
  • Uber
    • Uber is HUGE here in the USA. For the ones that don’t know it: it’s an alternative taxi service that uses an app to connect you to nearby drivers. It’s much cheaper too.
    • For the first subscription (you’ll need a phonenumber) you can use discount codes. For example TRANSITAPP, which gives you a 30 USD discount
    • You can choose to share a ride, by which the cost can be halved
    • I’ve heard things that in the cars you are offered candy and water.
  • Lift
    • An alternative for Uber (don’t know much details, but it’s also used a lot)
  • Google maps
    • Everyone suggests it since here all public transport is covered for the big cities. It also lets you plan ahead (with potential traffic based on historical data)

On top of that, I’ve purchased a T-mobile prepaid plan for one month ‘GoSmart’. It costed me 65 USD (20 USD activation cost, be aware of this + 40 USD for the package + 5 USD tax). The plan includes 5GB data on 3G network & unlimited national calls and text messages. Networks and plans here are a lot more interesting as in Belgium since there is a lot of competition. If you don’t do a top-up in 6 months, your number is deactivated.

On many products, the tax is never mentioned and needs to be paid on top.

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The roadtrip has begun – getting a rental car!

The roadtrip had begun!

Today was the perfect day to start travelling further, however I did not do several closeby landmarks such as the Observatory and Runyon Canyon which are supposed to be very interesting for the Hollywood region.

The idea of the roadtrip is to have ultimate freedom. In the end I found out about espace campervans, this company has converted regular vans to sleepover vans, including a full bed and small kitchen.

On the bus there, I got to chat with a nice (married) guy who claimed to live in Beverly hills. He told me a summary of his life, including some very personal details, in 5 min. It is always so strange how, even during a quick meetup, people I meet tend to share a lot about their personal life and you make connections. Those 5 minutes ended with an exchange of phone numbers… just in case 🙂

Rental Car

In the USA, most rental cars are not insured by default in the rental price. Some reasons are that you can potentially re-use the insurance of your own car back home or several creditcard memberships (gold / platinum) can cover you. The coverange by creditcard companies is interesting, since for a fee < 10 USD / month, you can get full coverage and all the other advantages of that membership.

There are multiple types of insurance to be paid / decided seperatly: collision waiver & third party liability (up to 1.000.000+ USD, which is higher then standard coverages). Both costed me around 10 USD / day, bringing the total of 17 days to 340 USD just for insurance (this is the equivalent to a 3 year creditcard membership).

In many rentals, you’ll also have a limited mileage, often around 100 miles / day. Do the calculation to get more miles, in my case it was 15 USD / day extra for 200 miles and 20 USD for unlimited.

Note that in the USA, almost all cars have automatic gear and are non-diesel (due to taxes and engine – environmental restrictions).

If you do long rentals, you should always negotiate to get for example a free GPS or other extras.

Finding company to drive with

Since I now owned a car, I felt to get most of it, including finding company to share it with from time to time.

Very popular in the USA is Craigslist, where people post all type of ads to sell all kind of things. The site is to my opinion very chaotic but works if you find your way due to a huge userbase.

There is one section for ‘rideshares’, where people post their route, leave their phonenumber & a rate.

Just one hour before leaving to San Diego I left an ad and offered a free ride from L.A. to San Diego. In just minutes, I received 3 messages and chose 1 person. More about that & the trip to San Diego in the next post 🙂

Sidenote: apparantly Craigslist is now even owned by Ebay…

 

L.A. – Venice Beach & Santa Monica

On the other side of Los Angeles on the coast, you’ll find the famous Santa Monica pier and Venice Beach.

The Santa Monica pier is home of the Pacific Park, with the famous wheel and many small-sized but interesting attractions including a roller-coaster. These attractions look ‘old-school’ and are very expensive.

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Pacific Park

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Pacific Wheel

Did you know that the Santa Monica pier is considered as the official end of Route 66? In this shop on the pier, you’ll find many of the history about Route 66 and the (non-official) sign ‘End of Route 66’.

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Route 66 shop

This is also home of Venice beach, one of the most famous beaches of the USA.

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Besides the pier and on the beach, you’ll find many facilities to exercise your fitness & body. These facilities are also just fun such as the ring chain from the picture below.

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This is typical California: fitness; you will not find the ‘fat’ USA people here.

Along Venice beach and in the middle of the sand for the first part, you have a huge boardwalk that is shared with bicycles. It is a nice stroll from the pier to the beachshops.

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An interesting sight was the ‘Green Doctors’ where they sell legal marijuana.

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Green Doctors’

Come back here (the Santa Monica pier region) on a good day for sunset, and you can take cool shots with the wheel, pier & sunset in the background.

L.A – The City of Angels and so much more

Immediately I put my stuff away in a locker (own lock, always good to bring one, either one with 4 numbers or 2 spare keys). First time ever I’ve seen a power socket within a locker, such a great idea! I would need to test if the 110V output doubles the required charging time compared to Europe and such.

Locker with power socket

Furthermore, I was happy to find a blank star on the hall of fame… (amongst the 2500 others). There is still hope!!IMG_20150329_140203

Did you know that it’s not just stars? There is also the moon (with Appollo XI).

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Everywhere on Hollywood Boulevard, you’ll find agencies trying to offer you a tour. Most of them focus on the ‘celebrity house’ tour. When you think about that, it’s a bit strange… houses of celebrities are very well guarded and will not show much of it’s beauty except for a nice facade and gate.

However, I decided to take one of these tours since you can avoid a car rental that way for other sceneries. Official prices range between 35 and 40 USD for adults, you can easily get them down to 20 USD for a 2 hour trip. This might not be the case with tours booked in advance or with your hotel / hostel, so better to go arrange it by yourself. Depending on the company, you’ll find available seats for the next drive (I think on averange every hour there is one starting)  or the one for the day after (you can always get another company). Some companies will also offer you additional coupons with discounts, on which you’ll find the referral details for their commision.

That is how they mostly operate things here: based on commission and tips, including your guides (as a reference they wrote 5 USD for a good tour, 10 USD for a very good one). Dining & drinking services are about 15-20% tip. Service is a big thing here in the USA, even at the hostel (!) I had one person showing me around (however, I asked and that kind of service does not require a tip).

During the walk around Hollywood, you’ll meet many kind of people: street performers, people in movie customes (even a very good Iron Man custome), preachers of ‘jezus’ (including people fighting with them. One of them told everyone his friend killed himself because of this preaching), crazy ones (one of them asked me if I saw the devil? He was serious…) and many homeless.

On Sunset Boulevard, I found a homeless man without any board for begging money and decided to walk up to him and ask why there are so many homeless people in L.A. I received a suprising answer: many felons are too lazy to work and just try to make money by asking for it. Another perspective a roommate gave me: they don’t have much chances to get to work again because of their past. Furthermore, you’ll find many homeless because of the climate here in California & Florida. Many of them especially at the beaches.

Some small things I learned during the Hollywood trip:

  • All the big movie studios & companies moved to the other side of the Hollywood hills, but still the movie business is huge here. They often still film scenes within L.A. city or the L.A. studios
  • Not just moviestars live in Hollywood hills and such, also producers, directors, etc get a piece of the cake
  • The climate is pretty stable in California (right now 26 degrees celcius), making it very comfortable
  • You can pay up to 85 million USD for a house in/around Mulholland drive
  • To buy / drink alcohol you need to be 21, but many kids have fake ID’s. A good fake ID can cost up to 200 USD
  • A car rental can easily be up to 2000 USD / day (without insurance, don’t remember the model 🙂 )
  • I’ve seen some cars without license plate…
  • There is a shop where you can still buy casettes!
  • The fines for smoking are rounded to 541 USD (not 500, not 540…)
  • I’ve also seen a guy beside the road with a billboard sign to attract customers for a house agency. He was twisting and doing tricks with it to get attention from the drivers..

Now I’m going out to see what there is to find at night!

USA & L.A. – Difficult Arrival

Arrived this morning after some very long flights (2 segments from Singapore with a total of 17 hours without the layover in Narita).

Border control was tricky! Even before boarding, the crewmembers of the airline are very strict, I assume as a precaution:

  • You  need to prove you have a return ticket, or buy one directly before checkin to the USA
  • You are screened about your plans
  • You need to provide an address for you stay (at least the first day). I did not have any concrete plans, but quickly did a lookup of a hostel address.

I was lucky that my ESTA application from last year was still valid, so if you don’t change passports you can use up the remaining days (I believe you have till the end of the year after your application to use up 90 days).

It was however not a good idea to make jokes about my shoes… I was just checking on what they were screening them and the officer-lady was making jokes about the potential smell they were giving off (not the case 😉 ), on which I somehow managed to use the word ‘shoebomb’. She was shocked and sushed me pretty hard. (with a wink). Indeed, not my best move 🙂

Delta airlines have a very funny way to brief you about safety rules. In their movie they will add a lot of humor. To give some examples, look at the pictures to have an impression.

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The stopover in Japan (Narita, Tokio) brought back some memories: the special toilets! They have many special features: a warm seating, a place to sit your baby, sprinklers with different modes, etc… use your imagination 🙂

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Interesting to notice about the USA:

  • Even in the case your end destination is not within the USA but you have a landing and stay in transit, you’ll need to have an ESTA. I don’t think the USA has something such as a ‘transit zone’.
  • Make sure that you activate your creditcards for the USA specifically & to withdraw money as soon as you can. The USA is very known for creditcard fraud, since you don’t need to use your pin or provide your autograph.
  • You do have a policy on the amount of alcohol / beer you bring into the USA. My officer took me out of the queue and found I had more as the allowed amount on me, but as I explained to him they would serve as a gift for locals, he let me pass exceptionally. So both in Singapore & USA I seem to have unwillingly been smuggling alcohol, I hope it will serve me well 🙂

Getting to L.A. city is easy. For about 8 USD you can get a shuttle bus named FlyAway shuttle where you pay upon arrival. From there, it’s easy to take the subway. For 1 USD, you’ll get a plastic card to topup. One ride is abour 1.75 USD.

The subway trains don’t have any markings to see your current location on the track, but they do announce everything clearly and the most interesting landmarks of that stop.

I tried to avoid the website booking fees, it however did not make much difference. Furthermore, they also charge 14% city tax (not included in online booking fee), by which the total price for bed in a 8-bed dorm was around 45 USD / night (region Hollywood). Not so cheap…

Singapore nature trek & the reason why I travel alone

Having only limited time in Singapore, time optimization is key… and it’s what I try to do with everything, it often drains some of my energy with short nights of sleep but hey :)… I just have to remind myself to eat from time to time (that is not a joke, yesterday I noticed not have eaten for 14 hours).

The macRitchie reservoir is a huge domain with several nature treks. The nature trail is the most famous one. Sidenote: google maps wrongly indicates the trail. Get off at the named busstation (you cannot get there with the subway) & follow the signs.

It’s also a very popular spot for runners and one of the closest places to go kayaking (as adviced.

Armed with one small bottle of water and a ticking watch, I was in a hurry to complete the ‘mission’. What mission? I did not know yet…

At first, I thought… it’s just a nice walking trail.

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Example of the nature trek, surrounded by jungle

Example of the nature trek, surrounded by jungle

Sign warning for snakes on the trail

Sign warning for snakes on the trail

At some point, it became clear, you can find the very famous treetop walk I’ve seen pictures of. However, it closes at 5 pm (with last entry at 4:45).

It was already past 5pm but as you might know me, that will not stop me… Worst case it would just have been a nice walk (in the dark). I’m often carrying some survival tools with me just in case, such as a battery pack & petzl light with charged batteries. To avoid them being drained, I reverse the batteries in the casing. Putting batteries just like that in your backpack can go badly wrong, if they make contact they can become hot / melt / discharge.

After a good hour and stunning nature walk (note you remain in the forest) and cool jungle sounds (I have a recording, but cannot do the upload yet), sun was already set and I arrived at the starting point of the trail. I was out of luck, a cabine blocked the entrance. I was still very determined to see what this was all about, so tried to find a way around.

 

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Ranger cabin blocking the entrance

Getting down, I found a cable going up several metres to get past the cabin. As we are still in Singapore, it’s very humid and the cable was a bit slippery.

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Cable running past the cabin

However, bad luck. After getting right after the cabin, another fence was blocking the entrace. It was very dangerous and tricky, but I climbed across. I would NOT recommend doing this by yourself without any safety belt. If you bring one, you can ‘easily’ do it.

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After the second fence. You can see the lock at the other side

Finally I got one the bridge, and it’s pretty awesome but very small.

 

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I did not expect any more challenges, but had unexpected some visitors. Monkeys! Cute you would think? Not really, I was alone on this bridge, it was almost dark and it was a difficult way back. These type of monkeys are known to ‘steal’ from visitors and are not afraid at all. They have very sharp teeth and sometimes attack humans in groups. I did not want to loose any of my material (such as my phone) so tightly put everything away and moved confident to the other side.

 

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unexpected visitors: killer monkeys!

 

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By the end of the bridge, it was already too dark to get down without any lights.

Getting back on the trail, I was hoping to find a shortcut to avoid going all the way back in the dark. After some time, I was lucky to find a concrete road going crossed the domain, and even more lucky to find a tourist bus (no idea what it was doing there, I believe maybe for the golf resort nearby). I flashed several times with my torch and the driver realized I was not supposed to be there. He did not speak any english, but offered me a ride back to the ‘real world’. Now I had some time left to get into the city by night!

The story above is maybe not that ‘extreme’ but it demonstrates my need for some adventure. I don’t like taking people on risky and impulsive trips of this kind, and that is one of the reasons why I prefer to do this alone 🙂

Singapore at night

Singapore at night is just stunning.

Some landmarks you cannot miss:

The Merlion. From here you can normally watch the lasershow over the Marina Bay Sands (the 3 towers with a infinity swimming pool on top) hotel, but due to the passing away of the minister these shows have been cancelled.

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Gardens by the Bay. This park has several landmarks and is accessible and beautiful at night. There is no need to be afraid to go walking in a park, as in Singapore, everything is relatively safe (it’s within the core culture). When clicking on the second picture you will see some people to imagine the size of these huge ‘trees’.IMG_2373 IMG_2404

For a vivid nightlife, you can visit clarke quay or boat quay, which offers many bars.

People gather around at the bridge of clarke quay to drink and have a good talk, without going to the pubs (which are extremly expensive, I remember prices between 7 and 10 Singaporese dollar for a beer).

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Marina Bay Sands – Infinity Pool (& how to get in 🙂 )

To have an amazing view over Singapore at night (or during the day), you can try to get into ‘Jen hotel’ and act as a normal guest (suggested by the frenchman Charles, I did not have the time). Make sure to suit up like one :).

If you want to biggest kick you might get during a night out in Singapore: try getting into the Marina bay sands hotel swimming pool. The infinity pool gives an amazing view over Singapore but is only reserved for guests. You can get up to the restaurant, but not into the pool. When I was 2 years ago in Singapore, I observed everyone had ‘bracelets’ and decided that this time, I would just ask someone for his bracelet. Armed with a scissors and tape, I waited for a very long time at several strategic hotel exit points. After some time, I got to know the system was changed over the years. Nowadays, you need your personal keycard to get access into the pool. Everyone needs a keycard. The only glitch I can find is that you + someone else both go into the pool with each a card, and that one of you goes out with both keycards. However, I believe this means that those 2 keycards cannot be used for 30 min (dunno if that is the case) to avoid abuse. It however, can get YOU in :). I tried my luck with a bottle of Gin Bombay (costs a furtune in Singapore because of all the taxes, I managed to buy it tax free in the transit zone). It was already very late so changes were slim. Several times I attempted to make this ‘trade’ to fairly young and rich kids (a room costs easily 400 dollar a night), but for some reason none of those took the trade. I believe this type of people just don’t want to do you the favor and keep it all (the exclusivity) to themselves… Next time I’ll just try to get in another way 🙂

But here is a pic from 2 years ago (I made another deal at that time, but forgot my swimming gear!!) with a very simple smartphone 🙁

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Singapore – Founding prime minister died – hours of waiting lines

It’s all over the news. The Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew died who was Singapore’s first Prime Minister when the country gained Independence in 1965, has died on Monday (Mar 23) at the age of 91. The queue is currently (as of 1am local time) 8 hours to pay tribute to at the parliament. It must have been thousands and thousands of people, waiting for their turn (and from what I could see with limited supplies such as water & food with them) in the very humid and hot conditions of Singapore.

It’s difficult to describe, but you feel everyone is deeply touched since he made Singapore as what it is today. Everywhere in Singapore you can find billboards, TV-screens and announcements from all etnic groups. Services are all adopted, e.g. the subway lines exceptionally run 24 hours.

From the S.E.A. Aquarium, the subway till the area Little India.

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I did not see this type of tribute to anyone, ever!

 

Singapore – 2 days of wandering

In a previous post, I already made it clear that everyone in this country is very kind to eachother. In the tubes for example you have reserved seats for elderly, pregnant and people with other needs. They present these signs is a very ‘friendly’ and inviting way. And it actually works too! Several times, I’ve seen people getting up and offering their seat.

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In Singapore, it is totally OK to wear sandals 🙂

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On my way to Little India, I met a french guy (Charles) and had a quick but very tastfull Indian meal with him. He made a very interesting comparision. Little India in Singapore is like Paris in Africa: everything is so chaotic with mostly only Indian people (compared to good mix, structure & cleanness elsewhere). The mustafa center is a very good example of this. Notice that before getting into this mall, the security sealed my backpack, just in case. I bought a pair of sunglasses there for 1.9 dollar, I almost forgot I was in Singapore 🙂

During the wanders, I also found a special Vitamin drink. The vitamins are on top, but not yet mixed with the water. By turning it over, shaking it, the vitamins are resolved.

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Singapore also hosts many parks and regions where people can getaway, especially for little children here and there you can find playgrounds of a very high quality.

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We all know that China is very cheap, but here the commercial they use goes one step further. TigerAir (airline) promotes their flights to buy things in China for a low budget airline ticket, which will still be cheaper as buying things in Singapore. I believe it’s true. I asked for a camera battery and the shopkeeper asked me 45 Singaporese dollar, where I can get in China below 10.


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Alcohol regulations are also very strict, as you can see the sign below ‘no drinking zone’.

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1 evening in Abu Dhabi

Since I had a long layover in Abu Dhabi, I decided to get into the city!

I somehow managed to misplace my credit card, and the police did not at all understand it could have been gone. It is the emirates, so you should feel very safe since the punishments are very high for theft such as exclusion to find work.

The taxi’s are very well organised and clean, the drivers are very honest. I was lucky to have a talkative driver and learned that some people have a ‘priority ticket’ to just ignore the speed limits, not sure what he meant with that in a rich region as this one :). The drive to Al Reem Island took about 30min, costed around 80 AED and takes you past the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which is beautifully lit at night! However I did not manage to take a picture at that time, so here is one taken on the way back.IMG_1697

I was also lucky to have lovely and hardcore Cattie (from the USA and already living 5 years in Abu Dhabi) hosting me 🙂

We went to an irish pub since it had a high chance to meetup with some friends and they still served food around 11pm.

We had a very cosy and open-conversation evening (not something I was expecting from someone from the USA), with many friends stopping by which had a similar, interesting mindset in several ways. Some things I learned (note from the people that moved here):

  • Many employers pay for your accomodation, and often you don’t have much choice but you can be sure it is a very nice flat! This can cost around 100.000 AED a year!
  • You have door to door services for everything: from laundry to shopping delivery (for a small tip)
  • Every hotel / appartment block have their own gyms, swimming pools, often shops, etc…
  • ‘simple’ wages are about 4000 AED / week (+-1000 euro)
  • Beer costs easily 36 AED (9 euro)
  • Many foreign people have the feeling they live in a ‘bubble’ of luxery lifestyle (party, drinking, social interactions). Strange thing is that they are very aware of it, but I guess they just like it too much. I guess you have to live here for several months to fully understand it as all the people of the table felt to some level the same way.

The pub played live music, something which is not that common in Abu Dhabu I learned from Cattie. There are actually quite some business opportunities here!

After a very short night of sleep, the wakeup was spontanous with a sunrise and spectacular view over the resurrecting new buildings.

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On the way back, I was suprised to find a schoolbus driver cleaning all the windows for everyone to enjoy the views 🙂

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Once in the airport, on the way to the gate, there was an art gallery where you could buy some local art. These things drew my attention, since I’ve never seen this effect before.

IMG_20150326_054347Now heading to Singapore with lovely Etihad!

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