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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Miami Intl – San Diego.

What a bloody day! Sorry, it’s been long!

I’m not going to make out it was a disaster because it could of been worse but still it could of been better!

We checked out of the Miami hotel and got over to the airport to return the rental car and quickly and easily got checked in and through security. Once through security our flight kept getting delayed and our gate kept changing meaning we had to use the airport shuttle train three times to get to across the airport to different gates. Once they finally stuck to a gate more delays came up. My flight was not direct, I had to stop in Chicago then onto San Diego and the delays on the first leg meant I was going to miss the second leg. So I went to have a moan to the American Airlines agent and she put us on a direct flight to San Diego – bonus! But I had to wait another 90 minutes to board it – not impressed! So by the time we actually got on the plane we’d been at the airport 5 hours, bearing in mind it is a domestic flight in which the website says you only need to turn up half an hour before! The other downside was my luggage had to stay on the original delayed flight and go to Chicago and then San Diego – so I am now in my motel in San Diego, whilst my bag is still on an aeroplane somewhere!

On arrival I was told I could wait for it (3 hours – NO WAY) or it will be delivered to my hotel in ‘due course’. I was not best pleased when I was told this news, and when ‘discussing’ it with the AA representative they told me to ring a number to deal with it and I said how can i when my phone is out of battery and the charger is in my suitcase!

So we currently have no luggage… this ought to be fun!

Miami.

I’ve been trying to post this for a few days but due to a weak Internet connection I haven’t been able to so I’m not actually in Miami!

So we are in Miami now and staying here for 5 nights, fly out Monday. I’ve still got the hire car and using that to get around.

We are staying in the Townhouse. 150 20th Street, Miami Beach. Great location, 3 minute walk to Miami Beach, 1.5 miles to South Beach, around corner from Lincoln Road (popular expensive shopping district). One of the more expensive hotels at £70 per night, but all hotels are pricey here. The hotel only has a valet car park which said on the website was $25 a day but is actually $34, so ill be having words with the manager about that! There are public car parks around within walking distance but I decided to use the hotel one for convenience with Faye. The hotel is clean but has gone for the minimal look. The wifi is supposed to work in the room but doesn’t, we have to come down to reception to use it. It has a rooftop sunbathing area but no pool which is slightly disappointing and not much fun for Faye. The breakfast is toast, apples and boiled eggs – thats Parisian apparently. The hotel has been nice but I would try another if I was to come again. It can be slightly noisy when people come in at the early hours of the morning from the bars and clubs. There are hotels after hotels along this strip (Collins Ave) and they all back onto Miami Beach or South Beach so it’s a great location. Alternatively you can stay in Miami which may be slightly cheaper but you would have to drive to the beach everyday.

Driving in Miami made me nervous! It may be as I’d just come from the Keys where there’s only one road and everyone drives at 50mph to take in the scenery, but here it’s quite the opposite. In a 45mph zone I was travelling along at 50mph and everyone else, including the Police cars whizzed past at around 70mph. I’ve tried to adhere to speed limits as the last thing I want is a speeding fine, but no one else seems bothered about that.

It was slightly pointless keeping the car for Miami as it didn’t really get used and we could of instead used public transport and taxis. As I was paying to keep the car parked as well the cost of the hire, it ended up being quite a waste of money.

In terms of activities in Miami, I got upset in the first few days as I felt I wasn’t seeing anything or doing anything. I am normally the one who only ever wants to lie around the pool on holiday but on this trip I want to make the most of every place I visit – I don’t quite know what’s happened to me! My Dad would probably say I’m getting older and starting to appreciate the scenery – who knows! Anyway I don’t think there is actually that much to do and see here, all the tour companies take you to the Everglades or the Keys which we had already done. We did the beaches, Miami Beach/South Beach and wandered down Lincoln Road and Collins Ave. The hotel manager recommended a bus and boat tour from the Half Price Bus Tours company. We paid $60 per person and got collected from our hotel, taken to the main bus office and it went from there. It lasted 4 and a half hours long and we made stops along the bus route where the driver got us off and showed us around which was nice. The boat tour was a slight let down as it was just an hours boat ride and no information was really given. What we were shown was ‘Millionaire’s Row’ where all the rich and famous live. We were shown Will Smith’s house, Jennifer Lopez, Robert DeNiro’s and many more, which was nice, but not particularly educational. The trip was a good day out and nice to see other parts of Miami such as Coral Gables and Little Havana. However, our hotel actually charged us MORE than if we got the tickets elsewhere which was a real disappointment as I don’t feel a hotel I’m paying to stay at should be trying to make yet more money out of me.

A good spot for children is the Venetian Pool, which is a public fresh pool open to the public for $12 per person. The water is always ‘cool’ here as it is emptied and refilled every Monday. Makes a good alternative to the beach as its pretty windy in Miami and the waves can be rough.

We had a great time for 4th July, we spent the afternoon and evening on South Beach for a big celebration with fireworks. Although just as the last firework went off a huge rain storm broke and we had a miles walk back to the hotel and were still in our swimsuits so we packed the buggy and sprinted the whole way and arrived back to the hotel soaked through!

Overall in Miami we’ve had a great time and its been nice to have a quiet few days. I would not return again for a family vacation. It’s a great city, but seems more young and hip with big nightlife plus we really didn’t see any other children!

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The Hire Car.

We hired a car from Sixt located near Orlando Intl airport. They have a free shuttle bus from the airport terminals. We paid $25 a day for a three door automatic Toyota Yaris. It was fine for us three and two suitcases but we had to put our pushchair next to Faye, if you have more children you’d need a bigger car. The car was pretty new and in good condition. I made them do an inspection and take photos of the two scratches it had on it so I didn’t get the blame when I returned it.

I also paid $58 for an express toll pass as we are driving to Miami and down to the Keys were there are lots of tolls. It recognises the car by the number plate and is much speedier than cash tolls as you just keep driving straight through them and they also told me it is cheaper.

The reason I chose Sixt is because they did not charge me for being under 25. Pretty much all car hire companies make drivers under 25 pay a young drivers fee which can cost up to an extra $30 PER DAY. So you have to hunt around for the best deal.

Also I picked the car up in Orlando and will be returning it to Miami which makes it a one way rental. Some companies do charge extra for this and put mileage caps on so you have to read the small print!

To fill the tank it is $30!!!

The Final Stretch of the Keys.

On our last day at the Keys, with the weather still being slightly cloudy we decided to hire a Kayak in the morning and went out in the Islamorada waters. It was good fun but hard work. We rented it from the Harbor Lights hotel we were staying in for $25. We were out for around an hour and a half when it came over very dark and windy so we panicked and quickly went back.

We also went to Robbie’s, around mile 78ish which I had read about in guide books was a good stop off in the keys. It’s a great place. There’s lots to do; kayaking, jet skiing, fishing, sailing trips, snorkelling trips as well as a bar and restaurant and a few little market stalls. The little outside restaurant is very reasonable. But the best thing is feeding the Tarpon fish. For $3.30 and $1 entry you can get a bucket of fish and throw them into the tarpons. They’re huge, and there is loads of them and some jump right out the water to get the fish. Faye loved it!

Key West back up to Islamorada.

Florida’s summers are known for their storms and we certainly saw that today. We were due to go on a 6 hour ‘Do it all’ boat trip in Key West this morning but due to a heavy rain storm it was unfortunately cancelled. We received a full refund as we couldn’t swap days as we were leaving Key West. I do wish we had stayed down in Key West for two nights rather than just one to spend a bit more time seeing some of the beaches and I would of liked to have gone on The Conch Train which gives you a guided tour of the area.

If you are visiting the Historic Seaport District in Key West for boat trips and excursions it does have a car park, which is $2.50 an hour, but there is one round the corner on Greene Street which is $15 all day.

Key West is only 4miles long by 2miles wide and a way lots of people choose to get around is by hiring bicycles and scooters.

So after our boat trip was cancelled we decided to pack up and move onto our next hotel which was situated in Islamorada, Mile 84, Harbour Lights.

We tried to check into our hotel at 1.30pm but they turned us away for being too early and so we decided to go to The Theatre of the Sea which was half a mile from the hotel. The Theatre of the Sea is another centre to visit dolphins, sealions and other marine animals. It’s $29 for adults and $21 for under 12s. Here you can swim with dolphins, sealions, sting rays and feed turtles and sharks and paint with dolphins and sealions. If you purchase one of the animal encounters your admission is included in the price. If you just pay for general admission you get to see 2 hours worth of shows an tours with the animals as well as looking around the whole park in which they have a mini beach area where you can go snorkelling with tropical fish. We had a really nice afternoon there, however if I were to pay for the animal encounters I would do it at the Dolphin Research Centre as they seemed a lot better.

We were all pretty tired after this so we went back to the hotel to check in again. The Harbour Lights hotel is right on the road of the overseas hwy and I paid £60 for one night. It has been my least favourite hotel of my whole trip, that’s not to say its bad but it offered the least to its guests and felt quite run down. The rooms had two small double beds, a table and chairs as well as a kitchenette all in one room. It was quite dated. There was a small swimming pool and nice outdoor decking area with hammock. You could also hire kayaks $25 for 4 hours. The rooms didn’t have the Internet and there was no breakfast. This is fine for an overnight stay but I wouldn’t want to stay any longer. I preferred the Marathon area which is only another 25 miles back down.

Marathon to Key West.

So we’ve reached mile 0 and I’m exhausted and have to be up early for a boat trip so I’m going to try to keep this brief.

We left our hotel in Marathon early to get to Big Pine Key to visit the key deer refuge in which miniature deer roam around the roads. You want to drive SLOWLY up key deer blvd and keep you eyes ‘banana peeled’ as Faye would say, for the deer which walk along the side of the road. There is a visitors centre, but we couldn’t go in as it shuts at the weekend, but half way up key deer blvd on the left hand side is a few parking spaces and you can get out and wander around. We managed to see four deer. It said on the Internet to go early as they don’t like the heat.

We then backtracked to Mile 37, Bahia Honda Key, wow! This is a three mile park with beaches along as well as the old railway line. You can walk to the end of the line and look directly down at the drop into the clear blue sea. The beaches here are beautiful and warm. You can dip in the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. After a few hours in the sea we jumped into the car and drive onto Key West to our next hotel which took around 45 minutes.

Here we’re staying at The Inn at Key West. It was £95 a night, the most expensive, but it seemed they all were expensive in Key West. The hotel was lovely and had a fab swimming pool and bar/cafe. Wifi, fridge, tv, DVD player, iron and two large double beds.

After having a swim at the hotel and before Faye shrivelled up completely from all the water we headed out into Key West. We went to the Southernmost Point and took some photos. Be prepared to queue here as its something like the 3rd most photographed place in the US. We then went to Mile 0 for a few snaps and then headed to our sunset boat ride where we were having dinner. We got the boat trip for $10 in with another boat trip we are doing tomorrow, we hadn’t planned it, we just did it as it was cheap. Normally it’s $60 a head. We had a nice two hours on there and the buffet dinner was okay but I wouldn’t have been impressed if I paid $60 for it.

Well that wasn’t brief…

Goodnight!