Things you learn on a 30+ hour journey

The things I do for a cheap flight. After a lovely holiday back in England with my family and friends, I am writing this blog post while still travelling back to Santa Barbara. Here’s how it has broken down so far:

  1. Drive to Heathrow: 2 hours 30
  2. Being there ridiculously early because we were worried about the M25, and erred on the side of caution: 4 hours.
  3. Flight from Heathrow to Philadelphia: 8 hours
  4. Layover in Philly: 3 hours
  5. Flight from Philly to Phoenix: 5 hours 30
  6. Layover in Phoenix: 11 HOURS?!?!?! (I did book a hotel room, but addled body clock and sporadic sleep on planes meant a weird, fitful, not very restful sleep)
  7. Flight from Phoenix to Santa Barbara: 45 minutes.

Total travelling time: 34 hours 45 minutes.

Ouch.

During this journey, I have learned several things/had things I sort of knew confirmed with severe clarity. Here we go:

  • Don’t look like a Turtle at the Airport.

Bear with me here. I knew that the weather was going to be colder when I returned to Santa Barbara, and I wanted to have more jumpers and some warmer clothes for this coming quarter. However, I was still subject to the 22kg weight limit due to my two internal flights. As a results, I decided it would be smart to stuff my carry-on laptop bag with my laptop, it’s charger, most of my other electricals, 6 t-shirts, and 4 course books for next quarter. Brilliant idea, and I dread to think how much it weighed fully-loaded.

Oh and I had my digital camera bag too, as my second, small carry-on.

As a result, I looked like a human Turtle waddling around the airports.

  • Wear comfortable travelling clothes

Linked to the above, I tried to keep my checked baggage weight down by wearing some of my “heavier” clothes. IE, I ended up travelling in jeans, a long-sleeved jumper, a hoody over the top of this, and then a black jacket to top it all off.

Oh, and I thought smart black shoes/boot things (you can tell I’m a real fashionista, huh?), suitable for a night out, wedding or ANY OTHER OCCASION than a 30+hour international journey would be a good idea too.

Normally, I wear comfy clothes- shorts or fat pants (sweat pants for American readers), a t-shirt and maybe a light hoody. From now on, I will be sticking to this common sense.

Well done Ben, well done.

  • If you have a 10 hour+ layover, overnight, a hotel is THE BEST OPTION

I am so glad I booked a hotel for my gigantic layover in Phoenix. I was very worried about 11 hours, snoozing in a departure lounge, with all my valuables on me, up for grabs as soon as I nodded off.

I got out of Phoenix airport at about 10/10.30 pm, bought an airport dinner fit for a King as I was starving (a cookie, banana, and packet of crisps- all that was available), and then got a taxi to the cheapest hotel nearby, a Red Roof Inn.

I cannot begin to tell you how much of a good idea this was. I have never had a journey to or from Santa Barbara that has had more than two stages (normally I fly from Santa Barbara airport to LA or San Francisco, then head straight back to Heathrow). Moroever, they normally don’t have an overnight layover.

Shuffling up to my room, dumping my enormous hand luggage on the second bed (I had two double beds; and yes, I did jump between the two a few times… my inner child couldn’t resist), getting all my gear off, and running a hot bath could not have been more heavenly after more than twenty hours of travel. Moreover, even though I was only able to get 6/7 hours of sleep, it was much better rest than anything you can try and grab on a plane.

More importantly, as any British citizen or Bill Bailey knows, there was one vital factor left to make it a successful hotel stay…. and Red Roof didn’t let me down: they had tea and coffee making facilities!

Excellent.

  • Burger King’s Croissan’wiches are abominations

They’re round croissants (debatable classification, I have to admit), stuffed with dish-sponge-esque egg, bacon or sausage, and that weird cheese-that-isn’t-really-cheese-but-orange-slime.

I just had one for my breakfast, and boy was it terrible. The croissants are kind of sweet, which made the rest taste strange; the egg was kind of squelchy, and the cheese just sticks in your throat. Overall, I would strongly recommend ANYTHING else for breakfast, pretty much.

So there we have it. Here we have some things I learned in in an unpleasantly long journey. I wrote this post while waiting for my final flight to Santa Barbara, at Phoenix airport. The flight is in one hour, and I will hopefully be back at Tropicana Del Norte, flopped out on my bed, in under 3 and a half hours. Wish me luck!

Viva Las Vegas

I turned 21 as of the 13th of December. Unfortunately, I had an 8am exam on the day itself, which seemed horrendously unjust. Nevertheless, after 11 weeks of being under-age all over again, not even being able to plonk my butt down in a pub to have a quiet pint… not that I’m bitter and twisted about this, of course… I wanted to celebrate being able to drink legally in style. What better way, when this side of the world, than Sin City itself?

The plan was as follows:

  1. Complete the Unspeakable Birthday Exam.
  2. Finish up packing.
  3. Say a few good-byes to other residents at Tropicana del Norte.
  4. Wait for my suite-mate Charlie to finish his midday exam.
  5. Drive to Los Angeles.
  6. Get the Greyhound bus to Las Vegas.
  7. Check-in at the Treasure Island Resort and Casino.
  8. Tear it up, generally and whole-heartedly, for 3 nights.

As I’m sure you’re aware, there is a general rule with Sin City: what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. However, for your reading pleasure, I am going to relate some of what happened. Enjoy:

  • The Underbelly of the Land of the Free- Greyhound Bus Service

After a decent drive down to LA with Charlie, we drove through the industrial, and incredibly dangerous Charlie assured Giles and me, part of LA which was home to the Greyhound Bus Station. He dropped us off, and Giles and I entered the grey (fitting), low, building. GIles checked in his bags, and as we had made good time on the way down from Santa Barbara, we had a couple of hours sitting around in the station. 

This was a surreal experience, I’ll be honest. We saw some incredibly strange people during this time. Most of the people were just minding their own business, snoozing on the benches or furiously focusing on their phones or mp3 players. However, there was the occasional person shuffling around, chatting to themselves, people who seemed to have the strangest collections of recyclable materials on their person instead of luggage, and generally sketchy looking people. It was like something out of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. In a similar manner to J. D. Salinger’s most famous novel, it was comparably disillusioning and perhaps not depressing, but it was definitely sobering.

At this point, I want to relate quite an interesting part of my journey. I hadn’t brought a hold-all or gym bag with me for the first term, for long weekends away and travelling etc. As a result, I borrowed a large US army backpack from my suite mate Vinh, who’s involved with the military and cadets back in his home town. Minding my own business and placing this bag at my feet seemed to successfully deflect most of the wandering mutterers or other odd patrons of the bus station. Interestingly, it did get some worried looks from some of the sketchier characters in the station. Moreover, as I walked around, I noticed several people nodding at me, or moving to clear my path as I walked over to the coffee shop. I want to clearly emphasise at this point that I did nothing to perpetuate the seeming assumption I was military, as this would have been highly disrespectful and utterly unacceptable.

Most people should have realised I wasn’t American as soon as I opened my Queen’s-English-speaking gob, let alone US military. However, you have to bear in mind, in that kind of setting, you don’t often just chat to random strangers, and Giles and I kept ourselves to ourselves and spoke to each other mostly. The assumption I was military extended to the staff, and as I got on the coach, I was taken aside to have my bag inspected and to be scanned with a metal detector. Being used to the high security of Heathrow and LAX, I was bracing myself to have all my possessions upturned and rifled through. Yet, I was asked “Do you have your firearm on you?”, to which I responded with a slightly surprised but firm “No”, partly because there was an assumption that I had one in the “your”. I then expected the search of my bag to be more thorough as I assumed the staff would want to make very sure of this…. yet, all he did was open the zip to the top of my bag, cast a cursory glance into it, shine a torch into it as if to double-check there were no firearms resting on top of my clothes (where I would logically smuggle a weapon onto the bus… insert sarcasm here), and grimly nod at me and then towards the door to the bus.

This odd experience continued on the bus- a woman who looked decidedly touristy was sitting across from her travel partner, and had set herself up with her bags on one seat, taking the other chair herself, as was her friend. She had quite a good seat, near the front, away from the toilet at the back of the bus, and I was about to pass her. She saw me coming, leaned across and spoke animatedly to her friend and grabbed her arm, then nodded towards me… I was about to walk past them and head further back on the bus, but she tapped me on the shoulder, and pulled my arm and brought me back to her seat. She then moved her possessions, and insisted I sat in her seat! I don’t know if she spoke English because I was trying to tell her I couldn’t take her seat, but she either didn’t understand me or chose not to listen. Eventually I just shrugged my shoulders, threw Giles a puzzled look, and sat down.

I do not know to what extent any of these experiences were linked to the military bag on my back, stamped in black with “US”; but at the time, I definitely felt some kind of correlation. I text Vinh and related some of it to him, and he put it down to the respect US citizens have for the military. He suggested people see a uniform or whatever, and instantly their respect is won. Evidently, I am not military, but even this accidentally extended to a British, American Studies student when I wore a piece of military garb. I’m still getting my head round it, but whether or not there was a correlation between my experience and the bag on my back, I still admire the respect that Vinh refers too. Not, I regretfully acknowledge, that this would be true in all cases for all US citizens. I’m sure respect for the military isn’t universal, even in the military-industrial complex addled U. S. of A.

  • A Lucky Turn

After more than six hours on the bus, a sandstorm along the way, and that moment when you bank a corner on the Interstate Highway 5, and Las Vegas appears out of no-where, sprawled out below with no rhyme nor reason, we arrived in Sin City. The lights were dazzling as we drove through the city, and my chin rested on my chest as I watched it all pass by the window of the bus. Giles and I pulled into the bus station at about 1.30 am, and took a taxi to our hotel at the Treasure Island Resort.

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We arrived at the hotel, and in a sleep-derived, zombie-like and wide-eyed state, we headed into the reception to check in. When I made the booking online, I had just selected non-smoking by default. However, the receptionist asked us to confirm if we still wanted non-smoking or would like to switch to a smoking room. I asked Giles, as I hadn’t even considered this when booking, and he smokes. He said switch if it was no bother. So I asked the receptionist if we could swap as it didn’t bother me either way. He confirmed we could… but told us the only smoking rooms left were on the top floor… the VIP floor… Would we mind switching here?!?!

DID WE MIND!?!

Slightly nervously, but excitedly, I asked how much it would cost to upgrade…

“Nothing, sir. The upgrade would be free of charge…”

Viva Las Vegas, baby! 

This was an as good start as any I could have possibly imagined to our Vegas shenanigans. Giles and I had stupid grins as we made our way across the casino floor and towards our special elevator, where we had to use our key to reach the top floor. The Canary was going to be flying high this week- metaphorically, and literally in our 36th floor nest!

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Sorry for the poor quality, but it was 2 am and we had been travelling for about 12 hours… give us a break!

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Panorama from our window, looking out over Vegas towards the mountains in the distance. Not bad.

In fact, we were so happy, our exhaustion fell away and we freshened up, changed and went back down to the casino for a initiation drink and gamble.

I had been building up to this moment for weeks. I cannot verbalise how maddening it is to be under-age all over again. I hated not being able to buy booze, go to a pub or club for those first ten weeks of term. So I had my drivers licence, my passport just in case, and I pulled up a stool at the main bar on the Treasure Island casino floor… and I ordered pints for the two of us. (No ID request yet, must be coming soon Ben…). The barman nodded and moved off to pull the pints… (No ID request yet, must be coming soon Ben…) He brought them over to us, swiped his keycard in the till and worked out the total and relayed it to me (No ID request yet, must be coming soon Ben…). I frowned, looked to my left at Giles who was smirking and shrugging… and cautiously handedo ver the cash. Still no bloody ID request! What an anticlimax! 10 weeks, and all I wanted to do was smugly whip out my drivers licence, in the midst of SIn CIty, and finally have my status as a legal drinker confirmed to me all over again. It clearly wasn’t meant to be… maybe it was the beard….?

  • Sin City Unleashed

I couldn’t possibly go into all the gory details of the next couple of days. There was muchos alcohol, muchos gambling and muchos revelry, let’s put it that way. But here are is a list of some of the shenanigans we experienced:

  1. Gambled in the main casinos- Caesar’s, the Flamingo, the Bellagio, etc.
  2. Had an All-American dinner at Denny’s (I had never been before, and this wasn’t specifically Vegas orientated as they’re all over the states, but it was still an eating experience!)
  3. We rode the roller coaster at New York, New York! This is a roller coaster that runs THROUGH a hotel, out of it,up above it’s roof (offering dazzling views of the Strip) before your flung down a huge descent and around a loop-the-loop and the rest of it is thrilling!
  4. We went clubbing in the Bellagio and blagged our way onto the guestlist for Bank, for a mere $10 tip each, instead of paying the usual $30-40 entry fee. Score! This was an insane night out, and was perhaps the best, classiest and generally most incredible club I have ever visited. Stunning dancing girls up on platforms, brilliant music, and a great atmosphere. This more than compensated for the $12 bottles of beer…..
  5. I’ll let some of the photos do the talking:

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Caesar’s Palace, where the guys in The Hangover eventually found Doug on the roof.

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The Bellagio, looking incredibly swanky.

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The Venetian.

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We got lost and found ourselves in Paris… Not. The mock Eiffel Tower outside the Paris casino testifies to the extravagance of Las Vegas perfectly.

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Las Vegas at night. I wish I had more night photos, but I was reluctant to take my camera out at night for various reasons. Mostly because it’s too bulky, but also I was utterly sloshed a lot of the time at night (and afternoon), so it wouldn’t have been in my poor camera’s best interests to include it on our nights out.

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Giles and me at the entrance to the Bellagio. Check out the flowery ceiling. We gawped at that for far too long, now I look back on it.
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And yes, I did lie on the floor and take a photo of it from below, I didn’t care what security made of it- too good to miss!

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Giles and me in front of the Bellagio Christmas tree. At least it wasn’t over the top or anything… I’ve never seen so many baubles (that’s not a euphemism, steady)! Very festive nonetheless.

  • We found Doug…

I wish this were a joke, but we literally found a bloke called Doug. As in a guy of the same name that the characters in The Hangover are looking for. It was a moment of pure brilliance.

After we went clubbing in the Bellagio, we made our way back to Treasure Island, via Caesar’s Palace. Giles insisted there was an amazing ceiling I needed to check out, and we searched all over the casino for it… however, we were somewhat worse for wear, and casinos with all the lights and their sea of fruit machines, can be a bit disconcerting. Moreover, it is difficult to find points of reference. Essentially, what I’m dancing round, is we got lost. Badly Lost. We ended up barrelling out of a side entrance to Caesar’s, which was clearly the wrong exit, and were in a drop off area which was partitioned off from access… we hurriedly made our way back onto the Strip and were probably hysterically laughing the whole way.

Within minutes of being back on the Strip, we bumped into a group of girls who were also out celebrating a 21st birthday. The birthday girl, Audra, had three friends, and her Mum with her, who also had a friend there to keep her company as well…. but in addition, they had acquired a drunken bloke who had lost his group of friends… Doug. Despite being 3/4 am in the morning, Giles and I looked at each other shrugged our shoulders, made the familiar announcement of “When in Vegas…” (our motto for the weekend and general excuse for all of our outrageous behaviour not mentioned in this post), and proceeded to head out again with our new group. It was one of the best nights of my life: it had started with watching rodeo in Gilley’s; it included muchos gambling; perhaps the best nightclub I have ever visited in my life so far; and ended up completely rejuvenating itself as a night out, with the after party taken back to our room, Grey Goose vodka in tow. Wow.

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Our gaggle and the Grey Goose Vodka (I am so sorry, that was awful, but I couldn’t resist that line…)

That’s Doug in the background with his shirt off. Doug was… well… barking. But he made for a good laugh.

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Oh yes, and this definitely happened…

It was definitely a memorable way to turn 21.

  • The Return Journey: What a Difference a Day (or three) Makes

The return journey was no-where near as weird as the journey towards Vegas. We were on an Express service at an ungodly hour (8.30 am, but after our last night, this relatively decent hour became unbearable). The bus was newer, had more leg room, and was generally more pleasant (less psychos). Plus, it was more direct, so we were back in smoggy LA in about 5 hours 30 minutes. Not bad.

I left Giles and Charlie at Union Station, as they left for Beverly Hills so Giles could rest a couple of days before flying home from LAX. I hadn’t known for sure Vegas would be happening, so had booked my return flight for the Christmas break from Santa Barbara airport. As a result, I got the train from LA back to Santa Barbara (considering the return bus journey from LA to Vegas had cost £57, the single train ticket from LA to SB- a 2 hour car ride- had cost $32?! Bit overpriced.) I got back to SB late at night, fell into the first taxi I encountered, and went back to Tropicana Del Norte so I could unpack, crash on my bed, and watch Breaking Bad until I fell asleep.

  • Summary

Overall, I had an absolutely phenomenal 21st birthday weekend.

I experienced (endured, some more critical than I might say) American public transport, and rode the Amtrak and Greyhound for the first time.

I not only received a free upgrade, but a free upgrade to the VIP floor.

I gambled seriously for the first time. By this I mean gambling more advanced than the 2p machines at Southwold.

I rode a roller coaster that comes out of a building.

I saw the dazzling lights of Vegas.

I bought my first legal drink in the USA (even if with less ceremony than I had hoped for).

I met some great people.

We found Doug…

Overall, Sin City provided me with some life memories, that I’ll probably be bugging my friends with for far longer than they will want me to. However, I do realise that I was very fortuitous to even be able to celebrate my 21st birthday in such a manner. As a result, I tried to make the very most of the opportunity. But boy oh boy, we didn’t half do it in style, and that’s all I could have asked for.

Nevertheless, the final point I’d like to make is that the whole experience was emotionally and physically draining. The intensity of it all means that I probably couldn’t have coped with more than 4/5 days there. Moreover, getting in at 4/5 am in the morning each day physically knackers you, so I doubt I could have actually managed it anyway! Some people I know who have been have said they wouldn’t want to go back- once was enough. However, I disagree. With a city like Las Vegas, I don’t care how experienced or world-wise you think you are, it’s a learning curve for everybody. You learn the protocol for new situations, you adapt to an intense style of living, you brace yourself to spend a lot of money, and generally you have to be pragmatic. As a result, I personally would love to go back, and experience it all over again, bearing in mind all that I learned the first time round. Knowing the ropes just a little bit more would make the second time round even better. But not any time soon, I do admit….

…. maybe my 25th?