Southern Yacht

My little take on plus size fashion, life, travel and smurfs

Monday 30 September 2019

Planning an American road trip - some hints and tips

Carhenge, Alliance, Nebraska

Earlier this year we headed over to America for a three week holiday. It sounds very extravagant (and there was a LOT of saving involved) but with a bit of careful planning, we managed to keep costs down wherever possible. I thought I'd share some of the things we've learnt over the years in the hope it might help or inspire you to do something similar (and a bit of a disclaimer - this isn't our first road trip - to date we've visited 38 states so this is just what works for us, not everyone is the same or likes the same things).

First of all, before we even booked the flights, we sorted out the visa. Depending on where you are when you read this, you'll likely need a visa of sorts to visit. Here in the UK we were able to apply for an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) which is valid for 2 years and allows visitors to travel to the US on the Visa Waiver Program. But remember to check your passport expiry dates. Generally it's recommended to have 6 months on your passport when travelling. I didn't so had to renew my passport, before even applying for an ESTA. When you're ready, don't go via an agency as it's cheaper to apply direct ($14 per person when we did it). Most times, applications are accepted straight away. Sometimes though you have wait 48hrs or so for approval (this always happens to me!).

Scottsbluff National Monument, Nebraska

Once you've got that - you're good to go! But before you rush out and book that flight for your dream road trip you might want to plan a few things. Our checklist looks something like this:

How much can you afford? Be realistic - you have to remember to allow for the flights (and all their hidden costs) accommodation, food, travel insurance, airport parking and transfers, car hire (and any extra insurance you add onto that) as well as spending money for that essential holiday souvenir. When you factor in tips, the cost of ESTAs and possible passport renewals - it quickly adds up.

Also credit cards - if you're travelling with another person and both have a card it can ease those awful 'Help! My cards stopped working moment' (which happened to us this year) plus it's extra backup in case you lose one.

How long have you got?
It sounds ideal to book three weeks off, but realistically, most people will have a fortnight. Plus you'll need a day or so after you get back to recover from jet lag and tackle the washing (seriously - why is there so much washing after a holiday!).

Also driving times - it can be tempting to pick up the car and head off into the sunset, but you'll need to come back at some time. We normally mark a halfway point in the holiday where we're heading back towards to the airport so make sure you allow enough time for that.

Behind the wheel, and our favourite restaurant

Are you confident drivers? Try to work out how much you'd be happy to drive in a day. America is vast compared to the UK and unless you're happy to have occasional days where you're driving for up to 6 hours or more, then it might be wise to narrow down where you want to go. If more than one of you is confident to drive it shares the load and takes the pressure off the main driver. For us, the other half likes to do the big long hauls during the day whereas I do the shorter drives in the evening/night time and that works fine.

Think also about the type of car you want. Chances are you'll be driving in safe areas, but sometimes you just want to blend in without shouting 'hey, look I'm a tourist'. You also want a car that's the right size for you! We normally opt for a compact car (as it's the cheapest option for just two people) and resist the inevitable hard sell at the rental desk to upgrade. This year when collecting our car, the agent behind the desk tried to tell us that the car we had chosen was too small to drive across state. That was until we pointed out that a small car in the US is bigger than a family car in the UK. We stuck with our 'small' car and it fitted 3 large suitcases plus hand luggage easily in the boot with room to spare.

Our rental car in the hotel car park

Plan your route
When you hire a car, chances are you'll return it to the same place, but you don't have to. Look at the options your rental company offers. Some will offer free pick-ups and returns at different locations (even different states), other times there'll be a charge. Balance up the costs against where you want to go and how much in time it will save, how much more you could see etc. In the past we're done both options. This year, we collected a car in Denver and headed east out through Nebraska then west back to Denver via Kansas. It was a big loop that worked for us. And as I mentioned above - think about how much driving you're happy to do. A short distance on the map can actually take hours in real life.

Be prepared
Most rental cars will have the option of hiring a sat-nav. You could save money by bringing your own or download the relevant maps onto your phone beforehand. Or you could even go old school like we did and use paper maps only (which always seems to amuse and worry the car rental people in equal measures!).

A four way junction - thankfully quite empty

Be prepared (as prepared as you can be) for the quirks of US driving. The turning right on a red light always seems slightly bizarre but is important to learn as is the no passing of a school bus when stopped. A bit of time spent online will help you get to grips as rules can vary from state to state. There's plenty of sites online that will help you adjust. I also make sure I have the number of the breakdown company when I collect the car and a spare power pack or two for the phone in case of emergencies.

Filling stations are always fun (possibly said tongue in cheek). Some of our most interesting moments have occurred while trying to get fuel. Nowadays, the majority accept credit cards, but in the more remote areas, you'll need to put in a zip code if you want to pay at the pump, which you obviously don't have. No worries, a quick trip into the garage normally sorts that - except that it's not quick if you're in a very rural location. Inevitably they'll want to know where you're going, where you've been, why you're here, and if you're very lucky, what do you think of Trump... We've really met the funniest, warmest people this way. It can turn a quick stop into a 30 minute layover though!

The Sinclair dinosaur - seen at Sinclair garages across America

And last but not least - accommodation. This is so personal to everybody that I'm not going to say a lot - just what we do. We are signed up for every loyalty card / membership programme going for all the major hotels. This is a huge saving for us as we can book free nights, get members rates etc. We like to book in advance and know a room is waiting for us at the end of a long day. In the past we've just turned up and booked on the day, but with better internet access it's now just easier to book online and amend as you go along.

And that's it - some of my hints and tips for a road trip in America. Hope it helps and can't wait to start planning the next one!



Tuesday 17 September 2019

Townhill Park House and Gardens open day

Townhill Park House and Gardens

There's a little hidden oasis in the middle of Southampton. I've walked past it, driven past it and even flown over it but until this weekend, I'd never set foot in it. What am I talking about? Townhill Park House and Gardens. Now part of The Gregg School, the gardens are only open to the public four days a year and the house one day a year.

The house has an interesting history. Formerly the home of Lord & Lady Swaythling, it has entertained royalty, been a convalescent home for British and American Soldiers during WWII, a home for underprivileged children, a base for marine cadets and since 1994, has been the home of The Gregg School.

Townhill Park House and Gardens

On Sunday 15th as part of the Heritage Open Days, the house was open for guided tours. As you toured the house, students from the school were on hand to tell you about the history. It might just be me, but I was quite amused at the thought of present day students learning algebra in the former Lady Swaythling's bedroom!

There was also a classic car display plus entertainment from Uke Box Gory (a ukulele band) and bell ringing from the Bishops Bells. I even got a chance to get hands on and try a bit of bell ringing for myself. It's safe to say that I gave an interesting performance...!

Classic cars at Townhill Park House and Gardens

Uke Box Glory at Townhill Park House and Gardens

Finally, we went for a lovely stroll around the grounds. The gardens are designed by Gertrude Jekyll, one of England's finest garden designers. I was amazed to learn though that she never actually visited in person. All of her designs were done from plans.

Townhill Park House and Gardens

Townhill Park House and Gardens

Townhill Park House and Gardens

Townhill Park House and Gardens

Townhill Park House and Gardens

Townhill Park House and Gardens

It's so hard to believe all of this is so close to me yet I've never seen it before. In previous years, I've always been away on holiday or working on previous open days. This time though it was perfect timing with the best weather. I'm already looking forward to going back in March to see the daffodil displays.

Townhill Park House and Gardens

Thanks for reading


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