More has changed in the six years since I went across the pond than the futuristic TSA and Customs procedures at JFK. I lived in the UK as a student, which gave me a less-developed perspective about travel. Life is no longer just about how drunk I can be while I write a term paper, and there are things to consider aside from which club has the cheapest cover charge.
I spent two weeks trekking around three cities, and now I'm seriously considering becoming an ex-pat. I'll always love New York, but I can admit that there are some things we're not doing right.
Transport: No one beats the NYC subway system in terms of convenience, but everyone can beat it in terms of everything else.
London - "The tube" is catching up quickly to us; it's always been easier to navigate, cleaner, and now that it will run 24-hours (sometimes) it's hard for me to find any fault with it. The national rail is equally convenient, but will eat your money. A ticket on the express train from the airport to Victoria Station was over £15, far more than the $6 AirTrain in New York. It still was better than the £97 fare that a taxi would have cost me. That is actual highway robbery.
Prague - I heard that taxis here didn't run cheap, but I took an Uber from the airport that only cost 300 koruna (about $12). Above-ground trams and underground trains make everything in this city accessible. It's also affordable, in that you can basically just hop on and off without paying because no one checks for tickets. Should you be "that guy"? Probably not. Was I totally "that guy"? Praguably, yes (note: use of a pun gets me off the hook).
Newcastle - Much like London, the metro system here was clean and reliable. Unlike London, it closes before midnight. It's not cheap (a train ticket to and from the city center cost £5), but given the fact that the bored guy checking tickets opened the gate for me and said, "Just go, I don't care," I suppose I can't complain. My friend told me that people regularly get mugged on the train at night though so...you know, there's that.
Accommodations: Don't expect the Ritz and you won't be disappointed.
London - Despite being in one of the swankier areas of the city, my hotel rate was reasonable. I was able to get a double room with an en suite bathroom, rare in a town of hostels. Many hotels in London charge for the use of their wifi, and mine cost £7 if you wanted to access it anywhere outside the lobby. I lucked out and got a room that was still within the free-wifi range, but consider this issue when booking. My only complaint was that the sink in my bathroom was so tiny, I couldn't wash my face in it. I was basically throwing water on the floor.
Ascot Hyde Park Hotel, 11 Craven Road, Westminster, London W23BP
Prague - From what I gathered, the amenities in hotels here can be hit or miss. The place I stayed seemed like a solid deal - the room was a decent size, had a private bathroom, free wifi, double bed, futon, and even a chandelier! But the cracks started to show. The wifi died out regularly. The shower was broken. The "double bed" was two singles pushed together, and the frame was made of wooden slats that fell out beneath you if your body shifted too suddenly. The maid sometimes left the room's door wide open when she exited. The elevator occasionally stopped on the wrong floor. However, few of these details matter when you're out until 6 AM and only use your room for brief drinking respites.
Hotel Venezia, Sokolska 39, Prague 120 00
Newcastle - I was spoiled here; I stayed at a friend's house. My bed was comfy, my wifi regular, and I was fed for free every day. She didn't have a standing shower though, which is the case in many British households. Much as I love baths, I missed being able to clean myself without the fear of falling asleep and drowning.
Sightseeing: Cities built in the 1400s > a city still being built.
London: Having lived here, I'd already been to most of the city's tourist destinations. I left my hotel one morning with the intention of walking through Hyde Park to Harrods, and instead spent the next nine hours wandering aimlessly and stumbling upon major landmarks. London is a great walking city, and you can see everything from Big Ben to Piccadilly Circus to the British Museum within the span of two hours. Southbank not only has sights like the the Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern, but it's also where you can get a ride on the London Eye for a spectacular view of the city. They have signs on lots of streets showing how many minutes it takes to walk from one landmark to the next. This was helpful in most cases, but felt like a taunt when I really had to pee.
Prague: I had a lot of time to sightsee while my friend worked during the day, and man, did I see a lot. The "City of 1,000 Spires" has incredible architecture, public artworks, and spectacular views everywhere you look. There's constantly something free to do here. We spent one afternoon at a massive food festival, sampling such fare as shumai burgers, chocolate mousse tarts, and Australian meat pies. I happened to visit during the United Islands of Prague, a free festival where you could see electronic, rock, folk, funk, and any other genre of music at stages set up around the city. PQ 2015, a showcase of work from artists across the globe, was also going on, so we checked out free exhibits and performances all weekend. I was constantly catching my breath at the beauty of this city and its people... or laughing at native David Cerny's unique sculpture installations.
Newcastle: As another old European city, Newcastle has great Gothic buildings and monuments around every corner. A stroll on the quayside provides excellent views of the Millennium and Tyne bridges, the Sage Gateshead, and wealthy men partaking in stag nights on impressive yachts. You can also drive 20 minutes in any direction and find another tourist destination. Check out the Angel of the North in Gateshead, or climb up to the Penshaw Monument for a phenomenal view of surrounding Sunderland. I spent a delightful day (and bought a great dress) in Tynemouth Village, where you can visit the Priory or find a spot along the cliff to gaze at the ocean. And if you happen to also gaze at the beautiful bodies sunbathing on the beach below you, so be it.
Nightlife - Europe taught me that "cheap drinks" is a relative term.
London: As a student here, I didn't mind paying £15 to get into a nightclub to then pay £6 for a watered-down drink. As an adult, I just wanted to have a beer and eat some weird snacks. London did not disappoint, as there was a pub entrance at every other doorstep. The crowd provided excellent people watching since it varied from ages 18 to 80. I was hoping it would also provide the opportunity to be chatted up by a cute British boy, but the only guy who spoke to me was a middle-aged dude who also turned out to be from New York. Win some, lose some. Prices were similar to ours (£3 for a beer, roughly $5) but at least you get a full pint. Since the market across the street sold litres of IPA for the same price, I made do.
Prague: My first night here, my friend and I went to a gay club where beer cost the equivalent of $1 and there was a girl on crutches fully raging to Cher's "Believe". It was a Wednesday. Every night afterwards only got crazier. Nothing closes until 5 AM, the music is incredible, and all of the drinks were absurdly cheap. You can get a bottle of vodka at the pharmacy for about $3. Someone bought me an entire cup of tequila my last night there. I am not kidding when I say that I nearly didn't make it out of Prague alive. I very nearly didn't make my plane. I also was the only person at the airport drinking a beer at 7 AM in the clothes they'd worn the night before.
Newcastle: Partying here was a mashup of the preceding two cities. A fifteen-hour bender cost more in Newcastle than it did in Prague, but it was still cheaper than what I'm used to. It also didn't require doing anything more than walking - my friend and I inadvertently had a pub-crawl just by strolling along the river all day. Dancing seemed less encouraged, but since I have no dignity left to lose, it didn't bother me when people stared at me for getting low. How else do you expect me to react when "Ignition Remix" comes on? Especially when the bar I'm in just gave me a double-vodka soda for £2.
Tipping: Wait, living wage is actually livable in other countries?
London: Pay attention to your bill when you go out - many restaurants add a service charge due to the increase of tourists in this city. The tip can run anywhere from 10-15%, which is less than the standard in New York and therefore negligible in my mind. Bartenders don't expect a tip but leaving a few pence isn't frowned upon. I also tipped my taxi driver, and he was floored so I guess that's not a thing here.
Prague: Much like London, the influx of foreigners over recent years has made tipping more common here. Unlike London, it's not usually included, and around 10% is reasonable. I found myself leaving upwards of 20% though, because I am bad at math and the exchange rate made me think I was Donald goddamn Trump.
Newcastle: According to my friend, "The only people who tip are creepy chavs trying to get laid". It's not added to bills, and people look at you weird if you leave it anyway. Service industry employees must get paid enough to live comfortably here. How quaint!
So there you have it. Two weeks abroad made me a travel junkie. Any suggestions as to where I can get my next fix?