Roadtrip USA – Vegas or/and bust!

Las vegas sign, roadtrip USA

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Roadtrip USA - the plan

Having a 50th birthday and a wedding anniversary to celebrate – it has been deemed necessary to revisit the scene of the crime (a Vegas wedding chapel) 20 years on, in 2020. Destiny is calling. A roadtrip USA to end all trips (well maybe we’ll squeeze in a couple more at some point but you know what I mean).

The flights

We  staycationed in 2019 and saved up the money it had cost us to go to Canada 3 years ago, then headed optimistically off to Trailfinders to follow our roadtrip USA dream.

Turns out, costs have doubled in the meantime. And we had just missed the sales. But, on the upside, if we booked a hotel through Trailfinders for 3 nights, they could get us discounted flights and we would only have to pay a deposit now – giving us another 6 months to find the rest of the cash. Food for thought. Left the shop with tickets unbought. Roadtrip USA still just a dream.

I had been under the illusion that free stop offs on your way over to the US were 10 a penny and all airlines threw them in like sweets. Stop off at New York on the way over to Vegas? Easy.

Apparently only 9 airlines offer a free stop over service, including:  Emirates – free stop overs in Dubai; BA, in London; Canada air, in Toronto; and Iceland Air, in Reykjavik. No good for us. Darn it. There was work to be done.

First off, a stop at STA travel to see if they had better news/prices. No.

Next plan – 3 days’ worth of internet searching on cheap flight websites to find the best/cheapest flights stopping at any city in America vaguely in the right ball park– Seattle, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Phoenix. You name it – I checked it.

I shaved a good chunk off the Trailfinders price but booking online would have been an nightmare. Each section of the flight would have to be booked separately through a different bucket website, with no guarantee that the next link would still be available, at the same price for 4 people, by the time I’d booked the previous one. And who knows what would happen if I did manage to book through a network of cheap sites but a connection was delayed and a flight was missed.

I had a light bulb moment – and took all my research back to Trailfinders to see if they could book with the times and airlines I had found, still get their discount and have them to bail me out when everything fell to pieces in the middle of the night in America.

They did well. Not as cheap as on the internet but good enough. The roadtrip USA plan was born and the deposit (a years’ worth of savings) was paid. Would just have to not eat much for the next 6 months. And cancel Christmas.

I had wangled the following schedule:

statue of liberty

New York

Stop over in New York. Not a “free” stop off, but the good news is that if you get the international flight to drop you off at New York, your internal flight NY to San Francisco is only $100.

(Photo by Brandon Mowinkel on Unsplash)

golden gate bridge

San Francisco

Fly to San Francisco for 2 week roadtrip USA. The San Francisco stop was purely based on being the cheapest flight within driving distance (sort of) of Vegas – our real destination. Flying back out of the same airport would mean avoiding a $500 one way drop off car hire charge (although this may actually be the price of the petrol in bringing it back to San Fran from Vegas – we’ll see). (Photo by Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash)

Cathedral Grove, BC

Vancouver Island

Fly to Vancouver to see sister for first time in 3 years. Shenanigans.

Roadtrip USA Insurance (boring but important)

First job was insurance – due to the length of trip and multi-country entries, I had to check out single trip versus annual verses backpackers policies (was very pleased they would even still consider me in this category – felt a bit younger about it all).

Got very confused about amount of cover needed but worked out that the amount insured in family insurance is per head not collective.

Went for an annual silver policy with Virgin – who were not only totally there for us when child 2 was hospitalised with a head injury in Morocco, but were also much cheaper than anyone I had heard of on the price comparison websites.

The roadtrip USA itinerary

Now all I had to do was rustle up a roadtrip USA itinerary. Was harder than you think when you want to see everywhere. I baggsied Yosemite. For husband, an organ pipe cactus desert was non-negotiable. As was the Grand Canyon. He was also very keen to fit in Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore.  And Mexico. 

I bought a map. So, America is quite big. It filled the whole kitchen. And that was only the South West bit. I was very glad we had not involved Seattle in the Vegas plan, as it was several ruler lengths away.  What was doable in an actual 2 week roadtrip USA?

Roadtrip USA map
Pen is Las Vegas - ruler is Seattle

I was mindful of the need not to kill the children by keeping them caged in an, albeit air conditioned, car for the full 2 weeks, and to let them out for a bit of a run around in the 100 degree heat every few days.

All the guide books talked about the fierce desert temperatures and the boys, picturing themselves gasping for water surrounded by white cattle bones in the sand at Death Valley, made us promise not to make them get out of the car there.

I began to research water based activities and generally ruled out hiking.

Should we go to Mexico for the day?

Mexican market
Mexican Village Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash

Was tempted but a bit scared. Research revealed that the answer was no. To cross at San Diego meant joining crowds in lengthy queues each way.

Heading along the border to a smaller town such as Yuma was ruled out for a number of reasons:

1. The entry town here is unexpectedly known mainly for dental and medical tourism, no nic-nac shops to be found.

2. The border entry towns are generally “grittier” with more crime and hustlers/guides looking to make a quick buck.

  1. There has been a recent headline making influx of refugees crossing the border (270,000 of them) who were holed up in border town refugee camps. Queues might be quite long and feisty.
  2. I read a tale of a couple who’d popped over the border for the afternoon and got stuck in a 4 hour queue coming back, which they were still standing in when the border closed for the night. They had to quickly find a Mexican hotel (having already paid for a perfectly good one on the other side of the border) and got back to find their car had been towed for unlawful overnight parking.

It would probably be just as interesting on our roadtrip USA to stick to American roads and travel along the wall and see what Trump has been up to building-wise, as this is the section of his wall campaign featuring heavily in the press.

The roadtrip USA route

Some kind of roadtrip USA circle was needed, heading down the coast, along (but not across) the Mexican border and into the cactus deserts, looping up for a Grand Canyon driveby, then  as far north as we could get. Looking at the map – you just couldn’t go all the way south to the border and then north to Yellowstone (and deffo not Mt Rushmore which was practically in the hall) in one 2 week roadtrip USA.

We could then swing by Vegas for a possible reliving the dream ceremony on our actual anniversary (yet to assess how weird that would be, but keen to get the old wedding dress out and wander round the bars in it again). A quick lick though Death Valley, a walk round a Mammoth lake and then sliding into San Fran for the last bus/plane home.

USA Motels / Hotels - booking goals

Set realistic roadtrip USA budget

Googled the average price of a US motel room and set myself an average budget per night. Handily, unlike in the UK, they all come with 2 double beds in the room so economic family travel is possible.

Remember to factor in complicated local taxes, which conveniently vary across statelines, and increase costs by a third.

Pre-book everything

Spent  ages on trivago and booking.com and booked all the accommodation for the 2 week roadtrip USA on a fully cancellable, buy now pay later basis. Did not want to be driving round for hours in mid summer, fighting the crowds in the heat for the best rooms. (Would just have to live with the risk that when we get there the one I’ve booked is not actually that great or handily located in real life.)

Avoid roadtrip USA temptation

 Managed to restrain myself from upgrading every time trivago showed me a nicer alternative for more money. Due to bonkers prices in NY and San Fransisco – had to find a few bargain £58-a nighters to balance the books and crossed fingers for aircon and reliability of recent reviews.

Don't kill the roadtrip USA driver

Tried to limit driving to 3-5 hours a day for the sake of sanity and managed to book the same place for 2 days on the trot on at least 4 occasions to give everyone some respite.

Cntrl Alt Delete

Only then did I see a picture of Lake Tahoe. Lake shmake I had thought, initially ruling it out as a must see attraction. But the photo revealed it to have aquamarine, crystal clear water encasing giant white boulders below. Like nothing I had ever seen. Back to the drawing board.

Ditched the second night in Mammoth (which looks lovely) AND Yosemite Valley  (sacrilige, I know) and booked 2 nights by the lake instead. Possible madness, but it had knocked Yosemite Yogi  (although that may be Yellowstone) off the top spot and pretty much into the bin.

No cheating

It was only at this point I opened the trailfinders brochure to see that this is the 2 week roadtrip USA route they sell. Was like looking at a textbook answer after a test. Could have saved myself a lot of work, but at least I’d got the answer right. And the schedule couldn’t be as totally outrageously exhausting as it sounded, right?

Roadtrip USA Activities

Next job was to research the best half-day activities at each stop, on the assumption that the 3-5 hour morning drive would leave us totally refreshed and up for an excursion each and every afternoon of the roadtrip USA.

1. New York

staten island ferry
Photo by Matthew Daniels on Unsplash

Statue of Liberty  – surprisingly only $28 including the ferry, Ellis Island and a trip up to the crown. Totally do-able.

Need to find the best New York bagel as recommended by on the ground expert, Mike Baron from fivepax.com.

Will also check out some top photo spots recommended here.

2. LA

disneyland Anaheim
Disneyland California Photo by Daniela Araya on Unsplash

Disney was somewhere nearby? At $150 dollars for the day it was borderline binnable but that could be Christmas sorted?

3. LA to the Mexican Border

To avoid going via San Diego and having to  navigate huge suburbs of a second major city, we’re going inland via Salton Sea. On googling, it looks pretty ugly but the mud contains volcanic hot springs, so potentially quite interesting?

4. Yuma

The official centre of the world is here. Classic roadside America territory. 

Fitting with the water theme and no hiking activity plan, you can also raft down the Colorado for $10 each ( if we get there in time after the 5 hour drive).

5. Cacti

Saguaro Cactus Roadtrip USA
Saguaro Cactus Photo by Andrés Sanz on Unsplash

Roadtrip USA Cactus park visit – tick. Husband’s main requirement for the trip and reason for heading south to the border, instead of north to the Badlands, was the Organ Pipe Cactus quest. On investigation, he didn’t really mean this one at all. 

We wanted the classic tequila shaped Saguaro, a totally different national park. Some specimens grow just 3 hours south of Vegas. 

Too late/lazy to change the Mexican border plan now though, and anyway the massive ones are found further south so we’re going to Tuscon anyway.

6. Sedona

Slide Rock National Park has our name all over it. Orange canyon with a slidy water flume rock to play on.

7. Grand Canyon

grand canyon, Roadtrip USA
Grand Canyon Photo by Sonaal Bangera on Unsplash

Researched smallest walks possible due to potential heat blasting.

8. Page

horse shoe bend, Roadtrip USA
Horse shoe bend Photo by Niko Lewman on Unsplash

With there seemingly being nowhere to stay at the Grand Canyon itself, the general online opinion seems to be to go to Page. Looking at cheap motels here as pit stop on the way back west, I came across a picture of the cracking Horseshoe Bend and unbelievable Lake Powell, a mad orange moonscape containing a huge blue lake, which for some reason has not totally evaporated, and from which you can kayak to Antelope Canyon.

Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

On a previous roadtrip USA in our youth, we had driven past a hoarding displaying a copy of my favourite Athena poster. I’d had it for years and always wanted to know where it was from. The sign told me it was the amazing Antelope Canyon, a 10 minute ride away. Of all the bars in all the world! Went. Loved it.

But in 2020 we could go by kayak from Lake Powell. Sounded great! Bit of research was needed as to how you get a boat. The first few sites suggested you put it in the back of your RV. Hmm. Or they would drop off for $150. Hmm. Or, third site lucky, – they would bring it to you for $60. The Page stopover became in instant 2 night A lister.

It is going to be hot, the water is going to be choppy and motor boat loads of other sweaty tourists will be powering past tipping over our canoes, but so be it. (Landing also looks very muddy.) So long as we don’t lose the dry bag, or water, or child over the side, and we hug the shade of the 1000 foot canyon wall, it will be an adventure.

9. Valley of Fire and Vermillion Cliffs

valley of fire Roadtrip USA
Valley of Fire Photo by Holden Baxter on Unsplash

More orange stripy rock drivebys. (No water – staying in the car).

10. Zion Narrows

Zion Narrows Roadtrip USA
Zion Narrows Photo by Karan Chawla on Unsplash

Drawn by the prospect of hiking up an ankle deep 1000 foot sided canyon river in the shade.

11. Area 51

Alien Photo by Brian McMahon on Unsplash

This will be a 3 hour detour on the way to Vegas but how often do you get to look at a metal gateway to an alien military compound in the desert?

12. Las Vegas

the strip, Las Vegas, Roadtrip USA
Photo by Christopher Alvarenga on Unsplash

The main event of our roadtrip USA. This was our Trailfinders hotel booking treat releasing our access to discounted flights. We  are going back to the Luxor where we’d stayed for our actual wedding. Very excited. Only concern is will there be anything we are allowed to do with kids at all in this adult world of sin? Hope so. Remembered there were some fountains, Sphinxes and roller coasters flying out of the top of sky scrapers

13. Death Valley

death valley, Roadtrip USA
Death Valley Photo by Mael BALLAND on Unsplash

Got to be able to persuade the family to get out the car for at least 1 dune shot. Fingers crossed for  an animal rib cage.

14. Mammoth Lakes

mammoth lakes, Roadtrip USA
Mammoth Lakes Photo by OC Gonzalez on Unsplash

Deserty Death Valley to Banff-like ski resort in one hop. Contrasty.

15. Lake Tahoe

lake tahoe, Roadtrip USA
Lake Tahoe Photo by Justin Anderson on Unsplash

 Hoping it is as good as it looks! The actual picture is here.

16. San Fransisco

San Fransisco, Roadtrip USA
San Francisco Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Have heard rumours that downtown San Francisco  is in the grip of the meth zombie apocalypse crowd. Am hoping to avoid this by  booking a fancy pants place in Nob Hill (nob here derived from “noble”).

No time for Alcatraz as couldn’t possibly afford to stay here for 2 nights, but hoping to pop into the bar opposite the hotel, as we did 20 years ago, where a tropical storm, involving rain falling from the ceiling into an indoor lake, takes place every half an hour.

Vancouver Island

Top Bridge, Vancouver Island

 

To hang with the fam. 

All ready to go –

  • car booked through Zest,
  • seaplane from Vancouver island to Vancouver ordered
  • Summary written of all bookings with parking/taxes/breakfast info

Just got to wait 7 months and not spend any money in the meantime.

To be continued (weirdly writing this makes me feel like I’ve already done it)…

Roadtrip USA to do list

  • Think about food. Specifically work out how we are going to get enough of it to feed 4 man-sized appetites in the car at all times, with tracts of shop-free deserts to cross. Even if breakfast is mainly included in the motels and hotels I have chosen,  just where is lunch coming from? Emergency oat bar stash required.
  • Hope the pound rallies post-Brexit, so all bookings are cheaper than expected – and not the other way round.
  • Win lottery/not go out/take out loan.
  • Take all the above photos with my own camera.

Practical stuff – just got to:

  • Get new passports/ e visas/trips booked/DVLA points certificate / letter from husband allowing me to enter and leave Canada with the children without him.

And then I’m ready! Wish us luck with our radtrip USA. Or better still, point out all the flaws in the above roadtrip USA plan while there’s still time.

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Related

For tales of glaciers and bears check out my Canadian Road Trip (via Bigfoot, the Rockies and Vancouver Island).

For the best bagels, singing diners, view points and beaches in NYC- check out these top tips from native New Yorker, Mike Baron

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