At the conclusion of our six week trip across USA it may be useful to put down a summary of our experiences which may be helpful to anyone thinking about similar travels.
PLANNING - everything was planned and booked on the internet. ebookers was used for planning and booking flights and rental car. This worked pretty well with a minor glitch when despite my specification of collection and return of the rental car to OHare International airport somehow my reservation slip indicated that return would be to the Alamo centre in downtown Chicago. When I queried this the ebookers administration could not accept this was a fault in their booking procedure and insisted that I pay an additional fee to change our reservation. This I refused to do and I decided to sort this out with Alamo when we arrived in Chicago which we did without problems or further costs. Otherwise the ebookers system seems to work well. But if you need to deal with the support people you may encounter difficulties. For hotel reservations I used pricerighthotels.com for most of the bookings. This worked perfectly and I found it an excellent web site for reviewing a wide range of hotels in most places we wanted to visit, comparing facilities and prices, and reserving accommodation. It also works well if you need to cancel. Actually this is an important feature to check out before reserving. I prefer to use hotels which a). do not require advance payment and b). provide flexible cancellation terms where you can cancel without penalty right up to the day of arrival. Of course some hotels are not that flexible particularly at the more popular resorts so you may have to compromise. A few places like the North Rim Grand Canyon Lodge are not available on pricerighthotels so these have to be booked on their own web sites. The National Park lodges like the above really need to be booked well in advance because they are so popular. I advise 12 months if possible. We booked the Grand Canyon in May for late September and were lucky to find vacancies which were on dates which didnt quite match our itinerary but we just had to adapt around what was available. Of course you can keep trying because there are inevitable cancellations.
I prefer to reserve hotels as opposed to just looking for accommodation while you travel. There are arguments for and against, but having had bad experiences when not booking because of unexpected situations such as our trip coinciding with a bikers convention in Sturgis, South Dakota which meant that every hotel from Chicago to Rapid City was booked out, we prefer to play it safe these days.
BAGGAGE - we followed the instructions specified by the airlines and had no problems. It is best to go to the website of the specific airline you are using to get the details as there are minor variations. The requirements at the UK end appear to be more stringent than in USA so if you follow the UK specifications you will have no problem on the return from USA. The main points are to have only one piece of cabin baggage which includes handbag, laptop, camera etc. - you can not take on a small case plus something else. The specified maximum dimensions are quite generous so it is worth acquiring a decent small case of the appropriate dimensions to carry everything you might need at hand. I was able to fit my laptop, a SLR camera, another small camera, documents and the requisite transparent bag for liquids into my hand case. The other key point is that you are not allowed to carry in your cabin baggage any liquids in excess of what you put in one re-sealable transparent plastic bag of max size 20 cm x 20 cm. Each liquid container must be 100 ml or less. Liquids include pastes such as toothpaste, gels, creams. It pays to do your homework and to follow the regulations implicitly. Do not assume that you will be able to get away with minor infringements. It is simply not worth the potential delays and hassle.
LOST BAGGAGE - we didnt have any lost baggage but as a precaution I registered with a baggage recovery facility baggagepin.com
This provides labels with unique PIN numbers which tie in to a central web database providing details of how you can be contacted on your travels so in theory a useful way of reconnecting missing bags with their owners. It was not expensive but fortunately we did not have to check on its effectiveness.
COMMUNICATIONS - our main means of communication was via a laptop using hotmail. We found that virtually all hotels were equipped with wireless internet connections in the hotel rooms which was really brilliant. In two instances I had problems in connecting because of incompatibility problems which was probably due to my laptops operating system Vista. A couple of hotels did not provide wireless but did provide a hard wire Ethernet connection which worked fine. In some cases it was necessary to obtain a password from hotel registration but mostly the connections were on unsecured networks. All connections were free of charge.
Our mobile telephone which is a tri-band frequency phone and therefore theoretically capable of operating around the world was not very effective and only worked in Chicago and as far west as Omaha but once over the Missouri was not able to connect to a network. This is not a technology problem but more down to arrangements that O2 have with US networks. In any case it is too expensive and we found it much cheaper to use prepaid phone cards which you can buy on the internet. Some USA hotels also offer these cards for sale. Basically you dial a freefone number from your hotel room, key in a PIN followed by your destination number. This works very well, costs about 5p per minute to call UK from USA and the hotels do not charge you because you dial out on a freefone number.
RENTAL CAR - we rented a Cadillac STS from Alamo. We originally booked a Full Size rather than a Premium category but the Alamo guy convinced me that we should go for a low cost upgrade because we would gain considerably more comfort which would be advantageous for such a long drive. I didnt need a lot of convincing to be honest but it probably was a good choice.
For motoring enthusiasts the STS which stands for Seville Touring Sedan is Cadillacs flagship model. It has a 4.6 litre DOHC Northstar V8 of 320 hp with 6 speed automatic transmission. It has Magnetic Ride Control suspension which is claimed to be the fastest reacting suspension ever. Certainly it irons out bumps extremely well and gives a very smooth and quiet ride. The Bose stereo system is also top class. The economy was pretty good for this class of car and we averaged about 28 mpg.
HOTELS - we used a variety of hotels ( motels really ) on our trip. Some were basic like Super 8 motels and Econo Lodges but all provided reasonable accommodation; spacious rooms with en suite bathroom and comfortable beds. All motels were air conditioned. The usual arrangement is for breakfast to be included in the price. This usually consisted of a buffet set-up with juice, cereals, toasted bagels, waffles etc. and coffee and tea which we found perfectly adequate. For those who prefer a cooked ham and eggs breakfast then they would need to visit a local restaurant.
You can not rely on Hotel names. One Holiday Inn will be excellent and the next one very ordinary. It all depends on the location, age and who is operating the franchise.
FACTS AND FIGURES
Total mileage 6,230 miles
Greatest mileage in a day 360 miles
Average mileage on driving days 210 miles
Average petrol consumption 28 mpg ( per imperial gallon)
Average price of petrol $ 3.00 per gall ( per US gallon)
Equivalent price £ 0.39 per litre
Average hotel cost per day £ 51 (excluding Chicago)
Average cost of meals per day £ 23 (for two people)
Location: Chicago, USA
We are back to our starting point in Chicago. Yesterday we had a busy day walking about the downtown area to see the sights. The magnificent mile with its skyscrapers and expensive shopping malls - Millennium park with its interesting sculptures - the Art Institute with its extensive collection of paintings and artefacts - it all made for a fascinating day. Our feet were sore by the end of the day. Walking around cities can be wearing. We are staying at a downtown hotel which is very convenient for all the amenities and consequently rather expensive. Actually Chicago is an expensive place. I suppose just like other major centres of tourism like New York or London. But it comes as a shock after spending six weeks in the west where everything is a lot cheaper. Of course the big culture shock started on the drive into Chicago. After 40 days on the road in the wide open spaces of the West to suddenly be confronted by wall to wall traffic on the expressway? into the city was a painful reminder of congestion and stress.
Before we reached Chicago we had an interesting detour to Burr Oak in Iowa to the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum. As the knowledgeable curator said there was nothing special about the life of the Ingalls and Wilder families of their time. There were lots of pioneering families going through the same migrations and hardships associated with setting up homes in demanding environments. But the difference was that Laura set it all down in writing for posterity. She had a gift for describing the good times and the bad times in a simple matter of fact way so that the reader can easily visualise what life must have been like in those times. The books are not just for children they are good historical accounts for adults.
After Iowa we crossed the Mississippi at Lansing and continued eastwards across Wisconsin. Preparations for Halloween are in full swing and many of the houses there are bedecked with pumpkins, ghosts, witches, and spiders webs.
This is our final entry for our travels so thanks for keeping us company along the way and hope these notes give some idea of what a wonderful country USA is to spend a holiday.
Location: Iowa, USA
The highlight of yesterdays journey across Nebraska was a visit to the Ashfall Fossil Beds which are not far from Orchard in northern Antelope County. Nearly 12 million years ago hundreds of rhinos, three toed horses, camels and other animals were killed by volcanic ash around the edges of a watering hole. The ash came from a massive volcanic eruption in Idaho hundreds of miles away. This probably took place over several days as the desperate animals turned to the water hole for survival and succumbed eventually to be buried under feet of ash. The amazingly well preserved skeletons lay undisturbed until the 1970s when study of the fossilised remains began. Absolutely fascinating!
Today the weather turned cloudy and remained cool so we have the feeling of getting close to home. We are already missing the glorious West - the sunshine and vivid rock scenery but all good things have to come to an end. We had a long drive through the prairies of Iowa which seems to be devoted to corn for ethanol production. A lot of harvesting is still going on so the landscape is full of agricultural machines and trucks transporting corn to the ethanol plants. There are many neat farm houses with attractive old Dutch barns but most of the land is now owned by large ethanol corporations.
We have arrived at Decorah where we will spend tonight at the Country Inn by Carlson. This is a definite move up from the rather basic Super 8 and Econolodges of the previous few nights. The Country Inn is nicely appointed, very clean and spacious.
Tomorrow we hope to see the Laura Ingalls Wilder(of Little House on the Prairie fame - the books not the TV series) museum at Burr Oak which is not far from here.
Location: Nebraska, USA
W are now in Valentine, half way across Nebraska. It is much warmer here in the mid 70s and sunny.
We did not have any problems on the roads in the mountains. There was snow all around but the roads were dry and in good condition.
Leadville, which is the highest town in North America, is a pleasant old mining town. The timber houses are very individual and are painted in varied colours. In winter it is a popular place to stay for the skiing in nearby resorts such as Vail and Breckenridge which are about an hours drive. This way it is much more economical rather than staying at the resorts themselves. The owner of the motel where we stayed is an enthusiastic skier - he skied 100 days last winter so you can see where his priorities lie.
After Leadville we crossed the mountains to Steamboat Springs. From there we had a long drive through the south eastern corner of Wyoming and into Nebraska to stay at Scottsbluff. Not far away we passed Chimney Rock which was an important landmark for Oregon Trail migrants. They had plodded across the plains for 500 miles and Chimney Rock was the first recognisable feature. They were now entering more difficult country and had another 1000 miles to go. Feared Indian attacks were a myth. In fact the Sioux and other plains Indians were much more interested in trading with the travellers than in conflict. Most of the casualties on the trip were accidents; falling under wagons; shooting themselves with unnecessary firearms and starvation and exposure to blizzards and illness.
After leaving the North Platte river we headed north to the sand hills of Nebraska and on to Valentine. This is beef country. Also fishing and hunting country as evidenced by the notice on the door of our motel which stipulates - no fish cleaning in rooms and no bird cleaning in rooms and all guns to be unloaded before entering and please no guns on beds also do not use towels for cleaning guns or boots! The mind just boggles.
Location: Colorado, USA
We just came out of a Mexican restaurant in Leadville and it was snowing. Talk about contrasts in the weather. Three days ago in Escalante it was typical high desert conditions and blazing hot. Leadville is over 10,000 ft so not surprisingly a lot cooler. We are hoping road conditions will be OK tomorrow as I do not fancy driving a rear wheel drive Cadillac with summer tyres in snow and ice.
Escalante was our last canyon hike on this trip. We walked up Calf Creek canyon to the lower falls. It was beautiful and most of the hike was in the shade so not too hot. The pool at the foot of the falls looked very inviting but because the water comes from an underground aquifer it is icy cold so we didnt follow the example of a young girl who had a swim. Our accommodation that night was at a B&B. This was different. The rooms had western themes and were quite nicely furnished if you dont mind a log framed bed. Our next door neighbours said they had real barbed wire arranged around their bed. We should have realised what kind of a place this was going to be by the statement in the list of rules and regulations that breakfast was the chefs choice - and what a choice! An other instruction was to be prompt for breakfast at 07.30. The impression gained was that if you did not comply with all these instructions you were likely to be strung up with barbed wire on the corral fence. A very customer orientated hostelry! The breakfast consisted of a plateful of egg smeared slices of French toast in a melange of melon, grapes and tinned orange slices with some hideous dollops of spicy sausage meat with onions. That was it. No cereals. No orange juice. Just that awful concoction.
Our next stop was Durango in Colorado. This is a sizeable town with an interesting old quarter dating from the mining boom days of the 1880s. We spent a day just relaxing and looking around shops and museums. There is a Cowboy Gathering on at the moment so there were lots of Stetsons wandering about. The speciality of the many galleries etc. is Indian jewellery mainly from Zuni and Navajo craftsmen. Some of it really attractive. The weather changed when we arrived in Colorado and we were awakened in the morning by a huge clap of thunder.
Today it rained most of the day as we drove to Leadville with fresh snow in the mountains.
Tonight celebrating Englands win over Australia - I was hoping to meet some Aussies but no such luck - I had a very fine Mexican beer Negra Modelo. It is really good and we were just running through all the different beers we have sampled on this trip - Running Dog, Fat Tire, Pinstripe Red Ale, Zion Porter, Wasatch IPA to mention a few. Most of these are from local micro breweries and pretty tasty. The funniest label is Polygamy Porter with the slogan Why have just one? But the thing that amazed me is that Newcastle Brown is available as one of the top imported beers right across America. Someone at Newcastle or whoever owns them these days has been doing an outstanding marketing job.