Tips on travelling in the USA

The following list is by no means complete or exhaustive of everything one needs to know to travel in the USA. This is a list of stuff I learnt in the last 1 year of travelling around USA. These I share with you now and will regularly update as I learn more and any corrections along the way.

Tips

  • Use a “SuperShuttle” to and from the airport. http://www.supershuttle.com/it’s a shared taxi van of around 9 people. It’s dirt cheap vs. crazy taxi fares and you get to see more of the area as they drop off people around town.
  • If you live in the valley and have your own car and are taking a short trip of around a week it is cheaper esp. with a coupon & more convenient to leave your car at any of the available airport parking companies. Some which are further away from the airport have shuttle buses that take you to the airport and back for free so don’t worry if it’s 5 minutes outside the airport.
  • If you are arriving to the USA don’t bother bringing your wardrobe. Clothes here are cheap. Dirt cheap. Brands and all. Especially during public holidays like Thanks Giving or Christmas time by average 50% off.
  • If you need to rent a car do it through Enterprise. I find them the most reliable and mostly the cheapest. Sign up on their website to receive regular coupons to bring that price down and don’t forget to read my post on car rental hidden costs to save even further.
  • For accommodation I highly recommend AirBnB. Airbnb is an online service that matches people seeking vacation rentals and other short-term accommodations globally with locals with rooms to rent. It’s fun, cheaper than hotels, you can be very selective on location (not restricted by hotels location), meet interesting people and live like a local. It works really well in big cities like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc. We only use AirBnB now when travelling. Why spend big $$$ on a hotel when all you need is a place to sleep and store your luggage. Use the money you save to buy some fashion!
  • Americans drive fast on freeways that stretch up to 5 lanes each way. Get ready. Either hire a GPS or bring your own so you’re not slowing traffic down. As long as you’re not doing anything dangerous on the road you will be fine to keep up with the communal speed limit. I’ve seen police sway across all lanes to slow traffic down when it gets too fast.
  • The only dangerous creatures are Bears (especially Grizzly) & Mountain Lions. You wont see poisonous spiders, snakes or crazy insects.
  • For more tips visit each of the places mentioned below. The posts include their own unique tips.

Some of the great places we have visited

  • New York City (Manhattan) – The city that never sleeps. My favorite! One of the most densely populated areas in the world. Known for its financial and fashion center of both the United States and the world.
  • Los Angeles – West Hollywood. Home of the movie industry.
  • San Francisco – Home of the high-tech scene and area known as Silicon Valley.
  • Hawaii – Made up entirely of islands like Big Island, Maui etc. Natural scenery, warm tropical climate, abundance of public beaches and oceanic surrounding, and active volcanoes make it a popular destination for tourists.
  • Monterey – 1-hr drive south of the valley. A beautiful coastal city.
  • Carmel-by-the-sea – a hidden gem round the corner from Monterey. The beachy town is known for its natural scenery and rich artistic history.
  • Yosemite National Park – Designated a World Heritage Site recognized for its spectacular granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, Giant Sequoia groves, and biological diversity. Almost 95% of the park is designated wilderness.
  • Yellowstone National Park – a national park located primarily in the U.S. state of Wyoming known for its wildlife and its many geothermal features.
  • Las Vegas – The Strip. Internationally renowned major resort city for gambling, shopping, partying (clubs) and fine dining.

I will be posting individual posts to each of those locations with photos so come back soon.

~ Ernest

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

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
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
Downtown Mountain View, Castro Street
Microsoft bus shuttle service
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
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

Travelling to New York (NYC – Manhattan)

New York also known as the Big Apple is a state in the Northeastern region of the United States. It is the nation’s third most populous state. It is known for its status as a financial, cultural, transportation, and manufacturing center, and for its history as a gateway for immigration to the United States.

In the last 2 years I have been to New York twice. Every visit leaves me feeling like it wasn’t enough and I want more. There is more to see and experience on each visit. New York is my favorite place on this planet. The best! Yes it’s busy & fast but it’s Alive! Full of energy and plenty opportunities for experiences. It is an ecosystem of it’s own which I recommend everyone should experience. For some it will be too much but for others that let go it will be a playground.

Some quick notes about travelling in the USA

  • Use a “SuperShuttle” to and from the airport. http://www.supershuttle.com/ it’s a shared taxi van of around 9 people. It’s dirt cheap vs. crazy taxi fares and you get to see more of the area as they drop off people around town.
  • Come to USA without much clothes since clothes / fashion here is cheap and the range vast.
  • If you need to rent a car do it through Enterprise. They are the cheapest. http://www.enterprise.com/
  • For accommodation I highly recommend AirBnB (Air, Bed & Breakfast). http://www.airbnb.com/ You basically rent a room with people who live in the area. So much cheaper than a hotel and you get to experience the real culture of the city. Best of all is you can live in the heart of the city / anywhere you like without being restricted by Hotel locations.

Now… onto New York, Manhattan!

The city that never sleeps.

Downtown
Downtown

Here are a bunch of places I’ve been to and recommend you also drop by and experience for yourself:

To be, do & see

  • Check out Seinfeld Café (if you’re a fan of Seinfeld) – it’s at the corner of West 112th Street and Broadway, near Columbia University. Food is nothing special but the photos of the Seinfeld crew plastered all over the walls and the feel make it worthwhile.
  • Visit Central Park – it’s huge and beautiful. The photo below was taken during winter. An ice rink is setup by Trump Group for everyone to enjoy the cold season. During summer the whole park lights up in green flora.
  • Shop shop shop @ SOHO District in Manhattan. You do not need to go anywhere else. This is the place to be ~ http://www.sohonyc.com/
  • Nightlife is at the “Meat Packing” district in Manhattan – weird name for a place but it’s where all the top clubs are. Make sure you go to:
  • Visit “Pier A” for a boat trip to Liberty Island to see the Statue of Liberty. Get there early since it’s always packed.
  • Coming back from Pier A visit Wall Street NYC Stock Exchange. It’s only a few blocks away on foot.
  • See a Broadway show. Anything will do! It’s something everyone has to experience.
  • Empire State Building queues are crazy so you can get the same experience from the Rockefeller Building if not a better view since you get to see the whole of Central Park and the Empire State. You really get a feel for how high you are when all the sky-rises look like tiny lego blocks from Rockefeller ~ http://www.rockefellercenter.com/

Food

  • Finally, best for last, dine at Daniel. Be prepared to pay BIG $$$ for an unforgettable dining experience that excites the senses, an elegant and vibrant ambiance, gracious service and a delectable menu. Chef Daniel Bouluds award winning contemporary French cuisine is inspired by the rhythm of the seasons. This restaurant has 3 x Michelin stars. Only 5 restaurants in NYC have this high level of achievement. Located at 60 East 65th Street, New York, NY, 10065 ~ http://www.danielnyc.com/daniel.html

If you have any questions regarding New York please contact me. I’m always happy to help and share my experience. Also feel free to contribute to this post by commenting below.

Happy trekking!

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 website (also abbreviated / known as AirBnB).

~ Ernest

Airbnb