Tips on Traveling to Hong Kong

Recently, I took a trip to Hong Kong and there were a few things I would have liked to know about before going:

  1. 1The MTR (Main trains) are fantastic, and fairly cheap. The Hong Kong dollar is about about $7 HKD to 1 USD and many of the rides that you’ll need are around $15HKD each. What you’ll need to do is to get an Octopus card (It’s a value store system) at the airport after you leave customs. (Along with a SIM card) Make sure to put at least $250 on the card so that you can leave the airport express train.
  2. You have to wave down the bus that you intend to get on.
  3. Most places accept Visa cards, this is good, but make sure to bring cash.
  4. The food in Hong Kong is fantastic, and comparatively cheap. (You can get out of Bread Street by Gordon Ramsey paying less than 100$ USD.)
  5. See the Tian Tan Buddha on top of Nong Ping. Also, if you have the money, get the clear bottom cable cars. They tend to have less of a line to get on.
  6. Go to the markets and haggle. Never use your CC and bring a diverse amount of bills. Most of the places will give you a price and another “special price.” Always make sure that you counter, and meet in the middle. If you’re looking to buy multiple items, settle on a low single unit price, then ask for a discount for multiple. See the Youtuber Colin Abroadcast for examples on some of the bargaining.
  7. Stay in Kowloon. There’s no need to be in Hong Kong City. The train runs all night and it’s very fast.
  8. Connecting through the airport: The airport is a pretty efficient airport for transferring you though. Getting through security shouldn’t be a problem. (There is a special area for transiting and you don’t have to go through customs if you’re flying from one country to another in the airport).
  9. See the Peak Tram/Victorias Peak. But check before hand on the best times to go. This can be a very busy place.

 

What I learned from my trip to Costa Rica and Panama

I had quite a vacation 2 weeks ago. I went to Panama City, Bocas Del Toro and Costa Rica. I learned quite a few things and had a lot of negative experiences that I’ve never encountered while traveling before.

I went to Panama without having a good working of knowledge of Spanish. This was a good and bad thing as that it meant that I had to learn fast to survive. All of the places I went were amazing. It was incredibly sunny and everyone was laid back.

Some of the issues I encountered:

  1. My sunscreen (Coppertone SPF70, bought new) was completely worthless (And deemed so by my dermatologist)
    1. This resulted in an extremely bad sunburn that I’m still getting over today. (The redness not the painful burning and other symptoms)
  2. My electronics failed.
    1. My phone’s screen broke mid-trip by falling onto gravel. Note: Cellphone repair shops in Costa Rica don’t hold Google phone glass and screens. It’s just not a popularly held phone.
    2. My camera had issues with the buttons inside of the electronics. That means that I could only shoot with manual mode. Also, Nikkon seems not to be interested in making cameras anymore. So buying a new point and shoot in Panama wasn’t an option.
    3. My credit card just completely broke. (The card, not account issues). Unfortunately this happened in a place where the mail doesn’t work.
  3. The sun burn that I got completely put me out of doing anything while in Costa Rica. This was rather unfortunate but it means you should give yourself time to heal.
  4. Companies who sell aloe products generally suck. They should be required by law to report how much aloe is in the product. Only the pharmacy provided me with a 100% aloe product that helped the bad sunburn that I had.

Some of the things I learned/realized:

  1. Buying a replacement phone with the internet while travelling helped a lot. It seemed like a “large” ($60) extra unneeded expense, but it helped a lot when trying to find things and navigating.
  2. Always carry backup forms of payment. I’ve travelled to europe with only a debit card and some spare cash. I was lucky that I had both forms for payment. Also, carry the local currency in different places in your luggage.
  3. If you’re going to be in extreme direct sun (at the equator) Sunscreen with zinc oxide is a must.
  4. I should have carried a much better first aid kit than what I had.
  5. I got an offer for a $99&$129 first class upgrade for my flight back. The $99 offer I got for the SJO-IAH flight was worth it. I wish I had taken the $129 offer for IAH to ORD as that it was a lie flat seat. Also, if your checkin is failing when you get this offer, do what I did: Call the airline and get it resolved. (Thank you United!)
  6. The general advice I got from fellow travels is to pack for one week’s worth of travel. (And wash while you’re there) That would have lightened the load I had by a lot.
  7. The people in Costa Rica and Panama were extremely laid back, but things still work. You don’t have to be aggressive with following up with everything.
  8. Google Translate is terrible to converse back and forth with. Complex sentences don’t translate very well. (I found this out when trying to buy a bus ticket from Panama City to Bocas more than 1 day in advance)

Will I go back to Bocas del Toro and Costa Rica? Absolutely! I will probably even go back to Panama City.

What Did I do this Week? (26 March)

This week, 26 March, I’ve done quite a lot of stuff. I’m starting a new position in Chicago, so I’ve had some time between jobs.

I visited an abandoned CIA Spy Tower and a former olympic stadium. I visited the Deutsche Technik Mesuem, and I got to catch up with a few of my friends in Berlin. It was a nice weekend trip.

Some of the things I learned:

  1. Google Maps are a big deal in the US. They’re great. However, they aren’t so great on bandwhidth. However, Nokia Maps, with the maps downloaded, are awesome! I was able to use my android phone on airplane mode the whole time and was able to use Nokia maps for train and walking directions (even up a mountain).
  2. Its good to target new sites you haven’t seen before, its great to get out of your same routine. The more adventurous the route the better.
  3. Airports are huge, and make great parks. (See the templehof picture)
  4.  

    The idea of a small restaurant/shop is great for a Minimal Viable Product of the food world. I think more food businesses should do this. Food trucks appear to be a “happy medium.”

  5. Taking a break between jobs is a VERY good thing. Its even better for the next employer as that you can come back fresh. 

     

IMG_20150328_132224975

  1. Tempelhof Airport

 

ANother photo from Tuefelberg.
ANother photo from Tuefelberg.
One of hte Teufelberg Buildings
One of hte Teufelberg Buildings

Olypicishestadium

S75 Trains
S75 Trains

 

 

Somethings I learned about the Train System in Europe

  • The UK has many train vendors. Some of these vendors resell each other’s seats. For example if you buy a Megatrain ticket at Waterloo: You’re actually buying a Southwest (UK) train ride. Additionally you’ll only be able to go on the email they sent you as a confirmation of your ticket. This is rather confusing because they have ticket machines, and typically you have to check in and get a ticket to pass the gates. There is nothing mentioning this situation, and waiting in the service queues will not result you in an answer to this. To get through the turnstiles you have to find an employee and they’ll badge you through after seeing your ticket.
  • In Germany and Belgium there is a huge difference between a Regionbahn and an ICE train. The RegionBahn is a local train network, as this is the case with the VRN in Mannheim/Heidelburg.
    • They are ticketed differently: Your ICE train is a fixed train, you cannot switch between trains with that. The RegionBahn is very flexible.
    • You can get on the next RegionBahn train without issue. [As long as it’s within your route].
      • If you’re going from a RegionBahn train to an ICE, it’s better to get there earlier than later. RegionBahn trains, like the CTA/Metr(a/o) are often late.
    • Always get a seat reservation with an ICE train, this is even more so the case if you’re travelling with someone.  If there is a busy train, then you may be split up. Also you get to boot people from your seat if you have a seat reservation (which is nice when you have large amounts of luggage).
      • Seat reservations are pretty cheap.
  • The platform for IC trains in the Antwerp, Belgium station are on the top of the station.
  • The people dealing with the train tickets and information in the Amsterdam airport, were (in 2007) and still are cranky and are constantly pissed off. The Dutch people are great people, but these people are an exception.
  • Look up the train car on your reservation before you get on the train. All German stations have a  map of the trains and their configurations on your platform. Also noting this, the high speed train platforms rarely change, you can trust your ticket.
  • It helps to look up the end of the route on the train that you will be getting on. For example, the Thalys train that I got on in Amsterdam was going to Paris, however I went to Antwerp. It also helps to keep a route map so you can be prepared to get off on the right stop.
  • This is a common sense deal: Knowing a little bit of German goes a long way on the DB.
  • The train stations are typically walkable to the city they’re connected in.  (Even Salisbury, UK and Cork, Ireland)
  • Take the London Heathrow express. It turns your train ride to the central part of London into a 30 minute ride from 1hr20m-ish. (20 minutes if you’re coming from Terminal 1,2,3)  (It’s $30 per person, but there’s always room, its smooth, and sane). When I used it, the tickets were easy and quick to purchase from the ticket box outside of the train. They even offered a chance to purchase the tickets on the train.

Some of the Best and Worse Things of Hotels

My job requires that I travel quite a bit, and stay in hotels. I’ve also travel a bit for vacations. So far here is a list of things I look for in hotels:

  1. Having to prepay for a room is very irritating. It is even more irritating if the hotel is in a foreign country. This can cause issues with bad service or offerings that weren’t up to how it was described. Authorizing a credit card to an extremely high amount is also rather nutty. If the individual is not aware, this can cause legitimate charges to be rejected.
  2. When travelling for vacations, I tend to like apartment type rentals. They tend to be cheaper per the week, and often don’t include daily maid service.
  3. Comfortable beds are a requirement. I haven’t had issues with this in the Fairfield Inn, or the Hilton properties.  However, I have had issues with this in an Aloft and Town Suites hotel. I tried to talk with the property managers. In each case, I was told that the hotel had only one style of mattress: extremely hard. This is irritating because it makes sleeping uncomfortable and difficult.
  4. A good breakfast: I’m not expecting a made to order breakfast. However, if the scrambled eggs are overcooked and dry or if the meat product is questionable, this is extremely irritating. When I stay in a hotel, I often have no other choice than to stay in one. If I’m at home, I’ll cook the meal myself.  Having a bad breakfast service reminds me that I rather be at home. Also, if you charge for the breakfast, it better be good.
  5. If the room has a kitchenette, please stock it with the items one may need to cook with. A good example of this has been the Inn Sight apartments in Berlin. They include the spatulas, knives, glasses, utensils, and multiple pots + pans.
  6. Able to make taxi requests very quickly. When late for a flight leaving Berlin a year ago, I found that the Mercure was able to do this from their computer. Within 3 minutes of walking out the door of the hotel after checking out, the taxi was there.
  7. Easy to work with the TV: I rarely ever watch the TV channels that are provided with the room. I tend to load my tablet up with TV shows and watch content from my tablet onto the TV. If a hotel makes this difficult by either disabling the input selector or making the HDMI ports difficult to get to, this is irritating.
  8. The room design: This isn’t hugely important, however it is rather nice to stay in a modern-European styled hotel room.

Things I would like to Learn/Experience/Improve-Upon This Year [2013]

Since this is the time of the year that many making resolutions relating to self improvement, here are a few of mine:

  1. Finally get around to learning GridGain.   [I would love to see a well published book, or at least a Kindle eBook to get some headway on this] HazelCast would also be interesting, but GridGain has more of what I’m looking for.
  2. Finish the massive tomb that is “Groovy In Action”
  3. Finally understand how network routing works.
  4. Get more experience with DNS, and DNS tools
  5. Master NMap [not just learn the basic uses of it, but to really excel with the tool] This would be similar with the reading up on SSH I did last year.
  6. Get up to conversational level German. [Living outside of German speaking nations makes this incredibly difficult]
  7. Finally develop some strong time management habits.
  8. Learn how to use Python [to the point where you can do some cool stuff with it]
  9. Learn R [rather than haphazardly hack]
  10. Meet/talk with some of the gurus of airfare scheduling/decoding, and the famous Tom Stuker.
  11. Learn how to use GraphViz [This is one of the odd ones here, but it’s interesting]
  12. Get better with Erlang and to find/make real world uses.
  13. Learn/Create a GUI in Apache Pivot, and a web interface with either Stripes and/or Wicket.

How am I planning to accomplish these things? Having goals, and putting them on my task list.

Currently, I am reading up on Maven, and Groovy. I read a book on GIT, and got some practice w. A review of the strengths and weaknesses may be coming up in a later post on this blog.

To the 1.5 readers left reading this blog: What are your goals for the New Year? Leave the response as a blog post linking back to this post or in the comments below.

Tips for Travelling (Updated 22 Nov)

Due to the amount I’ve been travelling recently here are a few tips that I found quite helpful:

  • Get Status, this tends to help with check-in and security lines. This also eliminates baggage fees.
  • Use the mobile boarding app if you aren’t checking bags. If you are checking bags, then use it when there is a baggage drop.
  • When going to places near water, carry bug spray and Benedryal. This is a godsend, when in the Caribbean.
  • Carry sunscreen when going to places that experience year long warm temperatures.
  • Always carry a pen with you when travelling internationally. This helps you fill out the customs card. Most people forget this one.
  • Get a Kindle [or a tablet that can use the Kindle application]. This saves room in your carry on.
  • Don’t pack everything in your carryon. Check bags. The cost is $50 for your bags round trip. Bringing roll ons is nearly guaranteed to get your bags gate checked fairly frequently. Also, for a frequent flyer, overcrowding the overhead isn’t amusing, it’s annoying.
  • Create a budget for how much money you can spend/will need before leaving on the trip.
  • Research the place before hand to get an idea of what to do
  • Have your iterary, adgenda, and hotel reservations ready. This can help you get through customs. Although even with being organized and prepared, from Tynan’s, and my previous experiences this can be rough. Some countries are worse than others about their customs procedures.
  • Research potential airport taxes [not covered by your ticket] prior to leaving. Having a $10 bill in your wallet when connecting in Aruba on to another Caribbean country is quite a helpful thing to have.
  • Identify good places to eat in airports. Most restaurants are bad in airports, but there are some that are quite exceptional.
  • Be proactive about making connections. Most airlines won’t automatically rebook you when there are missed connections. Fix the issue before you get to the connecting airport. The sooner you fix an issue the better. My friend Warren claims, that Delta will automatically rebook you.
  • Avoid certain routes on certain airlines. From my experience involving delays and Insel air, it would be advisible to avoid booking flights that make connections. If an airline is notorious for having incredibly cramped conditions or aggressive fees avoid them. [(From reviews and word of mouth) Alitalia and Ryan Air respectively]. Also, be aware of how the airline treats irregular operations, and exceptional situations. If they handle it poorly, avoid them.
  • HDMI cable- This is to plug your laptop or tablet into the TV. Many newer, and renovated, hotels now carry HDMI compatible TVs. This makes it easier to stream media from your tablet/laptop on to the TV.
  • USB Charger Adaptors- Keep a mini and micro USB cable on you. With a
  • Plug splitter – These will split the plug into many outlets. This is invaluable in airports where plugs are few and far in-between. Also, this guarantees you a spot on the plug and helps you to make new friends.
  • This is age-old to advise, but I’ll repeat it: A spare set of clothes in your carry on. This is incase your baggage gets lost.
  • Setting your alarm clocks early for morning flights. Give yourself enough time for traffic, parking, check in, security, and some wiggle room for unpredicted situations.
  • Have the phone numbers of the reservation lines. This may help you avoid the customer service lines. Once you hit elite, special “elite-only” lines will expedite this process.
  • Create a checklist of things to pack/you-will-want-to-have. This helps to avoid the frantic last minute “what did I forget” run around. Also leave a way to note the things you will need to pack in the morning: medications, alarm clock, etc.
  • This shouldn’t be said, but: pack the night before you leave.
  • Laundry bag, put one in your checked bag. This helps separate the dirty clothes from the clean clothes, and expiates washing after the trip.
  • Rubber Bands: These keep cables tidy, also cable ties are single one time use items.

The saying “Foreign Carriers are better than domestic” Sounds True until you try Lufthansa.

Most American’s claim that Lufthansa over all is pleasant, however the Europeans are jaded. I think the Europeans are on to something.

This is a blog post I’ve been putting off for a long time. Mostly, I’ve been putting it off to prevent this post from becoming a 10 page rant that absolutely no one would read all the way through. The length of just the outline is nearly 3 pages, so I’m sure that the actual length of my rant would exceed 15 pages. As an upfront disclaimer, I would like to defend my post admitting that I had no intention of disliking Lufthansa when trying them out.

To keep this post simple I’ll use bullet points of where I have been screwed over by Lufthansa: [And that you may want to consider when looking to fly with them]

  • Ticketing
    • E-Ticketing is kind of nice (although standard will all major airlines). They however, will not print your connecting ticket within the US. Thanks guys! That’ll make the run through O’Hare from terminal 5 to 1 even quicker. [That was sarcasm, in case you were wondering]
  • Check-In Agents
    • There is absolutely no “flat tire” rule at Lufthansa. The agents don’t care, and you are screwed. They don’t care even if the gate and security is directly behind the check in desk. [As it is in Tegal]
    • [This was told to me by an army member on the flight from Charlotte to Frankfurt]: Lufthansa charges service men/women extra for second and overweight packs when being deployed. The charge she was forced to pay at the gate was $400 on the spot for two bags. This is, from what she claimed, a waved courtesy provided by US Air.
  • Value For Class
    • Business: The short hops, this is more of a gimmick than anything else
    • Y-Fare Class: Also known as the “we completely screwed you over and we don’t care” class. This is not a refundable ticket. It doesn’t even guarantee service. If you are gifted by the “grace of the gods” [a.k.a. Ticketing people and their managers], you may be able to get a credit towards a rebooking (based on the estimated value of the ticket). This does not help you in times of trouble where you need to rebook a flight. Most typically when rebooking a flight, the flight cost increases and you must pay the difference.
  • Flight Quality
    • You’d think with the higher cost and “advertised premium value” however it depends on what flight it is:
      • Charlotte-Munich has a decent set of equipment and flight attendants
      • Frankfurt-O’Hare has one of the oldest planes I’ve flown with LH, and the surliest flight attendants that I’ve ever had.
      • On the surly flight attendants on FRA-ORD: Just after takeoff, my neighbor-across-the-aisle’s (a fragile 80 year old grandmother) bin came unsecured and the baggage threatened to fall out. I notified the flight attendants about this by signaling it to them. They refused to address it and signaled back for me to resolve the situation. Fortunately for the old lady, I have a soft spot for old ladies and prefer to see them uncrushed. I probably should have contacted the FAA about this.
  • Scheduling
    • My rebooking (of TXL-MUC-CLT) ended up being Tegal Berlin-Frankfurt-Chicago-Charlotte. There were 4 delays. The first delay was in Frankfurt to Chicago, the rest were the Chicago to Charlotte flight. One delay from Chicago to Charlotte, allowed me to actually get through security. This was not a fun 20-23 set of hours travelling.
    • The ticketing agent refused to put me on a star alliance flight until it became the last option [Chicago to Charlotte] – this despite mentioning CO97 was leaving only an hour later [direct to NYC]. The agent refused because it was not a Lufthansa-operated flight.
  • Baggage handling
    • On my rescheduled flight back my baggage was “lost” between Frankfurt and Charlotte. It made it back in Charlotte, however it would have been nice to know that the baggage was “priority marked” and I didn’t have to wait for it before going through customs.
  • Cost
    • For every flight path I’ve seen Lufthansa is always more expensive than any of the other carriers.
  • General PR
    • Their Facebook page congratulated a judge on dismissing the Frankfurt Air Controllers strike [due to pay demands]. So: the people that prevent planes from crashing on landing, and manage the planes in the air [according to LH] are the ‘bad guys’?
  • Customer Service After the fact
    • If you have an issue, phone support will not hear your complaint. They will tell you to complain online.
    • If you complain online, you’ll receive an automated letter that they are “experiencing high volumes” during the middle of the summer. (Really? There’s a red flag)
    • My first complaint was never responded-to, nor was my email to the CEO. The second complaint sent online referenced the first. This got their attention only 2 months after the second complaint.
    • When they respond to you they attempt to “appear sympathetic” by passively putting the blame you on by saying: “We’re sorry that you were displeased with the service” [Translation, it was your fault using our service go **** yourself] Then they come up with a crap reason why they don’t have to tend to your complaint, such as in my case the complaints were dismissed for the rebooked flight because the original flight’s checkin time was missed. Seriously? Basically you can pay $1500 extra [in my case] on top of the existing full fare ticket], and they aren’t responsible for the service?
  • Frequent Flier Program
    • Earning Miles
      • The main draw of the program is that it’s within the star alliance, but it’s extremely difficult to earn on their partners (without full fare tickets &/or long distance tickets).
      • Earning miles is based on the class of your ticket – which is typical, but the earning ability is rather crappy. Discounted tickets [E, K, L, T] are credited at  only 50% of the miles flown.
    • Spending Miles
      • Flights
        • You have to earn ~60,000 miles with Lufthansa [but have flown far more actual miles]. By this time you’ve pretty much have flown enough to put a major payment down on a house. Your reward is a round trip ticket from North America to Europe, with the cost of $700 [in a non-peak season]. Congratulations: you have just wasted all that money on flights, to get an award flight that you still have to pay a large percentage of the ticket. To compare with another Star Alliance carrier, United, the equivalent cost for an award ticket can be 60k miles and $120-200 on average.
      • Hotels
        • Last year I earned 26k award miles: I don’t plan on ever using this program again. I thought, hey I can get a free night stay. I go to look up the costs: For a non-peak area in Charlotte, it costs between 30k and 41k miles. That is the equivalent of 4-5 round trip trips to Germany for only a $120-160 night stay in a small city.

My flight experiences for travel from the east coast to Europe have been with American Airlines, US Airways, United/Continental, and Lufthansa. Each of the airlines I have flown the transatlantic route at least twice. With shorter routes [domestic and international] I have also flown with Delta, Southwest, British Airways, and KLM.

To summarize: Who would I recommend Lufthansa to? Wall street bankers? No: yachts and $100k+ cars sound like a better investment. Regular bankers? I’m pretty sure expensing that [on first class] is a bit of a stretch. (First class from San Francisco to Frankfurt was $20k when launched – that’s the price of a Toyota Accord.) Paid for by someone else? Not worth the stress or effort (trust me on this).

To get back to being serious, who do I think should fly with Lufthansa:

  1. People who are pleased with self harm
  2. People that I don’t like. I’m not talking about “I just have distaste”. I’m referring to an enemy for life situation here.

Too Long; Didn’t read? Avoid this lame flying duck.

Train Stations

Keeping to a similar topic as the last few posts, I thought I’d come up with a list of the train stations that I have got on a train at or got off. Passing through, or stopping for a break does not count. [For those overseas: Amtrak stops for cigarette breaks every so often] Secondly, I couldn’t let Warren outdo me with his trainstation list.

  • US
    • Durham (DNC)
    • Charlotte (CLT)
    • Washington DC (WDC)
    • Burlington, NC (BNC)
    • DC: China Town/Gallery PI
    • DC: Smithsonian
    • DC: (Amtrak/Metro) Union Station
  • England (All in London)
    • Terminal 4
    • Earls Court
    • Knightsbridge
    • Camden Town
    • Westminster
    • Waterloo
    • Notinghill Gate
    • Oxford Circus
    • Monument
    • High Street Kinsington
    • Tottenham court Road
    • Bond Street
    • Shepherds Bush
    • Victoria Station
    • Piccadilly Circus
  • Germany
    • Berlin: Alexanderplatz
    • Berlin:  Fredriedrichstrasse
    • Berlin: Hauptbahnhof
    • Berlin: Potsdamerplatz
    • Berlin: Stadtmitte
    • Berlin: Bundestag
    • Mannheim HBF
    • Munich: Marienplatz
    • Munich: Olympia zentrum
    • Frankfurt Airport
  • France (All in Paris)
    • Gard du Nord
    • CDG Airport
    • Gard Du Est
    • St- Michel
    • Assembly Nationale
    • Ecole’ Militare
  • Austria (All in Vienna)
    • West Hbf
    • Stefansplatz