A road-trip across the USA was an idea of a dream for me, but I never thought that one day I would actually be able to do it. After doing some research online, I found a website called Gap360 who provide tours around the world, the one I really wanted to do was the San Francisco to New York road trip. Compared to booking each part of the trip separately, Gap360 books the whole trip in one go and have preferential rates at a lot of hotels and campgrounds around the US. For £2199, (that’s for a 23 day adventure!) I was able to take the trip with them (camping along the way) at a fraction of what I would have spent doing it all myself. It was a great experience and i’m glad I did it this way. The stress of driving is in the hands of the two local trip leaders who take you to each place, plus you get to see so much of this beautiful country by road. It was the perfect way of ticking this once in a lifetime opportunity off my bucket list.
The great thing about this particular way of planning a trip is that you are able to secure your place with a deposit and then pay the remaining balance off as and when you can. In a moment of madness I put down the deposit which encouraged me to actually take this once in a lifetime opportunity. Gap run tour dates throughout the year, all you have to do is make sure you’re at the starting location when the trip commences, it’s pretty simple really. You are responsible for booking flights and for getting enough spending money in time for the trip. If you plan far enough in advance you should have plenty of time to save up. I had the trip booked a year before I was due to go so had plenty of time to save up and get everything together.
The tours that Gap360 provide are very much a hands on experience. They provide trips and experiences all around the world for varying lengths of time. Typically aimed at gap year students, the trips they offer are affordable and fun, plus you get to meet a lot of new people along the way, so don’t be put off if you’re a lone traveller. They operate the tours with small groups, so expect no more than 20 people on a tour at any one time. You’re greeted at the first hotel and briefed on how the trip works, a bit about each location and everyones responsibilities. You’ll be transported across the country in a mini-van, stopping at various camp grounds along the way (with some hotels in the main cities). It is everyone’s responsibility in the group to help with cooking, cleaning and putting up and dismantling the camping gear, so you’ll soon get to know everyone in your group pretty quickly. In each location you are free to do whatever you please, whether it’s shopping, sightseeing or doing laundry! The trip leaders are a wealth of knowledge, so ask them if you aren’t sure what to do in each location. Along the way you’ll see some unforgettable sights and become a bit of a pro at putting up a tent!
The price of the trip is great value, especially considering a trip to New York is about £500 on it’s own! You’ll see so much of the country and have so many experiences, I simply cannot fault it. The staff at Gap support you through the whole process and even provide emergency contact details while you are away. I was regularly emailing them about different aspects of the trip and they were helpful every time I had a query. It’s great knowing you’re in the hands of locals who know the areas to see and the areas to avoid, plus you’ll be with a group of fellow travellers so you’ll feel safe the whole time.
Starting in San Francisco and travelling east to New York, you get to see some amazing sights on this trip. Most of the places you would want to visit in the US are combined into a great 3 week tour packed with amazing experiences.
Initially flying into to San Francisco, you get a day to explore the city. I would recommend flying out a couple of days earlier so you have more time to explore the city. Take a ride on a traditional cable car, cycle to the Golden Gate bridge or take a ferry to Alcatraz Island. San Francisco is now one of my favourite cities and I wouldn’t hesitate to come back here.
The next stop is Yosemite, the phenomenal national park full of forests and hiking trails. At first sight, I knew I loved this place. We got a full day to hike around the park; that’s plenty of time to try the Panorama trail, full of fantastic views, but remember to stock up on water!
From Yosemite we had a long drive to Death Valley. This place is the hottest place I have ever visited. I could only bear a couple of minutes outside the air conditioned van, but it’s still an impressive place to see.
Heading further into the desert we stopped at Las Vegas. I’d never been to Vegas before but i’d go again. No matter what the time of day or night, the vast buildings on the Strip are something to behold. Go to Caesars and try your hand at Black Jack.
The most anticipated place on the trip for me was visiting the Grand Canyon. The photos online don’t do this place justice, it’s truly breathtaking. If you get the chance take a helicopter ride over the canyon, you won’t be disappointed!
Monument Valley was the location of our next stop, although not the traditional camp ground we were expecting. Here we went on a jeep trek through all the different rock sculptures, finishing our evening eating Navajo tacos and camping under the stars.This was the most unique experience I could have had on a trip like this. The night sky was unlike any I had ever seen before.
We were now on our way to New Mexico. We had a walk around Santa Fe, visited the UFO museum in Roswell and took an elevator into the depths of Carlsbad Caverns. We even stayed to watch the bats at the amphitheatre early in the evening.
Crossing the border to Texas, our next stop was at San Antonio. The home of the Alamo and the beautiful river walk lit up in the evening with loads of shops, cafes and restaurants.
With a stop at Crystal Beach in Texas we were then on our way to New Orleans. This place is like no other city I had visited in the US. The buildings are quirky and there’s a great vibe and loads of live music. If you’re into nightlife, Bourbon Street is the place to be.
I hadn’t researched Memphis before the trip, but our stop in the city was drowned (quite literally) by a terrific storm the evening we arrived. We managed a quick stop at the Lorraine Motel, the location of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. before heading back to a soaked campsite.
Our next stop was Nashville, although we only got a brief time here the live music is like none I have experienced before. There are some great country bands performing here, give them a listen and get the true feel of Nashville’s musical history.
The road trip wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the countries capital, Washington D.C. Home to the White House, the United States Capitol building, the Lincoln Memorial and that lake Jenny waded through in Forrest Gump. This place is unmissable.
A surprise stop on our trip was a morning in Philadelphia. We managed to get into Philadelphia on the 4th July so were able to watch a bit of the 4th of July parade. For anyone who has seen the film National Treasure, this is the home of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, the birth place of the Declaration of Independence.
And finally New York. The Big Apple. My favourite city in the world. I could stay in New York for weeks and never get bored. From the heights of the One World Observatory to the history of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, this place is full of iconic sights. I’m yet to find someone that doesn’t love New York’s charm.
If you’re interested in embarking on an adventure such as this, i’ve listed a few helpful pointers to keep you on the right track. These are quite specific for the cross country road-trip, but can help when planning a trip of your own too!
- Trip Cost – Plan your trip so you know you have plenty of time to pay the balance off when it is due. Usually the full payment will need to be received about 5 weeks before you’re due to leave so set a plan and stick to it. As soon as I put that deposit down I knew I was committed, I budgeted each months pay to make sure I had enough money to cover the cost of the trip. I booked my place a year before going, which gave me a good amount of time to plan and pay everything off.
- Flights – Only book your flights once you know what date you wish to start the trip. Shop around to find best value and make sure your flight times don’t impact on the itinerary of the trip. I travelled out two days before the trip was due to start so I had extra time in San Francisco and returned a day after the trip was finished so I had extra time in New York. If you chose to do this, make sure you have accommodation arrangements as anything before and after the trip dates isn’t covered. Check with Gap360 as they may be able to arrange extra accommodation at a good rate at an additional trip fee.
- Insurance – Don’t travel without the right travel insurance. For a trip as long as this, you need to make sure you’re prepared and having travel insurance is key. Gap were really good at checking all these things were in place before you were allowed to travel. Use the checklist provided and make sure your policy covers travel to the US for the duration of the trip. The last thing you want is to fall ill abroad and not have any way of covering the costs. Keep a file of all applicable paperwork with you on the trip so you have all the correct documents to hand if the need arises.
- Travel Visa – Particularly with the US, you need to have the correct travel visa to visit, even for a holiday. You will need to apply for an ESTA (authorisation to visit for a certain amount of time) in order to enter the country. Apply for your ESTA in good time so that any issues can be explored if you aren’t granted access straightaway. The application can be completed online and you will usually be approved within a couple of minutes. Print a copy and keep it with you on your travels. You may even need to produce a copy at customs so it’s best to have this just in case. The ESTA is valid for 2 years from the date of application, so make sure any current applications are in date before travelling. If travelling to another country after visiting the US, make sure you have the applicable visas for these countries too.
- Spending Money – It’s always tricky knowing how much money to take on a trip. For a 23 day trip I found £2000 was plenty. A couple of the days are travel days so you won’t spend money, whereas other days are in the cities where you’ll want to do a lot of activities. Plan ahead and check prices for activities you might want to do before leaving. I wasn’t going on this trip to go shopping so I had some money left when I got back. You will have to pay for some meals and for certain extras while you’re out there. I would highly recommend taking some cash and a back up currency card just in case anything happens. The great thing about the currency card is that my parents could top this up for me from the UK if there were any issues. I used a Fair FX card, which you can apply for online.
- Packing Essentials – The majority of this trip is spent camping, so there are a few essentials you’ll need like a sleeping bag and pillow. A detailed list of items you need is provided by Gap when you book the tour. Make sure you have everything on the list before travelling including clothing for all weathers (shorts, trousers, t-shirts and jumpers), swimwear, comfortable shoes, some sort of backpack to use on day trips and a water bottle (amongst other things). As I visited in June, the average temperature in each location was hot, although in some of the more exposed areas the temperature can drop at night. Pack a range of outfits (you can always do laundry on route) and make sure you have stocked up on any medication before you leave. Most of the camp sights have a shop and laundry facilities so you can always wash your clothes along the way. The tour leaders provide tents and inflatable mattresses when camping.
- Extra Activities – There are so many extra activities you can do in the locations on this trip. Gap can add some activities to you trip for an extra fee, I opted for the helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon as an optional extra, although in other locations you are free to book things as and when you please. For me, a trip to Alcatraz is a must if visiting San Fran and going to the top of the One World Observatory in New York is a definite. I found booking a lot of the activities independently before leaving more efficient than trying to book them when already on the trip, this also means you can plan what to do and when and know how much time you’ve got free. Make sure to print off any tickets you have pre-ordered before travelling.
If you’ve been on the USA road trip, i’d love to hear about your experience and for everyone about to go on the trip… Happy Travelling!