Thursday, April 02, 2009

Travelling in the US

I spent the last two weeks on an extended business trip in the US. As a "new" country for me to visit (my only previous visit to the US was a three day business trip in the mid-1990s), I found the experience interesting.

Some random observations:

1. airports: with two international flights and seven domestic flights on the schedule I was not looking forward to the experience of going through immigration and security checks repeatedly - the horror stories of very long queues, unpleasant treatment and flight cancellations or delays were numerous. I was pleasantly surprised. The TSA staff (and others) were always polite, efficient and professional. Queues were short and efficiently processed;

2. the airlines: nobody I know will fly any of the US airlines when there is another option available. Travelling domestically, there was no choice and I ended up with flights on American Airlines, Delta and United. In all cases, the check in was a pain - none of the self service check in terminals worked for either myself or my colleagues - but the cabin crew on all airlines were great and tried very hard to make the flights as pleasant as possible. One flight was cancelled but all other flights left on time;

3. food: the portions of food in restaurants was consistently bigger than I was used to and red meat seemed to make up a much larger portion of the diet. Needless to say I put on weight on the trip;

4. hotels: the hotels (all four or five star) were a mixed bag. Some were good. Some were very average and, quite frankly, did not deserve the reputation or ratings associated with their brand names. Service standards were below those of similar hotels in Asia - which is very surprising given the different tipping cultures;

5. car culture: I live in a city where a car is completely unnecessary. Seeing the extent to which Americans rely on their cars was interesting and was, perhaps, the most striking cultural difference between Hong Kong and the US (in particular LA);

6. the bailouts: just about everyone I spoke to was pro-Obama, against the bailouts of the auto industry and had some reservations about the bailouts of the financial sector (in particular AIG). While the AIG bonus issue got most of the financial headlines, most of the people I was speaking to were more concerned with the much bigger sums of money which had been channelled through AIG to institutional counterparties, the size of the debt being racked up and future inflation;

7. the economy: the American economy has obviously been hit harder than the Hong Kong economy. However, the people seemed more optimistic - perhaps a reflection of the fact that most of the people I was speaking with still had well paying jobs;

8. air quality: even in big cities like NY and LA, the air quality is much much better than HK. I miss clean air;

9. things to do: I had very few opportunities to play the tourist and generally confined myself to art galleries when I did. I particularly enjoyed MOMA in NY and Venice Beach in LA.

I certainly enjoyed my time in the US and, if I can swing another business trip next year, will try to take a few days to see more of the country.

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