The very first post on this blog talks about our trip to the US and it’s appropriately titled “A story about a dream come true” – and what a dream that was – road trip across the US was a vacation I’ve always dreamed of and hoped it would happen, but I honestly wasn’t sure it would ever become a reality. If this is something you dream about, this guide will be helpful, regardless of whether you are a resident of the US, or reside elsewhere – in my case, Europe.
I’m going to repeat a few items I mentioned in my first post, but I’m going to explain in detail how we planned the entire trip, as well as the cost of the trip – as I’m sure many of you will find this information more useful, than the fact that we had a great time!
FIRST AND FOREMOST
The most important thing when going on any kind of a trip where you plan to visit more than just the hotel – is to have a plan. When going on a road trip, it is important for that trip to be exceptionally detailed, particularly if you have some time constraints.
For this reason, the first and most important “stop” in our planning endeavor is a phenomenal website Roadtrippers. I’m not sure how it functions in Europe and the rest of the world (it doesn’t look super detailed); but when it comes to planning across the US – you will find this website very valuable. You can even download apps for iPhone and Android, so even if you’re not planning on packing your suitcases right this minute, you may find great enjoyment searching the apps – for me, this is the best stress relief therapy there is!
Once you’ve chosen where you want to go, you can choose several options – for example, hotels along your route or in the vicinity, attractions (either everything, or categorically, for instance amusement parks, attractions for kids, museums, zoos, aquariums, or even seasonal attractions); you can choose to see bars and restaurants; nature attractions (beaches, national parks, reservations, gardens); other interesting locations (for example, filming locations, historical location, even haunted/deserted locations); as well as campgrounds, nightlife, shopping, or different types of services.
WHAT TO SEE
Our plan was as follows: we wanted to visit New York again (NYC is always a great idea!) because we fell in love with it at first sight, and this is the place where we got married (more on that in a future post); and from there start the road trip adventure. We knew we wanted to see San Francisco, and everything else was up to debate. Quickly after we started realizing our plans, my best friend decided to join us – he’s been living in the states for years, but hasn’t been anywhere outside of New York. His cousin and husband who live in Las Vegas also joined. When it comes to road trips, when you ask me, it’s safe to follow “the more the merrier” rule – and this applies both to locations and travelling companions; especially if you get along with the people you’re travelling with – which was absolutely the case for us. It took us a few days to plan everything out and democratically agree on what all we wanted to see, how much time we needed versus how much time we had, and then start narrowing down our wish list to one that was actually possible.
After some deliberation, consideration, reconsideration, and rationalization, we’ve settled on the below trip (more detailed map can be seen here).
The plan was to fly from New York to Las Vegas, and begin our trip from there. Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California are full of natural beauty and all made it on our list of stops for our first trip (plus New York, which we’ve visited before, and I will detail that in a future post). We did omit a larger part of the US, but we have to save something for the next time, right?
Friday morning (and I mean early morning, we were on the Strip around 6 am) we devoted to Las Vegas. My impression is – a large city made of cardboard. At least that’s what it looks like during daylight. In the evening hours, when all of the lights are on and the fountains are dancing in synchrony, the city looks absolutely glamorous. In the morning, however, all you can see are dazed people, who probably lost large sums of money at the casino (along with the notion of what time of day it is); or ladies of the night who are slowly returning to their abodes to get some rest until the evening. But, more about Vegas some other time…
We started our road trip from Vegas on Friday afternoon; and given that this was the Friday before Memorial day (typically always last Monday in May), we expected congestion on the road. It turns out that we lucked out – either everyone was travelling by plane (which is possible, see paragraph below as to why), or they stayed home – at any rate, our trip started off very smoothly. In the evening, as anticipated, we arrived in the vicinity of Bryce Canyon, and our idea was to spend the night there, and early in the morning tour this National Park and then continue on to Zion. Both national parks charge an entry fee of $30 per vehicle, and the ticket is good for 7 days. Price for a motorcycle is $25, or $15 per person for those travelling on foot.
Bryce Canyon is surreally beautiful. We walked through a large portion of the park, we got soaked in the rain, we walked through red mud, slipped a few times, but after two hours – which is how long it took us to make it from one end of the park to the other – we were all extremely happy that we got to experience this phenomenal park.
We had planned to grab breakfast at the Merry Wives Café, located at the state line between Utah and Arizona (known as Avenue Uzona). While known for its food (which, everyone says is delicious), perhaps the bigger attraction of this café is that it is owned by members of a polygamy group (besides, Colorado City is known as the “polygamy capital of the world”). One website described this café as one that satisfies the appetite of “hungry and curious” – and we were both. However, the restaurant was closed when we came, and while we could see someone setting up through a slightly ajar door, we took this as a sign that we needed to continue our road trip.
Onward towards Zion we went, however we only drove through and saw a small portion, as the rain was so heavy it was impossible to see and enjoy the day. Not all was lost, however, as we did have a chance to see “Teleport to Uranus” (no, I’m not kidding), so we did have some saving grace.
After this, we visited the Antelope Canyon, which is absolutely one of the best sights your eyes will ever see. There are two tours available for Antelope – top and bottom canyon, and prices are around $40 and up, depending on when you want to go (for amazing pictures, the light is the best between 11 am to 1 pm, and the tours around this time cost over $100).
Following the Antelope Canyon, our plan was to visit the Little Colorado River, however instead we came to the Glen Canyon Dam on Lake Powell. We also visited the Horseshoe Bend, which offers one of the most spectacular views of the Colorado River. Then, we headed towards the Grand Canyon. We arrived in the evening and we were only able to see the Desert View Watchtower (also known as the Indian Watchtower), and exhausted went to sleep, eager for the Sun to rise so that we can explore this spectacular location as much as we possibly could. Our hopes were almost crushed, as the morning brought on such thick fog, it was impossible to see anything. Disappointed that our plans fell through because of something we had absolutely no control over, we stood outside looking at nothing, debating our next move, when, much to our disbelief, the fog literally lifted in 10 seconds and we were greeted by an unbelievable view. The GRAND canyon – the grandest in the world (OK, not the grandest, as it is difficult to determine when someone talks about the size of a canyon they mean the height, the length, or something else – but let’s just consider this a quirky play on words) where we spent half a day, and still were able to see only a small portion.
If you are planning a road trip through the US, and plan to visit the Grand Canyon (which you absolutely should), you should know that tour prices can vary. The entrance to the national park (north and south side) costs $25 per vehicle, and this price includes a seven day ticket as well as shuttle services which will help you move faster and see more (of course, even the shuttle services don’t go to every nook and cranny of the canyon, so I hope you’re ready for A LOT of walking), while the price for the entrance to the west side of the canyon will cost $88 per person. If you want to indulge in a helicopter tour above the canyon, expect to pay $199 to $299 per person (depending if you want to visit the south or west part, while the “local” tours cost $72 to $110 per person, again, depending on the location. You got it – the west part is much more expensive, and there you will find the fantastic Grand Canyon Skywalk. If you decide for a stroll on the said Skywalk, this will cost you an additional $80 per person and you will not be allowed to take any photos, but you will be offered to purchase professionally taken photographs from the National Park staff).
Following the Grand Canyon, slowly but surely we headed back towards Las Vegas, but before we sopped and visited Flintstone’s Bedrock City (simply stated – huge waste of time but at least we have coot pictures with big Fred Flintstone); and then we headed to have lunch at a lovely little town Williams, located along the historic Route 66 and is one of the remaining cities that “survived” the American “Main Street”. We wanted to stop by and visit Bearizona, but we had to forgo this step due to time. When we arrived at Hoover Dam, sun was already starting to set and the guards hesitantly let us go through (they thoroughly searched both ourselves and our vehicle).
We went back to Vegas and ventured out to see the city at night. It looked exactly as it does on TV.
In the morning, it was time for us to bid farewell to our travel companions/hosts. We picked up a car rental we previously reserved, and form Las Vegas we headed south, towards the Mojave Desert. We stopped in the little town called Baker (population: 735!) and we saw the biggest themormeter in the world, and had breakfast in a widely known restaurant called Mad Greek. We also shopped in a weirdest store I had ever seen, Alien Fresh Jerky, where we were greeted by 10 aliens out front (no worries, they were not real – in case anyone was wondering). Then, we went to Kelso, a deserted, ghost town and with a defunct railroad station (which now serves as a nonfunctional museum), and a strap iron jail where “local drunks and other individuals” were punished. Even though Kelso is known by its sand dunes, this is a sight we did not have a chance to see. After seeing the Mojave National Preserve, we went to Laughlin, Nevada which is practically Las Vegas for the retired – it is a place where elderly go to try their luck at gambling. In the morning, we went back to Mojave to pick up a friend who chose to spend the night there, and together we headed towards Barstow, California. Some of us wanted to visit this town because it is mentioned at the beginning of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, while others (me) wanted to visit an awesome outlet mall with amazing shopping. Somewhere around 5 pm, we arrived at Calico, California – ghost town and a tourist attraction. Even though the entrance fee is $8 per person, no one asked us to pay a fee because we arrived shortly before closing time. We had enough time to walk through the town and the best part (aside from not paying a ticket!) was that we were absolutely alone. Even though this is not the most important destination on our road trip, it is one that is interesting and you can have a chance to get a glimpse of life in the 19th century during the golden, or in this case silver rush, in the US.
At dusk, we arrived in Los Angeles which was our home base for the next two days and for me represents a huge disappointed. Extremely weird (un)organized city, with public transportation that is basically nonfunctional, which compared to NYC and their highly effective metro system, was a complete shock. Besides, the city is HUGE; everything is far – which makes walking absolutely impractical; taxi is too expensive; and easiest way to get around is with a car. Because of this, traffic is horrendous – especially during rush hour – and it takes a special skill to find a parking spot. As the proverbial cherry on the top, this city doesn’t even deliver in the one thing it promises – it is not nearly as glamorous as it looks on TV (not that I expected much, but it is worth mentioning).
The best part of the LA visit was – leaving. We departed via Venice Beach, Santa Monica, and Malibu, and they managed to make up for some of the disappointment that was LA.
We drove alongside Californian Coast for a while (which is absolutely mesmerizing and something you must include in your planning); and we headed towards Yosemite National Park, with a quick break in Fresno, California (known as “the best little city in America”) and we spent the night in Madeira. We had planned on visiting the Sequoia Park, however we decided to skip this – we knew we would have a chance to see the sequoia trees at Yosemite, where we arrived early in the morning and we spent practically the whole day. And it was absolutely worth it. Even if you were to spend several days there, you wouldn’t be able to see everything and you wouldn’t be bored even for a moment. The nature is breathtaking and the photographs from there were stunning (I’ll make sure to expand on this in one of the upcoming posts).
In the evening, we were in Napa, whose beauty you’ve I’m sure heard of before. If I could go back in time and change anything about our trip, it would be (aside from spending the night in Madeira – but more about that under “lodging” section) to spend less time in LA and more time in Napa. We drove by numerous vineyards and wineries, and the beautiful town of Napa, but as the sun was setting we were not able to enjoy as we should, and we weren’t able to snap a few amazing photos. If for nothing else, THAT’s the reason why I have to go back!
In the evening, we arrived in San Francisco, which was the last stop of our road trip and is a city that I absolutely fell in love with. It’s odd, because I didn’t fall in love with it based on how it looks (walking up the hill/down the hill constanly is not my favorite); but I absolutely fell in love with the feeling I had in this city. In general, whenever I travel, a lot of it revolves around feelings. The city can be the most beautiful city in the world; but if I don’t “feel” it, I won’t have any desire to go back (this was the case with Milano and Barcelona; beautiful and favorites to many, but to me they just didn’t fit right). San Francisco, however, was the right fit. I don’t remember that I’ve ever been anywhere where I was so relaxed, yet constantly on the move. Additionally, we had a great “guide” – a woman from the Balkans who has been living there for over a decade, and she showed us a different perspective on the city (more about this in the next post, that I am so eager to write).
You should absolutely see Arches, Monument Valley, as well as The Wave. The first two require many more miles, and the third one was impossible especially if there’s more travelers. For instance, the entry The Wave works on a lottery system. Hundreds of people register, but only two will have a chance to visit this national park (in the summer during peak season, when more than thousand people register, 10 daily winners will be so lucky). Reason is pretty clear – if they didn’t limit the number of tourists, this natural beauty would be irreparably damaged.
When packing for a camping trip, be smarter than I was and assume that it’s going to be colder than you expect. I mean, I packed plentifully at home, however all of the items I should have worn while camping I left in Vegas, and with me I only brought the “just in case” items. So you’re going to miss some photos of me during this phase of the trip, because my attire definitely wasn’t picture worthy.
Even more important:
I know I’m not inventing sliced bread here, but it’s worth mentioning – Google can be our best friend, and use it to your advantage when it comes to destinations you want to visit. For instance, simple search of “Bryce canyon” not only gives you the address, telephone number, website, and other items, it will tell you estimates on best times to visit, busiest times of day, etc. I’m sure you want to see the attraction you came for, rather than the backs of heads of thousands of people who got there at the same time you did. Also, always look for information on Roadtrippers, and you’ll get first hand experiences as well as ticket prices.
Aside from “where”, major item we had to consider was “how”.
From Belgrade, we flew with KLM airlines to Amsterdam, and then on to New York via Delta; and our return trip was with Air France from San Francisco to Belgrade, with a layover in Paris. We bought our tickets via Big Blue agency, and the cost of ticket was $586 (552 Euro) per person, and we purchased our tickets a month in advance. If you are looking to find the best option for yourself, you can do that by searching verified sites such as e-Dreams (tickets for same travel days and duration as what we purchased run about $557 or 525 Euro and up), where you can also search for package deals that include lodging options – or you can search for lodging alone.
From New York (Newark), we flew to Vegas with United Airlines – not a lot of options. One way ticket was $306 (289 Euro). If bought today, ticket would be around $225 ($210 Euro) if bought on e-Dreams; reason we paid a bit more was because we travelled right before Memorial Day Weekend. You should know that domestic United Airlines flights are somewhat similar to those of low cost airlines – even though the flight is 6 hours long, there is no food service – only nonalcoholic beverages are offered, and only sparingly. Any entertainment, such as movies, are also available for purchase, as is the use of in-flight internet service.
NYC has the best solution when it comes to transportation – the smartest thing to do would be to use the metro system, it is phenomenal far reaching, and affordable; unlimited weekly pass costs $32 (read here about prices for individual, monthly, and other tickets).
The solution to any other city that does not have such a well developed metro system would be – Uber. Much more affordable than a Taxi, but it is not accessible in all cities (for example, this was not an option at the time in Vegas). In San Francisco, we used Lyft and liked it better. One of the perks with Lyft was a $50 credit when logging in with your FB account; that was divided into 10 rides with a $5 discount with each. You can also choose to rideshare – meaning, ride with other passengers travelling in the same direction, and pay even less. Rides like these cost me no more than $6-$8 ($5 of which was discounted, so my out of pocket cost was $1-$3 plus any tip). Since Lyft introduced in NYC, they have been offering discounted prices of up to 50% off during week days, meaning you can ride in style in Manhattan for $10-$15.
If you open an account by clicking here, you will get a $20 credit from me for an even better beginning!
Since the first part of the road trip was attended by 5 adults and two dogs, we could have travelled with0t wo cars, or we could have rented an RV. While the option of car coupled with hotels/motels might have been more affordable, RV option was by far more fun, and more comfortable for those riding – you can walk around, drink, eat, sleep – all very important given that the distance we travelled are grand.
So, we decided on a standard 25 ft. motor home (about 7.5 meters), which we reserved with Cruise America. We picked it up on May 22nd, and returned May 26th, and it cost us around $1,300. Included in this price was a $300 deposit as well as estimated mileage used. We drove more than what was allowed, so we had to pay an additional $200. We also had to pay for gas (this is so interesting in America, because the price of fuel can vary significantly – a gallon (3.7 liters) can cost $2 in one state, and $5 in another – click here for average gas prices); as well as campground fees (more about that in Lodging section). I am not 100% sure how much we spent on gas, but given that this ARV uses about 5.5 gallons (20 liters) for every 65 miles (100 kilometers); and that we drove more than 1,300 miles (2,000 km), this should give you an idea. All of these are reasons to plan your road trip with your friends, because it can help reduce your individual out of pocket cost for this phenomenal experience.
From Vegas to San Francisco we took a car rental; which was a Nissan Rouge and it was our choice because we needed the following: comfort, large trunk for plenty of luggage (one day I’ll learn how to pack appropriately, I promise), and the option to pick it up in one state (Nevada) and return in another (California). We searched through a couple of options and they were either ridiculously expensive (some car agencies charge double if you cross state lines), and then we found an ideal option – Sixt, where renting an SUC from May 26th to May 31st with GPS (which is a MUST, don’t fool yourself that you don’t need it), insurance, and all of the taxes and fees cost just shy of $200. When searching for the same option now, they appear to be much higher but Sixt has great “last minute deal” options and we lucked out. So word of advice – don’t book the car too far in advance.
Of course, cost of gas was not included. We drove over 630 miles (1,000 km), and Nissan uses about 2 gallons (7 liters) per 63 miles (100 kilometers), this gives you an idea of the cost of gas. There were no costs associate with interstate usage.
In order to rent a car, we had to present a major credit card, a driver’s license (they did not ask for the international one, our country issued one was acceptable), and passport.
Very Important (and silly to American readers, I’m sure)!
By default, vast majority of car rentals in the US are automatic (unless you demand a manual). If you’ve never driven an automatic vehicle before, be smarter than we were and google how to drive an automatic. We couldn’t figure it out. Luckily, Sixt has a great Wi-Fi that we were able to connect to and google quickly. Driving an automatic vehicle is SO MUCH EASIER than a manual one, but make your experience better and be prepared (for example, know how to pull out of the parking space and what to do with your left leg when you have no clutch to worry about).
Our favorite place in New York (perhaps the world) is the Roosevelt Island. It is located between Manhattan and Queens (one metro station away from either)\, it is tucked in and completely calm. It has the vest views of Manhattan, and you don’t have the feeling that you are in the middle of the New York craziness. Every time until now, and definitely every time going forward, we have chosen to stay here, because this feeling of calmness and safety is unparalleled. You can get to Manhattan within minutes by either metro or sky tram (which was an exceptional experience!), and you can get around the island on a bus; taxi or car option also available however only if coming from Queens. If this location interests you, I recommend finding lodging on Airbnb, as there are no hotels on the island.
Lodging in NYC is everything except cheap, especially if you have higher standards (or, any standards, to be exact). You’d be hard pressed to find anything under $100 per night, even hostel prices are high. At any rate, make sure you search Booking, Airbnb, and already mentioned e-Dreams and see what their offers are. I would also recommend Travelocity, Lastminute, and any others. It’s not unheard of to find the best prices directly with the hotels, if they have any special unadvertised sales going on – so check out all of your options.
If you choose your lodging by clicking here, you can get a $20 discount!
In Las Vegas, we stayed with friends that we went on the road trip with, so we didn’t have any direct expenses here but the good news about Sin City is that the hotels are very affordable. They count on you spending all of your money gambling, so they make rooms affordable – for example, you can stay at a fairly reasonable hotel for as little as $30 a day (for the room, not per person). If you have higher standards and want to stay at a nicer hotel, for example, Bellagio, this would cost upwards of $300.
As I mentioned, first part of our road trip (with our travel companions, from and to Vegas), we had two dogs with us so we had to be careful when it comes to choosing pet friendly accommodations. Since we were in an RV, this created a lot of leeway for us, but we still had to consider campground rules, as some don’t allow pets, or they do allow them but have either size or breed restrictions.
While travelling in the RV we didn’t have any hotel expenses, we did have to pay campground fees (contrary to popular belief, you can’t just pull over to the side of the road and spend the night!). Each camp is different – we visited three and each one was unique; but overall they have similar accommodations – a store, public restroom, power hookups, black tank and clean water service. Some have entertainment options, but to be honest we did not partake and cannot assess their quality.
First evening we stayed at Riverside Resort and RV Park, in vicinity of Bryce Canyon, and this cost us $33.36. We parked right on the edge of a little creek (this would be considered a reserved spot, but we happened to be the only ones in the campground that night so we had our pick). The nature was absolutely beautiful and public showers perfectly adequate. The store was well stocked, and they had everything we needed. But, I didn’t know to appreciate all of the amenities of this park, until we arrived at our third stop.
Second night we were at Leeds RV Park, close to little town called Hurricane, and it cost $35. It was my favorite on the trip, it was very clean, restrooms are super adorable and included washers and dryers, and it had a little community house with a chess board, if anyone wanted to partake.
The third one, Grand Canyon Camper Village, was the most expensive ($46) and by far the worst camp we visited. Bathrooms were akin to something from the horror movies. I don’t want to go into details but my recommendations – if you happen to go visit the Grand Canyon, avoid this camp at all costs.
You can read reviews on various campgrounds here, to give you a better idea of what others are saying about different campgrounds.
After we left Vegas, our travel companion chose to spend the night in the Mojave Desert, Hole in the Wall, where nightly fee (the price for the campsite where you can set up a tent and light a fire if you so wish) was $12, but we wanted to treat ourselves to a “fancy” evening so we stayed at hotel Edgewater in Laughlin, for a laughable $16 per night (per room, not per person). Similarly to Vegas – you’ll be suckered in with low prices in hopes of spending your money gambling (I mentioned this is Vegas for the elderly). If you happen to be in this area, I would absolutely recommend this hotel.
Lodging in Los Angeles we found via Airbnb, and a two night stay cost around $220 with all taxes and fees included. The apartment was located half way from downtown (which, not sure even exists in LA) and Beverly Hills, but this “half way” point is about 33 bust stops in each direction (did I already mention NOT TO use public transportation in this city?). I don’t have any criticism with the apartment itself, it was clean, comfortable, and in a decent part of town – and it included a parking stop. Hindsight is 20/20 but if I were to do this again, I would probably choose to stay somewhere on Beverly Hills.
Lodging in Madeira (far outside of Madeira, to be exact), on our way to Yosemite, I will not recommend because it was an experience that we were expecting would turn into a scene from a horror movie. So, if happen to be in this area, I would recommend staying in Fresno, as the town is more alive (and has a Cheesecake Factory, which is always a plus!).
The apartment in San Francisco we also booked via Airbnb, but I don’t see it on this website any longer. It was a quaint little studio, which was more than enough for two people (if necessary, 3 or 4 people could fit). The price for a 5 day stay was around $700. Similarly to New York, lodging here can get costly but being that San Francisco is rather expensive, I think this was a good deal. We were advised to stay away from the Tenderloin area (thanks, Nebojsa!), so I don’t have any experiences there. Another good thing about Airbnb is you can choose to select a “shared room” option at much more reasonable prices, so if this is something you’re willing to partake in – it would be a good option for San Francisco.
Don’t forget, when planning any kind of a trip, there are costs other than transportation, lodging, and spending money – click here to see what other costs you should plan for!
More photos from our vacation you can see on the following Instagram pages:
If you have any questions, comments, concerns, or would like to share your experience, I would be happy to read them in the comments section.
Photo: © Bojan Bokic & © Lazar Miseljic
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