“Getting there is half the fun”… or so the saying goes, and to paraphrase the Ed Byrne joke: “If getting there is half the fun, surely getting home is the other half, you’re having no fun on your holiday, go somewhere else next year”. Well, for once, getting there was indeed half the fun for me. Until this year, I had never travelled outside of Europe before, I had never been on an plane for longer than 3 hours, I had never travelled with anyone other than my family – my recent trip to DC and NYC with my friend/housemate, Liz, back in September changed all three of those statements. Because my memory is terrible, I want to keep a record of all the things we did on the trip, from the interesting to the mundane, and since I have a blog, it seems the perfect place to record said memories before I (inevitably) forget most of them.
Disclaimer: If you’re here for useful travel tips, you’ll be disappointed, go find an actual travel blog. If you’re here just because you read my book blog anyway, I can promise some mentions of books amongst all the tourist things and self-indulgent musings.
Because getting to DC was a relatively painless journey, but interesting (at least to me!), for posterity’s sake I kind of wanted to record even the “getting there” because it was a new experience and, in some ways, genuinely fun. Don’t worry, in future blog posts, I fully intend to cover the actually interesting bits of the trip, maybe with some added photos because I took a lot of those. So if that’s your bag, stick around for my not-so-intelligent insights!
Bright and (not so) early, we grabbed our suitcases and piled into Liz’s parents car as they had very graciously agreed to drive us to the train station to catch our 10am train. We plumped for taking the train from Runcorn to London Euston because a) we got ridiculously cheap tickets, b) it was a relatively simple journey, and c) it was more appealing than the alternatives. The journey, as I recall, was uneventful and we were just mostly excited by the prospect of getting to Heathrow Airport… which isn’t a phrase you often hear but Liz is an airport geek (she might protest but it’s true) and I was just excited to be going on holiday for the first time in a while. Once we were in London, the fun started. For those unfamiliar, dragging suitcases out of Euston and down onto the Tube isn’t fun – you get glared at, even when you’re on the tube to Heathrow itself so obviously you’re going to an airport and it isn’t unreasonable for you to have suitcases with you, but it’s the Tube so glaring is a pre-requisite.
The Tube has changed a little since the last time I was in London. Previously you used to have to either buy and top up an Oyster card with credit to get through the turnstiles at all stations or you had to buy a ticket at the machine before you boarded. Nowadays, Transport for London has well and truly moved into the 21st-century because you can now pay for the Tube journey by tapping on and tapping off with your debit card (and probably Apple Pay, I didn’t stop to check because, you know, unwieldy suitcases). Convenient, eh? I thought so. (By the way, anyone travelling to Heathrow on a budget/or not on a tight schedule, don’t use the Heathrow Express, it may be quicker but it’s a rip off.) So we were on the Tube to Heathrow. As I was standing by my suitcase, swaying with the train, and overall trying not to fall over, I then spotted Liz spot something ADORABLE. Also heading to Heathrow were a couple of adorable guys with the most adorable child ever, the cutest little family you’d ever seen. Something as simple as that shouldn’t brighten up a journey but this child was ADORABLE, I tell you, ADORABLE.
Once we arrived at Heathrow we got my boarding card, checked our bags, and I took the requisite photo inside Terminal 5 because apparently that’s a thing you have to do. Now is where my airport experience diverts from any airport experience I had had thus far because of one very key difference. You will recall I mentioned housemate/friend Liz. Well, through work, she had won flights to and from America, hence how this entire trip started. Not only did she win flights, however, she won a Business Class flight to America courtesy of British Airways so we got to be fancy and, guys, being able to go through Fast Track security cuts down pretty much EVERYTHING that’s horrible about going through airports. So we whizzed through Check In and cleared Security in what felt like record time and we then had hours to kill in Terminal 5. For those unfamiliar, T5 is huge, almost ridiculously huge, and has a lot of shops… most of which you will wander around merely looking wistfully at the things you probably can’t afford. I definitely lusted after a bag that would have cost more than the entire holiday put together. But still, it’s certainly a way to kill time.
Another great way to kill time – food. Although we knew we’d be getting food on the plane, we still wanted to grab something as we were peckish. This is the first in a long line of “Liz did something terrible on this trip” which relates to food – in this case, she introduced me to Pret A Manger. Now, Pret isn’t anything new, at all, I have passed many a Pret without giving much thought to it. Then Liz informed me that they do pretty decent 99p filter coffee as well as a huge range of yummy food, including a brown rice, chicken, and broccoli soup that it took me one mouthful of before I fell a little bit in love. And that was me, hook, line, sinker.
After satisfying our hunger, we killed some more time round the back of duty free where there are almost sun-lounger type seats, looking out over the gates. As previously mentioned, Liz is an airport geek and she loves planes so she happily settled in to do some plane watching whilst I utilised the WiFi and my newly purchased iPad to check our journey plans for the other end. Essentially, a lot of Googling and poring over the WMATA web site. Then we realised we needed to get to Area C where our gate was which involved a fun trip on the weird tram thing. It has a name, I’m sure, and I could Google it, but I’d prefer to be authentic. We knew it was time because we spotted pilots also heading off there – if there’s a general good common sense rule it’s that the pilots probably know what they’re doing so you don’t go far wrong in an airport if you semi-stalk them to the gate.
A quick Starbucks stop at the gate, some more plane spotting (this time in prime position to see the actual runway), and then it was time to board. Or, it was almost time to board because just as I got to the desk, I experienced what was the first instance of a truly delightful element of this trip. This was my first time travelling outside the EU, my first time travelling to the States, and therefore my first ESTA application. Guess who got pulled aside by the US government to be subject to an additional “random check”? Yep, got it in one. As it happened, it was completely fine, the guy who worked there was cracking jokes to make us feel more at ease, and the checks basically consisted of them swabbing my electronic devices, around my belt, and doing the usual pat down. All very routine, all fine, but all very nerve-wracking when you’ve never had it happen before. Still, I was on my way up, I was heading to the actual plane where Liz was waiting already settled into her seat.
Let me tell you something, guys, never ever fly anything better than Economy because you will suddenly realise that, oh my gosh, wait, this is how the rich and the famous do it – this is how they look well-rested when they land, because they are. Flying British Airways Business Class (ok, BA call it Club World but whatever) was an experience and a half, I can tell you, and in a really weird way I almost wished the flight was longer so that I had more time to eat the yummy food and take the drinks they kept offering me every hour. Liz had warned me they’re feeders, and this was quickly proved true. We had a 3-course meal – a seasonal Mediterranean salad of some description, curry (but like a really damn good curry), a selection of mini-cake-y things, and a cheese board. With drinks, obviously. No joke, I’ve never been more hydrated on a plane. It feels weird to drink champagne at 40,000 feet though, I’m not sure if I’m into that but I was under strict instructions from Liz’s dad to, and I quote, “take the champagne, girls”.
Anyway, the point of this diatribe is that Liz and I got incredible seats, upstairs (yep, I practically sashayed up those stairs) right by the cockpit and, amongst all the feeding BA were doing, we both quickly settled into our respective seats, reclined our beds, and took advantage of the fact that there were some great films on the in-flight entertainment. As far as I recall, I watched My Cousin Rachel (disappointing, tbh, I don’t rate Sam Claflin as an actor and I thought the adaptation was really slow-paced, and not in a good way) and Kong: Skull Island (never disappointing, Vietnam and Tom Hiddleston’s face are both very beautiful, even on a small plane-TV screen). I’m sure I also started to watch Kingsman (a firm favourite) but I stopped it half-way through to eat afternoon tea (yep, you read that right) and then it was time to land anyway!
Landing in DC was another experience, but significantly less fun than being waited on hand and foot in Business Class. For a start, it involves immigration. For a start, it involves me having fuck-all clue what was going on since this is the first time I’ve flown not as a member of a family party – my dad was always the one planning and leading the whole rigmarole in airports and, as I’ve never flown outside of the European Union before, I’ve never had to clear Customs and Immigration as an “outsider”. So it was all very new to me. Liz and I weren’t travelling as a family group, obviously, so it also meant that she was separate from me when we were going through Immigration. It was my first time in the US, I’d applied for my ESTA like a good little traveller, but I still ended up being taken aside and told to go stand in another queue and be questioned again at another Immigration desk. Now, with hindsight, this is probably all just part and parcel of entering the US if its your first visit, because they need to stamp your passport and what not. But at the time, I was BRICKING IT. I suddenly became very, very aware of the power of your passport, something I’ve just taken for granted previously, and I was so nervous in case I was told to wait in the holding area with other people or was denied entry for some reason. Of course, I wasn’t. I was legitimately seeking to visit the country, I’d done all the necessary (electronic) paperwork, and I had no black marks against my name so after some moments the lovely man at Immigration handed me back my passport and said “welcome to America, you can go grab your bags now” and I have never been so relieved to walk into Baggage Claim in my entire life. To say my legs felt like jelly was no understatement.
Once I’d located a slightly concerned looking Liz, who had already grabbed our bags, we headed for the exit. After some wrangling with Washington Dulles’ WiFi we managed to check the bus stop we needed for the Metrobus 5A into Arlington, where we were staying. Liz had been to DC before and stayed on the Virginia side of the river and assured me that not only was it a hell of a lot cheaper but, given DC’s excellent metro system, it really wasn’t at all inconvenient to not be in “the thick of it” on the DC side. This is the point of the trip when I really started flagging. It was dark, we were both tired, we’d had to wait in the cold for 30 minutes for the bus so when it arrived and was very pleasantly warm, it was so easy to start to feel sleepy. I’m fairly certain I nodded awake at several points on the journey but we finally made it to our stop at Rosslyn Metro station and we stumbled off the bus and into the (to me, unfamiliar) streets of Arlington. Luckily, Liz had had the good sense to Google Map how to get to our hotel and we dragged our suitcases there with very little hassle.
One thing I quickly learnt that night on that short 20-minute walk to our hotel was that I do not understand US crosswalks – see how I even tried to use the terminology! In the UK, for those unfamiliar, when you come to a crossing you press the button, wait for the traffic lights to change to red, and then a green man appears and you walk across. That is how it works on every crossing of this type. You do not have a “Wait” hand symbol, you don’t have a countdown of how long you have left, you don’t have situations in which traffic can still legally drive through the lights at this point. We don’t trust our drivers, or our pedestrians, so we make it very simple. So it was a rude awakening, even on that first night, to experience US traffic signals and boy oh boy was I not prepared for the epitome of this in New York – but no spoilers for now, let’s return to DC.
We checked into our hotel (the BestWestern Rosslyn/Iwo Jima for the curious amongst you), I took a photo of the print in the lift which was like the most “MERICA!” thing I’d seen at that point, and we barely had the energy to unpack a little before we both headed for our respective beds and crashed. We had arrived!