Category Archives: Transport

Car rental hidden costs

So you scored an awesome deal on you rental. A convertible mustang deal for only $19.99 per day. That’s what the advertising said. It must be right. That’s what you are expecting to pay.. until you drop to your friendly car rental shop and find out the actual cost of your rental. Well this doesn’t look all that great now does it.

The advertised price of any rental is what I call the “1/3 price” of the actual deal. The hidden part is the 2/3 part. Simple math tells me that there is a lot more to pay. Here’s a breakdown of what that 2/3 is all about, how to minimize it with some careful planning so that you’re not stuck trying to make last-minute (under pressure) decisions at the car rental shop.

Our LA rental - Mustang

Our LA rental - Mustang

Taxes on you (the 2/3)

Let’s dig straight into this.

The 1/3 is what the rental company calls “time & distance”. This is your car. Let’s take a standard 4 cylinder vehicle as an example with a cost of $19.95 per 24hr day.

The 2/3 part is the “Insurance”. Even if you purchased a holiday package deal which stated “car included” this part of the bill is NOT included with the rental deal. This means the $19.95 might have been covered by the package but the Insurance never is. The Insurance is all about you.

But wait, there is a way out of paying for rental Insurance

If you/spouse have car insurance in Californian (say you own a car in California since you work here) then you may have rental cover too. Call up the insurance company and check! Most personal car insurance plans cover rental cars in USA & Hawaii. That should save you a nice chunk of the rental insurance.

Here’s what the Insurance looks like on this $19.95 rental:

Note: these are optional! However as I always say, it’s not you but other drivers that you should watch out for when on the road driving.

  1. Damage Waiver (DW):Also known as Collision Damage Waiver covering the rental vehicle during an accident 100% with $0 deductible.
    • Cost: $8.99 per day.
    • How to avoid it: If you have a Wells Fargo credit card then you can waive this fee as long as you use your Wells Fargo credit card to pay for the rental. See here. Most American credit cards give this benefit.
  2. Personal Accident Insurance (PAI):Covers your expenses from an accident with a lump sum payment. Remember this is America, without health insurance you are a dead duck in the water should the unfortunate happen.
    • Cost: $3.00 per day.
    • How to avoid it: When you left your country (say Australia) you would have (I hope) purchased insurance which would have included health. This should cover you for a bit while you’re in the states. Else if you are working as a full-time employee for a company in USA then you already have health insurance (HMO/Kaiser etc) through your firm. So you don’t need extra expense.
  3. Supplemental Liability Protection (SLP):Third-party liability protection and will provide additional protection. e.g. You destroy someone’s house / other car during the accident. This covers the other party repairs if it’s your fault.
    • Cost: $11.99 per day.
    • How to avoid it: No way that I’m aware of unless you already have car insurance in the USA and this is covered somehow within that policy. Highly unlikely tho.

So final numbers for a week (7 days) rental look like this:

Car: $19.99 x 7 = 139.93
DW: $8.99 x 7 = 62.93
PAI: $3.00 x 7 = $21.00
SLP: $11.99 x 7 = $83.93
Total: $391.72
Taxes: $35.25

Final cost: $426.95, and here you thought you got a bargain that would cost roughly $139.93 for that week. DW+PAI+SLP alone cost you $251.72.

Other common fees & ways to avoid them

Sales taxes – if you are hiring in California expect to pay additional 9% tax on top of your bills. That’s an additional $35.25 ontop of the bill above. Sorry no way to avoid this one.

Taxes and airport surcharges – if you are picking up your car from the airport you will be hit with 10% – 20% airport tax. If you can find out where the closest car rental place is located near your hotel vs the airport. Unless you have no lift to your hotel from the airport then you will get stuck with this tax.

Gasoline charges – you will often get asked if you want to prepay a full tank of gas so that you can return it with any amount of petrol (gas) left. Say no. Gas is cheaper outside and you will save money. Seriously how well can you predict how much gas you will consume.

Drop-Off charges – always drop off the car at the location you picked it up. Charges vary here so don’t get stung or find out upfront what the charges would you especially if your travelling across state.

GPS charges – this one is a good money-maker for the rental companies. $10 per day to hire a GPS unit. Save yourself the $70 per week fee by using your smart phone & Google maps.

Hire on the weekends – companies like Enterprise have weekend deals because there are so many stock left over. Check out their websites, they always advertise this. Also when you drop into the car hire shop few minutes before they close on Friday you will be in a better state to bargain a great deal. I once hired a Mercedes C300 (pic below) for half the listed price and paid 1/3 of the listed insurance on it. Killer bargain and I had a fun car to drive over the weekend.

Me with my rental - Mercedes-benz C-300

Me with my weekend special rental - Mercedes-benz C-300

Sign-up now for a newsletter – most rental companies send out monthly newsletters with specials / deals like free upgrades or discounts. You can use those when making your rental.

Finally, I also came across this nice post with 9 Confessions From A Former Enterprise Rental Salesman: http://consumerist.com/2007/03/9-confessions-from-a-former-enterprise-rental-salesman.html

Hope this helps you with getting a great deal. If there are other tips and tricks I should include please let me know.

~ Ernest

Public transport options and commuting

There are a number of different public transport options to commute around the Bay Area and San Francisco using the Public Transport System. Here are the most popular forms of public transport options and instances where to use each one. If you plan to hire a car then visit my previous post located here.

Public transport options

In The Valley (Bay Area)

CalTrain
The CalTrain is a double-decker diesel-powered commuter train that runs on the San Francisco Peninsula and in the Santa Clara Valley (Silicon Valley). Basically from San Francisco all the way down to San Jose. The fare varies on the zones you want to visit. A map is provided at each station showing you the zones. So a trip from Mountain View to San Francisco covers 6 zones (max zones) and will cost around $12. You can also get a day pass which is double that price – basically a return pass is a day pass but you can go up and down all day long.

About: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caltrain
Timetable: http://www.caltrain.com/schedules/weekdaytimetable.html
Smart phone timetable: http://m.icaltrain.com/

VTA (Valley Transportation Authority)
VTA operates both buses and light rail within the local Santa Clara county. The buses travel up and down El Camino Real and cost a few bucks pending on your destination. Make sure you have $1 in coin/notes since there is no change given by the black payment box inside the bus. There are stops on El Camino Real every few hundred meters so be prepared for frequent stops and longer journey times. The buses and light rail are high-tech with display & computerized voice giving you updates what street you are approaching so you should never miss your stop.

Website: http://www.vta.org/

Super Shuttle
This is the easiest and most cost-effective shuttle service to and from the airport from your home, office or hotel. It’s a huge blue van franchise with a capacity to carry 8-9 passengers. These things run like crazy at all sort of hours. Plus the bonus is that you will get to see a bit of the bay area as the van picks-up/drops people closest off first.

Books a service: http://www.supershuttle.com/
Other shuttle services: http://www.sftravel.com/shutl.html

BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit)
No not Bart from the Simpsons but the rapid transit system serving the San Francisco Bay Area. The heavy-rail public transit system connects San Francisco with cities in the East Bay and suburbs in northern San Mateo County. BART operates five lines on 104 miles (167 km) of track with 43 stations in four counties. The fare is based on a formula that takes into account both the length and speed of the trip. The minimum fare is $1.75 is charged for trips under 6 miles (9.7 km) and maximum one-way fare including all possible surcharges is $10.90.

About: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bay_Area_Rapid_Transit
Timetable: http://www.bart.gov/schedules/bystation.aspx

In San Francisco

Muni (Municipal Railway)
The San Francisco Municipal Railway (SF Muni) is the public transit system for the city and county of San Francisco, California. Its network consists of 54 bus lines, 17 trolley bus lines, 7 light rail lines that operate above ground and in the City’s lone subway tube (called Muni Metro), 3 cable car lines, and a heritage streetcar line known as the F Market & Wharves. The Muni buses are probably the easiest ones to catch. They have routes all over the city and cost only $2 to ride. Don’t forget to have $1 coins or notes since there is no change given by the black payment box inside the bus.

About: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Francisco_Municipal_Railway
Timetable: http://www.sfmta.com/cms/mroutes/indxrout.htm
Smart phone timetable: http://www.nextmuni.com/

Cable Car
The San Francisco cable car system is the world’s last permanently operational manually operated cable car system, and is an icon of San Francisco, California. Cable cars operate on two routes from downtown near Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf, and a third route along California Street. They are plenty of fun to hang out of one as it takes you up and down the steep hills of San Francisco. A bit pricey at $5 for a single ride but definitely worth the wait and the ride.

About: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Francisco_cable_car_system

What about cabs (taxi)?

Too expensive. This isn’t New York where a cab ride is super cheap. When you factor in tip on top of the fair & the traffic that will surely keep that meter ticking up it’s just not worth it. Of course if you have the cash to throw at a cab you can catch one anywhere in the bay area & San Francisco.

Where to use each form of public transport

Destination: SFO (airport) to Mountain View/Palo Alto
Transport: Bart & CalTrain or Super Shuttle
Duration: 1-2 hours.

Destination: Union Square (SF) to Fisherman’s Wharf (SF) – San Francisco has many steep hills that will test your patience and drain your energy levels. It’s ok to try to walk them once but the 2nd time just use the public transport.
Transport: Muni (anywhere from Market St) or Cable Car (from corner of Powell & Market St).
Duration: Around 30 mins.

Destination: Mountain View/Palo Alto to San Francisco
Transport: CalTrain
Duration: 40 min to 1 hr. If you catch the “baby bullet” which has limited stops you should get there in 40 min else budget in 1 hour.

Destination: Mountain View/Palo Alto to San Jose
Transport: VTA Rail or CalTrain
Duration: Up to 1 hr on VTA Rail but it’s a nice scenic & quiet ride. CalTrain will get your there in around 20 mins.

Destination: Mountain View to Palo Alto (Stanford University/Ave)
Transport: CalTrain
Duration: 10 mins.

Hope this information gives you an idea about the public transport options available to you to move up and down the valley. There is plenty to do and see here so enjoy your stay in the bay area!

If I have missed something, made a mistake or you want to know something more specific about other areas and how to get there please contact me using the contact form located here. I always respond within 24 hours.

Ernest

How to get a Californian drivers license

In America you drive on the right side of the road and back home (Australia) you drove on the left side. So even if you hold an Australian yellow drivers license with good driving history in America you still need to:

a. Pass the theory exam and
b. Pass the practical driving exam.

Yes you heard this right. You still need to pass a practical driving exam.

Oh and don’t bother with the International driving license which NRMA (in Australia) can issue you for $50. It’s just a waste of money. Worthless. You will never use it. If you want to hire a car in California or drive a car you can do so safely on your normal Australian drivers license. No need for an International one.

DMV – California Department of Motor Vehicles

DMV is the government entity similar to RTA (Roads & Traffic Authority) in NSW Australia. DMV registers vehicles in California and licenses their drivers. This is where you will go to do both your Theory and Practical exams.

But first you need to book for the Theory exam. Do this online since it’s more convenient and you are after all in Silicon Valley where most services are organized online.

Make an appointment here: https://eg.dmv.ca.gov/foa/welcome.do?localeName=en

The Theory exam

Here’s how I practiced for the theory exam. After this you should be an expert. Spend more time learning the ins and out because the theory will come in handy for the practical (harder) exam.

  1. Download DMV Driver Handbook and learn the new rules. Most of the rules should be 2nd nature to you if you did ok on your Australian drivers license.
    DMV Driver Handbook: http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/dl600.pdf
  2. Go through sample driver written tests here: http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/interactive/tdrive/exam.htm
  3. Practise on an interactive DMV flash-based exam: http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/interactive/tdrive/flash/flashtest.htm
  4. Watch DMV YouTube exams videos: http://www.youtube.com/user/californiadmv

Accelerated learning process – in my personal blog on productivity I covered an accelerated learning technique. See the blog post here for more tips on accelerated learning: http://ernestblog.com/accelerated-learning. I follow these techniques in my everyday life so you will find value outside passing your DMV exam.

Applying these techniques I studies like this:

  • Do the sample written tests until you only get 0 or 1 wrong.
  • Do the flash practise exam until you only get 0 or 1 wrong.
  • Watch the DMV YouTube videos once.
  • Read the DMV driver hand book. I skim read through it because it’s long and most of the stuff you should have learnt from the practice points a-c above. As you read the exam, write notes down of stuff you “did not know”.
  • Go over your notes, the DMV videos, sample written tests and flash practice exam before bed time.
  • Next day in the morning go over your notes and sample written tests to refresh your memory.
  • There is an iPhone DMV app which essentially carries the DMV videos and sample written tests. At the DMV I did the sample written tests on my iPhone since the wait was at 30 minutes (yes, even after booking the exam online).

After this you are guaranteed to pass with flying colors.

On the day of the exam at the DMV you will need to do a lot of paper work, get a photo taken and then a “written” test in a voting style booth. Not electronic like in Australia. The test should take no more than 20 minutes with 30 questions to answer. After your complete it, hand it to a DMV personnel and they will mark it on the spot. If you get more than 6 wrong answers you fail. But you shouldn’t since you prepared so well. You will be issued with a temporary 3 month license. This gives you 3 months to get your practical exam booked.

The Practical exam

Book for your Practical exam ASAP. Do not wait till the last-minute before your temporary license expires. The booking wait line is typically a month in the future. Book immediately after you pass your Theory exam!

Make an appointment here: https://eg.dmv.ca.gov/foa/welcome.do?localeName=en

The practical exam starts at the DMV and ends at the DMV parking lot.

The practical exam consists of a number of pre-drive checks to make sure you know your vehicle well followed by the actual 20 minute drive around the neighborhood. So its important to use your own car. One which you are comfortable with and know where all the settings (like defroster) are located. The examiner will just sit there observing how you drive (normal stuff) and will only tell you where they want you to turn. So basically you just drive straight until you are given an instruction to turn.

To pass, you must have no more than 3 errors marked in the pre-drive checklist, no marks in the critical driving error section, and no more than 15 errors marked for the scoring maneuvers.

So you passed your practical exam!

At the end of the 20 minute practical exam the examiner will hand your “Driving Performance Evaluation Score Sheet” with a score of errors and whether you passed or not. You obviously passed so you take this sheet into DMV and provide it to the booth the examiner tells you to. In about a week or 2 you will receive your actual physical drivers license. It will look something like this:

Australian (top) vs Californian (bottom) drivers license

Australian (top) vs Californian (bottom) drivers license

Resources

Bets of luck with your exams! If you follow my simple methods outlined above you too will have no trouble passing them. 2 friends have passed with flying colors and no stress after I shared this information with them. If you find this information useful in your exam I would love to hear about it. Leave me a comment below :)

Good luck!

Ernest

Major roads in Silicon Valley

We flew down the twisty mountain road in a metallic gray VW Jetta. The wheels screeching tightly to the apex as I took the corner holding the steering wheel at 9 & 3 o’clock. Yes I was taught to drive this way at a rally school back in Sydney (Australia). The Jetta was a hire car. The surroundings screamed past us as I demonstrated to my friend how to take the apex on sharp corners for a smoother tight turn. Then we noticed a group of bicycle riders heading straight toward us. Well this is odd, I said. What are they doing on our side of the road. Oh crap, “we” are on the wrong side of the road. I jabbed the steering wheel to the right to get the car back onto the “right” lane. As soon as we did this a car zoomed round the corner on the right side of the road. We avoided a collision. Missed by that much.

You may already know this but in America everyone drives on the “right” side of the road. In Australia it is the left side. Today about 66.1% of the world’s people live in right-hand traffic countries and 33.9% in left-hand traffic countries. Being Australian I fell into the 33.9%. However it was time to adjust to the 66.1% and learn to drive on the right side of the road. In the beginning it takes some getting to used to. I found that having a non-Australia passenger in the car helped. Every time I would drift to the left (wrong side of the road) I would be instantly slapped back into gear avoiding another collision.

Unfortunately in the story above I was with another Australian and thus for us being on the left hand side felt comfortable so no internal alarms were set off until we noticed strange traffic patterns. I love telling that story because we spent so much time on the wrong side of the road feeling all comfortable until a shock later and we learnt one valuable lesson.

Roads are wide and big

One of the 1st things you will notice in Silicon Valley and well America in general, are that the roads are massive. Kramer (from Seinfeld) wasn’t exaggerating when he adopted a piece of the American freeway and showed us how wide the lanes are. They are huge here. You can practically dance around in your car on one. Not only that, most freeways have 4-5 lanes each way. That in comparison to Sydney (Australia) where the Sydney Orbital (freeway that takes traffic around Sydney) is 2 lanes each way – that explains the traffic issues!

Major roads in the valley

Major roads in Silicon Valley - from left: 280, El Camino & 101

Major roads in Silicon Valley - from left in green: 280, El Camino & 101

There are 3 major roads you can travel up and down the valley. They are, starting from the left (see map above in green):

a.       280Interstate 280 (I-280) is a 57 mile (92 km) long north–south Interstate Highway in the San Francisco Bay Area of Northern California. It connects San Jose and San Francisco, running along just to the west of the cities of San Francisco Peninsula for most of its route. This is what I call the sceanic route and you get to see the fog roll into the valley over the mountains – looks scary & beautiful when it’s happening (see pic below).

b.       El Camino RealEl Camino Real (Spanish for The Royal Road, also known as The King’s Highway) runs between the 280 and 101 through all the major cities in the valley. It is the road to take if you intend to do some shopping / food hopping during your drive.

c.      101U.S. Route 101 (US 101) is one of the last remaining and longest U.S. Routes still active in the state, and the longest highway of any kind in California. From San Jose to San Francisco, Highway 101 is known as the Bayshore Freeway as it passes through Palo Alto and the other major communities along the San Francisco Peninsula.

When going to San Francisco for dinner or to party I like to take the 101 if I want to get there quicker or the 280 if I’m in the mood for a scenic drive. On the 280 you will get to see a lot of eagles (American National Emblem) and that famous fog San Francisco is so famous for. The fog starts rolling in around 5-6ish in the afternoon as demonstrated in the pic below.

The fog rolling in over the mountains towards 280

The fog rolling in over the mountains towards 280

American’s drive fast

Yes it’s true. American’s drive fast on both 280 & 101. I have a heavy foot but still find myself trying to keep up to the average traffic speed of 80 miles (128 km) per hour. In America as long as you are not driving dangerously a cop wont bug you. That sort of explains the mutual traffic flow at high speeds – mutual agreement. I love it.

So you have 3 roads to choose from when heading up and down the valley. This is great and has the power to beat boredom by allowing you to alternate your routes and keep the drive different. Now that you know your roads, here’s to safe and happy driving!

Ernest

Transport infrastructure in the valley

They called me the VW Jetta pirate! Thanks to my buddies at Enterprise Rent-A-Car I would always get a great weekend hire deal and roll out in my choice of a car, a nice clean VW Jetta. I was set for the weekend to start exploring and settling in Silicon Valley.

My 1st Jetta hire from Enterprise car rental in Silicon Valley

My 1st Jetta hire from Enterprise car rental in Silicon Valley

Choose your weapon

The most common ways to travel up and down the valley:

a.       Enterprise Rent-A-Car – is the cheapest car rental service I found in the valley. They also have a huge range of cars to choose from. Hiring a car is straight forward and no you “do not” need an international drivers license. So do not waste your AUD50 in Australia getting that useless paper from NRMA. All you need is your Australian driverse license and your set to go within few minutes. Enterprise website even has online booking so you can take care of all the paperwork online and just drop in and pickup the car from your closest provider. Make sure you read my post on car rental hidden costs so your well prepared before renting a vehicle.

a.       VTA (Valley Transportation Authority) – has both buses and light rail operating within the local county. The buses travel up and down El Camino Real and cost a few bucks pending on the distance you want to travel. There are stops on El Camino Real every few hundred meters so be prepared for frequent stops and longer journey times. The buses and light rail are high tech with display & computerized voice giving you updates what street you are approaching. The buses also lower forward so you can attach your bike to the front – that’s a neat setup. While the light rail always carry a middle carriage for bike storage.

b.      ZipCar – wheels when you want them is a no obligation share a car service. You sign up on their site and whenever you want a car all you pay for is the per hour hire, nothing else and when your done just drop the car off at a predefined location. This service is more popular in big cities like San Francisco and San Jose where street parking is a nightmare hence the market for such a business.

c.      CalTrain – diesel driven locomotives pull cars of people up and down the valley. These trains stops at most major towns along the way and are very noisy (see my post of apartment hunting to get an idea how noisy). However they do move quickly and the “baby bullet” service is a few stops direct line from San Jose to San Francisco. I would be on these at least once a week when heading into San Francisco. A ride from Mountain View to San Francisco on one of these costs around $6 one way.

CalTrain

CalTrain

Finally, don’t catch any taxi’s. They are a rip-off. One trip from the SFO to Mountain View (20 miles / 32 km) once cost me USD100 + tip. That was my first and only time I would be catching a cab in the valley. However do take a taxi cab in New York since it’s super cheap there.

Happy traveling!

Ernest