Seattle to London, making a trip less costly and more enjoyable using technology

You may be planning a trip overseas this holiday season or in 2007 and the intent of this article is to help answer a few questions and concerns you may have regarding pre-planning your trip and using technology on the road. London was a wonderful town to visit, yet was quite expensive as well. You can save some money by using technology and the internet and definitely figure out how to use Skype to call family back in the U.S.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer on
London Eye
I am in the Heathrow Airport waiting for my return trip from London to Seattle in about an hour and a half and thought it may be helpful to future travelers to relate my experiences from a technical viewpoint. To set the baseline for my trip, I am a T-Mobile USA customer who had a US$19.99 VPN unlimited data plan that I have had for over 3 years now. I was flying to London for the International Salvage & Wreck Removal conference and then planned to spend a couple of days seeing the sites since I have never been to the UK before. I am also a football (soccer in the U.S.) fan, all 3 of my girls play and I coach my youngest daughter, so that is something I wanted to see live in London. The trip went well for the most part, but T-Mobile upset me with their lack of service and I may be looking to drop them soon.

Pre-travel reservations: The first thing I did was search for a decent price on a flight and hotel and used Travelocity and Orbitz to start off with. I found flights that stopped in places like LA and Chicago at around US$1,200. I then went directly to the British Airways website and found a direct flight for just under US$800 so I purchased that flight. I also made my hotel reservations through the British Airways website and it turned out that saved me about 50% off the price other conference attendees were paying for the same hotel (US$136 per night at Jurys Great Russell Street hotel). The last thing I purchased through the British Airways system was a shuttle ride from Heathrow directly to my hotel and that ran US$26.

Football fixture: My next task was to find a football game to attend in the area. After just seeing the movie Goal with my daughters I thought seeing a Newcastle United fixture (game) would be appropriate. I Googled around and found that Newcastle was playing Chelsea FC on the second night I was to be in town and also saw that Chelsea was battling it out with Manchester United for first place in the Barclays Premiership contest. I purchased my tickets on the internet in advance and later while in London found out that I was actually quite lucky to score tickets for the game as it was sold out. The experience was awesome and I took a few photos and recorded some video with the Nokia N93. I actually captured the only score of the game and posted a video on YouTube that surprisingly has had a ton of viewers. I guess there are a lot of football fans out there and I also learned that Chelsea is a bit controversial with their extremely rich owner who made billions from the oil industry in Russia.

What to do on the flight: I received the myvu Personal Media Viewer glasses a couple days before my trip (I'll be posting an image gallery and my thoughts on them soon) and loaded up the iPod video I am testing out with lots of TV shows and a movie. It turns out that the myvu was a very good way to enjoy video content on an airplane since there was only one movie on the in-flight system that interested me. The aspect of the myvu that made it a better experience than watching video on my Samsung Q1 sitting on the tray or my Zune in my hand was that I could fully recline my seat and enjoy the video. The content was large and bright enough to be very enjoyable and the integrated earphones worked well at blocking out surrounding noise. The myvu Made for iPod kit consists of a hard case for the iPod that also serves as an extended battery and after about 3.5 hours of viewing video I still had a full charge appearing on the 30GB iPod. I also had my Zune loaded with music, podcasts, and video content. The Proporta Mobile Device Charger was also fully charged and part of my travel kit in case I needed more battery power. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to charge up the Zune. It did charge up my mobile phones when connected with a USB cable.

Internet connectivity in London: Before leaving the U.S., I called up T-Mobile to find out about my connectivity options. I requested an unlock code for my T-Mobile Dash so I could pop in a prepaid SIM if I wanted to, but now one week later a code still has not arrived. Update: A code just arrived after I landed back in the U.S. I also found out I could use my T-Mobile account to make calls for 99 cents per minute and consume data at US$15 for each MB. I also asked about using T-Mobile Hotspots since there are lots of Starbucks in London and found out if I subscribed I could connect for 18 cents a minute. I then asked to switch from my US$19.99 T-Mobile VPN data plan to the combined GPRS/EDGE data and WiFi data plan for US$29.99 per month. It turns out that T-Mobile made this switch, but then never sent me any kind of username or password to access the T-Mobile Hotspots. I tried connecting unsuccessfully in London and the switch to the combined plan was useless for me in London. I tried switching back via online support, but they now say that the plan I had is not in their system and there is nothing they can do to return my account back to where it was. I plan to call them directly when I am back in the U.S., but may be looking for a new data provider since I have no real need to use WiFi at Hotspots in the U.S.

I ended up paying US$19.63 per day for an ethernet connection in my hotel that allowed me to record MobileTechRoundup show #82 and also stay connected at night. The other major benefit of this hotel connection was the ability to use Skype to talk with my family using SkypeOut at pennies per minute and also make video calls using Skype to Skype (prior to their loss of power and phone lines in Washington). There are a few free WiFi connections in London and I understand there are some places like Wetherspoon's pub where you get free WiFi with a purchase of some sort (thanks Paul Fenton). With these WiFi connections you could use Skype on your mobile phone to place calls as well. I did make and receive a couple of text messages and will see what those charges are a bit later. I considered a pay-as-you-go phone and service from one of the UK carriers, but I wasn't trying to stay in touch with that many people in the UK so I decided against this for me.

Transportation in London: Before departing the U.S. I found out all I could about the Tube (Underground system), buses, and taxis. There are Tube maps available for different mobile devices to help you plan and make trips around the city. As it turns out, I took the Tube 99% of the time in London and found it reasonably priced and easy to navigate. I bought daily passes each day since that allowed me to get on and off the Tube as well as the bus system with the same ticket. There are also a ton of taxis in London, similar to New York city. These taxis are also all the same type of special vehicle that you cannot purchase unless you are using it for a taxi.

Security: Security is much tighter in London than what I have seen in the United States and I actually was questioned and most likely am now in their system. I was waiting for my friend Rafe, from All About Symbian, who was going to show me the town and was coming in on a train from out in the country. I knew my daughters would enjoy seeing the taxis and double decker buses so I took a few photos of them on the street while standing across the street from the rail station. Two very nice police officers approached me and asked what I was doing taking these photos. I explained that I was a tourist and just shooting a few photos. They were very kind about it, but did take my identification and recorded my details in their notebook. I then paid a bit more attention as I was walking around the city and saw closed circuit TV cameras everywhere in the city so I imagine they have a pretty tight network of monitoring in the city.

Sightseeing: There are a ton of sights to see in London and I ended up seeing quite a few, including the London Eye, Royal Observatory and Prime Meridian, Royal Naval College and Maritime Museum, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Science Museum and Play On exhibit, Tower of London, and more. The line for the London Eye was very long when Rafe and I went there so I went back to my hotel room and ordered tickets online for the first flight of the next morning. I arrived 30 minutes early, popped in my credit card I purchased the tickets with, grabbed my printed out ticket, and popped right on the capsule. Buying online saved me a lot of time in queue (line) and made the rest of my day a bit more enjoyable. The Play On exhibit was being held at the Science Museum and Rafe and I spent about an hour and a half playing old arcade and console games like Tron, Star Wars, Donkey Kong, Pong, and more. They also had a Wii, PS3, and Xbox 360 for people to play at the end of the exhibit.

Watching a movie in town: I planned to watch my Slingbox content at night in my hotel room when I tired of watching football, rugby, and cricket, but unfortunately there was quite a wind storm in Washington State that knocked out power and phone connections at my house. I then decided it would be a good time to watch Casino Royale since I was in the UK and saw the headquarters building for MI6. I went to the ticket office to buy my tickets and was asked to select my seat. I am not sure if this is the way tickets are purchased at all theaters, but at this one you selected your seat on the computer like you would if you went to a show or sporting event. I ended up getting a pretty good seat, but found out that about 50% of the theater was already booked from people buying tickets online or from their mobile. I thought it was one of the best Bond movies I have ever seen.

Trip summary and advice: The people of London were very respectful and kind and I felt comfortable walking around and taking the Underground in the city. If you are traveling from the U.S. be prepared to spend a lot of money as the U.S. dollar is quite weak there and everything was very expensive. Do your homework online before taking your trip and consider booking your hotel and other attractions from your airline at a discount if they offer these services. I saved a lot of money by using technology to plan and make my trip. BTW, you can check out my photos on my Flickr site to see some of my adventures and sights.

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