Tag: San Diego

Route One – Day Three: SANTA BARBARA TO SAN DIEGO

We’ve now made it down Highway One into Southern California, after starting in San Francisco, winding our way through Big Sur and staying in San Simeon!! Click here, if you missed that part.

We then went from San Simeon, via San Luis Opismo and Solvang to reach Santa Barbara – you’ve guessed it, hit the link if you want to read that page.

Now onto the third and final day of our trip along the Pacific Coast Highway: Santa Barbara to San Diego!!

10.30am – Leave El Capitan Canyon (You should leave at 9.30am)

We left late every morning. Don't do that. Leave on time or leave early!!!

We left late every morning. Don’t do that. Leave on time or leave early!!!

Ok, we really couldn’t leave on time, whatever day it was!

We were aiming for 10am but still left half an hour late. It was Alicia’s birthday though, so we treated ourselves to a relaxing breakfast at the Canyon Market!

We had a great night’s sleep. It was lovely to wake up in the middle of nowhere but still be able to charge our phones and have a shower without leaving our lodge.

The lodge is quite basic but it has everything you need, including an alarm clock, microwave and those little toiletries that you usually get in a hotel.

You could probably leave at 10am and make it to San Diego in good time but we’d suggest leaving at 9.30am (or earlier) so that you don’t feel rushed.

Santa Barbara is a beautiful city – and there’s lots to do, including its famous zoo – but we didn’t stop there as wanted to get some miles under our belts before we stopped again.

As it was our last day with the car, we wrapped the kids up in the back, slapped on some sun-screen and got the top down on the convertible straight away!

Santa Barbara is the first point where you feel you're really back in the modern world again! Photo by Jw4nvc/Wikimedia

Santa Barbara is the first point where you feel you’re really back in the modern world again! Photo by Jw4nvc/Wikimedia

Route One out of Santa Barbara is also Highway 101 which, by this point, we’d learned meant it was a normal three-lane road and not the road that was winding its way through Big Sur a few days ago!

The Pacific returns into view within half an hour. Here you get a widescreen ocean view, with no mountains or sharp corners to get in the way.

Once you pass Oxnard, you can leave the 101 and get back onto the road we all want to be on again! Almost immediately, Highway One gets straight back to business!

As you hit Point Magu, you get to see the rugged side of Southern California: what it’s lacking in lush vegetation and crashing waves, it makes up with the dusty, cliff-faces, that will be on your left, and the glistening blue water on your right.

12.45pm – Malibu (11.45am for you)

The beach houses are worth millions and are where many of the biggest stars live. Photo by BriYYZ on Flickr.

The beach houses are worth millions and are where many of the biggest stars live. Photo by BriYYZ on Flickr.

You probably know this already, but you won’t see any famous film stars wandering the streets or buying milk in Hollywood or LA because most of them actually live in Malibu.

The small-ish houses – and garages – that you’ll see on your right as you drive through Malibu, are actually worth millions and owned by some very famous people.

The general rule is, the more solid the gate, the more famous the person will be (you’ll see more of these before you hit the busy part of Malibu).

We were hoping to stop for lunch at one of the beaches in Malibu but the kids were still asleep.

By the time we thought we’d wake them up, we saw a sign for a beach called Paradise Cove, which we now know is the place they filmed Lethal Weapon, American Pie and this Britney Spears video, to name a few.

They wanted $40 to park there, so I did a U’y and we carried on.

In researching this article, I’ve found out that if you spend over $30 in the cafe, you get a rebate and only have to pay $6 for parking.

So, it could could be a pretty cool place for you to stop and have lunch!

Malibu detours

Paramount Ranch is still used as a film set but not as much as in its' heyday. It's free to visit. Photo by edward stojakovic on Flickr. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Paramount Ranch is still used as a film set but not as much as in its’ heyday. It’s free to visit. Photo by edward stojakovic on Flickr. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

If you want to stop without spending any money, it would’ve been best to pull into one of the lay-bys before you get to downtown Malibu.

The side of the road gets busy when there’s access to a beach, so if you spot a space and can pull in safely, go for it! (FYI – The beach scene in Grease – and loads of other movies – were filmed at Leo Carrillo State Park, where you should be able to pull this trick).

Want to feel like you’re in a movie and don’t mind a 25min detour? Paramount Ranch is in the hills above Malibu (turn left after Point Dume beach) which is where some of the biggest films of the 1920s were filmed.

Today, you can visit the Old Western Town, which was used in Dr Quinn Medicine Woman but the ranch has recently been used as a location, more recently, in American Sniper, Van Helsing, The X-Files, Scream and…Norbit (somehow, not that I’ve seen it but it does seem strange).

It has free parking and picnic tables, so this could work for you.

The Getty Villa is a great place to stop for a bit of culture (and lunch) in Malibu.

The Getty Villa is a great place to stop for a bit of culture (and lunch) in Malibu.

If you want some culture, The Getty Villa is a great place to stop.

You’ve already seen what one rich American tycoon can build – up at Hearst Castle –  why not visit the property which Jean-Paul Getty made, to house his Greek and Roman collections?!

It’s been built in the style of a Roman villa and it’s simply stunning. I found the Roman architecture and history more interesting and beautiful than most of the antiquities inside it.

We went there a few years ago, so it wasn’t on our itinerary for this trip.

It’s free to visit but parking is $15. I think we got round it in a couple of hours and you can have lunch there, too.

2pm – Los Angeles (1pm for you)

Santa Monica is a great place to stop for lunch or have a wander along the pier.

Santa Monica is a great place to stop for lunch or have a wander along the pier.

Ok, you will probably have lunch in Malibu but we didn’t so we’ll keep the itinerary going as it happened for us so it doesn’t get too confusing!

This is definitely the most urban part of the whole drive. It is Los Angeles, after all, so what did you expect?!

You don’t get great views of the ocean for most of this section but you’re only a couple of minutes away from a beach at every moment.

As you’re choosing to do Route One, this probably isn’t your first trip to California and you’ve probably already “done” LA so I’m not going to go into all of the things you could do in the city, here. I’ll mention a few places on Route One though, just in case though.

Santa Monica is the first place you’ll drive through, after Malibu.

If you’ve only been to Venice Beach on previous trips, it’s definitely worth stopping and – at least – having a walk along the pier, which feels a lot like being on Brighton Pier with all of the rides and attractions! That might be because it’s the oldest pleasure pier on the West Coast.

It’s also home to the world’s first solar-powered Ferris Wheel.

Venice Beach promenade is an experience like no other! Look out for Muscle Beach, too! Photo by Sidvic/Wikimedia

Venice Beach promenade is an experience like no other! Look out for Muscle Beach, too! Photo by Sidvic/Wikimedia

Next up is Venice Beach, which is famous for its lively atmosphere and “interesting” mix of people. You’ve probably already been there, as most people go there on their first trip to LA, but if you haven’t, this is home to Muscle Beach and worth a wander around.

Route One moves inland for a while. You’re on normal roads with the rest of LA.

Yes, it’s just like being in any city but it’s a good point to stop and think about how the Pacific Coast Highway has changed over the past three days – the places you’ve been, the buildings and people you’ve seen – it’s quite a ride!

You soon end up at the airport! And not just driving past LAX, you go under the famous bridge which jumbo jets are casually driving across!

After the airport, you’re back on the coastal route and the beach cities of Hermosa and Redondo. This is where we ended up eating our lunch, in the end!

2.15pm – Lunch and onwards (1.15pm for you)

LA driving is always very slow so make sure you try just go with the flow...of the traffic, otherwise you might crash!

LA driving is always very slow so make sure you try just go with the flow…of the traffic, otherwise you might crash!

We left it late. Very late to stop off for food. Please don’t report us to children’s services!

The kids woke up near LAX and we knew we had to pull over straight away. We stopped at Hermosa Beach and grabbed a deli sandwich from a supermarket and ate it on the beach. It was nice but not what we’d planned at all!

We got back into the car an hour later (3.15pm) and we were faced with a dilemma. It was Alicia’s birthday and we promised to meet all of her family and friends in San Diego for a special dinner. We had to be on time or we’d be really late!

We had two options: a) continue along Route One and hope we made it; or b) get onto the motorway and definitely make it back.

Option B was the sensible route, which we took, but it might’ve been a mistake!!

Rush hour was on its way, and there was an accident, so we crawled for an hour on the freeway before hitting San Diego County and finally picking up some speed.

If we’d stayed on Route One, we’d have got to Long Beach half an hour later. We’d then have the beautiful ocean for company, as we made our way through Orange County and on to Dana Point – the official end of Route One – about an hour-and-a-half after that.

4.45pm – Dana Point (4.15pm for you)

Dana Point is the official start of Highway One! Photo by Dr Warner on Flickr.

Dana Point is the official start of Highway One! Photo by Dr Warner on Flickr.

**If we’ve confused you with timings now, the time for you (above) assumes you had a one hour stopover in Hermosa beach with us, but you got there an hour earlier at 1.15pm, so you get back driving again at 2.15pm.  In reality, you’d have stopped in Malibu but this is the one hour break we needed to put into your itinerary!**

So, Route One officially finishes at Dana Point but the Historic 101 continues down to San Diego.

If you’re going the full stretch, via the Interstate or coastal road, you HAVE to take the motorway (I-5) for 27 miles (25 minutes) at Dana Point.

We took the Interstate all the way down to San Diego and got there at exactly 6pm (yay, we weren’t late!) but, the route in our video (uploading soon!) which goes through San Diego County’s beach towns, should work if you left that hour earlier than us. We go back soon to get the exact timings for you, though!

You’ll see signs for the “Coast Highway” again as you approach Oceanside on the freeway. If you stay on the motorway, you’re about 45 minutes from Downtown San Diego but on the 101 it’ll take you twice that.

Oceanside

Oceanside will be your first port of call. It has the longest wooden pier (over water) on the West Coast, which has great sea views – and a lovely Ruby’s Diner at the end of it! Just make sure you plan enough time to walk the pier – it’s a half-a-mile round trip!

Just up from the pier is the famous house from Top Gun. You know, the one that Tom Cruise visits Kelly McGillis and they become silhouettes and move in slow motion to Take my Breath Away!  😉

It’s the only house at 102 Pacific Street. This is because the block has been bought by a developer and is due to be turned into a hotel.

Fear not, Top Gun fans, they’re going to move the Victorian house to another location while the hotel is built and then place is onto the exact same spot! See it in the original location while you can!

The house has been restored and painted (not sure why they didn’t go for the same colours that were in Top Gun) and there’s a fence around it to stop it from being vandalised. But, you can still get photos and pretend to be Tom Cruise, jumping off his Harley!

Oceanside wouldn’t have been a place to stop in the 1980s but it’s been regenerated over the past decade with a big new cinema, some great restaurants and bars, plus it’s home to the California Surf Museum.

Check out the Craft Beer scene here, too: Stone has an awesome shop with the coolest beer garden I’ve ever been in, and there are also microbreweries at Bagby, Breakwater, the Surfside Tap Room and, of course Oceanside Ale Works, if you want a tour of their brewery.

Carlsbad & Encinitas

You'll drive under this sign if you take the 101 down to San Diego! Photo by Mike Fairbanks

You’ll drive under this sign if you take the 101 down to San Diego! Photo by Mike Fairbanks

The beautiful sandy beaches continue into Carlsbad. You might come back here for Legoland or the Outlet Village, which has some great brands…and prices.

Encinitas is a beach town which is so famous for its surfing, that the Beach Boys name-checked Swami’s Beach, in Surfin’ USA!

Away from the rugged and more hidden surf spots is Moonlight Beach which is a family friendly beach with volleyball areas and a park for kids.

There are some great places to eat and drink in along the 101, here.

The shops are as cool as the residents so it could be a great place for an evening meal without even having to leave the road.

La Jolla

Finish your Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip next to the rock pools and wildlife at La Jolla Cove. Photo by Chad McDonald/Flickr

Finish your Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip watching the sun set next to the rock pools and wildlife at La Jolla Cove. Photo by Chad McDonald/Flickr

Next, the beach towns go very upmarket. Starting with Solana Beach, you’ll then hit Del Mar, which is home to some of San Diego’s richest residents, plus the city’s famous racetrack.

It has an old, colonial feel and you can quickly tell from the boutique shops that this isn’t a cheap place to live.

When you’re sat next to the ocean, a bit like you were in Big Sur, it means that you’re heading into Torrey Pines State Park – which is, yes, the home of the famous golf course!!!

After you pass the PGA course – and check to see if you recognise anyone playing – you’ll descend into La Jolla (pronounced La Hoya, Brits – I called it La Jolly-er for a while!).

It’s Spanish for ‘The Jewel’ and it really does feel like a gem when you’re there.

This is officially where the signs for the Historic 101 end.

Drive on down to La Jolla Cove where you can watch the sunset with the seals on the rock pools.

It’s a perfect place to finish your epic trip. There are loads of restaurants in La Jolla – they’re not all crazily priced – so you can grab some food and a beer – you deserve it!

6pm – San Diego (6.30pm for you – you’re late for once!)

Ok, you’ve made it to La Jolla, which is an awesome part of San Diego to complete the Pacific Coast Highway. But, if you’ve made it in good time and the sun isn’t going to set for another hour, why not go for the big finish?

The Cabrillo Monument is one of the southern-most parts of California, with views of San Diego and nearby Mexico!

It’s the place where the first Europeans landed on the West Coast of America, back in 1542, so it’s a perfect spot to show that you have conquered California, too!

The view of San Diego from the Cabrillo National monument . A perfect place to finish your route to the very south of California and the USA. Photo by Cszmurlo/Wikimedia

The view of San Diego from the Cabrillo National monument . A perfect place to finish your route to the very south of California and the USA. Photo by Cszmurlo/Wikimedia

To get there from La Jolla Cove, follow Prospect Street until you can join La Jolla Blvd. This turns into Mission Blvd and you’ll get a taste of Pacific Beach and Mission Beach.

Follow the signs to Ocean Beach and Point Loma. Take Catalina Drive which takes you to the monument. (It’s $10 to get into the National Park site, but the pass works for a week, so you can come back another day to explore properly).

Drink in that San Diego sunset with the 360 degree views that are available from the Cabrillo peninsula.

ROUTE ONE: DONE, IN STYLE!!!!!

Alicia at the Cabrillo National Monument at one of the most Southern tips of San Diego.

Alicia at the Cabrillo National Monument at one of the most Southern tips of San Diego.

Our verdict

We did the Pacific Coast Highway in three days, with two kids and one red convertible. What would we do differently?

Our timings!! We left late every day. Without any children I think we’d have been more to time but if you’re taking little ones, add an extra half an hour to the start time!

We would also probably do it over four days, rather than three.

It did feel a bit rushed at times, and we only visited one tourist attraction (Hearst Castle). It would also mean that we could start Big Sur earlier in the day and not feel as though we rushed through all of those special scenic spots. (Check out our suggested four-day itinerary at the bottom of this page).

It was a trip of a lifetime, and it felt like that.

We travelled across such varied landscapes, climates and places where the weather, the atmosphere and people changed with every hour that we travelled.

Would we do it again? DEFINITELY!

We have lots of family in Northern California, so we will try flying in there and driving down Route One to San Diego again in the next few years.

We’d love to know if you drive the Pacific Coast using our itinerary – or use parts of it – for your road trip.

Add your views and suggestions in the comments below. We can’t wait to hear from you and hope it helps!

Three Day Itinerary

We’ve spread our road trip itinerary over three pages, which might not be the handiest way to plan your Route One adventure, so here’s our suggested timings for a three day, and then a four day trip.

Day 1

8am – Golden Gate Bridge Photos

9am – Leave Golden Gate Bridge

11.30am – Santa Cruz (lunch/sightsee for two hours)

1.30pm – Leave Santa Cruz

2.30pm – Monterey (you could have lunch/sight-see here instead)

3.30pm – Big Sur (includes 15 minutes stop at Bixby Bridge)

4.15pm – Pfeiffer Beach (45 min stop)

5pm – Leave Pfeiffer Beach

5.15pm – Nepenthe for dinner (one hour)

6.15pm – Leave Nepenthe

6.30pm – McWay Falls (30mins or later if the sun sets at this time for you)

7pm – Leave McWay Falls

8.20pm – Arrive in San Simeon/Cambria

Day 2

10am – Take your tour of Hearst Castle and have lunch (3 hours)

1pm – Leave Hearst Castle

1.15pm – Elephant Seals (15 mins)

1.30pm – Leave Elephant Seals

2.45pm – San Luis Obispo (Madonna Inn rest-stop, he he!)

3pm – Leave SLO

4.45pm – Solvang (45 min break and Danish pastry)

5.30pm – Leave Solvang

6.15pm – El Capitan Canyon (or another place in Santa Barbara)

Day 3

9.30am – Leave Santa Barbara

11.45am – Malibu (lunch and walkabout for 1h 15mins)

1pm – Leave Malibu

2.15pm – LAX

(Stop for 30mins at Huntingdon Beach or wherever you fancy in Orange County)

4.45pm – Dana Point

6.30pm – San Diego (La Jolla)

7.20pm – San Diego (Cabrillo Monument – adjust timings for sunset)

Four Day Itinerary

Day 1

9am – Golden Gate Bridge Photos

10am – Leave Golden Gate Bridge

12.30am – Santa Cruz (lunch/sightsee for two hours)

2.30pm – Leave Santa Cruz

3.30pm – Monterey (Aquarium or wander around, plus overnight)

Day 2

10am – Leave Monterey

11.30am – Arrive at Big Sur (15mins at Bixby Bridge)

12.15pm Pfeiffer Beach (one hour stop)

1.15pm – Leave Pfeiffer Beach

1.30m – Nepenthe lunch (one hour)

2.30pm – Leave Nepenthe

2.45pm – McWay Falls (45mins)

3.30pm – Leave McWay Falls

5pm – Arrive in San Simeon/Cambria

Day 3

10am – Take your tour of Hearst Castle and have lunch (3 hours)

1pm – Leave Hearst Castle

1.15pm – Elephant Seals (15 mins)

1.30pm – Leave Elephant Seals

2.45pm – San Luis Obispo (Madonna Inn rest-stop)

3pm – Leave SLO

4.45pm – Solvang (45 min break and Danish pastry)

5.30pm – Leave Solvang

6.15pm – El Capitan Canyon (or another place in Santa Barbara)

Day 4

9.30am – Leave Santa Barbara

11.45am – Malibu (lunch and walkabout for 1h 15mins)

1pm – Leave Malibu

2.15pm – LAX

(Stop for 30mins at Huntingdon Beach or wherever you fancy in Orange County)

4.45pm – Dana Point

6.30pm – San Diego (La Jolla)

7.20pm – San Diego (Cabrillo Monument – adjust timings for sunset)

House Swap review: what’s it like to do a Home Exchange?

Our holiday/vacation House Swap in California

A few weeks ago, we explained why we wanted to try a Home Swap for the first time and how we made it happen.

It’s not, usually, as simple as grabbing a coffee, jumping on your computer, choosing a house you like the look of and agreeing a deal before your drink’s even cold. It can take some time – and effort – to get seal a deal. So, we went through the process that helped us get two weeks’ “free” accommodation in San Diego.

After spending weeks organising the swaps, flying thousands of miles to California and relying solely on the swappers for shelter when we landed, the big questions everyone asked us when we got home were: was it worth it and what was it like?

You’ve probably watched the video above, which gives you a snapshot but we can go into far more detail in an article.

It begins at home

The House Swap began before we’d even left England. We were in contact with our two swappers through our Home Exchange service (we went with Love Home Swap – you can find out why in this article) but it had been a few months since we’d arranged the exchange.

A few weeks before we were due to fly, an email came in from the family whose home we were going to stay in when we first landed.

Emily and Dan Palmer own their own mortgage planning service (check them out if you want to buy a house in California!) so it wasn’t a surprise when we received an ultra-efficient, and professional looking, attachment from them.

The first house was owned by the Palmer family from Encinitas.

The first house was owned by the Palmer family from Encinitas.

The little booklet had everything we needed to know about staying in their home in Encinitas – from how to get into the house when we arrived, what day the wheelie-bins needed to go out, contact numbers and, how to turn the Home Theatre system on – to the most important piece of info: how to get the Hot Tub going and what temperature it should be!!

This re-assured us that the people – and the house – were genuine and that we wouldn’t have to look for a hotel when we all stumble, jet-lagged, off the plane.

I mean, would criminals go as far as choosing a nice font for the booklet and leaving phone numbers (that we could check), just so they could steal our car and spending money when we arrived at the address they gave us? Don’t answer that!

Anyway, this allayed a lot of fears and we were now starting to get very excited about the trip.

Our La Jolla swappers – the Ferguson family – took a different approach and said they’d love to meet up with us in person to show us around.

It was also their first swap, so I think it was good way to reassure them that we weren’t “crazies” that were going to steal their home, identities and never let them back inside!

Time to fly

A nice babycino in the Airport Lounge before take-off - kids have it so good these days!!

A nice babycino in the Airport Lounge before take-off – kids have it so good these days!!

One of the perks of Love Home Swap was the promise of free Airport Lounge passes when take on their Standard and Platinum level membership levels. This wasn’t a deal breaker for us but it was that extra bit of luxury – a word that doesn’t usually mix with young children – that we could all enjoy before our long flight.

In the main Departures Lounge, the food is always really expensive and seating is cramped so it is always a treat to eat a “free” hot meal, grab some “free” snacks and magazines for the journey and prepare yourself for the storm that’s about to arrive. I’m not sure why I added free in inverted commas, as we didn’t pay for the passes, really!

Unfortunately, despite arriving at the airport three hours early to enjoy the food and facilities in the No.1 Traveller Lounge, we got stuck checking-in for an hour-and-a-half so we were close to not even bothering to go inside!! And believe me, forget having two toddlers waiting in a queue, there’s nothing worse than a delay at check-in when you know there’s sausage and bacon waiting for you on the other side of security! We did, however, manage to get 20 minutes in the Lounge and stuff a bacon sarnie down our throats before we had to board.

Arriving in California

Catching the plane to California!

We survived the Trans-Atlantic flights with our two kids (click here for our tips on flying with babies and toddlers) and were now hugging and greeting Alicia’s family in San Diego Airport’s arrivals lounge. The sun was setting across the bay and we now had a 30 minute drive north to Encinitas where I only had one thing on my mind: “Please let the house exist and not be a scam. We’ve been travelling for 20 hours – I don’t care if the house isn’t that good, just let it be there.”

The nerves really kicked in as we drove into the street. What if there was a family in there, unaware that someone else had put it up for a swap? There were no lights on in the house when we did arrive. The whole road was really dark. This could be good or bad. I got out of the car by myself and slowly walked up to the door which had a tiny, matchbox-style safe where we were told the key would be. I put in the code. It didn’t work. I tried it again. Nothing.

I knew it must be the right house – and why would all of the other instructions be correct, even down to the location of the key? If we did have to get a hotel for the first night, I was confident we’d be able to get in the following day. I tried the code one more time and then slid the button down instead of up, and off came the top of the safe to reveal a shiny silver key!!

I opened the door and turned on the light. This didn’t look like the house that we’d seen in the pictures…it was twice as big!! I ran excitedly back to the car to get the others.

The first swap

The house was so much bigger than we expected!

The house was so much bigger than we expected!

American homes are always bigger than English ones but when you’ve seen the photos of a house you think you’d know what it would look like.

Let’s just say the house was so big that I’d often get annoyed if I left something in the bedroom and I was in the kitchen because it was such a long walk back to pick it up again!

We also decided to put Samantha’s Travel Cot (Pack and Play, for Americans) in one of the walk-in wardrobes in the master bedroom because it was the same size as her room back in England – and it meant that we were less likely to wake her when we went to bed!

The ultra-modern furnishings made the house feel like a boutique hotel but it was still comfortable and very family friendly. It was super-clean and tidy but there were family photos up, which you kind of felt bad looking at, at first because it felt nosey, but it was actually really nice and – I’m not spiritual or into those weird aura things – but it did feel like we were staying in a very happy home.

The house was furnished beautifully - like a boutique hotel.

The house was furnished beautifully – like a boutique hotel.

The trust in the house was amazing: clothes were still in the wardrobes, instead of being hidden somewhere else. Their expensive appliances and even their home office was all open and accessible. There was even loose change left around the house. It felt great that they trusted us so much!

We were always going to treat the house better than our own but the faith they showed in us, made us even more determined to make this happen: to minimise mess/accidents we kept the kids out of the formal lounge area. We also made sure that one of us was with them all of the time, which we wouldn’t do at our home.

What is cooler than a zip line in your garden?

What is cooler than a zip line in your garden?

Not only was the house much bigger than we thought but we’d forgotten that the website showed pictures of the garden, which had a play structure and zip line. It was awesome!

We also forgot about how important toys are for kids. We had brought Dylan and Samantha’s favourite Teddy Bears with them but that was it, really. This house had everything a four-year-old boy could dream of: infinite lego sets, Star Wars toys, dressing up clothes, full pump-action Nerf guns with fully-stocked sponge ammo. The list – and the toys – could go on, which is one reason we ended up only letting him play with certain sets to minimise things getting lost or broken.

In the end, it was Samantha who did the only damage during the swap after she decided to eat Nerf bullets for breakfast. They were quick and easy to replace from the local Walmart…it could have been a lot worse!

Living in Encinitas

Don't worry, Encinitas isn't just a street - there's a beautiful beach and some great surfing spots, including one made famous by the Beach Boys! Name the beach in the Comments section!

Don’t worry, Encinitas isn’t just a street – there’s a beautiful beach and some great surfing spots, including one made famous by the Beach Boys! Name the beach in the Comments section!

We’d visited Encinitas on previous trips to San Diego but we didn’t quite find its charm. We stayed at Alicia’s sister’s house just north of the town and went surfing at a quiet beach which had some steep cliffs watching over us. It didn’t feel like the usual beach towns that were lucky enough to be on Route One.

This time, we saw it through totally different eyes. We were a couple of minutes away from the main street of Encinitas, with its cool cafes and surf-themed shops. We also found the “real” beach, which had car parking, a playground, volleyball courts and lots of space to spread out and enjoy being next to the ocean.

Encinitas is around 40 minutes from Downtown San Diego but the Palmer’s house was just a few blocks from the freeway, so it didn’t hurt that much when we did a long drive.

At first we tried to get out of the house as much as possible so that we didn’t “over-use” the house and so there was less chance we could break anything. But, after a few days we realised that was silly and we were really lucky to be living in such an amazing house so we started trying to use the Hot Tub once a day and invited Alicia’s family over for a BBQ.

What's better than a zip line? Oh yeah, a hot tub!!

What’s better than a zip line? Oh yeah, a hot tub!!

We also got talking to the neighbours, who were really friendly – one had just had a baby. We really enjoyed chatting and meeting up with them every day – we did feel as though we fitted in and it began to feel like our home by the time the week was up. The neighbours said that we reminded them of the Palmers and that we would really get on with them, which was nice to hear.

We had been left instructions on how to leave the house – and how much to pay for a cleaner who would return the house to the exact state that we had left it in.

At the end of the week, we were really disappointed to be leaving but we had a fun trip to Northern California planned – and we knew that we had another swap waiting for us when we came back down to San Diego.

School report One

The Palmer family from Encinitas, San Diego.

The Palmer family from Encinitas, San Diego.

Emily and Dan Palmer have two boys. Hudson, who’s 8, and Wyatt is 4.

They had taken their two kids and RV up to Canada for an extended trip of their own while we were in Encinitas.

We only had to contact them once while we were out there: San Diego had 100 years of July rainfall in one day when we were out there and there was the tiniest leak (an egg cup of water, at most) which we wanted to make them aware of.

I didn’t want to scare them with a phone-call, so just texted, and they were so relaxed and nice about it all. I was so glad that I told them all about it rather than leaving it until they saw a note, no matter how minor the problem was.

This next bit, I’ve left for the Palmers to write about their experience of having us stay at theirs. Fingers crossed they say nice things!

Emily said: “I felt really comfortable doing the House Swap, especially after we chatted via email.

“Our house is kind of built with an indoor/outdoor feel so it’ very tolerant with lots of people and little ones. I’m from a big family and I’ve always thought the more the merrier with friends and entertaining!

The Palmer family went to Canada with our points.

The Palmer family went to Canada with our points.

“We stayed at a beautiful home on the cliffs, right outside of Vancouver, on an island called Bowen Island. We had one of our best, most memorable trips ever – our boys still keep asking when we can go back.

“From our end, the swap was wonderful – you guys were excellent guests.

“I loved communicating with you, before and after and our home looked perfect when we arrived back. Our neighbors loved you – and you brought us thank you gifts – everything went better than expected!

“I love house swapping and we’re planning on being gone even longer than the 30 days we were gone last summer!”

Phew, I think we got away with it!

The Second Swap

As I mentioned before, the owners of the second home in La Jolla wanted to meet up and show us around their house in person.

If you’re not from the UK and don’t follow Very British Problems on Twitter, you might not know how much Brits hate awkward social situations. The idea of having a stranger show another stranger where they were going to eat, sleep and relax in their own home sounded very cringey on paper but in reality, it was really good.

We were all put at ease within seconds when we all quickly realised that everyone was nice and normal and our kids started playing together straight away.

Bob Ferguson owns a successful Building Contracting business, while his partner, Mary, is a Fitness Instructor. They have two children who were the same age as ours when we were out there, which worked really well.

This was Fergusons’  first swap, so they were – quite rightly – anxious about having strangers live in their home so they asked us to sign up to Love Home Swap Security Deposit scheme, in case of any accidents.

The outside BBQ even had a searer for perfectly cooked steak and salmon. I burnt the fish...but check out Ballast Point Sculpin beer when in San Diego!

The outside BBQ even had a searer for perfectly cooked steak and salmon. I burnt the fish…but check out Ballast Point Sculpin beer when in San Diego!

The home exchange service recommends $100 per night, so we were happy and ready to hand over an $800 refundable deposit for our stay. What we weren’t happy about was Love Home Swap’s 10% fee for the privilege of holding our cash – you know how much I like to save money – which was a good percentage of our annual membership fee!

So, when we arranged  the swap, we also agreed to hand over our deposit via cash or a cheque in person – everyone was happy with the outcome. Bob tried to give the cheque back to us that day when he realised we were normal but I insisted he kept it until we had left, for everyone’s peace of mind.

Our visit finished really well – even after Dylan whacked their daughter in the face with a light sabre just as we were about to leave – and we were given the key and told to invite family round to enjoy their amazing outdoor entertaining area.

Living in La Jolla

There's a different place to watch an amazing sunset every night in La Jolla!

There’s a different place to watch an amazing sunset every night in La Jolla!

La Jolla (pronounced La Hoya, Brits) is just 20 minutes from Downtown San Diego and is home to some of the most expensive homes in the world. It all becomes obvious when you see the Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Lamborghini showrooms next to each other. This isn’t your normal beach town.

It’s also very special for its wildlife and village style living. It’s one of the rare towns in California that you can walk everywhere and you don’t need a car. From our house we could walk 15 minutes and be at Windansea beach, which has some great rock-pools to explore. If we walk 15 minutes north, we were at La Jolla Cove, famous for its seals and beautiful wildlife.

At the end of our road was La Jolla Village, which had a supermarket, plus lots of coffee houses, diners, restaurants and the famous Comedy Store (the only one outside of Hollywood).

The house was smaller than the previous one in Encinitas but there was much less to break so we felt as though we could relax a tiny bit more there. Their children were a little smaller, so the toys were also harder to break, which was also a plus! I’d definitely recommend trying to swap with people who are the same age as yours.

Outside living is where it's at in San Diego.

Outside living is where it’s at in San Diego.

The outside areas of the house were stunning. The sofa area on the decking area was perfect for reading a book, with a coffee, while the rest of the family pop to the shops.

The outside kitchen had industry-standard appliances, including a searing grill for steaks and fish. There was a Sonos system to make it feel as though you were in a beach bar. The pizza oven looked great and Bob encouraged me to use it, but it looked waaaay too complicated, even after watching a few YouTube videos. (He’s promised a demo and family pizza night with them, the next time we’re in San Diego!)

The outside kitchen in the house in La Jolla is perfect for entertaining.

The outside kitchen in the house in La Jolla is perfect for entertaining.

It was the perfect base for visiting friends and family, who live further north and south of us, but it also gave us our own space to hang out and have “chill days” where we just hung out, grabbed a coffee and walked around La Jolla, before watching the sunset at the cove.

School report Two

The Fergusons on the rollercoaster outside their Home Swap in Colorado! Photo: Bob Ferguson

The Fergusons on the rollercoaster outside their Home Swap in Colorado! Photo: Bob Ferguson

We were Bob and Mary’s first house swappers but they’ve now swapped three times in six months, including San Francisco and an upcoming trip to Mexico.

They basically won House Swapping with the Points they used from our swap. They recently travelled to Colorado where the resort they stayed at would usually cost $10,000 a night and has some very cool perks.

Mary explained: “We had a blast in Colorado. In Breckenridge, we stayed at a place called One Ski Hill Place. It’s located right on the mountain and had a private bowling alley, which we reserved for just the four of us. It also included ski valet and a private movie theatre where we watched Toy Story!

“If that wasn’t enough, it also had a rollercoaster ride, right in front of the hotel, which takes your around the mountain!”

Bob said: “I have to say, I love this house swapping gig. I just wish I didn’t have to work!”

Verdict

So, there you go. It all went a bit too well. We saved so much money on our trip – and had the “living in another country” experience with all of the comforts of home.

We’re up for House Swapping again soon, and we’ll be sure to let you know how we get on in the future!

If you haven’t read Part 1 of this blog post, click anywhere on this sentence to find our top tips for finding a swap.

 

 

Our first holiday Home Swap – how we saved money and found a new way to travel

Home Swaps are always portrayed as a great idea in blogs, on TV and in films – have you not seen The Holiday? – but it’s not something that the average person ever seems to do and it’s never really caught on, despite the promise of a snog with Cameron Diaz or Jude Law as part of every deal. That could be about to change.

“I don’t really want strangers staying in my house?  No-one will want to swap with our small place? Will the house we’re swapping with even exist when we land? What if our TV and furniture ends up on eBay after featuring in a news report about an illegal rave that happened in the living room?”

Many people don't want to do a House Swap in case their home looks like this when they return

Many people don’t want to do a House Swap in case their home looks like this when they return

These are some of the fears that we had about House Swapping and we put the idea aside for many trips, that was until this year.  You see, we had worked out a way to take six weeks of leave from our jobs so we could have a special summer with my wife’s family in California before our four-year-old started ‘big boy’ school.

Now, we’ve got friends and family that we could stay with in the States, but a month-and-a-half is too long for a family of four to impose on anyone – especially one with a know-it-all toddler with a penchant for danger and a baby heading into her terrible twos, early. That’s before you even factor in the annoying parents!! Finding our own place – even for a few weeks of the trip – was a priority, so that we would still have natives that would speak to us at the end of the trip.

Our initial plan was to spend as little money as we could on the swap, so we posted our request onto Facebook in the hope that some friends-of-friends might want to visit England and let us take over their house for the summer. That would make the swap free and we’d also feel safer because we would “know” the homeowners who would stay at our house.

We had a couple of bites but no firm interest, which was disappointing because I’m really tight, but it made moving to a real House Swap site easier.

Swapping our home swap provider

After admitting defeat in trying to find an exchange independently, we decided to cough up some money for a proper service.

This meant hiding the mountains of toys in the garage, de-cluttering the house and taking snaps to show off our home as best we could. Now we felt confident that we would quickly snag an 18-bedroom Californian mansion with its own swimming pool and bowling alley that you see in the movies.

We found four solid options when looking at Home Swap sites:

Home Link is the original House Swapping organisation. It’s been around for more than 60 years, which means that it was able to make holiday exchanges happen years before the internet was even invented (they did it via a booklet, just so you know). It costs £115 per year in the UK. For some reason, it’s half that ($95) for Americans – why are they so special? I didn’t want to take this further because you couldn’t look at any of the homes until you’ve paid your money. What if they didn’t have many options for us in San Diego and I’ve paid up front? And, we didn’t have the money, or time, to throw away to leave it to chance.

Jude Law and Cameron Diaz in The Holiday. Columbia Pictures/Nancy Meyers

Jude Law and Cameron Diaz in The Holiday. Columbia Pictures/Nancy Meyers

Home Exchange is one of the best-known sites – it’s the one you see Cameron Diaz find Kate Winslet’s house in The Holiday. (Speaking of which, I got chucked off the set by Cameron Diaz when I went to make a TV report on the film being made – I might blog about that in the future, or at least upload the package to YouTube). It’s £100 for the year, which is competitive. It has a great catalogue of homes but there was no free trial, and I wanted to see if I could get the swap done for free!

Knok was my curve-ball. They didn’t come up on many search engines but they were featured in several travel articles, as being family friendly – and also one of the cheapest sites to find a swap.  You can join for free and you only pay (£99) when you find your first home exchange. It sounded fool-proof so we signed up and created our profile. We found a handful of people whose profiles said they wanted a USA to UK swap and messaged them. We sat and waited for a flurry of requests but they never came. The statistics of our house being viewed by members was also very low. I wanted to get the swap arranged as soon as we could so, after two weeks, I decided to go to the other home exchange site that offered a shorter free trial.

Love Home Swap offered a chance to try their service for free for two weeks. The site was easy to use and it seemed like a premium service, especially with its offer of free Airport Lounge passes as part of the membership. There are three tiers, which range from £124 a year to £240, but the extra deals within each level make it worth looking at all three options. It offered a two-week trial, which I wanted, I but I was also impressed with the amount of stylish homes on offer and how user-friendly the site was.

 Free trial? HomesExtrasPrice
Home LinkNO 14,000+Representative in your country to discuss swap£115/$95
Home ExchangeNO65,000 Second year free if you don't find a swap£100/$150
KnokYES25,000Only pay when you find your home exchange£99/$99
Love Home SwapYES75,000Airport Lounge
Buy Points
Concierge service
£124 to £240/$240 to $408

Making the swap happen

First off, Home Swapping is not as fast as Cameron and Kate make it look in The Holiday (clip below). You need to work pretty hard at it.

I’m not afraid to spend a bit of time researching deals, if it saves me a good amount of money, so I was prepared and ready to do what was needed to make it happen.

The free trial went pretty well. Our house was viewed by double the number on the previous site within a couple of days.  I searched for houses in San Diego that were available for our dates and then messaged a few (with huge swimming pools, rock pools and water slides, of course) to show our interest.

A few emailed back straight away, saying that their pool area wasn’t secure for young children, others politely declined because they had no interest in travelling to the UK that summer – or maybe more likely, swapping and staying in our house. Another five or six requests went unanswered – many without being read (a great feature to let you quickly avoid the time-wasters on the site).

This is something you need to get used to because you’ll find this a lot. Some members are probably no longer active, others may not like your home when they see the email sent to them (it’s only considered ‘read’ when you login to the website’s messenger portal), while many others aren’t actively looking for a swap that year so ignore requests until they need somewhere.

Search smarter

Always make sure you’re searching efficiently. Image: lovehomeswap.com

There are some nice search filters on Love Home Swap. I started by widening my desired location to include the whole of San Diego County, which is 50 miles from North to South, rather than 15 miles for San Diego City. I then made sure I had checked the “Bring the kids” and “People who want to visit my location” options.

This brought up some nice, family friendly houses. I sent another ten messages to the homes I was interested in. Of those that emailed back, most said they were looking for a place in London, rather than Hampshire. The others weren’t planning on a trip that year and hadn’t updated their calendars. This took out quite a few potential targets.

Ticking the “Vacation Homes” filter helped because lots of people didn’t want to give up their main home to young families. The houses might be a bit smaller (certainly the opposite in some cases) but I got some near-misses by engaging with people with holiday homes.

However, I wanted to get the deal done before my free trial was up, so I looked around the site and realised there was another option, which I hadn’t considered, that could counter-act one of the biggest reasons for rejection on the site.

You can swap for Points on Love Home Swap so the home-owners don't have to stay at your house. Image: lovehomeswap.com

You can swap for Points on Love Home Swap so the home-owners don’t have to stay at your house. Image: lovehomeswap.

Swapping for Points

Up until now, we’d been searching for a straight swap (we stay at their house, they stay at ours) but Love Home Swap had another really good option: ‘Swap for Points.’ This meant that we could stay at someone’s house but they didn’t necessarily have to stay at ours.

For example, David and Victoria want to swap their London home with Brad and Angelina in Beverly Hills, however Brad and Angelina don’t want to travel to the UK this summer. So, they swap for Points with David & Victoria instead. To gain the points needed, David and Victoria have Barack and Michelle stay at their pad instead – for Points, of course.

It essentially means that members can receive a Points swap request from anyone in the world which could make your dream swap a reality.

How can you get Points to begin the trade, I hear you ask? Well, you are given a certain amount of Points for free depending on the level of membership you pay for. Silver Members get 100 Points (One night) when they sign up; Gold receive 300 (Three nights); and Platinum get 700 (One week).

The whole concept seemed like a no-brainer and I was certain that I would be able to organise a swap with this method. So, I finished my trial early and became a Platinum member, knowing that I would also get: four free Airport Lounge passes, our house pushed harder with a ‘featured listing’ and a concierge service who could do some of the hard work for me. Here are the current prices for each level of membership – there’s usually a good deal for new members so wait, if you don’t see any offers on the page.

Securing a swap

The Fire Pit area of our House Swap in Encinitas

The ‘fire pit’ and BBQ area of our House Swap in San Diego, California

My “smarter” searching, combined with being enabled for Points swapping, brought lots of new houses in San Diego up into my searches. I went for one house, about 25 miles from Downtown, which had recently been added to the site.

Looking at the pictures, there was a play house and swings, plus a Star Wars bedroom – so we knew it would be perfect for our young kids. It was for an amazing property, one mile from the beach in Encinitas, and it had a huge kitchen, outside bar and a hot tub!! Yes, a HOT TUB?!!!

Instead of getting the usual polite decline message, Emily casually said: “Sure, the dates work for us – let’s swap for Points!” Suddenly, all of my hard work had paid off – we had a deal.

That swap was for one week, and we wanted a minimum of two, so I made sure that my future searches were sorted by “Most Recent” so that I could get the home we wanted as soon as it came onto the market (Love Home Swap is starting a new ‘Hotlist’ feature which will make this simpler in the future).

At the same time, I wanted to make our house stand-out and sort our house out more efficiently, so I added more photos and included a summary of what we were looking for, the year of our intended swap and sell the fact that our house was available for six weeks. I was also pro-active and messaged people that wanted a swap in Hampshire/Berkshire or anywhere outside of London. This all really helped, and we received solid offers from members in Sweden and Spain.

With the pressure off, I was more relaxed looking for our second week in California. I made sure I used my Smart Searches (I need to patent that term) to find the most recent properties, but new homes in one city don’t come onto the site every day.

I waited a couple of weeks but then got impatient and wondered if I could super-charge my Pro-active Smart Searching.

Super-smart searching

The outside kitchen/bar area at our House Swap in La Jolla, California

The outside kitchen/bar area at our House Swap in La Jolla, California

I thought laterally about the whole system. As my “Most Recent” Points swap search seemed to work, but there weren’t many coming on, I took a step back and realised that when most people sign up, they start on the “Standard Swap” before moving to “Points.”

So, I went back to looking for a “Most Recent” Standard swap and began emailing new members with homes in San Diego. I told them about the beauty of a Points swap.

One house came up in the perfect location for us: the posh, central location of La Jolla. The dates were for the week that we had already agreed the Encinitas swap but I thought I’d message them both questions anyway.

Two days later, we had another deal! Again, the house had a play structure, so they were obviously less worried about having two toddlers in the house than most, which definitely worked in our favour. The house was a ten minute walk from the seals at La Jolla Cove in one direction, ten minutes to Windansea Beach in the other and it had an amazing outside eating area/bar/kitchen for entertaining.

JOB DONE!

San Diego House Swap sorted...time to have some fun!!

San Diego House Swap sorted…time to have some fun!!

We may have made this sound like a lot of work, but it was worth the effort and when you’re doing it yourself – and dreaming of the amazing house you might get – it’s actually quite an exciting process.

Thanks to Love Home Swap, we had two amazing beach-town properties that we could stay in for two weeks in California. And, all for the £240 membership fee – the same price as two nights at hotels during our Route One Road Trip!!

We looked up how much it would cost to rent similar homes in the same parts of San Diego in high season and it was £3,500/$5000 per WEEK!! An amazing saving that made our trip of a lifetime, a reality.

Maybe, now is the time for Holiday Home Swapping to enter the mainstream.

So, how did we get on with the swaps? Did the advertised homes exist? Did our two toddlers ruin the pristine show-homes that we stayed in? We’ll let you know in Part Two of this blog post which includes a VIDEO of our House Swap experience!!

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