June 13th, 2010 by Tim Uden
When the Segway was launched in 2001, Segway Inc’s Dean Kamen predicted that the Segway “will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy”. Well, the Segway never really caught on as a practical transport option, but over the past five years or so it has become increasingly common as an option for tours and tourist rentals. It is a novelty and a lot of fun and most travellers can justify the relatively expensive cost for an experience that will live on as a great memory of their trip.
I probably wouldn’t rent a Segway everywhere. Firstly it can get expensive to rent in every city that you see a Segway rental place and some places are better suited to this form of transport. For instance a bicycle is the ideal way to get around Amsterdam, the top deck of a red doubledecker bus in London and a Vespa scooter is the best way to explore Italy (and Vietnam for that matter). However a Segway is ideal for beachside areas and when I was in LA last year I rented a Segway to scoot around Santa Monica and Venice Beach. It was the ideal way to explore this part of the city.
Segways are easy to ride and their self-balancing mechanism keeps them upright, although you need to be on flat ground for this to work properly (go over a gutter with one wheel and the Segway may not be able to help you). When I rented the Segway I was told that there are some places you can’t ride them. Obviously the freeway is off-limits, as are Santa Monica Pier and the Third Street Promenade; but this isn’t a big issue as there are plenty of perfect places to ride on the wide pathways that run alongside the beach.
The rental cost me $75 for two hours. That’s a lot of money, but the way I see it is that you need experiences to remember your trip by and the Segway was my LA experience. In two hours I was able to take a leisurely ride around Santa Monica, down to Venice Beach taking time out for a bite to eat and have time to get back to the rental depot in Santa Monica to return the Segway. An hour wouldn’t have been long enough, two hours was just about right.
The above video is my first attempt at video blogging. I’ve published hostel videos for a couple of years now but until now I haven’t put my own voice on video. I think in this case you have to see the Segway in action to get an idea of how much fun they are and putting my own voice to the video lets the video stand on its own. Besides I had the tape sitting on my desk and I figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to edit it for the blog. I think I can show a lot more with video that wouldn’t be possible with just text and a few pictures, but I’m hardly a professional at this sort of thing and maybe it’s best to stick with what I am best at. What do you think? Should I do more videos like this? And should I narrate the hostel videos (rather than set them to a soundtrack)?
Here’s a list of some places that rent Segways:
Vienna: City Segway Tours
Ambergris Caye: Segway of Belize
Paris: City Segway Tours
Berlin: City Segway Tours
Budapest: City Segway Tours
Annapolis, MD: Segs in the City
Atlanta: City Segway Tours
Baltimore, MD: Segs in the City
Chicago: City Segway Tours
Gettysburg, PA: Segs in the City
Jacksonville, OR: Segway of Jacksonville
Los Angeles: Segway LA
Minneapolis: Human on a Stick/Magical History Tour
San Diego: Segway Pacific Beach
San Francisco: City Segway Tours
St Augustine, FL: Segway St Augustine
Washington DC: City Segway Tours and Segs in the City
If you want more information about Segways, then the Segway Chat Forum is a good place to start.
April 15th, 2010 by Tim Uden
The entry fee will be waived for all national parks in the United States during National Park Week, which runs from 17 to 25 April.
Although 246 of the National Park Service’s 392 national parks do not charge an entry fee, the other 146 do. Entry fees for these parks range from $3 to $25.
The following national park entry fees are an indication of what you can save if you visit during National Park Week:
US national parks are also free on Public Lands Day (25 September, 2010) and Veterans Day (11 November, 2010).
April 7th, 2010 by Tim Uden
Last year I blogged about car sharing and said it was a viable alternative to car rental. When I visited the USA in September and October I had the chance to try it out and I discovered a major flaw in the car sharing concept.
I signed up for a Zipcar membership and used the service twice. First off I rented a Mini for four hours to visit and review the HI – Marin Headlands hostel near Sausalito. My second rental was in Palo Alto, where I intended to visit a hostel in the Los Altos Hills. I was planning on using Zipcar extensively on the east coast and also planning to make a video blog post demonstrating Zipcar’s new iPhone app. It was after the second rental that I learnt a very expensive lesson about a major issue with the car sharing concept and ended up renting from Hertz instead of getting a Zipcar on the east coast.
Around a week after my second rental I received an email from Zipcar accusing me of damaging the car and I was subsequently charged a USD $500 fee for the damage. I guess I’m lucky this didn’t happen in the UK where the damage fee is £500.
It is appalling customer service to be accused of doing something I clearly didn’t do, even though Zipcar may have every right to charge the damage fee. It could have been handled differently, without implying that a customer was wrong (I know I didn’t damage the car and don’t appreciate being told otherwise).
This whole experience soured my view of the car sharing concept by highlighting a serious flaw in the system. The car lives on the street or in a public car park and the person renting it is responsible for any damage that occurs to the vehicle until the next person takes the car. Unlike a traditional car rental company, there is no employee to check the car when you return it. The car just sits unattended in a public car park where anyone can damage it after it has been returned and the last person to use the car gets the blame (and a USD $500 damage fee).
To Zipcar’s credit they at least have acknowledged that this is an issue and several months after I used their service (several months too late in my opinion) they implemented a damage fee waiver. For USD $50 per year you can reduce the damage fee to USD $250 and for USD $75 per year you can reduce it to nothing. Anyone signing up for the service really should pay the additional fee because it is a lot cheaper than being charged USD $500 for damage that occurs after the car is returned.
Ideally occasional users should have the option of paying a smaller fee per month or per use (rather than per year), although Zipcar’s damage fee waiver is still a step in the right direction. In the UK, this is how City Car Club charge their damage fee waiver, which is a more cash-flow-friendly £5 per month to reduce the damage fee from £500 to £100.
Zipcar has since refunded my $500 damage fee (plus a free day credit).
Although it may seem that they speeded things up because I blogged about the problems I was having, it has become quite clear to me that they do have systems in place for dealing with issues like this. Basically I fill out a form (I remember filling out a form months ago, but can’t remember if I sent it in) explaining the situation, then they look into the case and possibly give a refund.
In my case, I knew I was right but couldn’t prove that I didn’t cause the damage. I returned the car early and neither myself nor Zipcar could tell whether the damage occured during my rental period. In this case it was a matter of my word against Zipcar’s, and they had every right to charge the damage fee (even though I may not have felt it was fair). Even though I wasn’t responsible for the damage, I couldn’t prove that to Zipcar. The car would have been off the road for a day or two while they repaired it meaning that they would have lost money on it, so it was nice that they refunded the entire fee.
I really didn’t expect this. I thought that if anything came from this, they may have come to some sort of compromise where part of the fee was refunded as driving credit, with Zipcar keeping enough to compensate them for the time the car was off the road. Anyway this refund has changed my opinion about Zipcar and I look forward to driving one of their cars again in the future (and using their iPhone app), although I’m currently living around a 16-hour flight from their nearest location so I won’t get a chance to do this until I’m either back in London or when I next visit the USA.
Despite Zipcar resolving this issue for me, the prospect of a renter being held responsible for damage caused after a car has been returned still exists – although that is the case with all car sharing services.
April 7th, 2010 by Tim Uden
Virgin’s Australian and US-based airlines have now joined forces so members of Velocity (the frequent flyer programme of Virgin Blue, Pacific Blue, Polynesian Blue and V Australia) can now earn points when they fly on Virgin America and members of Elevate (Virgin America’s frequent flyer programme) can now earn points with Virgin Blue, Pacific Blue and V Australia.
By the end of the year, members of either airline’s frequent flyer programme will also be able to redeem points on any participating Virgin-branded airline.
At this point Elevate members can not yet earn points on Virgin Atlantic, even though Virgin Blue’s Velocity members have been earning points on Virgin Atlantic flights for years. In addition to Virgin’s own airlines, Velocity members can also earn points with Airlines PNG, Delta, Emirates, Hawaiian Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Skywest.
March 2nd, 2010 by Tim Uden
Last week BUG launched the first of its downloadable travel guides. These are PDF files that you can download and print at home.
These travel guides are published just for backpackers – that’s young independent travellers who travel with their gear in a backpack and stay in hostels. Unlike other guides, BUG doesn’t weigh you down with listings of fancy restaurants and flash hotels that you can’t afford. Instead BUG guides have practical information on the things you want to see and do. Rather than tell you about expensive tours, BUG will tell you how to get around on public transport and about cheap iconic eateries such as a classic hot dog stand rather than overpriced stuffy restaurants and the only accommodation establishments in BUG guides are backpackers’ hostels and youth hostels.
These guides have detailed and up-to-date travel information as well as excellent maps. They are designed to ensure you have a great trip and they only cost a couple of quid.
In many ways they are better than traditional travel guidebooks (and not just because they are cheaper). For instance:
Downloadable BUG travel guides have better maps than a traditional guidebook. Because you are printing your guide on regular A4 paper, you can take advantage of larger, more detailed, maps. Downloadable BUG travel guides also have more maps than most other guidebooks. While most guidebook only have maps for the city centre, downloadable BUG travel guides also have maps for individual neighbourhoods plus separate maps showing points of interest and accommodation.
Downloadable BUG travel guides are more up-to-date than a traditional guidebook. Traditional guidebooks can take almost a year to research and up to four months to print and distribute. Research is quicker because BUG’s downloadable travel guides cover specific cities and regions rather than entire countries and we can get them to market sooner because you can print them at home. Generally we can have a guide ready to sell within a month or two of researching it.
You get free updates when you buy a downloadable BUG travel guide. With a regular guidebook you have to pay around £15 to buy the latest edition, but when we publish an update to a downloadable BUG travel guide we email our customers a link to download the latest edition for free.
February 5th, 2010 by Tim Uden
New York City is a city of high-rise buildings and a visit here wouldn’t be complete without going to the top of one of them. Visitors to the city have a choice of two: the Empire State Building and the GE Building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza (Top of the Rock). Read on and we’ll help you decide which is best.
At the Empire State Building you’re queuing for what seems like hours. There is a queue to get in the building, a queue for the lift, a queue to buy tickets, a queue for the second lift and a queue to get on to the observation deck.
In contrast you book your ticket for Top of the Rock online for your chosen timeslot, and then you turn up and take the lift to the observation deck.
The multiple queues and the fact that it is simply a more famous building mean that the Empire State Building is much more crowded. Top of the Rock is simply less crowded.
A visit to the Empire State Building means having to fend off pushy sales people that try to sell you photos and audio tours. In contrast, you can download the audio tour free from the Top of the Rock’s website if you book your tickets online.
The Empire State Building is a more famous building. But you can’t see the Empire State Building when you’re on top of it.
The GE Building at the Rockefeller Center (Top of the Rock) may not be as famous as the Empire State Building. King Kong never climbed up it, but it is still a well-known building that has been immortalised both by a TV show (30 Rock) and the famous photograph showing construction workers eating lunch on a girder.
Most people agree that the view is better from Top of the Rock. Even though you’re 10 floors higher up on the Empire State Building, the Top of the Rock is better located to offer unobstructed views of Central Park and a more complete view looking south down Manhattan that includes both Midtown and Downtown Manhattan.
The Empire State Building is on 34th Street at the southern end of Midtown Manhattan so you have to look in one direction to see Midtown and the other direction for a view of Lower Manhattan. From the Top of the Rock you see Midtown and Lower Manhattan in the one view, and looking north you see an unobstructed view of Central Park with the top 10 blocks of Midtown in the foreground.
Both buildings date from the 1930s, but the Empire State Building just feels more dated while the Top of the Rock has been recently renovated and is generally a much nicer experience.
Admission to either observation deck costs around the same. It costs $20 ($22 if you book onine) to get to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building and $21 ($19 if you book online) to visit the Top of the Rock observation deck in the GE Building.
More expensive packages are also available. For instance, once at the 86th floor of the Empire State Building you can pay an additional $15 to go up to the 102nd floor observatory and the Empire State Building has an Express Pass that costs $45 and lets you jump the queue. The Top of the Rock has a Sunrise Sunset package that costs $30 and lets you visit at sunrise and make a second visit later the same day.
In conclusion, it’s a no-brainer. Go to the Top of the Rock and enjoy the view. If you have money to burn (or a New York Pass, which is good for free admission to both), then go up the Empire State Building as well and decide for yourself which is best.
December 15th, 2009 by Tim Uden
With more than eight million people living within the city limits and almost 19 million people in the metropolitan area, New York City is the ultimate metropolis. It boasts a gritty appeal that’s missing in many other big American cities and it has a vibrant atmosphere fuelled by the millions of people who live and work in the city. Despite its reputation as an expensive city, there is a lot happening in New York that is absolutely free.
BAMcafé (30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn; subway Fulton Street (G), Lafayette Avenue (C), Altantic Avenue-Pacific Street (2, 3, 4, 5, B, D, M, N, Q, R, W)) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music has free performances of jazz, R&B, pop and world music every Friday and Saturday night.
During summer, Central Park’s Summer Stage (Rumsey Playfield, Central Park, New York; subway 68 Street (6)) hosts a programme of free concerts including some by major artists.
Shakespeare in the Park has a regular programme of free Shakespeare productions performed in Central Park. Although admission is free, you still need to get a ticket from Delacorte Theater in Central Park or the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street, New York; subway Astor Place (6), 8 Street-NYU (R, W)). The Shakespeare in the Park season runs from June to August.
The American Folk Art Museum (45 West 53rd Street, New York; subway 5 Avenue-53 Street (E, V)) is free on Friday nights 5.30pm-7.30pm. This isn’t just free admission, but includes free live music too.
Look at Renaissance art and Egyptian mummies at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn; subway Eastern Parkway-Brooklyn Museum (2, 3)), which has free entry 5pm-11pm on the first Saturday of each month.
Federal Hall National Memorial (26 Wall Street, New York; subway Broad Street (J, M, Z)) is where George Washington was sworn in as the first US president. The site is now home to a free museum.
Entry to the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, New York; subway 86 Street (4, 5, 6)) is by donation 5.45pm-7.45pm on Saturday evenings.
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA; 11 West 53rd Street, New York; subway 5 Avenue-53 Street (E, V)) has free admission 4pm-8pm on Friday evenings.
The National Museum of the American Indian (1 Bowling Green, New York; subway Bowling Green (4, 5)) always has free admission.
The South Street Seaport Museum (12 Fulton Street, New York) is free 6pm-8.45pm on the third Friday of each month.
The Studio Museum of Harlem (144 West 125th Street, New York; subway 125 Street (2, 3)) has free admission every Sunday afternoon (12 noon-6pm).
The Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, New York ; subway 77 Street (6)) has admission by donation 6pm-9pm on Friday evenings.
Several neighbourhood groups operate free walking tours. These include the Union Square Partnership’s free 90-minute walking tour of Union Square and surrounding streets. This tour departs 2pm every Saturday from in front of the Lincoln Statue in Union Square (subway 14th Street-Union Square (4, 5, 6, L, N, Q, R, W)).
There are also free walking tours that can be downloaded as podcasts from iTunes.
Stretch your legs and get close to one of New York’s most famous landmarks – the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge has a raised pedestrian walkway in the centre of the bridge that is accessible from the end of Centre Street (subway Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall (4, 5, 6)) on the Manhattan side. It takes around half an hour to walk across the 1825m (5989ft) bridge.
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden (900 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn; subway Eastern Parkway-Brooklyn Museum (2, 3), Prospect Park (B, S, Q)) is free Mon-Fri until 2 March 2010.
Entry to the Bronx Zoo (Boston Road, Bronx ; subway East Tremont Avenue-West Farms Square (2, 5), bus BxM11) is by donation every Wednesday.
During winter the Pond at Bryant Park (subway 42 Street-Bryant Park (B, D, F, V); open 6 Nov-24 Jan; Mon-Thu 8am-10pm, Fri-Sat 8am-midnight, Sun 8am-10pm) is the city’s only free admission ice-skating rink, although you’ll need to rent skates for $12 if you don’t have your own pair.
Grand Central Terminal is arguably the grandest railway station in the United States and you don’t need to buy a train ticket to admire the impressive building. The station’s main concourse is the most well-known part of the building consisting of a cavernous space with an enormous American flag and an opulent astronomical ceiling. There are more platforms on the lower dining concourse, which is considered one of the most impressive railway station food courts with many well-known restaurants including the famous Oyster Bar that has been operating at the station since 1913.
Shopping in a big city like New York may not fit into your itinerary if you’re just doing all the free things in town, but window shopping lets you keep your wallet in your pocket while seeing why shopaholics love this city. It costs nothing to browse speciality shops like the one-of-a-kind B&H Photo, FAO Schwarz toy shop and Zabar’s famous deli or to poke your head in the famous designer shops on Madison and Fifth Avenues.
New York’s best bargain is the Staten Island Ferry, which provides a free alternative to pricey sightseeing cruises. The ferry sails between St George on Staten Island and Whitehall Street at the southernmost tip of Manhattan, sailing past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty en route. It offers excellent views of Lower Manhattan and Jersey City as well as Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The ferry operates 24 hours per day with departures every 15 minutes during peak hours. The return trip is free.
It costs nothing to wander around Times Square and gawp at the bright lights. The big intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue is world-famous for its garish neon advertising, and is the centre of New York’s Broadway theatre district. It is the only part of New York where zoning laws require building owners to display illuminated signs and the intensity of bright lights and neon signs rivals that of Las Vegas.
You can unwind in the park after you have done all the free things in the city. Central Park, the city’s most famous park, takes up a huge chunk of central Manhattan spanning the expanse between Harlem and Midtown Manhattan. The park features lots of recreation areas including cycling and walking tracks, a swimming pool, two ice-skating rinks, an outdoor theatre and a zoo. It is the most visited city park in the United States and you can easily spend a day here, although it is best to keep out of the park after dark. Other parks include Bryant Park, Union Square and Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village where you can often listen to amateur musicians who gather around the fountain.
October 12th, 2009 by Tim Uden
Even though Seinfeld stopped running in 1998, many visitors to New York City make a pilgrimage to see the locations from the show. The main spots are:
Tom’s Restaurant (2880 Broadway, New York; subway Cathedral Parkway-110th Street (1)) on the corner of Broadway and 112th Street was the setting for Monk’s Café in the show. This restaurant is the main Seinfeld location in the city with Seinfeld memorabilia adorning its walls. It is a popular spot with tourists, yet it still remains an affordable place to eat with a genuine local atmosphere.
Unfortunately Soup Kitchen International – the inspiration for the Soup Nazi episode – on W 55th Street closed in late 2006, but the legend lives on in the spin-off Original Soup Man franchise with several Manhattan locations including 42nd Street near 5th Avenue (subway 5 Avenue (7)) and 2 Astor Place, New York (subway 8 Street-NYU (R, W), Astor Place (6)).
H&H Bagels (2239 Broadway, New York; subway 79th Street (1)) where Kramer worked is a New York institution and is regarded by many as having the city’s best bagels. If you visit, make sure you pop across the road to Zabar’s to experience one of the best specialty food shops anywhere.
The character Cosmo Kramer was based on Seinfeld producer Larry David’s neighbour, Kenny Kramer. Kenny runs Kramer’s Reality Tour (tel 212 268 5525), which takes in the show’s main locations and also includes inside gossip on the show. The tour, which runs on Saturdays, is popular with Seinfeld fans visiting New York, but it is advisable to book well in advance. Tours cost $37.50.
Check the Geography of Seinfeld site for more information about New York locations used on Seinfeld.
October 11th, 2009 by Tim Uden
Eating in New York City can be expensive – really expensive – but there is cheap food if you dine at the ubiquitous food carts and cheap pizza places found throughout the city.
Street food stalls predominantly sell hot dogs, bagels and pretzels (three New York staples that every visitor should try), but there are many other types of food available from shish kebabs to waffles. Prices vary from one cart to another and, after paying $3 for a hot dog only to find a cart on the next corner selling them for $1, I recommend only buying from carts that have their prices prominently displayed. In general hot dogs cost from $1 to $3 and a bagel with cream cheese costs $1 to $1.50.
There are several other options for hot dogs including Gray’s Papaya, which is reputed to have the best hot dogs in the city. This local institution is famous for its hot dogs and fruit juice and has three locations (539 8th Avenue, New York; subway 34th Street-Penn Station (A, C, E); 402 6th Avenue, New York; subway Christopher Street-Sheridan Square (1); W 4th Street (A, B, C, D, E, F, V); PATH 9th Street & 2090 Broadway, New York; subway 72nd Street (1, 2, 3)) that are open 24 hours. A hot dog at Gray’s Papaya is $1.50 and their Recession Special (two hot dogs and a drink) is around $5. Papaya Dog and Papaya King are two other similar hot dog and fruit juice places that you will see around Manhattan.
Pizza by the slice is another New York City bargain. Although there are many places selling slices for $3 to $4, it is possible to get a slice of pizza for just $1. Try Two Bros Pizza (corner 9th Avenue and W 40th Street, New York; subway 42 Street-Port Authority Bus Terminal (A, C, E)), which has $1 slices and a combo with two slices of pizza and a can of soft drink for only $2.75.
If you’re travelling on a tight budget you can get by on a bagel and cream cheese for breakfast and a slice of pizza for lunch and dinner, which means a daily food budget of only $3.
September 26th, 2009 by Tim Uden
This week I drove my first car rented from Zipcar, a car sharing agency that is an alternative to a traditional car rental company.
Basically Zipcar’s target market are people who live in big cities and only need a car occasionally. Rather than buy a car, they become a Zipster (a Zipcar member) and rent a car by the hour when they need it. It’s not really a service designed for the traveller, but in some instances it can work out a better option than a regular rental car.
Here are the main differences between car rental and car sharing (à la Zipcar):
There are quite a few differences between Zipcar’s service and a regular rental car and it isn’t for everyone, particularly if you’re planning a longer trip. However it is worth considering if you are travelling between big cities by some other form of transport (such as plane or train) and need a car for a few days at a time to explore a specific region, and it may be your only option if you’re aged between 21 and 25.
Because fuel is included and there aren’t any additional charges for insurance, Zipcars and cars from other car sharing services can work out much better value than regular rental cars (as long as you average less than 300km per day).
In the United States most car rental agencies seem to specialise in big ugly boring cars (usually the Hyundai Ascent – which I previously blogged about as being too big an unweildy – is the smallest car on offer). However Zipcar has quite a nice range of small cars, such as the Mini, Honda Jazz and the Mazda 3. Unfortunately like most US-based rental agencies, all North American Zipcars have automatic transmissions, so you’ll feel like an old age pensioner driving without being in full control of your car (however most Zipcars in London are manuals).
My experience with Zipcar
I signed up for a Zipcar membership a few days before flying out to the USA. However my member application meant that I needed to provide a copy of my driving record, which I needed to order a week earlier from Vicroads in Australia (if you’re planning to rent a Zipcar you definitely need to plan in advance). The day I arrived I recieved an email saying I was approved and a couple of days later I picked up my new Zipcar membership card (my Zipcard) from Zipcar’s San Francisco office.
I reserved my Zipcar online on my iPhone (this was around a week before Zipcar was due to release their new iPhone app so I did it through the phone’s built in browser) and was given directions to where the car was parked.
After finding the car I held my Zipcard to the windscreen and the doors unlocked. Then I hopped inside and started the car using the keys attached to the driving column (well it would have been that easy if I was able to work out how to start the car but a combination of not haven driven an automatic in around 15 years and being unfamiliar with starting a Mini – press the start button – meant that it took me a while to work things out, but that is not any fault of Zipcar.
There were a few little quirks that will take a little getting used to (such as leaving the keys in your car when it is parked and refueling using the fuel car under the sun visor) but I think it is worth it for the freedom that Zipcar offers, not to mention the option of having a nice small car instead of the big ugly things that most US rental car companies offer.
My problems trying to start the car notwithstanding, I found Zipcar an easy alternative to a regular rental car and I look forward to using them again; which incidentally will be tomorrow when I pick up a car in Palo Alto in Silicon Valley.