Saturday 3 March 2012

The Great American Dream - How to plan a trip to the United States of America

It was around the first week of December. I had just quit my job of three years. It had only been a few days, and already I was showing withdrawal symptoms. I was edgy all too often, restless; slowly displaying just a tiny bit of insanity. The only thing that kept me standing on that tightrope was thoughts of travelling. I watched TLC and Fox Traveller for hours. But more than David Rocco’s Italian food and Paul Merton’s Indian escapades, I was more interested in Unusual Restaurants in USA, Lonely Planet Six Degrees – New York, Fabulous Cakes in Las Vegas and Bodacious Bakeries in USA. Okay, maybe I was just hungry and lusting for food I couldn’t have. However, I was also lusting for a trip I deemed ‘impossible’ at the time. Having heard tons of stories detailing the various levels of difficulty that the much coveted American visa proposes, I assumed that the desire to visit USA wasn’t going to be fulfilled any time soon. So I spent my time ‘sighing’ at every one of these shows, unaware that the universe was already plotting to prove me wrong. Such ego. Tsk tsk.

Impossible is possible

In 2009, a few days before Barack Obama officially took residence at the White House, he said, "Anything is possible in America." How true. After all, he is the first black American president. Besides, how else can you explain the rising popularity of the Kardashians, women willing to sleep with Justin Bieber and presidents who can read books upside down? Really, ‘anything’ is possible in America. And just like that, I was hit with this cliché. I bagged a pass to the Golden Globe awards that were to take place in Los Angeles this past January. How? Because I’m so amazingly awesome that they couldn’t resist inviting this incredibly talented Indian girl to the second most popular film and television award ceremony in USA. You’re laughing, aren’t you? Wonder why I’m not going to reveal my sources...

Obama: Born in the USA - by Surian Soosay, Flickr

So I finally got the chance to explore a country I hoped for long to visit. From the first time I saw Sleepless in Seattle, I knew some day I wanted to make it at the observation deck of the Empire State building in New York City.

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan at the Empire State building's observation deck, in Sleepless in Seattle

I’d made a mental list of places I wanted to visit in the future whenever I’d seen glimpses captured in films and television shows, such as the ice skating scene in Serendipity shot at the Wollman’s Rink at Central Park, the iconic water fountain show at Las Vegas’ Bellagio Hotel in Ocean’s Eleven, the diner featured in Seinfeld, Chandler’s visit to the Statue of Liberty in Friends, Ted’s enthusiasm of the amazing Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco in How I Met Your Mother, and so many more. 

John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale in

Matthew Perry in Friends

But most of all, I really wanted to be in New York for Christmas, just to see the 74-foot Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center.

And so, as soon as I got my visa on December 21, I planned a 50-day trip within two days.

How to plan a 50-day trip in 2 days

Since this limited time prevents you from etching a full-fledged plan for the entire trip, just stick to the basics. Chalk up a basic itinerary and plan the rest once you arrive. Here’s how I planned my trip:

1) Flight tickets: The key to booking my flight tickets was two-fold:
a. I wanted to ensure there was a stopover of at least an hour, as that would cut the total journey of approximately 20 hours into two halves giving me a much-needed break.

b. Since I was planning to leave on December 24 and still hoping to make it to New York for Christmas Eve, I had to ensure I made it in good time. So keeping in mind the different time zones, I checked flights that landed there during the day on December 24.
After hours of online research on ticket prices and several calls to various travel agents, I finally zeroed in on Lufthansa Airlines. The return trip cost: Rs. 65,000, which was the lowest price I could get being season time.

Quick tip:
If you have a fixed itinerary, book all internal flights within USA (such as New York-Los Angeles) from India itself because it is often much cheaper.

2) Accommodation: Being a solo traveller, I really enjoy staying in hostels so as to meet people from all over, under one roof. So I began scanning the usual haunts, and But since I was going to be in New York for Christmas and New Year, most hostels were packed. So, I discovered another option thanks to a friend’s suggestion: a website called From vacation rentals and plush apartments to castles and tree houses to houseboats, Airbnb offers a wide range of properties to fit various budgets. Trust me, it’s going to be tough to pass up that castle for a hostel dorm.

3) Foreign currency and travel insurance: Most often, I find this to be the last of people’s worries when they plan a trip abroad. I suppose it is based on the assumption that it can be done last minute, as even airports offer foreign exchange counters (though most often present higher rates than city shops). But from my experience, it needs to be done at least one day prior. This is why:

a. Foreign exchange: For a long trip like mine, I wanted to take more than adequate cash with me; as credit cards are charged a nominal fee for every transaction abroad, which I wanted to avoid. Most companies take cash, cheque or Demand Drafts (DD), but cash is not always possible to provide, simply because there is a limit on ATM withdrawal. While a cheque seems like a good idea, you only get your foreign currency once the cheque is cleared, which can take up to two-three days. A DD is a good idea if you know exactly the amount you want to exchange.

b. A Forex card
is a great option when travelling abroad. It works exactly like a credit card, but it is pre-paid in the foreign currency of your choice. You also get an ATM pin in case you need cash when you’re there, and an internet banking pin for online transactions.
Caution – Some stores don’t recognise Forex cards, nor do airports (for transactions like excess baggage) in which case it is a good option to keep a credit card handy, so that you can use it only where necessary.

c. Travel insurance is mandatory so make sure you get yours done. It doesn’t cost much. A one-month trip is likely to cost you approximately Rs. 500-600. Companies like Thomas Cook offer most services at one place, so you can get your foreign exchange and insurance at the same time.

4) International SIM card:  Usually I don’t care if I have data services enabled on my BlackBerry simply because it is less distracting for me while I travel. However, since I was going to attend the Golden Globes, I wanted to ensure I could constantly update my friends and family about the event. So, I opted for a Matrix SIM card with data services for this trip. And admittingly, I’m going to enable data services on every other trip I take. In the past I’ve been comfortable enjoying my trip more or less off the grid with regard to technology, but this time I truly enjoyed staying in touch and sharing the sights and sounds I experienced every day.
Quick tip
It is definitely cheaper to get a SIM card from India than buying one there or activating international roaming on your current phone number. In addition, it works all through USA.

5) Go in blind: Aside from planning a basic framework of the destinations I knew I was going to visit, I didn’t plan anything else. I decided to figure out things to do and see once I got there. And I have to say, it was a great idea. It was a lot of fun to wake up and decide on something random. I spent a whole day on a bakery hunt in New York, just to find some yummy pastries, and another just walking in a circle to and from one chosen station in San Francisco. It led to the discovery of some of the sweetest little nooks and corners of these cities that don’t often come wrapped in a guidebook.

Did you know?
If you’re a first-time traveller to USA like me, then you should know the following:

1. Most local airlines charge for luggage, even if it is just one piece. So be prepared to shell out $20-40.
2. Luggage carts are charged too, $5. Suddenly grateful you live in India? You may as well be.
3. There are cameras everywhere. I’m serious. You’ll be followed by Big Brother literally till you enter a restroom. Even the restroom booth doors are oddly spaced out allowing people to sneak a peek. Talk about no privacy.
4. Carry a multi-pin plug. This one is a must.
5. Most fast food portions are interpreted like this: Small (means large), Medium (means extra large) and Large (means extra, extra large). So if you’re appetite is as little as mine, then a small bagel or cupcake will suffice as a meal.



Unknown said...

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Ruchika Vyas said...

Thanks Siya, glad you found this information valuable.