Trip to Bucharest

Some notes from my recent trip to Bucharest:

  • I was disappointed to see that smoking was allowed inside closed spaces, like the hotel lobby, the restaurants etc. I was almost sick and the existence of smoke just added up to my bad experience.
  • Romania uses Lei (RON), so I had to exchange some currency. My previous experiences both at the Athens airport and at the Henri Coanda in Bucharest were bad (bad conversion rates), and I was advised to use my debit card at one of the ATMs available at the airport. I did so, and I decided to leave the conversion to my (Greek) bank instead of having the ATM define the conversion. I got 310 RON in 3 notes of 100, which I found rather hard to use for small buys (e.g. ice-cream, water, snacks etc.).
  • Due to the fact that I had plenty of time before the project meeting, arriving early at the airport, I decided to take the bus 783 to the city center. You just have to follow the signs and get to the lower level of the airport. The automatic machine was only available for re-filling existing ticket cards, so I went to the desk next to the bus station (you cannot buy tickets from the driver, inside the bus). I got a two-way ticket for 8,60 RON (including the cost of the card).
  • Last time, I got a taxi from the Bucharest airport to the city center; it appeared to be a “pirate” one. I cannot remember how much it costed but I felt glad to arrive safe and receive a receipt as well (even though the driver seemed disappointed to receive the payment in RON instead of EUR).
  • The bus included a telematic system and informed the passengers about the next bus stop, both in Romanian and English; I really wish we had such thing in Greece as well.
  • Life and goods in Bucharest are still rather cheap; for example, a soft drink at the mini bar of the hotel costs 4 RON (about 1 EUR), you can have a 500mL glass of beer for about 9 RON, and eat at a good restaurant (including drinks and dessert) for about 60-70 RON (less than 20 EUR).
  • It is common to add at least a 10% of the total amount of the receipt as a tip for the service; if not, the service is not considered good. However, this amount is not available in the bill nor anywhere else, so it becomes a non-eligible cost for business trips (where you have to provide receipts for all expenses).
  • Taxis (at least the yellow ones, with the 1.39 LEI/km sign) tend to be rather cheap; you can go around the city for less than 20 RON (about 5 euros) and calling a taxi is really quick and precise, even from coffee shops and restaurants. A trip from the old city center to the Henri Coanda airport costed about 40 LEI (10 EUR)
  • The park near the Arcul de Triumf is amazing; a huge park within a large city, with ponds, canals, bridges, a lot of recreation space, statuses, cultivated ornamental plants, place to have a snack and a drink etc. People jogging, couples carrying babies with strollers, people of all ages cycling and walking, everyone relaxing away from the noise of the city. However, due to the rains of the previous days, some of the paths were full of mud and pools of water; it was a good thing that the numerous benches were dry.
  • The weather was constantly changing, like in Athens; starting from warm and really humid, with (almost annoying) sun, to chilling in the afternoon, drizzling and even raining. Maybe that was reason behind my constant headache during my stay in Bucharest – one moment you start seating and the next minute you get a refreshing breeze which gets colder and colder, leading to you getting a nice cold in the end!
  • The old city center is worth visit; it took about about 15 minutes from our hotel and 10 RON with taxi to get there. There is a wide variety of shops and goods available at low prices (you have to check this out though), as well as nice places to eat and have a drink, traditional buildings and other sights. Pay attention to the beggars in the streets, as they tend to be really stubborn and insist on you giving them money. The streets there as also crowded, so I paid special attention to my back pack, in order to avoid having it opened by pickpockets.

Trip to Washington D.C. – The story in bullets

  • It was a business trip
  • I exchanged 200 euros for USD260. I would have gotten much less at the Athens airport.
  • I flew from Athens to Washington D.C. through Philadelphia with US Airways
  • Various snacks and beverages were offered during the flight but I still felt hungry; I tend to get more hungry when I am tired. All experienced passengers had snacks in their carry-on luggage!
  • It was really cold during the flight; it reminded me of Greek ships to the Greek islands, where the temperature in the salon is usually really low. I suppose they want to keep us fresh and young during the long trips in both cases. At least US Airways was kind enough to provide warm blankets to everyone during the flight.
  • Due to extremely long queues at the passport check points, in Philadelphia I missed my connection flight to Washington… had to wait for three hours at the airport, which to my surprise provided free access to the internet.
  • My luggage traveled to Washington without me, as I was told this happens with national flights. I was really worried that the last time I saw it would have been at the Athens airport; however, it was on the correct lane, waiting for me to arrive in Washington.
  • While waiting at the Philadelphia airport, I grabbed a snack and sat to eat it; I didn’t notice a small (but oily) piece of food left on the chair. This left me with one pair of trousers less during my stay in Washington.
  • I wish I have chosen a direct flight to Dulles or Baltimore airports; I would have saved a lot of time from the security screening and might have shortened my trip – both of them were more far away from the city center though (so I would have to take a bus and a metro later), and this is why I chose to fly to Ronald Reagan Airport. I promise that I will never do that again – Only direct flights to my U.S. destination if possible.
  • I left home at 07.30 and reach hotel at 05.30 (Greek time), so my trip took almost one day!
  • Metro at the Ronald Reagan Airport was not operational due to works; I had to get a bus for a couple of metro stations, carrying around my heavy luggage
  • I reached hotel only to realize that there was a problem with both my debit cards (both Visa and Mastercard); the Mastercard was rejected, while the limit for the Visa was 500 euros. I only had USD250 with me.
  • The hotel policy for Debit card owners was to charge a fee of $60 per night for the use of the card – I was not aware of that rule and would have paid in cash if I only knew about that. They said that it would be automatically refunded after 10 days – I never trust this kind of transactions, as businesses tend to “forget” that they have to give you back your money.
  • Each evening I returned to the hotel room after the meeting, only to realize that the magnetic key was not working; I was told during my last night at the hotel that this was due to the fact that the room was not paid yet. However, this also applied to my first night at the hotel.
  • I could not withdraw money from a nearby ATM with my Debit Mastercard – I will have to check with my bank about that. **edit** I had to slide the card in the ATM slot and after taking out I was allowed to proceed with the transaction. It was tricky and surely not how things work in Europe.
  • I was never sure the amount charged to my card by the hotel (twice), as the transactions took place behind the counter and in a nicely-hidden spot. And we are not talking about crooks here; it was a $250/night hotel at the center of Washington D.C.
  • I booked the room through for a fixed price; I am curious to see how much I was charged in the end.
  • Finding out the exact price for an item is hard, as the prices shown never include taxes – and taxes are different in different cases. You can only find out about that after you pay.
  • On top of that, you need to tip in almost any occasion. You need to tip the doorman, the bellman, the waiter, the lady cleaning the hotel room, the taxi driver etc. Sometimes you are kindly requested to do so, sometimes you really need to. This is not common in Europe and of course it adds up to the prices.
  • I could not find a fast food in Washington, at least the ones shown in movies, with large burgers, large fries, large milk shakes. I only got to each some “big” (but still normal in size) sandwiches and less-than-normal sized milk shakes.
  • Walking around Washington was a pleasure; big pedestrian walks, enormous parks, lots of sights. I walked so much that my feet hurt.
  • You feel safe in Washington. There is police around the city, especially near the public buildings (which are really numerous).
  • I spent about an hour walking to the Capitol, thinking that the river would be exactly behind it; I was totally disoriented as usually, as the river was on the exactly opposite side.
  • There were a lot of buildings that looked like ancient Greek ones; it was really appreciated. On top of that, Americans seem to be really proud of their history and respect monuments and figures; this is not the case in Greece.
  • Jogging is very popular in Washington – you need to take better care of the joggers than the cyclists.
  • Jet lag is a fact – I felt exhausted every day after the lunch for the first days. Then I traveled back home, where things were even worse (see below).
  • There are no croissants in grocery stores (I think they call them Pharmacies here) – The only options for breakfast at the hotel room were biscuits and cereals, along with milk. I lived with that during my last morning in Washington.
  • I did not find any stores to buy gadgets/clothes etc. I wouldn’t have minded to get my hands on a refurbished Microsoft Surface tablet, a Nokia Lumia Windows Phonw or maybe a Mac Pro, but it seems that there was nothing around my hotel (and my long walks).
  • I was nervous about the use of power adapters in US with a Schuko plug (for my laptop) so I grabbed a cheap one from Athens, which costed my 14,5 euros. A similar but more well-built-looking adapter in the Athens airport was sold for 35 euros and the same one (as mine) at Philadelphia airport for about $30. I have to admit that I loved my adapter, which allowed me to charge all my gadgets using both the plug and the included USB port at the same time. It is highly recommended as a cheap alternative to the more expensive and elegant ones (such as SKROSS).
  • I had problems checking out of my hotel, as my cards could not be used for paying the remaining amount ($600 while my account balance was much higher in both cases). I had to visit an ATM and use both cards (Visa & Mastercard) for withdrawing money as there was a $400 limit per card by the ATM and I needed $600 (transaction which incurred fees both by the ATM and by my banks). In the end, there was a pre-charging made in both cards and one of them will have to be released (it may take up to 10 working days as I was told by the hotel). I just hope that I will not be overcharged. Cards are a mess-cash is good…
  • On my was back to Ronald Reagan airport I managed to get the wrong metro line and I started moving outside the city – thanks to a friendly passenger, I was told how to get the right line again.
  • Before flying from Washington to Philadelphia but as soon as we were seated in the airplane, we were told that there was an weight imbalance and one (volunteer) passenger from rows 1-4 should be moved to the last row; I am currently 115 Kg and was sitting at row 4, next to a guy who seemed to be twice as big as me. To everyones relief, I offered to move to the last row.
  • This time there were no big queues so I had to wait quite a lot at the airports. However, there was a 50 min delay from Philadelphia to Athens. This trip seemed endless.
  • As I flew from evening (U.S.) to morning (Greece) I had trouble getting some sleep during the flight. I spent two days trying to recover from the trip.
  • I was expecting my wife to pick me up from the airport but (of course) something happened and I had to take the suburban railway. This meant a delay of about 20 mins and me carrying my 20Kg suitcase and 15 kg backpack over a quite a big number of stairs at the destination station, as both the elevator and the escalators were out of order.

Damn strikes of public means of transportation…

I live just 10 km from the Athens International Airport, and I travel quite often by plane for business purposes. I really can’t tell how many times I have been forced to spend the night before a flight at my parents’ house (near a metro station), because of strikes in the Suburban railway station (which always affects the operation of Metro regarding stations to and from the airport)… This means that I have to get up really early and catch the bus to the airport, thus extending my trip by about an hour.

I have a flight to catch on Tuesday, when the really common strike of (malfunctioning) Suburban railway has been announced. I thought that I would have to follow the same procedure of staying at my parents’ house overnight, so I prepared and took my suitcase there from today. However, I was informed that there would be a general strike of the public means of transportation, so no bus for me!

I really have no other option apart from calling a taxi (more than 2o euros from my place to the airport!) or have my wife wake up much earlier than she expected in order to get me to the airport… and she’s currently sick.

Enough with the strikes! It seems that the only ones affected by them are us, common people who use the public means of transportation for going to work. I cannot see how the politicians who voted for these actions are affected by these strikes. The employees have probably arranged their day-off during the days of strike (it’s really common for them to be sick or on day-off during the strikes!), so they will be paid anyway. I am sure that they don’t even know the purpose of their strike, apart from seeing their (illegal) extra payments being reduced or totally cut.

Why should we go through all this mess for their cause? Why do we pay the sequences of it, instead of those who should (but don’t)?

I only see one solution: Make these organizations private, in order to have these people start really working!  We will be more than glad to welcome them to the club of the private-working people, just for them to see what a real job is out there…

Btw, the price of the tickets for these “services” has been increased by almost 30% since the beginning of 2011… but where are these “services”?