A few years before the pandemic, I spent three weeks on the west coast of the USA. After a week in Washington for work, we headed on, visiting 5 cities and the Grand Canyon in just under two weeks. It was heavy going. We drove over 2200 miles, through deep snow and into bright sunshine. Above all, it was an amazing journey, the kind that you never forget. And we managed it all on a shoestring budget.
This was partly possible by rolling the trip onto the end of a work trip, which obviously won’t be something available to everyone. If you do have the chance to travel for work and have your transport funded, however, consider tacking a holiday onto the end of your stay. Some costs, such as your flight to the destination and home again, can be covered by work. A rental car can also cost less when you hire it for a longer time, so if your company covers the first part of the hire, you’ll get a great deal on the rest of your time.
We started out by flying into Seattle, towards the end of February. There was a chill in the air, but we were lucky to spend a full day there without rain. We started out with our first stay in a real life American motel (just like you see in the movies!). Maybe it wasn’t the highest quality place we’ve ever stayed, but it just felt like one of those cultural things that you have to try. Plus, it was a great budget-saver.
We headed into the centre of the city, first walking along near the seafront and up towards the Space Needle. Along the way we passed the first Starbucks. After examining it – and the queue – closely from the outside, we decided that seeing it was enough. But we did find the time to stop in at a gorgeous little cafe/restaurant, which made the best grilled cheese I’ve ever tasted.
We drove from Seattle to Kennewick and spent a week there on business, before heading onwards to the West coast. It was the drive from Seattle that provided the most excitement. There was a heavy snowstorm as we drove through the mountains, passing by Native American reservations on either side. The depth of the snow was like nothing I’ve seen in the UK. It was magical, but also mildly terrifying as lorries skidded across the road in front of us. Big thanks have to be given to the rental car manager who took one look at us out-of-our-depth Brits and gave us a free snow tyre upgrade!
We spent one night in Crescent City before driving down to San Francisco, where we spent two nights. One day had to be spent in Alcatraz, exploring the now-ghostly prison and the cells that held some of the world’s most famous inmates. Looking back across the water, we could see the areas we had been walking an hour or so before. Over the wall of the prison yard you can see the Golden Gate Bridge. This was an excellent visit and I would love to spend more time here in the future as there was so much to see and do. Alcatraz is a definite first-time must and does mean a bit of expense, but you can see most of the rest of the city for free.
As we left San Fran and drove through California, we headed through heavy fog. Though we could glimpse beautiful coastlines near Carmen, they were ethereal and lost in the near distance. Finally we emerged into clear weather and a point covered in elephant seals, or so the sign said. At first we thought they must be all out to sea – there were only large rocks on the beach. After a short while, when one of the rocks moved, we realised that the seals themselves were huge. We were reluctant to leave, but this was one of the longer drives of the trip, down to LA. Views along the side of the road also include giant, ancient trees as well as, nonsensically enough, zebras.
Los Angeles was a surreal place, something that you have seen so many times on the television and in movies. The Witch House from Clueless, amongst others, loomed up as we toured around looking at celebrity houses. We saw the Walk of Fame, and the Chinese Theatre with celebrity hand prints and shoe prints on the pavement. Most breathtakingly, we went with family to visit an exclusive menswear label that caters only to princes, kings, Presidents, and A-listers, with a Bugatti Veyron parked outside. La La Land lived up to its name with a strange feeling of unreality. We saved money here by staying with family – if you do have family or friends living in other countries, it’s always a great idea to see if you can spend time with them or stay at their home to cut down on your costs.
The lowest point of the journey – quite literally – was in Death Valley. The heat was oppressive here, and getting out to wander around, we could not stand being out of the car for long. The bluest possible sky hung over steep cliffs and heat hazes. At one stage, a coyote padded out of the mirage to stand in front of us. Unsure what to do, we stopped the car. It inspected us closely, walking a circle around the car twice, before moving on. We also explored the abandoned town of Ryolite, which had a haunting emptiness. All this whole experience cost us was the price of gas.
One sundown and one sunrise were spent sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon, watching the colours change and the light shift. As a bucket list item, it was perfect. It was bitingly cold, but worth it. The view speaks for itself, and cannot be explained in words or with pictures. It’s also free to enter!
Finally we ended up in Las Vegas, a city of sparkling lights and 24 hour entertainment. The buffets were amazing. The streets were thick with people selling tickets, handing out flyers, or begging. And of course, we failed utterly to win any money at all in a casino.
One of the best tricks I learned in Vegas is that you only have to spend a small amount of money to get a lot. Put a dollar in a slot machine and you’ll be entitled to free drinks. You are expected to tip your waitress, but that still makes it cheaper than actually buying drinks at the bar. And the buffets they have in the casinos are not only immense value with as much food as you could imagine, let alone eat – they are also pretty easy to get free. At the time of our visit there was a promotion which meant you could spend virtual money playing online casino games and earn points to spend in Vegas itself – so for a few months before the trip I used my leisure time or moments of rest on the Tube to play the slots for free on my phone and rack up enough rewards to get two free buffet meals.
The biggest takeaway from the trip was the huge contrast between some areas of the country. Not only the geography, but the social strata also changed. In some states, beggars lined the streets and the service areas. In others, it seemed more comfortable. At the start of the journey we had been facing a blizzard; by the end, we had burnt skin and sunglasses permanently on our faces. It was a journey of contrasts, in so many ways.
A road trip is a great traditional way to explore a new country, and it allows you to see so much more than you would have otherwise. So long as you don’t mind driving long hours, you make sure to factor in the price of petrol, and you’re not choosy about where you sleep for the short nights after long days of exploring, you can also do it on a shoestring without feeling like you’ve missed out on the experiences.