Last year, I took the leap and went out of the Asian continent… to United States of America! It’s a dream destination I didn’t think I would go to until after a few years; but I DID IT! I took a trip to Japan earlier in the year (during spring no less!); so this sudden trip made an unexpected dent in my savings; but looking back, I have absolutely NO REGRETS. The entire trip was well worth the months of hard work, planning and extreme saving. (Side note: Don’t worry. I’m all covered. Everything’s been paid up even before 2016 ended. I’m saving up for a whole other trip now.)
My brother and I went to three main destinations for 11 days (from September 30 to October 10): San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, not counting the time it took to fly to and from the USA. This gave us roughly 3-4 days per city, with a couple of hours drive from one city to another in between. Given the short period of time, we had to be precise and discerning when it came to our itinerary. We had to give up certain destinations if it didn’t seem feasible; and we had to separate if there were sights/shows that we didn’t mutually want to go to. Compromise, swift decision-making and flexibility proved key in making the trip a jam-packed yet enjoyable one.
Before I go into highlights from each destination, I’m going to share some lessons based on my experience. From the ever-dreaded Visa application to eating out, let me drop some wisdom (if you’re willing to call it that), which could hopefully guide you if you’re planning on a trip like this anytime soon.
Even before planning our itinerary any seriously, I had to secure a Visa from the US Embassy. It’s one of the notoriously difficult tourist Visas to get; but honesty, comprehensiveness and preparedness helped me get approved. I wrote an extensively detailed account of my Visa application. You may just check it out here and here.
Booking The Flight to Surviving The Flight
Grab those cheap seats. A seat sale was still crucial in getting a good deal on plane tickets. I kept checking Philippine Airlines from time to time; and when the sale came around (This was end of May – even before my Visa appointment), I took the risk and booked tickets anyway. We ended up paying for round trip tickets to and from San Francisco at approximately $700 (Php33,000 – This was when the exchange rate hasn’t hit the Php50 mark) per head. CHEAP!
Exit row = comfort + survival. A few weeks before the flight, my brother then suggested we upgrade to EXIT row seats for $100 per way. I highly recommend you do this if you can shoulder the cost. Getting to sit in the exit row meant more leg room where you can stretch and stand from time to time – a must for a non-stop 14-hour flight. It was officially the first long haul flight I’ve ever taken; and I consider paying the extra $200 for exit row seats WORTH IT. I now plan to do this for any long-haul flights I take in the future.
Comforts in-flight. For the flight itself, there were two meals included. The flight staff also provided a small kit, a blanket and a pillow for your comfort. The kit had basic essentials such as an eye cover, toothpaste and toothbrush, among others. Make sure to pack a small survival kit of your own if you’d like. My personal kit contained toothbrush, toothpaste, facial wash, small snacks, etc. I also brought my own travel pillow. Fourteen hours in one giant metal flying container is sure to make you itch for a bath; so anything to refresh yourself before you land would have to be a must!
Jet lag prep. The flight to your destination is also the perfect time to reprogram your body clock for the inevitable JET LAG that’s about to hit you. It took me about 2-3 days to fully adjust; but it wasn’t as bad as I imagined it would be. What I did on the flight probably helped a bit; so I’m sharing with you the technique which worked for me: Make the most out of the in-flight entertainment and just KEEP YOURSELF AWAKE for the longest time your body could possibly allow you.
Right before leaving, set your phone to the local destination time (In this case, San Francisco); so you know the time you’re working with. We left Manila around 10pm… sleepy time, right? After dinner, I resisted the urge to shut my eyes and just watched one movie after another. I started with Sing Street, then TITANIC (3 hour movie) before dozing off. A few hours after, I woke up again and watched a tv show and another movie.
For the next 2-3 days, I was usually sleepy around 3-4 in the afternoon (San Francisco time); but sheer willpower and proper sleep in the evening (around 9/10pm) allowed my body to adjust quite well.
Now, I’m not guaranteeing that this technique will work… to each their own; but I’m just sharing my personal experience handling jet lag.
Rental Car. Our main mode of transportation was a rental car. This can get quite expensive depending on the number of days you’ll use it; but the convenience helped us a lot in terms of maximizing every destination (especially Los Angeles). This option is going to be even more worth it if you’re in a bigger group. Just make sure to budget enough for gas, toll and parking fees which can add up to quite a bit.
We booked with Budget Car Rental ( www.budget.com ). You can pick up your car from the airport, present your driver’s license (A local driver’s license is good enough as long as you’re over 25 years old.) then return the vehicle at your airport of departure. Booking ahead can save you a couple hundred dollars in discounts; so plan ahead.
Fly Domestic. For our last day, we decided to just take a domestic flight from Las Vegas to San Francisco instead of driving back. It will allow us to have ample rest time before heading home; and we’d really rather take a 1.5 hour flight over another 8-9 hours on the road. We booked with Southwest Airlines ( www.southwest.com ) for approximately $200 per head. Again, WORTH IT.
Uber. On the days when my brother and I parted ways (mainly in Las Vegas); because he had to work, I relied on Uber to get around. I just had to open the same app I use here in the Philippines; and it automatically adjusted to US rates. Booking is just as easy. It cost me approximately $7-$9 per trip, which was not bad.
Walking. Good old-fashioned walking is still recommended. I would consider San Francisco (particularly Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf areas) and Las Vegas (The Strip) as places conducive to walking around and exploring. If you have the time and opportunity to do so, just walk and see what’s interesting.
Airbnb All The Way. In order to save on accommodations, we booked rooms via Airbnb. It’s less than half the price of your typical hotel. Just be diligent enough to check reviews and assess the location (Don’t forget parking!) before booking. It took me about 3-4 weeks of marking my selections and comparing prices before confirming. Make sure to book months in advance in order to get the best available accommodations at the best price.
Get a Pocket Wi-Fi. There are a number of services where you could rent pocket Wi-Fi nowadays. This allows you to be connected to the Internet without having to activate your data roaming services, which could cost over Php550-600 per day. Locally, Smart, Philippine Airlines and Skyroam are just some companies that offer such rentals (at approx Php390 per day). They could even deliver to your doorstep at least a day before your departure. If you wish to rent in your destination, just search “rental pocket wifi + city + country” and a number of options will surely pop up. Usually, these may be picked up and returned at the airport.
Share to Save. I won’t go into the specific food that we ate. After all, USA is a melting pot of different cultures and cuisines. What I do advise is sharing food with your companion. Servings are typically double to triple in size compared to the Philippines. In the first few days of our trip, I usually couldn’t finish what I ordered, which was a waste. It would be best for your appetite (and your budget) to share. But that’s just me, of course. If your stomach could handle it, enjoy the food as much as you can.
That’s pretty much it so far… I hope you picked up some tips and tricks for your own trip — whether to the US or anywhere else. For my next USA trip entries, I will focus on one city and share with you some highlights as well as my recommended stops.
Up Next – San Francisco