Tripping in America – Part 1 – Getting Here

There is a very interesting reason why this trip to America was planned for this year, a reason which will become apparent in the fullness of time, and a reason why I decided to call this trip a once-in-a-lifetime-never-to-be-repeated trip to America.

Having travelled a lot through Europe as a child, and even as an adult I have been to many wonderful places, I had never visited any other continent than Europe, and so had never been to America before, despite New York always being on my list of places to visit before I die. However, San Francisco is where this trip brings us to, and what an amazing city it is, but more about that later.

For me, one of the biggest concerns was actually getting into America. After that atrocious delay in getting my passport renewed (for “routine” security checks), and even the electronically issued entry visa saying that it doesn’t guarantee entry to the country, there was, to me, a very real and frankly scary risk that I might be turned away at the door, and subsequently lost the money spent on this trip. Actually, I’m surprised the insurance industry hasn’t jumped on that bandwagon of fear yet and offered cover in the event of refusal of entry (you read it here first if they do).

Alas, despite the initial fear, there was no choice but to proceed and take the risk, in the hope that the knowledge that I am no threat, nor am I involved in any criminal activities, will be enough to see me through.

Ah, but we must now jump back again, pausing our journey as I also just remembered another very stressful event in the planning stage, the booking of flights. Having chosen KLM as the preferred operator to fly us to America, partly driven by price of course, but partly also driven by the fact that KLM have always, without exception, been my favourite airline, thanks to their incredible in-flight service and the staff who deliver it. Friendly, attentive and respectful, plus a little bit cheeky and fun, their crew were the face of the airline which would mean I would never question their ability and always choose them over a rival if their was a point where price didn’t overrule. 

Having made the decision and chosen KLM, what could possibly go wrong? Firstly, double charging for the flights, which is apparently standard and written in the small print (make it BIG print please) and then ending up as an argument in which the bank blamed KLM and KLM blamed the bank, it was eventually resolved, but not without the bank charging a fee, which was eventually refunded by KLM, but not without a fight. 

Then came the change in flights. Okay, with such a complex schedule there are bound to be one or two minor changes, which we were kept up to date with, until we noticed one change that we weren’t aware f, we just happened to notice in the app, which was not such a minor change, it took an entire day off our holiday! No, this is got good, and so an email to the CEO was called for and the information given to KLM as to which of their flights we could be out on, retaining our holiday schedule, and accepting a change. Now, this information was available to KLM as we got it from them, so quite why they failed to adopt this change without a fight is baffling, and is indicative of their lack of ability to effectively administer and manage flight schedules for passengers. With all of this combining, my confidence in KLM plummeted, they were no longer my airline of choice but rather a contributor to a very stressful pre-flight experience. 

I would never trust or fly with KLM again, although that opinion did change once on the flight, which I will tell you about in a future post as to do so now would spoil part of a surprise we haven’t yet revealed. However, the point is, much like my initial opinion, it was the cabin crew who won be back round, they cannot be faulted, my gripe is still with the administration. 

And so, our journey began. Flying from Madrid to San Francisco was our route to America, but with an early flight, we made the choice to stay a couple of nights in the Spanish capital. 

For those friends who are following the trip on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, I apologise for the teaser videos, but I wanted to take you on this trip with us, revealing the surprises as we go. The first surprise was our chosen destination, which has been revealed, but there are still a few more surprises up our sleeves, like why and where next, but that will come in time.

Madrid is still one of my personal favourites when it comes to cities, although I’m not writing about Madrid right now, but like many Spanish cities the airports seem to pose major problems for visitors who are not used to the layout, which, let’s face it, are the vast majority of people who are driving there.

Having booked car parking, the first problem was finding the car park we had booked. Missing a turnoff was a minor setback, the car driving along a fast moving slip round at a snail’s pace presented a hazard, as did the other drivers stopping at random areas along the clear way because they too had no idea where they were going. Then, finding out that all roads lead to a car park, the wrong car park, meant the will to live had all but drained away. 

Through the barriers, we take a ticket, we drive. Ahh, we see a sign explaining that if we don’t want to park we should keep left. It is a car park but this road we are on takes us out the other side. There’s a barrier. Do we pay, authorise our ticket, what do we for? Oh, we just drive out. We did, we are free, free to continue our journey to try and find the car park. Lucky for us this is in the early hours of the morning so there’s not much traffic around, thanks to the plan to stay over, less fortunate are those we left behind. 

We are here, parked in the car park, but, in all honesty, without any clue as to whether it is the right car park or. Not. We have been stung before. We walk to the terminal, find our check-in desks and are immediately escorted to a vacant desk and weighed (the luggage, not us) and checked in. It took minutes, what a surprise.

Now to passport control and security, carrying our “Cabin Bags”, prepared for the dreaded queue through security that is so often complained about in the U.K. Press, there is a sign giving an estimate of the current delay time, a whole 3 minutes…. What? Wait? Three minutes, I haven’t got…. No, really… Apart from having to go back to take this iPad I am writing on out of my bag, I was straight through, probably in about a minute and a half. Thank goodness, I now have a minute and a half in the bag!

Next, find the gate, flying to Amsterdam first, there is nothing more to say other than gate, plane, board, sit, fly… It was that simple. 

Ah, I need to rewind again. Despite travelling to lots of places I have never been on a connecting flight. I was totally at a loss as to whether I have to collect my case at Amsterdam and take it to my new plane, or if I just trusted it to the rather helpful, friendly and attentive man at the check-in at Madrid. It turns out it was the latter, the case is now flying solo. Goodbye underpants and socks (and other important item also) I may never see you again (but I have spares in my cabin bag).

Anyway, back to Amsterdam. I had read on the Internet (so it must be true) that I would have to pass through security at Amsterdam once again. I had already wasted 90 seconds of my life at Madrid, I didn’t want to go through that again, but if it must be done, then so be it. However, having found security, it was simply a case of showing my passport and answering a simple question, “where are you going?” I clearly passed that interrogation and proceeded to the gate for plane 2.
Possibly around 30 minutes later we boarded our KLM Airbus that would take us to San Francisco. I am not going to comment on that flight right now, for reasons I have already mentioned (spoilers) but I will say that being a Playmobil collector and photographer, of course I took a couple of pictures (see Instagram). I also watched a couple of films, the Sherlock Holmes one with Sir Ian, which was okay but being a slower film it did send me to sleep, and the Steve Jobs film which totally changed my unjustified opinion of Jobs that he was a really nice guy and made me now think he was a t**t, unless the film misrepresented him of course. 

A lifetime later, although it did go quite quick if I’m honest, we started to descend towards San Francisco. Oddly, at no point was erected the fasten seat belt signs illuminated, which one of the cabin crew did notice and call to report, but everybody did sit down and buckle up, until touchdown of course when it seems like a race for some people to get to the doors. Accompanied by the beep, beep, beep, trumpets of mobile phones being switched back in to service.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention (moan), when I pay for extra leg room it is room for my legs, not space for cradling mothers to gather and compare baby notes. Just saying (moaning).

Apparently, San Francisco airport was very busy so we had to do a little tour along the coast before landing. It is Super Bowl weekend  and the airport expected over a thousand more private jets than usual. It meant we landed on time rather than early but the view f the bay was amazing so well worth it.

So, we landed. Now comes the big problem. Will America let me in? If you’ve seen the pictures and videos you already know the answer, but if you don’t then YES, they did.

I don’t think there is a person on the planet who isn’t aware of the tragedy that beset America and changed the world in which we live, and, although an inconvenience, I doubt there are many who don’t actually understand and realise the need for heightened security, but the question is what can we do to minimise those delays, and when I say we, I mean the vast majority of us, law abiding citizens. 

For me, I stripped away everything that I would normally carry, such as a torch for example (yes I do, really), and prepared a bag on new and unopened medication and vitamins. I got TSA approved locks , put batteries where they should be, removed charger cables to by hold luggage so they couldn’t be confused as being anything else, and then prepare for the possibility that I might be turned away for even the slightest of reasons.

Leaving the plane we follow the signs, all too aware now that we are aliens, an Englishman in… San Francisco. 

After a short walk, it happens, a barrier formed of small booths with uniformed officials waiting for us, their victims, and choosing our fate. 

Yes, there was a queue, but in reality it only took about 5 minutes to reach the rather young and Pacific looking boy in a black uniform behind the glass of the booth.

My boy took fingerprints and my photo and asked a series of questions, all of which I answered without hesitation, the most important for me being  “are you planning to work?” Erm… “Hell no” being my mental response, “no, not at all”, being what I said to border boy.

With passport stamped I was allowed to proceed to stage 2, in an almost Reader’s Digest (or was it wives) sort of way.

Ahh, we are at the luggage check thing. An amateur created, hand-written sign tells us what to show, thankfully, before we meet a burly looking Homeland Security guard.

Beefy Border guy looks at documents and waves us through, then, the heart sinks, having got through this stage without anal probing to interrogation, he calls us back, “sir… Sir… Go that way…” As he directs us away from the search area and into freedom, out into the open air, welcome to America. 

In the next part I will tell you about some of the places we’ve visited, then, shortly after that, why we are here and where we go to next. 

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