We have just spent 2 days travelling to Thailand – 3 flights, one to Beijing, one to Hong Kong and one to Bangkok, with out luggage not being transferred and boarding passes not printed off and not enough cash money to enter Thailand (details in next blog!) – so I thought it was a good time for to write about our past month and a half in North America, as some sort of conclusion to this part of the trip, but also to express my feelings about the place, the people, the transports, the food, etc. So be ready to read about airports and airlines, buses and train station, restaurants and cafes, places to see and places to avoid… In other words, my guide to North America in a month, full of tips and advice which I hope will be useful to you, dear reader.
Tip number 1 – Fly for cheap.
We decided to fly from London Gatwick to New York JFK for two reasons. The first one is that flights from London Gatwick are very cheap, amongst the cheapest in Europe, AND there are plenty of cheap flights with Ryan Air or Easy Jet to get you there from home (or close). If you are travelling from the UK, don’t bother with a flight and book a ticket with National Express or Megabus at least a month in advance and you’re all set (if you have only one check-in bag, otherwise you have to pay extra and that sucks a bit).
The second reason to fly from London to NYC is that from New York you can fly virtually anywhere for relatively cheap, using Southwest Airline, Delta or Air Canada (amongst others). I will give you our airline review(s) further on. But from New York you can also grab cheap buses (and when I say cheap, I mean it, $3 NYC to Washington DC if you book with Megabus 2 months in advance). For us the best experience was with BoltBus, but you also have Megabus, Greyhound and so many other companies worth checking. If leaving New York, don’t forget to check out Chinatown buses, which are also really cheap.
Regarding airlines, last year with my parents I flew with American Airlines, and we didn’t like it. The food is not nice (on the flights we actually got food), we were extremely cold, even with blankets and sweaters.
Southwest Airline is based on you get what you pay for. So the flights are very cheap – even last minute – but you don’t get any service onboard, just like Ryan Air basically (minus the scratch cards).
Norwegian Airline is one of my favourite airline. You get to choose your food online and they cater for all dietary requirements – even vegan, lactose free and gluten free. They have good entertainment onboard, good list of movies, TV shows and music, and their safety announcement video is hilarious, as in sassy and sarcastic. We loved it.
Delta is not my favourite airline but it’s not too bad. You do get a drink onboard, and the entertainment is okay. It’s just that kind of airline that tries to get your money. They overbook many of their flights, and then ask for “volunteers” to exchange their flights for an other one, in exchange for a free hotel room and $800 voucher to spend on domestic Delta flights in the next year. It’s basically their way to make sure all flights are booked – good marketing strategy, I’ll give you that.
Air Canada was a very good airline to fly with. Good beverage, food and entertainment onboard. Really cool safety video – again – very funny and made for you to keep looking and learning the procedures whilst having fun. Our flight to Vancouver was one of the best flights I have had I think.
Tip number 2 – Planning key places.
Of course there are probably hundreds (or thousands) of places you want to see in North America. Amongst them, New York, San Francisco, Montreal, New Orleans, Vancouver, Grand Canyon I suppose? And probably so many more, like Alaska, Yellowstone, the Mississippi… Maybe Seattle? Toronto? The Great Lakes? The Niagara Falls? Right, I’ll stop here. It is important, when planning your trip to North America, that you pinpoint what you really want to see, and what makes sense in the amount of time you have. I will be honest here, there is no point going to Yosemite for 2 days. I have done it and it broke my heart because of how gorgeous it is and how I wished I would never ever leave.
So my big advice here is to a) make a list of what you want to see, and then sort out the places you can tackle that only need a couple of days, as opposed to places where you would need at least 4 days.
Once you have a list of 2-days-worth places, b) check out on skyscanner the prices of flights from places to places. Try different combinations, don’t be scared to try big distances, because sometimes it is cheaper to fly across country with two flights than to fly from a nice expensive city to an other.
My final advice: c) if you have time left, include one or two of the destinations where you would need more time. When you are on the road (or in the air) for so long, it is nice to have at least one relatively long period of time in one place. I am now going to give you our itinerary for this trip so that these pieces of advice make sense to you.
We flew from Montpellier, France to London Gatwick, UK on the 5th September 2014. Then we flew to NYC JFK on the 6th September. (9 days in New York) We got a BoltBus to Washington, D.C. on the 15th. (4 days in D.C.) We got a lift from Dennis’s cousin to Charlottesville, VA on the 19th. (7 days in Charlottesville) We got the Amtrak from Charlottesville back to D.C. on the 26th of September and from there took a Greyhound bus to Philadelphia where we spent one evening in the city itself (we had a wedding the next day). (2 days in Philadelphia) We flew from Philly to Detroit and from Detroit to San Francisco on the 28th of September. (8 days in California). We took buses to go down to the Redwoods around Santa Cruz (5 days there) and then took buses back to San Francisco where we spent 3 days. We flew from San Francisco to Vancouver, B.C. on the 6th of October. (7 days in Vancouver) We got time to explore the Sunshine Coast, west of Vancouver. We took a BoltBus from Vancouver to Seattle on the 13th of October. (1 full day in Seattle) We flew out to Beijing then Hong Kong then Bangkok on the 15th-17th of October.
As you can see according to this schedule, we managed to find a nice balance between places where you can spend one or two days and then bugger off somewhere else, and places where we wished to spend more time. Last year, when we went for a road trip in the South west of the US, we did the same thing, but focused on a smaller area. I’ll say it one more time, it is important that you keep a realistic plan for your trip.
If your trip is too intensive with too much transportation involved, you’ll get tired of buses and flights and you won’t really see anything outside of airport gates. You will have time to come back, and explore more. Remember, we are discussing a 6-weeks (tops) adventure to North America, not 3 years there. I’ll give you an example before moving on: my dream is to go Alaska. I have been to the USA 3 times so far, and never went. Why? Simply because there is a lot of things I want to see before I focus a month or two of my time just on Alaska (which I will do one day). I also want to make sure I am ready and fit enough. I want to make sure I know enough about the area, etc.
So think twice, thrice before you make the final call. Think and research your trip! Make sure it mirrors YOU and not your Lonely Planet guide. Make sure it fits your rhythm and your life style. Plan to spend two days in Seattle if you like local beers and tasty coffee. Ensure to spend 3 days in D.C. If you like art and history. Maybe take only 2 or 3 days for New York if you’re not that much into main cities and allow yourself 2 or 3 days in Montreal? I hear the street art in amazing there. Anyway, you get my point.
Tip number 3 – Allowing time to go with the flow (last minute decisions are cool!).
I am myself a planning addict – I love booking flights and browsing AirBnB whilst messaging people on couchsurfing – but there is nothing better than knowing that you are in control of your trip. And sometimes – actually most of the time – being in control means that you can hop out of a plan if you wish to. Let me give you an example: we had a backcountry permit booked for Golden Ears Provincial Park, near Vancouver. It was difficult for us to get there without a car and there is no facilities or running water there. It seemed very complicated. So when we were offered to stay in a cabin in the Sunshine Coast instead, we changed our plan. And it doesn’t matter we “lost” $50 of backcountry reservation, because we got to see something else, we got to be in complete control of our adventure. And that is worth a lot more than money.
To go with the flow, I have two advices for you: download the Couch Surfing app and sign up for it, then look up events happening at your current location and GO THERE. Go out there meet people. It doesn’t matter if you are travelling alone or as a couple or with friends. Go out there share a pint with some strangers. And listen to what they have to tell and teach you. You might decide to take a day adventure to that hidden beach they told you about! Or you might want to go to that general store that rents canoe for barely any money.
My second advice is to NOT STAY IN HOTELS. At least as much as you can. Couch surfing is obviously awesome but more and more used – and abused. AirBnB is a pretty good solution if you pick the good people to stay with. Check out our previous blogs for previous AirBnB experiences and make your own mind. Usually staying at an AirBnB gives you more of an insight on local life, and when you travel, that is what you want to experience, not touristy places full of made in China T-shirts for $30.
[I used to be very stressed about travelling. I used to have everything planned ahead (months ahead) and be uncomfortable if I didn’t have a list of restaurants where to eat every day. Now I am on my way to Bangkok blogging about this trip. I have no idea where I am sleeping tonight and I only have 5 pair of panties left in my bag. But I am loving it, I am loving the freedom of letting go. It’s nice to have key things planned, but it’s even nicer to accept a challenge and dive into the unknown. So go ahead, let go, and learn to go with the flow.]
Tip number 4 – People
As of everywhere, there are some nice people and some sketchy people out there. I am not telling you to beware of everyone, but you never really know who you are talking to. Chances are your campground neighbour is a nice guy who’ll give you a ride to your bus stop, but you don’t know who is at the bus stop, what they want to know, or else. We have met some strange people in a month and a half of travelling, and we have made up our own code. We have a special word that we include in a sentence if we feel that we are in a bit of a sticky situation or that the person talking to us is slightly weird-ing us out. I would advise you to make up a signal like that if you are travelling with people. It’s handy. That said, 99% of the people we have met so far in our travels are great people. Some of them we exchange facebook and email and blog with. Travelling allows you to meet people you would have never met otherwise, so enjoy it! But always remember: you can never trust someone 100%, so keep your eyes open, no matter how nice and welcoming the person seems. My motto is: trust your instinct.
Tip number 5 – My favourite places (so far) in North America.
I would love to make a restaurants & cafes list, but I need our scrapbook for that, and it is in the check-in bag, so I’ll dedicated a whole post to that later on. So here is the list of my favourite places in North America, so far (I really haven’t been to many places, but I can still advise you about some stuff!). I hope it will help you select key places to fly to. Oh and they are places that do not require a car to get to. Otherwise the list would be endless!
- Fremont neighbourhood, Seattle, WA Really something not to miss if you like relaxed areas, the nice type of hipster area, with good home made, local food and things. In Fremont, there’s art, there’s food, there’s shopping, there’s music, there’s everything. It is really one of the best places I have ever been. I am not a city girl. I grew up in a village, but in all honesty: I could live there.
- Yosemite, CA There are buses going to Yosemite and it is obviously worth staying a few days. There are easy and hard hikes to do, a good grocery shop and good campgrounds. There is even a wifi room if you really need Internet. Yosemite is one of my favourite places because of how beautiful it is. I am not going to spoil the surprise: just go there, outside of very touristy periods, and go explore the park. It is absolutely magnificent.
- Brooklyn, NYC Of course it is the most hipster place probably in the whole world, but is such a good area to wander in, especially Buschwick. If you like street art and locally made (hand made) things, this is the place to go. Of course you will find some annoying hipsters all dressed in Fred Perry and wearing converse, but you will also meet fantastic people. I can’t recommend enough to take a guided graffiti tour of the area.
- The redwoods (Big Basin or Henry Cowell), Santa Cruz, CA There is something about the redwoods that is both mystical and ancient and it really shouldn’t be avoided in your tour. From San Francisco you can take the train to San Jose then the bus 17 and then 35 to Felton. It is easy enough to reach, let alone if you have your own car. This area is fantastic, and great for local organic food as well. Read our blog about the Redwoods to get more of an insight on the area!
- Stanley Park, Vancouver, B.C. I was about to put the Sunshine Coast, but it is not the easiest place to reach – although the ferry ride is breathtaking. You will need a day to get there: get the bus to Horseshoes Bay, hop in the ferry (CAN$15) to Langdale, then get onto bus route 1 or 90. At Sechelt mall, get some groceries and then get onto bus route 4 going to Halfmoon Bay. The whole area is breathtaking. Don’t forget to ask for a transfer ticket so you pay for the bus only once. Anyway! Stanley Park in Vancouver is a great place to wander around. There is cultural stuff, a great view on the Vancouver skyline, totem poles, cafes and restaurants (with beer!), … If you have to see one thing in Vancouver, it is that place.
- The Mission, San Francisco, CA I love California and I love San Diego and San Francisco, but I have to make a choice… And it will be the Mission neighbourhood in SF. Take the Bart to the Mission, grab brunch at Bungaloos and go wander in the small alleys to take a peak at the street art. Then enjoy some Mexican food and go sit at Dolores Park with some fresh home made smoothie or ice cream. I promise you’ll spend an amazing day, and you will make your camera/Instagram happy.
- The Smithsonian museums, Washington, D.C. I am not an Art geek, but I do enjoy accessible, beautiful art, and this is what you’ll find there. We spent 4 hours in the Portrait and Art Gallery and it felt like half an hour. It is something to see in D.C., if you have to pick. Although the Lincoln Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial are pretty awesome too.
- Salvation Mountain, Niland, CA. That I am not sure there is a bus to go to (you might have to do some walking) but if you like unusually places, you cannot miss it. If you have seen or read Into the Wild, you have seen or read about Salvation Mountain – more of a heap of clay and hay than a mountain – painted with all the colours of the rainbow in honour of God and the love he has for us all. No need to be religious to go there, it is really a breathtaking place, for the vibe, for the pictures, for the talk with the volunteers… For everything. Just go there.
- Bodo’s Bagels, Charlottesville, VA. For the best – the best – bagels ever. And dirt cheap. Two places not to miss if you have a car: Antelope Canyon, UT and Death Valley, NV. Absolutely breathtaking places that I am so glad I have been to. Obviously I would recommend Yellowstone even if I have never been there. From what I have seen from my friends’ travels, it is fantastic (definitely on my bucket list, next to Alaska and a Canadian road trip from east to west!).
Hope that helps!