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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WARNING FOR TRAVELLERS!

Just a word of advice through a lesson learnt…

If a hotel porter is packing your luggage into your taxi for you, double check they put it all in!

When leaving San Francisco, the man packing the taxi left a suitcase behind which I did not realise until I was AT the airport. So I had to phone the hotel and they had to send it ASAP in another taxi. It was a heated discussion to say the least as they somehow didn’t think it was their fault. I did have to pay for the second taxi because I didn’t have the time to keep arguing as we had a plane to catch, but I have kept the receipt and will be contacting the hotel to follow up with a complaint.

San Francisco.

San Francisco has more dogs than it does children, make of that what you will.

We are just finishing up our stay here in San Francisco. We’ve spent 6 nights here, staying at the Orchard Garden Hotel. San Francisco is up there as one of the most expensive cities in the States, so hotels are not cheap. Our hotel is located on Bush Street, less than a five minute walk to Union Square so it’s very central, which makes it more pricey, and we are also now into August which I guess also makes things more expensive. We paid $220 a night here, way over the top end of my budget but I couldn’t find anything much cheaper. I chose to return my rental car on arrival into San Francisco as the hotel was so well located and the traffic can get bad, as well as the aggravation of parking. The valet here is $40 a day so it was financially better to use public transport. The hotel is fine, quite a small room, but all clean and modern. Not quite worth $220 a night but I guess it’s the location I’m paying for. This rate doesn’t include breakfast, I have to pay an extra $16 per person for that, so instead we’ve opted for a box of Frosties from Walgreens! Wifi is pretty good, business centre down stairs with computers is pretty useless as Internet is very slow on them. At reception they have a collection of DVDs you can borrow for free, yes FREE! But if you break it its a $35 charge!! So Faye’s made use of this service and watched plenty of movies. You get your room cleaned twice a day here, not quite sure why, but hey ho, perhaps that’s why it costs so much! The rooms do not have fridges and microwaves, but has a coffee machine which I use to warm milk and a minibar which I’ve squeezed some milk and water into.

It’ll be no shock that we started San Francisco off with…. A bus tour!! Just like most other places I’ve been. Here we used the Big Bus Tour Company. Purchased tickets online as they are cheaper, $45, Faye went free as she’s under 4. This ticket was a 48hr one that includes an hours bike hire and a panoramic night tour. This is not only a tour but an easy way to get around for two days. The buses come every ten minutes and can get crowded so you may have to wait for the next one. Some buses have live tour guides and some are recorded narration and you can listen through headphones.

Whilst being away I always carry a pair of headphones that fit in Faye’s ears, in my bag for buses, planes and wherever else you may need some. Here on the bus, the ones they hand out are way too big for her so its lucky I had some and she sat and listened.

The night time tour runs 6.30/7/7.30 and you have to reserve a place – which we didn’t know. If you don’t have a place reserved you have to queue and they fit you on as and when they can, and if there are people left over they run an extra bus. Well worth doing as you get to see the city in the dark and get to go over Bay Bridge which you don’t otherwise get to do on most tours, best seats are up top, closest to the front.

We also did a tour on a vintage fire truck. It’s an hour and a half and was $50 adult, child under 12 $30. A fun experience but less informative and quite expensive really in comparison.

Things we did;

– Golden Gate Bridge. We’ve walked over it and been over via the tour bus and vintage fire truck. Loads of places to get good photos. Very hard to park here. South side of bridge, more to do and see. Lots of trails around. Nice gift shop and cafe. They run all sorts of walking and bike tours over the bridge. Don’t expect young children to walk the whole way over as its longer than it looks – bring the stroller.

– Alcatraz. BOOK. IN. ADVANCE. In the summer you cannot normally get a ticket for a month. It’s very popular. Children under 4 go free so it was easier to get one ticket ($30) just for me than it would have been for 2+. You get the boat over to the island. Can easily take your stroller, there’s ramps to push it on and of the boat. Takes 12 mins. We spent 3 and a half hours on the island. The are four steep slopes to get to the prison, but they are all short, walking them alone is fine. Going up them with children or a stroller takes a little longer, but, they have put benches at the top of every slope so we did one, sat down, did the next, sat down and so on. Didn’t take longer than ten minutes. Pack a coat as the island is windy and cold. Also be prepared there is only one toilet at the top and one at the bottom. There is nowhere to purchase food on the island, only water can be brought. The boat ride over does sell snacks though. The prison tour itself is a 45 minutes audio tour, which you can stop and start as you please. I put Faye in the stroller and gave her a headset as well. She listened on and off but wasn’t hugely interested. As it was an audio tour it was hard for me to engage Faye as we couldn’t talk about what we were hearing. So what I did was stop my head set every now and again and point things out and she went in and out some of the open cells. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, and no it wasn’t Faye’s favourite attraction and she did spend a lot of time colouring, but she still learnt a few things and yes I would take her again.

– Cable Cars, $6 a ride. You will have to queue. Worst place to get on is Fisherman’s Wharf as the queue is huge. Try not to get on at the end of a line as queues are worse. They do let you take a collapsed stroller on board. Don’t always pay as sometimes it’s too busy!

– Lombard Street, Crookest Street in the world. Has 8 sharp turns. You can get here via the Powell and Hyde cable car. Tour buses do not go past as there is often queues to go down it. If walking to it, be prepared for some huge hills.

– Ghirardelli Square, famous San Francisco chocolate. Here is lots of eateries and ice cream parlours as well as shops selling Ghirardelli chocolate. They give out free samples in a few of the shops, we went back three times!

– Union Square. Lots of shops and restaurants. Have a Cheesecake Factory on the top floor of Macy’s. we tried the Sunday brunch for the first time, would highly recommend. Caught a cable car pretty easily from Union Square.

– Fisherman’s Wharf/Pier 39 area. Shops, restaurants, souvenir shops galore, Levi jeans headquarters and where majority of bus tours start and end. Also where all boat trips depart from, including Alcatraz. Great area for all public transportation.

Things we could of done but ran out of time;
– Aquarium of the Bay, Fisherman’s Wharf area, twenty something bucks entry.
– Exploratorium. Also Fisherman’s Wharf. Not sure on entry price. Focused for children, all tour guides give it good reviews.

The thing with San Francisco… Do your research before you come. Tours and trips can sell out before you arrive, especially Alcatraz, so get them booked up. It’s also very hilly. Lots of very steep hills both up and and down – pushing the stroller up is a killer on the legs and down is tough on the arms as its trying to run away! Carry a coat as it can get chilly quick and if you are near the water it’s a lot windier. In my opinion, ditch the car and use public transport, get a hotel near Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf, if you’re close to Market Street there is a variety of transport easily available. Last thing, there seemed LOTS of homeless people everywhere, did not feel threatened or unsafe around any, but they are something to be aware of!

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Monterey.

First point. Bring a jumper. I naively thought, oh I’m in California, it’ll be lovely and warm. No! Monterey and San Francisco, I have now researched, do not really get hot and you need a sweatshirt and light jacket. So we now have matching Monterey jumpers and rain coats! I reckon I’m not the only one who thought it’d be hot as you see many families wandering around all with the same ‘I ❤ Monterey' sweatshirts that they've picked up from the gift shop for 10 bucks!

Here we staged at Stage Coach Lodge. Nice small hotel. Small continental breakfast. Large room with two double beds, table and chairs, fridge, microwave and all that. Good wifi. Small swimming pool and guest laundry for $2 a wash. Location is good. Still handy to have a car, but there seems to be plenty of buses going around and there is a free trolley that runs back and forth around the main areas.

Fishermen’s Wharf and Cannery Row are two main areas, both with an abundance of shops and restaurants.

From Fishermen’s there are a few companies offering whale watching trips. We went with Chris’s Whale Watching – as we had a coupon! It was just under three hours and we saw sealions, seals, otters, risso dolphins, humpback whales and blue whales. After being on the boat for 5 minutes we saw our first whale so there’s no hanging about. Faye was free (3 and under), under 12 are $25 and adults $35. You will need a jacket or sweatshirt as its very breezy out there! And children have to wear life jackets. From Fishermen’s Wharf itself you can see sealions and seals swimming around.

Carmel is only a short drive away and is quite like Santa Barbara and Laguna Beach. Very pretty and well kept. It has a lovely beach that is popular despite being cold.

There is the ’17 mile drive’ between Monterey and Carmel. It’s $9.75 to enter and you get a map pointing out things along the way.

Now don’t judge me BUT we’ve eaten Denny’s takeout the last three nights! We’ve been so tired and not really wanted a sit down meal, so Denny’s it was. It’s a decent meal for under $10! We visited a few nice places for lunch whilst here; the Crepes of Brittany at Fishermen’s Wharf, which has been reviewed in the Lonely Planets guide on California – such good Crepes! Also Isabella’s at the end of Fishermen’s Wharf – good restaurant, nice food BUT on entering they gave me a copy of their ‘Children’s Policy’ (see photo), I found it quite funny!

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Highway 1.

We left Santa Barbara and made our way to Monterey where we are staying for a few days. The journey in total was about five hours. We went along Hwy 1 which is the coastal scenic road, you can get there quicker along the 101 but we wanted to drive through the mountains and take in the view.

Halfway along the journey we stopped at San Simeon to visit Hearst Castle. Back in Santa Monica at the Annenburg Community Beach House we learnt about William Hearst as the beach house was initially his, which he built for his ‘lady love’, actress Marion Davis. Hearst Castle is William Randolph Hearst’s 28 year project that incorporates a variety of architectural designs from all over Europe. The place is gigantic. Anyway, it is now open to the public and there are a few different tours you can go on, or watch a 40 minute film about the story of William Hearst and his Castle, equally if you don’t want to pay for any of these things you can still learn a lot from the visitors centre and there’s a few little eateries. If you don’t even want that, at least they have nice clean restrooms! The tours are $25 per person and the film is included in that, or you can just watch the film for $10, free for under 5s. We just watched the film and explored the gift shop as we still had another 3 hours to drive so I didn’t want leave to late. I’d recommend the film, it was well made and really interesting. Faye sat quietly throughout and seemed to enjoy it.

Three miles North of the Castle still on Hwy 1 is the elephant seals habitat. There are some here all year round. Just pull over and jump out to see them.

Also along Hwy 1 is an Otter refuge and other places to pull in and look out to sea for animals. The roads are slow and twisty so it can be a nice break for the driver to stop at some of the ‘vista points’.

Faye was really good throughout the five hour journey. We had the Disney CDs on repeat, plenty of snacks and the dog bowl potty at the ready!

Santa Barbara.

The move to Santa Barbara is about an hour and a half from the LA area, give or take a little due to traffic.

Here we are staying in the Days Inn on State Street. We arrived at the hotel two hours before check in and they had no problem letting us into the room early. Nice large room with fridge, air con and wifi. Free parking. Swimming pool was large and open well into the evening and free continental breakfast 6am-10.30am. State Street is 7 miles long and goes all the way down to the ocean leading onto Stearns Wharf. State Street has some mixed reviews on Tripadvisor so I was a little apprehensive. So we are just under two miles back from the ocean on State Street. I rather quite liked State Street, our hotel is at a quieter bit, but half a mile away are shops and restaurants and not remotely tacky like some parts of LA were. The room itself was $200, one of the most expensive rooms of my trip, but this is an expensive area and also a Saturday night. What I found slightly tricky here was finding a hotel that will let you stop over for one night at a weekend. Many hotels here require a minimum two night stay at weekends during the summer.

As soon as we threw our bags into the room we came straight out an headed down to Stearns Wharf. Took the car as I wasn’t sure of the distance, parking is every couple of blocks on either side of the road down State Street. $12 a day or $2 an hour – I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before but pay machines in car parks here in America are SO SLOW! From Stearns Wharf we hopped on the Santa Barbara Trolley Tour, $19 for adults, children go free, lasts around 90 minutes and gives a good coverage of the city. You can hop on and off throughout the day. As we are only in Santa Barbara overnight a short tour was the best way for us to see as much as possible. After we had a wander around Stearns Wharf, which can be a little chilly with the breeze, before heading back to our hotel.

Los Angeles.

5 nights, 6 days.

Hotel –
Jerry’s Motel, Downtown LA, Lucas Av & 3rd St. Clean, affordable, has all you need. Free car park space. Get a welcome gift with some snacks and drinks in. In your room they provide a folder with all the information you need for the area and lots of leaflets to look through. Rated highly on trip advisor which is how I found it. $90/£58 per night.
http://www.jerrysmotel.com/m/hotel-sitemap.html

Activities –
Firstly i’ll say LA is big and it is busy. You need a car, it’s spread out so its easier/cheaper if you can drive yourself about, BUT, there can be a lot of traffic at any time of day, so make sure you allow plenty of time for journeys, even if its only a couple of miles. Try also to look your journey up before leaving as my sat nav system always wanted to take us I the freeway which is where the traffic was worst.

We started our time here with a bus tour. I like to do this in each area to get a feel for the place and try to figure out where things are. It’s also useful for learning bits and pieces about the places. If you go on tripadvisor they rank tours based on customer satisfaction for companies all over the world. This is how we found ‘A Day in LA’ on a rastabus.
http://www.adayinlatours.com/

The tour was $79 for adults and $69 for children. The buses are small minivans and you are provided with fruit and water. Our tour guide was Brad, real friendly, funny and knowledgable. I took the stroller and he put it in the front every time we were on the bus.

This is what the tour covers;
Start the day in Malibu with a drive to the pier and surfrider beach. Hop off for half an hour.
Drive up Sunset Blvd. through Brentwood, Bel Air and Beverly Hills and check out a few of the stars’ homes
Then we went to Rodeo Drive, the super expensive famous shopping street. Hop off for half an hour.
Then onto lunch at the Farmers Market at the Grove. Off bus for an hour and a half.
Drive up to Griffith Park for photos of the Hollywood sign and views of the downtown L.A. skyline. Hop off for half hour.
Take a walk down the Hollywood Walk of Fame and see the beautiful Chinese Theatre, where the celebrity hand and foot prints are and Dolby Theatre (aka Kodak Theatre) where the Oscars are held! Off bus for half hour.
Check out the historic Whiskey, Viper Room and Roxy music clubs.
Back to Santa Monica for sunset.

So it stops five times but your driver comes with you which is nice as you don’t have to worry about waiting for the next bus. Things like Rodeo Drive and the Walk of Fame would be a pain to park at as they are busy and expensive so hopping off on the tour was perfect for us. Although half an hour sounds short, down Rodeo Drive you need appointments to go in most shops and the Walk of Fame is very busy and quite tacky so get a few snaps and go!

We brought cheap last minute tickets for a Dodgers Baseball game. $25 a ticket. Always a good evening out. Can be long but you are free to leave as and when you want to. Car parking $10. Hot ‘Dodger’ dogs $5. Can also take snacks in.

We also spent one evening at the Hollywood Bowl. Brought tickets that night for $11 each! You can also get ones for $2 but they were sold out. Take a picnic with you or eat there. Car parking is $15. But once your in you cannot leave until the show is done. We saw the LA Philharmonic orchestra. Not mine or Faye’s first choice of music, but we wanted to experience the venue – an outdoor amphitheatre holding well over 20,000 people. Can seethe Hollywood sign from your seats. You can still see in a $2 seat, not like in England if you pay for a cheap seat you will be sat behind a pillar and won’t see a thing. They do all sorts of shows. Ours lasted two hours with a 15 minute interval. The only thing to watch with children is that when the music is on, absolutely no talking is allowed, it is silent in the audience. I had read this beforehand and packed plenty of snacks and colouring books to keep Faye occupied, but to my surprise she actually quite enjoyed it and spent the whole second half dancing along to the classical music, in silence of course! Can get a bit chilly over there so pack a jumper and a blanket.

Beaches –
So the tour took us to Malibu and Santa Monica, both nice beaches, however I also wanted to check out Venice Beach/Muscle Beach – well I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s tacky, touristy and dirty. Saw cops arresting people on the beach. Lots of homeless people begging for money as well. On the upside the children’s playground was nice and Faye met lots of friends and the large skate park is good to go and watch for half an hour. I’d recommend Will Rodgers Beach it is one up from Santa Monica Beach, $8 to park there a day and its nice and quiet. It’s has no shops or anything so pack a picnic. Our tour guide told us this beach is used a lot for movies because its so quiet. The Santa Monica Beach is host to the Annenberg Community Beach House, which is a beach house that was donated by the Annenberg family to the City for public use. This has a pool and changing rooms, children’s play area and a cafe as well as a guest house which presents the history of the building. Nice stop off. One afternoon we also used one of the City’s public swimming pools, there is loads open in the summer, around $2 for an adult, under 17s swim free. List of all pools can be found on LA City Councils website.

Favourite spots –
Griffith Park for its views – big difference from hustle and bustle of the city.
Santa Monica – Much nicer beach and shopping area
Hollywood Bowl

Advise for LA first timers –
Start with a tour of some sort, this place is HUGE and I felt I was going round in circles most of the time.
Buy a detailed map with all road names on, cannot always rely on the sat nav.
Allow plenty of time to get to places.
Keep plenty of drinks and snacks with you at all times when travelling with children here.

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