European holiday: Escaping the winter

(I am prone to do long overly-detailed blog posts about my holidays, perhaps more for my benefit and enjoyment than yours. Here’s the first instalment. This post is backdated. Published 26/7/2017)

This holiday was a long time coming. Co-ordinating with my sons (including university holidays) and work and M and relatives, let alone getting the money together, took some time… in fact it would be my first time in Europe since 1999.

But the day had finally arrived. After a flurry of packing, and wondering what would be forgotten*, we left the house about 11am, train to the City.

On the way through, I noticed some of the scaffolding had come off at Flinders Street Station, and showing the new, less mustardy yellow colour. I snapped a photo of it to post to Twitter.

A few days later the Premier’s Department rang asking if they could use the picture. Heh, you’d think own their media unit could get one, but oh well — maybe I happened to snap it just as it was in transition and nobody else did. They added some captions and posted it to Facebook:

I do like the new colour. Apparently the section on the right is also zinc sheeting rather than the brick, which explains the different look.

To the airport

Anyway, we hopped off the train at Southern Cross, then Skybus to Melbourne Airport. It’s expensive (currently $35 return, times three of us), but as long as you avoid peak times, it’s usually quick and convenient.

The Skybus driver said the trip would be about 30 minutes, depending on traffic. I timed it: it was actually 23, though I still felt a bit jipped because we didn’t get a double-decker bus.

While on the Skybus I noticed one bloke up the front was constantly looking through his bags, murmuring to his travel companion and looking ever more concerned. Hopefully he hadn’t forgotten anything important.

M met us at the airport, and there was plenty of time for a silly selfie in the departures area — but first we had to get our luggage and boarding passes sorted out.

Silly selfie at Melbourne Airport; about to be over by a tram

Airlines and check-in

I’d booked with Singapore Airlines, based on the loose criteria of: wanting one of the better airlines, availability on the dates we needed, and not some weird route taking 40+ hours to get to Europe. They also have WiFi in their planes, though this is a paid extra.

It wasn’t particularly cheap – nothing is in July, thanks to Australian school holidays and European summer. But with other contenders such as Qantas/Emirates and Etihad all being a similar price, Singapore won out thanks to having slightly less cramped seats – apparently an extra inch of space.

I’d checked-in online the day before. The flight was pretty full, so there weren’t any practical choices of seats.

But I this I find a bit puzzling: The queue for those needing to check-in was really long. The queue for “Internet check-in” was really short. So we got to bypass the queue like rockstars despite booking Economy.

Once at the desk, they weigh your bags, ask you questions about what’s in them, tag them, and give you boarding passes. So what’s the difference between this and checking-in at the airport? Just the lack of seat selection, which wasn’t an option anyway? Oh well, it certainly saved us a bunch of queuing.

After grabbing a sandwich and a drink (at the predictably incredibly exorbitant airport prices – maybe next time we should just make a sandwich at home), we headed through the departures gate (quick selfie against the tram-themed backdrop – see above) and through security.

Unbelievably, at the automatic gates at passport control, the bloke in front of us had left his passport in the scanner. Perhaps he expected it to zip through the machine and come out the other side like an old school mag stripe ticket gate. We called out and passed it to him. That’s not a mistake you’d want to make without realising until later.

Then the looooong walk to gate 14 via the duty free shops.

Melbourne Airport in the drizzle

Melbourne to Singapore

Despite some rain outside, the flight was away on-time (3:40pm).

The food on the flight was pretty good – with actual metal cutlery! I read for a bit, watched some classic West Wing.

Note to self: always grab the airline earphones. They’re hopeless, but your own snazzy earphones, which actually cut out some of the flight noise, won’t work – you get mono sound unless you have an adapter. Honestly, would it kill them to wire the plane sockets up so they provide stereo sound for stereo earphones?

Before we knew it we were landing at Changi. Two hours to kill in the huge transit lounge, browsing the shops. You can also watch a free movie or visit the in-terminal butterfly house. Notably, one shop was running a promotion to win a trip to Melbourne.

Singapore Changi Airport - win a trip to Melbourne!

I tried to sign on to the free airport WiFi. It wanted to send an SMS activation code to my phone, which would normally not be a problem, but this was when I discovered that my phone roaming wasn’t working.

This would be a problem for another three days, as I tried repeatedly to contact Telstra to get it resolved. Their Twitter people are very helpful but unable to actively fix very much directly. Their online chat people try to be very helpful, but anything complex tends to outfox them.

In this case (I think on the second contact attempt, a day or two later) one of their so-called solutions was a suggestion for me to ring up another department. DUDE, I CAN’T RING ANYBODY BECAUSE MY ROAMING ISN’T WORKING. And even if I could, it’d be costing me $2 a minute to make that call.

Having a fully-functioning phone was important to me. Although I was planning to buy a second SIM (my phone can take two), some of the services I use, such as banking, uses SMS for two-factor authentication. I also wanted to receive text messages and calls from home.

The hassles I had with getting it fixed is probably the sort of issue that convinced the Australian Government MyGov web site to suggest turning off 2FA when going overseas.

After a number of sessions on their online chat system over several days (well into the holiday proper), it was finally resolved, though frustratingly I don’t even know why it didn’t work in the first place, since roaming is meant to be on by default.

And there was a sting in the tail of this problem. Stay tuned.

So anyway, a little while later we boarded a huge bulbous Airbus A380 to continue on, departing Singapore at 11:30pm local time. I don’t quite know how these ridiculously big planes manage to get off the ground, but they do.

After the “supper” meal, I slept for a bit, though light from toilets kept made it difficult to get back to sleep once awoken.

We flew on into the night, headed for London.

*What got forgotten? My sun hat. Would I need it to prevent getting sunburnt? Yes, as it turns out.

UK/Belgium holiday in planning

Very busy the last few weeks, which is why the blog has been so quiet.

Long-time readers would know that I like to write about my interstate and overseas holidays in almost excruciating detail. Well brace yourself for another one – I’ve got a European holiday in planning for later this year.

It’s looking like England, Wales, and Belgium, with catching up with various family scattered around the place being a key priority.

It’ll be the first big family holiday in many years, and my first time in Europe this century — previous trips were in 1999 and 1998.

Eurostar hadn’t even opened the last time I was there, so you can be sure we’ll be using it to get to Belgium! It’ll be my first journey on an actual High Speed Rail service (I used the Brussels to Amsterdam high speed “Thalys” in 1998, but it was at regular speed due to flooding) and my first time using Oyster card!

Daniel’s 1998 Europe trip highlights from Daniel Bowen on Vimeo.

Obviously the terrible events in Manchester this week (and previous incidents in London, Brussels and elsewhere) are a concern, but ultimately you can’t cower at home because something might happen.

On the list of touristy things already are various sights in London, Cardiff, Brussels, probably Bath and perhaps Stonehenge or Avebury since we’ll be visiting relatives in that part of the country.

Any must-see suggestions?

More notes as I ponder:

  • London transport accepts most overseas PayPass cards, which will save us buying Oyster cards for everyone.
  • I’m wary of Britrail passes – it sounds like roughly the same cost if you prebook flexible fares a few weeks in advance.
  • We’re looking at Air B’n’b for places we’ll be staying more than a day or two, as it’s useful being able to easily cook some meals and do laundry. Hotels for 1-2 day hops.

    Halloween approaches

    Just after I moved to my current address, I noted that some of the local kids went Trick Or Treating for Halloween. It’s been the same in subsequent years, and I fully expect the same next week.

    I’ve decided that while I’m not into cultural imperialism and the adaption of American traditions to Australia, this is something I’m happy enough to support on the basis that it’s a good way to meet some of the neighbours.

    In fact I’m seriously considering getting some fake pumpkins from the $2 shop and putting them up in the doorway to flag that we’re joining in. And I’m wondering if my kids want to have a go… perhaps the Dalek costume Jeremy built for my sister’s 40th birthday (theme: Best of British) might get another outing.

    What’s the situation in other neighbourhoods?

    • About 24 per cent of Australians plan to celebrate Halloween this year, according to McCrindle Research. Social analysts suggest the commercialisation of the event is behind its growing popularity.The Age today

    What to see in Perth?

    Off to Perth for a brief holiday next month. (As usual I won’t be too specific about dates; this slightly hysterical article in Sunday’s Age, and its accompanying graphics, was a reminder that it’s not advisable to advertise when you’re going to be away from home.)

    What should we see around Perth and southwest WA?

    Suggestions so far, from my aunt (who lives there) and others:

    If one wishes to gunzel, I see there’s both a rail and a tram museum.

    Naturally I’ll want to look at the PT system and try out their Smartrider card… though it won’t be cheap: $10 for the card, and the topups are a minimum of $10 each (and not as widely available as Melbourne’s Myki), which has the potential to make it pretty expensive if miscalculating how much PT travel we do.

    Suggestions? Comments?

    Brisbane day 5 – Surfers Paradise

    Wednesday 5th October

    Brisbane: Keep right!The first job was to return the hire car. Similar to the circuitous route filling it up the night before, due to the one way streets, this involved a 750 metre drive (Google Maps estimated time: 4 minutes), and then a 170 metre walk back (estimated: 2 minutes). Turning out of Raff Street I also needed to remember the counter-intuitive instruction to Keep Right.

    The plan for Wednesday was to head down to the Gold Coast — Surfers Paradise to be precise — to visit the beach and see where my sister and her family and another brood of cousins were staying.

    Am I on the right train?

    Trains run on the “Gold Coast line”, but not to the actual coast. However the good people at Translink have got things organised so that — and I know this will come as a shock to Melburnians, who are not used to such concepts — the buses are actually timed to connect with the trains.

    Wow.

    So in our case, the Translink Journey Planner reckoned we could simply hop on a Gold Coast line train (every half-hour from Central), hop off at Nerang, and 7 minutes later the 745 bus would depart for Surfers Paradise.

    Along with the integrated (Go Card) ticketing, it can’t be emphasised enough how important good connections are to make a wider variety of journeys (eg the many, many not possible using a single service) easier by public transport.

    (It’s not perfect. Late on weekends, some of the connections from the bus onto the train are longer; in some cases around half-an-hour. But for the majority of trips, there are good connections.)

    Nerang station

    Even on holiday, I apparently gave the impression that I knew where I was going (or perhaps it was that my snapping pictures screamed “Transit nerd”), as a couple of guys at the bus interchange showed me their (paper) train tickets and asked if they’d work on the bus. I said I thought so, and evidently I was right, as the bus driver waved them aboard. Checking now, Brisbane/Central to Nerang is zones 1 to 14, and the bus is zones 14 to 13.

    Come to think of it, I’d also been asked for directions in Brisbane, to the nearest supermarket, and was able to point the people in precisely the right direction.

    Anyway, the bus journey allowed us to check out some of the Gold Coast architecture. It’s not exactly the Las Vegas scale of garish, but it certainly has the holiday vibe, with a diverse range of building styles (within the high-rise genre, I mean), and many buildings being hotels and thus having their names printed in big letters on the top — no doubt an aid to tourists trying to find their way back to their accommodation.

    Adrian at Surfers Paradise

    The bus pulled in at Surfers Paradise and we found our way to the Beachcomber building, a slightly disshevelled hotel/apartment block near the beach where the family was staying.

    After checking out the view, which was excellent, we headed down to the beach. It was a bit cold for swimming, but we enjoyed some paddling, sand castle-building, burying peoples’ feet in the sand, all that kind of thing, for a while, before heading back upstairs and having some sandwiches for lunch.

    Surfers Paradise

    My sister, being the wise Auntie that she is, let us know of a big arcade (in the “arcade games” sense of the word) nearby, and myself and Isaac and Jeremy headed up to look at it with bro-in-law Adrian and his kids.

    It turned out to be another Timezone — and according to the signs, the biggest Timezone in the world, no less.

    Surfers Paradise Timezone: Multi-player Pacman

    I’d believe that. It was vast. It took perhaps a good ten minutes just to walk around it initially to size up what it had, which included many many games (just about all newer stuff; little in the retro genre alas, though there were several pinball machines), dodgem cars, virtual reality thingies, shooting ranges, laser tag, a mini bowling alley, mini golf, and heaps more.

    We scattered into various corners for a while to enjoy our preferred amusements — for me it was mostly pinball to be honest. True to form, my first game was the best, and I got steadily worse after that.

    Surfers Paradise Timezone: Tron Pinball

    After a couple of hours the money loaded onto our cards started to run out, and the noises and flashing lights were beginning to be a bit much, so after retreating back to the apartment for afternoon tea and a rest, we headed out for dinner nearby — on a recommendation, a Turkish/Italian place around the corner, which served up some most delicious food.

    Before too long we were back on the bus to Nerang, and then the train ride back into Brisbane. Just as in Melbourne, being an evening train there were copies of MX to be found to read along the way, and although the sign at the back said the toilet was out of order, it seemed to work just fine.

    We rolled into Central about half-past eight, and headed back to our hotel for one last good night’s sleep.