So, it’s about time I hit America, eh. My virgin trip to America when I was 18 (solo trip, coming of age present to myself, one month in New York), was really what started it all – this incurable urge to wander. Unfortunately, my travel series only really started in 2014, which is why I don’t have a definitive guide to the Americas, and you’ll just have to take my word for it when I say: I adore New York.
After four long years, I finally made plans to head back to the Empire state, city of dreams, capital of my heart, and I thought it would be a good time to pen the pre-trip logistics that you have to jump through before actually embarking – and because research on this is a pain in the ass; I figured it out so you dont have to. You’re welcome.
1. Decide to go to America.
This is the number one, most important thing. Heading to America is expensive, about 1.5x what it costs to get to Europe. But (I feel), it’s worth it. For so long i put off returning because I figured it made more sense to just make shorter, nearer trips, but once I decided I was going back, that was the biggest mental hurdle checked and done with.
2. Buy your ticket.
I bought my tickets Sept 18th. I flew November 24th. That’s about 2 months pre-trip, which is what most travel sites recommend is the best lag time between buying and flying. It’s worked well for me so far – 4 years ago and today, I spent approximately 1.5k on a return ticket to New York. Normal fares to New York are about 1.8k and above. The first time I went, I flew with Cathay and they had some UOB card discount. This time, I took Korean Air, and paid $1593 in SGD. The day before I booked, it was 1.5k straight, but I waited a day and the lower fares must have sold out, which sucks balls. So I guess the moral of the story is, if you think the prices are going to drop, you are wrong.
How you find a good fare is down to a science. Airfares fluctuate based on the stage of sale that flight you’re looking at is at. When the plane opens up new sales, it’s expensive. Last minute sales are expensive. In the middle – when they’re trying to make enough sales to guarantee a break even flight – that’s when you get a relatively good fare. However, when this middle is, is pretty elusive. So that’s when price monitoring comes in.
There are a few sites you can use to monitor prices and search for fares across all airlines. The most common are Skyscanner, Zuji, and Misa Travel. My personal favourite is Skyscanner, because they have the option to show you which are the cheapest dates to fly for the whole month, useful if you have flexible dates and just want to fly on the cheap. However, some of the other sites have frequent credit card tie ups – I’ve seen Zuji give out free cabin luggages for bookings made on certain cards, and tie up with banks for rebates.. so it really depends on the period of time that you’re looking to book. Keep an eye out for your own bank’s discounts too – my FRANK by OCBC card gives me a 6% rebate for bookings like that, capped at 60 bucks. That’s pretty decent, I think.
There were a couple of fares that were cheaper, but I ended up going with Korean Air because I flew with them to Korea in 2013 and they were pretty decent. The airlines that were offering cheaper fares were Air China, China Southern, Malaysia Airlines, and American Airlines, all of which I ran online searches on to largely negative reviews prior to going with K Air. Just putting this out there so you guys know what options there are – but yeah, take note that the flight from Singapore to New York totals nearly 24 hours, so make your own decision on how balanced you want your price point vs quality to be.
3. Get your paperwork done.
Going to the USA isn’t as easy as popping over to Europe. Our Singaporean passport gives us hassle free access to most of the world, but you do need to get some paperwork done before heading to the USA..
Singapore is one of the 38 countries under the USA Visa Waiver Program (woohoo! SGP represent!) but you do need to get this thing called an ESTA, which is basically approved travel authorization to the USA. If you appear in the USA without an ESTA after 24 smelly hours on a plane, i dont know what is going to happen to you, but serves you right for not doing your research before hand.
There are a lot of sites and third party agents selling the ESTA, but seriously.. just go straight to the official website. You can do it yourself in ten minutes. It takes ages if you go through a third party, and chances are you’ll buy the wrong thing because there are a lot of scams out there.
I dont care if you’ve been to America before, you have to do this nearly every time you go to America. So do it. Don’t take a chance on this.
4. Check your baggage allowance
No – seriously! People always dont check for the baggage allowance specific to their carrier, and this totally messes them up at check in. For Korean Air, a flight to America on normal Economy gives you a 23 + 23KG luggage allowance, which I believe is quite standard. But I’ve seen people assume at check in that their luggage allowance is 2 x 32KG because they thought that that was the standard allowance to fly to America, when it’s really because they probably heard it from someone who has elite flyer status (i think the 32KG allowance applies if you have some special status or some more expensive ticket) and assumed so, and therefore their check in is a nightmare because they have to squat on the floor at the airport and repack all their shit. You know those people? Yeah. Don’t be those people. It embarrassing.
5. Know your baggage rights/ options
Now, about baggage rights. It’s a long, long flight, and you probably need to stuff your essential overnight stuff into your hand luggage because I guarantee you, you’re going to have a terrible layover somewhere in the middle where you’re just tired as hell and need to shower/brush your teeth/change. So your hand luggage is probably going to be heavy/full, and youre likely going to have to stick some valuable stuff in your check in luggage. The rule of thumb when it comes to travel is, dont check in anything you cant afford to lose. But that said, let’s all admit it: sometimes your shit is too heavy and you have to check in something. What then?
Here’s my advice for long distance travel:
– Figure out if the airport youre landing in allows shrink wrapped luggages. If they do, it’s an extra layer of protection that you might want to consider.
PS. Luggages leaving New York do not allow shrink wrapping for ‘security reasons’. So check if your outbound airport allows shrink wrapping as well. If they do, it should be about 10-15 bucks per piece.
– Make sure your luggage locks are TSA approved. I am of the personal opinion that TSA locks are useless because thievery within the airline/airport industry is very common, and TSA locks are not going to stop anyone who has a master key from rummaging through your stuff. However, the alternative is a) you dont lock your luggage and it’s a free for all, or b) you lock it with a non-TSA approved lock and it gets cut off so they still look through your stuff and hey! you lose a lock. So yes. The lesser of three evils: just make sure your locks are TSA approved.
– Make sure you have travel insurance. I cannot stress how important this is. If your luggage handle snaps in transit (happened to me before), if your luggage gets delayed (happened to me before), or if shit goes missing from your luggage (again, happened to me before), then your insurance will be the only thing to even come close to compensating you. Crying in an airport office will not save you. Trust me, I know. When an airport office opens your luggage, they HAVE to leave a card saying that they’ve opened your luggage. You can take this card to file a complaint if something goes missing, and then claim the compensation money from insurance later. If you dont file a complaint with the airline/airport immediately upon realising your loss, your insurance will not help you.
I know that travel insurance for long distance travel is expensive, especially if youre headed to Zone Three, ie. The Americas. But trust me on this – it’s not going to be more expensive than losing a bunch of your stuff, and then suffering without your underwear for the first couple of days in a new city. So make sure you have travel insurance, ok?
PS. I get a yearly travel insurance with MSIG, which I have found to be the cheapest for global coverage. I think I paid about 300 bucks for this.
6. Figure out how youre going to get from the airport to your accommodation beforehand.
It sucks to land and just assume that it’s going to be easy to get to wherever you need to go. You might and probably will end up spending more money than if you’d done your research beforehand. So do.
In New York City, getting from JFK to Manhattan via yellow taxi is a flat fare of 59USD, accurate as of my trip there in end-2015.
A cheaper option would be to take the JFK Air train, which costs about five bucks, to the city, then transfer to whatever subway line you need. This makes sense if you are ok to trolley your luggages alone. Get the travel card from a newsagent, if youre lucky its a dollar cheaper because for some reason they dont have the $1 admin fee. When you get to Jamaica (the station where you transfer to the normal metro lines), your per-trip cost to wherever else you need to go will be about $3.75.
There is also the shared shuttle van/bus service which is very cheap but also terrible so I am not talking about that.
Last option: get a car service. This only works if you know someone in New York who has the number OF a car service. It’s about half the price of a taxi. However, I made a very serious promise to my housemates not to disclose too many details about this online because it’s so secret that if people start knowing about it they will start booking it then there wont be any cars left and my housemates will get pissed at me and not let me come stay anymore. So, yeah. Just know that it exists, then ask your friends in New York if you have any how to get it done.
So! I think thats about it for the pre-trip planning. Next time – tips on what to do when youre actually in the big city, apple of the world, shining star of my heart. Did I go overboard with the mushiness there? Never mind. None of you are new to me – you already know what I’m like.
If I left out anything that there is to know during the planning stage, please let me know! And please dont ask me things like how much money should I bring because America is really difficult to gauge – it depends on what kind of traveler you are – and also, because I will probably speak about the cost of living/traveling in America in a later post. So dont be impatient, you guys.
America, ich liebe! Till next time x