Friday, April 17, 2015

2015 San Francisco - Day 1 - Morning

(Link to all 2015-April San Francisco / Berkeley trip blog posts)

My trip to San Francisco really started the night before.
There are two airport options: SFO and OAK. At the time I booked my flights. Flight Centre could only get me direct flights to SFO even though I was basing myself out of Berkeley, which is much closer to OAK. In any case, my friend in El Cerrito, Berkeley, told me Oakland was sort of a sketchy area, so SFO was nicer.
My flights in and out would be between 7 AM and 8 AM, and in retrospect I should have asked for later flights, though these early flights were not crowded on the plane -- plenty of leg room to steal. On Air Canada Rouge, there are just two columns of three seats on either side of the plane. If you can get three seats all to yourself, during the flight you can stretch out horizontally and have a fairly comfortable nap without worrying about leg room.

The flight to San Francisco airport was at 7:55 AM. A friend of mine helpfully let me nap at her place near Marine Drive station so I could catch the very first train to YVR. This was in lieu of going by taxi to the nearest Canada Line in the morning, or going by transit and spending the night at the airport. With the USD/CAD exchange rate being so horrible (over 1.3 at the airport 24-hour ICE money changer), I wanted to save wherever I could.
I wasn't sure when or where I'd get breakfast without tourist trap prices, so I bagged some sandwiches. These weren't confiscated at the security point, but of course my water was. I think I could have drank the water, taken the empty bottle, and then filled it after the checkpoint, but I just wasn't thinking (in SFO, there are signs that state this is possible). Once I was in YVR, however, it turned out that the airport was very much awake with many stores and restaurants open even at those wee hours of the morning.

The money changer stations are not 24 hours, but round the clock at least one station will be open.
Cash turned out to be worse than using my CIBC VISA card, strangely enough. I bought USD with an Interac card on 2015-April-8 at 5:48 AM and the sell-rate was 1.344073, plus 5.95 commission, for 200 USD. Throughout my trip, it appeared that the exchange rate on the VISA never went over 1.300000. Also, the rate fluctuated even on transactions on the same day, though slightly (by less than .01). Go VISA if you can (except for cash advances) but have small change USD for tips as you will not be signing for your credit card when the total charge is very small (around 10 USD).

The first train didn't leave Marine Drive Station till 5:15 AM, which slightly worried me since the recommendation is generally to be at the airport 2-3 hours before departure. Fortunately, the Air Canada Rouge flight was not even full and check-in was straightforward and easy. By 6:20 AM I was through, got my USD, a coffee, and I was looking for a disposable cellphone to use in the USD.

I got one at Hudson News (a plastic retro-style clamshell phone) in the airport at $67.09 after tax, but for unclear reasons, it didn't work. I couldn't even call their customer service! I got a refund, and once in SFO I tried again at InMotion (an EKit 4C I think). This one didn't work either and I got a refund, but lost CAD $4.02 due to a change in the exchange rate:
At the time I bought it, it was 54.49 USD at exchange rate 1.293081. When I returned it later after we'd spent maybe an hour trying to get it to work, the exchange rate had changed to 1.219306 according to my CIBC statement. I've written to CIBC to see what they say and if I can get a full refund instead of the automatically calculated one.

This is my exchange with CIBC after I got back from San Francisco:
CIBC: "You are charged the same conversion rate CIBC must pay, plus an administration fee of 2.5% of the converted amount, on both debits and credits.
This fee is to offset the costs incurred by credit card companies (VISA and MasterCard) and CIBC in offering a worldwide service. The exchange rate is set at the time of purchase and will vary according to date and time."
Me: "I think I understand your answer, but it doesn't quite make sense to me. I received a full refund on the transaction and the USD amounts cancel
out accordingly. Should the CAD not also cancel out? Should a full refund not be as if the transaction had not taken place at all?"
CIBC: "I certainly appreciate your concern and understand the confusion as well. As per the CIBC Cardholder Agreement, you agree to pay for any Transactions (other than Convenience Cheques) made in a foreign currency (or be credited with returns) in Canadian Dollars at a rate of exchange determined by us which reflects our cost of foreign funds and an administration charge for transaction handling through the credit card network. If you cancel the transaction you only get the money that was taken by the merchant and not the fees you were charged for the transaction."
Whereas the Hudson News staff had no experience with the phone and didn't really want to try to figure it out, the two fellows at InMotion (a dedicated tech store) really tried to help me activate the phone. In the end it turned out the network was having technical difficulties and it was not clear if the phone would work at all, so they gave me a refund. They directed me to T-Mobile as an alternative.

The staff at InMotion was really my first representative experience of how San Francisco / Berkeley customer service was like (I'll touch on this again later). At InMotion, the two staff that day initially seemed standoff-ish in that sort of I-know-my-stuff-you-are-just-a-noob sort of tech-snob way. But when I had a problem with the disposable phone I purchased, they were all over it and spent a lot of time trying to get it to work. Turned out it was some sort of network technical difficulty that had nothing to do with them, but the effort they put into getting it to work, plus giving me a no-questions-asked full refund, is worth mentioning. Just because people don't always smile at you doesn't mean they are not conscientious or helpful.

Fortunately, before I went to T-Mobile I asked the SFO Information booth attendant about a cellphone, and they directed me instead to TripTel, located in SFO International Terminal Arrivals (Level 2) across from Exit A. One of TripTel's services is phone rentals: You pay a charge per day, plus usage.
The disposable cellphones include about $10 of airtime at 9 cents per minute, but you have overhead cost and you are stuck with a cheap-ass phone. With TripTel, your cost is about 49 cents USD per minute, but a voice-only service phone is 3 USD per day and you have no overhead as you give back the phone. So, if you use your phone only sparingly, it can be a good deal and you aren't stuck with garbage afterwards. Plus, no special network to sort out, no special customer service number to call to top up your call credits, etcetera.
It's definitely an interesting service if you are not in the US for long. Simply not having the hassle of a network that might go down had me convinced that the universe was watching over me with the bit of serendipity that prevented me from buying a temporary phone.

UPDATE: 2015-April-19
After nudging them with an e-mail, my TripTel bill finally came: $15.00 rental plus $52.43 airtime for 107 minutes (short calls still being billed at 1 minute minimum) for a total final cost of $67.43
This is obviously much more than the EKit 4c from InMotion, but I never worried about the network going down and I'm not now stuck with a cheap ass phone.
I think if I were staying more than a week, then the cheaper airtime from the EKit would definitely have won out in the long run. But the network issue might still be worrisome.

I also needed a map of San Francisco and Berkeley and of course the stores in the airport had them for sale at an atrocious price. But surely there was a tourist centre somewhere, or even just a hotel, that would provide them for free?

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