Tag: usa

50 things you might not know about the USA…even if you’ve been there!

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.

Last year, American Scott Waters’ gave his honest and quirky views of the UK, which were so good because they were such normal and real things.

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!

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!

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!

A video posted by April Carlson (@byerk) on

  • 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.

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 match Michigan vs Eastern Michigan which 110,000 people went to. Photo by Andrew Horne.

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

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? Taken in Mountain View, Northern California by Danielle Reich.

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.

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 (1.2L) of your favourite type of soft drink/soda. Photo: Russell Bernice

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.

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.

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

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 the same 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.

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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