Sunday, December 14, 2014

Trip to London - Day 1 My Arrival

So, this is my very first trip outside the United States. I am in London on a business trip and being in another country is new to me. Though this is not one of my traditional posts (been a while since one of those anyway), I think detailing my adventures will be interesting for both my family and other readers. With that, I will tell you all about day 1 in London. I have learned a lot in less than 12 hours!

After reading tons of advice online, I decided to fly overnight to minimize the jet lag. The plan was - board the plane at 9PM, immediately go to sleep, wake up in the morning (9AM) in London and ta-da no jet lag. So far, this advice is working. It is 8:30PM London time and I am not tired at all. It is possible, however, that I am still running on nervous energy and the jet lag will hit later. I'll keep you posted on this front.

The flight was nice. I was a little worried about flying over the Atlantic Ocean for 6 hours but in the end it was so dark that I couldn't see the very big, very deep ocean beneath me. I woke up  about an hour before landing to the smell of coffee and the flight attendant served me right away. Two thumbs up for United Airlines!

Once I arrived at Heathrow Airport, I was told by colleagues to take the Heathrow Express (train) to Paddington Station and then a Black Cab the rest of the way to the hotel. I was very impressed with the Heathrow Express.  I was able to buy my ticket for the train online and display an e-ticket to the conductor. The path from the airport terminal to the train were well marked and there were very nice Heathrow Express workers everywhere to direct me.The train was super-modern and immaculately clean with free WiFi. New York and New Jersey trains really need to take a lesson from London on trains!

Unfortunately, this is where things got complicated. Everyone told me that I should use an ATM in London to get money (pounds) at the lowest fee. Stupid me for listening to that advice! Though I called my bank in advance to let them know about my international travel, the very first attempt to draw cash resulted in a hold being put on my debit card.... and once you are in London you quickly learn that cabs here don't accept credit cards. So there I am stranded at the train station in a foreign country. What does one do in such a situation? Get coffee, of course!

I go to this little coffee shop in the train station and order a coffee and the barista looks at me like I have three heads. Apparently, they only sold lattes. I told him a latte would be fine and pulled out a credit card to pay. Now, before I came to London I studied up on what to expect. In the process, I learned that UK credit card machines use a chip and pin system. I was able to get my credit card company to change my card to the US "equivalent" of chip and pin called a chip and signature card before I came.

Unfortunately, while I had received the chip card to satisfy UK requirements, I didn't know how to use it! I proceed to try to hand the barista the card and he (in an annoyed tone) tells me "put it in yourself." "Put it in where?", I asked. He points to a little card reader thing and I proceed to swipe the magnetic strip in the machine. Now, the barista was really getting mad and says to me "it is a chip card." Proud that I was so on the ball with that one, I said "yes, I know" and he responds in a very nasty tone  "you insert a chip card, you don't swipe it." After fumbling for a couple minutes I finally mastered inserting the card and got my coffee. Now, I am an expert at chip and signature cards!

Though I had finally gotten coffee, I still had no way to get to my hotel. I know that I can technically draw cash  on a credit card, but considering the high interest rate, I don't even know the pin that would allow me to do that. So, I was stuck. But, then I remembered I downloaded the Ubber app before I left the USA - just in case I needed it. I used Ubber to get a ride - charged to my credit card. In less than 10 minutes an Ubber driver picked me up and safely delivered me to my hotel. Two thumbs up for Ubber!

After that, I checked into the hotel, straightened out the debit card mess and was able to move on with my day (more on my day in the next post). In the end, I learned:

1. Always have at least a little local currency before you arrive in a foreign country. Don't depend on your bank to get it right even if you notified them in advance.

2. Pin and signature cards are available through most American credit card companies and they work in the UK's Pin and Chip machines. But, remember you must insert a pin and signature card - don't swipe it.

3. Have a plan B for everything. In this case Ubber was my plan B for travel in the UK and I am so glad it was available (otherwise I would still be at Paddington Station probably curled up in a fetal position sobbing). My other plan B related to calling home to the USA. I have both Google Hangouts and Skype available to me. I have already used both as one or the other was giving me trouble.

4. Expect challenges buying a regular-old cup of coffee (this challenge continued throughout the rest of the day - more to come on that).

5. To minimize jet lag flying to the UK, fly over night and awaken/arrive in the morning UK time.

6. Though I didn't talk about it here, I'll also note that plugs for powering your electronics are different in the UK. Be sure to get an adapter before you travel.

More to come later!


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