Category Archives: travel

The annual 2-day Christmas public transport shutdown

A year after I posted this, and it’s still relevant!

Rob Jackson's Blog

I am writing this on Boxing Day, 26 December, the second day on which there are almost no trains or buses running throughout the UK. Certainly in my area, there are no local buses at all, and no trains on the West Coast line from Stoke or Crewe. This has become a normal experience in recent years. My question is how this is allowed to continue in our 24-hour society?

A few years ago we went to New York for a few days over Christmas, flying out on Christmas Day. On arrival at LaGuardia in the late afternoon (we had flown via Detroit), we found all the transport services running as they would on a normal, and this continued on the 26th. Maybe a comparison with a major city is unfair, but it does show a difference in attitude. A 48-hour closedown of public transport would be simply unheard of…

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Android phones and tablets: capabilities, limitations and upgrades

The devices that keep me connected, organised and productive when I’m out of the office are almost entirely Android in flavour. I currently use an Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone (overdue an upgrade, but more on that later) and a Google Nexus 7 tablet. My S3 will be 2 years old in January, and the Nexus is coming up to a year old. Until recently I had some apps on both devices, although with the Nexus having a larger screen, it is obviously better suited to some apps than the phone is. Recently my S3 dramatically slowed, so I reset it, and this time only installed communication and social media apps on it. It seems to run better now, with about 1Gb of space being used currently. The Nexus is taking the strain, with news/weather/travel apps residing there instead, as well as what office software is available.

Of course there is a downside to this, since the Nexus is WiFi only, and you will know from my previous posts that this is an issue where I live. But phone reception isn’t that good either (only GPRS at home). Hopefully this will improve, and my trips to the local bus stop to get a good signal will become a thing of the past!

Regarding upgrades, the S3 is non-4G compatible, and stuck on Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean) with no prospect of an upgrade to 4.4, let alone 5.0! My service provider, O2, doesn’t currently provide 4G in my area, but I’ve been impressed when I’ve seen it working on my wife’s phone on visits to London, and it will arrive soon I hope! This makes an upgrade almost inevitable, and my 4 reasons for upgrading are (i) the age of the phone, (ii) its poor battery life, (iii) the lack of 4G, and (iv) the Android system. Currently I’m looking at the Sony Xperia Z3, which seems impressive, and which should tick all the boxes. But I will wait until January; there’s some satisfaction in being able to use a smartphone intensively for 2 years!

My Nexus is still fine, and an OS upgrade to Android 5.0 (Lollypop) is due any day now. I’m sure it will continue to serve me well, including as my main device for blogging!

The main limitation of these devices for me, outside that which is a result of poor WiFi/phone data reception, is the lack of proper Microsoft Office compatible software. I wrote about this in the summer, when I found myself at a conference unable to create Office documents containing anything other than simple text. Having no confidence that a sufficiently powerful Android app will ever be available, I recently invested in a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet as an upgrade for my 4.5 year old (and increasingly creaking) Samsung Netbook. Having this will ensure that I can always create and edit complex Office documents, as well as adding new functionality like being able to annotate lecture notes. Plus it is an amazing piece of kit! Expect more on this in a later post.

So in conclusion, my mobile computing future is likely to remain mainly Android based, but with the Microsoft tablet taking the strain for Office intensive tasks, like writing research papers and examination scripts.

Using a smartphone with O2 in Europe – update

On my recent trip to Greece, I tried out O2’s £1.66 daily European data allowance. I’m pleased to report that it ‘did what it says on the tin’, and I was able to keep using my phone for social media and photo uploading throughout the trip without any problems. I used WiFi when possible (but as mentioned in my last post, this was restricted to my hotel in Greece). But it’s good to know that the cost of using a smartphone, at least in Europe, is now reasonable. Last year I found I had to keep topping up, but the £1.66 charge now covers a full day.

So I’m pleased to sing the praises of O2 on this occasion! Of course there is still an issue with travelling outside Europe, and there it may still be best to use an international SIM card, as I did on my last visit to the USA.

UK Airports and Airport hotels: deficiencies in amenities

I was prompted to write this post having just returned from a holiday in Greece which included staying in an airport hotel at London Gatwick (twice) and spending some considerable time in 2 airports (the other being Thessaloniki).

The first point I wanted to make is on the familiar theme of WiFi provision. I regard WiFi as essential whether my trip is for business or pleasure. Unfortunately many hotels, including those at airports, don’t seem to agree with this! At the very conveniently located Hilton in Gatwick South Terminal there is WiFi, but unless you’re a silver or gold HHonors member, it’s charged for. Some Hilton hotels have free WiFi in their lobby areas, but not so here! Added to that is the ‘Faraday Cage’ effect of most modern hotels, which neatly blocks most phone data signals (or at least severely attenuates them). So  effectively there’s little connectivity in the hotel unless you pay (and the WiFi signal didn’t seem particularly strong anyway).

Once in the airport, the only WiFi I could find was in the business lounges. OK, it was free, but you pay to go into the lounge! At least there was a good phone data signal in the airport (HSDPA or 3G, and presumably 4G, although my SG3 doesn’t receive 4G).

Arriving in Greece there was a good phone data signal in Thessaloniki airport, but no accessible WiFi that I could find. And during the coach journey down the motorway to the hotel, the phone data signal was consistently strong (unlike most UK motorways, for example). At the hotel there was free WiFi which worked well most of the time, so I have no complaints there. The impressive part of it was the router on the beach (see me using it below)!


Turning to amenities in general, a final and related point is about the opening hours of shops, restaurants and bars at airports and airport hotels in the UK. I arrived back at Gatwick at just after midnight on Monday night/Tuesday morning. Nothing was open at the airport, and by the time we had finally made it to the hotel, nothing was open there either. So there was no chance of a restorative drink or snack to make up for BA’s apology for in-flight catering! If airports are going to make money from late arriving flights, shouldn’t they provide facilities for the passengers, as happens for example at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam? Or should I just accept it as a consequence of UK narrow mindedness?

Using Swarm and the new Foursquare app

I promised an update on using Swarm/Foursquare, and since I’ve been doing some travelling on the last week or so, I’ve had a chance to put both apps through their paces.

The first point is that I don’t use the actual Foursquare app much. I check in to places using Swarm, and only go into Foursquare to wrote reviews, or to check who else has checked in at a particular location.

Secondly, Swarm is easy to use, and seems to work better in poor signal locations than the old Foursquare did (which is definitely a situation that I encounter regularly). I would like more ‘stickers’ (which give information about what you’re doing at a given time, e.g. working or drinking coffee!), but apparently you unlock these by checking into different places.

So I conclude that it is still possible to use Swarm/Foursquare to record my travels, which was my main aim with the previous app. Adding reviews of places is something I’m happy to do. All the lists I set up are still there, and I can still add places to them. Having invested over 4 years in using the app there was no question of uninstalling it. (Many of the new features, like ‘plans’ on Swarm, and local search on Foursquare, are of no interest to me, so I don’t see myself using them).

I’m sorry about the loss of points and mayorships, but don’t see them coming back any time soon, sadly. Judging from the various discussion groups, the Facebook page etc., it seemed that a significant number of users were going to uninstall Foursquare, but whether this is enough to persuade the company to reverse some of these changes is questionable!  We’ll have to watch this space and see.

The new Foursquare Android app: initial reaction

The new Foursquare Android app became available from the Google Play Store last Wednesday, 6th August. I’ve been using it pretty continuously since then, and can offer an initial appraisal.

I’ve already discussed at length my disappointment that Mayorships, badges and (finally) points were lost, so I judge the app as it is and not as I hoped it might be!

For a start, checking in has to be done via Swarm. I held off using Swarm for as long as possible, but now I’ve used it for a bit I don’t mind it. At least it still taps into the Foursquare past checkin database, and comments when you return to a location, etc. That was essential for me, since I use Foursquare as a travel diary, and was one reason why there was no question of uninstalling Foursquare! The Swarm app itself seems nicely put together and I have no issues with it yet.

Returning to the Foursquare app, the emphasis is now on local search and writing tips and reviews of places. In general I don’t need local search as I normally know where I want to go (!), but I can see that it could be useful if I’m in a place I don’t know. As for writing reviews, I did a few with the old Foursquare, but now I will do more, since the app provides motivation with its expertise ratings.

I am just returning from 2 days in London, and while there I did a lot of check-ins and wrote some reviews. The experience was good, and Swarm and Foursquare do work seamlessly together.

Finally, the changes to Foursquare have changed my check-in habits. While there were points to be gained (and especially when there were Mayorships to retain), I would go out of my way to check in at lots of locations. Now that motivation has gone, I’m more sparing with check-ins, so it’s a less time-consuming process. I’m still sorry that the points have gone, but in general I can make the changes work for me.

I’m doing some more travelling next week, so I’ll have more opportunities to test the app. Expect an update in due course!

Waiting for the ‘new’ Foursquare …

While the wait for the new Foursquare continues, news comes that ‘gamification’ is being ‘reintroduced’ into the new app – details here. This sounds complicated, and how many users will engage with it is an open question! In the meantime, I’m continuing to check-in via Swarm, and getting my points tally on Foursquare (yes, this still works). What will be interesting to see is if it is still possible to find your points on the new app, and whether lists will be preserved (since there’s no sign of either of these on Swarm). I’ll be travelling quite a bit in the coming week, and normally this would be a ‘check-in fest’! But whether it still is remains to be seen.