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Ted On Tour USA Part 2 – Gatwick to New York

The Empire State Building is very tall especially to a small bear

Ted on Tour USA Part 2 – Gatwick to New York

Following on from part 1 of our epic trip across America and the Caribean here is part 2 discussing the flight to, and our stay in, New York.

You will find tips about trip planning, some lessons learned, photography tips and our opinion on what we saw and experienced.

Getting to America

Our favourite planning sites are Skyscanner for flights and TripAdvisor for their reviews and forums.

Using Skyscanner, we found Norwegian Airlines had expanded its routes to include the USA using a fleet of new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft. Their prices were extremely attractive when compared to the traditional long distance carriers. Norwegian airlines operate along the lines of budget airline where your basic fare covers a limited baggage allowance, a seat and nothing else. You can choose to buy upgrades such as bigger seats, more baggage and meals etc.

An added attraction for me personally with the Norwegian Airlines flight was the chance to try my first Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight. The only concern for such a big trip was the baggage limits of 20kg per passenger plus one carry-on bag each. For a 6 week trip that was quite a restrictive limit when including all my camera gear. Read about what camera gear I took and why. I will be writing a parallel photographers guide covering  this trip. The reason for a seperate series is so people interested in the trip dont get bored reading technical photography information and those interested in photography might not be interested in the general travel posts.

Weight Issues

No, not those weight issues, the 20kg weight limit! The limit was a little concerning and made us think carefully about what we really needed to take. The first thing we did was weigh our current cases. I nearly fell over when seeing one case weighed 6kg and the other 4.5 kg – and that was empty!! That set us off to look around the stores to see what lightweight luggage cases were out there. As it happens I needed some new storage boxes for our Art Stall so called in to Pound Stretcher. To our joint amazement they had lightweight travel cases that weighed a mere 1.5kg. Even better the cases were only £19.99! The lightweight cases were not particularly robust but had sturdy zips and decent looking wheels and extending handles.  The lightweight cases measured just inside the maximum size we could check-in on the flight so it seemed a no brainer to buy a pair.

You dont know how pleased I was that I called in for the boxes first – it potentially saved hours of trolling around shops looking for cases!

All that was left was to work out what clothing to take. We made assumptions that New York would be fairly chilly,  San Francisco and stops on the Pacific Coast Highway through to Las Vegas and the cruise would be warm. All the clothing needed to be lightweight and not too bulky. Based on this I packed a load of t-shirts and shorts, a couple of jumpers for New York and a couple of shirts and pairs of trousers for the cruise. Oh and my walking boots, trainers and one pair of shoes. That was me sorted in almost as much time as it took me to write this paragraph! If I ran short I could stop whenever needed and visit a laundrerette. Now then, I dont want to be sexist or stereotype anyone, but Mrs GDMK Images did take a little bit longer in selecting what to take. Quite a bit longer actually. Enough said.

Which Departure Airport?

The Norwegian Airlines flight we eventually chose was from London Gatwick to new York JFK with an early afternoon departure getting us into new York mid evening time.

Gatwick airport was an attractive departure point as it is easy to get to via train. I am fortunate that I receive limited free rail travel in the UK. This gives us some added flexibility to take advantage of the best air fare deals as we don’t need to add in the cost of rail travel to UK airports.

The following Rail Companies provide rail services to Gatwick Airport

  • Gatwick Express
  • Southern
  • Thameslink
  • Great Western Railway

The Thameslink service that crosses London from North to South is a particularly useful service if you are travelling from North of London and dislike the underground system. You can arrive into London St Pancras or London Kings Cross stations (they are directly next to each other) and go straight down to the low-level platforms. Thameslink trains from here go directly to Gatwick avoiding the London Underground system.

Alternatively, London Victoria has many services direct to Gatwick airport including the dedicated Gatwick Express service. Using London Victoria does involve crossing London via the underground, bus or taxi which adds an inconvenience if you have lots of luggage.

Gatwick Airport

We took advantage of the online check-in offered by Norwegian Airlines so when we arrived at the Norwegian desk, baggage check in was ultra simple and quick.

I like to arrive at airports early and watch the aeroplane movements. Unfortunately, unknown to me, Gatwick airport is appalling for watching planes. There are virtually no airside views which was disappointing. There is an eating place with limited views but nothing exciting.

There is not a great deal to do at Gatwick airport before boarding.  As with all airport departure areas, there are plenty of retail units full of alleged ‘bargain prices’ which in reality never seem to be the bargain they portray. I cross checked some offers on memory cards and camera bits with online retailers and there was virtually no difference in the prices. Duty-free shopping seems to have become another urban myth. The sort of myth that everyone tells you about but no-one has ever seen. I did hear you can get discounts, but only if you buy between 1207 and 1208 on every third Thursday while wearing green trousers and holding your left ear with your right hand and ask in Swahili. If you are successful with this method please let me know!

Whilst wandering around Gatwick Airport we did bump into one of Teds cousins!

 Norwegian Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner

After a tiresome wait, we got the call for boarding. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner was brand spanking new complete with that ‘new car’ type smell! The seats and layout reminded me of a Boeing 757. We left the gate slightly late and must have missed our takeoff slot as we queued for a good 30 minutes to get onto Gatwick’s single runway. The volume of traffic using this runway is phenomenal. Planes seemed to be moving and queuing in all directions before gracefully merging into a single stream heading for the runway.

The Dreamliner turned out to be surprisingly, and somewhat disappointingly, cramped. There was barely sufficient leg room in the economy section for me at just under 6′ and not particularly long legs. If you have long legs you should definitely consider upgrading for the extra legroom.

The aisles also seemed to be quite narrow which caused several gridlocks as the cabin crew and passengers tried to move around during the flight.

Unfortunately, the in-flight entertainment system was out of service. We got to see the first 5 minutes of the new (at the time) Star Wars movie before the movie froze. We saw those 5 minutes 6 or 7 times as the crew tried repeatedly rebooting the system before eventually giving up. A lot of people were complaining, with a guy in front of us getting quite irate, but to be honest whats the point? The staff were obviously doing the best they could, but for whatever reason could not get the system working. These things happen and the staff were genuinely trying to sort the problem.

There is a lot of high-tech wizardry inside the Dreamliner. The windows don’t have blinds but auto tint according to the time of day. You have a manual control which alters the level of tint in the window. I felt like a little kid with a new toy adjusting the tint up and down from fully clear to almost black. Its really cool, honest! The cabin lighting also adjusts automatically as the day progresses into the evening. All very cool, well to me at least! The best bit was saved for landing. As the landing progresses through its descent, the side lighting slowly progresses through varying psychedelic colours. All very calming. I tried to grab a video but it came out blurred, a real shame because it was a really cool effect.

On the whole, the Norwegian Dreamliner flight was good except for the limited legroom. I can recommend using Norwegian Airlines for anyone looking for a cheaper flight to America. I will definitely use them again in the future.

New York, New York

The flight and landing at JFK was fine but it took 45 minutes to taxi to the gate. It took so long and there were so many turns I first thought they were taking us direct to times square!

Baggage collection was straight forward along with customs.

Don’t Get Scammed!

If you have been to New York, or have researched your first trip to new York, you should know about the chancers and scammers trying to relieve you of your hard-earned holiday money by offering to ‘assist’ you.

Well, I can confirm the rip off merchants hit you straight away. Immediately after collecting our baggage and heading for the taxis, we were approached by several people offering us taxi rides into the city. When asking how much for the ride, most were reluctant to give a price. I heard plenty of ‘don’t worry man it’ll be cheap enough’ or ‘we can sort price later’ and various amounts between $90 and $150.

All you need to know is that the reputable taxis operate a fixed scheme of $52 for a single person or $59 for more than one person from JFK to downtown New York. The taxis have a ‘JFK Flat Fare’ sticker on the side indicating they are part of the legit fixed fare system.

Make sure you get a yellow taxi from the official taxi rank bearing one of these stickers and confirm the fee before you get into the cab. Definitely, don’t let someone walking around the concourse talk you into following them or arranging a taxi for you. Just follow the signs to the taxi rank and you will come across plenty of legit taxis. The first lesson of being in New York is that nothing is done for free!

Hotel Stanford

We chose to stay at the Hotel Stanford in Koreatown after reading the New York forums on TripAdvisor. I found some great information in theses forums and used the various forums extensively to research the whole trip. The Hotel Stanford on West 32nd Street turned out to be OK, nothing fancy, but close to Times Square and within walking distance of Penn Station (for our train to Chicago).

Our room in the Hotel Stanford had no view but we were not bothered as it was just somewhere to sleep. The Room was a good size with a large comfortable bed. The safe was a little small to be honest. A nice surprise was a complimentary bottle of champagne in room on arrival – result!

Breakfast was distinctly underwhelming consisting mainly of various bagels served in a smallish room just off the hotel lobby. There was a small selection of cereals and yoghurts and that’s your lot. The breakfast staff were friendly and efficient but room was as limited as the breakfast choices on offer. To be honest I would skip breakfast and get something while you are out and about.

So Much to See in New York

As part of the initial trip planning process, we listed the New York sights we wanted to see and the things we wanted to do. We always do this to ensure we remain focused on what we really want to see and do. With such a massive city that offers so much, it is very easy to get sidetracked. Once you get sidetracked its all to easy to end up missing great chunks of what you want to see.

Our list of New York attractions, in no particular order included –

  • Empire State Building
  • 9/11 Memorial
  • Walk the High line
  • See Times square
  • The USS Intrepid Museum
  • Harbour Boat tour
  • Central Park
  • Grand Central Railway Station
  • Walk Brooklyn and Manhatten bridges

From a photographic standpoint, my list included –

  • People of New York
  • Sunset from a tall building
  • New York from the water
  • ‘abstract’ pictures

New York Pass

In the Tripadvisor forums, I read about the New York Pass. This is a tourist discount card that gives reduced or free entrance to attractions, discounts on eating and many other benefits. You also get to skip the queues at attractions and have access to the big bus hop on hop off tourist buses.

You can buy online or direct from a number of locations in the city. Just remember that any online offers or discounts won’t be available if you buy from a city outlet. At the time of our visit, there weren’t any great online offers that interested us so we decided to buy our New York Passes when we arrived. We chose to buy ours from Macy’s on West 34th street as it was just a couple of blocks up from the Hotel Stanford. If you enter Macy’s from the side entrance on West 34th Street you turn right and will see the steps up to the collection point. If you enter the front at Herald Square you need to go to your left. There are some steps up to the tourist attractions area where you can buy tickets for many attractions.

At face value, there is a lot to be saved with one of these cards but please be aware that, to get real value, you need to be careful on what you buy. If you only intend to see a few sights and maybe use the Big Bus service you might be better not getting a pass and just buying tickets for your attractions. New York is like all other big touristy cities – it’s massive with lots to see. It doesn’t matter what your preferences or likes are in regard to attractions, there is an immense amount to see and the New York Pass covers a large percentage of what most people will want to see.

To get good value from the New York Pass, You really need to get about between attractions to make a real saving. In this haste to get around the attractions, you are not going to have much time to savour them. Just bear that in mind when weighing up the costs of attractions versus the cost of a pass.

Its Difficult to decide if the New York Pass offers real value for money – the card does offer lots of attractions and discounts, but you have to get around a lot to make the most of it. This can potentially defeat the object of taking your time to enjoy the sights, especially if taking time to get photos. We weighed up the costs and decided to get the 3 day new York pass

For us, the inclusion of the Big Bus rides was a great feature. You can use the New York Subway to get around but we wanted to experience New York from above ground and the Big Bus rides do this perfectly.

Ted waiting in Macys for his New York Pass

Ted patiently waits in Macys as we buy our New York Pass tickets

New York Crazy or Just Insane?

I won’t beat about the bush – if it’s your first visit to New York then prepare to have all your senses assaulted. NYC can only be described as crazy and insane. The place is heaving non-stop with an endless flow of people on the sidewalks and vehicles on the roads. The soundtrack of New York is the car horn! The honking and beeping of car horns is literally non-stop from the minute you wake up till you drop off to sleep. There might be 20 cars stopped at a red traffic light but they will be honking and hooting irrespective of the reality that the lights are against them! I found this utterly hilarious.

The next oddity that struck me were the individuals walking briskly down the street having loud conversations seemingly with themselves. Most are shouting and at first you think they are calling out to someone across the street but they are actually on the phone! I Always thought a phone conversation was a private means of communication? Perhaps my age is showing? Now, it seems you can put the phone on loud speaker in order to hear the caller and hold the phone under your mouth, a bit like a plate, and shout into it above all the surrounding din to have a phone conversation.

Some use headphones to listen to the caller and hide the phone in a pocket and then shout even louder so they can be heard! I found these people caught me out more as they appear from nowhere and initially appear to be talking to you, until you see the earphone and realise they are on the phone! I see this occasionally in the UK but it is literally everywhere in New York. With everyone yelling into their phones, the incessant traffic noise and non stop car horn honking I felt a bit like, well – what the?!?!? Man, it is so confusing!

Anyway back to the trip. Big bus tours are great for getting an overview of the city. They have two separate services known as the Uptown Loop and Downtown Loop. Unsurprisingly one loop takes in the Uptown sights and the other takes in the Downtown sights.

I found the big bus tours great as they give you the opportunity to get your bearings in the city. They are also useful for getting photos from different angles. You get a great view into the workings of a busy city without intruding into the scene. They are brilliant for candid people shots. Each bus has a tour guide who give great insight into the city, it’s buildings, people, history and traditions. They highlighted many unusual and interesting tidbits during their talks which helped pick out bits you never would have noticed walking around on your own. You get a free pair of earphones when you join the bus and plug into a socket provided at each seat. The live commentary is obviously in English with a recorded option in several different languages. We Did both loops on our first day, one because we were tired and two to get a good initial overview of the city.

We also used the big bus tours to get between each attraction over the next two days. I found this a great relaxing way to get around.

One day was affected by heavy rain so we stayed on the bus during the worst of the storm. we sat upstairs as the first half dozen rows are covered and got some great creative abstract pictures through the rainsteaked windows.

Our Tour guides on the long tips were Steve McNeil, Lee and Jocelyn and they were great.  There were others but we only did a couple of stops with them and I cant remember their names – oops sorry!.

Lucky New York Sunsets

We Planned to do the Empire State Building on the first day as the sun was setting and it was a great decision. We were well rewarded with an awesome sunset. It is a truly magical experience watching New York city transform itself from day to night.

We decided to save the sunset boat trip for the last night and again were rewarded with a stunning sunset. Take note though, the calm waters are misleading. The wind was very strong and bitingly cold (in April at least) when out on deck so it is highly advisable to dress accordingly.

New York Railways and the High Line

I particularly wanted some pictures of the American railways on this trip but didn’t get time to explore NY railways except for a few at the Hudson Yards depot at the start of our walk along the High Line.

The High Line is really cool. Its a great feat of railway engineering. The High Line is a railway line above street level that weaves around, and in some cases through, buildings. Today the High Line has become a little oasis elevated away from the frenetic pace below. Where trains once rumbled taking their goods to and from the docks, pedestrians can now get above the crazy streets and  walk amongst flowers and grasses. The High Line oozes with an aura of calmness that is hard to describe and I loved it. Springtime is a great time to check out the High Line as the plants are bursting with spring vitality and colours.

From the High Line you are completely detached from the goings on below. You can take a leisurely stroll enjoying the engineering aspects of the structure, taking in the smells and sights of the beautiful gardens and enjoy an almost voyeuristic view of a seemingly detached world below you.

As you wander along, you get to see between buildings including old industrial units and apartments which are blended amongst the immense renewal and regeneration works that are everywhere you look.

As we joined the High Line at Hudson Yards, we were greeted by the sight of the incredible regeneration and building works that are touted to be Americas biggest real estate building project. As you continue along the High Line there are more building works right next to old run down apartment blocks. The contrast between the old and new, the soon to haves and definitely dont haves, is sometimes shocking.

USS Intrepid Sea Air and Space Museum

The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum was OK although not as good as the USS Midway in San Diego in my opinion. We didn’t get to see the Enterprise space shuttle due to a ticket mixup. When we entered the museum I am positive we were advised to buy our shuttle tickets at the shuttle exhibition. When we got to the shuttle exhibition we were told we needed tickets from the main ticket office. We didn’t have time to walk all the way back to get tickets so had to give it a miss-  a real bummer as the shuttle was something I really wanted to see.

Ted and the USS Intrepid

Ted before his disappointing trip on the USS Intrepeid

 Rockefeller Centre

Not overly impressed with the rockefeller, it was OK, but that was about it. Views were ok, but boy it was cold and windy up there! Got some different skyline shots but didn’t hang around long as there was a big rainstorm blowing in.

9/11 Memorial

Well what can you say?  I Watched the entire events unfold live on TV back in the day so had always wanted to visit and pay my respects. Theres not much to say except how very sad and sombre. It was incredible to see the relics inside the museum and relate them to what I saw on TV. Everyone should go and see this memorial. It makes me so angry that despite such a tragic event, our so called ‘leaders’ of today seem to have failed to learn the lessons of history as to what fuels people to take such unthinkable actions.

Unfortunately we didn’t get time to walk any bridges or explore the rail systems in any detail. That was a real shame, but 3 days is just enough to cover the usual tourist suspects and not much time for anything else. Despite all our planning we just didnt have enough time.

It was getting real close to start getting ready for the epic Tras America train ride courtesy of the Lake Shore Limited and California Zephyr.

On the day of departure we decided to check our baggage in at Penn station in readiness for the train trip immediately after checking out of the Hotel Stanford. This left us baggage free to visit Grand Central Station for a last bit of sight seeing.

Big note here – if you are going to Emmeryville from New York and check your baggage in, you won’t see your checked in luggage again until you get off the train in California. Make sure you have enough clothing and anything you might want during the train journey. Things to consider are phone chargers, laptops, medication and a couple of days change of clothes and so on! You need to put these items in your carry on baggage else you gonna be in your same clothes for a long time and travelling with a flat phone, laptop or whatever charger you forgot!

Sparkle Wearing Off

Some of the sparkle was starting to rub off as we grew tired of the con men and women. Nearly every one who approached us claimed to be an ‘eye-rackie’ veteran or have a similar military deployment story which was a little wearing after a while . Dont get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for veterans of all nationalities, but these were just blatantly after the tourists. ‘I served here, I served there’, ‘my kids are starving blah blah’ ‘I can help you’ – ‘hit me a 20 man God bless you man’ – seemingly every 5 minutes was just too much after a while.

We have Been to a lot of countries and cities and can usually work past the scammers, but they are good in New York as I got caught twice.

One claimed to be working for the US equivalent of Help for Heroes (who we actively support in the UK ) and I got suckered in big time . It was only as we were walking away it dawned that we had been scammed. That really pissed me off because I thought I was genuinely helping out a good cause.

The second was in Penn Station when we were immediately met by a lady asking which train we wanted. I foolishly told her at which point she said right lets go. She was good as she was smartly dressed and very knowledgable. She started guiding us around the station in an ever confusing series of lefts and rights to end up back where we started. At this point she asked for a lot of dollars to my surprise. Immediately a Police Officer walked over and said ok Missy we have told you so many times leave these people alone and get out of here. Follow a big scene about starving kids, being evicted and so on. Not a great introduction to the Amtrak rail system!

Penn Station the American Birmingham New Street

Penn Station is a typical 70s/80s architectural bodge job. Think of an unglamorous Birmingham New St railway station (before the upstairs refurbishment) and you have New York Penn station. The sign posting is atrocious and perfect for the New York ‘entrepreuneurs’ to make themselves available to ‘help’ you as experienced above.

Penn station is big. You have the Amtrak tracks below the concourse with the LIRR Long Island Rail Road tracks below these and then the subway lines below these. Unless you are familiar with the place or know where to go it is very confusing if you rely on the signage. The ticket machines on each level only issue tickets for the trains on that level. It’s hard not to look like a confused tourist navigating the ticket buying and platform finding process. Which is exactly the last thing you want to look like with the proliferation of people waiting to take advantage of confused looking tourists!!

We decided to use the subway to Grand Central and that was another mistake. I have used many subway and urban transit systems across the world without any real problems but this is one experience I won’t be keen to repeat.

I picked up spotters communicating via phone and text. I know this sort of thing happens everywhere, it just seemed so brazen and blatent with little attempt to act covertly that worried me. I overheard one spotter identify a woman giving details of appearance, where she was heading and where her purse was. I also overheard a spotter describing me and where I had put my camera. To say the short trip was scary is an understatement. I had all my senses trained to see if we were going to get jumped or robbed. Well nothing happened but I won’t be going back any time soon.

 Grand Central Station

Anyway, as you all probably know, New York Grand Central railway station is very grand and very beautiful. I didn’t feel comfortable to hang around too long and was very cautious using my kit. A real shame as I was really looking forward to this place and originally intended to stay longer. I wanted to explore some alternative views, but just didnt feel comfortable. Like I said, a real shame, but better that than anything else. Above all else I have learned to trust my intincts and didnt hang around or flash my kit about. I always say to people to trust their instincts, if something feels wrong then it probably is. I may have over-reacted or been over sensitive but who knows? The reality is I can always go back and get more photos another time.

It goes without saying that after getting some photos at Grand Central we walked on foot back to Penn station – even though it was hammering down with rain!

This left a bitter sweet taste in my mouth as we headed back to Penn station for the Lake Shore Limited train to Chicago. For one, I couldn’t wait to get boarded and away from any real (or at least perceived threat). Secondly, I couldnt help feeling a little cheated that, up until that moment, our great visit to New York had been a little bit spoiled.

Anyway, onwards and upwards as they say!

To get to Emeryville (the station for San Francisco) you need to catch the Lake Shore Limited train from New York Penn Station to Chicago. At Chicago you change trains and join the California Zephyr Train toEmeryville.

A full account of the trip to Emeryville will follow in part 3.

 Lasting impression of New York

Whilst waiting for our train in the Amtrak departure lounge, I began digesting the sights and sounds we had experienced over the previous few days. I definitely had a sense that, when walking the streets of New York, I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. I had felt hemmed in by giant structures and surrounded by noisy hoards of cars and people which made it difficult in appreciating the beauty of the city. I also found it hard to relate to the classic and familiar landmarks amongst the morass of giant buildings. Once you get above street level or on the bus or boats, suddenly the familiar landmarks and skyline reveal themselves in all their beauty. I distinctly felt the true beauty of the city only revealed itself when you weren’t actually on the streets of it!?! How weird was that? This is the first major city I have visited and distinctly felt this way.

See more of the New York editorial stock images available via Alamy

Waiting for the Lake Shore Limited

Ted patiently waiting in the Amtrak departure lounge at New York Penn station

See America With Ted on Tour USA

New York Done Next Stop Chicago

So there we were, waiting in the Amtrak departure hall at New York Penn station. I must admit to feeling that small child excitement building as departure time approached. You know the sort of butterflies and anticipation you used to get when you were a kid on a train trip to the seaside! Our first major American Railway trip was almost reality!

Join us in part three – Ted Heads West – to see how the trip to Emeryville panned out.

Thanks for reading our account of New York – I really hope you enjoyed it! Let us know your thoughts below

All the best for now

Gary

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