England was nice


England was nice; don't get ripped off

[Rick] [Moved to TAG, on a Why the Heck Not principle.]

[Heather] Flying... ah well, it's a bus with wings.

[Rick] It's mostly harmless.

[Heather] All in all - England was great!


by Flanders & Swann


Welcome March with wintry wind
Would thou wert not so unkind!

[Heather] It doesn't rhyme, even by their odd standards. Deliberate?

[Rick] In the song, "wind" was pronounced in the archaic fashion, the way the verb "to wind" is. (I'm surprised you don't know the performance, but I do have it on LP somewhere.)

August, cold and dank and wet,
Brings more rain than any yet.

Bleak September's mist and mud
Is enough to chill the blood.

[Heather] I wasn't there in August :)

[Rick] But those two (that and September) were the verses most a propos of my remark about typical British late-summer weather.

[Heather] Luckily (?) I seem to have packed California weather in my carryon. It was expectable weather to the Silicon Valley the whole time I was there, to wit, it couldn't decide if it was somewhat cloudy or somewhat muggy, was slightly warm but not meltdown, and drizzled at odd moments. My brit friends commented at how unseasonably warm the weather was, and some considered it too much so.

[Heather] The countryside is delightful.

[Rick] Indeed. My favourite ways of getting around Wales and southern England in the summer, between bouts of rain, are either by bicycle or by kayak. If I could figure out a way to put a kayak in my bicycle panniers and/or a bicycle in the kayak bilge, I'd be a happy man.

[Sluggo] My friend went on a walking tour along the Wales coast and had a wonderful time. I'm too much of a city boy for that. I can take the outdoors for half an hour but then if there aren't people around, I get bored.

[Rick] I suspect one of the reasons I enjoyed visiting Canterbury (though, no Anglican am I) so much was, in fact, the Kentish countryside. Not to mention that it was settled by Jutes, who are thus kin from afar. (/me waves at our Danish contingent.)

Hail the Men of Kent -- and even the Kentish Men.

Walking, kayaking, and bicycling appeal in part for the exercise, and in part because I'm cheap -- about which, more below.

[Heather] I saw the britrail pass stuff online [...]

I know Rick mentioned an internetting trick for getting a best possible exchange rate but I figured it'd be pretty hard to get stiffed quite as badly as that. [...]

Seems that you're supposed to get these rail passes decently ahead as well as out of country, and get them mailed to you and stuff, [...]

[Rick] Naturally, one way to go everywhere and see everything is to not bother doing meaningful preparation in advance, but then compensate by spending family money with wild abandon -- which of course is not an option for those of us painfully recovering from the tech depression of recent years. Or you can substitute careful advance planning, research, and caution for a large fraction of that money on a sliding scale.

[Heather] Was somewhat careful. Wasn't careful enough to find out just which trains were which, and I admit there was some ++ given to the britrail side just because Jim and I both hate having to jot our itinerary down to the half hour down just to scrape a few more dollars.

MY real result was that I really was not as touristy as some of my better-heeled friends would have encouraged me to - but I enjoyed England, not just its occasional tourist traps ahem bits of historical wonder.

An unlisted bit of historical wonder we did encounter, was a church on the Isle of Wight which had some rather interesting gravemarks, and a memorial to those who fought so that the Isle was only half blasted rather than completely so during one of the wars. A plaque in that same area described the original charter for the land of Maryland, passing on the rights of British countrymen in perpetuity. Hmmmm...

[Rick] So, though it's late to say so, and I'm not sure whom this will benefit: If I had two weeks in southern England, and hadn't been there before, I'd allocate a week to just London, just to make sure I had time for several of the must-sees: Tower of London (including evening tickets to watch the Ceremony of the Keys), Westminster Abbey, Parliament, St. Paul's, British Museum, Greenwich & Kew (in the suburbs). "A man who is tired of London is tired of life" -- Samuel Johnson.

[Heather] It's a city. Some things in it are nice. Much of the rest of it is.. a city.

[Rick] Yes, but the parts worth travelling 1/3 of the way around the world for are numerous and tightly grouped.

[Heather] I'm sure if I'd gotten that extra chance to get together with Andy and tour bits by day I'd have seen more touristy fare. A couple of museums and maybe the Tower were on our plot list, we just didn't end up connecting.

[Rick] Then, I'd have day trips to as many as I could arrange of Hampton Court, Windsor, Blenheim Palace / Oxford, Bath, Cambridge, Canterbury, including arranged rendezvous with British friends.

[Sluggo] If you want to see the tourist sites, plan a week for London. But if you care more about the people and atmosphere, do what my Scottish-American friend suggested: spend your token two days in London, then go to the smallest town in Scotland you can find and go to the local pub. People will talk with you all day and give you free beers because they don't get foreigners that often. I never did it because I prefer cities, but in my last trip I spent most of my time outside London.

[Rick] A lifetime of travelling has taught me that there's always some sharp operator trying to insert himself, preferably without you realising it, into your affairs to sell you a "convenience" that you bumble into by taking the path of least resistance. The trick is to educate yourself well enough -=in advance of travel=-, and be wary enough, to spot and avoid those traps.

[Heather] True, and I figured britrail for one of them, if I couldn't usefully tell which lines were trains nor buses before I got there.

[Rick] If you don't do preparation in advance of travel, and aren't wary, then you are likely to suffer some combination of doing very little and getting cheated when you do go about and try to visit places. Preparation? There's some of this you can do on the Web, and some of it is exactly what books like Fodor's "London 2006" are for.

And, you know, there are the classics, like Washington Irving's evocative account of his own visit to Westminster Abbey.

An example of getting cheated by following the path of least resistance is those ubiquitous "Travelex" currency-exchange bureaus that pervade airport retail arcades, everywhere. In the last couple of years, I've done enough travel, and seen enough airports, to notice that they were prominently placed, numerous, convenient. You're given every opportunity to rely on them as a last-minute measure in absence of preparation, finding out what rates they offer at the last possible minute, when it's going to be a significant bother to scout out any alternatives.

That situation should trigger a warning bell labelled "probable ripoff". It did with me. In advance of travel, I jotted down their current rates for US$ to UK£, went home, searched on the Web for comparisons, and found Travelex (a Thomas Cook operation) to be atrociously expensive.

Which begged the question of alternatives. Wait, I thought: Doesn't American Express have exchange bureaus? In airports, even, although you don't trip over them the way you do Travelex outlets? I happen to be an AmEx cardholder, and heard good things about their credit card division's treatment of credit card charges abroad, but this was a separate issue. So, back to the Web I went, and within 20 minutes had most of the views that I sent you before your trip (recycled from notes Deirdre and I used for our Glasgow trip):

American Express Foreign Exchange Bureau can sell us UK£ commission-free if we cite American Express FX4YOU. FX4YOU is the name of AmExs Web-based advance-ordering service, http://www.americanexpress.co.uk/airports . There's a six-hour lead for ordering other currencies, but not UK£. Call 0870 000 1 000 (UK) or +44 (0)121 410 5105 (from outside the UK).

Important note: It turns out that the key datum is your FX4YOU order number. Show up at the AmEx Foreign Exchange Bureau counter with one of those, and AmEx can waive the commission that it otherwise would have to collect to pay off the airport commission, on grounds that you initiated the transaction elsewhere. (It's worth remembering that one of the reasons why most things inside an airport are too expensive is institutionalised graft payable to the airport commission for every sale.)

Also, carefully retain the AmEx receipt, to present during one's return visit and enjoy commission-free exchange back from UK£.

Jim told me that you guys ended up not doing any of that, in part because Jim couldn't find the FX4YOU Web facility at the time he needed it. Well, I'm sorry, because that probably cost you a bunch of money, but I did try to help, and ensured that you had, in advance, the full benefit of my own research.

[Heather] I do note that Rick was kindly enough to pass all the AmEx info on my wiki page about the trip, so we did have it to hand. We just couldn't find anything to tell us where their darn kiosks would be.

[Rick] On Deirdre's private wiki-like "Glasgow Trip" page on backpackit.com, I entered the exact terminal locations within Heathrow and Glasgow International, information that is findable on-line. It's possible/likely they don't have an office in Gatwick: I didn't research that, because neither Deirdre nor I went through there.

So, personally, if I'd been in that situation, I'd have looked up AmEx Bureau de Change locations in London (http://www134.americanexpress.com/travel/CTNWTServlet?request_type=tsodetail&region=Europe%20/%20Middle%20East%20/%20Africa&subRegion=UK&city=London&action=4)

...and then I'd make sure I had just enough UK pocket change to see me through until I could get to one of those.

[Rick] A different but related, concealed, "convenience" ripoff has recently been introduced in essentially all European countries: You order and eat a nice meal in London. You ask to put it on your VISA or Mastercard. The nice waiter comes back with the chargeslip, and you're about to reflexively sign it, when you notice something a trifle odd:

Wait, the bill wasn't in US$, was it?

[Heather] Ours wasn't. Our colleague raised an eyebrow and I immediately said "Don't worry, our bank converts" without a second glance which quite firmly cut off any attempt to put such schemes in motion. Also, I'd checked, and been assured in advance, they do. I'd perhaps have been wise to use plastic for everything instead, but for some reason was chicken about it.

[Rick] Er, huh? Perhaps I was unclear. The problem situation is when the bill for your restaurant table is (correctly) in UK£, but your charge slip when you get it the first time is (incorrectly) in US$: That should ring your "Someone is probably trying to rip me off" warning bells.

Which is my key point: How to know when you should slow down and think, because someone is unexpectedly making your transaction more "convenient" for you.

[Rick] But this charge slip is. Hmm, how convenient. I guess... VISA?... must be doing currency exchange on the fly. How benevolent of them. Gosh, I wonder what rate they're using? I was never good at doing maths in my head. Well, bother, it must be OK, or why would VISA be doing it? You're in a hurry, you don't think much of it, and you sign. Maybe if you're ultra-paranoid, you still have the restaurant bill and charge slip when you get back to the hotel, and so pull out your calculator to figure the rate -- too late. You've been ripped off, and it's no longer possible to even figure out by whom.

[Sluggo] I've never seen this, although my last trip to Europe was 2002.

[Rick] It's new. What offends me about it is the sneaky nature of the rip-off: This "convenience" service at an immense, uncompetitive extra charge is never even mentioned to the customer; he/she is simply handed a charge slip and directed to sign.

[Sluggo] And he may not bother to do a precise currency conversion in his head. I just do X * 1.5 in Britian (now almost 2.0?) Plus if he hasn't been abroad much he may not realize it's a convenience charge; he may just assume that's how credit cards work.

[Rick] And it takes a bit of backbone to say "Excuse me, but this is irregular and in error. {VISA|Mastercard} regulations require that I be allowed to pay this in local currency, and I insist. If you have any questions about the regulations you agreed to with {VISA|Mastercard}, why don't you telephone them and confirm what I'm saying?"

I've just looked up the name of this scam, that was perpetrated on unwary foreign visitors with the connivance of European merchants: "dynamic currency conversion". The initial middleman pushing the scheme is a firm named "Payment Planet" -- but there are now a number of others. They sell it to merchants on the basis that the merchant gets a cut, and the customer gets "convenience" and "elimination of foreign currency risk".

Along with that, it also turns out to matter a great deal which bank issued your credit card. For background, if you're a USA card-holder and purchase something on your VISA or Mastercard in foreign currency, the central VISA or Mastercard organisation (clearinghouse) took care of the currency conversion and appended 1% of the transaction, as a fee for services rendered.

[Sluggo] I've heard they consolidate all the US-UK transactions for the day and thus qualify for the over-$1,000,000 rate. Same for ATM transactions.

[Rick] That is reasonable and understandable, since their conversion rates are consistently good (e.g., much better than Travelex), and they're actually doing something to merit the surcharge.

However, in addition, banks that issue these credit cards, and from whom you're considered to be borrowing money when you use the cards, have been appending fairly outrageous additional fees -- sometimes 1-3% in addition to what the clearinghouse charged -- for either (1) handling foreign transactions at all, or for handling a "cross-border transaction" regardless of where in the world you were or what currency it was in.

[Sluggo] I don't remember getting this fee before, but a couple months ago I got an announcement from my bank saying they would add a foreign-transaction fee on top of the exchange overhead.

[Rick] That is outrageous because, of course, they're doing absolutely nothing to earn that extra money.

[Sluggo] Like ISPs that charge $20 per year to host a domain name. Like, it takes fifteen seconds of data entry time. Plus amortization of the servers, but they need the servers anyway.

And Bank of America now charges $10 for foreign exchange to non-customers. I still have an L10 and L5 bill for my next trip to England. 'Course when the dollar was way down earlier this year, it felt like an investment.

[Rick] They're grabbing fees solely because they figure everyone else is going to tear into you while you're travelling, and you'll probably never notice an extra wound or two.

Some banks, however, don't change those fees at all, including some you wouldn't expect, e.g. BankOne. Your best bet is to call your various credit companies before going abroad, and ask them what their currency conversion fee is. Expect confused and not-very-competent replies from most of the service representatives: When I posed that question to Bank of America (not a tiny local bank!), I got passed from Customer Service, to Security, to VISA International, and then back to BofA Customer Service before I got an actual reply.

Naturally, like all good examples of legalised theft, I expect that it's likely gone global, at this point.

ATM/debit cards are not in general a good deal, either: Many of them charge a sizeable per-transaction fixed fee (e.g., $5) plus 3-5% of the amount you receive. There may, however, be exceptions where your bank has a reciprocal relationship with, e.g., Lloyds Bank of London, to allow each others' customers no-fee ATM access, abroad. But you would need to call in advance, to know of that -- once again, advance planning.

[Sluggo] Grr, ATM fees. When The Exchange first opened, they promised there would be no fees; every location would be treated identically. Then Bank of America started charging $1 or $1.50 per transaction to non-customers, and now all the big banks do. (Not the credit unions or many small banks, though, which shows that you don't have to charge the fee to survive.) Never mind that my bank is already paying the other bank for the transaction. And they surely can't argue it costs $1.50 to process the transaction; in that case they would have never opened ATMs in the first place. For a long time, even though ATMs charged extra fees for domestic cards, they didn't for foreign cards. But last year I got the "you will be charged with a $2 fee if you continue this transaction" from a Canadian ATM, so maybe European ones have followed suit.

[Rick] Travellers' cheques used to be a good deal, but in general aren't any more. E.g., as an American Automobile Association member, I used to be able to buy AmEx travellers' cheques without commission. Then AmEx became greedier (e.g., many AmEx offices abroad started charging a commission to cash them!), and AAA ended its AmEx alliance. Also, many places abroad no longer accept them, or accept them only at discount.

So, all of that having been pondered prior to my Glasgow trip, my eventual solution was: cash, mostly. I used the aforementioned AmEx Exchange Bureau arrangement that evades commissions by registering the order at the Web site before starting travel, and holding onto the receipt so I could re-convert any remaining UK pounds back to US dollars upon my return. It worked beautifully, and I used my credit card only for our hotel stay and for my impromptu jaunt down to London and back -- checking carefully to ensure that they were not charged in dollars.

[Rick] Had you been more wary, you might have smelled a rat when the charge slip came back in dollars -- and you'd be right. Practically all hotels and restaurants in Europe have signed up with a third-party firm -- extra, extraneous middlemen -- who add to your restaurant/lodging bill a high-percentage surcharge for the "service" of doing currency exchange. The reason the hotels and restaurants sign up for this is that they also get a cut (part of the third-party's gratuitous markup) as a kickback. VISA or Mastercard would have done a much cheaper exchange for you automatically, except the business didn't hand them a UK£ transaction, but rather a US$ one. You implicitly agree to the arrangement if you sign the slip as presented.

And the trick is: Stop, think, and realise something is wrong. You say to the waiter, "Excuse me, but this slip is wrong. Please cancel it and re-run it manually with the amount entered in the correct UK£ amount. I'm in London, and I've bought a dinner priced in Pounds Sterling. My charge should be and must be rung up in Pounds Sterling, same as with any other customer who handed you a VISA card."

(As it turns out, AmEx's automatic currency exchange for use of its charge or credit cards is considerably better than those other two, completely aside from the hotel/restaurant "convenience" scam.)

[Heather] If AmeEx was kindly enough to give doofs like us a card at all, Cadence would have been covering the main part of Jim's tab. Don't ask me why the h* they run the check on the individual when the company's paying it.

[Rick] So, when you see unexpected "convenience" offered to you as a tourist, stop and think. Maybe walk an extra block to the cheaper pubs that aren't across the street from Buckingham bloody Palace. Take an extra fifteen minutes; don't get hustled into something dumb. Better: Plan in advance.

The same general principle applies to travel options within southern England: Planning and in-advance research is a functional alternative to your other two coping strategies: either sitting on your arse for lack of means to get around, or making sizeable unplanned expenditures. You would thus want to do some major rooting around (and if necessary rope in UK friends to inquire locally) to determine the best deals on daily & weekly passes, etc., that maximise your ability to see interesting things and minimise your expense.

[Heather] This, I did manage to do, it's just that not all my "interesting things" were touristy :)

[Rick] And, by the way, I would classify inter-city motorbuses (in this context), which you cited approvingly, as only a mitigated form of "sitting on your arse" -- because they're slow: Given that you're in a prime tourist destination for only two weeks, do you really want to spend a big chunk of it on the slow boat to China? Yes, because of the weak dollar, the train to (e.g.) Oxford & Blenheim Palace would be a non-trivial expense, but a worthwhile one.

[Heather] Less so, alone :/

[Heather] Alan Pope, one of the few Hants LUG people I'd met previously, met me at the gates exit, and then I really felt like I was in England. He drove me to the Hilton in Bracknell and I got my first taste of the open roads around there and those crazy roundabouts of theirs. They're right, we don't seem to have many of those in the States that I've seen.

[Rick] Roundabouts are a very civilised sort of invention, and I've been trying to raise awareness of them over here in the land of the semi-free -- and of that name for them: The States seems to most commonly refer to them, if at all, as "traffic circles", which is among the lamest of appelations I have yet heard. Roundabouts, fellows!

(See Roundabouts)

[Heather] 12 pound for fish and chip? Yeek. At least the fish was good.

[Rick] Quelle horreur. Even in central London, 12 quid is scandalous.

[Heather] Yeah, which is how I figured it a rip and ate elsewhere other times. Alas at the time I was starving and wouldn't have been a good call for walking elsewhere.

[Rick] This is why I carry a dozen "energy bars" in my carry-on bags. And a litre bottle of drinking water. That way, I can afford to walk away from ripoff-ville and pick somewhere to eat at my leisure. Conversely, many involuntary, unplanned, overpriced expenditures while travelling previously involved my dear spouse failing to do that and announcing, e.g., while walking through O'Hare Airport in Chicago that she needed to buy something to eat/drink now. And that I need to buy it. These days, I'm no longer blindsided by such things -- because I take the trouble to plan, and do so for two.

[Heather] Ordering out for pizza would have been a thought - if I'd had a brain left right then. So would have been raiding my flightworthy foodbitz (reserved for eats when the flight food was harmful, of which I had some spare thanks to chance). By next walk then was to groceries :)

[Heather] We didn't ride the Eye - the ride's an hour's time, it was about sunset, and he'd always wanted to see Big Ben.

[Rick] Um, two things: The Eye is just another Ferris wheel, a ghastly expensive one at that, and you'll probably have already seen London from the air, during your approach to Gatwick, no?

[Heather] In fact, a quite pretty view of Scotland and Ireland too. Jim's note was slightly different; if it were a restaurant up there, there'd have been food too, and it might have been worthwhile to spur dinner conversation. It still would have been ripoff tourist prices. We don't mind what we got instead.

[Rick] And please don't fall victim to the silly confusion, stereotypical among American tourists, that Big Ben is the name of Westminster Palace's (Parliament's) tower. Big Ben is the famous bell inside that tower. You hear Big Ben; you don't see it.

[Heather] It's the Russian tourist who said that, 'twas me who added, Ben is the bell. Then I took pictures of him with the clock tower in distant background so he could prove to his comrades he'd been to London.

Strictly speaking I don't think he got to see Ben; it was past sunset by the time we got near enough to see squat. The tower is lit, but basically to see the fountains, and that it's a tower.

[Rick] Remember the episode of "The Prisoner" entitled "The Chimes of Big Ben"? You don't expect a Victorian tower to chime, do you?

[Heather] Only if it contains a bell ;P Tbh I don't recall that episode. I've only seen a few of them.

[Heather] To enjoy something touristy I prefer to have friends to share the experience with right there and then. Call me strange.

[Rick] Yeah, I hear you, but: It may be different priorities, but I'd kick myself if I'd failed to visit the Tower of London, during what might be my only chance for a decade, just because nobody else I was around wanted to go.

[Heather] Bath was easily on my list before the Tower was.

I think the chances I will visit England again are better than zero. It's not mine to say here, why I think the chances are so, but we're different. I don't regret the things I did get to see. No worries.


[Sluggo] Well, European roundabouts are either major intersections or rural motorway exits. American traffic circles are raised platforms in the middle of small residential intersections, installed to discourage arterial drivers from diverting to residential streets to avoid the traffic.

[Rick] I've seen both in the San Francisco Bay Area, but mostly the "major intersection" variety -- in places where the locals just decided they were marching to the beat of a different drummer. In Berkeley (of course!), in the hills near the rather Anglophile-sounding bedroom communities of Kensington and Albany, I can think of two of them. Likewise, I can think of two in Redwood City near my house, and one near the old Linuxcare offices in San Francisco.

[Sluggo] An intersection with an island in the middle? I haven't seen those in the Bay Area, although I haven't been many places there in recent years. One thing that's unique to Silicon Valley is "expressways", things that are faster than arterials but slower than freeways, with intersections every mile or so. I haven't seen those anywhere else. (Expressway in Chicago and turnpike in the northeast mean an ordinary freeway, AFAICT.)

[Rick] ObAlt.Shrugged: "¡Verdad!"

Look just to the right and beneath the star, where Townsend Street comes to an end: http://www.mapquest.com/maps/map.adp?country=US&countryid=US&addtohistory=&searchtype=address&cat=&address=635%208th%20St&city=San%20Francisco&state=CA&zipcode=94103%2d4901

Linuxcare was (and Levanta now is) on that big block bounded by Townsend, Brannan, 8th, and 7th Streets.

[Brian] And if you had particularly evil parents (as I apparently must have had), part of my learner's permit driving was through those neigborhoods, around those roundabouts, and worst of all, straight up that hill [me checks google maps, I think the major N/S route was Arlington, Bingo!] Yes, straight up Marin Avenue towards Tilden Park, with that bloody stopsign on the middle of the bloody hill. I think I bought my first clutch on that hill.

People could design frightening new amusement park rides just looking at Marin Avenue ascending towards the abode of the Gods.

[[This can't be Linux-related at all, as Linus was only 7 or 8 at the time that I was learning to drive.]]

[Rick] Picture me with a topo map, sitting at my mother's house in Moraga,

[Brian] World gets tiny. I grew up in Orinda.

However, knowing you, I'd have guessed you knew about Marin Avenue, although I might have suspected that you skateboarded DOWN it, rather than cycled up.

I rode up and into Tilden lots, but never felt compelled to pedal up or scream down Marin Ave.

[Rick] looking at the fascinating bunching of contour lines in that area (indicating an incredibly steep hill) -- and all of the streets going along those contour lines as if hugging onto a cliff for dear life... all except one: Marin Street, which goes merrily straight up and down.

My immediate reaction, being a maniac'n'all: "I have got to bicycle up that!"

So, I rode up to Orinda, over the top of the Oakland Hills, down past Claremont Resort and the top of UC Berkeley, and up to the roundabout. And looked up. And up.

Legend has it that the street was intended as the location for a cable car, which somehow never got built. But I've found no support for that story.

Yes, I did crank my way all the way to the top. It's fun, for weird values of "fun".

Bottom of the hill (really doesn't do it justice): http://www.inl.org/bicycle/deathride.html Note that it cites the maximum grade on the worst block as: 30% -- wow! Average grade in the (much steeper) second half of the climb including the flat parts at intersections is 22%, and the without the intersections is 25% .

Here's the roundabout at the bottom, looking at right angles to the Marin Street ascent: http://www.berkeleyheritage.com/berkeley_landmarks/images/Marin_Circle_fountain1.jpg

[Sluggo] Ah, very European. Almost like the Von Trapps are about to step out from stage left and sing a number.

[Martin] Good grief you've got roundabouts in America... ;) :)

I always thought that roads in American cities always were parallel to each other and the corners were always at right angles to each other - Sorta like a grid...

All the maps Ive seen on Google Maps for eg has those sorta roads...

[Sluggo] Cities built during the Industrial era (approx 1860-1960) are like that, as are almost all downtowns. But there are always a few diagonal roads here and there, usually established before the grid system was built.

Washington DC has two grids superimposed. The regular grid goes north-south. But the main roads are on a diagonal grid. Wherever the diagonal roads cross, there's a circle. You can call them roundabouts if you want. http://mq-mapgend.websys.aol.com/?e=9&GetMapDirect=Gme5diw%2ca%3a9u12%3b%40%24x5%2dywd672%26%3dta%216bsl67%3a0%2d7nlryg%264%40xqzal1%40b2562%3a9uy2%3bu%24nu67%7c%26a7aq%40%24%3a%26%40bg%21r1su67%3a%29zt%26uaz0u6%24%3a%26ur2u%2da%7c%26yt29%40%24

Dupont Circle is one of the most interesting. I couldn't find a picture of the whole thing but here are parts of it. There's a fountain statue in the middle, a circle of benches around it, a ring of roads around it, an underground bypass road, and a metro station.

The advantage of the grid system is it's easy to get from anywhere to anywhere, most streets go through, and the house numbering is (usually) predictable. Some cities have a uniform grid throughout (Manhattan, Chicago, Spokane). Others have "sections" of grids that are at different angles than other sections. Sometimes these sections are exceptional (Seattle: downtown only, Portland: North only). Other times the city is made up of several different mini-grids (San Francisco).

By 1970 it became fashionable to build city centers that way, but break up the grid in residential areas. So there's be one way out of a neighborhood, making several turns. Everything else is dead-end streets that vaguely follow the grid but don't go through. These streets usually end at cul-de-sacs. Sometimes the roads are curvy, and you get little two-block streets doubling up on a number: 179th Avenue NE, 179th Place Northeast, 179th Way Northeast. That can be very confusing. (In some cities one grid axis is "Avenues" and the other "Streets"; in others both are "Streets". "Way" usually means a diagonal road; "Place" a short dead-end road with the same number as an Avenue or Street.)

Some cities in California have streets that go every which way, like in England. Some suburbs in the Bay Area use the grid system except in hilly areas. San Francisco imposes the grid even on the hills.

Here's one neighborhood where I grew up (thankfully only one year). It's Somerset Hill, a completely residential hill five miles south of that Microsoft. http://mq-mapgend.websys.aol.com/?e=9&GetMapDirect=Gme5diw%2ca%3a9u12%3b%40%2450%2d809472%26%3d2l1%2d2s9672%26z%40n1472u%408%26qa7sd4%24nlrzs%26u2gu%2c2%3a9672%3b%40b20w%24%3a%26%40%2450%2d85gu72%26%3d2l1%2d259u72%26%40%24nq67%261%2c%240062%3a%26 I-90 is north of this; I-405 west. The main road is called 150th Ave SE / 148th Pl SE / 148th Ave SE / Highland Drive. Up near the top (Highland Drive) there's a curvy street that goes through east-west. I'm not sure which one on the map. It changed number every few blocks to conform to the county grid. But emergency vehicles had such trouble finding addresses that they renumbered it to all one number.

Los Angeles has all these systems. http://mq-mapgend.websys.aol.com/?e=9&GetMapDirect=Gme5diw%2ca%3a9u12%3b%40%24xq%2d7a5r72%26%3d2n5%2daagz72%26z%40n1472u%408%26qa7sd4%24a0670%26u2gu%2c2%3a9672%3b%40b20w%24%3a%26%40%24xq%2d7s1072%26%3d2n5%2da51z72%26%40%24nq67%261%2c%240062%3a%26 The west side is pretty close to a normal north-south grid. Downtown (south of Elysian Park) is a diagonal grid. North of Elysian Park is a pocket where the streets go at random.

[Heather] Sometimes it's planned. And sometimes a bowl of spaghetti is dropped there. Sometimes, they bothered to cook it first, and the result is even more interesting...

Occasionally I have seen pieces where a grid was obviously intended, then a blockage happened, and they just dealt with it. Airport frontages, curvy mountain roads so we don't need to teach cars to fly, etc. The "obvious" part is only from the air or the google-maps vantage, though - the macrame cords we end up driving around in don't feel all that organized.

I gave a cheerful description of getting directions from local sorts in semi rural to completely rural areas and made my English friends laugh: "My god, you've been here all your life!"

[Sluggo] You have to slow down to 15 MPH to go around them, so when you encounter them three blocks in a row it's a pain in the ass.

In Bristol there's a six-way intersection that's a roundabout. It works pretty well but I wonder how many people can fully decipher the one sign ahead of it that says which road goes where. If you're looking for a certain number it's OK, but if you're wondering where all the roads go there's probably not enough time before you whizz by.

[Rick] The proper way to do it involves signs at intervals around the circle. If you missed one, or couldn't merge to exit at your desired point, you just go around and try again.

[Breen] Don't forget the Magic Roundabout in Swindon:


You can traverse it in either direction!

[Sluggo] As for motorway roundabouts, I encountered them on a bus trip from Manchester to Cambridge. They were pretty sweet, although I wonder whether they cause more accidents due to people not slowing sufficiently. I'm curious whether they'd work in the US. I suspect our huge traffic volumes would overwhelm them, although it was difficult to guage their capacity. Do cars end up queuing up at them in England? Of course, there are long rural stretches in the US where traffic is not an issue (e.g., from Spokane to Minneapolis) but in those cases the current exit system is working fine already.

More about England

[Heather] I saw the britrail pass stuff online but it comes in multiple flavours and I could find very little info on just how much of a gyp the rails are when ridden seperately. With Hants folk telling me to trust daypasses if I'm in a group, I didn't get those.

[Sluggo] I don't know about groups, but if you're travelling as an individual I'd highly recommend a Britrailpass unless you're sure you'll be staying in London the whole time. That's what Didier and I did in 2002.

[Heather] London wasn't my primary spot, we were in outlying spaces, it was a destination. It did rate some visits.

If a customer ever drags me out that way, they get to buy the pass, and that's an ahead of time thing, just like they'd get to buy the flight tix.

[Sluggo] If you're stuck without a railpass, the coach prices are similar to the US but the train costs twice as much. If you buy a month ahead or get one of those annual discount cards, the price comes down to coach level, but neither are feasable for short-term stays unless you have somebody else buy the ticket. Trains are faster than coaches

[Sluggo] Actually, there's one exception at least. You can get from NYC to Philadelphia in one hour on a train (New Jersey Transit), but the equivalent bus ride is two hours.

One phenomenon in the northeast that's worth noting: the Chinatown buses. These started a few years ago from Chinatown-Manhattan to Chinatown-DC and Chinatown-Philadelphia. They're run by these tiny Chinese companies that saw an opportunity to entice more shoppers to Chinatown by offering cheap bus rides ($30 return). When I went to PyCon DC in 2003, they went only twice a day and arrived/left DC in the middle of the night. On my way back from DC, I stopped outside this little waiting room in a residential area with a crowd of people around it. I figured this was the place, and waited half an hour. Then I took a little walk and discovered another waiting room around the corner. That was where I was supposed to be. I didn't realize there were several companies, each parked around the corner from each other. Since then I've heard there's been violence among the drivers in competition for passengers. But in 2005, the buses went once an hour during the day, so I guess it was a wild success. I didn't go to DC but I did go to Philly. You can buy tickets online now (!), so I bought a ticket ahead because of the big warnings that they were selling out a lot. I didn't know if that was true but I'd already experienced the difficulty of getting a hostel in NYC [1] so I decided to trust them. Then I got there and the bus was half empty, bastards! Not only that, but in the meantime I found out the train would have cost only $10 more. I guess the companies patched up their rivalries because now there are still several companies selling tickets, but they share the same bus, which has a logo for one of the companies. I don't know how that came to be.

-- the opposite of the US -- and on many routes they go once an hour. It was five hours from Edinburgh to London on a train vs 8 hours in a coach. It was two hours from Cambridge to London on a coach vs one hour on the train. 'Course a lot of that time is meandering through outer London because the motorways don't go to the center. (Quelle horreur!)

It's amazing how a railpass can change your trip. Suddenly it's just as easy to take a train across the country as it is to take the tube across town, so why not? The mainline trains will get you around parts of London too, at least parts of it.

Er, "around London too, at least parts of it." Not talking about parts of the parts.

Certainly to Charing Cross, which is close enough to the attractions in the Trafalgar-Strand-Soho area and Oxford Circus shopping.

Plus take off the L14 to and from Gatwick if you're going directly to London, or more if you're staying in another city.

There's a full pass which covers all the days, and a flexipass which covers any five days in thirty. Unless you plan to stay more than a week in one location, I'd get the full pass; it costs less per day. Plus you don't have to do the "Should I use up a day for this short trip?" thing. You're on holiday; you don't want to worry about stuff like that. And you may want to change your schedule at the last moment, or if you miss a train.

http://railpass.com is where I got my pass. I got the GB-only pass.

[Heather] Hmm, I'll have to compare their price against the other one :)

I was trying to see just how cheap I could squeak by; by the numbers it's a kinda close squeak but I made the right pick.

[Sluggo] There's also a version including Ireland but it came out to $250 more. Plus the UK+IE pass is a flexipass rather than the full one one. If you're just travelling around Scotland there's a Scotrail pass you can get locally that's very cheap. I think there might be a similar pass in the Republic of Ireland.

In the US, Greyhound has a full-term pass available to locals. I use it when I'm going more than one place, especially if there's a chance I might change my schedule at the last minute. That's the bus company. Amtrak (the train company) has a pass but most trains go once a day, they're slow, don't cover some cities like Columbus, Ohio, take circuitous routes, etc. Only the northeast has good train service; southern California is a distant second.

[Heather] I'd love to say the San Jose flight was uneventful, but it spent an extra 40+ minutes on the ground. one of the engines didn't want to start, and the pilot announced that it was probably a valve stuck, which the mechanic could look at. The mechanics ruled it as the starter motor, which they noted could be replaced most quickly if they simply turned off the motors, rather than abusing it any further by driving back to a gate and unloading people.

[Sluggo] My worst experience flying was when I went to Scranton, Pennsylvania this summer. The original flight was delayed due to a storm in the southeast, so I got to Dulles ten minutes after my connecting flight left. I talked to somebody at the counter and they were going to rebook me, then saw that I was already rebooked. I left the counter without noting which gate to go to. My flight wasn't on the schedule board so I asked at another counter, which was apparently a baggage-only counter so he gave me a hassle, then looked it up and said it's in another terminal. Dulles is old and difficult to get around; you have to take a shuttle bus between terminals, which can take half an hour. I had two hours to wait so I headed for the "main terminal" to kill time. I sat next to a flight attendant in the shuttle bus, so I asked her where the best place was to wait. She said, "Not the main terminal; there's nothing there except security. And the restaurant terminal is closed for renovation." I ended up at the main terminal anyway since I was on that bus, so took the next one out to my destination terminal. They routed me through Philadelphia, so I had another two-hour layover in another old, inconvenient airport with shuttle buses between the terminals. I arrived in Scranton six hours late. I was pissed because I could've taken a bus from NYC to Scranton in the time it took to wait for planes, and spent a day or two in NY while I was there. My bag didn't make all these transfers; it followed the next day, and a courier brought it way out to my campsite.

[Heather] What I affectionately referred to with my travel agent, when I still used one, as "luggage class".

Our worst trip on the land side was flying across Y2K weekend. Everyone was nervous as heck. Security really were searchign everyone and jumpy too. The weather fogged in and delayed flights so even people who'd been checked as much as they were going to be were being all fretty. I can't say I was a perfect sunbeam myself, and sad to say I was better than most.

Our worst trip itinerary-wise was a multiple thing, first with family in Chicago IL (the real origin of my red hat), then to a conference in San Antonio TX, then a wedding in Laramie WY (by means of a flight to Denver then a small puddle jump to a closer airport). Our luggage had a different itinerary than we did; we recieved the wedding presents sent to us at San Antonio (deliberately, we had Terry send them, and our "nice clothes" so they could be carry-ons for the rest), sending our dirty laundry home direct rather than making it follow us to the midwest. The effort to travel lighter on the later leg paid off; there was mechanical issues on the puddle jumper and we opted out, it being faster to get the heck out and drive it instead rather than to wait for them to give up and then ponder how to treat us right. Then our luggage got delayed getting out, because they really did decide that plane wasn't flying, and that changed which carousel our bag was headed for. sigh But the wedding went great.

[Heather] I got some money exchanged

[Sluggo] The best exchange rate is at the ATMs in the destination country. Try to avoid spending money till you get to one, or use a credit card.

[Heather] Yeah, that'll have to go in 2c tips for travellers, I think.

[Heather] If you ever go, don't assume you can buy a ticket on the train - you can, but while here maybe it's a buck penalty, the penalty fare there is really stiff.

[Sluggo] The San Mateo Caltrain is the same way. :)

[Heather] I didn't do anything so foolish as to do that; I just gasped when I saw the listing for the penalty fare. It's damn near as bad as riding the line from tail to terminus.

[Heather] Ms.Thatcher helpfully broke up the nationalized rails and transit so it wouldn't be a monopoly, and the trains share tracks but there's about a near dozen companies running them. Passengers mostly ignore the brand announced "this is southern" "this is southwest trains" but the net effect is that they price gouge like the baby bells, and nobody really thinks they own the tracks proper, so they are maintained, but sort of like caltrans maintains the roads around here, there's always some chunk of track being repaired and making delays.

[Sluggo] AFAICT, Railtrack is a national company that maintains the rails and also sells passes to foreigners. The trains are run by seven or eight regional companies, but you can get tickets and schedules for any train at any station. Brits complain their train system has been so neglected it's the worst in Europe, but it's ten times better than our train service and five times better than our bus service, so who's to complain? Except that there are no night routes except London-Edinburgh.

[Heather] Interesting. I described our doubledeck Caltrain to Thomas, and he said (a vague hand waved toward a foot-way overhead clearly meant for single deck trains to pass under) that wasn't likely to be offered in England.

[Sluggo] Funny, that's the same reason I hear we don't have double-decker buses. But are there any double-decker trains besides the Caltrain?

[Heather] Even if there weren't so many derails. Then he got all shy and said he really shouldn't describe such things when I was about to hop on a train. Heh. I told him about some terrible results I'd heard of here in California too. I hope he didn't worry too much about me that day.

[Sluggo] Don't tell him about the accident rate on the Los Angeles light rail.

[Heather] stretched of their rocky beaches, found a quiet little .. pub, but closer to a bar style like ours would be.

[Sluggo] We grow up with this idea that British pubs are places to hang out with your friends, not like the ugly horrid taverns here. And in Ireland it seemed you could get a good buffet meal (beef, mashed potatoes, vegetables) anywhere for a reasonable price. Not in every pub but at least in every town. I thought British pubs were similar, with lots of fish n chips, but most pub grub I found was variations on the hamburger.

[Jimmy] A friend of mine worked in a pub in England that had a large contingent of Irish ex-pats among its regulars. He said they served food on Sundays, but only because the Irish would go elsewhere, and the British would complain about it.

I can't remember if it was the general idea of a meal in a pub, or the specific meal (cabbage, bacon, potatoes: a meal I try to avoid where possible) they found disgusting, but he did note that the most vocal in their opposition were the guys who would eat whelks and jellied eels from communal jars with the mud from that morning's rugby game still on their hands.

[Sluggo] I asked my Brit friends about it and they said food in pubs is a recent innovation; before they were just drinking places. I thought, "That sounds like our taverns." Then one guy said, "There are American pubs more like what you're thinking, but they mostly have a cowboy theme." What?? Our bars don't have cowboy themes. I guess everybody likes somebody else's pubs and finds them exotic, and the proprietors respond by loading them with stereotypical kitsch.

[Heather] chuckle

[Jimmy] I saw my first imitation Irish pub when I was 12, on holiday in Devon (or maybe it was in Swindon) with my aunt and uncle, and I remember thinking it was strange. Looked about right, but there was something strange about it.

Not as strange as when I started to see imitation Irish pubs in Ireland. But when authentic Irish pubs started passing themselves off as imitation...

[Sluggo] Lay off the drugs, man.

[Heather] I don't recall the name, they were glad to serve us food as king as we could be gone before they'd have a private party present. They brought me ginger beer from a back fridge. :)

It seems to be easy to get ginger beer but it comes in tiny little bottles.

[Sluggo] Yeah, they were tiny, and not that strong.

[Heather] Oh yeah, Thomas said the candied ginger I brought from Trader Joe's was thrice as strong as any he could get there, in addition to being huge pieces instead of tiny bits. One flatmate couldn't easily handle more than one piece at a go (although he liked it). The other flatmate hates ginger anyway and would have nothing to do with them. Thomas, man after my own heart, loved 'em ;) He's finished them off already, hehe.

Their Idris brand doesn't suck nearly as bad from the bottle as it does here from a can.

[Heather] Jim managed to completely flabbergast Thomas by downing a doner plate (yes, it's gyros. really.) sized extra large which probably 3 people would have split. I ate some of it, but found the spicing.. um.. boring? Bland in the wrong direction? Not my fancy that day.

[Sluggo] Wait till you see shredded curry chicken on french fries. Now that's disgusting. (This happened in Ireland. They did even more inappropriate things with chips too. I guess you can get everything with chips.)

[Heather] chili cheese fries their style? Uh, ok, I guess. (Says the gal who prefers to order chili and fries seperate, then dip the fries...)

[Jimmy] Hmm... let's see...

Curry chips
Curry chips with cheese
Chips with garlic mayonnaise
Chips with garlic mayonnaise and cheese
Chilli chips
Chilli chips with... you get the idea

All of these items, and more, are available from every fast food place near me. The thing you might not have known, though, is that these items are only to be eaten after you've reached the stage of drunkenness where you can no longer find the wall you're leaning against.

[Sluggo] This was at a scooter rally at a Gaelic football lodge. The closest other food was a half-hour walk away at a pub.

[Sluggo] My friend in Bristol distiguished between chips (the proper British thing) and fries (the thing you get from McDonald's). I blew up: "It's the same thing!!"

[Jimmy] But it's not :)

[Sluggo] Fried potatoes are fried potatoes no matter which way you cut them. Does a tomato become something else if you cut it in a different shape?

[Heather] I grew up a short walking distance from a famous potato place (that happened to sell sides of decently-sized burgers with their overloaded tray of fries) called The Shoestring. Shoestring potatoes and "chips" as the brits put them seem to cook slightly differently anyway. But McD's are reconstituted something or others, kinda like Sizzlean(tm) is to bacon. Surely, there'd be many who prefer Sizzlean, but it's not bacon, not quite anyway.

Depends if to you taters is taters or you care about the diff between potatoes from the tuber and reconsituted tater powder. I know for me, if it's mashed potatoes I rarely care, but I like eating the jacket along with my potato, so I've always favored baked or chips, as just plain ol chopped up potatoes, to the sliver things that are shoestrings, and among The Shoestring, liked the ones that used to be the outer potato the best.

[Sluggo] Tater?? Tuber?? Tater powder?? The only taters I know of are Tater Tots. http://www.bluegoomba.com/society/purdue_tater_tots.jpg They're nuggets of shredded potatoes, or the potato equivalent of ground beef. Dunno about potatoes in tubes; it sounds tubular, man. Tater powder, you mean the boxes of potato flakes? I never saw the point in those. A potato is the ultimate in easy cooking. Slice off the ends, put it in the oven while something else is cooking, and take it out in an hour.

I usually eat baked potatoes, although I'll choose mashed if I'm out. I also make "fries" by slicing the potatoes and baking them (leaving the jackets on). They cook a lot faster that way.

[Heather] Speaking of bacon, it's embarrassing. Theirs looks like a decent sized slab of ham (if a bit thin) and a better cut than we use for it (our bacon's really quite fatty) but has so much water packing you can see daylight through them. They shrink to only a little larger than ours do if you sizzle them enough to boil the water off completely. I told one of Jim's colleagues at breakfast, if you want that on our side of the pond, ask for ham steak, not bacon, and expect to enjoy more of your meat. Our bacon's tiny and crispy.


In London there are always hostel rooms available (try the Eurohostel in Stockwell if you can't find anything else; it looks like a 60s college dorm high-rise without the college). Everywhere else I've been you can usually get a room as long as you book a day ahead, except Friday-Saturday nights. But the hostels in NYC are already full a month ahead, even in March. I was going to get a reservation early, then a friend said I could stay with him. Then two days before my journey began, he flaked out and said he was too busy at work. I frantically called all my other friends in NY, but it was also the weekend of the Black Party (this big leather gathering), so everybody in the northeast and his dog was in NYC. One guy offered me a bathtub in Brooklyn... maybe. I tried several hostels and finally booked three nights at three different places. I couldn't find anything for Saturday night so I went to Philly instead. The hostels in NYC are also expensive, $35-40 a night vs $24 in DC and Chicago, $22 in England (buy 6 get 1 free), and a whopping $7 in Vancouver (Vince's Backpacker's Hostel, 2 locations).

(they're sell out a month ahead even in March; I had to spend three nights in three different places, and went to Philly for the weekend coz there was no place in NY)