I grew up in 1980s England and learned a lot about America from the films that I watched – on Betamax, of course – with my brothers and sisters, every weekend. Superman, The Goonies, Back to the Future, Home Alone, Grease – you get the idea.
They all offered very exciting views of the USA and it really did seem like a world away from our quiet rural village in Hampshire. No joke: we had to travel 20 miles to get to a McDonald’s (it didn’t open in our nearest town until 1990) and our local cinema only had one screen, and was weeks behind the rest of the country.
Weird and wonderful American myths/untruths were formed, until I finally got out there after meeting Mrs Life of Reilly in 2004!
During my first trip out to the USA, I was constantly laughing to myself about the things that were true, false or completely new.
So, here’s my lists of random things that I couldn’t believe were true about the USA, plus some observations which you might only know if you have friends or family out there.
50 random observations about the USA
Steam coming up from a New York sewer when we were there – see, it’s not a special effect!
The smoky sewers you see in New York are completely real – not special effects by movie-makers.
Portion sizes are big: True. But, it’s normal to only eat half and take the rest home for dinner the following night. Every restaurant is ready and willing to hand you a doggy bag. It’s only socially acceptable to do that in England at a pizza restaurant!
A simple, great invention: you can clip the petrol pump handle at the petrol station so you don’t have to hold it the whole time when you’re filling up. It un-clips automatically when the tank’s full. I kind of remember this in the 80s, why did this option go in the UK?!
Tailgating is a famous American past-time where sports fans eat and drink in the stadium car park before a game. It’s normal to rig up your own BBQ and big screen with satellite TV. Lots of ‘tailgaters’ don’t even have a ticket for the game but want to soak up the match-day atmosphere and feel part of the day more.
This was the Tailgating that I experienced at a Chargers v Raiders game, complete with BBQ and TV!
Waiters and waitresses receive the minimum wage and rely on tips, so the UK average of 10% won’t cut it. Tipping has gone up from 15% to 20% in the last few years, so be ready for that. You’re also expected to tip your bartender at least a dollar a drink – even when they’ve just taken off the top off a bottle of beer and not even poured it!!!!
There really IS a gap between the doors of public toilets. I thought this was something created for films so the characters could spy on each other easily.
Toilet seat covers are available in pretty much every public toilet, so there’s no need to make your own germ barrier with toilet paper! This latest version in New York is on another level, though!
Up until a few years ago, customers didn’t pack their own bags at the supermarket, someone would do it for you. Vons and Ralph’s, still have bag-packers.
Most traditional radio stations only cater for one genre of music. Even then, they all seem to still play 80s and 90s music and random one hit wonders as part of their regular playlists still, too. There are now digital Sirius stations but you have to pay for them!
You’re ALLOWED to turn right on a RED LIGHT, as long as you won’t cause a crash and there isn’t a sign which tells you that you can’t do it.
Drive-through ATM cashpoints are a common sight in most cities.
Drive-through ATM cashpoints can be found in most cities. Photo by Andreas Praefcke.
Most normal people don’t live in houses the size of the McAllisters in Home Alone or Steve Martin in Father of the Bride. Just like the majority of English people don’t live in a quaint thatched roof cottage with a river running through their back garden.
TV News outlets really do have helicopters – and a fleet of satellite trucks – for one city. There are several of these stations with all of these resources in each city, too!
UNIVERSITY American Football matches regularly pull in crowds of up to 120,000 per game – that’s the size of Wembley and White Hart Lane combined…for university sport! The average crowd for a normal student match in the UK is probably minus-five because the substitutes have gone off to the pub.
University American Football game Michigan vs Eastern Michigan which was watched by 110,000 people…110,000 for a UNIVERSITY match! Photo by Andrew Horne.
University sport (sorry, get your American accent ready, “College Sports”) are also featured LIVE on major sports channels – even the finals of the kids’ Little League baseball series! It’s very weird watching children playing a sport on ESPN.
Football (soccer) actually does seem to be getting bigger in the States. Most kids play it when they’re growing up, instead of baseball and there’s now more English football on TV so the next generation will probably have a Premier League team that they support.
Postmen drop off AND pick up mail from the box at the front of your house. So, there’s no need to walk to the other end of your village or drive to your local supermarket to send that annoying free-post letter you didn’t want to send in the first place!
In-N-Out Burger is only available in five States (California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah & Texas), so if you see one, you should probably give it a try! It also has a secret menu which has the best combinations, so make sure you come back here to find the link, before you order.
One of our Animal Style burgers from In-n-Out
The Cheesecake Factory doesn’t just serve cheesecake. In fact, it’s a restaurant first and then a dessert place second. The cheesecake is the highlight though, unsurprisingly.
When watching an American TV show…you know those points where a dramatic moment is repeated in the British version? This is when there would be adverts on in the States. They also usually have commercials before the end titles so they can avoid a break between two shows. Adverts are more frequent, too.
There are random town/road names which keep popping up big cities: Who or what is Lafayette and Sepulveda?!
Some American towns really like the idea of bringing in roundabouts but they over-explain the signs and make it really confusing – even when you know how a roundabout works!!
Ever seen a more confusing roundabout since the Arc de Triomphe? Photo taken in Mountain View, Northern California by Danielle Reich.
In built-up areas, it’s quite normal to not know when one town ends and another begins . The best tip that I can offer is wait until you see another IKEA, Wal-Mart or Target.
Shopping mall car parks are FREE! It makes sense to not have to pay to park for the cinema or to exchange an item!!
In big towns and cities, every STREET has its own exit from the freeway, usually every quarter of a mile. Definitely NOT the average 5-10 miles in between junctions that we have in the UK.
Many towns and cities have numbered streets, and also road names which are in alphabetical order, eg: Apple Street, Bacon Street, Cheddar Street. Pretty handy when you’re trying to work out where a certain road is.
Broadway in New York City.
Tax is added on AT the cash register, so when you get your $1 out to pay for a 99c item they’ll ask you for $1.07 or whatever the tax is in that State. Oregon is the only state with 0% sales tax – sounds like a good place to pop into for the day to buy an iPhone – or at least have the satisfaction of paying $1 for a $1 product!
The coins are really tough to read and work out – there aren’t many numbers so you have to know how much a dime or a nickel is! Also, the smaller coins are sometimes worth more than the bigger ones!
Pushchairs and buggies are called “strollers.” People won’t understand what you’re talking about if you use the English names, unless they work at an airport.
You really DO get free soft drink (soda) refills at most restaurants, and bottomless filter coffee at cafes/diners.
Big Gulps really exist and you can buy one which looks more like a bucket than a cup!
The Double Gulp holds 64oz (1.9L) of your favourite type of soft drink/soda. This isn’t even the biggest size you can get! Photo: Russell Bernice
It’s bad manners to blow your nose in public, more-so in a restaurant. (Mrs Life of Reilly is still on at me about this!)
Mexican food is a staple. It’s more popular than curry out here. (Oh, and it’s tough to find a good curry in the States).
Americans cut up their food with a knife. Then, put it down and eat everything with a fork in their right hand. There’s no dual knife and fork action, something which is considered good manners in the UK.
Most fridges have double doors AND an ice and water dispenser plumbed into the mains.
Garbage disposal units are commonplace. Why have they not caught on as much over here? They’re a great way to get rid of leftovers.
There are still some really old cars on the road still, mainly because the Smog Test doesn’t check many things that would make a car fail an MOT, here.
You’re likely to see some pretty old cars out on the roads still.
The majority of people are very proud of their political allegiance and will speak about it openly.
It’s a very British tradition to be offered a cup of tea – or other drink – as soon as you walk into someone’s house. Don’t expect this in America. In fact, providing guests with a drink is not at the top of the list of priorities when you arrive at most peoples’ houses, unless it’s a party.
When you first land, it can feel like you’re being sold something everywhere you look: on TV, radio, big billboards, park benches, man on the corner spinning a sign, even the stats on a sports report are sponsored.
Ironically, NO sports teams wear a sponsor on their shirts while they play!!!
There are no sponsors on any professional sports teams in the USA. Photo by Keith Allison.
People aren’t afraid to go out to the shops not looking their best. Lots of women go out in their running clothes (activewear) or ‘sweats.’ I’ve seen lots of men go to the shops or walk their dog in what was definitely their pyjamas. Why are us Brits so vain?!
It’s actually illegal to cross the road anywhere but at traffic lights, even if there are no cars around. It’s called J-walking. New Yorkers are the only members of a city who really laugh in the face of this law.
“Ped X-ing” written on the road means Pedestrian Crossing. Maybe I’m just thick, but I still say “Ped X” in my head when I see the sign!
Weirdly, road markings are the other way around. In the UK, you’d see KEEP CLEAR on the road but in the States it would be CLEAR KEEP – depending on how you’re used to reading the markings, of course. Yoda would love it!
Top: UK road markings. Bottom: Typical sequence of road markings in the USA
The famous American LIGHT beers really do taste of water.
But American CRAFT Beer is very strong!! It’s full of flavour and rising in popularity every year. I think it’s better than most European beers, now!
Americans don’t mind mixing sweet and savoury, especially at breakfast. You’ll get sausage, egg and pancakes on thesame plate, and many people will drizzle maple syrup all over the sausages and bacon, too!!
People actually LIKE to make small talk and get to know strangers, even if they’ll never meet again. Can you think of anything more un-British?!
What random observations have we missed? Did you think there were THIS MANY small differences? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
It’s the Road Trip which is on everybody’s bucket list and – after driving 500 miles down California’s ever-changing coastline – we now know why the Pacific Coast Highway is so special.
The funny part about this world-famous drive is that not many Californians, including Mrs Life of Reilly, have actually experienced it.
Most natives opt for a quick flight from Nor Cal or So Cal (slang terms for Northern and Southern California, if you hadn’t guessed?!) or get the job done in an eight-hour drive on the freeway.
After “doing” Route One, I don’t think we’ll ever drive the main motorway (Interstate 5) ever again!
Sure, it might take a few hours longer but we’d rather be smiling and enjoying every minute, rather than being stuck in traffic or trying not to fall asleep on a dead-straight road, while listening to a boring audiobook your other half put on before she fell asleep.
We were really excited about doing Highway One but when we were researching it, there didn’t actually seem to be any websites which offered exact timings so that we could properly plan our trip (to the hour) and work out a realistic itinerary. This is why we’ve written THIS article!!
Our timings are real and accurate, because we noted them down as we went along.
On the left you’ll see our real timings, but we’ve put our suggested times in brackets (plus a full itinerary at the end of Day 3), which will help you avoid the problems we had each day. If only we’d read our blog before we travelled!!!!
So, here’s how we did Route One, with two kids, over three days!
Get a convertible, if you can
The convertible was amazing – but remember to keep those kids warm in the back!! Oops!
Ok, before you get to the Golden Gate Bridge, make sure you try to rent a convertible for your Road Trip.
Having the top down makes it feel as though you’re really travelling and connecting with the towns and cities that you drive through, rather than watching it all through a rectangular piece of glass.
It’s great to feel the temperature change with the landscape, as it often captures the mood of the place you’re driving through.
A convertible also looks really cool in photos! 😉
We found that choosing a convertible over a standard car was only $50 extra for five days, when we booked through Dollar. I’m not sure if we were just lucky with a promotion, but give it a try – it might not be as much as you expect!
Dylan still talks about having a convertible in America! He’s going to be disappointed on our next trip!!
Was it worth getting a convertible when you have small children? Yes and no.
Yes: it’s something different and fun; they liked it when we drove under 10mph.
No: With a roof in the boot (trunk), there’s less room for luggage and a travel cot (pack and play) so it’s quite tight; they didn’t like it when we drove faster than a child on a bike; the back gets really cold, even in the Californian sun (we found this out the hard way and only realised that they needed jackets and blankets on when we got past Monterey – oops!); you need to put sunscreen on the kids before you leave; it’s frustrating to drive Route 1 with the roof on when you have a convertible, so you kind of wish you didn’t have one!
Overall: Would we choose a convertible again despite the big list of negatives? Hell yeah! It was fun to drive around with the top down, even if it was just for an hour each day. Just remember to snuggle up those little ones in the back.
Plan your trip along the Pacific Coast before you go so you don’t get stranded in the middle of nowhere
There are a few things that you should book before you jump into your car and leave modern life for three days (it really will feel as though you’ve gone back in time, especially during the first 48 hours).
Yes, Big Sur is located just a few hundred miles from the global headquarters of Facebook and Apple, in one of the most advanced countries in the world, but it really is in the middle of nowhere – with no mobile phone reception, let alone internet – so there’s no way you can reliably book stuff.
The other thing about fewer hotels – and people knowing that you should book ahead – means that there isn’t much scope for turning up and expecting a room somewhere. We saw people, who hadn’t booked ahead, running in and out of every hotel reception looking for a room – even at our hotel!
They said they were going to sleep in the car! You wouldn’t want to do that with kids in the back!
There are some special views from Hearst Castle and lots to see on the “ranch” as he used to call it!
The other place you should book before you leave is Hearst Castle.
Yes, they recommend that people should book ahead of time on their website but we weren’t certain which tour we should go on – and, we didn’t think that every good tour would get booked up for the times that we wanted to go.
We also thought that we’d be able to book it at the hotel the night before…but with no 3G, and no working hotel wifi – it was impossible!
When we arrived at the castle, all of the tours were booked up and we had to go for a later tour – and not the one that we really wanted to do, either.
So, avoid this by simply booking ahead – you’ll thank us if you do!
10am – Golden Gate Bridge (you should get there for 8am)
Aim to get to the Golden Gate Bridge as early as you can.
We went for 10am to avoid rush hour traffic going out of the city but we could have probably left San Francisco at 9am and been ok.
We ended up getting there just after 10am and then didn’t actually start the drive until 11.30am, which meant that we we had lost a good amount of valuable driving time, straight away.
Aim to arrive at the bridge around 8am so that you can hit the road by 9am.
Golden great photo opportunity
Mason Street is a great place to grab photos of the Golden Gate Bridge
Get some pictures at the bridge, but don’t go to the Vista Point on the Marin side of the Bay: it’s packed and not a great shot.
Head down to the beach off Old Mason Street. You’ll get a much better picture there and it’s far less crowded.
We found a free parking spot just before the beach and took our pictures next to the road, which you might choose to do if you already have the beach shots.
Once you’ve taken your pictures, jump in the car with your selfie stick and get some cool shots crossing the bridge.
You’ll then turn around in the Marin Vista car park – where you’ll turn around (and at the same time thank us for helping you avoid the chaos here).
You’re now ready to head south – the same direction you’ll be travelling for three days!!!
Time to drive, but be warned
Head down to the beach near Mason Street to get the perfect shot of the bridge or take some from the promenade, like this one.
It is a very real possibility that you could get a $70 fine just seconds into your epic Road Trip.
The Golden Gate Bridge is a toll road but you don’t pay with cash as you cross anymore.
It’s more like the London Congestion Charge where your number plate is photographed and a toll is attached to the car.
Take the coastal road straight off the Golden Gate Bridge, as 101 isn’t as scenic as you might think! Photo: Google Maps
Ok, we’re finally off!!
The official way to drive Route One is to stay on it (or the Historic 101) from San Francisco to San Diego BUT after you get off the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pacific Coast Highway is a four-lane road which gets snarled up with traffic.
It’s not exactly the way you’ll want to start the drive of a lifetime, so we jumped off and headed towards the Ocean as soon as we got out of Golden Gate Park.
It did feel as though the Stop Signs and traffic lights were never going to end at one point, but it was all worth it when we got our first glimpse of the water.
**You can avoid our slow drive to the ocean if you take Lincoln Blvd as soon as you get off the bridge.**
We continued along Great Highway Road and enjoyed the panoramic views of the sea along the flat road.
Every mile or two, we stopped at traffic lights to allow surfers to race into the water.
There’s no mistaking that you’re setting out on a real Californian experience with these sights and sounds.
You’ll join Route 1 just past Daly City and wind your way down to Santa Cruz.
The El Camino Real bells line the Pacific Coast Highway. Photo by Eric Chan on Flickr.
Now you’re on “The One,” you can get your kids to start looking out for the El Camino mission bells which are on ‘shepherds crook’ posts along the whole route to San Diego.
They were placed on the highway in 1906 to commemorate the old El Camino Real (The Royal Road) trail which Spanish settlers created in the late 1700s to link the 21 California missions along the entire coastline.
Over the past century, more than half of the 450 iron bells have been stolen, vandalised or fallen into disrepair.
Don’t worry though, in the 1970s and 1990s many were replaced, so you should be able to spot some and take a few photos!
2pm – Lunch in Santa Cruz (11.30pm for you)
After driving along the empty coastline for two hours, it was nice to hit a real city again.
Santa Cruz is the original surf town: three Hawaiian students shocked locals by riding waves here in 1885 and, in doing so, became the first people to surf in the USA.
It’s also the home of surfer, and inventor of the wetsuit, Jack O’Neill. Yes, that O’Neill.
As you can see from our timings, because we left San Francisco really late.
We didn’t have time to walk along the famous Boardwalk from The Lost Boys movie.
Instead, with two starving kids – and two very hungry adults – we ran into the first diner we came across and ate lunch as quickly as we could so that we could get back on the road again.
It was a shame because the boardwalk was buzzing with tourists – and locals – who were all looking to make the most of the fun that the city has to offer.
Look out for the 90-year-old Big Dipper which is still holding its own against the modern amusements.
We spent an hour in Santa Cruz, and left at 3pm.
You should leave two hours – for lunch and sightseeing – and get back in the car at 1.30pm. This will get you to your next stop for the times below.
4pm – Monterey (2.30pm for you)
Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo by: Meij Kobayashi
We’d been to Monterey to visit family there several times before, so we didn’t stop here during this Road Trip.
Monterey is a quaint place to visit, with its’ seafood restaurants and fishing village vibe. It’s home to Cannery Row, where John Steinbeck based the novel of them same name.
It’s home to the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium but, unless you’re going to do Route One with a stopover here, you won’t have time to visit it because it takes a whole morning or afternoon to get around.
You could easily choose to stop here, rather than the fast-paced Santa Cruz, for lunch though.
If you do – and you have some time to spare – you could also visit one of the most picturesque – and famous – PGA Golf Courses in the world: Pebble Beach.
The famous links course is situated within, what’s called, “17-mile-drive” – a scenic route around the rugged peninsula which, believe it or not (!!!!), is 17 miles long!
With its rugged coastline, ocean views and varied wildlife, it’s like a mini Route 1 roundabout!
It’s set within a gated community, so you’ll either need to know someone who lives in one of the mansions, or pay the $10 fee to be allowed in.
5pm – Big Sur entrance (3.30pm)
The roads out of Monterey are straight and filled with expensive sports cars but the modern world seems to fall off the side of the cliffs, and into the ocean, with every mile that you drive south from this point.
Before you know it, it’s just you. The road. And, the ocean.
Gone are the Starbucks’ and fast-food chains. Even the gas stations and motels seem to suddenly disappear.
There’s no Las Vegas style sign that says, “Welcome to Big Sur” but as you start climbing above sea level, the roads get windier and the landscape becomes more dramatic. You’ll quickly know when you’re there.
The panoramic views open up around you. The waves crash beneath sheer cliff-drops next to the road, and the hot Californian sun begins to cool.
The land becomes rustic and wild and it really feels as though you’ve got a seat in nature’s best interactive theme park.
It got so chilly that we needed to put the roof up to stop the children from freezing in the back. We were also starting to get red faces from the sun and now the wind.
We would’ve probably kept the top down if we didn’t have the little-uns but it did mean we could turn up the stereo and find an appropriate soundtrack to the stunning scenery around us.
There are scores of small parking areas through Big Sur to allow you to stop, take in the scenery and capture a few memories with some photos but we needed to keep our pit-stops economical.
The first big landmark we stopped for was, surprisingly, a man-made one: Bixby Bridge.
There’s a smaller version of the bridge that you cross before Bixby, so we were looking for a place to turn around, but before we knew it, the real bridge was in-front of us and we were ready to pull over.
I wouldn’t say that I’m a bridge lover, but I’ve always found the Golden Gate Bridge compelling for some reason – and the pictures I had seen of Bixby Bridge looked really cool, too.
It was amazing to see something so well constructed in the middle of nowhere.
The best part…is that the bridge totally lives up to the hype. It takes your breath away when you see it in person – and it will look amazing in any photograph that you take!
5.45pm – Pfeiffer Beach (4.15pm)
Pfeiffer Beach has to be seen to be believed! Check out our Big Sur video to see more.
One of things we didn’t think about – or appreciate – when we’d heard stories or read articles about Highway One was the coastal fog that’s around.
We thought it would just be on certain days, or at certain heights, but from Bixby Bridge all the way to San Simeon (where we stayed the night), we couldn’t see that far into the distance – even though it was July!
It was a bit disappointing, at first, but then it all begins to add to the mystique of the drive.
We also think it’s Big Sur’s clever way of making you want to return again and experience a completely different trip.
Our next stop was Pfeiffer beach, with it’s purple sand and famous Keyhole Arch which invites big waves to build and crash through it.
We had also been told that it was hard to find, but we scoffed at the advice of family and friends believing that anyone can easily find anything in the USA.
We should have listened to Aunt Connie! It’s really hard to find and we drove past it twice, even after asking for directions.
There are no signs to the famous beach – and GPS doesn’t take you to the right place – so bookmark this page now so you can find it later.
Make sure you save this page to make sure you can find Pfeiffer Beach when you’re doing your road trip!
Here’s how you’ll find Pfeiffer Beach:
**North to South: You’ll see a sign which welcomes you to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. After that, on the right, you’ll see a sharp turning off Route One (Sycamore Canyon Road). There’s no sign from the road, just some mailboxes, but as you turn you’ll see a yellow sign says “Narrow Road, no RVs – Trailers.”**
If you miss it, like we did, then you’ll know you’ve gone too far because you’ll end up getting to “Big Sur Center.” You can turn here and try again!
Be warned, the drive down to the beach is for confident drivers only. Alicia was yelping as we drove down and saw other cars heading our way!
When you get down to the beach you’ll be asked to pay $10 to park, so make sure you have some cash with you. It’s well worth the money as it felt like being on another world. It was really peaceful and the rock formations and waves are stunning.
We spent 45 minutes there, which felt a little rushed when we got our kids out of the car and back in again.
So, again, leave San Francisco on time and you should be fine!
6.30pm – Other Big Sur landmarks (5pm)
Nepenthe Cafe, Big Sur. Photo by: Traveling Otter
This was the point that we started panicking about how late we’d left everything.
It was dinner time, the kids were doing well, but would be getting hungry very soon. The sun was beginning to go down…and we were still two hours away from our hotel…so we raced through the rest of Big Sur to get them fed and watered.
If we weren’t in such a rush, we would have definitely stopped at McWay Falls and some of the other turnouts along the route. If you stick to our recommended timings though, you should still have time to see these sights.
Big Sur Bakery is just next to the “Big Sur Center” which you might have turned around in to find Pfeiffer Beach. It would be a great place to pick up some freshly baked food to keep you going until dinner.
If you’re running late, like we were, they also serve “normal food” for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Expect to pay top dollar for the privilege of eating in the middle of nowhere though: Soups start at around $10 and wood-fired pizzas start at more than $20.
A mile south is Nepenthe, which has a cafe and restaurant with a view, on the right hand side. We didn’t quite know where this place was when we drove past, but we really wish stopped here for dinner as it would have been perfect with our super-late timings!
A little further south, on the left, is the Henry Miller Memorial Library.
Yes, it’s a library, but in Bug Sur, you know it’s going to be different.
Stop in for a cultural, quiet break to browse some books or walk around the gardens with a tea or coffee, which you have to make yourself (of course).
McWay Falls, Big Sur. Photo: King of Hearts / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0
If you don’t need to stop for food, McWay Falls is next.
Unlike Pfeiffer Beach, there is a sign to McWay Canyon from Route 1, but it’s hidden on a sign for Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (Confusing, huh? Two State Parks with similar names) and it’s a left turn, which feels wrong when the ocean is on the right.
We couldn’t afford to go wrong so late in the day so kept on driving.
You might get lucky and find a spot to park just before your turn off Route One, but if you don’t have the time to look for a free spot, follow the signs and you can pay to park in the official spaces.
It’s just a short walk, then, to see the 80 foot hight falls.
Your photos will be stunning at any time of the year – even with a drought – because the water constantly flows from underground springs.
Fact of the day: the water used to fall straight into the ocean until a fire, and then a landslide in the early 1980s, created the sandy beach that you see today.
The beach is too dangerous to get down to, due to cliff-falls and erratic tides, so stick to the path.
8.15pm – San Simeon for the night (6.45pm with no other landmarks)
An example of the hotels in San Simeon. The old school hotels should be embraced – you can go to a Hilton anywhere in the world!
The coastal fog was around all day but it was when the sun began to set that it felt more desolate and overbearing.
The drive seemed like a real effort through the southern end of Big Sur.
The road seemed windier than ever, a queue of cars was building-up and getting closer together – almost like a train convoy – and we were all feeling very tired and wanting food, some rest and a bed for the night!
I even started to get worried that we might miss checking in to our hotel because the reception probably wasn’t 24/7 (I was right, it wasn’t) but we did make it to San Simeon in the end!
On Day Two, we did the least amount of driving during the whole trip, which was great because we’d spent 12 hours driving the previous day (we drove from Palo Alto to San Francisco before we officially started the Road Trip, which was one of the reasons we started late) and we wanted to give the kids – and us – an easier day.
That was the plan but, as you’ll see below, we made a few mistakes!
So, again, our timings are on the left but you should use the timings in brackets (full easy-to-read itinerary on the next page).
Live music at breakfast in San Simeon
Only on a road trip like this would you find a songwriter using Big Sur as inspiration! Watch Marcos Lopez-Iglesias’ scenic soundtrack for us.
Ok, so our hotel in San Simeon was “rustic,” but that was part of its charm and it was this kind of experience that we travelled from England to enjoy.
The room was basic, but it was clean and safe. Breakfast was included but don’t expect a huge hotel spread of sausages, eggs and pancakes.
There was unlimited cereal and toast, plus packaged English muffins and filter coffee.
It was a forgettable breakfast, food-wise, but having a local retired guy welcoming everyone with warm and genuine conversations – plus watching the different types of guests around the room – it was actually a very fun meal.
After some food, we wanted to see how close to the ocean we’d been sleeping.
Sure enough, we crossed one small road and were looking out to the Pacific. It was a special place, but it felt even more special with the soundtrack from the man on the bench next to us.
A tall, tanned middle-aged man was strumming a very cool melody on his guitar.
The lyrics were also really catchy – and he had the look of a famous musician – so I asked him why he was playing his guitar at 9am on a bench in Big Sur.
It turned out that we’d stumbled across a fellow Brit who’d moved to LA after touring Europe for many years with his own band.
Marcos Lopez-Iglasias was a drummer for ex-Kajagoogoo star, Limahl, and even Duran Duran!
He told us that he loved coming to Big Sur to write music and that he was working on a new album!
I asked him if he could play us a bit more of his new song. We all shared a special few minutes listening to a brand new song coming into the world, next to the ocean in Big Sur.
It’s these moments that you would only have on a Road Trip. AMAZING!!
Watch his impromptu gig for us, above!
11.30am – Hearst Castle (10am for you)
Hearst Castle is a beautiful hill-top hideaway that was the home of William Randolph Hearst, the famous newspaper publisher of the late 1800s.
You may not have heard of him but you’ll definitely know the brands which bear his name today: ESPN, Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Elle are just a few of the major media outlets that he would own today, if he was still alive.
Living in England, surrounded by lots of medieval castles, I wasn’t sure if I would really want to visit a “new-money” mansion that was only completed in 1947.
After browsing online, the pictures of the outside swimming pool won me over, plus the fact that it looked like an interesting attraction in the middle of nowhere.
It was 9.30am and jumped into the car to go to the castle. This was mistake number one for the day!
I saw all of the warnings about booking Hearst Castle ahead of time on their website but I didn’t think it would really get booked up!
We were also going to book it the night before but there wasn’t any wifi or 3G near our hotel in San Simeon.
We turned up at the castle at 10am only to find all of the early tours had gone. The earliest of the general tours that we could get was at midday – we couldn’t wait around to do that!
So, we went for an 11.30am tour of the cottages, which didn’t sound great but it gave us access to the grounds and it would be fun to go there, still.
There are some special views from Hearst Castle and lots to see on the “ranch” as he used to call it!
As soon as the tour started though, we were hooked!
The excitement builds as you sit on the coach up to the castle and you hear the history – and the many and varied famous guests that visited Hearst, here – while you wind your way up to the property.
When you arrive at the top, the hot Californian sun returns and you can immediately see the detail – and money – that went into this public show of wealth and opulence (even the tiles on the stairs tell their own stories).
It feels like a real-life Great Gatsby. The Neptune and Roman Pools are something to behold.
I kept on thinking about what it must have been like here, in its heyday: Clark Gable and Greta Garbo partying with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
The “cottages” on our tour were more like mansions: decorated in gold leaf, with sea views and . It was here that Hearst’s “wife” lived, away from his mistresses.
Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw also stayed in the cottages when they visited.
This is classed as a “cottage” at Hearst Castle. Winston Churchill stayed in one when he visited!
Anyway, I could write an article just about Hearst Castle. Add it to your itinerary!
Three hours was just about enough time to take a tour, stroll around the estate and have some lunch at the Visitors’ Centre (the Mac and Cheese was awesome!)
The kids were pretty good but didn’t appreciate any of the tour, plus away from the coastal fog it gets pretty hot up on the hill.
Dylan had a couple of melt-downs due to the heat, lack of water and boredom. He enjoyed walking around the grounds, though.
On your way down in the bus, make sure you check out the empty zoo cages that Hearst had filled with animals, and as your drive south to Cambria, look left and see if you can spot any of the zebra that were released. There are more than you think!
11am – Elephant Seals (1.15pm for you)
Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas near San Simeon.
As we had an hour to wait for our tour, we swapped things around and went to see the Elephant Seals before heading up to Hearst Castle.
They’re just ten minutes north of San Simeon at Piedras Blancas so, whatever direction you’re travelling, it’s just a minor detour.
Turn right out of the castle onto Route One and you’ll see the Elephant Seal car park on the left hand side.
It’s a very busy car park, and attraction, but people only stay for 10-15 minutes so it’s constantly moving so you should find a spot.
You may have seen the odd seal during your trip already – on a rock or in the ocean – but you won’t have seen this many and certainly not this many so close up.
You can see…and smell…everything!!
They’re a great way to see some unusual wildlife close-up – and they’re a great final memory of rural Big Sur because every mile south from here, is another mile closer to reality.
3.45pm – San Luis Obispo (2.45pm for you)
The ruggedness of Northern California begins to make way for the hot, desert climate of Southern California with every mile.
We tried to take in the pretty little towns that we passed (Harmony, Cayucos and Morro Bay) but we were in a bit of a rush (again!!), so didn’t stop.
When you hit San Luis Obispo (SLO to locals) it feels as though you’re firmly back in reality, which is good and bad, of course.
We hit rush hour for the first time in a what felt like a week. Traffic picks up again as you’re forced onto Highway 101.
A waitress told us to stop off at a place called the Madonna Inn with the promise of a very special toilet break.
We pulled up to, what looked like, a 1950s Vegas motel.
Go left when you walk through the main entrance and go down the stairs into the men’s toilet, which looks like a cave!!
When you step in to take a pee, water cascades down the rock-face and washes everything below, away.
We were one of “those” people that stopped just to experience the bathroom but we wished we knew about it earlier as it could’ve been a great place to stay overnight.
The uber-kitsch Madonna Inn and a taste of some of its furnishings!
The dining room was more kitsch than the Eurovision Song Contest and all of the 109 rooms are uniquely decorated: yes, the cave room is just like the Flintstones where you’ll literally shower in a waterfall; sleep in a room decorated as though you’re staying in the Alps; or maybe you’ve always wanted to stay in a bed with wagon wheels?
When you leave San Luis Opismo, you’ll have the choice of staying on the 101 or rejoining Route 1 at Pismo Beach.
We jumped back on the Pacific Coast Highway until just before Lompoc to make our way to Solvang on the 246.
We were glad we did – it was a beautiful drive through Guadalupe with its’ mix of flat, lush strawberry fields, then a steep climb, before descending down to another huge sea of green, on both sides of the car.
It’s another reminder of how varied the climate and landscape is on this special road: today, the harsh mountain-sides have transformed into lush agriculture and tomorrow we’ll head further south into the arid desert.
Why did we decide to come off Route 1 for Solvang? Well, this Road Trip is all about finding new places and experiences and we loved the idea of visiting a mini-Denmark that’s been built in the middle of California.
The city was founded in 1911 by Danish immigrants (surprise, surprise) who wanted to create their own colony.
A Danish speaking school was built three years later and their idea of creating a mini-Denmark went a step further in the 1940s when one of the town’s developers built his home in the style of his homeland.
The Danish Village concept grew and, now, much of the city looks as though it’s been picked up from cold Copenhagen and dropped into sunny California.
In fact, Solvang has the most windmills (five) within two square miles, outside of Denmark!
Solvang is a place like no other in California. It’s the complete opposite of what you would expect to see on the Pacific Coast Highway!
It’s a great atmosphere as you drive through Solvang.
The architecture makes the city feel different immediately. It does feel like you’re in a Danish Disneyland with the cartoon-like facades but all of the shops sell real Danish goods and are owned by people of Danish heritage.
It was great fun wandering past the windmills and taking photos on the ‘olde world’ street corners but the best part was picking out a delicious Danish pastry – from the hundreds on display – and enjoying a very unique Californian/Danish pit-stop.
If Solvang doesn’t appeal to you, you are also in one of California’s famous wine regions.
This is the region where Sideways was filmed (I still haven’t seen it, but heard so much about it. One day!) so why not do some wine-tasting instead?
7.15pm – El Capitan Canyon, Santa Barbara (6.15pm for you)
We stayed in Solvang for just under an hour and left at 6.35pm. If you did the same, with the timings above, you’d be leaving Solvang an hour earlier which is much better.
Head towards the 101 and you’ll soon be back on Route One, flying down to Santa Barbara.
We wanted to make the trip extra special and chose not to stay in a regular Best Western or “normal” hotel in the city.
One place, which was recommended by my boss at ITV (thanks Robin), was a glamping site with its own private beach just outside of Santa Barbara in a place called Goleta.
Now, I’ve had some bad experiences of camping in the UK. I hate it! Sure, I like nature but do we have to sleep rough to experience it?!
So, El Capitan Canyon is my perfect camping ground, with its own swimming pool, spa and every home comfort!
You can choose to have a yurt or a log cabin – both have real beds and electricity!!
The site also has: movie nights, at its own open-air cinema; stargazing talks with a local astronomer; wine tasting with samples from the wine region you’ve just driven through; plus loads of other activities including yoga, hikes and fun, runs.
Our cabin at the El Capitan Canyon camping resort and spa! All of the fun of camping with all of your home comforts!
It was a fab experience. We arrived and un-packed just in time to get dinner in the Canyon Market, which closes at 8pm so be warned!
It was there I was able to get wifi for the first time since San Francisco and was able to pay the Golden Gate Bridge toll!
Every pitch has its own fire pit which you can cook on. They sell wood and fire-starters, plus over-priced barbecue kits which start at $65 for burgers and $77 for steak (they do include enough meat for four though, plus salad, garlic bread, drinks and s’mores – and firewood, cutlery and plates).
Cooking marshmallows on the fire pit outside our cabin at El Capitan Canyon!
We were cheap (Really? Us?!) and bought some firewood, marshmallows and beer.
We sat out watching deer run past us, while talking about all of the animals that might be near the site.
It would be great to have spent a couple of nights here to explore the canyon properly but we had to get back on the road the quite early the next day.
The boys went up into the loft to sleep (we didn’t trust Dylan up there by himself quite yet – and the ladder was really steep), while the girls took the California King bed!!
When two people from different countries decide to start going out, the thought of flying to each other’s countries sounds exciting and romantic. We knew that we’d want kids in the future but, during those early exciting days of Trans-Atlantic dating, the thought of having to do the same 12-hour trips with children didn’t even cross our minds!
Fast forward a decade and we’ve now travelled 21 long or short-haul flights with a baby or a toddler – these days both at the same time!
And, we’ve experienced every type of flight you can imagine: from lots of sleep, and smugly receiving compliments from those near us, to death-stares from half of the plane. Even the cabin crew have skipped their “Thank you, goodbye!” as we got off the plane – I didn’t even know they could do that, isn’t it part of their contract to be ridiculously perfect?!
Every parent wants to know the big secret which reveals how to have a successful flight with young-uns. While there isn’t one solid answer, we’ve put together a few tips to help you keep your sanity…and maybe your fellow passengers’.
Different airlines have varying facilities for kids. Left: Samantha in her own car seat. Top right: Dylan in the “duffel bag”. Bottom right: Virgin Atlantic’s Sky Cot
It begins as soon as you book your flights
Call the airline as soon as you’ve booked to see if you can get an in-flight cot/bassinet for your baby. Virgin Atlantic has a brilliant one that uses their Upper Class leather and makes you want to swap places with them for the whole flight. One of these can give your baby a proper sleep, instead of waking every time you move a millimetre and can can make a world of difference.
The bassinets can get booked up quickly on popular flights so book asap so you don’t have to hold them the whole flight. Different airlines have different levels of bassinets – we were given a “duffel bag” to put Dylan in on his first long-haul flight. Weirdly, he did sleep really well on the floor almost the whole flight – and if he cried, we just zipped him up!! (Just kidding – honest!)
While you’re on the phone, check the rules on what baby accessories you can take on board for free and which you’ll have to pay for so there are no surprises when you arrive at the airport.
Also, book the food for your child now, too, if you didn’t do it while you booked. The kids’ meals usually come out 15 minutes before the adults. It will keep them entertained and might mean that they’re finished in time for when your meal is ready so you can use the tray, instead of sharing with your toddler.
The headphones that are given out on-board are usually uncomfortable for children, so invest in a nice, comfy pair.
Download their favourite shows or cartoons
You know that TV show or movie your little one is obsessed with? Be prepared and bring it with you! The last thing you want is to find out that there’s no Frozen on your two-inch screen that you’ll be staring at for 12 hours. Cue first meltdown of the flight and it’s from the adults: “No Elsa and Anna? Who doesn’t have Frozen as standard on every flight?!!! Noooo, I can’t get that movie out of my life and the ONE time I need it, it’s nowhere to be found?!!!”
All you need to do is be prepared and have it ready to go on your preferred device. And don’t just stick with their favourite, add some new ones on there too. You don’t need to pay through iTunes to download them these days. Remember, BBC iPlayer lets you download a show and keep it for 30 days, while Amazon Prime Video let you save movies onto your device, too.
We bought a cool external drive for our more recent trip which lets you stream three different films/shows at the same time. You can also upload (via its own wifi) all of your iPhone photos and videos so you’ll always have room to capture more memories.
Just remember to charge everything up the night before!!
Get them to practice wearing headphones
This sounds a bit OTT but you need to know what you’re getting yourself into. Headphones are funny things that toddlers and babies don’t really like to wear. Borrow or invest in ones with large comfortable pads that go over the ears – they have some cool boy and girl (Frozen) versions out there – wireless ones would be the dream, if you can afford it. Never use in-ear headphones, they won’t stay in and it’s not good for babies and toddlers.
Always check the volume before putting them on your cherub’s ears and if they decide they hate the feeling of them during the practice, at least you know not to bank on them during the flight and you can pack sedatives instead (kidding again, promise!)
If they do like their new headphones and get used to them quickly, then they should feel comfortable wearing them in the air and, will be more likely to amuse themselves.
Make the most of your baggage allowance
You can get your bassinet on a flight as part of your “buggy.” The bassinet can then double up as a bed so there’s no need for a travel cot at your destination. It’s also good for babies not to always be in the car seat on the buggy, too.
So, everyone in the family will usually get one free checked bag with the flight – even the tiny newborn whose clothes are the size of your granny pants – not that I have any! So, why not stuff their clothes into the rest of the family’s suitcases. This will allow you to check a travel cot (Pack-And-Play) or a car seat, as their bag. Also, check with family/your hotel to see if they have any essential items that you can borrow for free.
Again, make sure you’ve phoned the airline ahead to make sure you know what you have to pay to take on the flight. Some items, such as car seats and buggies/strollers, are often free to check in. If you have a nifty ‘Transformer’ buggy, which can carry a car seat, traditional seat or bassinetto turn it into a bassinet buggy at check-in, so the car seat flies for free.
If they’re still ickle, you can use the detachable bassinet as their bed when you stay instead of a Travel Cot.
BOOM! Car seat, bed and buggy all for free!!
Snacks (lots of them) and toys (not too many)
Get those snacks out and keep ’em coming!
The “distract them with food” principle pretty much works for all toddlers and babies at anytime, anywhere. Try to pack ones that aren’t quickly eaten so they have to take a while to eat them.
This does however mean they might not eat their actual plane food dinner but this is probably ok. Most baby/toddler meal items are pretty easily packed away to eat later, and trying to have two meals on a tiny pull down tray with a wriggling baby or toddler on your lap, trying to grab your delicious glass of wine brownie, is not easy.
Also be selective with the toys you choose to bring in your hand luggage. The planner in you will want to pack every toy that your little one could possibly play with but this is just one more thing to juggle, along with everything else. Think of small, new toys that you can deal out slowly.
Make friends with the check-in staff
This is a bit of a gamble but try not to check-in online ahead of your flight. Yes, you won’t have that peace of mind that you’ll definitely be sat next to each other. The thing about checking in online is that you won’t be able to leave a spare seat between you and your other half (in the hope that no-one will want it and you get a “free” seat for your toddler without having to pay full-price for one) BUT the check-in staff can!!
Arrive nice and early, so you don’t end up at different ends of the plane, but be nice (friendly and chatty) to the staff there and ask if they can help you out with our “spare seat” trick. Some airlines try to sell you these “cheaper” toddler seats but quite often, if the check-in person likes you, they can make the seat next to you inaccessible for free.
Got an Under Two on your lap for the flight? Look at the benefit of getting that middle seat!
You see, the difference between a spare seat in between you and your partner in crime is SLEEP, food and drink. Instead of having to wake the baby up to go to the toilet, or by mistakenly dripping ice-cream on their head while they’re sleeping (come on, we’ve all done it!), they can snooze away next to you!
It also doubles up as an impromptu playroom for the thousands of toys you brought broken headphones they decide to play with. It really can make all the difference.
The airline staff want to make the flight as enjoyable for you and the other passengers so many look to help young families out whenever they can. It’s not like you’re asking for an upgrade to First Class, which is what people usually try!
Make besties with the cabin crew
The cabin crew can also sometimes provide a free creche* service!! *We can’t back that up, some are just really nice and helpful and will entertain your kids for you!
So, the Check-in staff might’ve helped you out but it’s the cabin staff who are actually on the flight with you for 12 hours. When they’re not busy during take-off, landing and meal service, the cabin crew like to chat and make the flight go faster themselves, too.
Smile, thank them for everything and find out more about them.
It seems trivial but there have been many times where the loving arms of the stewardess have distracted our little ones from screaming down the plane and given us that much needed ten seconds of rest.
Don’t assume they all hate kids just because everyone thinks children on planes are the worst thing ever created – nice kids are fun to chat to. A few of the Virgin Atlantic crew on our flight to San Diego started entertaining them for free!! One let them sit in the crew seats and showed them around the galley. The kids loved it and it chalked off another 30 minutes off the flight. We saw them at the baggage carousel and a few of them said “Bye Dylan, bye Samantha!” The Virgin Atlantic crew really are fab, so do try to go with them,if it’s cost-effective for you!
If all else fails, and the airline isn’t as friendly, then find an old lady who’ll coo and fall in love with your little one as you walk around.
Expect the worst
Dylan and Samantha ended up becoming cabin crew during a recent flight
Gone are the days of a flight being 12 hours where you’re forced to relax, watch some films, read a book and have a few drinks. Well, they might not be gone. Just don’t have these kind of expectations. Remember that half a day in a metal tube, travelling at hundreds of miles an hour in the sky, is a real challenge for us adults.
So, if you expect the worst, most headachy, sleep-deprived journey of your life, at least you’ll be mentally prepared from it.
There is a chance that your little one surprises you and they don’t scream their way across the Atlantic but by thinking that this will be the toughest few hours since that first night you brought them home from the hospital, any good moments will feel like heaven.
Work as partners in crime
And stay united. Don’t let your little dictator break your bond! They control enough of your life and will do for many years to come. Remember those early days of sleepless nights and the ‘no way out’ feeling? Long haul flights are just like that.
Work as a team throughout the flight so you each get time to sleep and relax…a tiny bit!
Work as a team. Agree a set time to “swap shifts.” Whether it’s a valuable hour-or-so to watch a movie or get some shut-eye, choose wisely and make the most of it so that you each can enjoy a few minutes to yourself and so you don’t feel resentful of your partner before the holiday has even started.
You might get lucky and the baby will fall asleep on your shift. This is the dream because you still get to pass the baby over after two hours, even though it was an easy one. (Actually, the dream is for everyone to sleep for a few hours – it does happen!!)
Get your walking boots on
Plan on walking pacing the aisles. You’ll have the cabin’s floor-plan memorised by the time you get off the plane.
Long-haul is not your hour-and-a-half flight to Spain where you’re only allowed to take your seat-belt off to go to the loo – walking around is encouraged. It has a very different culture. People hang out at exit rows, change into ‘sweats’, and go to the toilet just to brush their teeth and freshen up. So, don’t be afraid to let little ones tear up and down those aisles.
Little legs need to walk and run, so restricting them will just add to those tantrums. You’re more likely to find that the old lady who is staring at them is actually trying to catch their eye and wants to play with them while you stand there and zone out for a few minutes!
For babies, remember to pack a Baby Bjorn or sling. They’re a great plane accessory so you can give your arms a break and give them some different views. It also increases the chances that your little one will fall asleep on you so you can – ever…so…carefully, sit back down once they’re out and enjoy some quiet time.
Feed those newborns
Dylan, at three-months-old, on his way to California for the first time
Whether it’s a plastic nipple or the fleshy kind, get that milk flowing.
This may not be possible for those with 3 or 4 year old travel companions (or maybe it is, who am I to judge!?) but did you know that if you breast feed your bubba on take-off and landing that the sucking action will help to pop their ears? Ain’t no fury like the fury of a baby whose ears won’t pop when those seatbelt signs are on!
It’s also usually the scariest part for a baby so the comfort of some milk and their momma is a great combo.
I’m sorry, but even the best airlines in the world don’t have baby changing facilities that are fit for purpose. Quite often, only one of the six or seven toilets will have a baby changer, so note down where it is.
Even worse, I’ve pulled the baby changer down and it’s literally half the size of the baby and no way to secure them, so I luckily caught my little one before they fell into the sink! It’s all very 1980s still!
So, for older toddlers, practice the standing-up nappy change. This can be tricky, especially for number two’s. Have them stand over the mat and “touch their toes” when needed. “Ew gross!” I hear you say? Well if you would rather sit for 12 hours with that smell on your lap – or the death stares of your fellow passengers – be my guest! It is possible to do – and there may be no other option – so it’s best to practice at home when you can actually move your elbows.
If you’ve got a new-born and have seats in the bulk-head area, which is usually reserved for those travelling with babies, then we have done several discreet “number one” changes which are SO much easier than having to enter the dreaded toilets.
No flight is the same
The kids are only as good as their last flight. Don’t expect them to be awful or great.Just because the first leg of your journey was close to what you imagine a brief stay at Guantanamo Bay might be like, doesn’t mean that the return journey will be.
Every flight is different. We find that the kids are more lively flying from the UK and then sleep most of the way home.
The opposite also applies.
Be careful not to brag too much about how your little cherub “slept the whole way” and “everyone on the plane complimented you on how good they were” because, as luck would have it, you’ll be eating those words during your next in-flight meal – if your toddler hasn’t knocked it onto the floor yet.
Try not to worry what others are thinking
Let your little one stand in the aisle next to you. It’s a long-haul flight, no-one will mind as long as they’re not annoying them.
As you take your seat on the plane, it’s most likely that all your neighbours will give you a polite smile as you sit down, then turn to their travel companion with a big, “oh great!” at the sight of your family sitting next to them for what was meant to be a relaxing flight to their dream destination.
Try not to be wrapped up in what everyone’s thinking of you. There’s no need to have the permanent “I’m sorry” face stuck on your mug the whole time.
Remember, that most of the people on the flight – even the solo business travellers that avoid eye contact – have probably got kids and know what you’re going through. Some people might look at you with a pained expression. Not because they’re annoyed that your child is screaming, but because they feel sorry for you.
The odds are that they will find your singing (loudly) and dancing (badly) two-year-old funny and cute! And, if they don’t, worrying over it isn’t going to help anyone. It’s best to save your mental energy to dig the recesses of your mind for just one more song to sing with your little one. And besides, you know your baby best so whatever their judgement is: it’s wrong. I promise you, at any given point in time whether it be in air or on land you are inherently doing what is best for your baby and therefore the rest of the passengers too.
The Golden rule…
Your kids will be great, Frequent Flyers before long!
Is that there is no golden rule. No tips will help stop a baby with colic from crying – sometimes you’ll just have to power through. Babies don’t read blogs, unfortunately.
But remember, you are on this trip for a reason. Think about the family you’ve missed so much, who will be delighted to take your little screamer off your hands for as long as you want when you land. They can’t wait to get to know them better and you can rest/eat/shower/zone out.
Think of the holiday you’ll have with the squeals of delight coming from your little one as they splash in the pool. The awesome memories you will be making and the photos you will be able to show your little one of their first big trip.
Remember, in the big scheme of things, it’s just a short(ish) flight for a lifetime of memories.
Find cheaper flights and holidays – Seven Top Tips
January. It’s the month that no-one really likes: Christmas is over, you’re broke, you’ve eaten too much and you’re back at work, depressed – searching for something to look forward to.
January can put most people into a glass case of emotion. Source: Jalopnik.com
What adverts do we see in the middle of every TV show?
Tanned people, skipping in slow-motion across an idyllic beach; Arnold Schwarzenegger “vel-coming” everybody to California from a table on a rock-pool; or the latest “viral” idea from a package holiday company with an annoying kid dressed as a shark dancing to a cool song that won’t stay cool for much longer.
They all make you want to throw your remote at the TV!
It’s time to go hard, or…go on holiday!
Booking a whole year ahead is the best time to get a good deal but it’s pretty hard to afford, and plan, another holiday while you’re still kicking sand out of your shoes from the last one.
In January, the travel industry applies pressure everywhere you look to “help you” beat the January blues, but I think it’s a pretty good month to book your tickets – especially with everyone in ‘sales’ mode.
Dylan found a cool way to save money: become a co-pilot!
You see, the big airlines (British Airways, Virgin Atlantic etc) usually have their sales on in January – it’s nearly impossible to find seats cheaper after this. The smaller airlines try to compete and the package holidays are still well-priced for the summer and will only get more expensive (unless you’re going to go for a late 1990s ‘Teletext Last Minute deal’ where you turn up at the airport with just a passport and a suitcase).
As I’ve said before, I always look around for the best deal on everything because I like using the money that I’ve saved to help pay for the next big purchase.
I’ve booked at least one long and short haul trip every year since I met Mrs R on a revolving dancefloor in Mexico in 2004 (that story will need its own blog post) and I’ve never paid the full price.
If you’d rather not have the hassle of spending a couple of hours on your computer to save a few hundred quid, go and book your holiday now (or skip to Tip 6) but to be fair, if you’re that kind of person you’re probably not still reading this article, anyway!
For everyone else, here are the Life of Reilly tips to help you save some hard-earned cash:
Top Tips to save money on any trip
1. Grab a beer or glass of wine
Good tip, huh?! You’re going to be on your computer for a little while, so get relaxed and settle down for some super-searching.
If you’re looking at a long haul trip, I think it’s best to book your Flight and Hotel separately (there are exceptions) but if you’re going for a two-week, all-inclusive trip in Europe, then stick with the package holiday theme.
2. Go to a big-name travel company/airline’s site
If you’re flying long-haul find a guide price at the airline that you’ve got most Air Miles with, whether that’s British Airways, Virgin Atlantic or Delta.
If you’re looking for a package holiday, go to a major holiday company website, like Thomas Cook or Thomson. They usually have a really nice, user-friendly layout with great photos, videos and easy to understand pricing so you can pick a resort that you want to search on some no-so pretty sites.
Note down the prices of the dates that you want to travel. Make sure you check a midweek flight, as these are normally cheaper.
3. Check the comparison sites – and ours!
You may have found a good price for your British Airways flight in their sale but you can usually buy it cheaper through a smaller travel company. The quickest and easiest way to do this is to put the flight you found – and dates – into a Comparison site, such as Skyscanner (flights only), Travel Supermarket (flights and packages) and LastMinute.com (flights and packages).
This should have knocked a couple of hundred off the total flight price, and maybe more than a grand from a package. They will tell you the company that the cheapest offer is with: note that down.
Now you know where the cheapest flight is from, head on over and see if it’s even cheaper via their own website. Sometimes they give the best deal to the comparison site, but quite often they don’t. You may not have heard of this company you’re looking up but the comparison sites should only send you to legitimate companies. If you’re worried, keep an eye out for the ABTA and ATOL logos.
You should now know where your best deal is. Don’t get the credit card out yet, we can still save more!
5. Check the online big-boys (flights only)
Quite often, the internet travel giants, Expedia, Opodo, eBookers, Booking.com etc, will have special exclusive deals with an airline, so just check one of these to make sure you’re not missing a bargain.
6. Get some cashback
Did you know you can get cashback on most major purchases? We’ve got more than a grand back via Top Cashback in the last few years. There are others out there too, Quidco is the other big one.
Choose one of these providers – unless you’re more thrifty than even I am and you want to check both – and search the name of the company that offered you cheapest deal, whether it’s Virgin Atlantic, Thomson, lowcostholidays, they’re usually all on there!
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
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
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!
Knokwas 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 Swapoffered 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 passesas 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.
Representative in your country to discuss swap
Second year free if you don't find a swap
Only pay when you find your home exchange
Love Home Swap
£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.
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.
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’ 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.
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.
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.
Ok, it’s New Year’s Day, the annual date in the calendar where everyone sets ambitious resolutions for the year ahead that they’ll never keep.
Within two weeks, all but one friend is back eating junk food in front of the TV and trying to find a way to cancel the gym membership without having to go in.
This year, I hope to be that one friend that keeps it going. Nope, I’m not going to stop eating and start getting fit (sorry wifey) but I am going to give travel blogging/vlogging a go and hope to keep going past January.
So, hi! I’m Dave. As you might’ve seen from our ‘About Us’ section, I’m a TV producer and university lecturer. I’m used to making reports for TV News (features usually – I’m more of a ‘Mr And Finally’ and Sport, rather than the man stood outside court) but, apart from some corporate work, I’ve never made anything under my own name for the internet.
Why now? Well, like Liam Neeson, I have a particular set of skills. I can shoot, edit, write and produce videos. I think YouTube videos and online content will soon overtake traditional TV as the place to showcase work.
I’m very interested in the future of online video content, so I’ll be partly using this site to feed into the academic research I’ll be doing with my university lecturer hat – mortar board – on (get used to the bad jokes), so that I can pass on what I learn.
Do I want to be the next Zoella? No, I’ve never actually seen her stuff, plus I don’t think people want to hear my views on make-up (is that what she does?).
Those that know me well, know that I like to find a bargain and will spend hours at a computer screen to try to save a few hundred quid. I’m totally that annoying person who’ll have bought the same TV, car or holiday for less than you’ve paid for it – I love a bargain – so I’ll be doing some of the hard work for you, when I can.
Seriously, how can you entertain toddlers on an 11-hour Trans-Atlantic flight?
The main reason for me doing this, is that we love to travel as a family and we are always asked about it: How do you survive an 11-hour Trans-Atlantic flight with babies and toddlers? How do you travel around California? Where’s the best place to eat? How does a House Swap work? Where should we actually go in Los Angeles? Seriously, how do you survive an 11-hour Trans-Atlantic flight with babies and toddlers?
It came to me, when my wife said she wanted to ‘do’ Route One (from San Francisco to San Diego) last year. I searched for weeks for the best way to ‘do it’ but no-one had posted a practical article of timings or created a video which was entertaining and informative. So, I borrowed a mate’s DSLR (cheers, Brett), took a GoPro to California last summer and started shooting things as a vlogger for the first time, much to the annoyance of Alicia (Mrs R, you’ll get to know her soon) who was constantly telling me off for slowing everyone down the whole time!
What you’ll see on this site over the next few weeks (definitely), months (hopefully) and years (definitely, hopefully) will have grown from that one subject to many thousands of miles of travelling, filming, editing and exploring the world with my favourite people on the planet.
I’m not planning on producing a video or blog-post every week – it will be quality over quantity – so make sure you follow our Facebook and Twitter pages to make sure you don’t miss out on anything.
Future articles will be much more informative – and less indulgent – but I just wanted to lay it all out there for my first blog-post.
Right, time to get writing and editing. I hope you enjoy watching and reading about our travels and that you’ll let us know if/when you visit the same place as us, to find out if we were able to help you live the Life of Reilly.
Get in touch, if you have any ideas or places you think we should visit!