Analyzing my London trip decisions: What worked well? What can I improve?

Update: Fixed incomplete sentence regarding Google navigation – thanks to Geoffrey Wiseman for pointing it out!

I’ve just come back from a trip to the UK for an Emacs conference. (Emacs!) While the memories are still fresh, I want to think about what worked and what can be even better next time I travel.

What worked well:

Keeping a close eye on flight fares versus visa paperwork: When the conference date firmed up, I checked the flight prices (~$1200)… and then realized that I still needed to get my visa paperwork sorted out. It took me about a week to gather all the papers, and then another three weeks to get it processed. I didn’t want to book the flight until I got the visa, but I also didn’t want to pay sky-high last-minute prices. Because I wasn’t sure that I’d be granted a visa, I kept a close eye on the flight prices throughout the period. I figured that if it got to two weeks before the trip or flight prices started trending up, I’d book the flight and then deal with the change fees in case I didn’t get the visa after all. Fortunately, I got the visa notification two weeks before the flight, and I booked my flight for ~$1000 – cheaper than it would’ve been if I’d booked it right away. It won’t always work out this neatly, but I’m glad that it did!

Couchsurfing: It was super-nice of the organizer and his wife to let me stay at their place during my trip. Not only did that make it much easier to fit the transatlantic flight into my budget, but it also meant that I got a glimpse of everyday life: buying groceries, walking around the neighbourhood, eating yummy home-cooked food and discovering Serbian tastes. That worked out much better than staying at a hotel.

Oyster card: The Oyster card was my very first purchase, and it worked out wonderfully. I had no problems navigating the London public transit system, which I used to and from the airport and around town. I could probably have loaded 20 pounds on it at the beginning instead of topping it up throughout the trip. I ran into a negative balance at one point and ended up paying the cash fare on the bus because I didn’t want to delay other people. Still, public transit = good! I returned my Oyster card for a refund when I got to Heathrow.

Withdrawing cash from the ATM: I withdrew GBP 50 from an HSBC ATM once I reached Paddington. It worked out to CAD 79.19 plus a CAD 5.00 fee, for an effective total exchange rate of 1 GBP = 1.684 CAD. This was better than the foreign exchange rates posted there, although slightly worse compared to how much it would have cost if I’d gotten my act together and either converted cash through my bank before leaving (penalty: ~$5, which was the bank withdrawal fee) or switched my account to something that doesn’t have international withdrawal fees (but that would cost me maybe $53 in forgone interest per year, and I don’t travel or withdraw enough to make up for that). So it all worked out. It was the right amount of cash to have handy, actually, although I could’ve probably gotten away with GBP 40.

Sketchnotes: I took notes during the conference and I posted them right away. People really liked the notes! I need to go back and add more details so that they’re more understandable even for people who weren’t at the event or who aren’t familiar with the topics, and that will be part of my Emacs Conf followups.

Meeting people: The Emacs conference was incredible. I’d never seen so many Emacs geeks in one place, and it was fantastic to meet all these people I’d gotten to know over IRC and elsewhere. During the rest of my trip, I met several people for coffee. I chatted with Dave, Louise, and Joanne(sp?) about travel, paperwork, comics, and drawing. John Wiegley and I brainstormed ways to make the Emacs community even awesomer. I hung out with Michael Olson while on a walking tour (see below). I didn’t get around to meeting everyone I’d wanted, but it was great meeting lots of people face to face. Such is life!

Walking: I walked to places whenever I could – an hour-long walk along Regent’s Canal from home to Camden Town, another long walk coming home from Covent Garden… Walking around in London is enjoyable because there are plenty of shops and interesting sights, and I felt safe.

Walking tour: Michael Olson suggested meeting up for one of the London Walks, so I did. It was a lot of fun hearing the guide tell stories about the buildings and the people who lived or worked in them. Walking tours might be an excellent way to observe well-polished storytellers.

Offline navigation using Google Maps: I downloaded the map of London, which was handy. Although I couldn’t search for places while offline, I could use the navigation function if I’d already set it up previously. I also used the map to verify that I was walking in the right direction. I also wrote addresses down in my notebook in case I ran out of battery or lost my phone.

Eating supermarket food: Quite a few of my meals were from supermarkets and department stores, which worked out wonderfully. One time I snagged a 99-pence chicken tikka masala meal (warmed and ready to go, marked down from 3.50) from Sainsbury Local and ate that in a nearby park. Three pigeons tried to mug me for the food, and about 30 pigeons stared at me throughout the meal. ;) Supermarket food turns out to be tasty and inexpensive. One downside is that I hadn’t realized that self-checkout lanes sometimes don’t give you exact change, and I neglected to ask the assistant for the rest of my change. Oh well.

Free museums: I spent most of Monday at the British Museum, where I got to see the Rosetta Stone and other amazing things. Neato!

Fish and chips: Yummy, crispy fish and chips. I had these with mushy peas for the first time. I could’ve probably walked around a little more and found cheaper fish and chips, but the one I settled on was very filling.

Bank holidays: My trip coincided with the long Easter weekend, which was nice because that meant people were generally relaxed and unhurried, and my hosts had plenty of time to hang out. It meant that many shops were closed, but I wasn’t there for shopping anyway.

Evernote: Evernote worked really well for saving small maps, directions, contact info, and so on.

Technical flexibility: There were some technical issues during the conference, but we managed to make things work. For example, the Mac we were using to project the Google Hangout didn’t pipe its audio out the headphone jack, so we got my laptop into the hangout and routed audio out that way. This meant that taking notes was more awkward, but it was worth it. At one point, I had to write things down on an index card (forward and backward, just in case my webcam was set to mirror!) in order to pass messages along to Steve Yegge, who might not have been monitoring the text chat in the Google Hangout. Audio feedback was a challenge, too, so we ended up typing questions in. Anyway, it all worked out! =)

Weather: I can’t claim any credit for this one, but it was great to have sunny weather throughout the trip. =)

Hat: My black Tilley winter hat was a practical choice – a wide brim to shade me from the sun, and earflaps to keep me warm. I got several compliments on it, too.

Bringing stationery for a thank-you card: It’s always nice to say thanks, and it’s even nicer to not have to raid your host’s stationery stash or write it on plain paper. ;)

Saving the next day for recovery: I kept the day after my trip free of appointments, which was nice because I didn’t have to worry about jetlag. I ended up doing productive stuff anyway, but at least that was completely optional. =)

What I can improve:

Packing: One pair of comfortable winter boots saw me through the whole trip, and my scarf was also really handy.

  • I could probably have packed more thermals, but I compensated by walking faster and the cold didn’t bother me.
  • I didn’t use the headphones or the tablet as much as I had hoped.
  • I forgot the USB cable for my phone, so I conserved power for the first few days. Then I realized I could borrow a cable from Alex, which allowed me to charge my phone and use it more for navigation. Yay!
  • I think I misplaced my tablet USB cable at the conference venue. It must have gotten tangled up with my power cord. No worries!
  • Since I didn’t have anything liquid in my suitcase on the way back, I might have been able to carry it on and so skip waiting for baggage in both Montreal and Toronto. I wasn’t sure if I could get away with it, though. Anyway, I made it through the 1-hour transit in Montreal by asking people in the security line if I could cut in ahead of them. (“I’m so sorry, but my plane is boarding now – can I please go ahead of you?” Everyone said yes.)
  • I didn’t need the foreign cash I brought (USD, EUR, and CAD), siwith the ATM withdrawal worked fine. It would probably have been good to carry one currency just in case.

Roaming: I forgot to enable roaming before flying out to London, so I had to use payphones. This made it harder to coordinate, but I managed. There was one time when I had the opportunity to meet up with Alex and someone else who had flown in for the conference. I received their e-mail while using Michael Olson’s portable hotspot, but that was two hours after they’d met up. I didn’t think of finding a payphone and calling them to see if they were still going to be in the area for a while; instead, I walked around London some more. If I had called them, I’d probably have met up with them instead of walking around as much (although that was fun too!).

Tools: Camtasia Studio crashed and wasn’t able to record my part of the keynote presentation. =( I think it had to do with missing or disabled audio devices. This is the second time this has happened to me, so I have to figure out how to reliably capture my screen. My tablet video capture stopped after a while. The livestream wasn’t working in time for the keynote. It’s a good thing that my phone captured all the audio from the keynote, so at least we have that!

Setting aside time for video editing, or finding someone who can do it: We’ve got all these recordings… now what? I’ve volunteered to spend some time slicing them up into talks and getting them out there, and I plan to spend one day a week focused on this and other Emacs goodies.

In general, blocking off time for follow-up: There’s a lot of good stuff to follow up on, and I don’t want it to get buried in the day-to-day.

Publishing presentation: Would probably have been nice to have a Dropbox folder all ready to go. And screenshots/sketches of my own so that I don’t feel weird about the licensing of other people’s images…

More productive use of plane time: I mostly watched a few movies and slept a little bit. On the plane ride to the UK, I had an empty seat beside me, so I knew I wouldn’t be interrupted by anyone who needed to use the facilities. That meant that I could break out my computer and write code. I wrote my presentation code, and it actually worked. =) On the plane ride back, I was next to two people who needed to use the facilities frequently, so I didn’t feel comfortable setting up my notebook or even writing letters. And the Air Canada in-seat entertainment system wasn’t working for me on the ~8-hour trip back. =| Maybe I should use plane time to listen to audiobooks instead?

Better camera? I probably should’ve packed a small camera instead of using my phone. It would also have been nice to remember to take pictures, especially of the conference. I’ll just have to draw from memory.

All in all, an excellent trip!