I visited new-to-me cities in the United States, went to Mexico for the first time ever, and returned to Canada for the first time in over 10 years. I also rode a lot of new transit – including bike share – systems, which are denoted.
Oh, and I [brag] flew in United Polaris business class* [/brag] to New Zealand with my mom, after which we also visited Australia. Sadly, it’s now been over 2.5 years since I’ve traveled in Europe.
Aside: Transit advocates already know this: Every city I visited outside the United States had bus lanes. And not just a few here and there, but everywhere. On every route, in every city and suburb.
Here’s where I went in 2019 (in chronological order) (links go to photo albums on my Flickr):
- Miami, Miami Beach, and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
- I rode Brightline (now Virgin Trains); to Ft. Lauderdale in economy and from Ft. Lauderdale in first class. That meant use of the lounge, unlimited snacks and alcoholic beverages.
- Metrorail (elevated/subway)
- Metrobus – The bus is the best way to get your cute butt over to sunning on South Beach. Miami-Dade Transit also uses an app to sell QR-code based tickets that you show to a bus driver and scan to board Metrorail.
- Metromover (the free people mover in downtown Miami)
- I also rode a scooter for the first time, and I rode a bike for a few hours.
- Toronto, Canada
- I first visited Toronto over a decade ago with my family.
- I rode the subway, the UP Express (airport train), bike share, and the trams and buses.
- Mexico City, Mexico
- Métro, the ultra cheap and frequent subway, of course! I rode it out of the airport to a station 100 meters from my hotel.
- Métrobus – my first BRT, and it was stupendous.
- Bike share – A tourist from the U.K. asked me what the conditions were like cycling around the city. I said that depends on your comfort riding a bike in a busy big city, which is something I’m used to. After you observe and adapt to the different driving conditions and customs, it’s really no different than biking in Chicago or New York City.
- Jitney bus. I forget what it’s called locally. This particular bus driver was plying a main street in a CDMX-branded purple bus that he apparently owned, looking for fares and once the bus was full (no more standing room), he pushed down on the accelerator to the nearest subway station.
- Sacramento and Napa, California
- I didn’t take any transit here, not even the light rail. I didn’t have any time.
- I pedaled a Jump electric dockless bike for the first time.
- Oakland and Berkeley (2nd time I’ve been)
- I took Flixbus for the first time, from Sacramento to West Oakland. This is a German-based company that’s a network operator rather than a vehicle operator. Local companies contract with Flixbus to use Flixbus’s branding and ticketing systems.
- Bay Wheels bike share (it used to be called Ford GoBike)
- Charleston, South Carolina (no transit here, but I rented a bike for two days)
Oceania (16 nights)
- Auckland, New Zealand
- Tip: You’re probably going hiking in New Zealand, and bringing hiking boots. Clean them very well before you go to prevent being delayed at your arrival airport because you’ve triggered a biosecurity check of your shoes.
- Lots of buses, which came quite frequently.
- Regional rail from Britomart to Mt. Eden (yeah, a very short ride)
- An annoying thing about transit in Auckland is that the transit card “deposit” is pricey and non-refundable. Additionally, the stored value (e-purse) on the card can pay for a second rider, but at the full cash rate, not the card rate.
- Tongariro National Park
- There’s a thrice-weekly train between Auckland and Wellington that stops here, but I didn’t schedule my trip well to be able to ride it.
- I took a shuttle bus from my wonderful hotel (The Park Hotel Ruepehu) to the Mangatepopo Carpark, which is the start of the amazing Tongariro Alpine Crossing, and then from the end of the hike at Ketetahi Carpark back to the hotel. It was $20 NZD and it meant that my mom wouldn’t have to drive 60 miles for the same trip.
- Wellington, New Zealand
- The only transit we took here was the historic cable car – a cable-pulled funicular – from the high street to Kelburn (which is a suburb, but the way cities and suburbs as governmental jurisdictions and distinct geographies work in New Zealand and Australia is different than the U.S.).
- At the top of the hill in Kelburn is a free cable car museum with a gorgeous restored vintage cable car, and an entrance to the botanic gardens.
- We were going to take SkyBus to the airport, but due to a Christmas festival in the CBD, I wasn’t sure where it was going to pick up and we were running late.
- Sydney, Australia
- I observed the high quality transit of Sydney (really, Transport NSW, because it’s all operated by the state of New South Wales) when departing the airport via the Airport Link. The T8 line is operated by Transport NSW’s subsidiary Sydney Trains, but the airport and other stations along the line are owned by a private organization that charges a station access fee (which is about $10 USD). Anyway, the first train we boarded was brand new, delivered this year! The train is called “B set” and has everything Metra doesn’t: Level boarding, passenger information displays, two wide doors per carriage, two full levels, and plenty of seating and standing space at the boarding level for people who need step-free access (this includes people with disabilities, people with strollers, luggage, bikes, etc.).
- In addition to Sydney Trains, we rode NSW TrainLink to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains.
- We rode the tram line (which they call L1, for light rail) from Chinatown to the Jubilee Park stop to visit Tramsheds, a redevelopment of a, get this, tram shed.
- To get to Bondi Beach we rode Sydney Trains to Bondi Junction, a station that hooks into a shopping center and pedestrian shopping street. It’s odd…where we boarded bus route #333 for the final hop to the beach, and where we entered on the return from the shopping street, you can’t really see the station. It appears surrounded by offices and shopping. (I didn’t know this until later, but #333 runs from Circular Quay in the CBD to Bondi Beach and further on.)
- I can’t forget the ferries…A public transport ferry, owned and operated by Transport NSW, carries up to 1,000 people from Circular Quay non-stop to Manly, a suburb at the eastern head of the Sydney Harbour. One of the boats on this route is featured in the photo above. At Manly we took a bus to the North Head reserve to get a look at the Pacific Ocean, the cliffs, Sydney Harbour National Park, and the city skyline.
- Melbourne, Australia
- SkyBus to and from the airport. This company runs frequent coaches for about $13 USD every 20 minutes from Tullamarine (MEL) airport to Southern Cross station. Here I bought two transit cards so we could ride a “Metro” (regional rail) train to Flinders Street station and then a tram to our hotel in St. Kilda (which is a suburb of Melbourne, but you could walk from our hotel to the Melbourne CBD in 20 minutes).
- Melbourne, Victoria, has the world’s largest tram network, and a lot of it is free, so what do you think I did?
- I rented a bike and rode around for four hours, as well.
- We also rode the Belgrave Metro line to Belgrave station in order to ride Puffing Billy, a steam engine (which I don’t recommend unless you really like steam engines).
- To get over to “Welcome to Thornbury”, a food truck and beer garden in the Melbourne “suburb” of Northcote we rode the Mernda Metro line from Central Station and then walked a couple blocks from Croxton Station. To return, we rode the 86 tram (my mom said she prefers the trams to trains because she can see more of the city).
My relaxing flight to Oceania
I have wanted to fly long haul international in business class for quite some time. I thought about saving miles for it. I roughly calculated how long it would take to acquire enough miles: about 3-4 years. And in the meantime, I can’t use the miles for what I think are more valuable trips, like deciding a week before to visit my mom ($600, or 30,000 miles, a “value” of 2 cents per mile).
Anyway, I decided I would pay for business class at some point, when it made sense. I used Google’s ITA Matrix website to find the cheapest days on which to fly one-way in one fare class, and the return in a different fare class. I figured out how to use Google Flights to find those itineraries, which conveniently links to United’s website for final purchase. I couldn’t do it. The prices were too high. And I didn’t want to fly first class from Chicago to San Francisco. (Air New Zealand flies nonstop from Chicago to Auckland, but I wanted to meet my mom in San Francisco so we could be on the same flight to Auckland.)
Fast forward to San Francisco International Airport, and my mom and I walk up to the gate. My mom asked if they hadn’t any better seats in economy available. Keep in mind that boarding starts in 10 minutes, so the answer was no. The gate agent mentioned that there are still seats in business class. I was curious, so I asked how much they were. She quoted me the upgrade fee, clarifying “and that’s per seat”.
I spent two seconds calculating the upgrade fee and comparing it to the hours of research I had done at home finding the right itinerary that would put me in business class for the cheapest outlay. “I’ll do it”, I replied, to which she asked, “For how many?”, double checking if it was for me, or me and my mom. “Two”, I said.
Not only do I still believe that I got a great deal on United’s Polaris business class, I also satisfied a longtime curiosity, enjoyed the flight, and woke up feeling ready to have a full day exploring Auckland.
Before leaving home I felt anxious that we would arrive in Auckland after having spent 14 hours in a cramped seat and potentially waste the first day feeling exhausted. Being able to sleep on a lie-flat seat meant that we felt pretty good when we arrived in Auckland at 8 AM. We got to the hotel by 10 AM – taking SkyBus to the city center – to drop off luggage, because the room wouldn’t be available until 2 PM.
We were still tired, though – when the hotel finally gave us access to a room, we inadvertently took a three hour nap.