Jenny and Charlie traveled to Iceland November 9-15, to see the Northern Lights. The travelogue has been moved to our regular travel site.
We spent enough time on the Bullet Trains that I started to notice some differences with regular trains, and confirmed them when I returned. There are so many “gee whiz” facts, that I decided to summarize them here.
There are many different Shinkansen lines operated by the 5 separate companies of the Japan Railways Group.
Japan is extremely hilly, so a fast train has to go through mountains, not up and down or around the hills. It seems like half of each trip is in tunnels. Actually not half, but a lot of time is in tunnels.
The train is so fast that there are few if any grade crossings (flashing lights and dropped barriers). Most of the track is elevated.
The track is wider gauge – actually the 4 feet 8 1/2 inches that is standard in the United States, rather than the 3 feet 6 inch gauge used elsewhere in Japan. This creates more stability; the demonstration of the better stability and safety has led to other countries copying the wider gauge. Why the odd 4′ 8 1/2″ size? Arguments go back to with width of ruts, based on the width of axles of horse drawn wagons, which arguably is the width of two horse’s butts, back to Roman times.
The thing I actually noticed first, was that the insulators on the Shinkansen overhead power lines were far larger than on the regular train lines. I was right. The bullet trains use 25,000 volts AC (60 Hz) while the regular trains use 1,500 volts DC. Each axle is powered rather than having a heavy locomotive pulling the train, thus it can accelerate faster leaving a station.
The station stops that I timed were from 60-90 seconds. The trains are from 10 to 16 cars, carrying over 1,300 passengers. At peak times there can be as many as 13 trains per hour in each direction. Despite monsoons and earthquakes, their overall average delay from schedule was 54 seconds, but the best year the delay was only 18 seconds.
The cars are air sealed so the pressure doesn’t change when entering tunnels at high speed.
In 60 years of operation there have been no fatalities caused the the railroad, and only one due to a passenger getting caught in the door. There have been several suicides from people jumping in front of or out of a train. There is even an earthquake sensor that quickly stops the train when an earthquake is sensed.
Our Trip 6 of 2017 – August 23-30 – was back to Japan. We love the country and it has been 4 years since our last visit. We also wanted to see Nagasaki – the target of the second atomic bomb – (we have been to Hiroshima), and Kanazawa, one of the historic craft cities that caught Jenny’s eye. This is Charlie’s 5th trip to Japan, and Jenny’s 4th.
Our first destination was Nagasaki at the southern tip of Japan. We decided to fly, since we would be arriving at Narita Airport in Tokyo, and there are bargain flights from there. But there is no commercial airport in Nagasaki. The closest “large” airport is at Fukuoka, a 2 hour train ride away from Nagasaki. After Tuesday night in Hakata (close to the Fukuoka airport, and near the train station to Nagasaki) we spent Wednesday and Thursday in Nagasaki.
Friday was largely spent on the Shinkansen “Bullet Train” (up to 200 mph) from Nagasaki back to Tokyo. Saturday and Sunday included a visit to the Edo museum and Tokyo Sky Tree with our friends in the Shinjukuu area of Tokyo.
Then on Monday we took the Shinkansen train a couple hours to spend a day (and night) in Kanazawa on Monday and Tuesday, August 28-29, before returning to Tokyo for a night before returning home to Texas on Wednesday August 30.
The long legs of our trip were in Premium Economy, from Los Angeles to Tokyo on American Airlines, and returning from Tokyo to Dallas-Fort Worth on Japan Airlines. It is an interesting experiment, with space and service between coach and business class, that we will try again.
In summary, it was a great trip to Japan, but we tried too many things, too far apart, including 5 different hotels in 8 nights.
2017 Trip to Lima
In May 2013 Jenny and Charlie visited Cusco and Machu Picchu Peru (Charlie had a similar visit in 1969, in the era before Jenny). When we got home Jenny said “but we didn’t visit Lima (other than to change planes in the airport).” Lima is supposed to be nice.
April 20-25 Jenny and Charlie found a bargain ticket ($450 round trip) and we returned to Lima “for a long weekend.”
That travelogue can now be seen on plesums.com/travel/lima
Much of what you want to see is the great scenery between cities and visit many of the smaller towns, so a rental car is the way to go – but be aware that they drive on the left, like England, Japan, Australia, South Africa, and many other countries. Rental car pick-up and drop-off in Auckland is just outside the international terminal – no bus ride required. Gas in New Zealand is over US$5 per US Gallon, but diesel is MUCH cheaper and widely available, so if you are offered a diesel rental car, I recommend it.
The North Island and South Island of New Zealand are a significant distance apart. The ferry is about 3 1/2 hours, and a couple hundred dollars for one car and one driver. Our rental car could not be taken between islands… but Avis would arrange for us to turn in one car at Wellington (North Island) and pick up a similar car in Picton (South Island), continuing on a related rental contract. We didn’t check out those logistics – this first trip was filled with just the North Island. Wellington was far enough south that we regrettably never got there. Having seen a portion of NZ in the North island, we want to go again to see the South Island, probably flying into Christchurch.
As usual we picked up 100 New Zealand Dollars from a bank ATM at the airport. Unlike Europe, but like the USA, there was a $3 ATM fee (total US$ 75.54 to get NZ$ 100). We only used NZ$ 70 cash in 11 days. Visa or Master Cards were readily accepted for most charges, even small purchases. The balance of our cash was used towards the final hotel bill.
Our suburban Auckland hotel was a block from a stop for a frequent express bus to the center of the city, for about the same cost as parking our car in the city. Over half of our cash was used on the NZ$ 5.50 bus fares for trips to and from for two of us on two days (total NZ$ 44).
Before we left home, we found several natives who had posted that they had never given anyone a tip in New Zealand. At many restaurants, you took your bill to the counter or bar to pay, and there was no provision for tipping. On a couple bills there was a blank to add a tip, and the natives were thrilled with 10%. At one place I had filled in 10% but the cashier said “that money goes into the til – who was your waiter? Can you give them a couple dollars cash?” I found her and gave her NZ$5, and thought she was going to kiss me – like she had never been tipped before. It appears the culture is changing to allow us tourists to leave more money.
Admission fees to museums and parks is far higher than I am used to paying in other countries. At one museum the admission was NZ$ 55 each (over US $40 each). We can afford it, and it was worth it, but we are certainly spoiled by the Smithsonian in Washington and the V&A in London and others with free admission. One park ranger, giving a talk, joked about how expensive park and museum admissions were in New Zealand.
No tourist visa is required by Americans for brief visits. New Zealand is very strict about what food may be brought in. They have the concept of an instant fine (often NZ$ 400, and if you pay it immediately – even by credit card – there are no court costs, and it does not go on your record.) If they find any food items that you did not declare, you get an instant fine, and may lose the food. We declared even the smallest thing, like a bag of trail mix with dried fruit and nuts, got to keep the food, and were admitted without hassle.
The emergency phone number for fire, police, and ambulance is 111
We found that there is too much to tell – this is just the logistics part of a great trip. Click here to start the travelogue, but more will be added over time.
Despite all the hints based on notes on cities and other comments, here are our trips over the last couple years.
Trip 1 – New Zealand in February
Trip 2 – Tubac Arizona in March
Trip 3 – Lima Peru in April
Trip 4 – Paris in May
Trip 5 – Juneau Alaska in June
Trip 6 – Japan in August
Trip 7 – Morocco in September
Trip 8 – Wisconsin/Montana in October
Trip 9 – November-December still open
2016- total miles flown 112,292
Houston, by car, for a couple days in January, to see relatives from “up North” leaving on a cruise. So close, and by car, but there was a hotel involved, so we called it Trip 0
Trip 1: New Orleans for a few days in mid January
Trip 2: New York City for a few days at the end of January
Trip 3: Hanoi Northern Vietnam for a week in February. See the travelogue
Trip 4: Host a friend from England in New York City, Washington, and Central Texas, for a couple weeks in March. A reverse travelogue (what Andrea saw) is available.
Trip 5: Porto and Lisbon Portugal for a week in early April. See the Travelogue
Trip 6: Host Jenny’s sister in Dallas, Austin and Hill Country Texas, and San Antonio (Fiesta) in April
Trip 7: Providence Rhode Island area for a week in May
Trip 8: Helsinki Finland and Tallinn Estonia, for a week in July See the travelogue
Trip 9: Washington DC, with our granddaughter, for several days in mid July
Trip 10: Iowa for a wedding and to visit Jenny’s families at the end of July
Trip 11: Trip to Cabin John Maryland (DC) for several days for Charlie’s sister’s birthday
Trip 12: Seoul South Korea for a week in September See the Travelogue
Trip 13: Amsterdam, Netherlands, for a week in October. See the travelogue
This list does not include numerous trips to Dallas (4 hour drive) to visit our son and his family.
2015 – total miles flown 100,190
Trip 1: Panama City and canal – $500 tickets brought this to the top of the list for 5 days in February. See the travelogue
Trip 2: Singapore ($1031 ticket) – outbound via Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific final leg, 44 miles shorter than return via Tokyo, first leg on JAL, a week in April. See the travelogue
Trip 3: New York City for several days in April because of a $286.20 ticket. See the travelogue
Trip 4: Birmingham, Alabama
Trip 5: Boston June 30-July 2. See the travelogue
Trip 6: Santiago Chile for a week in July. See the travelogue
Trip 7: Minneapolis St. Paul, to start a family visit in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin
Trip 8: Anchorage Alaska (Summers are hot in Texas) in August, triggered by a $583.50 ticket. See the Travelogue
Trip 9: Cabin John (DC)
Trip 10: Barcelona Spain for a week in September. See travelogue
Trip 11: Decorah Iowa
Trip 12: Warsaw and Krakow Poland for a week in October. See travelogue.
Trip 13: Manchester, Selby, Saltaire, York, Hadrian’s wall, Lake Country, and Liverpool England, November 12-19, 2015. See the travelogue.
Trip 14: Los Angeles
Where to Next?
If you are just staring to travel internationally, click here for our recommendations.
Overall list of countries we have visited
Mainland United States
Over 150 countries to go!
Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport: The train into the city essentially becomes a subway within the city; if it doesn’t stop near your hotel, you can transfer to any subway line without a new ticket.
We were warned that credit cards were not widely accepted. In 2013 we were able to use credit cards for almost all expenses.
The service (tip) is included in the restaurant prices – not a service charge added to the bill, nor are you expected to tip. The second time we raised the issue, the waiter said “If anyone says that you should add a tip, they are taking advantage of you as a tourist.” Yes, it was a waiter that said “no tip.”
If you have a drink or coffee at a bar, the price is lower than at a table (which includes the service charge for the waiter). Don’t buy something at the bar, then sit down at a table.
Ask the waiter for a “Carafe” if you would like a (free) glass of water with your meal.
In addition to 112, there are other emergency numbers in France such as 15 for medical, 17 for police, 18 for fire, and others.
By Dutch law, the service charge in a restaurant must be included in the price of the food, so no tips are necessary. At a cafe, a “different” waitress than had served us brought our check, so I asked if tips were shared. No, management just takes all the tips. At nice restaurants, a tip of 5-10% is accepted with great appreciation.
Credit cards are widely accepted, but there may be an extra service charge for using the card. The surcharge was about 50 cents for the train tickets into town, 35 cents at a cafe, but no extra charge at nice restaurants or museums.
Amsterdam Schiphol (SKIP-pull) airport is about 5 miles from downtown (and incidentally 6 meters – 20 feet – below sea level). The recommended way into town – to the central train station – is via “NS train.” Tickets available from vending machines for €5.20 each (€4.20 plus airport surcharge of €1.00), runs every few minutes and takes about 15 minutes. You can buy several tickets at once, and use a credit card (some vending machines do not accept cash) for a credit card service fee of about 50 cents for each purchase.
In town the transit tickets for tram, metro and GVB buses are purchased from a vending machine or on the tram (cash only); a one hour (one trip) ticket is €2,90 (about US$3.20), unlimited travel for 24 hours is €7.50, for 48 hours is €12.50, etc., up to 7 days for €33. The time on each ticket starts the instant it is first used.
On the airport train and on GVB public transit in town (all but a few buses), the proximity ticket is passed near a validation machine (single beep) at the entry to the tracks (in the airport) or as you enter the tram (in the city), and again as you exit (double beep).
The highly promoted I AMsterdam city card for 1-4 days (€55 to €85) includes a 1-4 day GVB public transit ticket, a “free” canal cruise (worth about €16), and a free ticket to many (not all) museums (you still have to get in line for the museum ticket). The big advantage is access to shorter lines even if the entrance is not free. We found it a convenience, but not a financial savings.
The universal emergency number is 112, answered in Dutch, German, and English, within 3 seconds.
Berlin Airport: The good way into the city is the TXL bus (TXL is also the Berlin airport code), that leaves from the front of the airport terminal every few minutes. €2,60 each, or about US$3.40. Buy your ticket from a vending machine or from the bus driver. Once you are on the bus, “time stamp” the ticket in the machine on bus aisle. For the return we left our hotel at 5am so sprang for a Taxi (under €30 with tip).Credit cards are widely accepted. I hear that sometimes a chip and PIN card is necessary for tickets and unattended gas stations. Your chip and signature card may also have a PIN that sometimes works for these situations.
In Berlin we were able to get cash, with no ATM service fee (better than in the US), at our choice of ATMs, available every block or so. Credit cards are widely accepted but not universal – for example, at one place there was no apology or regret about “our machine is broken.” We carry enough local cash to cover a meal, and if we don’t want to bring the local currency home, we use what’s left towards our hotel bill.
If you have a car in Germany, you will travel on the Autobahn (at well over 100 mph). The Autobahn is analogous to the Interstate Highway system in the United States, but far superior maintenance, allowing far higher (unlimited) speeds. I made a web page of the experience (and driving hints for the German speed and driving customs/rules).
In addition to the universal European 112 emergency number, 110 is used for police emergencies in Germany
We flew in and out of Warsaw, and used the train to get into town. Krakow was added to our trip after we had our air tickets, so we took the train from Warsaw to/from Krakow. Looking back, we could have flown into Krakow if we had planned better, but at this instant Krakow is more expensive than Warsaw (150 miles away).We were able to use credit cards for everything, so had to work to use up the balance of the $100 equivalent we withdrew in local currency. There was a modest fee for using the airport ATM, refunded by our bank.
We only go to McDonalds overseas in an emergency, such as early morning in the Warsaw airport when that is all that is open. They have a slick way of placing your order electronically in a choice of languages on a large touch-screen with pictures. When we were there in October 2015, if your credit card is mag stripe or chip and signature (rather than chip and PIN), your order is canceled and you have to speak to a cashier with very limited language skills. (This problem has been fixed in other countries, so may now be fixed in Poland.)
Tips in a restaurant (up to 10%) are always paid in cash, never added to the bill on the credit card.
In addition to the universal 112 emergency number, In Poland 999 is used for ambulance, 998 for fire, and 997 for police