USA Road Trip No. 1 - San Francisco to New York

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Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Top USA Road Trip Travel Tips

USA Road Travel Tips

Phones

Make sure that your mobile is unlocked before you travel, otherwise you have to buy a cheap phone for $20. Get a AT&T contract, NOT a TMobile one. The coverage of TMobile is a bit crap. You can't buy a SIM card the same way you can in the UK. It's called Prepay and you have to spend between $30 - 40 in total for a month.

Driving
Crossroads: In towns and cities there are crossroads where there are no lights but you HAVE to stop at the line. The first person who get's to the crossroad has right of way. If two or more cars arrive at the same time, the car to the right has the right of way first. If you see blinking red lights hanging over a crossroad, the same rules apply.

Highways: Slower traffic is supposed to keep to the right BUT a lot of drivers don't really care where they drive. There's no use of bullying them from behind with a honking horn into getting over to the right lane (especially if you can see a gun rack at the back of the pickup driver cabin). Just overtake them on the right like everybody else. It's not the official law but everybody is doing it.

Don't get into 'road fights' with trucks. They are big and mean.

Speed limits vary from state to state. There is no rhyme or reason. Don't speed in towns, as there is always the possibility of a sheriff lurking in a side street. On the big roads most of the cars go a bit faster than the limits. After a while we did the same and got away with it. But we certainly don't recommend it to you ; )

Navigation: A GPS is a must have if you don't know any of the roads that you want to drive - but back it up with a proper detailed road map, as the GPS sometimes gets a fit and doesn't know it's arse from it's elbow. Having a map will also allow you to take different routes, especially when you want to get off interstates and use 2 lane highways instead.

Licence: Have your driving license and ID card with you in the front of the car in case you get stopped. Don't keep it in the boot at the bottom of a suitcase.

Food
Sometimes it pays to go to cheap chains like Coco's or Wafflehouse for breakfast. The food will (should) not be below a certain standard and you save time. We tried to find local cafes but you spend a lot of time searching around and if you cant find one you go back to Wafflehouse having spent half an hour searching for an alternative. We went to McDonalds once to buy a 'Rancher salad' each. It was ok.

If you can't live without burgers: All roadside restaurants have them on their menu. They are between $7 and $9, come with fries and salad and taste ten times better than the McDonalds ones.

Check out micro breweries. The are everywhere now, popping up like mushrooms. They sell quality beer in great variety and we had the best food in terms of quality and price in a lot of them.

Tipping: The official rule is to tip between 15 and 20%. Most Americans generally tip 20%. That's what keeps the American service industry (and you as a customer) happy. Also take into account that on top of the price on the menu you get charged between 7 and 10% tax, depending on what state you are in. Everything is a third more expensive than you think ; )

Alcohol: Also depending on what state you are in, you have to show ID when ordering a beer or a glas of wine in a restaurant with your meal. It doesn't make a difference if you look like 85 - you HAVE to show ID. Best thing is to always carry your ID and driving livence on you.

Generally, the quality of food is as good as your quality of choice. Yes, some portions are big but you don't have to stuff your face just to finish the plate.

Money
We took a Currency Card with us that we got here in the UK. They count as credit cards and you can use them nearly everywhere except from paying directly at the pump at petrol stations. As with all things, shop around for the best deal on excange rates and charges. We used FX but this may not suit everyone.

Ask for a receipt for everything that you buy because you don't have to sign aything when paying by card. They just take your card away in a restaurant and smile when they bring it back.
We didn't have any prolems but it's always good to keep track of what you are spending.

Anything clever to add? Please leave your tips in the comments : ) NO SPAM AMIGOS!!

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Intro

Howdy! Or maybe we should say Hello! as we are not yet in America. So here we go!

The Great American Road Trip.. across the USA by car. 

We decided to go from San Francisco to New York in four weeks. That should give us enough time to see a few of the things along the way. We got very cheap flights from American Airlines from London to New York and even cheaper flights from New York to San Francisco. We will also save a bit of money by doing CouchSurfing where possible. It's actually the best way to discover interesting stuff because you stay with locals - and only the locals know what the locals know ; ) Plus, you meet some interesting people along the way.

Are you ready? Ok, let's go. Vollgas!

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Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Verse 1: Falmouth - New York

New Year’s Day 2010 and we’re off on our honeymoon, one month of road tripping across the USA ahead of us, San Francisco to New York City via the southern states so we’re calling it the Big Smile – even if it is a little crooked.

That's us on the left by the way.. Sharmila & Ingo.





First step is to get to Heathrow airport from Falmouth – easy right? Well think again. Our lovely plan to spend New Year’s Day lunch in Sunningdale with my cousin Sue’s family, my brother Adrian and his girlfriend Jess and then get a lift to Heathrow started to become just a distant fantasy when our trusty (?) VW Sharan broke down at Okehampton. After waiting over 2 hours at a Little Chef (rank food) for the AA we had lost our healthy journey cushion and could feel the ‘will we get to the airport in time’ panic set it. After a bit of faffing and several calls to regional control, the AA man dropped us off at Exeter Airport (and arranged for our car to be towed back to Falmouth) as he was not allowed to take us all the way to Heathrow. We had only one choice… pay 240 quid for a taxi from Exeter to Heathrow and hope that the driver was a friend of speed.

Sometime later, with our nerves jangling and no nails left we finally made it to Heathrow at 5.45pm with time to spare. Here we go! Security was no big deal, apart from the extra frisking with latex gloves and bag turn out at the boarding gate.

7.5 hour flight. Middle aisle seats on the plane, American Airlines, basic but did the job. Tried to watch movies but we both fell asleep, waking only to munch the dry chicken and soggy pasta presented to us as food. Uneventful flight as it was dark so nothing to look at. Good landing in NYC just ahead of schedule. Sharmila’s legs had expanded so much on the plane that she couldn’t get her boots back on. TIP: Don't wear knee-high boots on a plane ; )

10.30pm local time. NYC – JFK airport, cold and snowy. After the trauma of nearly missing the flight we decided not to crash out with our blankets at JFKfor the connecting flight to San Fran at 10.30am the next day and sought out some cheap accommodation near the airport – everything booked up apart from JFK Inn, a free shuttle bus ferried us to a tired pit-stop kind of brick building in an industrial estate near the airport, classic half the letters on the sign didn’t light up kind of thing. Huge room but very utilitarian. Watched David Letterman, he was a very detached interviewer and the interviewees were equally dull. We were left wondering how come he managed not to vilified about being an adulterer when Tiger Woods is being lambasted left right and centre? Just because he confessed on TV, sounds a bit fishy to me – double standards, embedded racism? Anyway whatever. Then fell asleep watching The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Scottish and funny. Good night..

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Verse 2: New York - San Francisco (by air)

Good sleep, woke early at 6.30am so we could get the 7.30am shuttle back to JFK but it left without us. No worries though as the very helpful man at the desk (from same area in India as Sharmila’s Mum) sorted it out for us so we grabbed a complimentary croissant and a coffee while we waited for the shuttle. This was out first experience of breakfast options in the USA… stacked up in the food counter was piles of sugary delight, icing covered doughnuts, chocolate buns, muffins smothered in sugar, giant croissants and endless coffee in polystyrene cups. Unfortunately the camera was buried in our bags so we couldn’t record the belt busting counter (yes, many more photos later). More snow on the ground this morning.

Flight to San Fran seemed really long although it was only 5 hours. American Airlines again, no food this time and shared entertainment rather than a personal system. It was really sunny outside as we flew over the USA, again we had aisle seats so we didn’t see much which was a shame but we checked out the view from the back next to the restrooms, which is always a little awkward when someone comes out of the loo and you’re standing right there to greet them. Hello stranger!

The whole of the US seemed to be frozen, covered in a blanket of snow and white billowing cloud. Another smooth landing and we were swiftly spewed out to luggage reclaim. Always a nervous wait after a flight transfer, ‘will my luggage get here’ – answer: Ingo – yes, Sharmila – no. Fear not, after initial cussing it transpired that Sharmila’s luggage came in on an earlier flight and was waiting at the AA office. Then on the Air Train, followed by a ride with the Bay Area Rapid Transport System (BART) into downtown San Francisco, Mission district to meet up with Aaron, our first Couchsurfing host. We will meet at the Revolution cafe. And we will also finally start shooting some photos.

Please continue reading here: Road Trip San Francisco Part 1

Monday, 26 December 2011

Verse 3: San Francisco Day 1 - Meeting our CouchSurfing host

Up out of the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport – like the Underground/subway/metro/U- and S-Bahn etc.) onto 24th and Mission, straight into the centre of the Mission district of SF. It was warm, balmy even. A veritable melting pot of Mexican culture, bohemians, graffiti, murals, food stops, dollar stores, colour and noise, but also strangely familiar. It kind of reminded us of Kreuzberg in Berlin but with the Turkish influence replaced by Mexican. Spanish language everywhere, signs, voices, music. Sauntered down Mission past phone shops and enticing eateries, dragging our suitcases behind us, noting the smell of the place – everywhere in the world has such a distinct smell. Here it’s Mexican spices and an underlying funky aroma that popped up every now and then, as yet unidentified – the stench of a city wafting around us.


So our CouchSurfing host Aaron was at the Revolution Café on 22nd St, between Mission and Valencia. We managed to find it thanks to the wonderfully easy grid structure that nearly all US cities and towns share – so hard to get lost, just turn left and left again. So Revolution, on the corner, wouldn’t have looked (or smelt) out of place in Amsterdam… a rag tag assortment of bohos, dudes with dreads, skaters,  all drinking, some smoking sport cigarettes, spilling out onto the pavement, jazzy beats in the background, good beer. Almost a cliché ..and we almost believed it was summer.

Aaron was really sweet – hugs all round. He picked us up in his car and took us to his place on 21st St, a typical artist, boho house share on the first floor of a Mission townhouse, painted wooden boards and steep stairs. Inside was a jumble of bikes, throws, incense, the smell of cooking lentils, records, unidentified boxes, half dead plants, cushions, home made artwork, discarded knitting. Turns out that Aaron lives with four girls, all students or artists or performers – could this be anymore typical of SF?!  He informs us that one of his housemates is known as Calypso and that apparently it’s common that people have alternative names in SF. Ingo from this moment on is Igloo and Sharmila is Minx.

 
 

We dumped our stuff and walked to a Mexican place on Mission called Taquería Cancún. There’re loads of Mexican places to eat but Aaron recommended this place. It’s open late, it’s buzzing, it was packed at 3.30pm on a Saturday, its very yellow and there’s a very low solid door frame to the restrooms, as Igloo discovered when he clonked his head on it heading to the back of the counter queue, which stretched into the back to the restrooms – yes it was that busy.

Confusion at the counter as we had no idea what to order and it was one of those fast, order at the counter and grab a seat on a big bench table places. Despite warnings that even normal US portions are BIG, Igloo in his hungered desire for food ordered a Super Burrito, Minx went for enchiladas and a carrot and fresh squeeze orange juice. Free tortilla chips, guacamole, salsa and sour cream dips while we waited for our number to be called. When it arrived Igloo soon realised that reports of portion sizes were not exaggerated – his Super Burrito turned out to be a Super Jumbo Massive Mega Giga Burrito of which he managed to eat half, just about, with a little help from Aaron and Minx. Food was tasty, spicy, cheap and flavoursome. A bit saltier than we are used to but what the heck it was lip smacking and generous. For all three of us it was around $20. Life stories exchanged, love and politics dipped into along with the guacamole to a soundtrack of tinny Mexican pop and a background of lurid jungle and parrot murals. The carrot juice on top of the jetlag made us hyper.

 

We wandered back to the flat, gawping at the murals, especially a particularly freaky one on the side of an old people’s home (see above pic of tower block), the congregation of guys hanging out at the fenced basketball court just down the block from Aaron’s place, sitting on old crates and quaffing out of brown paper bagged bottles. Got back to Aaron’s and there it was: Calypso was sitting at the table dressed as a clown.

HELP! THERE’S A CLOWN IN THE ROOM!!!!! (hehehe..)

After a bit of chit chat with the lovely clown and other flatmates, the discovery of mice in the cupboards, Igloo helping to set a trap (that was later at night in an act of mercy removed) with some peanut butter and a nice cup of herbal tea we decided to have a nap before heading out to see Aaron playing with some friends at the aforementioned Revolution Café. We retired to the back workroom, rickety platform bed that our hosts had kindly provided for us and drifted into a slumber… the quick nap turned into a jet lagged 10 hour deep sleep, not even the partying in the adjacent kitchen that went on till 2 in the morning woke us! So we missed the gig : (

Please continue reading here: Road Trip San Fracisco Part 2