Going to/through the US? Buy your way in now!

Beat the ESTA fee

…and your oil.

Up until last year, anyone from the UK and a ton of other countries could just fly to the US and simply put up with the intimidating, morose and short-tempered border guards who’d randomly fling you out for no reason other than their wives wouldn’t sleep with them the previous night. Or their coffee had gone cold. Or it was a Thursday.

Then, the Powers That Be decided they’d ask us all to fill in a Travel Authorization (which they couldn’t even spell) online at least a few days before travelling. These ESTA s are free and last for two years.

Well. They’re free until September 8th this year when they’ll start costing $14.

So if you’ve any plans to fly into or through the US – this includes and airport-only stopovers on the way anywhere else – get to their web page and sign up now. Hell, if you’ve no plans at all I’d still recommend it. It costs nothing but five minutes of your time and it’s one less thing that you may forget should you be booking a trip next year.

Frankly, the possibility of me going to the US at the moment is slim. Much as I’d love to see some friends there, and enjoy the superb scenery, I simply can’t be bothered with the immigration hassle. They’re even worse than us. The Aussies and Kiwis are strict, but they’re good-natured about it.

However, I do plan on visiting Canadia sometime in the foreseeable future and a lot of the routes are via the US. At least I know I’m allowed to fly there, even if they won’t let me through immigration. Which doesn’t bother me anyway as I’ll be on a transfer so that shouldn’t be an issue.

(credit: I pinched the image from the MoneySavingExpert.com newsletter because I liked it!)

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Tip: Check out your options

I’ve not posted much on here recently as I’ve not one a lot of travelling since I got back last summer. However, I’m trying to organise some things for Easter and summer and thought I’d pop another “Tip” post up.

This really applies to you if you’ve got a bit of spare time around the dates your travelling and it can be a way of spending less, or getting more for your money.

As an example, I’m trying to get to Warsaw for the Sonisphere festival on June 16th. I have a few days spare beforehand and need to be in Warsaw itself for the 15th. Presently I’m staying in Glasgow though my folks live in Perth.

My first stop is usually SkyScanner. It’s a great way to check for flights between various destinations, including direct and indirect flights. One bonus is being able to name just a city or even a country and letting the search engine check flight prices for all departure or arrival airports in that area.

In my case, it would be far cheaper to fly out of Liverpool, Leeds/Bradford or Edinburgh than Glasgow. Another alternative is Heathrow. Pricier, but the only one not using RyanAir – so the price quoted is the price charged without any crap about bags, booking fees and needing the loo. I’d also get a snack or meal. The downside? A late arrival time in Warsaw.

Next flight down is with LOT and for a pound more, I depart late morning and arrive early afternoon. Plenty of time to find where I’m staying and enjoy the rest of the day.

Things to bear in mind, then, as far as flights are concerned:

  • You will need to check in around 2 hours before you fly. This is why I ruled out some of the cheaper flights. Departing at 6:45am means being at the airport before 5am. The only way you’ll manage this is with a taxi or by inconveniencing friends. Factor this into your costs. Similarly, late arrival times.
  • Provincial airports are often out in the sticks (or even in other countries…). Flying to Frankfurt? It takes 20 mins and a couple of Euros to get into the city. Flying to Frankfurt Hahn? €25 (if I recall correctly) and 2 hours.
  • Don’t forget the additional costs for baggage, check-in options, credit card fees, sports equipment, priority boarding, meals and so forth. These can easily raise the price of a flight on a budget airline above those of a non-budget.

So, what else can you do? Well, let’s say that I could save £40 by flying from Heathrow. If I book at the right time I can fly or get the train to London for under £20. I have friends there I can stay with and it’s always nice to see them. Given the extra time I do have available then a weekend catching up is worth the time – and the £20 I save would be well spent at the pub.

Often it will cost you a little extra to go out of the way once you factor in the additional costs – but is it worth it?

For instance, it’s cheaper to fly to Krakow than Warsaw from a lot of airports. There’s a regular train from Krakow to the capital which takes around 3-4 hours. If I had the time (I do) and hadn’t already been there (I have) then that would be an excellent option – fly out a day or so earlier and sightsee in Krakow before hopping on the train.

OK, I’ll be spending money on a train and a hostel (unless I couchsurf) but I’ll be seeing another lovely city. Again, likely back up to the price of the flight direct to Warsaw… but better value for my money.

Don’t limit yourself to “departure … destination”. Look into all the options. Work out what you’d be getting for extra cash you spend or where you can tweak your itinerary to get an extra day somewhere, or travel along a recommended route.

Sure, this is a simple example. But throw in the low-cost transport options around Southeast Asia, for instance, and you can really cram more in than you expected. Eastern Europe, also, has very affordable and easily booked rail and bus links.

Don’t stare too hard at the simple things. Make the most of your time and budget!

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Motorcycling around Vietnam

Sunny biking in Vietnam

Sunny biking in Vietnam

All of these hints are from personal experience of a recent (August 2009) round trip from Ho Chi Minh City through Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Da Lat and back again. We used one bike between two of us, a small-ish automatic, and covered around 1100km in six days.

  • Don’t take too much luggage. It increases fuel consumption and reduces manoeuvrability. Just because your average Vietnamese can somehow carry three family members, a dog, a month’s groceries and a shop display (complete with stock) on the back of their bike does not mean you can.
  • Along the main highways there are loads of fuel stops so you shouldn’t have a problem filling up as and when you need to. Sod’s Law dictates that if there’s a median then the next five stations will all be on the left, however, so you can’t get to them. Plan ahead on your fuel use and figure out how far you can travel between refills. Our little beast did a shade over 100km on a tank. And watch out for the newer roads, such as the one from Nha Trang to Dalat where there hasn’t been time for many fuel stations to be planted and grown as yet.
  • Fuel prices are set by the government so you should pay the same price everywhere. However, if you’re off the beaten track you may find a higher price even at the “proper” fuel stations. The little one-man manually-operated pumps you find on country roads are noticeably more expensive. Also, it’s worth checking the pump to ensure the price quoted is the price charged.
  • Watch the roads carefully, not just the traffic. Generally, they’re pretty good but you can suddenly hit a potholed area. Trust me when I say that you can’t bunny hop a motorcycle the way you used to be able to do with your old Raleigh pushbike if you haven’t got time to swerve round the worst holes. Hitting one at speed will hurt and could throw you off the bike. This will probably ruin your day if not your whole trip.
  • If you’re travelling alone, carry a spare inner tube, repair kit and pump. On the main roads there is usually a tyre repair place every couple of miles (or less), and when you’re away from the cities the locals you may meet are every helpful. However they can only be helpful if they’re actually there to be helpful and you may not see many passers-by on the more remote stretches.
  • Learn the “rules” before hitting the highway. Get a feel for the bike and the locals’ driving habits by heading somewhere quiet and safe first. It’s not as scary as it first seems when you arrive in Hanoi or HCM, but you do need to drive well and with confidence.
  • Get a decent map. The road signs are not too helpful and very few, if any, have lights on for night-time navigation. They will often only point to the next town along the road, or to the one at the end of the stretch, not detailing the two or three you pass through to get there. Unless you know the other towns along the road, you can be sat at a junction not knowing where to go.
  • Plan for and take breaks. Unless you have a very comfy Easy Rider or a backside padded significantly more than my skinny effort, you will quickly find out what “saddle sore” means. I found being a passenger was far harder on the bum than being up front.
  • Eye protection is more important than you may think. Large sunglasses are passable, but a liability at night and dust still flies about after dusk. A pair of goggles will cost you next to nothing and it’s easy to find a shop selling them (and helmets if the one you’ve got is rubbish).
  • Think those Vietnamese people look a little silly with their faces all wrapped up in surgical masks and hats? Wait until you’ve driven behind a lorry spewing diesel fumes, dust and mucky water for 3km before you can overtake it. One look at the cloth you use to wipe your face with afterwards gives you an idea of the muck the road can kick up – and you’re breathing that in. There’s a whole hardware store worth of pots calling an entire kettle manufacturing plant black here, as I didn’t use one, but I would next time.
  • Weather can be changeable. Carry some kind of waterproof clothing in case the heavens open, because when they do they usually don’t mess about.
  • Check your choke. It’s very easy to nudge the thing when you’re lugging bags on and off the bike and it can play havoc with performance and fuel use. We thought we had a major problem for over a day until I spotted we’d knocked the choke half on and were partially flooding the engine. D’oh.
  • Unless you want to turn a lovely bright red colour, slap on long sleeves or a decent amount of sun tan lotion. This stuff is still hard to find and expensive in Vietnam so pack it before you leave, or pick some up in Thailand.Don’t forget your face otherwise you’ll end up looking like a very irate panda courtesy of the sunglasses or goggles. Trust me when I say you will burn very quickly as you won’t feel the damage being done due to the wind.
  • Drive within your limits. Don’t think that just because one person went past you at 80km/h that you have to do the same speed. There’s every chance he knows every pothole on the road and has been driving a bike through insane traffic since he was 12. You don’t and you haven’t.
  • Be polite if you’re stopped by the police. It’s very unlikely they’ll have flagged you over because you’re foreign. In fact, in my experience, you’re far more likely to be treated leniently as a foreigner. Make sure you have the vehicle registration document – it should be supplied with a rental bike. Having your passport or a copy is also useful, but I wasn’t asked for mine. As far as I’m aware, the only driving license they care about is a Vietnamese one, and it’s unlikely you’ll have that as a foreigner so they won’t ask. However, obtaining a license is very cheap and very simple if you want to freak them out by handing them one. Should any questions arise – https://www.stephenbabcock.com/ is your best legal advisor.
  • Have fun. Stop and take pictures once in a while. Enjoy the looks from the locals as you pass by them on country roads. Gawp at the scenery. Chat to the people. Blog about it afterwards. Just take care and revel in the sense of freedom of making your own way through one of the most amazing countries on earth.

As ever, any further hints will be more than welcome. Please just add them to the comments below.

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Thai ATMs – the saga continues

After the fun of finding out that the Thai banks seem to have formed some sort of “let’s screw the farang” cartel, I have more infornation on getting free money out of their ATMs.

First up, as far as I can ascertain the Government Savings Bank is free for all, but only accepts Visa cards.

HSBC took my card fine and didn’t charge, but I think it only accepts Visa cards.

UOB seems to work a treat as well with no charges for my Visa or Barbera’s Dutch Maestro card.

However, Bank of Ayudhya is hit and miss. I withdrew cash from the Khao San Road branch with my Nationwide Visa ATM card for no fee. I met a Dutch couple the day after who had used the exact same branch and paid the 150 Baht “you’re a foreigner, give us your cash because we hate tourists” tax.

As such, I would say the simple rule is to try as many machines as you can especially if you’re non-UK and/or using a non-Visa card. I will do my best to keep information on this blog up to date but realistically I can only test with my UK Nationwide Visa.

Now does anyone have an address I can write to to voice my complaints about the fees? For a country trying to rebuild its tourism, they’re really doing their best to alienate foreigners. 150 Baht works out to be the largest (by far) “foriegner tax” I’ve yet seen at an ATM.

If you have any concrete hints/experience which I can add to the list then please leave a comment. Let’s try and work around this mess.

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Tip: Hostel Etiquette

Courtesy of being disturbed by some bloody selfish Dutch people this morning (and one guy from Eastern Europe or Russia, judging by his accent), I stewed for a while and realised I’d had a few things happen in dorms over the course of this trip.

So, here’s a guide on how to behave when sharing accommodation with strangers. Most of it’s common sense and manners. Sadly, quite a few people seem to be lacking both.

1) If the light’s off and it’s night, the chances are people are sleeping. Get a headlamp or let your eyes adjust begfore going in. Don’t just barrel in and act as if you’re the only one there getting ready for bed or you may find that you wake up to find someone’s pooped in your rucksack. [ref: several times (the selfishness, not the poop), but most recently a guy in the dorm in Dili]

2) Just because you went to sleep at 9pm and wake up at 6:30am does not mean the other people in the dorm want to. Keep your conversation down or go out of the room. [ref: selfish Dutch people last night]

3) If you have an alarm set for the morning, don’t let it ring for a full minute. And don’t use snooze so it goes off every ten minutes for an hour. Get the hell out of bed. [ref: Dili last week]

4) Leaving early morning? Pack the night before. The other guests don’t want to hear you bumping around at 5am. [ref: more times than I can count]

5) If you are going to pack in the room, don’t compound your selfishness by putting everything in rustly plastic bags as you simply cannot move these without making a huge noise [ref: again, more times than I can count]

6) The aircon is for everyone. Come to some agreement about the temperature so that some people don’t boil or freeze. Sneeking into the dorm late every night so that you can ramp it up to “heat” and then sleep on top of your covers while everyone else loses sleep because they’re dehydrating is not friendly behaviour. You may find that someone else reduces the thermostat to “blue monkey” and hides the control one night, leading to you having to wrap up like a mummy. [ref: Hanoi about two years ago]

7) If you’re going to have sex in the dorm, do it when nobody else is there or is likely to disturb you. I you’re an exhibitionist then that’s fine, but some people may not appreciate the exhibition. Especially at 3am when you’re in the bottom and they’re in the top of a very wobbly bunk. Those you disturb may well take delight in telling all and sundry that “at least it only lasted 20 seconds or so”. [ref: Nomads in Auckland about three years back]

8) Don’t bring randoms back into the room. They may exchange a quick kiss and cuddle for all your stuff (and other people’s) once you’ve gone to sleep. [ref: same guy as in 7 – definitely don’t bring a hooker back, thinking you’re getting a freebie. It cost him his camera and wallet]

9) Don’t overfill the dorm and share beds with people you’ve pulled, especially if you wake up the others trying to sleep. You may find it makes them grumpy enough to inform the management, who charge you extra for the night or kick you out [ref: Paris two years ago]

10) Just because you’re drunk and want to have a singing contest at 4am does not mean everyone else does. Using the excuse “it’s a dormitory – if you want a quiet night you should get a ****ing private room” is not acceptable and could find you out on the street with your luggage and a warning given to every other hostel in the area not to take you in [ref: bunch of Irish lads in Cairns 3 years ago]

11) If there’s one bathroom between 20-30 people, spending upwards of 15 minutes brushing your teeth is not good form. If you are that anal about your dental hygiene, do it in the kitchen where people can at least work around you. This is a hostel – backpackers routinely wake up with hangovers and very full bladders [ref: Vietnamese guy in that Nomad’s hostel in Auckland]

12) Lock the door when you’re out. Just because your luggage only consists of 6 pairs of unwashed sock, a pair of pants on the “inside out” phase of wear and a Nike t-shirt with one sleeve doesn’t mean the other people in the room mind having their laptops stolen. [ref: mainly Oz and NZ]

13) Every hostel I’ve ever been in has a “no smoking” policy in the dorms. Every single one. This does not mean it’s OK to light up inside and then walk out. Smoking also includes drugs, not just tobacco. Hence, waking up every hour for a big gurgly hit on the bong you have stashed under your bed is likely to end up with you smoking something that came out of my bottom. [ref: hostel in Busselton, Australia]

14) When packing early in the morning, having a stupidly loud conversation while playing your radio and singing along is not good form [ref: Siem Reap, Cambodia – wasn’t actually a hostel dorm but the “private rooms” had walls made of plaster and shared the same airspace above them so there was effectively no muffling of sound]

15) If there is only one key to the room, do not use it to lock the door and then take it with you when you go out for the day. This means that the staff will have to break in/remove the door from the hinges so that I can get my damn bags back and make it to the airport on time. [ref: that bloody Dutch couple again – about thirty minutes after I posted the original blog entry]

Feel free to suggest more if you’ve had a selfish sod spoil your night in a hostel anywhere.

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