Monday, February 29, 2016

The Devil is in the Details

The Devil is in the Details

Road Trippin’
with Steve McCarthy

The devil is indeed in the details. And in spades! Stepping back and looking at it, planning a long range Road Trip is a lesson in Details. Having to be more or less self-sufficient for a month of cruising anywhere is a daunting task. Doing it on foreign shores, even in allegedly civilized countries is, well...

To give you an idea of scale, one of the things I’ve had to do is make a list of all the Stuff we’ll be packing in the TR to be shipped to the Auld Sod. The upside of shipping in a container is having the ability to ship car essentials with the car, not in your carry on baggage. I have a feeling the TSA would take a dim view of a loaded toolbox with all it’s assorted iron mongery in the overhead rack! To say nothing of blowing the airline’s fifty pound weight limit per checked bag!

Anyway, I made a little list. With photos. the list is FOUR PAGES LONG! Every spanner (I’m trying to learn English before we go), screwdriver, set of points, sparking plugs, and nard and skizzy has to be on the list. Damn, I never knew just how much stuff we haul around on a regular basis. Is it all essential? Who the hell knows. I call it the Umbrella Theory of Spares. If you don’t take it, you WILL need it!

Then there’s all the other details of travel that one just doesn’t think about here. Like Insurance. OK, we all have car insurance and medical insurance here. None of it’s worth a Tinker’s Damn over there. None of it. So, off to the good people at Hagerty’s for road insurance for the car. About a ten page application form and several hundred pounds sterling and we’re good to go. I have to say, Hagerty’s people are GREAT! They are Car People first, and Insurance Gnomes second. They clearly get Us. Which is good because no one else will touch the kind of folly Marianne and I are planning to commit. Since they have a UK division, it makes it all a piece of cake.

Then there’s medical insurance. Your US policy, be it Medicare, Obamacare, or Whothehellcares, won’t cover you across the pond, and since you’re not a citizen of the UK or Eurozone, neither will their vaunted National Health. An internet search for travel health insurance will net you mostly travel insurance. There’s a difference. Travel insurance is a good idea if you’re paying for a cruise in advance and have to cancel because poor Aunt Edna kicked the bucket, or you break a leg and can’t go. Travel HEALTH insurance will cover you if you trip over your own big feet and break a leg while on holiday. Given our advancing years and length of stay, the Umbrella (or should I be saying “brolly” or “bumpershoot?”) Theory applies here too. Enter  a company called IMG. For $200 bucks, we’re both covered. They have good reviews on line (the slightly scary bit is, most say “I didn’t need to use it but it was good to have”) and seem to be a reputable company. With one drawback. You know that maybe the Number One Good Thing about Obamacare is the removal of “pre-existing conditions”? Doesn’t seem to apply. If you keel over from a heart attack because your arteries have been clogged for decades, they won’t help you. How they get away with this is a mystery to me (but I smell a lobbyist in the woodpile somewhere).

The last insurance is shipping the car. In case its container falls off the boat, or some such other disaster. Hagerty will cover you, so will your shipper. Both cost the same, but it’s a bit easier to do it through the shipper. There are a lot of details they can cover (like who’s trucking it to and from the port, taking photos--which you should do anyway, etc) that led me to get the coverage from them. It’s a toss up.

  Those are the larger details. Here’s a bunch of others:

Phones: We got Marianne a new iPhone (what a REALLY cool piece of kit THAT is) and the attendant two year plan from Verizon. AT&T works as well and the cost is about the same. What’s important is the Travel Plan. I learned about this from my buddy Bill Morgan. He and his Girl Friend took a jaunt to Spain, France, and Italy last year. The deal is, in Yurp, each country seems to have it’s own cell system and they are naturally incompatible with anyone else’s! Seems silly, what with the Eurozone and all, but there you have it. One option is to get a burner phone cheap and the appropriate sim card for the country. That’s OK if you’re not crossing a border. Then you need a new sim, AND you get a new phone number. So, if you’re in Spain and call for a hotel reservation in France and give them the number in Spain, when you change sims, your old number goes away and the hotel can’t get in touch with you. Did I lose you yet?

With the Verizon travel plan, you can pay monthly (and cancel without penalty when you get home) and you keep your phone number, and can make calls and text and do interwebnetstuff to your heart’s content. BEWARE however, most of the data plans will cost you and it’s easy to eat up the data, so ONLY do web stuff where there’s WiFi, like at your hotel.

The really bitchin’ thing about the iPhone? With its BluTooth, we can play music through the intercom headsets we got! Just be SURE to download the music to the phone and disable the web access so you don’t eat up your data plan!!!

Electricity: Another thing we added was an electrical adaptor. Not only are the plugs in the UK/Ire of funky shape, they use 220v to our 110v. Stuff like hairdryers will fry! Allegedly, Apple stuff doesn’t need a voltage converter, but...Enter the Papeak Travel Power Center. It’s like a power strip on steroids. It’s a surge protector, adaptor to different voltages (and does it automatically, no fiddling with little switches, hoping you got the right amount of juice), AND it has four USB ports. The other advantage is it has a long cord so you don’t have to plug stuff in to the outlet that’s in an inevitably remote spot behind a sofa. It’s about $40 on Amazon.

AAA: Roadside Assistance. No, your Triple A card won’t help you much. I asked. So, enter AA (no, not the booze people). It’s the UK equivalent. And again, the Umbrella Theory is at work. Now, it’s a bit tricky setting things up, and it took several emails and live chat back and forth but here’s the deal. Using the UT, I went for the maximum “cover” (what they call coverage). Not only the UNLIMITED calls of the regular plan (ARE YOU LISTENING AAA?), where they will either fix your car at the roadside (including a couple of litres of petrol!) or tow you to the nearest garage to get it fixed. Add to that the “Trip Forward” option, and you’ll get a hotel room AND a rental car for a day. Then there’s the REAL KICKER! Opt for the cover that gets you PARTS AND LABOUR to fix the Auld Crate! The limit for parts is 500 pounds and they won’t cover normal wear and tear items. This is an amazing option.

So, drawbacks. There have to be drawbacks. It ain’t cheap and you have to buy a year’s worth. Price is based on the age of the car, so for the TR, it came to some $300. The other problem is you have to have a UK address and phone number. The phone isn’t much of a problem, the customer support people gave me a “generic bogus number with a lot of 1s in it. The address is more problematic. Luckily, we have friends across the pond who were willing to let us use theirs. When all the documents arrive, they’ll forward them on to us. You CAN get the coverage once you get there, but there seems to be a delay on when it starts. A little creative contact with a hotel you are planning to use for more than a couple of days might cover this problem.

Money: Ireland uses the Euro, the UK still has their Pound Sterling. You still have to deal with exchange rates. Here’s the hot tip. Get a credit card (you have more protection from fraud than with a debit card!) and use ATMs for cash. That’s where you’ll get the best rates. Try for a card that offers a rebate on ATM fees! Get one from a major bank, one that they’ll recognize over there. And make sure it has the new fancy chip. Most of Yurp uses those, have been for a donkey’s years. Large establishments will take Visa/MC, but if you’re stopping in small towns or B&Bs, they’ll want cash, so have enough on hand (and of course, don’t be an idiot! DO NOT FLASH YOUR WAD IN PUBLIC!) for routine purchases. Remember too, ATM fees are generally uniform. If you use one, get the maximum allowed, that amortizes the fees over the withdrawal.

Now, when you land or cross a border, you’ll also need some cash in fist. AAA here and probably your bank will sell you some Euros and Pounds. AAA has it on hand, your bank may need to order you some. A hundred of each should be more than sufficient to cover whatever costs you may have until you can hit an ATM. DO NOT GET CASH AT THE AIRPORT THEY WILL RAPE YOU ON THE EXCHANGE!!!  Important Tip: notify your banks that you will be traveling and they will see unusual activity on your cards! And nobody but nobody uses travelers’ cheques anymore.

Nards and Skizzies: Extra plug adaptors for when you forget one in a hotel, extra power/adaptor cables for phones/computers/cameras for the same reason. Several data chips for cameras. Spare keys for the car and luggage. Extra batteries for cameras. Extra battery chargers for same. Web addresses/phone numbers for potential hotels/B&Bs. Pack underwear, meds, copies of prescriptions (it’s not a bad idea for OTC meds to have the packages to ID what they are), toothbrush, and toiletries in your carry on luggage in case your real luggage gets lost, or sent to Abyssinia. Extra eyeglasses. A travel clock. Small flashlight. Hard copies of ALL reservations made. Bring a small reusable shopping bag. Markets don't provide them! You look silly coming out of a Spar or Tesco juggling beer, cheese, bread, and bangers! Copies of all documents (registration, insurance, Driver’s license, passport, title). A small knife. Clothing size conversion charts because if you need extra underwear, you’ll NEVER figure it out without help. I know, a lot of this stuff is now part of your smart phone, but what happens if it grows legs? Hmm?

So, that’s a lot of Stuff. It’s amazing how it all adds up. The danger is of course carrying too much Stuff. Understand, most consumables are available in one form or another over there. Ireland and the UK are civilized countries and have most of the usual amenities that we are used to. You may have to use a different shampoo or soap or toothpaste, so DEAL WITH IT! Most importantly, bring a good attitude. Don’t be the Ugly American, When in Rome... And above all, observe what used to be the Golden Rule of Polite Society. Never discuss Religion or Politics. Ever. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Finding Your Way in Foreign Lands

Road Trippin’
with Steve McCarthy

Technology is a marvelous thing. Sometimes. You have to make it work for you, not the other way around. All this computer jazz is fun, but all the nards and skizzies are just tools. If they don’t do what you need them to do, why have ‘em? That’s why I resisted getting a computer for so long and still don’t have a cell phone. Still, I’m not the Neo-Luddite I make myself out to be. For the Grand Tour of the Isles, technology is going to be our friend. 

The obvious thing is of course GPS. As long as you don’t think it’s the end all and be all, it’s extremely useful ( see: but beware of the limitations. What’s really neat about my Garmin is the add in chip that gives me a full set of UK/Ireland maps. Well worth it. The chief limitation is of course, the GPS’ major failing, it always wants to send you on a freeway (motorway over there) or some other main road. To defeat that, we’ll be programming in the small towns on the back roads to force it to see it our way. You use the “Trip Planning” function and enter in a list of towns along your planned route, forcing the thing to send you on the way YOU want to go. 

That leads us to another necessity. A real live, physical, analog piece of paper called a Map. You remember those, don’t you? Big ol’ fold out thing with squiggly lines all over it that you can never re-fold again? Yeah, those things. Thank God for the late, lamented Thomas Map Company. They came up with the brilliant idea of putting maps in books, each page an easy to read detailed map with arrows and page numbers for where the road went next. I cut my teeth on the LA County one when I drove buses back in the Dark Ages. Well, Michelin, you know, the French tire company? They’ve done the same thing and we got one for Ireland and the UK. Works on the same principle and has all the fine detail you need to explore the “B” roads. This will be a vital tool for nightly route planning and playing “Fool the GPS”. 

So, now I can hear all you Young Whippersnappers saying “What about Google?” What about it? Yes, it is a useful tool, but Google Maps (about the only really reliable set up) isn’t as good as it used to be! The idiots there eliminated the most useful tool for long range planning. It used to be, you could make up to 24 alterations/destinations. Now, it’s only about 10. Makes for a whole lot less flexibility. Yeah, I wrote them. they don’t care. They know best. They are Google. sigh. 

That doesn’t mean we won’t use it. It does make it easy to find places to stay and I’ve found that the Google ratings, along with those on Trip Advisor are the most reliable. They don’t play games like Yelp does, forcing businesses to buy ads to boost ratings. I don’t trust Yelp and won’t use it. This whole internet rating game has changed the business world, and generally for the better. It forces businesses to offer the consumer better service and products. Instead of questionable magazine reviews that may or may not be influenced by those that advertise (except Consumer Reports and Cooks Magazine, who take no ads), you get reviews from actual users/visitors and overall, they are quite useful. Not infallible, mind you. Businesses have caught on and pay people to write good reviews and even bad ones for competitors. The trick is to read between the lines and look at the overall picture. One lousy review because the yabbo couldn’t bring their hyena into the restaurant, or complaints about the WiFi shouldn’t really deter you. Several reports of vermin in the room? Yeah, might want to stay away from that one. Look at the overall impression and weed out the whiners. 

The coolest thing about Google Maps is of course, the street view. Not only can you take a look at the accommodation you have in mind, you can look at the neighborhood. And, most importantly for us, the parking. No, I don’t want to park the TR on the street overnight! In large cities, I want something secure, in small towns, at least something off the street. The other cool thing is checking out possible backroads. Yeah, you drag the little person to the road, click the compass thingy to get you oriented, then, click on the road and away you go! This will help you see if it’s a road you want to bother with or not. Damn, I’ve found some doozies out there! There is an added Bonus as well. Remember, this is the Land of Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road. Back in Aught Six, we flogged around Ireland in a Fiat Panda, learning to not only keep on the wrong side of the road, but shifting with the wrong hand. Now, using the street view, I can practice a bit, acclimating myself to the wrongness of it all, understanding the road signs and seeing what REALLY narrow roads look like. I’m telling ya, some of ‘em look like back alleys, not backroads! So, a Mac AirBook will be accompanying us, as well as an iPhone so we can call ahead for rooms (remember, we’ve only made a couple of advance reservations, we don’t want to get locked into a rigid time frame). 

That brings up another limitation on technology. You’d think, with all the globalization, that cell phone service would be globalized too. No such luck. Each country seems to have it’s own specific system that doesn’t want to talk to your phone. Le Sigh. This requires that you do one of several things. Get a cheap “burner” phone in each country, or a sim card that will connect you to their system. Trouble is, you get a new phone number each time and you STILL can’t ET it and phone home. To exacerbate it, say you are in Ireland and call a place in Scotland for a reservation. You give them your number. Then, when you get to Scotland, you have a new number, now they can’t contact you. Poof, there goes the reservation. My good buddy Bill Morgan solved that for us. He and his main squeeze Danni took a trip to Spain, France, and Italy. He discovered that his provider here (AT&T in this case) offers an international plan for $60/month. It’s not a contract deal, so, just sign up for a month or two, then cancel it when you come home. That allows you to use your phone just like you were at home. BIG WARNING!!! Only use your phone when you have to and ONLY use your hotel WiFi for anything involving the internet! You’ll burn up your data plan REAL fast. Verizon has a plan that’s similar to the AT&T, so pick your poison. The smaller carriers DO NOT SEEM to have such deals, unless you want Mexico or India, so you ARE stuck with one of the biggies. 

The next bit of Techie Legerdemain is for our own communication. The TR is loud. It’s a four wheel motorcycle. Usually, we wear earplugs under our Davida helmets to save what’s left of our hearing. That means, Marianne has a white board to write me messages and route instructions. That’s fine for a day or three. This trip is a WHOLE DAMN MONTH! Now, some guys might think that a whole month of not having their wife be able to talk to them for hours on end is a good thing. Maybe you need to evaluate your relationship. Just sayin’. The complexity of this trip, plus the desire to just be able to converse about what we see means that the white board just isn’t going to cut it. 

Technology and the Motorcycling Community to the rescue. Ever see those couples on their giant Honda Goldwings or Harleys? Ever see the boom mikes that comes out of their helmets? Yeah, they have communications. Used to be, they had to plug into a sound system on the bike. No more. Two words. Blue Tooth. Yeah, you get a unit that clamps onto each helmet. There’s speakers that go inside the ear flaps and a boom mike. They are both synced to the Blue Tooth on your phone and Hey Presto, Robert is your Mother’s Sister’s Husband, you can talk to each other. It’s Freakin’ Amazing! Now here, you can dial your phone into Pandora or Spotify and get music, but over there, you’ll burn through your data too fast. Enter the Blue Tooth MP3 player. That can sync in as well (or replace the phone) and again, Hey Presto, etc., you have tunes. We got the out fit from a company called Sena. It’s the SMH-5 model. It comes with a pair of units, already set up to talk to each other. For a few bucks more, you can get one with an FM radio, but have you heard BBC1? Or RTE? I do have to tell you that when we got the units, I had to call their support people to get it to synch with Marianne’s phone. A human answered on one ring (I know, right?) and were amazingly helpful. I had to download to the units a software update and the tech guy patiently walked be through the entire process. Oh, and because they're Blue Tooth, you can use them for hands off phone calls. Naturally, BE CAREFUL doing this. Even hands free calls ARE distracting. And another interesting concept, if your GPS has Blue Tooth (unfortunately, ours is not), pairing it with it means the directions will come through the headset! The other cool thing about this is that you can pair these units with others in other cars/motorcycles, so an entire group can yak back and forth. Them Motorcycle Folks have got this whole touring thing down! 

So, Tech can be good, but remember, these gizmos are just tools. If they don’t do what you need ‘em to do, why bother?