USA Tour Wrap-Up and Lessons Learned

On my last day in Vancouver, I saw this written on the sidewalk and found it relevant.  I really am doing this whole non-stop travel adventure.  I got there.

Before I get too far into Europe, I wanted to document my thoughts at this point.  So, I’ve reached the end of my 2012 US summer tour.  I feel like a kid who has reached the end of a roller coaster ride, and just wants to jump back in line and do it all over again.  It’s been a blast.  Two and a half months with a total of 12 states plus 1 Canadian province, not including the states I passed through on trains and buses. Someone I couchsurfed with recently asked if it’s been what I expected, and that got me thinking…

Things that went as expected…

Budget – I’m giving myself a B grade on this.  I did exceed the budget a bit, but it was mainly because I wasn’t initially thinking about things like rail passes and last minute bus tickets when I set my goal.  In terms of accommodation, food, public transit, and entertainment, I didn’t do too bad.

Public transit – Worked out great.  I got more and more comfortable in each city with just hopping on the bus or train and figuring out my way.  In some cities, like DC and Portland, I felt like a pro by the end of the stay.

Meeting locals – Definitely an A+ here.  Couchsurfing delivered.  Even if I didn’t surf as much as planned, I still met a lot of cool people to hangout with.

 This blog – I kept my blog up-to-date like I told everyone I would.  It was hard sometimes.  I always wanted to wait till the end of my stay before writing about it.  But then I would be without internet during my transit to another city, and the last thing I wanted to do was sit down and write about a place when I had a brand new city to navigate.

Things that did NOT workout as planned…

Surfing couches – Although I surfed quite a bit the first three weeks, I found it really hard and incredibly time consuming to constantly send out the necessary volume of requests in order to find couches.  I’d send out 10 requests and get 1 or 2 “no’s”.  The rest wouldn’t even bother replying.  For me, CS was never about a free place to stay, so I mainly used it to meet people.

Research and reading – I had hoped to read a book a week and also do some research for a business idea.  I only read 4 books which is more than I would have if I was working, but I’ll try and get better.

Travel clothes – Whether it was a CS host’s place, hostel, or laundromat, I found a way to wash my clothes like I would if I was home.  So, no need for special travel clothes that you can wash in sinks.  Half way through the trip, I just wanted regular clothes… jeans and even a sweater for cold San Francisco nights.  This might change in Europe because I hear washing machines and especially dryers aren’t as prevalent, but I don’t care.  I just want regular clothes.

Things that went better than I hoped…

Hostels – I’ll do an entire post on my hostel experiences at some point, but just have to say they’ve been great overall.  Some are more low-key than others and you don’t meet many people, but that’s the worst experience I’ve had.

Amtrak – I was fairly certain I would ride the trains around the US.  However, I quickly learned that if you try and schedule a train ride last minute it can be more expensive than flying.  Someone mentioned the USA rail pass to me, and after looking into it, I found it to be a smart move.  For only $830, I traveled all over the US for six weeks by train.  I was even able to schedule all my trains with just a few day’s notice, so the trip had an ad hoc feel to it.

Outdoor adventures – Boulder, Arches, Joshua Tree, Mt. Hood, Mt. Rainier.  I never would have thought I could get out of the city to see places like these.  I’ve blogged about each of these experiences.  They all came about in different ways… some through Couchsurfing, some through hostel meetups, and others with just friends letting me borrow their cars (Thanks again Miguel).

Final Prep for Overseas

I definitely planned a lot for overseas so here it is what I did if anyone reading this is thinking about their own vagabonding adventure.

Clothes and gear – I switched out shorts and t-shirts for long pants, shirts, a fleece jacket and even one sweater.  Also added casual street shoes because I’m tired of only wearing hiking shoes around.  I bought a power converter with adapters for overseas plugs.  Other than that, it’s pretty much the same

Visas – Almost every place I’m visiting grants a tourist visa on arrival to holders of a US passport.  Most of Europe has something called the Schengen zone that should make it super easy to move between countries.  I did have to get a visa for India prior to arrival.  I procrastinated a bit here, and almost missed out on getting this.  A couple weeks ago, I learned of a place in NYC that will do in-person, same day Indian visas.  Since I knew this would be my last stop, I made an appointment and downloaded all the forms.  It was pretty easy, but I did have to wait over the weekend to pick up the visa since I applied on a Friday.  I’m so relieved.  I would hate to miss India.

Immunizations – I had heard of people getting shots before going to exotic places, and I was going to pass on this, but several people told me to rethink this approach.  After some research, I went to a clinic specializing in immunizations.  I gave them my general itinerary and they recommended five shots… tetanus, flu, typhoid, hepatitis, and polio.  I got all the shots, and also got prescriptions for malaria pills and cipro.  I’ve heard the malaria pills can have horrible side effects, so need to research that a bit and weigh the consequences.  I have a while before I would need to take those anyway.

Travel Insurance – Another thing I was going to bail on, but thought otherwise after talking to other travelers over the summer.  A company called STA was highly recommended by an English guy I spoke with, and after looking into it, I liked the coverage.  The price wasn’t too bad either considering how long I’m traveling for.

Bank Cards – After my credit union failed me when I needed cash in Vancouver, I knew I couldn’t rely on it alone for overseas travel.  I opened another account with a major bank, and got a second debit card.  They also recommended I get their credit card that’s ideal for overseas travel since it doesn’t charge you fees for international purchases.

Starting my adventure in my own country turned out to be a really good idea.  I feel like my travel senses are more developed at this point.  It will definitely get a lot harder out of the US, but the idea of navigating a new city every week is something I’m used to now.  I’ve become extremely adaptable, and will change this as needed to get around.

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Seattle, Washington

My brother used to live here years ago, so I’ve been to Seattle several times in the past. I won’t be doing the standard stuff like the Space Needle or Pike’s Market. I didn’t do my usual prep for Seattle, but I hope to do some really different stuff and catch up with some friends I haven’t seen in a while.

DC Crash, Monuments and Heat

Regardless if you’re interested in politics or not, or what political party you relate to the most, I think you have to be impressed by Washington, DC.  It’s yet another city I should have made it to a long time ago. To see all of these famous monuments and buildings up close was a really awesome experience.  The history and political significance makes it like no other city in the US.  I had intended to start my trip here, but when I found out that the CouchSurfing community was hosting their crash over the 4th of July, I changed plans.

I did an earlier post on couchsurfing, but just to summarize, it’s an international hospitality organization.  In a lot of cities, they organize something called a Couch Crash where the host city invites the couchsurfing community to their town and they will stage a series of events, or tracks, that showcase the hometown.  DC has their Crash over the 4th of July which makes sense.  I arrived just a couple hours before the fireworks started and met my host in front of the Capitol Building on the National Mall.  It was definitely the most memorable 4th of July ever.  Overall, the Crash was fun, but the record breaking high heat DC was experiencing during the week put a bit of a damper on things.  I went to a few of the outdoor events.  One of them was a walking tour that took as through the historic Georgetown neighborhood.  Interesting fact:  The staircase from one of the final scenes in The Exorcist where Father Karras plummets to his death, was filmed in Georgetown.  Check it out…

I also went to a jazz concert on the Mall, tried Ethiopian food for the first time, and went kayaking on the Potomac River with one of my couchsurfing hosts.  However, one of the best days I had was when I got up early and checked out a lot of the monuments on the National Mall before it got to hot.  These are things you see in books or websites and hear about, but seeing them up close really affected me.  In particular, there are some quotes at the Jefferson memorial from the man himself that I found to be extremely relevant for our current time.  (one of them below).

Of course I made it to the White House.  I found out if you arrange it with your congressman a few weeks ahead of time, you can get a tour inside.

One of the couchsurfing events was a monuments by night tour which was actually a better time to see them I think.  It’s cooler, they’re lit up, and there are slightly fewer tourists.

One of the last Couchsurfing events I did was to checkout out Ben’s Chili Bowl with one of the DC organizers.  It’s a famous DC restaurant known for it’s chili bowls.  I got a bowl, and sat in the booth next to where President Obama sat when he went there after being inaugurated.

One my last full day, I checked out the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum which has a ton of cool planes and space memorabilia, such as the original Wright Brothers Flyer.  Other cool items included the Apollo 11 craft, Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, and one of Amelia Earhart’s planes.

All the museums in DC are free for the most part.  I guess there’s one or two here and there that aren’t, but all the major ones, especially the Smithsonian ones are completely free.  And, there’s a whole complex of them… Air and Space, Art Galleries, Natural History, American History, Native American, etc.  I wish I could have seen more than what I did.

I was able to couchsurf my entire trip in DC, and my hosts are definitely worthy of mentioning.  Sara and her boyfriend Michael hosted me my first two nights.  I met Sara a few weeks prior when she was surfing a good friend of mine’s place.  I mentioned needing a host for DC, and she said she might be able to.  I didn’t followup, but on the bus ride there, she called me and offered to host.  She met me on the Mall prior to the fireworks right after I got in.  My other host was a friend from Columbus as well… R-Joy. He was house sitting, and offered to let me use a spare room in the house.  The pic below is of the dog living in the home, Rosa.  Rosa is very particular about her food, and eats more like a human foodie than a dog.  For example, her main meal of the day consists of two pieces of cooked asparagus,  rotisserie chicken and aged gouda cheese.  Sara, Michael and R-Joy, I can’t thank you enough.  My DC experience would not have been the same without you.  I’m in your debt.

As with other cities, of course I rode public transit.  It’s really the best way to get around DC.  They have one of the best metros of any US city.  It’s simple to figure out, can get you anywhere, and really isn’t all that expensive.  I actually took the metro from my last host’s place to the airport.

All in all, DC has a lot going on.  I didn’t even see half of what I wanted which means I will definitely go back.  The CS community there is great, there’s tons to see and do.  It’s the seat of US government, homebase for the free world, and the landing point for a lot of our tax dollars.  You should visit and take advantage of it.