Europe trip preparation: Inter-city travel

As part of planning, how do I get around plays a large part of how much things cost, where and how to get to and from accommodation, along with related activity relating to getting to and from there.

Taxis in London are obviously out for me.
Before I talk about intercity travel, I did take a look at getting to Paris from London via Train + ferry + Train combo as opposed to taking another plane or taking the more famous Eurostar. The cost seemed only marginally cheaper, though Eurostar might be cheaper if booked months in advance, but hey, we didn’t even book the plane to Europe until less than a month to departure, and obviously I can’t book a train with dates unknown. The big turndown was that, this route, meant that I could have possibly missed the last train into Paris after alighting the ferry at the France side of the English Channel. The town we would be stuck at seems like a small town with only a few hotels. We decided to take the Eurostar in the end.
Either way, how do I get around within those cities?
Well. The subways of course. Once I could figure out the unfamiliar names of the stations and the lines that is.
With all the discount tickets and such, figuring out what ticket is the most cost effective requires some advanced planning. Some cards are promoted to visitors can end up costing more (or very close at the very least) than normal fares. Those additional discounts they offer at select stores with that card? Ignore that: it’s of stores/items that I’m not interested in, or the validity of the offer is in such a way that its easy to use it in an invalid period if you don’t pay attention.
What is clear, however, is that using things like the Oyster Card (London) or buying tickets in sets of 10 (Paris) turns out to be cheaper than a single regular ticket.
Still have yet to figure out transport around Venice and, tenitively, Rome.

Europe trip preparation: Phone and Internet

Among the different phones networks here, I am already using a phone that is commonly used around the world, which happily includes Europe. However, overseas roaming charges are there. Calling a local number while in the country, with the SIM card of the operator back home inside, is technically seen as an overseas call, which means higher charges. One way around it is to get a local SIM card or use a payphone.

Problem with getting a local SIM card is that I would be travelling to an another country, making the call while in that other country also seen as an overseas call. In addition for prepaid SIM cards, I can’t get the refund of unused balance. The same for using a phone card for payphones.

How about using coins for payphones? Well, if you have several coins of specific denominations, that wouldn’t be a problem, but, for overseas calls, that means inserting coins more frequently. In practice, who would even carry so many coins of the same denomination? Sure the payphone says that they accept higher denominations, but they also have this (possibly hidden) rule saying that any unused credit (of the denomination of the coin you inserted) would not be refunded. This effectively means that you would end up spending more for what, in theory, should have been less.

Using data while roaming? You got to be kidding me: the cost of just 1MB of data can buy you several meals at MacDonald’s, although some operators are kind enough to place a daily cap if you select certain mobile operators of the country you are in. But still, even with the cap, using it for several days (especially a whole month) is just not cheap.

What about Skype? Well, Skype is definitely an option I would recommend, provided that you could even go online (You would be crazy to use the mobile data while roaming.) with a wifi spot or hope to come across a computer with one installed. Best of all, it’s free! (excluding fees to go online and period of use) Hope the other person is online.

The nice thing about adding credit to your Skype account is that you can dial any number in the world form anywhere and get charged about the same as a local call. You can also dial toll-free numbers of certain countries using skype and you will not be charged, even if you have no credit in your balance at all. Another way those credits could be used is to use it with “Skype Wifi” on your PC or smart phone and connect to wifi spots that would otherwise require to jump through some troublesome registration, along with fees that charge you by the block instead of by the minute. I had not come across any supported network that works myself though.

Hope that I can come across a PC that I could at least get online. Even better if I can use skype with it or upload my pictures.

Europe trip preparation: Currency

With the introduction of the Euro in 2002, the hassle and fees of changing currencies has largely been eliminated for this trip. The problem is that my home currency is not the Euro, and the UK still uses the British Pound.

At least France and Italy, two of the countries I’m visiting, uses the Euro.

Guess what. The flight I’m taking makes a stopover in a small country in the Middle East called Quatar. (Near UAE and north eastern corner of Saudi Arabia if you didn’t know where) It has its own currency called Qatari Riyal, so I don’t know how am I to obtain that. I don’t recall seeing it at the money changers I have been to or walked past.

On closer look, it does have money changer and has ATMs (unclear on fees or if international cards are accepted). It’s not clear if my home currency is accepted there, but what is certain is that the Euro notes that I’m already bringing along would be accepted. (Some money is lost in the conversion though.)

Sadly, I can’t find any more info about the Rial or the cost of things other than it being pegged to the USD at a rate of 3.something rial per USD. Travel guides seem to suggest that there is nothing there for tourist to see. Oh well.

When I asked people about the Qatar currency, they don’t even seem to know such a country exists! *sigh*

Europe trip peperation: Camera

I’m preparing the camera for my trip, so I am gathering all the SD memory cards the camera uses. Check the battery, charge it, and such.

Found several mini and micro SD cards that are, at most, 2GB. Ugh… these tiny, easy-to-lose cards… At least I have the adaptor that turns it into a regular SD card. The camera may come with 2 8GB SDHC cards, but on a holiday, I want to reduce the inconvenience of changing it and, if I’m not near a computer I could use, have enough space for more shots. Oh well, something is better than nothing.

The camera is a normal point-and-shoot kind, 12.1 mega-pixels, 1080p video recording (with the capacity of those <2GB cards I mentioned earlier, that works out to less than 5 minutes. Total. With nothing else on it.). I had used it for my travels last year (2012) and I kind of like it better than other cameras I had used. What I liked is the 4x optical zoom. Handy for taking pictures of animals (or people) without getting too close and risk them running away. As a future proof, it supporting SDHC means that I can use up to 32GB for SDHC cards, or 2TB (2000GB) with SDXC cards. Sadly, I currently do not have any readers that supports SDXC besides this camera.

I am bring a phone with a camera, but unless there is something wrong with the other camera (usually low battery) or happen to be holding it when an easy-to-miss opportunity comes, I won’t be using much.

Why do I not like using the phone camera? Here’s a list of it:

  • No optical zoom, only digital zoom
  • Not responsive, or vulnerable to being interrupted by phone calls
  • Need to look at the screen to take picture because the button is there and you can’t feel it
    • There are ones that lets you use a hardware button, but it’s not really comfortable to press.
  • Memory is shared by other apps
  • To change memory card, you need to either turn it off, or navigate to the settings somewhere to unmount it before safely removing it. Oh, did I say that you need to remove the cover at the back of the phone to get to it, and the memory card is that annoyingly tiny micro SD card?

While preparing, dad gave me an 8 megapixel camera that uses 2 AA batteries instead of a rectangular thin rechargeable battery, which my analog cameras and my first digital camera uses. The camera is twice as thick as the first camera I mentioned here. Unclear if that is due to battery or the (unknown) era the camera is from. I doubt this thing could even record 480p, or if it could, having the battery to die out in the middle of it.

Although it has an 8GB SDHC card inside, it doesn’t support SDHC. I know because it worked when I used those micro SD cards with adapter mentioned above. Doing optical zoom produces a loud mechanical sound. I don’t really like this camera. Had taken some pictures with it, but had not viewed it on PC.

So, I took that 8GB SDHC card an used it as an additional memory card. Total now adds up to about 32GB, but I’m not sure if that is enough.

647th post: Getting around abroad

In recent years, I had travel to countless number of different countries around Asia. I travel because I hear so much about different countries, but never actually visited them.

Back then, I had thought that you could only go abroad through “packages” by travel agencies, which I found expensive and inflexible. Not a fan of tour guides that travel around in large “herds” I see around me either. Just visiting a tourist spot near where I live and I could already see how expensive it is over the “less-touristy” ones.

  • Expensive: Hotels they offered, which is typically 3 to 5 stars, and may include meals containing food I do not want to eat.
  • Inflexible: They have schedules that are made up of mostly visiting tourist places and, looking at it, there is only little time where we aren’t herded around except perhaps arriving and departing days, which, depending on what time of the day, can be short or long. I hate following schedules.

Anyway, during my travels abroad, I usually brought about 2-3 pairs of clothing (more for underwear and socks) and other random stuff that would fit in a haversack and still have room. Since I’m also boarding a plane without any check-in luggage as much as possible, I did not bring along toothpaste, soap, and shampoo. Actually, you can bring these along, as long you check it in, total liquids you are carrying does not exceed 100ml in a transparent bag (which is troublesome to measure), or non-liquid versions of these. These kinds of things can be found at the destination country’s hotel or stores anyway.

Another thing is to take note is to keep an eye out for the exchange rate between your currency and the currency you are visiting for a few weeks. Depending on the rates, you may need to change early, or right before the trip. If there are stopovers in a different country, exchange a bit of that country’s currency (US$100 should be more than enough if you are just buying a meal) too. Depending on the country and place, rates from the ATM or outside the airport might have a better exchange rate. Note: Excluding the local currency, coins are generally not accepted or given at money changers.

Anyway, here are the things I find about a place that other countries do not have or are in a different way.

Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Johor Bahru)

Getting around is kind of straightforward, but not so easy if outside the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Everywhere you see are likely to notice are car models that you would not see anywhere else in the world. The atmosphere feels kind of fierce, strong influence of a particular religion is noticeable too, and the crime rate there doesn’t make me feel easy there. Even though the cost of things there might see high, the currency exchange rate against my home currency actually makes it cost less than back home.

1 USD is about 3 Malaysian Ringit

China (Shanghai and Shenzen)

I only made a short visit to these cities as I need to travel to get to elsewhere in an another country, so I don’t really know much. Easy way to calculate is to think of it as divide the amount by 10 to get the amount in British Pounds, a currency more familiar to me.

The first thing I noticed is that the side of the road and tracks buses and trains travel on are at the opposite side from what I’m used to. I actually found myself wondering how to get around as it wasn’t planned. Cost of things are cheap compared to back home, and probably at par with Malaysia. Can’t put a rough number on it though.

Hong Kong

The reason why I mentioned being to Shenzen is because it was part of a side day trip from Hong Kong. Macau was considered, but did not go there in the end. The HKD rate may be 0.8 yuan or 12 yen per dollar, but the cost of things are actually that of between China and Japan. The Hong Kong coins are the thickest, heaviest, and largest (in size) that I have ever come across. Excluding the HK$10 note (issued by the government to replace the coin version), the banknotes are distributed by several different banks instead of a central bank, which is the weirdest thing I have come across for money.

As I get around, there are actually features that help the blind at pedestrian crossings and the ends of escalators, along with brale signs. Just crossing the border with China (Shenzen) and you would notice how different things are, form the standard of English, to cleanness. Signs are bilingual (English and Traditional Chinese) everywhere.

To ride on public transport, I obtained an Octopus Card (or 八達通 in Chinese) to save the hassle to dig up for coins, and exact change in some cases, to pay for buses, tram and trains. You could also use it to pay at convenient stores (though the cashier seem reluctant when I asked) and vending machines too. I am not sre about this, but apparently paying by Octopus Card might be cheaper than paying in cash too. I never paid in cash for transport except to top up the card, so I don’t know about that.

Kansai Region (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe)

Visiting this region feels like being in a different country than Tokyo. It may not be for neighbouring Kyoto, but in Osaka (and I forgot to mention earlier: Hong Kong too), people riding the escalator stand on the right instead of the left.

The trains uses a non-rechargable magnetic card that can be use instead of queuing up at long queues for the ticket machine, but you still pay the same fare. Like other cities in Japan, but not outside, you can use it even when the value is low and chose to pay for the insufficient difference either in cash or with another similar card. I bought several of them of 1000 yen each (minimum you could buy, but it’s worth about less than 5 trips anyway) for the card design.

There are contactless card, but those are linked to your phone bill and obviously not accessible to the foreigner. I hear it’s also compatible with JR West’s ICOCA card, but I hardly ever come across any JR West station. The ICOCA card itself is also compatible with the SUICA card of the Kanto region (including Tokyo) and vice versa, but the PiPoPa doesn’t work with the SUICA card.

Singapore

What you would notice is how similar it is compared to Hong Kong due to both being former British colonies and small land area, which relates to infrastructure and such.

If you will be taking public transport a lot in Singapore, get the ez-link or NETS Flashpay card from the ticket counter (or customer service at the ticket barrier if there isn’t any) as not only would you pay cheaper than by cash, it would be less of a hassle to pay the bus fare as there is no facilitation for change and therefore need to pay in exact change (or more). On top of that, distance-based fares means that no matter how many buses and trains you take, the total fare you would pay is just one long mode of transport. The only catch is that time between transfers must not exceed 45 minutes, not take the same bus service number more than once, and not take the train more than once.

These cards contain a $5 deposit, which is included in the card balance. You cannot use this card if the balance is less than $5 for trains, or, for buses, less than the maximum fare at where you board the bus (which includes transfer discounts from buses and trains you may had taken up to 45 minutes earlier). Don’t forget to tap out as you had paid the maximum when you tapped in or you would not be refunded for the fare difference.

As for taxis, prepare to pay in cash even though various modes of payment are displayed on the door. You would be charged more on top of surcharges anyway. Yellow and black taxis are privately run and are less likely to support payments anything other than cash. At the city center, taxis are not allowed to drop or pick up passengers besides taxi stands and private roads.

Thailand (Bangkok, Kanchanaburi)

The cost of things you would find in Thailand are very noticeably cheaper than the other countries I had been to. Being from where the cost of things is higher, along with a higher exchange rate with the baht, means that it’s so cheap that I would go “that can’t be right”. Of course, that also means that if I were to settle there, that would mean that I would be (likely to be) paid less than back home for the same job. I feel safer here than when I was in Malaysia.

The Thais would usually take the the bus as the BTS Skytrain is considered expensive for them, but for the more well off and foreigners like me, it’s still cheap. When you first enter Bangkok, you would notice the motorcycle taxis and vehicles that are louder than what I’m used to. If it weren’t for the language barrier and cases where tourists are cheated, I could had rode them. For the buses, they seem kind of old. Fare is paid to the conductor, so you just board the train and the conductor would come to you where you would pay the fare, if they noticed you.

For the Skytrain, you would buy a prepaid card, just like the one in the Kansai region, but paying only for the trip you are travelling. Except for the newer ones, the machines accept only 5 and 10 baht coins. Use the newer machines (which can have a long queue) or the service counter next to the ticket gate to exchange. The new underground subway system uses the same method as the new ticket machine, but dispenses a (plain) round token. There are ongoing developments to develop a card that works on both the Skytrain and the subway.

But if you are headed to places like River Kwai section of the Death Railway near Kanchanaburi (about 200km Northwest from Bangkok), you are better off taking a tour bus or with your own transport. Sure there is a bus terminal there to and from Bangkok, but the bus terminal is about 2-4km and, at the Bangkok side, you would have to take a bus from the city centrer to a terminal some distance away that is at the outskirts of Bangkok. If you can’t speak Thai, you are going to have trouble asking for help.

613rd post: How important English is while travelling?

There are many languages spoken around the world. However, if you are travelling around the world,  English is the most language to learn if you avoid the situation of finding yourself unable to communicate with others, or, worse, face a dangerous situation, but you don’t understand the important instructions that are being given.

So, here are a list of languages that are spoken in random countries. Not saying the names, but you could probably tell from the languages spoken. (Note: This is not the list of official languages. More of languages visitors would come across there from the most frequent. If not listed, it may appear, but hardly come across any.)

  1. English, French
  2. English, French, Spanish
  3. Portuguese, Spanish
  4. Spanish
  5. German, French, Italian
  6. Hindi, English, Tamil
  7. Malay, Chinese, English
  8. Arabic, English
  9. English, Chinese, Malay, Tamil
  10. Korean, Chinese, English
  11. Chinese, English
  12. Chinese, Portuguese
  13. Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean
  14. Thai, English, Malay, Burmese, Vietnamese

Notice that they all have English in there, but, unless neighboring with one that do, the other languages aren’t spoken at other countries. You may also notice other languages appearing more than once, sometimes at places where English isn’t spoken. Sometimes, even if English is listed above, that doesn’t mean that the locals would know it, which means that you should lean the language they could understand.

The point here is, if, for example, you are from Latin America and want to travel the world, learn English if you want to travel around the world and save yourself from learning multiple different languages of different countries, or avoid the situation where people don’t understand you, and be able to use that same language at an another part of the world.

611st post: Unsaid Public Transport Benefits

What you are likely to already know is that public transport is a cheap way of getting around, and even more practical for a built up area. However, it also has benefits that aren’t mentioned directly.

  • fewer fatal accidents from loss of control, drink driving, other road users
  • trains don’t need much space for high speed travel.
  • don’t need to waste time just to find parking.
  • Depending on security systems in place and design, reduced likelihood of being robbed or hijacked while traveling. Especially when there are a lot of people around.
  • Since you aren’t using your ride, which itself can cost quite a lot, the loss is minimal.

There are negative things too, but when you prioritize the environment, they don’t seem that important.