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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

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. We asked our friends at car hire heathrow airport and according to them, there’s no way out of this. 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. Another rental company you can consider is vinsautogroup. Vin’s specialises in car leasing deals. 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 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

Credit history: Expats guide on building credit history in America

I have an awesome credit history in Australia. With property & stock investments behind my name over a number of good years and credit cards with limits I’d never hit you’d think I have it easy on the credit history front in America. I mean America and Australia already have a tax treaty which stops me from getting taxed twice and includes nice tax breaks for all Aussie ex-pats.

Well that’s where things change. American financial institutions, and uncle Bob, don’t care about your good credit history in Australia. They say you have to start from scratch here and prove to them you are capable of managing your money on the American soil. If you intend to stay in America for only a few years to earn some cash and go back home then getting credit history in America will not be your priority. However if you think there is a slight chance you may stay I recommend you get familiar with how credit works in America… so read on.

How does credit work in America

So let’s look at this:

  • You start with 0 credit score in the USA.
  • Your prior credit history in Australia means nothing, even if you are a good investor.
  • 0 credit score means you can’t get a car loan (sort of, I will explain this later), a credit card (there is a way though which I will explain later), buy anything which requires bank’s leverage (money) like a house, car, shares etc…

In the U.S. credit scores are broken down into 5 categories each contributing to a percentage of your credit score:

35% – Payment History: This is whether you have paid on time or not
30% – Debt To Credit Limit Ratio: This is your total debt compared to your total credit limit
15% – Length Of Credit History: This is how long you have had credit
10% – Types Of Credit Accounts: This is the different types of credit you have
10% – Inquiries (hard): This is when a creditor checks your credit report

Most important factors in your credit score:

  • Whether you pay your bills on time and
  • How much of your available credit you actually use.

Credit score

As I mentioned above you start with 0 credit score. Once you start building credit history your score will increase.

The range:

  • Credit scores range from 300-850, with 723 being the medium FICO score of Americans.
  • Scores below 600 are considered high risk borrowers,
  • 620 being the dividing line between good and bad,
  • 640 or above being “pretty good”,
  • 650 as average general credit-use behavior, and
  • above 690 or 720 being excellent

More on credit score can be located here.

Building a super-duper credit score

  • Since best method is to get a car loan. Even if you don’t need a loan get one at least for 50% of the vehicle’s value. Make sure it’s not lower than $5K. This is what I did with my wife. It was tricky because no financial institute will give you a “car loan” since you have no credit history but you need credit history to get a car loan. A chicken or egg scenario. However there is a way! I found this small hole the hard way and will explain it in my next post on purchasing a car using a loan. Check out Houston in house financing for easy car loan.
  • Get a secured credit card. Note, a “secured” credit card not an unsecured one. No one will give you an unsecured credit card. With a secured credit card you pay the institute (bank) a sum of money ($2K in my case) and they use that as security for your $2K limit credit card. You do get this money back once they approve you for an unsecured credit card but for now budget around $2K out-of-pocket. An unsecured one is your typical bank credit card where you use the banks money. This means you will need to recharge (pay credit card dept) on your money every month. Remember you are “proving” to your bank you can pay off the “dept” in a reasonable amount of time and know how to handle it. You will be able to convert to a regular, unsecured credit card after 12 to 18 months of on-time payments.
  • Do not max out any of your credit cards, or even get close. Keeping your credit use to less than 30% of your credit limits (10% is better) will help you get the best possible credit score – and should help keep you from getting over your head in debt, as well.
  • Pay utilities (power, gas & electricity) and property rental in your name and set up automatic payments or reminder systems so that you’re never, ever late. All it takes is a single missed payment to trash your credit scores – and it can take seven years for the effects to completely disappear.
  • Get a store card like Macy’s Credit Card. Macy’s is one of America’s largest chain of mid-to-high range department stores. Department stores like Macy use finance companies, rather than major banks, to handle the transactions. These cards don’t do as much for your credit scores as a bank card (Visa, MasterCard, Discover, etc.), but they’re usually easier to get. Again, don’t go overboard. One or two of these cards is enough.

Your credit score

Finally, you’re also entitled to a free annual look at your reports from AnnualCreditReport.com or CreditSesame.com. This is known as a “soft inquiry” (thanks Brian P. Hamachek). It is ok to use these systems to frequently check your credit score since they are not recorded on your credit report. Hard inquiries (when buying a house or car) remain on your credit report for 24 months and an impact for only first 12 months. A good rule of thumb is to only apply for credit when you really need it.

CreditSesame is a nice free online tool which also advises you how to improve your credit score and show you what causes it to fluctuate. I use this one regularly.

I believe I covered most of what’s needed (stuff I did and am doing) but if you know of more stuff I can do or have missed here feel free to share it in the comments section below.

Update Sep 10, 2011 – Thanks to Brian P. Hamachek and Philip Tellis for contributing to this post in the comments sections below. Some updates were made to the body of this post. You guys rock!

Here’s to building a fantastic credit history in America.

Ernest

Meet & connect with like minded people in Silicon Valley

This is what I love about Silicon Valley. It has the resources, people and culture to give you the opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals, get involved in engaging conversations and even bounce ideas off each other.

The high-tech industry back in Sydney is nothing compared to what is available in Silicon Valley. There has been a recent shift in greater awareness and acceptance of the value that can be gained by investing in high-tech ecosystems but it’s still a slow process and is a decade behind what Silicon Valley has to offer today. It isn’t happening fast enough and let’s face it, there is no place in the world like Silicon Valley. Bradford Cross discussed historical perspective and challenges of the widespread efforts to reproduce Silicon Valley in cities across the world. In a nutshell it’s too hard to compete with culture and century of history in Silicon Valley. Bradford’s article is worth a read to understand the history and value Silicon Valley has brought to the world and which it will continue into this century.

Where to connect with like-minded people

So you are in Silicon Valley and want to connect with like-minded people. Here is a breakdown list of where you can start. At first attend as many of these as possible until such time when you have tuned to those that add value to your needs.

The no.1 best place to start is meetup.com. Meetup.com (also called Meetup) is an online social networking portal that facilitates offline group meetings in various localities around the world. The site has the tools to allow facilitators and people interested in meeting up to make this connection seamless and pain-free.

Meetup.com believes that people can change their personal world, or the whole world, by organizing themselves into groups that are powerful enough to make a difference. Thus you will see a huge pool of meetups in the bay area (Silicon Valley). Everything from:

  • Stanford Bases: Stanford University’s entrepreneurship group with one of the largest student entrepreneurship groups in the world dedicated to cultivating the next generation of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and beyond.
  • Hacker Dojo: Located around the corner from my place (in Mountain View) is a place for hackers to hang out and code. Also the home of Android weekly developer meetings and monthly presentations from cloud companies.
  • Googleplex: Hosting Silicon Valley Google Technology Users offers members who develop applications using Google technology to connect and present their projects.
SV-GTUG members
  • Jewish High Tech Community: Helps improve the quality of life in the Silicon Valley for Jewish people working in and around technology by educating them about important trends and issues in technology.
  • Yahoo’s LAMP meetup every month to share Yahoo’s experience and provide an environment to learn from each other.
  • Facebook also recently started hosting events.
  • Not to mention a host of others at Facebook Fund, Nokia, Adobe et al. Visit meetup.com and find a group which interests you.
  • Yahoo’s Upcoming has a number of events too – http://upcoming.yahoo.com/
@ iPhone meetup - Jerad Hill from http://dailyappshow.com/

And yes, most of these places provide budding explorers with pizza & drink to keep the bellies full.

@ Twitter meetup - OneRiot http://www.oneriot.com/ presenting

If you see me at one of these meetings please say hi! I love meeting and connecting with like-minded individuals. I like to look at people I don’t know yet as friends I haven’t met yet. Say g’day to this Aussie 🙂

Ernest

Links mentioned in this post:

The Next Silicon Valley
http://measuringmeasures.com/blog/2010/8/9/the-next-silicon-valley.html

Stanford Bases
http://bases.stanford.edu/

Meetup.com
http://meetup.com/

Jewish High Tech Community
http://www.jhtc.org/

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

Things to do in Silicon Valley + San Francisco

Things To Do in Silicon Valley, The Bay Area & in San Francisco.

So you decided to visit Silicon Valley and/or San Francisco and want to know where to go. Here is a hand full of places in Silicon Valley and San Francisco you can visit during your stay. Of course there is plenty more to do and see then what’s listed below, but this should be a good start for you. Don’t forget to read public transport options so you know how to get around Silicon Valley and San Francisco.

Things To Do in Silicon Valley (south bay)

Silicon Valley is suburbia, sprinkled like candy with many high-tech firm and great places to eat. It is nothing what you expect and must be experienced to be enjoyed.

University Avenue & Stanford University, Downtown Palo Alto
You can’t go wrong here. There are plenty of great restaurants to eat at, shops to explore and Stanford University is just round the corner (across El Camino Real).

Stanford University is enormous. There are plenty of free shuttle buses from Palo Alto CalTrain (on University Ave) which can take you directly to and around Stanford University. The University is beautifully located on a large piece of land surrounded by trees, grass lands and mountains. You can freely walk through the grounds and enjoy the Spanish-colonial style building architecture. Drop by the library and the gift shop if you want to get yourself some merchandise.

The road leading out of Stanford University is called University Avenue and heads directly into Palo Alto downtown. Downtown is full of great restaurants and shops.

Some of my favorites places to eat there:

  • Cheese Cake Factory – largest menu of choices you will ever see. And their cheese cake’s are like no other. Simply delicious.
  • La Strada Ristorante Italiano – nice little Italian place with great Seafood Marinara and delicious thin crust Pizzas.
  • Zibibbo – outstanding food & presentation and they know how to match the wine to your meal. They are a part of a larger group called Restaurant LuLu. Their San Francisco LuLu Restaurant is just as superb.

Castro Street, Downtown Mountain View
This is my home town and also another great place for dining and mixing with the locals.

Downtown Mountain View, Castro Street – one of the things to do in Silicon Valley
  • Red Rock Cafe – if you want to feel experience a hackers atmosphere then this is the place to be any evening during the week. Grab an Avalanche (a better version of Starbucks Frappuccino), connect to the free wi-fi on your laptop and absorb the energy in the room. You will no doubt also find me there. Check out my post on Red Rock here.
  • East West Bookstore – known as a spiritual bookstore, it is the source for expansive ideas, a retreat from ordinary life, and a gathering place in support of community ideals and spiritual growth. It was founded by a monk by the name of Swami Kriyananda who is the author of over 100 books and the composer of over 400 pieces of music. If you are into spiritualism then you will find this place valuable + it’s across the road from Red Rock.

Some of my favorites places to eat at Castro Street:

  • Gelato Classico Italian Ice Cream – you won’t look at another ice cream again after having some of these. Try the Tiramisu Gelato, there is something super tasty about it.
  • Tomi Sushi – this place is a must for dinner. The sushi here melts in your mouth, it’s reasonably priced ($16 dinner combination) and the atmosphere & setup is authentic Japanese. including the chefs.

Santana Row
Santana Row is an upscale shopping, housing, dining and entertainment complex in San Jose, California. Westfield Valley Fair is located just to its north, on the other side of Stevens Creek Boulevard, and the Winchester Mystery House just to the west, across Winchester Boulevard.

High-tech companies to drop by for a picture

  • Googleplex – a must! Located at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway Mountain View. You will see plenty of Google bikes around which the Googlers use to move around between the campuses. Something is always buzzing around here. From the T-rex in the courtyard, outside swimming pool to the university style feel atmosphere.
  • If you venture a tad down the road you will come across the Android complex with the large statue of the Android robot next to a cupcake and around the corner Mozilla & LinkedIn Corporations. If you run into some sheep don’t worry, they are working for Google eating cutting down the grass.
  • HP (Hewlett-Packard) & Symantec – because they are right next to each other on Ellis St in Mountain View and the HP founders are famous for having kick started what is known today as the Silicon Valley.
  • While you’re in Mountain View, check out the other tech companies located in Mountain View. There are plenty here!
  • Facebook is located on 1601 S California Ave, Palo Alto. Although there is not much to see from the outside. See my post on Facebook’s Open Graph Protocol (OGP) where I have included a picture of the building. Again not much to see but if you have it on your to-do list then why not.
Me at Googleplex for lunch – a must on the things to do in Silicon Valley

For more high-tech companies in Silicon Valley mapped out on a nice map of the bay area, check out my blog post located here.

Attend a Meetup
If you have the time try to go to one of the popular meetup groups. There is always a buzz in the air, plenty of energy and interesting people to connect with + score a free pizza & coke. Read my prior blog post on which meetups to attend.

Recapping the popular meetups:

  • Hacker Dojo: Located around the corner from my place (in Mountain View) is a place for hackers to hang out and code. Also the home of Android weekly developer meetings and monthly presentations from cloud companies et al.
  • Googleplex: Hosting Silicon Valley Google Technology Users offers members who develop applications using Google technology to connect and present their projects.
  • Yahoo’s LAMP meetup hosted every month to share Yahoo’s engineering efforts and provide an environment to learn.
  • Stanford Bases: Stanford University’s entrepreneurship group is one of the largest student entrepreneurship groups in the world dedicated to cultivating the next generation of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and beyond.
  • The Silicon Valley NewTech Meetup Group [SVNewTech] – always fills up in minutes once the reservations open with over 200 people attending each month.
  • The Silicon Valley iOS Developers’ Meetup – another one which fills up with over 100 people attending each month.
Things to do in Silicon Valley on a Google Map

Things To Do in San Francisco (the city)

San Fransisco is a city of micro climates. You can notice the difference as you drive up 101 or 280 and the weather changes from a beautiful sunny day to overcast & cloudy. So check the weather online before setting off on you trip from the valley into the city.

Lombart Street & Zig Zag Street
Lombart Street is famous for having steep hills. The Russian Hill part of Lombart Street intersecting with Van Ness Ave is the start of the most steepest hill in San Francisco. It must be driven up to be experienced. As you drive look back for a second to get a glimpse of the street’s sharp inclination.

Once you reach the top, you will be greeted by the most famous “Crookedest Street in the World.” with a 40-degree slope and tight hairpin turns. It is lined with houses and beautifully manicured gardens. It’s worth walking and driving down it.

San Francisco – Lombart Street at night

Fisherman’s Wharf
It is the northern waterfront area of San Francisco and a famous tourist location. It is best known for being the location of Pier 39 & it’s blubbery sea lions, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, the Cannery Shopping Center, Ghirardelli Square, a Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum, the Musée Mécanique, the Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf, Forbes Island and restaurants and stands that serve fresh seafood, most notably Dungeness crab and clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl. It is also the place where you can organize a trip to Alcatraz (ref The Rock movie with Sean Connery) – which is clearly seen from Pier 39.

Cobb’s Comedy Club
My favourite comedy club! Headliners who performed at Cobb’s Comedy Club are regular guests on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Show with David Letterman. Many have their own comedy specials on Comedy Central and HBO and can be seen starring in movies and on television.
More here: http://www.cobbscomedyclub.com/

Samovar Tea Lounge
Fanastic place to start your day with a nice selection of teas. There are 3 unique locations: Samovar Yerba Buena Gardens, Samovar Mission-Castro, and Samovar Hayes. Yerba Buena Gardens is my favorite for it’s atmosphere and unique location.
Website: http://samovarlife.com/

Dinner

  • LuLu Restaurant – great service, reasonably priced food and always fresh and tasty.
  • One Market Restaurant – awarded a Michelin Star for its excellence. If you have extra cash laying around this place is worth a visit.
  • Burger Bar – never disappoints, if all you want is a burger. Try the Kobe Beef Burger – it comes from Wagyu cow and the Kobe beef is rich, tender and juicy and cannot be matched by any other beef.

Nightlife

  • Vessel – located in the heart of San Francisco’s Union Square district, Vessel represents a luxurious lounge of signature San Francisco style and elegance.
  • RubySkye – another club located in the heart of San Francisco’s Union Square district in the famed theatre district, Ruby Skye is San Francisco’s premiere Nightclub and Special Event Venue.
San Francisco – Golden Gate Bridge. North of SIlicon Valley.

More Things to do in Silicon Valley?

This should keep you busy during your visit. There are also great posts by the Y Combinator team on things to do while you’re in Silicon Valley here:

Startup School – Things to do (other than Startup School)
http://wiki.startupschool.org/doku.php?id=having_fun_in_the_bay_area

Paul Graham – Where to See Silicon Valley
http://www.paulgraham.com/seesv.html

Steve Blanks – A Visitors Guide to Silicon Valley
http://steveblank.com/2011/02/22/a-visitors-guide-to-silicon-valley/

If you know / have heard of other cool places please share it with the rest of the readers here by placing it into the comments section below.

Happy exploring!

Other related posts of value:

Public Transport in Silicon Valley

http://www.theroadtosiliconvalley.com/transport/public-transport-commuting/

Major roads in Silicon Valley
http://www.theroadtosiliconvalley.com/transport/major-roads-silicon-valley/

Red Rock – hackers hangout
http://www.theroadtosiliconvalley.com/local-stuff/red-rock-hackers/

Ernest

Rent: Apartment Hunting in Silicon Valley

Looking for an apartment in the valley proved to be the most fun and nerve wrecking experience (at the same time) for me thus far. It is also the time when I learnt about the major roads in the valley, purchased my 1st ever iPhone app and the ropes of renting in America. In those initial 2 months I ended up living in 4 places. 4th being the one I finally settled in for good. Here is how it all went down.

1st – Friend’s place (2 weeks)

When I arrived in the valley a friend (who at the time only knew me by name and my voice on the phone) was kind enough to offer me a place in his large house while I hunted for an apartment. This friend is also the hiring manager for the company I work at now hence how I met him during the USA planning phase of my trip back in Australia.

My wife arrived in the valley with me for 3 days in March 2009. She needed to be here to sort out legal paperwork and kick start her process of getting a labor card sorted. So we took this opportunity to hunt together for a place for me to live long-term.

We had no idea where to go or what to do. We hired a car with a GPS and set out to explore the valley. There was alot to see – everything from scrappy paper walled looking apartments to nice fresh cement apartments. Prices varied between USD 1,200 to 1,900. At that time this translated to AUD 1680 to 2660 – a lot of money to live in the burbs (40 mins away from San Francisco).

We finally found something reasonable with 2 months free rent and a 30 day change-your-mind option.

2nd – Renting at Avalon – Mountain View (45 days)

Renting at Avalon – Mountain View (45 days)

The place was 10 minutes walk from downtown Mountain View area, a place called Avalon Community. We visited this place on a Saturday. This place looked beautiful, it was quiet and my apartment was on the 2nd floor out of the 3 stories in the back away from the main street facing the back gardens. This should be good, or so I thought.

I had nothing when I moved in here. Just a sleeping bag, my suitcase full of clothes, some books and my laptop. To get to work I needed to walk for 15 minutes to VTA local train and then train it from Mountain View downtown to Middlefield Station – a 5 minute ride and $2 each way.

Upon moving in I learnt the most about these communities and houses in California:

  • Houses & apartments are made out of wood, paper and more wood. So the walls and floors are thin and noise travels easily through them. This is to make the dwelling “quake proof”. California being on the San Andreas Fault is prone to regular earthquakes inc. one that leveled San Francisco in 1906. During an earth quake the dwelling is made to move side to side and all is good for the occupants inside. If it was made of brick (like most houses in Australia) then the walls and floors would crack (and collapse) and all wouldn’t be good for the occupants inside. So without sound proofing I could hear my neighbors above me. It sounded like they were moving furniture till midnight and as if they had hoofs for feet. That taught me a lesson, no more renting in lower floors ever again, ever.
  • My unit faced that lovely backyard garden with lovely trees and a large wall. That should have been enough sign to question it. Behind those walls was the Caltrain line. So a diesel locomotive passes by every 30 minutes. Sometimes it was such a violent pass that the floor in my apartment would shake.
  • I also took the opportunity to buy my 1st ever iPhone app called WideNoise to find out what the noise levels were when the train passed by. At 11pm I registered 80db in my bedroom with my bedroom window open – that’s the sound of a vacuum cleaner next to your head for around 30 seconds. Caltrain kept going till 1am and started again at 6am. Next lesson, make sure no major transport lines are present. If in doubt spend an afternoon there – at least 2 hours.. measuring noise levels with WideNoise.
    WideNoise

    or check out other 99 cent iPhone Apps here which can help you.

  • Most rental contracts are 1 year. Lucky for me there was a 30 day cooling period on this move in. This is still the only community I know which has this cool off period. This proved to be a life saver. However to move out I still had to give them a 30 day notice.
  • I visited this community on a Saturday. On the weekend Caltrain’s run every 1 hour and my inspection time slipped within the quiet window when no trains were running. The person showing us the property did not mention any Caltrain when I asked about noise levels. All he said was there is a highway in the distance and you hardly ever heard it. Wasn’t that a joke.

After exercising my cooling off period I had to wait 30 days before I could move out. So I spent around 45 days here in total. I don’t know how I survived with all that noise.

3rd – Renting Oakwood Corporate Apartments (30 days)

After moving out of Avalon Community I decided to move into Oakwood Corporate Apartments for 30 days while I exercised my new-found knowledge into finding the “right apartment” to live in with my wife.

Oakwood was great. It was all made out of concrete so it was super quiet and hidden away from all major roads. I finally found peace and could sleep well at night… with my window open! The apartment was fully furnished so it felt more homey and livable. It was also a 20 minute walk to work so this proved to be a big bonus since I didn’t need to catch public transport.

I had peace, I had a good location, I felt relaxed and now I had 30 days to find the right apartment to live in with my wife once she arrives in the USA. I used Google to narrow down to the following apartment finder sites:

Craigslist proved to be the true winner here. It had the most comprehensive list of apartments with pictures. Apartment Ratings being a people driven apartment rating website also helped me identify what people thought of the apartments I narrowed down to.

I searched Craigslist and used every day as an opportunity to inspect local communities to gain a perspective where I want to live. I found a few and even hanged out there for an hour or two with my trusty WideNoise iPhone decibel reader during different times of the day measuring noise levels.

The end of my stay came quick and in the last week I managed to secure an apartment.

4th – Renting at Central Park @ Whisman Station (now)

Renting at Central Park @ Whisman Station (now)

Central Park at Whisman Station was the winner. I moved into the top floor unit which was just renovated. This place rocked. It recorded 30db at night in my bedroom with the window open. 30db is crystal quiet. Like no sound at all. The complex is also made up of wood like the previous communities but is super quiet because it’s away from all the major roads, surrounded by plenty of trees and I am now on the top floor deep inside the massive complex. Best of all:

Other great things on site include:

  • Super friendly & resourceful staff,
  • Fitness center,
  • Two resort-style pools (and spa),
  • Covered parking (+ plenty of parking outside your unit),
  • Walk-in closets – the wife loves that one and
  • A very clean neighborhood!

What more could I have asked for. Click here if you want more information about this beautiful place.

The rent journey

I found out that persistence pays off and that the journey is most important here because without it I would not have been in a position to share with you what I have learnt. Of course it wasn’t easy and stressful not knowing where I will live the next month or whether I will find the right place for me and my wife to live in but in the end things worked out well.

AirBnB – find a place to stay

If you need a short-term stay there is nothing like the service AirBnB provides. My wife and I have used their service a number of times in New York & Los Angeles and loved the experience. Their online service is “wife proof” meaning that it’s so friendly and easy to use that I didn’t have to get involved when my wife used their service. Check them out by clicking here to visit Air Bed and Breakfast (AirBnB).

priceonomics on rent in 2013 – with graphs!

~ Ernest

High-tech companies in Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is in the southern part of the San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California, United States. The region is home to many of the world’s largest technology companies including Apple, Google, Facebook, HP, Intel, Cisco, eBay, Adobe, Agilent, Oracle, Yahoo, Netflix, and EA.

The term originally referred to the region’s large number of silicon chip innovators and manufacturers, but eventually came to refer to all the high-tech businesses in the area; it is now generally used as a metonym for the American high-tech sector. Despite the development of other high-tech economic centers throughout the United States and the world, Silicon Valley continues to be the leading hub for high-tech innovation and development, accounting for 1/3 of all of the venture capital investment in the United States. Source: Wikipedia

I once came across this awesome map at SFO of Silicon Valley tech-companies distributed across the valley. And here she is:

High-tech companies in Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley companies - click image to enlarge

The full list of companies can be found here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Companies_based_in_Mountain_View,_California

~ Ernest

Red Rock Coffee – a place for hackers & coffee

Having visited many cafe’s in Mountain View and surrounding suburbs, Red Rock is by far the best cafe / hang out / study / hacking joint around. The atmosphere here is superb! chilled, relaxed, and filled with plenty of smart people either studying, meeting up or hacking code.

It’s a 2 store cafe. 1st floor is the cafe and sometimes where live music is played. 2nd floor is where people chill, the hang out area. Where it’s all happening. Most days it is filled with plenty of guys and gals on their laptops connected to the world-wide web while soft chilled music plays. The room has plenty of windows so natural light can flow in and naturally bath the room with light. Being in the heart of down town Mountain View, you can always jump out for a bite to eat and come back to this relaxed atmosphere. It’s an ideal place to be when you need to detach yourself from your local dwelling (home) and chilling out in a different environment where energy levels super high.

Internet? yes it’s free.

So not only is coffee, tea and The Avalance (my favorite drink) here great but they also give you free internet & plenty of free power points to plug your laptop in and start changing the world. With WiFi, you have a choice of connecting to either Google’s WiFi or Red Rock’s AeONsafe Free, Secured WiFi.

Red Rock from Castro Street - level 2 is where the action is, level 1 is the cafe with live music
2nd floor of Red Rock where hackers hang out & local meetup.com groups meet

Location of Red Rock

201 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA 94041
(650) 967-4473

Links

Red Rock website:
http://www.redrockcoffee.org/

Red Rock on Yelp:
http://www.yelp.com/biz/red-rock-coffee-co-mountain-view

If you see me at Red Rock please drop by and say hi! I love meeting and connecting with like-minded individuals. I like to look at people I don’t know yet as friends I haven’t met yet. Say g’day to this Aussie 🙂

Ernest

Mountain View, the heart of Silicon Valley

After spending a good deal moving around between apartments, I decided to call Mountain View my home. Mountain View is a city in Santa Clara County, in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is named for its views of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The city shares its borders with the cities of Palo Alto, Los Altos, and Sunnyvale, as well as Moffett Federal Airfield and the San Francisco Bay. As of the 2000 census, the city had a total population of 70,708. For more information about Mountain View visit this Wikipedia article.

Downtown Mountain View, Castro Street - love the mountains

Downtown Mountain View is the place to be for food and hanging out at Red Rock. Great cafes, bars and restaurants are located on Castro Street. The picture above is of Castro Street. It’s always busy here even late into the night and you are surely going to spot a number of sport and luxury cars like Audi R8, Porsche 911 GT4 et al.

Downtown Mountain View, Castro Street
Microsoft bus shuttle service thru Mountain View

Mountain View is a cute little town home to many high technology companies.

Tech companies located in Mountain View

Here is a list of high tech companies you would have heard or know of that have their head office located in my new home town, Mountain View.

Coupons.com
The leader in digital coupons, including online printable, social, mobile and loyalty card promotions. The billion dollar company, Coupons, Inc. is the driving force in transforming the multi-billion dollar coupon industry and ushering it into the digital world. http://www.coupons.com/

GooglePlex
Headquarters of the multinational public cloud computing, Internet search, and advertising technologies corporation. The company was founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, often dubbed the “Google Guys”, while the two were attending Stanford University as Ph.D. candidates.
http://www.google.com/

Y-Combinator
Y Combinator is an American seed-stage startup funding firm, started in 2005 by Paul Graham, Robert Morris, Trevor Blackwell, and Jessica Livingston. Y Combinator provides seed money, advice, and connections at two 3-month programs per year. In exchange, they take an average of about 6% of the company’s equity.
http://www.ycombinator.com/
Also the group behind extremely popular hacker news site:
http://news.ycombinator.com/

Symantec Corporation
The largest maker of personal computer security software. Symantec’s consumer antivirus and data management utilities are marketed under Peter “Norton’s” name.
http://www.symantec.com/

eLance
Provides an Internet virtual marketplace for freelancers and freelance agencies to negotiate work contracts with businesses that hire independent professionals and agencies.
http://www.elance.com/

LinkedIn
Is a business-oriented social networking site mainly used for professional networking.
Very common amongst business and technology professionals.
http://www.linkedin.com/
I’m on LinkedIn – let’s connect: http://www.linkedin.com/in/semerda

Mozilla Corporation
Developer of Internet-related applications such as the famous Mozilla Firefox.
http://www.mozilla.com/

Mint.com
Mint.com is a free web-based personal financial management service allowing users to track bank, credit card, investment, and loan transactions and balances through a single user interface.
Personally this is the BEST financial product I have ever used online!
http://www.mint.com/

23andMe
Privately held personal genomics and biotechnology company founded by Anne Wojcicki and married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
http://www.23andme.com/

Google WiFi for Mountain View is provided free of charge to all Google customers in Mountain View as part of Google’s efforts to reach out to their hometown. It’s not the quickest but it works well with Google Voice and when surfing the web at one of the cafe’s in the area. Look out for a WiFi connection called “GoogleWiFi”. Kudos to Google!

Me (Ernest) at Googleplex

The full list of companies can be found here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Companies_based_in_Mountain_View,_California

Who would have thought that one day I’d be passing every morning VeriSign, Symantec, HP and eLance on my way to work. And around the corner from where all these companies are is the Lockheed-Martin air base so I get to see some cool planes fly around. Still waiting for that UFO experience!

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

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