Category Archives: travel

Planning for currency conversion

What’s the most effective way to convert money for spending during our trip? Here are the options I considered:

  1. Bring Canadian dollars and convert to Philippine pesos at home
  2. Buy US dollars and convert them to Philippine pesos at home
  3. Buy Philippine pesos in Canada and bring them over (paying attention to import conditions)
  4. Use our credit cards as much as possible, and carry a smaller amount of cash (see options 1-3 for handling cash)

Based on the online rates of Toronto Dominion Bank (TD Bank) and the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI), it turns out that it’s cheaper to buy US dollars in Canada and convert the US dollars to pesos when we’re in the Philippines (option 2). That results in 3% more money than bringing CAD and converting to PHP in the Philippines (option 1), and 8% more than buying PHP in Canada (option 3). This is good to know, because we used to buy PHP here. TD buys back US dollars but not Philippine pesos, so that’s handy too.

Even better than the cash rates, though, are our credit card rates. MBNA Smart Cash seems to have a foreign currency surcharge of 2.5% or so over the spot foreign exchange rate. With 1% cashback, that results in around 2% more than option 3. We’ll probably tally up our expected cash expenses, convert enough to cover them, then use our cards for the rest. I’ll still check with MBNA to make sure there aren’t other fees to consider.

Your results may vary depending on the rates. It’s good to do the math! =)

Notes from the airport: Missed my flight; not the end of the world after all

For the first time in my life, I missed my flight. I was in tears. I called American Express, and was on hold with them while they rerouted my itinerary through Vancouver. It will be an overnight flight and I’ll arrive Sunday morning instead of Saturday night, but I’ll arrive.

Then I called W-, who told me things were going to be okay and helped me remember that I was strong. I don’t feel very strong at the moment – my fingers shake – but I can feel the storm of panic and frustration and self-pity pass. Denver International Airport has free wireless, but I can’t seem to connect to it. I used my Kindle to send him a Twitter direct message with the flight details the travel agent gave me. I may be frazzled, but I still turn to frugal workarounds for roaming charges.

There’s a lesson in here about timezones, public transit, and triple-checking my departure time against my printed ticket instead of my copied itinerary. Better to learn the lesson this time than at a more crucial moment – that’s what I always tell myself when I make a mistake large enough to throw me off-kilter. Better now than later. Better a small situation than a life-or-death one. Going home, with Monday a day off, on a US-Canada flight, a missed flight has much smaller ripples than an inbound flight on a critical business trip or an expensive personal trip halfway across the world–and I still get to distill from it whatever it can teach me about life and myself.

That’s the second thing I tell myself during these hiccups: It all becomes part of the story, the rough watersas well as the smooth. I’m learning that after that initial flood of panic, I feel this preternatural calm sets in. I can’t change the past, so I don’t fret about it. No amount of worrying is going to change my short-term future. This nervous energy can be channelled into writing. Not too long from now, there’ll be a day when everything will be back to normal. Why stress out about things I can’t change and that won’t be permanent? Everything is going to be okay.

The situation is not that much different from a hypothetical world where I’m sitting in the airport patiently waiting for my intentionally-booked flight to Vancouver with a connection to Toronto. I’ve done that before. After setting the wheels in motion, it is an easy thing to shift to that track, like rail lines that start at different stations and converge. I learn what I can from stress, then call up that feeling of purposeful waiting.

Missing a flight, surprisingly enough, isn’t the end of the world. (Even if you miss said flight on May 21, the supposed day of the apocalypse.) Even though this is my first missed flight, the travel agencies and airlines have handled innumerable cases like mine before, and they know what to do. The American Express agent found another route to get me to Toronto. although it takes much longer than my original flight does, and arranges it for the change fee $150 plus the fare difference. Better than losing the full value of the flight, for sure! I don’t know if IBM will allow me to expense the increase in my fare, but if not, I can charge it to my experience fund – and thank goodness I have one, so that unexpected expenses don’t plunge me into more lasting troubles. I already know the process for paying part of my American Express card in case IBM policy doesn’t cover the itinerary change. Even though the flight lands early in the morning, W- will be there to meet me. Boy, will I be ever so glad to see him! Everything’s going to work out okay. Worst-case scenario, I pay for the fare difference myself, and it takes me a little longer to save up for my next goals. No big deal.

W- is right. I’m strong. I bounce back almost involuntarily. Maybe this hiccup will help me become even more resilient, if I remember to take the right lessons from it, if a future crisis makes me think, “Aha, I know how to deal with this, I’ve survived something similar before” instead of “I’m such an idiot, I can’t do anything right, like that time I missed my flight.”

Things I am glad about:

  • Amazon Kindle 3G connection. I’ve been talking about this so much on my blog and on Twitter, I know! But in areas without free, reliable WiFi networks, it’s been really really useful to be able to search for information and post updates.
  • Travel agencies, airline personnel, and lots of other travellers. I’m glad I booked this work trip through American Express, because they knew how to work the system in order to get me home. For our personal trips, I’m going to make sure I write down the toll-free numbers for the airlines so that I can get to them quickly if I need to reroute. I’m glad that airline personnel have handled many other missed flights before, and I’m a tiny bit glad that other people have run into and solved these problems. Can you imagine being the first person to miss a flight in the
  • Chocolate stroopwafels. As I headed out the door of our house, W- gave me two chocolate stroopwafels from our trip to the Netherlands. “For emergencies,” he said. I ate the first stroopwafel on the way out, cheering myself up after facing the prospect of a week-long trip. I saved the second stroopwafel. This counts as an emergency worthy of a stroopwafel, I believe, and I will have it shortly. The thought itself is comforting already.
  • Air travel and computers. Isn’t it amazing that we can fly through the air? And that computers can link together different routes, different cities, different companies? Can you imagine what it might’ve been like to miss a steamship that runs only once a month?
  • Writing. If you had told me in school that writing could be a comfort and a joy, I might’ve fallen in love with it then instead of getting bored by all the book reports and critical essays we wrote for teachers and never for ourselves. Writing will be my last and longest love, I think, even after time strips away friends and family, and hands and eyes fail.

There are more thoughts for this list, but I’m at the gate waiting for the flight to Vancouver. Everything will work out.

2011-05-21 Sat 17:00

Travel updates: GPS, Pearl Street, Vibram toe shoes

From Thursday evening: Success! I spent late afternoon and evening wandering around Pearl Street Mall and thereabouts in Boulder, Colorado.

I walked around a bit more, checking out Buffalo Exchange and Goldmine Vintage. I like browsing through second-hand stores. You get a more eclectic, more comprehensive feel for a place’s style, and you can often pick up some great deals. Both stores had smaller selections than Goodwill, but they had interesting items. I didn’t buy anything, though. Looking at clothes in general makes me want to get back to my fabric stash and my sewing machine. =) I did look around for inspiration, and I experimented with some colour combinations and silhouettes.

From Phone

While walking along the Pearl Street Mall, I came across Outdoor Divas, a store focused on women’s sports clothing and accessories. I found some travel things I liked. Outdoor Divas also stocked Vibram, the toe shoes I remember reading about on a productivity blog. I’d been curious about Vibram for a while. It’s supposed to be a more natural way to walk, because your toes can go where they’re supposed to go instead of being confined and deformed by a narrow toe box. I have wide feet and I avoid shoes that squeeze my toes, but Vibram shoes would be taking that one logical step further. MEC occasionally stocks them in Canada, but it was somewhat cheaper to get them in the US considering currency values, foreign exchange fees, and taxes. Being able to fit them to find the right size for me was certainly helpful, and it was great having better shoes to walk through the rain with! I also picked up a pair of performance toe socks – wicking, fast-drying, and with a colorful pattern for extra fun. (Performance toe socks! By golly.)

For dinner, I had udon topped with tofu at Hapa Restaurant. It was so delicious and so filling! The soup was delicately flavoured and the tofu was just right. They’re justifiably proud of their udon, and it was the perfect way to round off a cold, rainy day.

I made it back to the Boulder Transit Center with plenty of time to spare. The BOLT bus (Boulder-Longmont; the city has cute names for bus routes, such as HOP, SKIP, and JUMP) took me to the Twin Peaks mall (fare: $4), and I walked to the hotel. Being able to review my route using the GPS made me worry much less about missing my stop or walking around the outside of the mall.

Thoughts:

Neither a bike nor a push scooter would’ve been of much use for that excursion. It was all about walking – but then again, I stuck pretty closely to the pedestrian mall downtown. For pedestrian-oriented places, I might just need GPS and possibly 3G. For places that are spread further apart or that lack sidewalks, a bike might come in handy.

CoPilot Live rocks. I set it to turn the backlight on near turns and to warn me of upcoming turns. This was great for walking around and for making sense of my bus ride while minimizing battery use. I also really liked the local search for points of interest, which is how I found my way back to Hapa. Sweet!

I can save battery for GPS by skipping WiFi on my Android. With some discipline, I managed to avoid using my Android for WiFi browsing until I was safely back in my hotel room. WiFi drains the battery surprisingly quickly. I had run out of battery on Wednesday, when I had used my Android for lots of browsing before leaving for my adventure. With WiFi off, my phone battery lasted through a few hours of GPS navigation, and it still had about 50% left when I reached the hotel.

Hey, this Vibram thing looks promising. I’ve just started wearing this funny-shaped shoe, but I think it’s more comfortable than my other flat shoes. I’m already plotting when I’m going to be able to wear them next. Unfortunately, not to the office, but I might head downtown again tomorrow to check out the Goodwill in Boulder. Besides, it’ll be raining. No sense puddle-wading with my leather shoes. I know the Vibrams can deal with puddles. I may buy gloves and legwarmers, though!

Ordered a Kindle with free 3G

After much consideration (and you know how I analyze my decisions), I ordered the 6″ Kindle with free 3G and WiFi. I chose the smaller Kindle instead of the DX because I have tiny hands, and the Internet said that the DX might get a little tiring to carry if you have small hands. I chose the Kindle instead of an iPad or Android tablet because I wanted a device for travel (decent battery life and the ability to search for addresses / public transit directions). Roaming data charges for iPad or Android use would be really expensive. Even if Amazon discontinues Whispernet (as it might – who knows?), it’ll be worth it if I can get a good couple of years. Books will actually be a nice bonus, not the key selling feature.

I read a ton of books, and the Kindle can read the EPUB books I check out of the Toronto Public Library. It can also handle PDFs. You can bet that I’m going to try Albert Harkness’ “An Easy Method for Beginners in Latin” as soon as I get the Kindle unboxed and charged up. I might as well learn something on the way to the airport. =) It’ll be better than my Android, which has problems viewing PDFs with images in them. The Harkness e-book is all images (it’s a scan of an out-of-copyright book), so I haven’t been able to read it at all on my Android.

Of course, there’s actually buying books from the Kindle store and having them delivered on the fly… Tempting! I will have to set a book budget. I hardly buy books now – the library’s been enough for me – but I may get swayed by the new releases that will be instantly available.

Here’s hoping that Amazon’s delivery mechanism goes without a hitch and I receive my Kindle on Friday! If not, I’ll have to figure out how to reship the package back home.

Fingers crossed!

2011-05-18 Wed 22:09

Walking outside my comfort zone – bike? push/kick scooter?

This walking-around-a-strange-city has its pluses and minuses. Plus: I got to see Denver’s downtown pedestrian zones and how they’ve set up the 16th Street Mall with plenty of trees and benches. Minus: My phone was dead, so I didn’t have GPS, and I hadn’t fixed and brought my MintyBoost yet, and I didn’t have a physical map. I missed my stop on the way back and ended up walking an extra 4.5km. Easy enough to plan for next time. On my next trip, I’ll definitely bring a power supply!

While walking around, I thought about what would make exploration easier. GPS and offline maps are definitely big ones, which probably means just making sure that I can recharge my smartphone on the go.

The thing with walking is that if you make a mistake or you miss a stop, it takes a long time to get back on track. On a car, you can swing around quickly and be halfway across town in a few minutes. On a bicycle, you can still cover a lot of ground. Walking? Trudge trudge trudge trudge. In the dark, this can be a little scary.

Walking also means I can’t cover that much ground. I know I can take a taxi, but I find it hard to shake the idea that taxis are a luxury. ;) Public transit is good, but the schedules can be tricky. CoPilot Live for Android shows me where the nearest bus stop is. As long as I keep the last bus times in mind, I’m pretty okay with asking for directions and waiting a bit at stops.

Reasons why it might be worth hacking this:

It would be really awesome to reduce anxiety. I get fidgety if I’m walking by myself and there are few people around. Public transit schedules tend to have gaps, and sometimes it’s hard to find a place where I can get a cab. (Which of these roads will lead to a hotel? Hmm.) If I’m on a bike, I can cover more distances myself, with the trade-off that I’ll just be worried about accidents. (Bright lights, reflective tape, road caution, helmets?) Even a push scooter might get me quickly from a silent patch to someplace with more light and/or people.

It would be great to not take cabs to client sites. Yes, I know, it’s a business expense. But I still take public transit whenever possible, even if I don’t benefit from the savings. Part of it is being aware of the moral hazard of a company expense account (when you change your behaviour knowing someone else is footing the bill), and part of it is fighting the hedonic treadmill (when you get used to a level of consumption).

It would be great to see more of the places I stay at. Might as well, I’m there already. I’m an odd sort of traveller, though. I’m not driven to take my picture beside famous landmarks. I don’t collect knick-knacks. I occasionally meet up with people, but I’m also fine connecting virtually. I do like checking out thrift stores. I can’t stand paying retail, and browsing through people’s donations gives me a little idea of what people are like.

I’m probably looking at two or three solo trips over the next year and some light use back home. No big deal – the null option (listed below) might still be cheaper.

How can I cover more ground and reduce the cost of making mistakes?

What about renting bikes? Most cities have bike rentals. I’m not sure if I can generally take advantage of them – time, familiarity. Well, maybe a handlebar mount for my Android, and spare power in case I need to charge up? If the weather forecast didn’t call for thunderstorms this week, I might’ve borrowed a bike and used it to get around.

What about a folding bike? Two of my friends take folding bicycles with them on trips. That might work, too, because then I won’t have to think about rental hours or availability. I tend to pack light. My travel clothes fit in my carry-on, which means I can keep the suitcase for the bicycle. A bicycle would give me better range and might come in handy if I can’t hitch a ride with a coworker. Would a folding bicycle be worth the investment? It will primarily be useful for solo air travel, and I don’t plan to take more than two or three such trips over the next year. (Note: Watch out for airline fees!) It may also be useful for subway or bus-assisted trips – not the one to work, but maybe when visiting friends. If it’s light enough, I might also use it for short trips in spring and fall, when my town cruiser is hung on the bike rack.

How can I test this idea?

  • Bikeshare program: Cheapest, if available. Will need helmet and lock. May have a hard time adjusting bike height. Dependent on bike sharing locations – usually only downtown core.
  • Rentals: Inexpensive for trips shorter than 1 week. Dependent on bike availability, rental shop hours, and location.
  • Bringing bike over: $100+/trip + bike packing materials. May be difficult to get from the airport to the hotel with a bicycle and a suitcase. Larger van, more costly?
  • Shipping bike over: Some people ship their bikes by FedEx or UPS. This is a little scary, though, and requires that I find a mailing store for the way back.
  • Folding bike: $400-500, maybe more? Might be easier to lug, though. Airline bike fees might mean that renting would be cheaper. Plus side: it will be my height, and I don’t have to worry about different brake systems.
  • Taxi/bus: The null option is worth keeping in mind, given the few times I might want a bicycle. This is really about making sure I have emergency power for my phone, the phone number for local taxi companies, and enough cash in case they don’t take credit cards.

What about push scooters? Other people swear by them, as they fold up smaller and are lighter than even the lightest folding bikes. A folded-up scooter is less bulky than a folded-up bicycle, and many models can be rolled along like strollers or shopping carts. Pushing myself might be interesting given the flat shoes I typically wear, though – I might change into a pair of sneakers. A push scooter would primarily be useful for getting around town on solo trips in conjuction with public transit. It might also be useful for going to the library or to the grocery store for quick trips, and for getting to the subway station when I’m not biking to work (when rain is expected, or if my bike’s still up on the rack). I walk to the supermarket or library about twice a week, but this is usually a social walk with W- and J- too.

How can I test this idea?

  • Check out the push scooters in Toronto. Check prices, feel, etc. Rainbow Songs (Roncesvalles) sells the Xootr Mg Push Scooter with fender/brake for $243.78. It’s ~$229 in the US, so it looks like getting it in Canada will be fine, although the US will have more choice. There’s also the Razor A5, which Toys R Us sells. Advantage of being short: I can raid the teens’ scooter lineup, although the perks of grown-up scooters look tempting.
  • Check scooter prices in the US. Plan to spend an extra day looking around, perhaps? Maybe I can visit friends and have stuff shipped.
  • Walking. The null alternative to a scooter would simply be more walking, maybe with extra power for my phone/GPS or a separate GPS unit with longer battery life. Extra power for phone seems like a better bet, so that I can call a cab if needed – and I’ve got the MintyBoost for that, I just need to fix the electrical short.

If the forecasted thunderstorm lightens up, I’m going to take the bus down into Boulder tonight to check out some of their thrift stores and to try the dining options along Pearl street. While there, I can think about which of the options would have given me the most benefit.

Hmm. Thoughts? Experiences? Advice?

2011-05-17 Tue 14:37

Finding the bright side of business travel

I don’t like travelling. I’d rather be home: husband, cats, garden, library, home-cooked food, regular routines, everything I need where I want it to be. But we haven’t figured out teleportation and some clients want face-to-face contact, so I go if necessary.

It’s a little hard to focus on the bright side of business travel, aside from the opportunity to meet people in person. Travel changes such a large chunk of personal time. Long days trail off into the temptation to spend evening hours catching up with work e-mail or flipping through the movies on the television. Restaurants overwhelm with choices and serve too-large portions. Laughter and meows are replaced by the white-noise hum of hotel airconditioning.

But there’s a bright side there, somewhere, new opportunities that open up during every disruption. Here’s what I might be able to do this trip:

  • Wake up earlier. There’s no one to disturb, and there’s more incentive to go to bed early and wake up early.
  • Spend more time writing and drawing. No meals to prepare, no dishes to wash, nothing else to do but work and write and draw.
  • Eat different kinds of food. Eat the kinds of things we would find difficult to prepare at home. Avoid the temptations. Focus on soups and salads – maybe that will help…
  • Listen to more music. I rarely do so at home. Here, it’s better than the constant traffic and weather updates on the lobby television that’s tuned to the news channel.

I could enjoy business travel more, I suppose, if I stayed an extra day in the cities we visit. Here loss aversion rears its behavioral-psychology head, I think; I’d find it hard to tear myself away from home a day early in order to walk around a city by myself. This is not completely true. I haven’t tried it, and I should give it at least one try. And for places I know we have friends in, I’d be happy to come a day earlier or leave a day later so that I can spend time with them. Perhaps the next trip.

It’s difficult but essential to be where you are, not mis-placed.

2011-05-15 Sun 09:26