Ted on Tour USA Part 1 Planning An Epic Trip

Ted on Tour USA Part 1 Planning An Epic Trip

Background to the tedontourusa trip

We were recently lucky enough to undertake a 6 week tour of the USA and the Caribbean (of course you saw my #tedontourusa posts on social media!). The trip would see us eventually covering around 14,500 miles in 6 weeks. Locations included the East and West side of the USA followed by a whirlwind tour of the Caribbean.

I wanted to share the trip with you and pass on some lessons we learnt to help anyone planning an epic trip.

I will also be talking about the trip from a photographers point of view. Sections will cover photography technique and camera kit tips.

The trip came about for two personal reasons –

  • it was our 25th wedding anniversary and we wanted to celebrate in style.
  • we, that is my wife and I, have both been through life changing circumstances over the last few years. We both had to quit our jobs on medical grounds. To be perfectly frank, we needed to prove to ourselves that we were still alive and capable of undertaking something as demanding and complex as this trip.

The trip would also allow me to set loose on new places with my camera.

This trip would also be our first major trip without our kids. It seems a bit silly but we had mixed feelings about undertaking such an epic trip without them. We have always thought it important to share our experiences as a family but they are grown up now. In reality, one was in the middle of a degree dissertation and the other wouldn’t get time off work. This is where Ted and the whole tedontourusa idea came about. Ted is our lucky mascot that goes to all our shows and events, so he became a surrogate kid for the trip!

Planning our trip

Trip Idea Overload

As with all big trips, you can go crazy with ideas for locations and places to visit. We had so many ideas for the USA trip that it looked like we would be there for a year! Anywhere and anything was open for consideration including the duration.

One of the dangers of planning a big trip is that all your ideas can get out of control. Another danger is failing to set out exactly what the trip should achieve. I know some people hate planning and being constrained, but it is easy to make mistakes. The ‘make it up as you go’ approach can be exciting but can lead to oversights. Oversights that can lead to missed opportunities, wasted money, frustration and generally not getting the most out of your experiences.

Bring Your Trip Ideas Under Control

To bring a sense of order we listed our main wants and desires for the trip –

  • USA coast to coast rail trip
  • Avoid domestic US air travel
  • Be relaxing and avoid rushing around
  • Las Vegas for a 25th wedding anniversary ceremony
  • Keeping costs as low as possible
  • Maximise photo ops for
    • City scenes
    • Railways
    • Aircraft
    • Abandoned buildings and vehicles, dereliction and abandonment

As for time constraints, we had shows up until 31st March and needed to be back before 18th May.

Originally we wanted to do an all rail trip. We decided that having never travelled across America by train before, we should err on the side of caution. We didn’t want to get off the first long distance train having hated the experience and have the prospect of more rail travel!

Having defined what we wanted out of the trip we started looking seriously at where we might go. From a mass of ideas, we had generated a useful list of what we wanted to experience and a time frame to fit the trip into.

Map of GDMK Images tedontourusa tour of America in April 2016

Bringing Your Trip to Life

Having a structured list allows you to put some flesh onto the bones of your trip. Your list allows you to start researching specific locations and transport arrangements in more detail.

For our trip, we decided the core element would be the rail trip. Once we had figured out which rail trip we wanted to do we could look into where we would arrive in the US.

Amtrak operates the long distance passenger trains on the rail network in America. The Amtrak website has a lot of useful information including route maps, timings, route descriptions and of course prices. Looking through the site we selected several potential trains including

  • The Pacific Surfliner from San Diego to San Luis ObispoThe California Zephyr from Chicago to EmeryvilleThe Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to SeattleThe Crescent from New York to New Orleans

To find out more details on each of these trips I turned to one of my favourite rail planning sites – The Man in Seat 61. There is a detailed guide to getting around America by Train which is well worth studying. The various routes are discussed in depth along with explaining how to buy tickets. This independent information helps fill in some of the blanks we found on the Amtrak site.

Using the information from these two sites we went to Tripadvisor to look at the forums and FAQs to read first hand experiences of the various routes.

There were a lot of people recommending the California Zephyr as a great train, especially for those making their first US train trip. Weighing up the pros and cons of each we chose the California Zephyr.

Having decided upon the California Zephyr, it made sense to fly into New York. From New York we could catch the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago which gives a comfortable connection for the California Zephyr in the Windy City.

To find flights I mainly use Skyscanner, Kayak and Opodo. I search each and see what the best offers are. They give you plenty of options such as indirect flights, prices of flights to other airports near your search and are generally pretty good at rooting out some good deals.

Through these sites I discovered Norwegian were flying from Gatwick to New York JFK for just over £200 each if we took only one 20kg bag each. You could also take one carry on bag of the usual budget airline size. This was a very competitive price – almost 50% of the next cheapest flight. It did present a problem though – the baggage allowance. This turned into quite a challenge but considering the ticket price I was determined to fit all we needed into these limits. Anyway, as far as I was concerned as long as I could get my camera gear in, everything else was just wasted space. Unfortunately, Mrs GDMK wasn’t convinced of my reasoning and insisted I take some clothes as well as camera gear!

Finally, the morass of ideas were turning into a rough plan for stage one of the trip – fly to New York, train to Emeryville, just outside San Francisco.

To avoid internal flight, we next looked at different driving routes from San Francisco to Las Vegas. It soon became pretty obvious that there were two real options to get to Las Vegas. These were to either drive down the legendary Pacific Coast Highway or drive via Yosemite National Park before cutting across country to Las Vegas.

I did a lot of research on both these routes using the FAQs on the Tripadvisor California Forums. There is an awful lot of good information in these faqs and forums to help anyone planning a California trip. A list of sights and ‘things to see’ was formed and thrown into the melting pot of ‘potential’ venues.

Google Maps and Street View were extremely useful to research and get a better understanding of the areas discussed. Modern day trip planners have so many useful tools compared to 20 years ago. It is amazing to read peoples descriptions of a particular sight and then go online to see pictures of what they have discussed.

Geotagged photos on sites such as Flickr are useful to see what sort of pictures might be possible. It’s always nice to see sites full of the same old shots – it helps me prepare in advance when time on site is limited. It’s also invaluable for planning different views and angles.

With all this information, we worked through which sights we wanted to see and started working on a route from San Francisco to Las Vegas.

At the time we planned to travel, many of the higher Yosemite passes would still be closed due to snow. Suitable accommodation was not available in Yosemite, so we started to favour the Pacific Coast Highway.

The eventual route we decided was –

  • Pacific Coast Highway with stop overs in Pacific Grove and Morro Bay.
  • Cross country from Morro Bay via the scenic highway 166 to Palmdale
  • From Palmdale there was an easy drive to Barstow
  • From Barstow we could cross the Mojave National Reserve via Cima to Las Vegas.

During the planning, we noticed a place called Hinkley just outside Barstow. This is the namesake of our hometown of Hinckley which just needed to be visited being as we were so close. As it turns out this was a fascinating place to visit that will be discussed in more detail later on in the series.

Trip Home Takes A Surprising Twist

So we had a great trip taking shape. We had an exciting looking trip to get us into Las Vegas for the 25th Wedding Anniversary vow renewal. It seemed simple that we would then simply book a ceremony and fly home. Looking through the available flights on Skyscanner, Kayak and Opodo for flights back to the UK raised an eyebrow or two. The prices were rocketing – the cheapest flights were around 480 going through to £600, £700 and even £800. Even trying multi leg options couldn’t get what I would call a reasonable airfare home.

Here is where the trip takes a crazy twist. I’m looking at various Tripadvisor guides and see people talking about transitional cruises. It transpires these are standard cruises but involve the ship moving from one area of operation to another e.g. Caribbean to Europe. In order to make the transition the fares are very competitive.

Now, I’m not a cruise type person so have never looked into what a cruise holiday involves (except for usually handing over great wads of cash).

I started looking into these transitional cruises and noticed there was a 14 day cruise from Fort Lauderdale via the Bahamas to Southampton. Hmmm I thought, so how much is this going to cost? I nearly fell off my seat when the price came out as just over £600 each. That is £600 each for 14 days via the Bahamas to Southampton! Now weighing this cost against an airfare, pound for pound the difference was staggering. That unbelievable that I rang a tour operator and the cruise line direct to check there were no hidden costs. And holy macaroni there weren’t any hidden costs!

So I had the prospect of paying £600 – £800 for a direct flight or taking a 14 day cruise to get home – decadent, ridiculous, insane or just plain good fortune? I dont know, but I now had to see if we could shape the trip to allow us to get to Fort Lauderdale in time to catch the cruise without cutting out anything I had planned.

As it happens we could leave Las Vegas to Fort Lauderdale with a direct flight with Southwest Airlines. I know this would break the no internal flight concept, but what the heck this was for the bargain of the year!

Nailing Down the Final Trip Details

The trip was really coming to life. All we needed to do was decide in more detail what we wanted to do in each location so we could book the hotel accommodation.

We used the Anniversary ceremony date as the anchor point of the trip as that was set in stone. Using the list of sights at each location helped us decide how long to stay in each location. From here we worked backwards to find a date to Leave San Francisco. We added three days in San Francisco which gave us the day we wanted to arrive in San Francisco which in turn decided which day we should catch the Lake Shore Limited from New York. Adding in another couple of days to see New York gave us a rough departure date from the UK.

This backwards calculation gave us a tentative leaving date of 4th April. I checked the flight checker websites and found the cheapest flights were on the 6th April.

This was 2 days short of the roughly calculated date but it meant another £100 each saved, so the 6th of April became the departure date. I then went forward revising the dates to ensure we still arrived in Las Vegas in time for the Vow Renewal Ceremony.

I have used this iterative process many times before and find it really useful for planning trips with key dates.

Joining Up The Dots of Your Trip

Essentially you are taking a key date and anchoring that as a fixed point in your plan. The train trip is a fixed duration so automatically fills a defined space of floating time. The amount to see and do can be adjusted and are essentially flexible.

To start your trip plan add in your fixed elements as anchor dates – in our case the ceremony and cruise departure date. Add in your variable elements – in this case sights.

By working backwards from your anchor date you get to a point where you can slot in your floating fixed duration element.

This floating element can be moved later in time by removing the variables between it and the fixed anchor date. Likewise, it can be moved earlier in time by adding more sights.

Irrespective of the number of variables it remains the same duration – that is why it is a called a floating fixed duration element.

Working through our variables we arrived at the following

  • 3 nights in San Francisco
  • 2 nights in Pacific Grove
  • 3 nights in Morro Bay
  • 1 night in Palmdale
  • 2 nights in Barstow
  • 5 nights in Las Vegas
  • 2 nights in Fort Lauderdale

In order to get our plan to fit we had to drop a number of ‘like to do’ sights after prioritising the things we really wanted to do. The biggest effect was cutting the intended stay in Las Vegas from 8 days to 5 to ensure we could get across to the Cruise in time.

With these stops in mind, we needed to leave San Francisco on the 15th April. Again working back a couple of nights we needed to catch the Lake Shore Limited from New York on the 9th April to ensure we were in San Francisco in time to see the sights there before moving south. Leaving on the 9th April gave us a few days in New York after choosing the cheap flights on the 6th April.

Phew, a bit of to-ing and fro-ing but there you have it – our trip was planned!!

New York Here We Come

So there we were, waiting for our departure date after turning a bunch of tags on a map into reality.

Before we knew it we were standing under that Norwegian departure lounge sign on the cusp of an awesome trip to the USA!

Tedontourusa was now reality!

See America With Ted on Tour USA

Thanks for reading, I hope you have found this post useful. In Ted On Tour USA Part 2 – Gatwick to New York, I will be talking a little more about the planning along with an account of our stay in New York.

Feel free to leave comments and all the best for now


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