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By Kate Springer | December 12th, 2015

A travel tell-all by Kate Springer.

Traveling around New York City should be a piece of cake for me: as an American, there are no language barriers, zero culture shock and it’s actually just a three-hour train ride from my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

But despite years of exploring Latin America, Europe and Asia, I couldn’t seem to get things right on my own turf. It started with a shoddy SIM card and ended with hours of captivity at the Newark International Airport.

As it turns out, no amount of travel experience can make up for a lack of common sense. Here’s to hoping you can learn from my mistakes.

1.  Buy the unlimited SIM card. The US is not Japan, where there’s a SIM card dispenser every two blocks, nor is it anything like Australia where a nice Aussie will install the damn thing for you. We saw a single SIM card vending machine as we left the airport and raced over, foolishly optimistic.

We picked the cheapest option: a US$20 card, which came with an unspecified number of minutes for calls and an unspecified amount of data. The time/data lasted approximately 30 minutes with an option to top up for 50 cents a megabite. The unlimited option, in the same vending machine, was US$60 and would have lasted all week.

2. Reserve train tickets ahead of time. Okay, I didn’t totally screw this one up. I was careful to pre-book Amtrak train tickets — from NYC to Pennsylvania — since I knew traveling over Thanksgiving would be like the Great Migration. But I also didn’t get it quite right. Read on…

3. Book your train from the right station. Despite knowing we’d be staying in Manhattan for four days, I mistakenly booked our train tickets out of Newark International Airport. Penn Station is a five-minute cab ride from where we were staying in West Village. Newark is a 40-minute trip. We went to Penn Station in hopes of updating our tickets…

4. Expect to be judged. Harshly. When I approached the counter to explain our situation, the New Jersey Transit receptionist had some feedback.

Me: “Hi, I accidentally booked our tickets out of Newark Airport. Can you change them to Penn Station?”

NJT: “I don’t understand what you are asking me.” [Squints, as if to say that I’ve personally offended her]

Me: “We want to leave from Penn Station instead of Newark.”

NJT: “Why did you book them from Newark? You could have just left from here. It makes no sense.” [Raising her voice]

Me: “Yeah… we’re not from around here. Can you help us?”

NJT: “Oh, no. You’re on your own. All the trains are sold out. Don’t you know it’s Thanksgiving?” 

5. Don’t take the train during the holidays. Riding the train the day before Thanksgiving is nothing short of unadulterated masochism. We stood in the cross-section of two train cabins, stacked on top of each other like Jenga pieces as everyone tugged enormous suitcases. WTF, is everyone relocating cross-country?

About a half hour into the trip, I was leaning against my suitcase, glaring enviously at anyone with a seat when a woman reached for the train railing and accidentally pulled the handle out from under me.”You probably thought I was trying to steal your suitcase,” she said, twitching. “But don’t worry, I’ve been out of jail for 12 years and I’m not trying to get locked up again.”

6. Don’t go shopping on Black Friday. After a long journey to my hometown, it was time for a few days in the suburbs. I am from the US and I still made the conscious decision to go shopping on Black Friday — the single busiest shopping day of the whole year, where people pummel each other to get into malls for discounts. “It can’t be any worse than Mong Kok on a Saturday,” I said to my friend. Oh, but it was. Much worse.

7. There’s such a thing as being too early for a flight. After Thanksgiving and a few days in the country, it was back to the Big Apple. Our pre-booked return train tickets were heading straight for Newark International even though we had plans to have dinner in Chelsea. The chronically late would be surprised to learn that if you show up at 6pm for a 1am flight, you will have to wait around ’til 9pm to check your bags. So I sat there for three hours, eating at the Qdoba takeout counter and mulling over my many rookie mistakes.