Checking in and Checking out!
Because of where I live (Australia) and because many of the races I travel to are in Europe, people often ask me travel related questions.
So here I will try to answer them using my experience gained from 25+ years of international and domestic travel as a motorcycle mechanic and average Motocross Racer.
I’ve made a million mistakes, flown thousands of hours, stayed in some hotels for over a year cumulatively and I have also learnt from many guys that have done it all before me. So here you will read tips, stories and gain some useful info all related to travel.
Travel things I have learnt that may help you.
Not sure where to start here, so let’s just start from the beginning, not the beginning where you’re at the bar with your friends watching a race and you say “Man let's go there next year! Who's with me?” I mean at home, a few months before you leave.
Ok, first things first.
If you need to get one, get it early - it's nearly always a pain in the butt for one reason or another. If you think you may travel a lot do not hesitate to ask for a business passport. They're the ones with extra pages so you don't have to get another one anytime soon.
Do not be a dick and think you won’t use it. Just get it. I could go on and on but I won’t. Just get it.
Unless you are going to some remote outpost, the days of traveller’s cheques and taking tons of cash with you in different currencies has long gone.
I never get cash or anything special before I leave home. I have two credit cards and whatever cash is in my wallet when I leave home. One credit card is for personal and one is for business to help my accountant out. Every airport has ATMs so you can just go and pull some local currency out when you arrive. All the money changing deals and buy backs in the end are just a pain in the arse and sure you will get hit with a few fees, but you can get what you want out when you need it. ATMs are simple - I have not come across a machine in the last 10 years that does not have a language button and the only thing you should understand is the exchange rate to help when withdrawing. But I have got confused before so I just hit the middle choice and as a rule it’s between $100 and $200 equivalent!
Booking Travel and Hotels
Almost all travel can be booked online now and it’s clearly the way to go. But there are some things you need to know and a few tricks I can tell you.
So the first thing is the online discount sites such as lastminute.com, Hotels.com, Booking.com etc are great, but normally the cheapest room you find on there is also the cheapest room at the hotel you are looking at, so just be aware of that. I mean every hotel has a room or two that are not as good as the average. Normally an odd shaped room, maybe it’s near the elevator, or over the night club or bar, it might have no view or be next to the exhaust vent for the kitchen that cranks up at 5am and shuts off at 2pm! And that's why these rooms are often the cheapest on these sites. These rooms are also the ones that can get you “walked” easily. Walked means you get bumped out for a longer staying guest, or one that pays more through another means. You will just get moved to our “Sister Hotel” or maybe our “friends down the road”. I’m not saying any of these are bad, just be slightly prepared for it if you book the cheapest online room from a discount website. It’s a great idea to cross-reference it with the actual hotel website. Many times they have the same price and you will likely get slightly better service or a better room because you have come through their internet front door, and not through the internet service elevator if you know what I mean.
If you are too slack to book earlier or just made a spur of the moment decision for your hotel you can do what I've done plenty of times.
Sometimes the walk up price is more than the internet price so I have on occasion left the check-in desk and sat in the lobby and bought the room online and returned to the desk 15min later to the smile of the desk staff.
Something that you also need to know - many sites seem to track your searches. So if you check out a flight or hotel you often see stuff to make you book now. Such as "10 people looking at this room now!!" (including you) "Hurry only 2 rooms left at this price" (at the moment!) The thing is when you go away and check again later the price offered has gone up! But if you then go and use another computer or delete your cookies you often see the first price re-appear like magic! Tricky buggers I know. Now there is a lot of debate whether this is underhanded or really happens. Some people swear it's the companies being tricky, some people say it's just such a messy difficult system to manage that you can just be lucky attacking the booking from another angle.
I'm saying that for whatever reason it does happen from time to time and it's worth just checking it out. It might just save you a wedge of cash you can spend on a new Wrench Racer cap or tee. (You can thank me later.)
I love sites like Trip Advisor but you need to learn how to use the information. It takes time to get a real feel for the info online when comparing hotels etc. So let me try and give you a few tips that will help you.
Firstly many people don't write reviews unless they are really unhappy or really, really happy. Most satisfied customers just smile and move on. But sometimes people feel wronged and kind of vent on review sites.
I take most notice of people that sound like they are like me, often travel a lot, and come from a country that I can identify with easily, but this depends on a few things, let me try and explain.
If I'm reading a comment about the local beach, I might give more value to somebody from Sydney or California because they are around beaches all the time. Or let’s say I’m looking at a skiing holiday, I would give more value to a person from Canada or maybe France than say somebody from Qatar or Dubai. Often I've stayed in places and have out of interest read reviews after the fact (the company booked it not me) and it’s interesting to see things that piss people off, yet for me were nothing. Also sometimes nobody has complained about something I would think could be improved.
So you see what I mean, you will soon get a feel for what works for you.
There is a great site that can help you avoid the bad seats on a plane. (This is a bit like hotel rooms, some seats are not as good as the rest.) It's called www.seatguru.com and there are a few others.
One last note on hotels, I have watched people yell and scream and just behave like spoilt kids in hotels about all sorts of crap. From the TV not working to room keys not working, towels missing blah blah. Yeah, sometimes yelling at the person downstairs at the desk may get you what you want, but I guarantee you that being nice, smiling and just asking for help will also get you what you want and often more. That person at the desk did not forget to put coffee in the room or batteries in the remote control, so yelling at them won’t help, but they can fix it for you and they can also upgrade your room with a keystroke, get you late checkout, free internet, a free drink in the bar, etc. But they will never go above and beyond if you’re yelling at them or are just a plain rude prick. So expect for things to go wrong, but don't lose your cool at the desk staff. Just tell them what’s wrong, be nice and smile. Works way better than all the other options.
This is a fairly personal-preference subject but let me tell you the things that I've learnt and that may help you.
First thing is most first timers take way too much, I did it and you will still probably do it even after you read this. It’s hard to slim down, but once you start you will become obsessed, cutting back is like a drug!
For most trips I take hand carry luggage, that is, I don't check in any bags. This is easier to do travelling for work than holidays so it’s your call.
I travel like this because I am in places for short times and can’t wait for lost luggage. I want to speed the whole travel process up, through customs, to the rental car desk or taxi rank etc. If your plane is cancelled or delayed, you often go to the airline desk and say “hey can I get on that flight instead” and the answer is normally “no sir we will be making arrangements for you on the next available flight and you will be put in a hotel tonight or you will be given a meal voucher!” If you say “I have no luggage, just this" (holding it up), your new answer will be “Just wait a minute sir, I will see what I can do”.
When you buy a bag to carry on board make sure it’s the size that fits into the airline measurement bins, and look for a bag that is light. You will be surprised at the difference between bag weights. If your airline limit is 7kg you don't want 4kg taken up in the bag itself.
If you are buying check in type bags the weight is still important so you don't break your back. I think you should always get bags with wheels, check in or hand carry type. I can’t believe they still sell non-wheeled bags! You should also make sure you can get around with all your bags at once, with a free hand for elevator buttons, doors etc. Maybe you have a back pack and a wheelie bag or maybe your hand carry in cabin bag will sit against the handle of your larger check in bag to give you a free hand, either way, if you have not thought about it until the day you travel then good luck on that train platform, elevator or moving in the taxi queue!
Flying and Jetlag
So I have been flying between Australia and wherever the MotoGP race is for over 20 years now. Time spent inside a plane per year recently has been around 550 hours. This is flying hours, not including airport hours.
In that time I have learnt a few things that I may be able to pass onto you so you either don't make the same mistakes I have or have a good trip on your first trip with a few little tips.
First one is drink water, lots of it and flat water. Any fizzy drink makes you really bloated on a plane and you will just fart yourself to oblivion if you drink lots of bubbly stuff. Give alcohol a miss if you can, it just dehydrates you even more. It’s really easy to get dehydrated on a plane and for the few days after a flight. This is because your body clock seems to stop you being thirsty at night. It's so easy not to drink during the first few days after a big flight. Force it into you for at least two days after landing. (I'm no doctor, it just works for me!)
Things to help jet lag are: start thinking about the time it is in the place you're travelling to a few days beforehand and then on the plane really think about it to the point that if you are arriving in the morning then you need to try and sleep before you land, and maybe not at the beginning of your flight. But if you’re just too tired to bother with a strategy, then just sleep as much as you can at any time on the flight. (But not when you arrive, unless of course it’s night time.)
If you have a few hours stop-over, such as between Australia and Europe, then take clothes in your carry on bag so you can have a shower before the next flight. Just new underpants and socks make the world of difference. If you’re lucky and can go to a lounge that has a shower then use it, if not, they nearly always have shower facilities for around the $5-10 mark. Spend it there, trust me.
Now when you arrive at your destination you need to do a few things to help get over the jet lag as soon as possible. These are my tips and work for me, I know all this is from my experience only and I have zero scientific facts to back anything up, but it’s worth a try.
If you are travelling like I often do from Australia to Europe and you have a choice, try to get a flight that arrives in the morning of your destination country. I always find it easier to get over jet-lag if I do as opposed to an evening landing.
Do not have a sleep during the day! Try as hard as you can to stay busy and awake until the regular bed time.
This is my most important jet lag tip. Get outside in the sun, go for a walk or do something outside. The natural light has some sort of trigger that will get you over your jet lag. I nearly always walk around the hotel area to get familiar with the shops, parks, etc on my first day in a new place. Getting the sun on your face and taking in fresh air is the best cure, bar none.
Some of the people I've travelled with take sleeping tablets, I never do. Some people swear by melatonin tablets to sleep, again I never take anything.
Airports, your room and a few other tips
Airports and security at airports are a big part of my life. Basically I hate them but have learnt tricks and things that make them bearable. It’s very easy to get upset in an airport as you are tired and so many of the rules and things that get done seem stupid and illogical. Firstly you are right but you must just go with the flow or you will just end up in the foetal position in the corner shaking.
So first thing is to make sure you leave enough time to get there and checked in. Being late makes all the small problems so much bigger.
If you are lucky enough to be in a frequent flyer system that lets you into a lounge then great. If not investigate how much it will cost to get into a lounge. Many airports have pay per use lounges and I recommend doing that if you have some time to kill. They will have drinks and showers and WiFi all included and comfortable chairs. If you can’t find any WiFi then sit outside an airline lounge and connect to theirs. If you need a password they are mostly something simple like 123456789 or a destination city. Just ask somebody leaving what it is, they will tell you ("Excuse me, could you please help me out, I need to check in online for my next flight but cant get into the lounge, could you please help me out and tell me the WiFi code") it’s rare not to get somebody to tell you first go.
It’s well worth googling your airport and looking at things to do and shops etc. Sometimes if you have 5 hours+ you should exit the terminal and do something else, like get a train to the shopping mall, theatre, or golf course nearby. Seriously there are tons of things to do sometimes right near airports if you just look. Google again is your friend here.
What to do when you get in your room.
(no, I'm not talking about that!)
First thing I do when I check in is ask about the internet. It’s the way I communicate with my family now so it’s very important to me. Often the cheaper the hotels have free WiFi and the more expensive ones charge stupid money for it, but compared to the old days of land line hotel phones it’s still way cheaper to pay the fee. I use an iPad and a laptop so sometimes I plug in a WiFi router so I can use both if you have to pay per device.
I always check to see if there is water in the room, if not I buy some from the local Quickie Mart. I avoid the mini-bar as it’s way too expensive. Sometimes I eat the Snickers or Mars bar and replace it from the hotel shop if there is one.
When I leave the room I always put the do not disturb sign on the door and leave the TV on. I figure if somebody is thinking about breaking in, maybe they will go next door to the silent room. So far in 21 years of GP racing and hotels I have had my room done over once (did not have the TV or do not disturb on that time!).
Laundry is always expensive but I generally put my stuff in as we don't have much time to run around. But if I'm killing time and it’s not race week I always go to a coin op or put my washing in at a laundry service. I have had some great chats at coin laundries over the years and often found out cool things to do from locals doing their washing.
If you have no time and are down to your last underpants then washing them in the basin or shower has to be done, just use the shampoo supplied and then wring it out best you can. Then lay you washing on a towel and roll the towel up so your washing is kind of in the rolls, then wring/wind the towel up and after just hang them up on a coat hanger for the night and normally they will be dry in the morning. Look in the side bar for more and some pics.
Need to iron a shirt and don’t have an iron? Hang it in the shower and turn the hot water on so you create a steam room, don’t be scared, go full hot for 3-5 min Sure it’s a bit wasteful but desperate times call for desperate measures. Trust me this works.
So you have lost your iPhone, iPad or Blackberry charger? You left it in the last hotel or on the plane? Go up to the front desk and tell them that you are pretty sure you left your charger in reception this morning and it’s not there now, have any been handed in? The desk person will say........”Um I'm not sure, I was not on this morning” (as she or he turns to grab the box under the counter with 50+ chargers in it) “see if you can see it in here!” Trust me I have done this plenty of times. It’s not really stealing, it’s more like ...............um..........recycling.
When you travel away from home like I do for MotoGP, you learn lots of tricks and ways to communicate with friends and family back home. Below is the way communication with home has changed and improved for me.
When I started traveling overseas from Australia to work as a GP mechanic, it was over 20 years ago and hotel pay phones and phone boxes were the only way to hear your friends and family in real time. I wrote lots of letters to my girlfriend at that time (she became my wife) and we would send bits and pieces back and forth. I would love getting magazines and cassette tapes from home. Sometimes Ellen would just record the radio for the length of the cassette and they were great to listen to during those long truck trips to races.
Phoning home was an expensive thing to do and I didn’t do it regularly because of the cost. If I decided to call, it would normally go like this: I would call home on a hotel phone, tell my girlfriend, mum or whoever I was talking to, the phone number of the hotel and the room number and then hang up. Sometimes I didn’t know the country code so I would ask them to check in the back of the phone book. Then if I was lucky, they called back and hopefully got the person at the front desk to understand my name and room number. I went to reception many times and would say something like “If that girl rings back, it’s for me. I'm in room Blah Blah” and show the key or something similar.
Sometimes I would call from a pay phone in the street. I would head down at midnight or really early in the morning, and as I was calling Australia from Europe, I’d have a massive bag of coins and then later on a stack of phone cards. The phones used to mow through the coins like a poker machine and eat cards like you had pegged them to your bicycle for the motorbike sound effects.
I kind of did a bad thing sometimes as I was desperate to call home more but did not have the money. Most phone boxes store the money in Fort Knox type vaults, BUT to get access to the electronics part was often just a Phillips Head screw, or even just a latch in some countries. I had a hand phone with a dial up ring wheel on one end with a switch and two alligator clips on the wire instead of a phone plug on the other. So in some countries when I was feeling a bit home sick, I would take my kit down to the pay phone in the street and connect the hand piece to the wires of the pay phone and ..........click..........brbrbrbrbrbrbr............I was on!
I was in my twenties and it was during the courting period with Ellen, so we would have really looooong phone calls (as you do) all for the cost of some sleep and a bit of a panic when the cops would drive by or the baker would look at me in a funny way as he went to work.
I remember one time in Paul Ricard at the French GP there was a phone that somebody found that let you ring international for free! That thing got hammered.
When I went to races in the early 90‘s they use to have phone booths in the press rooms so journalists could call in stories, etc. Often they had good rates so I would use them. I just had to borrow a press pass many times as mechanics are not allowed in the press room. That’s still the case today, but I get by with a little help from my “friends”. The best race was the British GP at Donington Park, in the press room the phones were FREE. So early in the morning you would find the Aussie and Kiwi mechanics all scamming their way into the press room.
Then next big improvement was when everybody got personal computers and home faxes. I would write these big faxes and take them to reception with the number on the back. You would carry the fax rolled up so nobody in the team could read it and give you grief for writing something soppy to your girl!. Sometimes they could still cost you plenty at a hotel! (I’m writing this on flight to London and Brent* just told me that he got stung $30 bucks once from Argentina for his fax!)
Email was amazing and we would send pictures by fax and words by email at first. The biggest drama was having connection issues and phone line connectors for all the different countries. Everybody I worked with had special bags full of power and phone connectors. You would write your email off line then try and connect. You would listen to your computer make all the connection noises that I can still hear in my head today, and it would fail!.
(Click below if your too young to know or too old to remember)
Hotel room doors would open when somebody had figured out the best way to connect and you would hear people yell out like a prison cell as the information came down the line. A common call would be “Just put two commas after the 9!”
After that period things got better year by year. I used the first Microsoft product called Meetings I think. It was a tiny screen on your computer that showed a really delayed and pixilated glitchy picture. It was the beginning of what is now the domain of Skype and FaceTime. It was so crap and so slow but at the time we were all just so amazed. “No Way! I can actually see you, wow!”
It’s funny writing all this as it brings back many memories for me. Today it’s just so easy, and I know it will just get easier and better - by tomorrow probably at the rate we are going now!
So below are a few tips on what me and lots of mechanics in MotoGP and other racing forms are using now or probably yesterday?
If you use a phone overseas even for a short holiday, the cheapest way and best way is to get a sim card in that country. Most airports have a booth to get one and they can show you the ropes. If you still need your home number, just take an old phone (I know you have a Nokia somewhere) and put your home sim in it, or vice versa so people can still contact you. When they call, you tell them to call you back on your new number. There are a million deals, just use your head and get local one that suits you. Ten years ago I had at least 12 sim cards and even had sim card holder. Now I have two; my Aussie one and a UK one with a global roaming package that is registered to a friend’s house in the UK with an automatic payment set up. Easy.
Probably the best thing since sliced bread is Skype or the other companies variation on the theme. I love it. Most hotels have good internet now and it just makes life so much easier and cheaper.
I use both Skype and FaceTime (the Apple version) to talk to home. My kids call me iPad Dad (bit sad, I know). I have watched whole movies with them. They set me up on a chair pointing at the TV and we can still talk. Sounds really weird but it works.
Both products work on most phones, so when you pick up free WiFi in a shopping mall or hotel lobby, you can see your kids or family for free from your phone. Such a long way from a phone box in the middle of the night!
Other ways that many of the guys keep in contact with home are by using app for voice and text using WiFi again.
Most popular amongst me and all the guys I work with, apart from Skype and Facetime, are Viber and WhatsApp. (I have put links in the right hand column, that you may have to scroll back up to see depending on what device you are viewing this on)
Programs for communicating are springing up all the time. Try the ones we all use and let me know if there is a new better one so I can use it and let others know.
Brent is a fellow Mechanic that I work with if you did not know!