Based on my own travel experiences, I’ve decided to put some tips down to assist if you are going to the same places; after receiving a fair amount of requests from family and friends. Instead of typing up different emails, I will just put it under my Travel section.
DATA: I use KnowRoaming for my business travels as my trips are usually less than a week. It’s a sticker that goes onto my SIM card and gives me unlimited data at a flat rate of $7.99 a day (24 hour period). The way it works is once setup BEFORE you leave your home country, fill out your profile, add a credit card to buy credit in US Dollars of amounts of $25; $50; $75; $100; or $150. You can have the auto-reload option turned on so it reloads your account when you fall below $5. When you land in another country that’s supported, it will connect you to a local network immediately. The data supported countries are the ones that interest me (which excludes 99% of Africa where it’s easier and cheaper to just buy a local SIM), versus being able to make and receive calls cheaply where I am. You will see the name of the network as you would when you are in South Africa. It will toggle between various networks because it connects you to the best one wherever you are. It’s not a cheap option, granted; but it’s most convenient. When I’m pressed for time, I can’t go looking for a local network outlet or shop around for the cheapest deal for a few days. For me, the $7.99 a day is worth it. I have blogged about KnowRoaming here and here. They now offer free Whatsapp usage, including text, photo sharing, calls, video calls, etc.
If I’m staying on holiday for a week or more, I will buy a local SIM, after researching prices before hand. Several years ago, while on holiday in New York I opted to buy a T-Mobile SIM card. It was an unlimited data deal on 3G, and about 200MB a day on LTE I think. It was not a deal advertised on their website, you had to ask for it in-store. I don’t know if they still offer it but I’d use T-Mobile if I need to again. You need to take your passport with you to buy it.
PLUGS: I use the Twist Plus World Charging Station everywhere I go. It has support for over 150 countries, and has 4x USB plug points that are high-speed. As long as all my gadgets can charge in the quickest time, I’m happy. If you don’t want to buy something from overseas, rather opt for a single plug that supports many countries, instead of a whole bunch. I’ve been downsizing after moving house, so the fewer the items I have, the better. The plug actually sits on my bed side table every night with multiple cables permanently plugged in. I’ve blogged about it here: http://www.nafisa.co.za/review-twist-plus-world-charging-station/
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK
New York has 5 burrows – Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. JFK airport is located in Queens. Most of your time will probably be spent on the island of Manhattan. It is divided by the east and west on 5th Avenue. Lower Manhattan/Downtown Manhattan is below 14th Street; Midtown is between 14th and 59th; Uptown is above 59th; and Upper Manhattan is above 96th Street.
Getting around: I use my Uber account with South African credit card; it needs to be setup before you go. If you have any credit in Rands, it won’t work outside of SA. Everything will be charged to your credit card based on the day’s exchange rate, wherever you are. I use Uber primarily to and from the airport. If you take an Uber Pool, it’s cheaper than Uber X. But if you’re pressed for time (like heading back to the airport), then maybe don’t carpool.
For everything else, I buy a Subway pass for unlimited trips in NYC. Don’t bother with car hire, Subway goes everywhere you need to. If you want to go to the Premium Outlet mall in New Jersey, just take a return bus trip, it’s under an hour ride (traffic dependent). You usually get a booklet of discount vouchers to use over and above the ridiculous low prices on clothing, etc. The yellow taxis are more expensive than Uber.
You can take the Subway from JFK airport, if you’re happy to lug your bags everywhere after a long-haul flight. I’d rather take an Uber and rest a little on my way to the hotel. Also if it’s your first time in NYC, it’s so exciting to just take in the city through a cab ride, above ground. I will never forget my first time pre Uber days, sitting in a yellow cab, driving into Manhattan and spotting all the famous buildings I saw countless times on TV or the movies.
Accommodation: New York has a bed bug problem. I know of friends who experienced this first hand after booking through Airbnb. When I planned my own trip years ago, I was set on booking an Airbnb but decided against it due to bed bugs. I opted for a four-star hotel rather, on the Upper West Side. It was a milestone birthday, so I wanted something nice. I’ve also stayed near the financial district, midtown, and I can’t remember where else. As long as I am near a subway stop, it’s cool. I’d rather walk as little as possible if I’m returning to my hotel at night, especially if its cold.
I book most of my hotels through Booking.com; or Expedia.com. There are other sites to look, as well as comparison sites. Also, if you have loyalty card or benefits from services in SA that extend to accommodation in America, look at those. You can use Voyager miles for hotel bookings too/eBucks Travel shop/other benefits like Discovery/Liberty Life etc. Depending on your travel style/requirement, these may be limiting. Top tip: Don’t stay anywhere near Times Square, it’s too noisy at night; otherwise good luck falling asleep at night.
Sight-seeing: Maybe consider buying the New York Pass to save on entry fees for the major tourist attractions. Everything you should see is on there mostly. My other favourite option is the red sightseeing bus. When I’m in a new city on a short business trip, I try to make time for a quick bus tour to catch all the major sights. If you want to catch the sunset at Top of the Rock, just plan it better. Try to go up an hour earlier and just hang around until sunset, instead of going up like 15 minutes before because if you don’t have ‘skip the queue’ tickets you won’t make it in time. The New York Pass has fast track entry to major destinations, listed here. Also, water taxis to Staten Island are free. It’s nice to hop on, take in skyline views of lower Manhattan and grab a coffee when you get off, and just head back.
There are loads of museums in New York, but if I had to choose must-sees, they would be the American Museum of Natural History and Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Go for ice cream at Central Park, and stop at the John Lennon Memorial (Strawberry Fields), see where the Friends intro was shot, amongst countless other movie scenes. Grand Central Station is worth checking out too, it has a cool Apple Store inside (not as cool as the iconic 5th Avenue one). Go to the High Line in Chelsea (spent my birthday here too, during the day), and if you want to go to other hipster areas – Williamsburg, SoHo (love SoHo), Greenwich Village etc. If you want to make your own customised M&Ms, go to the huge Times Square branch, they make great gifts (it takes less than 5 minutes to make). If you want see a show on Broadway, the best way to get tickets is to stand in the queue at the TKTS discount booth in Time Square. But you’ll obviously have to take what’s available – because discount. If you want to go to a concert, just Google your dates and see who’s playing at Madison Square Garden, etc; or buy second hand tickets online.
Food: You will be spoilt for choice when it comes to food. Halaal food can be found easily in NYC, and there’s halaal food carts on basically every corner and it’s cheap; portion sizes are large. If you are strictly halaal, you might want to avoid certain spots. Use the Zabihah app to find places near your location. I find that the entries are somewhat dated though. I went to Red Lobster for my birthday dinner in Times Square – but then Beyoncé decided to mention it in a song of hers, so now bookings are not as easy (apparently sales went up, too), but if you can eat here, do it. There’s loads of bakeries to try too – Magnolia, Melissa’s, Dominique Ansel (inventor of the Cronut), Ladurée, etc. If you can find a 99c pizza place, get some. Use apps like Yelp, or Zomato etc to find spots.
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA
The first thing you should know about San Francisco is that it’s tiny, mainland being seven miles by seven miles (!). And the city has a housing problem, which is why it’s full of homeless people, and explains why the streets smell like pee. Also, lots of fog.
Getting around: You just need Uber to get around, really. The city is so small, so everything feels close by. I used Uber exclusively while I was here on holiday a couple of years ago. I used it so much that Uber thinks my location is San Francisco, instead of Johannesburg. If you are using Uber, surge pricing will hit you. It gets very crazy during the evenings at peak hour. We opted to have coffee to kill time instead of paying the ridiculous surge pricing.
Accommodation: As mentioned above, SF has a housing problem. Thus, hotels and Airbnb are basically similarly priced/expensive, depending on what you’re looking for. I opted for an Airbnb for a family of 5 when I visited on holiday. It just made sense to get a house, with superfast Internet, a kitchen, and living room kitted with Apple TV, Netflix etc; ready to use.
Sight-seeing: Just do the hop-on hop-off bus tour to see all major attractions. Chinatown is one of the largest outside of Asia, worth talking a stroll through. There’s also a Japantown if that interests you. Union Square is a popular hub, with all major shopping brands (Macy’s; Cheesecake Factory). Lombard Street, Mission’s District, Fisherman’s Wharf (loads of shops here too), Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, Alcatraz (must-see). We did the bus tour, and it came with a night city tour, and visit to Alcatraz. We also went across the Golden Gate bridge and spent some time in a little town called Sausalito. The San Francisco Giants play at AT&T Park, so if there’s a game going on, expect lots of traffic to backed up. Make sure you also go on a cable car (not like the ones you take a table mountain). It runs on the streets, with 3 main lines.
Food: We relied on apps to find food nearby to where we were at any location, stopped at Starbucks now and then, and made sure we also had clam chowder. If you go to Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf, you *must* have clam chowder at Boudin (served in a sourdough bowl), this particular spot serves clam chowder without bacon.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
In contrast to SF, Los Angeles is massive. Pity about LAX, as far as airports go, it looks like a dump. However, between SF and LA, I loved California.
Getting around: Because the city is so huge, if you rely on Uber, it will get expensive. Despite using Uber a lot while I was here and feeling the pinch, I wouldn’t recommend you do it. If you are able to, depending on length of stay, rather hire a car. If it’s for a couple of days and you’re a family of four, then Uber X is alright. We did hire a car but on our last day, to drive to Las Vegas. Always factor in traffic and time to get to where you need to be.
Accommodation: You can find accommodation at the usual Booking.com or similar, or Airbnb. The city is quite large, so decide carefully where you want to stay, based on what you want to do. You really don’t want to stay an hour out of where you’re likely to go every day.
Sight-seeing: The bus tour will take you to all the major sight-seeing spots. Leave a full day to go to Universal Studios Hollywood, it’s fun for the whole family if you don’t have anyone under 18 – I say that from experience 😉 Check out the 4D rides etc. Things you want to do, visit Santa Monica Pier, Venice Beach, Hollywood Walk of Fame, Rodeo Drive, get a good shot with the Hollywood sign in the background, and whatever museums or malls catch your interest.
Food: We just relied on apps to find spots to eat, a few recommendations from others, and just stumbling across places. Just search if there is anything specific you’d like to try. Our hotel came with free breakfast, but after a couple of days, eating machine pancakes wasn’t that exciting.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA
Vegas is every bit flashy and fake as you’d expect. We drove from LA to Vegas, the drive is longer than you’d think because the speed limits are lower than South African highways. I’d say make this a day trip and there could be traffic. It can get confusing trying to navigate on the interstate highways, versus freeways, etc; just make sure you know what the speed limits are, which is in MILES. Also, left-hand drive on the right side of the roads.
Getting around: Car hire is the best way to get around Vegas, because parking is free at almost all hotels. They are proper parkades too. When we went, Uber wasn’t allowed to operate in Vegas but it’s now there so maybe consider it too, if you’re there for a couple of days. They also have public transport, a train that goes along the Strip; and busses.
Accommodation: I found a good deal for a hotel on Booking.com. You don’t really want to be staying in the middle of the Strip because it gets noisy and if you want a good night’s sleep, rather find something towards the end of the Strip, where we stayed. Our hotel had some rides in it, that takes you really high up to get a good view of the Strip at night.
Sight-seeing: Vegas is good for a couple of days, like 3 at most if you don’t go to casinos. Walking along the Strip at night is a must, of course. You can also do something flashy, cos Vegas, like drive exotic cars on a race track (recommended, but $$$$). You have to go for a show in Vegas, I really wanted to see Britney but she didn’t have anything on in our dates. We saw David Copperfield instead. We also took a helicopter ride to see the Grand Canyon – the highlight of our trip! Driving a Lambo on the racetrack was a close second. There are also Premium Outlet Malls you might wanna stop by. If you want to see the Grand Canyon, it’s a full day trip because you’re driving to Arizona, the neighbouring state. It is recommended that you book with a tour company and do a coach tour.
Food: Nothing exciting about food here. Typical American food comes in XL portions, deep fried, and loads of cheese, basically. We managed to find some Indian restaurants too. Starbucks is your friend.