What we’ve learnt.

89 Days

25 Hotels

Over 20 Places

1 Country

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I was slightly hesitant about going away on our three month trip to America, for many reasons such as work and money, but, mainly because I’m backpacking with my three year old! Would we be safe? How would Faye cope? How will I cope!?!

Once we got there, those worries soon went straight out the window. I remember the first day we set out exploring. We left our youth hostel in Boston late one afternoon and went for a walk around the neighbourhood and I instantly felt happy and calm. The houses and streets were beautiful and Faye was running up and down, laughing away.

Don’t underestimate the hard work that goes into organising a trip like this, it takes a long time, and foolishly I planned mine whilst completing my final year of my degree, which got very stressful, BUT, it paid off as things went pretty smoothly once we were away.

Yes we backpacked, but very organised backpacking, I had pre-booked all our accommodation and transport before we left the UK, this is partly because I wouldn’t have been able to sleep at night if I didn’t know where I was going to stay from one week to the next, and also, i’m with a young child, I wanted suitable places for her. Ultimately I know I would not have enjoyed it as much as I did if I was spending time trying to find accommodation. Another bonus to it, is that its cheaper. If you can book hotels, train tickets, car hire at least a few months in advance you can get things quite a bit cheaper.

So we stayed in 25 hotels during the trip. I initially set my budget at £50 per night for accommodation and the average worked out at £51.25, so I thought that worked out pretty well. Obviously depending on the area you are in, a hotel can be £30 a night and others can be £100 plus, but, you’ve just got to keep on top of your budget the whole time. Its also nice to spend a few nights in an average hotel to save some money and then have one night in a nice one. Hotels on average in America are way, WAY, better than what you would receive in England. Most places we stayed, had two large double beds, fridge, microwave, hi speed Wi-Fi, satellite TV, kettles, free parking and breakfast – for £50. When researching my hotels I used hotels.com as you get one free night for every ten you book through them, but its also worth going direct to the hotel for a price. I used Tripadvisor for everything, but you have to take it with a pinch of salt, people on there seem to moan about anything and everything. My main priorities were, does the lock on the door work and is the bed clean, any extras I’m over the moon. We were very fortunate with ALL our hotel, everyone was more than adequate for us two and I always felt safe.

I was advised by STA travel agents when initially discussing my trip that I would need £1000 per person, per month, in America as everyday spending money for food and activities etc. I took half that amount of money as that’s all I had. We had £39 per day, around $68, dependant on the exchange rate. Obviously some places are twice as expensive as others, so any opportunity I could find to save cash I would. We didn’t go out for three meals everyday because I just couldn’t afford it. We made use of the fridge and microwave in our hotels and always tried to get the free breakfasts. I also always carried snacks for Faye so instead of stopping for a meal she could graze through until dinner time. I have come home with a small credit card bill, due to the clothes shopping during the end, but that was to be expected. However, on average I did manage to keep to my budget, the best way to do that I found was to spend as little as possible during the start of the trip to make sure you know you have enough to last the duration.

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The trip has done a lot for Faye’s social skills, before we came away she was not particularly confident doing physical tasks, and wasn’t keen on having conversations with new people, which is fine as she’s only three, but since being away she’s thrown herself into pretty much all the activities, she’s much more confident and she’ll even order her own food in a restaurant! When you ask her about the trip, she will mainly tell you about Disney, but she has really enjoyed all the other places. Things like the US Mint in Philadelphia, I found slightly dull looking at coin after coin, but Faye loved it! She found it really interesting looking at the factory and identifying what different coins were. Giving her her own digital camera was one of the best things to keep her entertained, she loves to take photos and did so throughout the whole trip. People passing by would often smile when they saw Faye taking pictures of me, and would offer to take a photo, but Faye (being a very independent child) would say ‘no thank you, I’m good at taking pictures’.

Don’t get me wrong it’s not always easy being in each others pockets for three months, when we are at home in England, I work and Faye has Preschool so we have time apart, which I believe everyone needs, so there was numerous times I could of strangled her, and I’m sure she could me. It doesn’t help that when Faye’s asleep she still doesn’t stop talking or fidgeting! There’s not much that can be done about it really, just go the bathroom, count to ten and think at least I’m not at work!

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Neither of us wanted to return home, we could of easily stayed away for another few months, but unfortunately the VISA and the money ran out. In the airport on the way home we were reading travel books for where we would like to go next. We like Mexico, Thailand and central America – to be honest, I’ll go anywhere! Faye starts primary school in September 2014 which will be quite an obstacle but I won’t let it stop me. I am aware taking children out of school is very difficult these days, however the knowledge Faye has developed on this trip for her age has been immense and its never ending. She’s practiced her hand writing when sending postcards, she’s been identifying all her numbers when finding hotel rooms and using elevators. She can now identify different flags and countries. She’s learnt about pounds and dollars as well as different cultures and some of the history behind the United States of America. She’s been educated on looking after the environment and pollution of the sea. She has seen a whole variety of wildlife in their natural habitats. She’s used so many modes of transport and tried different foods. The best thing is, that I am not having to teach her these things, we are learning them together and enjoying it at the same time. We are both incredibly fortunate to have been on this adventure.

So the plan now is to work hard, save up and play the lottery to fund the next trip!

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Returning Home.

We have arrived back home in England last week, after a LONG day of travelling. I’m so disappointed its all over and it seems to of flown by! We have both had an amazing trip and done so many things.

Our journey home was pretty straight forward, we travelled through the night. Faye slept around three hours of the seven hour flight, but I didn’t manage to sleep at all. It was all going smoothly until reaching boarder control at Heathrow airport where I was questioned as to the relationship between Faye and I. As Faye has a different surname to me, due to her Father and I not being married, apparently I cannot prove she is my child. The lady asked for Faye’s birth certificate, which I had in my suitcase, not my carry on luggage, which she told me was no good. She then said she would need to speak with the child’s Father, so I got my mobile phone out but she then said don’t bother. What aggravated me was how indecisive she was as to what she was going to do, so in the end I said to her, if you’re going to stop me, do it, if your not just let me go through and so she just let me walk off. I never encountered anything like this in the USA which was why I was so annoyed to go through it back in England. So from now on I will always have to carry Faye’s birth certificate when travelling, which is fine, OR marry her Father, which is not fine, but it makes me feel slightly put out as if I am in the wrong for not having the same name as my daughter.

So eventually we were through boarder control and were surprised by a group of our closest friends and family which was a really nice gesture. Perhaps not so surprisingly it was raining when we left the airport and we got stuck in traffic on the M25 – a traditional English welcome!

Once back at our house Faye was high as a kite getting all her old toys out as if they were new again, and I on the other hand could not keep my eyes open. As soon as Faye stepped through the door, she ran up to her room and all I heard was ‘SIIIMMMBBAAAA!!!! Have you missed me?!’ – this is the cuddly toy that’s bigger than she is which she wanted to bring with her in her backpack. I’m cruel to not let her I know, but don’t worry we did Skype him at least 3 times!

We both went to bed around 9pm and slept like logs all the way through the night. Faye didn’t wake up until 1pm the next afternoon, but we paid the price for that as the next night she just could not get to sleep, she laid in bed reading until 3am. So to get her back into a normal routine and re-adjust from the time difference, for the next few days I made sure she was up reasonably early so she was worn out by 8pm, and since that she has been sleeping fine through the night again.

Since being home, Faye has spent the week at home catching up with her toys and family (priority in that order) and I have started back at work. Faye has another two weeks before returning to Preschool and her Child-minder, so it’s nice for her to have some chill out time before the madness starts again in September with school, dance class and swimming lessons!

 

welcome home

 

Shopping in the USA.

I tried to leave the shopping as late as I could because I wouldn’t be able to carry it all, but we ended up buying a second case for our final flight back to London.

Faye had saved and been kindly given her own spending money for the trip of which most got spent at Disney – SHOCK. Luckily for us her Father was visiting for that section so he took her bits home for us.

Out here it is hard not to shop to be honest. Miami was my favorite place as I had a car at that point so could travel out to malls easy enough. In Miami the Dolphin Mall is an indoor outlet shopping mall, it’s pretty big and packed with plenty of shops and a Cheesecake Factory!

If you’re in the States to shop you want to find the nearby Premium Outlets. There are plenty all over the country, I think I’ve been to 8 or so in the last month! They all have similar shops in, but you can get most things. Over half of the ones I’ve been to have had a children’s play park which has provided a nice break for Faye. I’ve been to both regular malls and outlet malls and I would definitely advice to start with the outlet ones first.

Items that I’ve picked up a lot cheaper in America than England are;
- Levi Jeans
- Ugg boots
- OPI nail varnish
- Chicco stroller
- Ralph Lauren clothes
- Michael Kors bags and watches
- Pandora
- Suncream
- Disney toys and clothes
- Clark’s shoes for children
- Nike running trainers
- Sports apparel

This probably explains why the extra suitcase was needed!

I’m bringing home about ten bottles of sunscreen because in America they do these great spray on creams which I haven’t seen in England which are great for Faye as they’re light and dry in seconds as well as being waterproof. You can also get Suncream up to factor 70 which is good for Faye as she has very fair skin. As its now mid August all the supermarkets in Minnesota have their sunscreen on sale so they were $4 a bottle, when I pay around £12 for one in England.

Whilst on the subject of toiletries, Something I’ve picked up upon in the States is that you cannot easily buy spray deodorant, all I’ve found is roll on! Very random I know, but I thought that was weird!

I’ve already looked at when I can get the cheapest flight to Florida to take an empty suitcase and fill it with shopping – I better buy a lottery ticket as soon as I get home!

MSP Airport.

We are currently waiting for our final flight back to London Heathrow.

We are at the airport in plenty of time. Our luggage has now doubled and I have a full 50lb suitcase as well as my backpack.

Firstly when dropping off our baggage (as I had checked in online last night) one suitcase was 4lbs over and one was 4lbs under so you would think, or maybe I thought, that they would just let the weight cancel itself out, but no! I had to take bits out of the heavier case and repackage them into the lighter case.

On the upside for us, Minneapolis St Paul airport has a family security lane so when going through the x ray machines, as Faye and I call them, we were allowed straight to the front and the security guys helped me lifting the stroller on and off and they even gave Faye stickers!

Once through security we had plenty of time to kill so we had a wander around the shops, it’s a pretty big airport with plenty of little shops. We had a bite to eat in Chilli’s – make sure you pick up a coupon brochure in the airport as you save money on children’s meals in most of the restaurants. Also in the brochure is a list of family friendly things to do at MSP airport. There is snoopy statues, a play area and arcades as well as a family centre and a feeding room.

We soon got bored of walking around the airport so we then decided to go and find the gate to sit down and to my surprise at our gate there are about 100 iPads setup free to use as well as hundreds of plug sockets for charging phones and electronics. So, as we had some time to kill I’ve been able to blog direct from the gate – how exciting!

Breezy Point.

We spent the last week of our trip here in Breezy Point. As we are staying with family for the last section this is where we ended up. It’s around 3 hours North of Prior Lake, MN.

My Uncle has a timeshare here, otherwise a cabin is $1500 for a week. These are cute 2 bed, 2 storey cabins with hot tubs that overlook Pelican Lake.

Here we have been fishing, jet skiing, tubing and on a variety of boats.

The weather has been a nice temperature, around 25 degrees.

This resort is really family friendly and has a variety of evening entertainment, swimming pools, boats, kayaks, jet skis and excursions around the lake.

Minnesota.

I am finishing off my trip here in Minnesota. When I have met people on my travels and told them my route, which finishes up in Minnesota, they give me a puzzled look as to why I would want to go there! Well my Uncle and his family live here (meaning free accommodation – well to an extent as he had me doing data inputting!!). It wasn’t in my initial plans to stop here, but I had around 12 days to spare on my ESTA visa, so I altered the flights and here we are.

The ESTA, have I mentioned that already?! I cannot remember – I feel like I’ve written so much on my travel blog and I can’t remember what I’ve included and what I haven’t! Well the ESTA was introduced a few years ago by Obama and allows visitors into the country for a maximum of 90 days – it costs $14 which you have to pay by credit card. I never actually looked at what the process is for staying in the US for longer than 90 days, which I now regret as time has flown and I wish I wasn’t going home soon.

Altering my flights was easy enough as with my flights (that I purchased through STA) I also purchased a multi flex pass for £70 each which allowed us to change the dates for up to three of our flights and you just have to pay the difference in the taxes. This probably was a slight waste of money buying the multi flex as we only made one change and I still had to pay around £350 for the change so I’m not sure it did save me much money. Our trip was very structured so we wouldn’t really have changed the flights unless it was an emergency or something like that.

We hired a car from Minneapolis airport, similar costs as before – $30 a day. The State of Minnesota do charge a fee for a driver under 25. But the collection of hire car was very straightforward as I had pre-booked it online.

My relatives live in Prior Lake near the city of Minneapolis, around a 30 minute drive from the airport. Here we spent the next few days doing pretty much nothing which has been very nice as in the last few months we haven’t had the chance to have a lazy day as there has been so much to see! I also used this time to do a bit of shopping – I tried to leave the shopping as late as possible a) because of carrying it and b) to gage how much money I had left to spend.

Also in Minnesota we discovered Dairy Queen ice cream cakes. Pretty much birthday cakes made out of ice cream. Between $20-30 for a 10″ cake so it lasts a good few days!

Minnesota is home to the Mall of America – which used to be the largest Mall in America, but has now been over taken. There is a theme park inside it with rollacoasters so it’s pretty big, with all the shops you can imagine.

You also find the best Targets in Minnesota, as lots here are Super Targets. Target is a store that sells pretty much anything and everything – I love it! My Uncle tells me that people say if you can leave Target having spent under $300 you’ve done well.

So after cramming in all this in a few days we packed up to head North to Breezy Point which is where my Uncle has a timeshare.

Money.

Withdrawing cash abroad varies depending on who your account is with back home so you need to check out the rates before you leave.

My current account is with Nationwide. I have to pay £1 for every foreign withdrawal and around 2.5% of the withdrawal. So if I withdraw $400 I pay £1 (standard foreign withdrawal rate) and around £5 (percentage of amount withdrawn). Unfortunately my current account only allows me to withdraw £250 at one time which I’ve figured out equates to $440. I didn’t even think about enquiring to expanding this limit before I left to enable me to withdraw more at once. In future would contact the bank to see if this can be changed.

The other thing to be mindful of is that once you are in America, different banks charge you different fees for withdrawing. In New York I found Bank of America charged different amounts depending on what street you were on – varying between $1-4. I found TD Bank and Wells Fargo being the best as they don’t charge at all.

American coins can be quite a pain. You always need a good supply of quarters for laundrettes, parking etc. Americans are quite laid back in the sense that if something is $3.03 they will give you $2 change from $5 rather than $1.97. But overtime I have accumulated a ziploc bag of coins, which I have told Faye she can throw them all in the next fountain we see!