The Importance of Travel Preparation

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New York Times Square

 

I consider myself a reasonably well prepared person when it comes to business travel. 20 years of it has given me the unique opportunity to visit almost every state in the US. But not all trips are the same and preparation is always key to reducing the amount of stress you deal with each trip.

The first time I visited New York City was in my mid 30’s, more than 10 years ago, for a business meeting. Bigger, louder and certainly more crowded than anything I had ever experienced, Manhattan can overwhelm you at first. I recall feeling almost claustrophobic at the time.

My first mistake was treating this as a standard business trip. After all, I had travelled quite a bit up to then and felt comfortable navigating unfamiliar cities, day or night. My second mistake was failing to verify that my GPS device was working properly. My third mistake was renting a car.

Thanks to a quick web search the night before, I landed into Newark that evening with an adequate understanding of its relation to NYC as well as a few printed point-to-point maps. However, I lacked a cohesive understanding of the different neighborhoods in Manhattan and how they all fit together. I also failed to grasp how important mass transit is when traveling to and from the city. All I knew was that my hotel and first meeting were both located somewhere in Lower Manhattan and apparently I had to take a tunnel to get across the Hudson River. Seemed easy enough.

To make the drive from Newark to Manhattan, it can take anywhere from 45 minutes to a couple of hours depending on time of day; the later in the night the better. It also can be a bit of a hairy experience filled with brief adrenalin spikes if you are unprepared for how aggressively people drive and cross streets out there. For example, no matter what people tell you, crosswalks are for show only and red lights are really dark orange.

To enter Manhattan via car from Newark, you typically cross the Hudson using one of two tunnels. The Holland Tunnel is closer; the Lincoln Tunnel a bit further north. If you are shooting for Central Park or Midtown, the Lincoln is probably better. For Lower Manhattan, the Financial District or Tribeca, you likely want the Holland. Both will eventually get you where you are going, but the closer you enter the city to your final destination, the less actual city driving you have to deal with.

Since iPhones had not yet been invented, my plan was to navigate the city using a combination of printed Yahoo Maps, a clunky Blackberry and my Garmin GPS device with out-dated software. Yes, it was that long ago.

Right from the start, my Garmin was operating in a less than ideal manner. For starters, it had somehow switched over to a South African accent (which I couldn’t figure out how to change). In addition, after 45 minutes of driving and a number of odd turns, I took a closer look at the device settings and realized I was being pushed much further north than I had planned; apparently Garmin had decided to omit all toll ways and tunnel options from my route and was instead taking me further north across the George Washington bridge. My current route was going to take all night.

I’m no Magellan but that seemed like a poor way to get to Lower Manhattan.

It also became obvious that my Blackberry wasn’t going to be of much use. The Google maps browser on it was a far cry from the real time app we use today. It was more of a route planner and very slow. You were forced to constantly re-enter your current location point at each specific moment and refresh after every wrong turn you made to get your updated route. It actually worked fine in a non-stressful environment like, say, driving through Beirut, but in NYC it simply became too frustrating to operate.

My Yahoo Maps were not much help either. While useful for specific point-to-point directions (which I had dutifully printed out), they were useless once your route changed (thanks Garmin!). You had to really squint at them to figure out where you were going once you left your pre-programmed route and I was squinting a lot already. Finally, I was driving a Ford sedan. Unfortunately, I drove a Subaru back then.

This may not seem like a big deal, but American automobile manufacturers place their knobs and buttons in very different places from their Japanese counterparts. I believe they do it on purpose just to spite travelers like me. I imagined boardrooms of executives at GM and Ford laughing gleefully as they rolled out their latest lines of automobiles, complete with confusingly labelled buttons haphazardly placed all over the dash.

The end result was that I couldn’t seem to find the interior dome light to get a good look at my non-working maps. The only way I could view them was to crack open the door with my left hand as I drove while squinting at the maps in my right. Not to be outdone, Garmin was dutifully trying to figure out how to re-route us to Cape Town. I think I was steering with my knees.

So that left just me and Garmin, which was getting harder and harder to understand in Afrikaaner. Slogging our way together (I felt we were a team now) southward back through rush hour traffic we finally managed to successfully cross the Lincoln more than 2 hours later. Of course once you enter the city, the real fun begins.

Driving around Manhattan is a lot like being in a video game. Cars speed past you on all sides, the streets can go from wide to narrow in a flash, and there is literally no place to pull over once you eventually get lost. Pedestrians cross whenever they feel like it, with or without a walk signal. Everyone’s on their horn. All that’s missing are people shooting at you from helicopters.

  • Fun fact #1 about driving in Manhattan: You cannot simply go “around the block” after a missed turn. You have to go 2 blocks up, 2 across, 2 down and 2 back to get to the same spot. It’s a great way to see parts of the city over and over again.
  • Fun fact #2: Streets can fork quickly and without warning, and re-form just as fast.
  • Fun fact #3: Tall buildings can briefly block GPS signals making reception iffy at times, especially if you are moving quickly.

Thus, my signal was spotty, Garmin wasn’t updating fast enough as I drove, and I kept taking wrong turns; all of which was forcing me to double back again and again.

I was now on close to 3 ½ hours of drive time. Tired, hungry and desperately needing to use a restroom, I felt like abandoning my rental and just hailing a cab.

Reluctantly discarding Plan B, I grabbed a temporary parking spot where I was able to stop a moment. Tossing Garmin aside, I turned on my Blackberry, launched Google and checked on my location. Somehow I seemed to have arrived in Lower Manhattan.

Typing in my hotel’s address I glanced up and happened to notice a small Holiday Inn Express sign a block over. My Blackberry search came back and confirmed that I had indeed found my hotel.

The next morning, upon arrival at my meeting, I was asked if I took the train or cabbed it into the city. I told them I took the train.

Matthew Achak

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