Travelogue: Gold Coast – Byron Bay, Surfers Paradise, Nimbim, and Port Stevens

From Brisbane, I fell in with a Canadian couple who were traveling on a leisurely road trip from Brisbane to Sydney via the Gold Coast.

Meet Jesse (28) & Kristina (20)!

Gold Coast - Kristina and Jesse

They were traveling in this ancient camper van, at least 20 years old. It used to be rented out by Wicked (one of the many camper van rental companies), but was then sold to a series of travelers before passing into our hands.

Gold Coast - Campervan


Continue reading Travelogue: Gold Coast – Byron Bay, Surfers Paradise, Nimbim, and Port Stevens

Interlude: Travel Camping

On the way down the Gold Coast, I tried out travel camping almost every night – since the campervan was only large enough for two (my new Canadian friends), I slept outside in a tent.  It was pretty comfortable though, since it was fall in Australia.  And in the week and a half that we traveled together, I had a lot of variance in my camping.

Exhibit A: camping right along the coast, going to sleep while listening to the waves.  I think the best part isn’t even falling asleep to the waves, but waking up to both the sound of the waves, and the warmth of the sun shining down on my tent.
Australia travel camping - camping by campervan Australia travel camping - camping alongside ocean

Exhibit B: camping right along the side of the main highway, after finding that every campground in the area had closed at 5pm.  Seriously, every campsite closed at 5pm – even if they had space, they wouldn’t allow you to check in.  Take my money, damn it!
Australia travel camping - camping on the side of the road

Exhibit C: tent + wind + dubiously placed pegs.  My travel companions and I all laughed our asses off, but the boy scout in me was so ashamed.
Australia travel camping - blown over tent

Chance Encounters: Gold Coast

It’s really cool, how you can have fascinating chance encounters by being friendly and keeping an eye out.

Somewhere along the beaches of the Gold Coast, while hiking along the beaches, I came across a bunch of guys from Sydney, playing a game a beach cricket, and decided to join in.  Never having watched or played cricket before, I found it a really fun and fascinating game.  At its core, you have a batsman defending a post (a small tube stuck in the sand), and a pitcher throwing a ball at the batsman / post.  If the pitcher hits the post, the batsman is out.  Otherwise, the batsman gets to keep swinging at the ball until he connects – at which point he has to run to the pitcher and back to the post before somebody either catches the ball, or picks up the ball and pegs the post.

This being the beach, of course the dominant strategy is to hit the ball into the ocean.  I’ve no doubt the game is more complicated than I’ve described, but I had fun!  And I managed to score quite a few points too!

Continue reading Chance Encounters: Gold Coast

Chance Encounters: Byron Bay

After a chance encounter in Byron Bay, I’ve got a new nickname: Zen

While camping out at Byron Bay, I arrived back at the campsite one night to see a bonfire off into the distance.  Hoping there might be s’mores, I headed over and check it out, and discovered a bunch of 20ish Aussie blokes, who all leapt up and yelled “hey, its Zen!”  I rolled with the punches, and thirty seconds later was having a beer with them.

Continue reading Chance Encounters: Byron Bay

Reflection: Fear of the Unknown

“Fear can hold you prisoner, hope can set you free” – Shawshank Redemption

In my travels so far, I’ve had two case where I’ve really felt the fear of the unknown.

First, in New York City, when I got rid of all my material possessions in preparation for my trip.  Walking out of my apartment, knowing that there was no turning back, I felt this emptiness, like a mini panic attack.

This was it.  It hadn’t sunk in when I booked my plane ticket, it hadn’t sunk in when I gave my roommate one months notice.  But now, when all I had in the world was one backpack worth of gear, it finally hit me, this fear of the unknown.

The second time was in Brisbane, when I set out for Sydney.  I had relatives in Brisbane, a place to stay, and it was comfortable.  safe.  peaceful.  But now, I was once again venturing into the unknown, with a Canadian couple I had barely met.  And once again, the fear of the unknown set in – though this time, thankfully, it was much milder.

Maybe because I’m starting to get used to it.  But this is why I left on this journey, to overcome my fears.

As (I think) quoted in The Power of Now, “when you live in the past, you feel disappointment.  When you live in the future, you feel anxiety.  When you live in the present, you feel at peace.”

Travelogue: Brisbane

For the first stop on my journey, I stopped at Brisbane, a river city located on the banks of the (aptly named) Brisbane River – which always to be a pleasant shade of brown.  Brisbane is actually a pretty large metropolitan area, and at it’s heart is Brisbane City – rather like how Manhattan is the heart of New York City.
Brisbane - brown river

Continue reading Travelogue: Brisbane

Best Exchange Rates

When traveling, you naturally want to get the best exchange rate, so that your money goes further – which is especially important given how the USD has been steadily weakening.  This article will tell you exactly how to get the best exchange rates while overseas.

1) Find out if your current bank has a partnership with any overseas bank.  For example, Bank of America has a partnership with WestPac in the Australia region.  If you use your existing bank card with a partnered bank, you not pay zero bank fees, but you also get favorable exchange rates!

It’s important to note, the partner bank may offer to convert your withdrawal into your home currency at it’s cash “buy” rate, as shown below.  Note how this dialogue box is intentionally ambiguous, not telling you what will happen if you skip conversion.  But don’t do it!  If you skip conversion here, it will be automatically converted at a much better rate (the Visa daily rate).
Exchange rate - visa trap

No, skip conversion at this horrible rate!  (VISA rates were at ~1.04 at this time)

2) Open a brokerage account with Charles Schwab, and you will automatically receive a Charles Schwab Checking account and accompanying debit card.  Use this debit card to withdraw money at any ATM.  You will have to pay a bank fee, but Charles Schwab will refund that money to you at the end of each month.

Using either option 1 or option 2, you will exchange money at the daily Visa rate.

3) Use a credit card.  Depending on your card, you will have to pay a foreign exchange fee around 3%. There are special cards that charge no foreign exchange fee, but I find that not only is it a hassle to apply, but there are often annual fees.

4) Bring USD, and use a money changer in the city.  You will have to pay a foreign exchange fee (spread) of around 5%.  From personal experience, I have found that small exchange kiosks (foreign exchange businesses) usually offer better rates than big banks.

Here’s an example of some pretty bad exchange rates being offered by a bank:
Exchange rate - bank rates

5) Bring USD, and use a money exchanger at the airport.  Foreign exchange fee of around 8%.  Ouch!

Exchange rate - horrible rates

6) Use your regular ATM / debit card at a non-affiliated bank.  You will typically get charged a $2-$10 bank fee.  If you don’t like carrying too much cash, and make many small withdrawals, these add up very quickly!

For a demonstration, you can check out the numbers in this real-life example:

Date Service Charge AUD Amount USD Fee USD Stated Rate Effective Rate Daily Visa Rate Difference
3/6/2013 Amex 36 36.91 0.99 1.02527778 1.052777778 1.02677 0.026008
3/6/2013 Schwab ANZ 102* 104.72 1.02666667 1.026666667 1.02677 -0.0001
3/8/2013 BoA Visa 71 73.08 2.19 1.02929577 1.060140845 1.02933 0.030811
3/11/2013 BoA Westpac 100 102.11 1.0211 1.0211 1.02876 -0.00766
3/11/2013 BoA Westpac 100 102.11 1.0211 1.0211 1.02876 -0.00766
3/13/2013 BoA Westpac 200 205.52 1.0276 1.0276 1.03396 -0.00636

* I withdrew $100, and was charged a $2 bank fee, but Charles Schwab refunded it at the end of the month.

As you can see, I paid the lowest exchange rates when using options 1 and 2 – using my existing bank card at a partnered bank, and using my Charles Schwab debit card.

Other travel websites often give alternate ‘expert’ advice that is often more trouble than it’s worth

– Traveler’s check: These tools are useful, but you often have to pay a fee to get your bank to provide the check..  In a world where ATMs are everywhere, if you can withdraw money without paying ATM fees, traveler’s checks are outdated.

– Services that “deliver” foreign currency to you while overseas: you can get good exchange rates with these services, but they are a tremendous hassle, since you have to book well in advance.  I prefer the flexibility of being able to find an ATM anywhere.  This option may be useful if you need access to very large amounts of money.

Airline Experiences Compared

On my way from New York to Australia, I flew with three airlines: US Airways, United, and New Zealand Air.

It’s interesting to compare the airline experience for these three airlines:

US Airways:
I wonder if their flight attendants should be called salespeople now.  Gone are in-flight meals, gone are all free snacks, gone are all types of in-flight entertainment.  Instead, we have flight attendants hawking snacks ($3.49 for Chex Mix) and making a lengthy broadcast over the PA, for a “special offer” of the US Airways Visa card – now with 100,000 free miles and no fee for the first year!   Talk about a captive audience!

Like US Airways, but now all the advertising is automated!  Everyone gets a seat back direcTV display, albeit one that asks you to pay $6.99 for access to the 100some channels for a <2 hour flight.  And woe to those who refuse to pay up – they get bombarded with endless advertisements and more urging to pay for the service!

And the best part is, the off button is non-obvious – you have to hold down the lower contrast button for 10 seconds, to turn off the advertising.

Air New Zealand:
A breath of fresh air!  Interesting in-flight safety videos!  Individual seat back displays where you can watch movies & tv shows, listen to music, and play games!  For free!  I finally got around to watching Lincoln, Cloud Atlas, and Skyfall.

America and Australia Compared

America vs. Australia – as a New York yankee in Ozzieland, these are some differences I’ve noticed between America and Australia:

1. No EFTPOS signs at shops.  EFTPOS = electronic fund transfer at point of sale, which is a long way of saying credit cards / debit cards.

2. Superfunds. You’ll see advertisements of superfunds all over the place.  These are the Australian equivalent of 401k retirement savings – though in Australia, they are mandatory!

3. Driving: yes, Australia  drives on the left hand side of the street.

4. Health care: if you need to see a doctor, you go in for a 10-15 minute consultation, and are charged $70+.  If you were living in Australia, you’d have Medicare (mandatory), so you’d then get a refund sent to you, bringing down the cost of your doctor’s visit to ~$30.

5. Tax & tip: taxes are already included in all prices, and tipping is inappropriate.

6. Currency: The smallest bill is $5, with there being $2, $1, $0.50, $0.20,$0.10, and $0.05 coins.  $1 and $2 coins are golden.  Interestingly, Queen Elizabeth II is on all the coins, and as you look at coins minted in the past, you can see how she has gotten older with time.

7. In the US, we have pharmacies. In Australia, we have chemists.  And just like in the states, they are everywhere.

8: Australia, like basically the rest of the world, uses the metric system.  So, kilograms instead of pounds, kilometers instead of miles, and kilojoules instead of calories.

9: In Australia, Hungry Jacks is Burger King – apparently due to a trademark dispute!

10: TBD