Monday 20 October 2014

Berlin and a confirmed fear of flying...

A few weeks ago saw me in Berlin, which is good because I very much like Berlin and bad because I've been there five times and never quite managed to see much of the place - apart from the time I ran to Brandenburg Gate at 6am only to realise that it was actually 12kms away from my hotel, so took a quick picture of my foot and then had to get a taxi back to make it to my first (sweaty) meeting in time. 

Apart from a rather boozy night at the Felix Club (involving a discovery that vodka is available in 3 litre bottles, and a 5am bedtime), it was pretty much all work and no play. One thing I did discover this trip though is, I’m definitely scared of flying. 

I fly a lot. Roughly 30-40 flights a year. I can recite the safety announcements for every major airline, including the pronunciation and tone level of the words, "Brace! Brace!", which no doubt in real life would be screamed at the top of the cabin crews' lungs. The more I fly, the more scared I get. I think my chances of falling out of the sky are increasing, which, statistically, they probably are. I think that I know every sound in the precise order that it should happen, throughout the taxiing, take off, in-air, circling and landing process. This makes it worse. It means that any deviation sends me into a state of panic. Turbulence, which I used to relish because it broke the flight up (not literally), now has me gripping my armrests in terror and making deals with the big man (Richard Branson).

Here are my tips for mental survival. If you were after actual survival I'd recommend referring to the safety card in the seat in front of you:

1) Keep calm. Breathing helps. Take a few deep breaths and try and think rationally. There are millions of flights a year and almost none of the planes fall out of the sky. Absolutely none of them fall out due to turbulence. Just try and think of it as driving down a really bumpy road.

2) Take a look at the crew. If they're calm, you should be too. They fly all the time and actually do know what everything should sound like.

3) There's no shame in admitting it. If you're scared, sharing can help. I find that just by making conversation with the person next to you, you'll either distract yourself so that you're not scared or you'll find out that they're 'evacuating' bricks too – safety in numbers.

4) Plug in. I find that plugging into music or an audio book and distracting myself by working or writing really helps.

5) Upgrade. Ok, so this one isn’t for everyone, but I find that turbulence is much nicer when you’re horizontal. Kind of like a bumpy restaurant where nobody judges you for eating whilst wrapped in a duvet.

6) Think ahead. In a few hours you’ll be at your destination and all this will be a distant memory. Try to picture that time and don't worry about what's going on in the present as chances are it'll be absolutely fiiiiine. (Right?)

Toodles.  x


Thursday 14 August 2014


So, today sees me in Liverpool for work. Which is nice because it’s sunny and although I obviously have a bit of work to do when I get back to the hotel, for now I’ve come down to the Albert Docks for a wander, and that’s turned into me writing a post from a bench (screen brightness permitting). 

The hotel I’m staying at is very nice – The Heywood House Hotel, a little boutique just around the corner from James St Station. I got it for a bargain at £50 p/n, via – one of those “secret hotels” where you know the area and star rating, but don’t know the name until you’ve paid. I’ve booked hotels this way a few times and it’s never let me down. Highly recommended.

Anyway, how’s that for a tangent? Let me tell you about Dubai…

It’s a place that I’ve always said I’d like to see, but wouldn’t want to invest a holiday on. Rather judgmentally, I put it into my little box of China and Vegas before I’d even been there. As you know, I love to travel and I particularly like places off the beaten track, which have culture and shonkyness and where you quite often go out wondering whether you’ll end up fighting a tuk tuk driver over a 30p fare, or waking up covered in paint after a Full Moon party with no idea how a crab ended up in the bunk bed above you. This is how I love to travel – without being able to ‘expect the unexpected’.

Once I became qualified to make a sweeping judgment, my impression of Dubai was that it is polished, finished, highly competitive and pretty outstanding, actually. It’s still not really my kind of place, but you can’t argue that it’s impressive. Everything from the Burj Khalifa (the big pointy one) to the snow dome in the Mall of the Emirates (the largest indoor snow dome in the largest shopping mall) – it all seemed to be “The World’s Largest”, which felt at times like a bit of pissing competition with the rest of the world, but it actually made me laugh a little... I sound equally as ludicrous for saying this, but the Burj Khalifa is so tall, it’s ridiculous. I can just imagine the architects going “higher, little more, little more, no, that’s only 2 times higher than the tallest building… More, little more… Ok, when you hit the stratosphere, stop.”

If you’ll excuse the pun, my highlights, below:

Atlantis Hotel “swimming pool”: It’s hardly a swimming pool. More like a waterpark on steroids, with slides, a lazy river (and the occasional rapid) that takes an hour to get around and the funniest water slide I’ve ever been on (see video, swiped from YouTube here). Dubai is VERY hot. When I was there it was pushing 40 degrees and I was told that when it hits 50, then it’s ‘illegal’ to work. This means that quite often all the public temperature displays will only ever say 49.9 degrees otherwise the country would shut down. It also means that you need to cover up, drink loads and definitely wear a high-factor sunscreen. Love, mum.

Brunch: This was a new concept for me. Brunch in England is eggs benedict, a smoothie and a nice cup of tea. Brunch in Dubai is pay 110 AED (about £18) to get as annihilated as you possibly can in two hours. There’s food too, and Nintendo Wii games. I was in my element. I redeemed myself at imaginary bowling, since my niece destroyed me in 2008, and discovered that it is possible to sample six different types of gin in two hours and live to tell the tale. Most of the hotels host Brunch on Fridays. If you know someone with the book, check out The Entertainer for discounts.  

The Mall of the Emirates: I actually had to go here for a meeting. How I found my way around, I’ve no idea. I almost ended up skiing. This is where the locals spend their time when it’s too hot during the summer. I even saw someone going for a morning jog. It has over 700 stores, 560 brands and covers 2,400,000 square feet. Somebody told me that if you spent about 20 minutes in every shop, it’d take you almost two weeks to get around it. 

The camels: This sounds ridiculous, but it never occurred to me that camels are wild out there. They roam at the side of the roads, just like cows do in England. This is obvious and if I’d thought about it I like to think that I’d have worked it out, but when I wasn’t expecting it I got more than a good few hours’ laughter from it. 

The sea: Apart from the jelly fish (which were quite cute, but a little bit bite-y), the water was like a bath and absolutely stunning.  

The Address Hotel: Everyone kept telling me that this is where David and Victoria Beckham stay when they come to Dubai. I've no idea about (or interest in) that, but it was a very nice place to frequent for, shall we say, one or two cocktails. If you reserve a table ahead by the window, you also get a birds-eye view of the water fountain show... Again, they've taken the Bellagio, Vegas fountains and added some steroids. 

The outskirts: If you go to Dubai, I’d recommend taking a taxi or hiring a car to the outskirts – away from the city. Many drivers told me how if it wasn’t for the ‘crash’, the surrounding desert would also have been built up with commercial buildings, but I found it quite nice to look out to nothing except an awful lot of sand and camels. 

And just a reminder…

Dubai is an Islamic, ‘dry’ city.  I had less-travelled, married friends join me for a couple of days and they were really worried about what to wear, whether they could hold hands and whether they could drink. My, extremely unprofessional, advice is:

1)   Use sense. You don’t have to fully cover up (in most places, reasonable length shorts or a skirt and not-to-skimpy tops are fine), but look around you. See what others are wearing. A bikini in the street is obviously going to be a no-no.
2)   Use sense. Don’t go snogging your partners face off in the street. Holding hands is OK, but if you’re worried, don’t do it. It’s so hot there you’ll probably be keeping 5 paces ahead anyway.
3)   Use sense. Some hotels and bars have alcohol licenses. In fact, I only saw one that didn’t (although that might say more about me than the culture). But, if you’ve had a couple and your jelly legs have kicked in, take a cab. Don’t walk the streets drunk. The police have Lamborghinis and they don’t want you having any accidents, even if the seats are leather.

 Toodles. x

Monday 19 May 2014

Absolutely Dhabulous

The next couple of weeks see me in Abu Dhabi (for a few days of meeting hell), Dubai (for one meeting and staying with friends for the weekend - result) and then on to Sri Lanka (for a week, as I’m “passing” and can’t get enough of the place).

And why am I being so proactive in the posts and writing from the plane, en route? (I’m aware you couldn’t have possibly known that until just now…)

Mrs. Passive Aggressive, behind me.

I know she’s a Mrs. because she’s wearing a wedding ring, and I know she’s passive aggressive because she’s spent the past 4 hours, ever since I reclined my seat (which, without wanting to sound melodramatic, she did first by the way) digging her knees into my back.

Now I may be getting paranoid here, but I’ve been to the toilet twice on this flight so far and both times when I’ve stood up my seat has remained in the reclined position and both times when I’ve returned to my seat, it’s been in the upright position.

It’s Mrs. P.A., I’m sure of it.

She’s doing that thing where every 10 minutes or so she shakes my seat (with an ACME-style ramrod by the feel of things) as though she can’t possibly rearrange herself without doing so. Also, in between this she’s been stretching her right leg out up onto my armrest and wiggling her toes as though she’s in immense pain and I’ve been kicked twice in the elbow as she gets me in the other armrest gap with her left foot.

As I write this, I realise that I sound more than a little paranoid (and I'm clearly bored on this flight), but I’m convinced that the woman in row 32F is trying to break my spirit. And the ironic thing for her is that if she just asked, I’d put my seat up and allow her a little extra room, but no, this is war. Not being immature or anything, but she started it.

So, how to be a courteous passenger? Here are my tips:

1)   Man up. You could be the CEO of a global company, a teacher, a scientist or the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, but the one consistent thing I observe during my travels is that as soon as someone fastens that seatbelt, they turn into a child. I saw another lady (30C) earlier pushing the seat in front of her forward again and again, without even asking 29C if he’d mind moving forward whilst she ate. In the end, she called one of the cabin crew to tell on him. Seriously.

2)   Remember where you are. You’re on a plane. With limited other things on it. We’re 37,000 feet up in the sky. If they’ve run out of chicken with saffron rice, you’re going to have to have the asparagus risotto. If there is no more, there is no more. Just because you shout about it doesn’t mean that one of the crew can whip up a four-course meal. Tesco hasn’t expanded this far. Yet.

3)   Look around. If you’re standing up to go to the toilet or just to stretch your legs, have a look around you before you move and try not to slam the person in front in the back of the head or put your paws over the screen of the person behind you (it will change channel and they’ll never know if Olaf survives the summer otherwise).

4)   No bending. I’m as worried about DVT as the next person, but if you’re doing your stretches please don’t bend over in the aisle right in front of me. It will cause me to laugh out loud and it’ll be more embarrassing for you than me, really.

5)   Smile. We’re all in the same boat (er, aircraft) so it’d be wonderful if we could all just be a little bit 'marzipan house' for a while and pretend to get on. That is, until we get off and then it’s each to their own in the Customs race.

Right, I’m off to the “toilet” to spy for a bit… One reach-around to that armrest button and she’s toast.


Thursday 15 May 2014

“£100 of whatever they spend in Sweden…”

It’s been quite a couple of weeks on the travel front. In 14 days I've travelled to Newcastle (I didn’t say the destinations were all glamorous), Toulouse, Biarritz, and Orlando, and at the time of writing this (assuming it'll take me ages to get around to posting it) I'm on my way to Lund in Sweden, via Copenhagen in Denmark. My brain hurts just thinking about that one.

The challenge I find with frequent ‘there and backs’ is that they involve a lot of patience and a lot of early mornings. I also find myself having to adjust my tolerance levels... Of airports, planes, cabin crew, friends, taxi drivers and, importantly as I’ll need it the next day and the next, my alarm clock. I also need a reality check from time to time and a reminder that everything in life, particularly how people feel about certain situations, is relative. I have to remind myself that if I complained about being stressed and tired to my paramedic friend, she’d probably want to punch me in the face.

Newcastle kicked off with a 3.30am start and a drive to Heathrow, then a train back as the returning flights were full, seeing me get in at gone midnight (because my car was still at LHR and obviously the A23 was closed for road works) and then getting up the next morning at 3.45am (I decided to have a lay in) to drive to Gatwick for Toulouse and then a three hour drive to Biarritz the other side, then a meeting, then in bed by midnight and then up at 4am (spoiling myself now) and then a three hour drive back to Toulouse and then a meeting at Gatwick (they come to me there now, apparently) and then I crashed in bed at 4pm, up by 7pm, a few hours’ work and then back to bed ready for an 8am start in the office.

Orlando involved a week away with the family and, with a 7- and 10-year-old nephew and niece in tow, was slightly more exhausting than the above.

The holiday also involved Mickey, of course, whom nobody can be mad at, ever.

Except if he fails to notice that you’ve been waiting in line, aged 8, for over 20 minutes and are too shy to stop the other kids from pushing in front of you so instead you just wait there, becoming sadder by each passing minute and each elbow in the ribs, until your dad takes your photo and it ends up coming out like this…

(Sorry it's a bix pixelated - it was the 80s...)

… But that’s a story for another time.

At present, I find that I’m on a train from Copenhagen airport to Lund in Sweden for my meeting. My first impression of the place is that the people are beautiful. Seriously stunning. Second impression is that the train ticket lady was really helpful, particularly with a bleary-eyed me not entirely sure that I’d landed in the right country. I guess, technically, I hadn’t.

As a fairly frequent flier, I find the below tips helpful and thought you might too:

1.  Roll with the punches: Before you set off, have a mental word with yourself and make a promise to take everything with a smile. You’ll handle the unexpected (road closures, flight cancellations, lost luggage) much better that way and nobody likes being “that” passenger.

2.  One trip at a time: As long as your flights and hotels are booked, I find it less overwhelming if I pack as I go and plan things like where I’ve got to be, once I’m en route. Only do this if you’re sure you’ll be OK with just a Smartphone and can get 3G/4G abroad. And only if you have a vague idea of timings – There’s nothing like landing in a place having given yourself 20 minutes to get somewhere and then realising it’s 3 hours’ away.

3.  Let your phone/camera do the work: If you’re parking at an airport or anywhere else, take a photo of the parking sign so you know where you left your car once you land. I spent 25 minutes in the wrong parking zone last week because I’d been at the airport the day before and thought my car was where it was then. Turned out it was a completely different airport too. If this happens, refer to tip no. 1.

4.  Don’t lose your bed: Do the same with hotel rooms, particularly if you’re given a key card with no room number printed. All hotel corridors seem to look the same after a while so I find it helps to take a photo of the door on the way out.

5.  Pack light: This is laughable from me, as I tend to pack the same amount (shoes, mostly) whether I’m going away for three days or three weeks, but if you can avoid checking your luggage into hold you’ll save precious minutes at the airport.

6.  100mls: Obviously I have 100ml bottled versions of everything wet that I own.


7.  Check your luggage labels: I never did this until last week when I heard an announcement for me at Orlando airport and discovered that there was another passenger with bright blue luggage and fluorescent orange tags.

8.  Give yourself a shot of perspective: Yes, it is relative, but it’s only travel and arguably if you were stuck in an office doing the ‘9-5’ you’d probably go mad then too. If you need a hand, read my post here about the Little Girl in Sri Lanka. She has a 6-hour round trip for school by foot, bike (now that we’ve bought her one) and shonky bus, and she’s only 9. If she can do it, you can do it too.

9.  Drink loads of water: Whenever you can. If you’re dehydrated you’ll get grumpy. If you’re really dehydrated, you’ll die.

10. Coffee Monster: As tempting as it is, don't overload on coffee. I get the shakes if I have a caffeine overdose (and then inevitably a migraine if I’m not careful), which means you’ll be fit for nothing and you’ve no time to hide in a dark corner.

11. Look after your skin: As girly as it sounds, with all that flying your skin will get dehydrated too and if you look rubbish, you’ll feel rubbish.

12. Learn the lingo: I always make a point of knowing how to say hello, goodbye, thank you and sorry in the language of anywhere I’m going to. The locals will appreciate the effort. If, like I found this morning, the only Swedish word you know is “Ikea” and you don’t want to appear borderline racist as soon as you land in a place, ask whomever you’re speaking to if they mind speaking in English. I always choose my words carefully here so that it’s not just assumed that they’re going to have to. If not, just point and shout really loud in English – This approach works particularly well in France. (Not really). 

13. Power doze whenever you can: In reality you’ll probably need all your ‘down’ time to catch up on meeting preparation, follow ups and the day job that would’ve been missed whilst you’re in the air/meetings, but if you can grab 20 minutes here and there, it’ll give you a bit of a boost and you never know, it might total up to an hour over the day, if you’re lucky.

14. Take earplugs with you if flying: With all that up and down, the air pressure makes my ears go mental. I’ve never been able to equalise properly (my dreams of a scuba diving career were thwarted alongside the Mickey Mouse-saga trip) so my ears and neck become very painful when we come into land. I’d been putting up with this for years before I saw an advert for some special ear screw plugs in an inflight magazine once – You can buy them from Boots in most airports. Whack ‘em in when the seat belt signs come on and it’ll be nowhere near as bad. If you forget your earplugs, use in-ear headphones. Bonus: this also helps with any screaming small children on flights (in your ears, not their eyes). 

15. You were a kid once too: Speaking of which, don’t get annoyed if there’s a small child having a tough time on your flight. It pains me when you see parents tearing their hair out whilst being eyeballed by fellow passengers. It’s not their fault and a bad attitude doesn’t help anybody, including your stress levels.

16. Say hello to the crew: This is more relevant for me because I have friends who work for airlines, but the more I travel the more I notice how rude people are to cabin crew. You may think their jobs are pretty easy during the flight, but chances are they’re knackered from their own travels, just want to get home too, and if the shit hits the fan you’ll be crying into their ams like a baby (and will thank their extensive, regular training too).  

17. Let them ‘ave it: However, do feel free to punch people who eat too loudly – Particularly if they’re eating crisps on trains. They deserve it. 

18. Remember your friends and family: You probably haven’t seen them regularly for a while and it’ll do you good to hear about something other than your life so give them a call for a catch up when you’re in the car.

19. Relax and breathe: Have a glass of wine when you’re home and finally finished, and give yourself a pat on the back.

Toodles. x


Tuesday 18 February 2014

The Vegas...

So 2014 kicked off with a trip to Las Vegas for CES (the Consumer Electronics Show). At the time, there was a feck ton of snow all over the US (that’s a meteorological term), which resulted in lots of planes ending up without their crews and lots of people stranded in different airports across the country. Despite Las Vegas being nowhere near snowy, I ended up flying from London Heathrow to Los Angeles, as all other flights were full. 

Which would’ve been fine, except I slept through my alarm clock and woke up at 7.30am (I was supposed to leave by bus at 6.00am), which resulted in me shaking my better half awake, frantically screaming, “Oh my god!!! You HAVE TO DRIVE ME TO HEATHROW!!”
He did. I was already in the negatives on the girlfriend points scale for 2014 and it wasn’t even 10 days into January.
The even worse news was that the LA flight was also full (and I was on standby), so I had to sit in a jump seat. That was until a lovely crew member told me that there was a bed in First Class, but that the bed was broken and constantly in bed mode, and would I mind moving out of my jump seat for 12 hours and into a permanent bed… Er, no, I think that should be fine.

So, after 12 wonderful hours of snoozing, broken up by brief spurts of eating in bed with my legs crossed like a 13-year-old version of myself, I landed in LA. Bright eyed and raring to go.

Until three hours’ later when I still wasn’t through Customs... 

And then a further one hour waiting for my hire car…

And then a six-hour drive through the desert with only Spotify and an on-call Surgeon's monthly allowance of energy drink to keep me company...

(A stop off for some petrol in the middle of nowhere. A murderer's delight).

And then another hour wait to drop the car off in Vegas… 

And then a 20-minute taxi queue and ride from the airport to my hotel… 

And then a 40-minute queue at the hotel to check in...

And finally, I was settled in The Vegas. 

Now, if you've read any of my previous posts, you'll know that Vegas is my second least favourite place in the world. China wins (well done, you clever little superpower, you), but Vegas is a close second for me. This is because I like culture, the outdoors, natural beauty and have an aversion to neon lights. I've been to Las Vegas four times now so feel more than qualified to say that Vegas has no culture, no outdoors, no natural beauty and more neon lights than you could shake a lightsabre at. 

Of course, I'm talking about the Las Vegas Strip here. The Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and surrounding desert is absolutely beautiful. And cultured. And outdoors. And without electricity, a lot of the time (sorry, Hoover Dam).

Unfortunately, I don't get to see a lot of that so I'll just moan about the lights if that's all the same to you.

My hotel, The Luxor, is one of the less-extravagant ones, but does have a laser shining out of the top of it, which (according to my taxi driver) costs $2,000,000 a year to power. One light.

This makes it rather easy to spot, and it rather depressing to drive toward when you're still 2 hours' drive away, but can see your hotel the entire time in the distance. All gloaty-like.

I would talk about CES, but I try to keep work away from here (I prefer instead to just rattle on about the places it takes me to), but if you are interested you can of course read many a tech blog about what was announced at the show. The highlights for me were bendy TVs, wearable technology (resulting in me getting my FitBit settings wrong and now having the ability to lose 2,000+ calories in 40 minutes sat at my desk) and a gizmo that allows you to arm wrestle with your eyebrows. I kid you not. I watched this for about 30 minutes. It got pretty intense.

Despite my general apathy towards Las Vegas, I do seem to end up enjoying it a little bit more each time I go. This time I was fortunate enough to see a show at Caesars Palace called Absinthe. It was amazing. One of the best shows I've seen. 

It isn't for the easily offended (it's kind of a mix between Cirque du Soleil and an episode of South Park), but if you have an inappropriate sense of humour (which I absolutely do) then you'll be laughing and gasping throughout.

Other "sights" I'd recommend (and yes, I've used bullet points) are:

  • Chateau Nightclub at Paris Hotel - A roof terrace, with a club inside, which overlooks the Bellagio (so you can get an exclusive view of the fountains at nighttime).

  • Pure at Caesars Palace - A bit more classy than the inside of the Chateau. A table will set you back around $400, which is great for getting away from the dancing and entertaining clients, if you need to.
  • 1-Oak at The Mirage - A little bit more "clubby", but in the summer apparently this is where the pool parties come into their own.
  • The Hoover Dam - You can hire a car for the day for about $40 and it's about an hour drive away. I've never had time to do this.
  • Bryce Canyon - I've been told that this kicks the arse out of the Grand Canyon. It's a 4-hour drive from the Strip, but apparently (according to my dad, who wants his ashes scattered "next to a rock there", thanks pops) it's one of the most beautiful places in the world. I've seen enough holiday slide shows over the years to think he may just be right.
  • Take a run to the Las Vegas sign - As I've mentioned before, if you travel for work and don't get chance to see a place, set your alarm an hour early and run there. It'll keep you awake (initially, at least) and you'll get to see some touristy bits.

  • Casinos. (Obviously) - I've never placed a single bet in Vegas (I'm becoming quite proud of this statistic), but I guess you can't go to Las Vegas without going into one and you certainly can't get anywhere without walking through one, so I'd recommend the Bellagio (for the plush carpets and nice atmosphere) and Circus Circus (for the complete opposite end of the scale - think 70s horror film). The highlight, in my opinion, is the free snacks and drinks, but whatever floats your boat. For me, during CES week, they're just a really inconvenient walk to work.
  • Hotels. My folks can spend a whole day wandering around Las Vegas hotels. They're immense (the hotels, not my mum and dad). They also seem obsessed with copying cities around the world (again, the hotels), but the sheer scale and wealth just has to be admired (ok, so they've done well for themselves, but we're not talking aristocracy or anything like that... Sorry, I think it may be time to wrap up now).

Lastly, my top tip for any work-related (or otherwise) travel... If you do it a lot, is to always take a picture of your hotel room door. The number of times I've arrived back from a long day or night, a little bleary eyed, and had my Camera Roll save me from trying to break into a stranger's room because I stayed in a hotel room with the same number a few weeks before, is too many times to not do this every time I go away. Also works for airport parking too. You're welcome.