Sunday, August 11, 2013

Planning trip to USA - tips based on my own experience

Hadn't blogged in a while. Video card died before my trip. I was also in the western part of USA for two weeks. Very eventful. More so than Germany, but I still prefer the latter.

Car Rental
I followed the tips here when renting the car for our trip. Long story short, it is cheaper to rent a car for a week than over days. I thought about using train travel rather than driving, like we did in Germany, but I have much less faith in the commuters in USA and the level of comfort that we'd expect.

Getting Alcatraz Island Tickets when the particular tour I wanted is sold out
San Francisco - Alcatraz Cruises
This is the only and official tour that allows you to walk on the Alcatraz island. I already decided to get the tickets back in June, but I wanted to get it with the City Pass. The complication with the City Pass was that if you want to buy it with the option of Alcatraz Tour, then you have to CALL Alcatraz Cruise to buy the City Pass with the option (note: the Blue&Gold cruise that comes with the tour will be replaced by this option). Email or online purchase are not allowed.You can only buy the tour ticket online.

Since I don't live in the USA, this idea sounded particularly horrible to me. So I decided to only call them when I reached Las Vegas.

Guess what? Two weeks later, when I changed my mind (decided to sit on the Blue & Gold and go Alcatraz), I went to the site to buy the tour, only to find out all the tours on the two days we are going to be in SF are no longer available.   
So I searched online for two days, trying to see how others resolve this problem? This is what I found out:

Alcatraz sells the tickets in 3 ways, over counter, on phone and on website.

What do you do if the Alcatraz Island cruise you wanted is sold out?
- Buy it on Craigslist
- Buy it on actual day when the hotels give up the tickets they couldn't sell.
Alcatraz also releases 50 tickets for only the 9.10am tour during off season, and 50 tickets each for  9.10am, 10am and 10.30am tours in high season (summer). The counter opens at 8am, and according to the company people start queuing at 5am sometimes. Everyone can buy up to 4 tickets by cash or credit but the entire party has to be in line to get the tickets (I interpret this as everyone can buy only 1 ticket) on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Buy it from people who can't go and are trying to resell the ticket at the pier
- Buy it from another tour company which combines it with another SF tour/ resells it for $$$. If you do this, make sure the Alcatraz ticket is confirmed.
- Be patient, Alcatraz Cruises will release tickets randomly on the website. You have to keep pressing refresh. The earliest this happens tends to start 5 days before the actual cruise.

It was like back in university when we had to keep clicking on websites for class registration. So you'd bet that this was no skin off my nose, even though it was a terrible inconvenience. I got the tickets about 2 days after trying, one at a time.

Usefulness of online coupons in USA!
I learnt all about the couponing culture when I watched "extreme couponing". Too bad I didn't get to try it out when I was there. One thing you should do when you are buying specific products or services, you should always google said product/ company/ service and "coupon". This helps to save a few bucks, which comes in useful when your country's exchange rate is not favorable against the USD.

Example. We went for the Warner Brother's VIP tour and I also did a Grand Adventures' Grand Canyon tour while Bobo was working. You can save USD5 per ticket with the coupon code "perk" (for Friends) or USD8 per ticket with the coupon code "ellen". "perk" worked for me. For Grand Adventures, I went to their Facebook page, and searched for the coupon code (forgot what it is now).

Otherwise there are the printable coupons, as well. I also signed up as a member on the premium outlets website (where you can buy brands at cheaper prices *tight pussy and proud of it*), which entitled me to a coupon book (valid for one month) on top of other coupons that I could print off each outlet mall's site. Example. I saved USD20 on top of my savings at Levi's with a separate Levi's coupon, versus the USD15 from the coupon book.

Las Vegas Coupons
(1) Vegas4locals

When you got to go, you got to go
The cleanest toilets in Las Vegas are on the casino floor. Duh.

Don't fly United
I can understand why USA is so anal about security with the body scans and all, but I am extremely irritated by United. First of all, they only allow 1 checked in luggage, which meant we had to pay another USD100(!!!) to check in another bag. Strangely they allow you to hand carry two other luggage, which is very dumb and causes a lot of inconvenience on the plane and during checks. The food was disgusting as well, even though it was plentiful (will upload the food pics later). At first we thought it was because of the food provider at San Francisco, but the food was also bad on the flight back to Singapore from Narita, Tokyo.

Our flights back to Singapore were 100X worse than the experience we had flying with ANA to USA, even though there was a long-legged caucasian who kept kicking me all through my 10 hour flight from Narita to San Francisco. Our 10 hour flight from San Francisco to Narita saw two crying kids (one intelligible toddler, and one psycho Japanese little girl throwing tantrums + kicking the seat right behind me), and having to share common tv screens in the economy class. I hadn't seen a common tv screen on flights since 2000, and it reminded me of taking trips on tour buses to KL where they feed you bad food and let you watch pirated movies on shaky common screens. The United one was exactly the same, and the movies would hang a bit at times as if pirated.

Not only that, all our United flights were delayed (we flew ANA from Singapore to Tokyo to San Francisco, and United to Las Vegas, then United from San Francisco to Tokyo to Singapore), and the flight from Narita to Singapore was quite a joke, especially since we were already taxiing to the runway, and the captain came on to say that we had to return to the gate because some baggage were incorrectly loaded onto the plane..

United also has a bad habit of overbooking its flights and delights in offering you USD300 to take a later flight. WTF. After 2 long flights of more than 8 hours each, I just want to get to my destination. And this, after we already paid for the tickets. Fucked up service, fucked up attitude on top of that. Everytime they played their motherhood bullshit video about how professional their service was, I nearly wanted to die from laughing. I WILL NEVER TRAVEL UNITED AIRLINES EVER AGAIN.

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