My first solo travel adventure

Coast to coast with Trek America

If you’ve read my previous post about my decision to travel solo for the first time, you’ll know that rather than spending my entire trip completely by myself, I opted to join a small group tour. Specifically, the Southern BLT Tour with the established small group tour company, Trek America.

I booked the tour through the touradar website in their Christmas sale and the tour was to begin mid-February meaning I didn’t have too much time to dwell on my decision. With the extra nights I had added in LA and New York either side of the 3-week tour, I would be away for 4 weeks in total, the longest I had ever been away from home before.

As the departure date approached I decided to take up Trek America’s offer of a free FairFX prepaid currency card rather than just taking cash as I would on a shorter trip. This came with access to an app which I could use to top up the card with dollars if I was getting low at any point as long as I had internet access and as the tour was advertised as having on-bus WiFi and I knew from previous visits stateside that WiFi was easy to find, finding internet access shouldn’t be a problem.

The tour required us to take a sleeping bag for the night spent in a cabin and I also went out and bought a pair of special walking trainers from Sports Direct for any hiking we’d do, a quick-drying travel towel for use at the hostels and various other bits and bobs that I wouldn’t ordinarily take on holiday but I thought I might need in a trip like this!

My biggest worry was what size case to take. Or whether to take a case at all as I figured a lot of the passengers might be serious backpackers with, well, a backpack. For just a 2 week holiday, I would usually take my large case but I knew luggage was to be stored in our minibus as we travelled and would have to be dragged in and out of our accommodation every day or so (we had no more than 2 nights in any one place on the tour) so maybe a large case was too much. But would there be chance to do laundry or would I have to take enough clothes to last the entire trip?!

What to pack in itself was another problem. I’d assumed when I booked the tour that travelling through the Southern states meant that even in February/March, it’d mainly be warm although I did realise once we reached Washington DC and New York it would be chillier. But after googling the weather for some of our stops, I realised it was likely to be cool in quite a few places along the way so layers, a few jumpers, hoodies and even my winter coat might be necessary!

I eventually opted to take my medium-sized case, squashing as much as possible in and deciding if there was no opportunity for laundry, I could probably get a couple of wears out of most tops!!

Alone on Santa Monica Beach

So with lots of excitement, and some trepidation, I headed to the airport a few days before the start of the tour to begin my trip. I had booked 2 nights by myself in Santa Monica at a motel I had stayed at with my family a couple of years before and would then spend the third night staying at Trek America’s “gateway” hotel – the one the tour departed from – the night before the tour began.

Sunset over Santa Monica Pier

Whereas I would usually share a taxi with my travel buddies to get us to our hotel quickly and easily after a long flight, it was a lot of money to spend for just one person so I had researched how to get to Santa Monica on public transport. So after arriving at LAX, I went to wait for the Airbus service hoping to save a bit of money. But after waiting and waiting and seeing numerous buses come and go for Hollywood, Downtown, Anaheim and various other districts of Los Angeles but none for Santa Monica, I gave up and, just wanting to get there, ended up in a cab!

Breakfast feast for one at Denny’s

It was odd finding myself alone in a city I had visited many times before with family and friends and needing food, I was unsure what to do. Not being brave enough just yet to go to a restaurant alone, I instead opted for the food court in Santa Monica Place shopping mall before heading down to the beach to watch the sunset.

Sony Studios Tour

To keep myself busy over the next few days, I’d planned plenty of activities, again extensively researching how to reach places on public transport. After breakfast at Denny’s (eating alone wasn’t actually that bad!), my first stop was Sony Studios for a backlot tour. Using public transport ran smoother than it had the previous day and after asking for directions just once when I got off the bus, I found my way to the tour check in point with plenty of time to spare.

Walking to Venice Beach

After the tour, I wandered around the nearby area of Culver City before catching the bus back towards Santa Monica. I spent the afternoon in Venice following a self-guided walk around the canals which I had downloaded before my trip, another part of the city I had not seen before.

Exploring the canals at Venice
On a tour to Malibu

The following day, I had booked onto another tour to see the Star Homes in Malibu and then, after lunch alone at Barney’s Beanery – my favourite Santa Monica eatery – I hired a bike and rode to Marina del Rey, again ticking off a few more places I’d not been to before. In all honesty, I kept myself too busy to even notice I was by myself and I actually enjoyed not having to compromise on anything and being able to do what I liked and at my own pace.

Malibu Beach
After cycling to Marina del Rey

That evening, it was time to move from my cosy Santa Monica B&B to my Trek’s departure hotel, the Custom Hotel bear LAX. Wanting to avoid paying out for another taxi, I had again looked up how to get there on public transport. One direct bus which would drop me outside my new hotel seemed doable although I hadn’t factored in travelling in rush hour with a case and bag!

6 weeks before your Trek America tour departs, participants are given access to an online group where you can ‘meet’ other members of your tour group. This only works, of course, if other members are active in the group and no one seemed to be using it for the tour I had booked. Undeterred, and curious as to whom I would be spending 3 weeks travelling with, I instead, left a message on the Trek America forums asking if anyone else was going to be on the Southern BLT tour departing that week. By the time I had left for LA, there had been no replies but a few days later, 2 people had answered saying they too would be on the tour.

So the evening before the tour departed, once settled in at the ‘gateway’ hotel, I made my way up to the hotel’s rooftop bar where I had arranged to meet 3 of my fellow travelling companions. Everyone seemed nice – we were all solo travellers who were travelling solo for the first time and it put my mind at ease slightly about the next few weeks. After a few drinks and some small talk, it was off for an early-ish night ready to start my 3-week cross-country adventure the following morning.

It was an early start the next day where I met the rest of the group in the hotel lobby. 11 of us in total, 7 guys, 4 girls, aged 20-34 from the UK, Australia, Sweden and Switzerland. After brief introductions, some form-filling and a talk from our American tour guide, it was time to load our luggage on to the trailer and board our minibus ready to get on the road!

My first Small Group Tour travel experience Part 1

Going it alone

Going it alone

Travelling solo for the first time.

After almost 10 years of fitting in city breaks around my teaching career, I finally took the plunge and quit my full time job in order to travel more extensively. Up until now, any trips I’d taken had been with friends, often fellow teacher also tied down to taking trips in the school holidays, and had mainly been short breaks with the odd 2-week trip when there was more time over the summer break. But now I was no longer tied down to travelling in the school holidays – which was great as it meant I could take advantage of the cheaper term time flight and accommodation prices – but it also meant that my teacher friends were not available to come with me and, with wanting to go away for longer than the standard week or fortnight, no one else was able, or willing, to get the time off work either. The choice was simple. Stay at home, taking the first long term supply teaching job I was offered and continue to make the odd trip at weekends and in the holidays, or really make use of the situation I had put myself in and go it alone.

I chose the latter and started to research solo travel. Having visited many of the main US cities over the last 10 years, America was a country I knew I felt comfortable in and wanted to see more of – specifically travelling outside of the cities – so that seemed like a good place to start. I’d been receiving brochures from the group travel company Trek America and it’s sister company, Grand American Adventures, for a few years after entering a competition to travel with them once and ending up on their mailing list and I had always flicked through them half-heartedly before throwing them in the recycling but now when the new brochures arrived, I paid a bit more attention and started doing some online research into the companies and their tours. I’d had a few friends do larger group tours with companies such as Contiki and was pretty sure this wasn’t for me but a small group tour sounded more appealing.

Trek America offered a wide range of tours In North America aimed at 18-38 year olds. The majority of the tours offered were camping based, which I knew I did not want to do! – but they also offered some of their tours as BLTs or Budget Lodging Tours which used a mixture of hostels, motels and cabins. I’d never stayed in a hostel in my life and it didn’t particularly appeal to me but if it was just for a few nights here and there between hotel/motel stops, I figured I could cope. The alternative was to choose a tour with another company such as Grand American Adventures which used hotels and motels only but these were a lot more expensive and were open-aged tours which worried me in case everyone else on the tour was a lot older than me. Being in my mid-30s at this point, there was always the risk that doing a Trek America tour would find me as the only ‘older’ traveller in a group of 18 year olds but I decided that choosing a BLT tour over a cheaper, more affordable camping tour plus the 21 years old drinking age in America, would minimise this risk and hopefully the tours would attract a slightly older age group.

Once I’d narrowed down which tour company to use, the next step was choosing which tour to do. There were about 6 BLT tours on offer, all varying in length and visiting different areas of the US. Having spent a lot of time in the obvious cities – at this point I had already visited New York, LA, Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Washington DC on city breaks – I wanted to find a tour that went to enough new places for me that it would make it worth while. A lot of the west coast trips mainly spent time in LA, Vegas and San Francisco and the North East BLT tour went to New York, Boston and Niagara Falls which I’d also seen before. Their Deep South BLT certainly looked a possibility as I’d always wanted to see New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville but it was only a one week tour and, not being a drinker, I did worry again about it attracting a partying, younger crowd. Also, I thought that if I was going to do this, maybe I should go all in and go for a longer amount of time rather than testing the waters on a one week tour.

The company’s most encompassing BLT tour was the Grand BLT, a 6 week trip travelling coast to coast from New York to LA through the Northern states before returning to New York travelling back through the Southern states. The trips for that year had already departed and didn’t start up again until the following summer but I was itching to get going sooner than that so I saw that the trip could be split. The company’s Southern BLT tour ran through the winter months as well as the summer months. Paired with the Northern BLT which ran just through the summer months, it creates the Grand BLT. Maybe I didn’t have to do the entire trip in one go but could split it into two 3-week trips, one now and one in the summer. That way, if it turned out it wasn’t for me, 3 weeks is less of a commitment than 6 and I just wouldn’t book onto the second leg.

The Southern BLT Tour route

So after a bit more inning and ahhing, talking it through with various friends and family members who all encouraged me to go for it, I booked myself onto the February departure of the Southern BLT tour, adding on a few days completely by myself in Santa Monica, LA before the trip and in New York after the trip – both cities familiar to me so a few days alone in both seemed manageable!

Trek America tour van

I’ll write about my experiences on the trip in a future post but suffice to say I loved it, it was without a doubt the best thing I have ever done. I did book myself onto the Northern BLT that summer and I have done numerous small group tours since with Trek America and various other companies.

So if you are thinking thinking of travelling solo but maybe don’t want to spend your time completely by yourself, definitely consider a group tour!

My first solo travel adventure

Los Angeles

“There’s nothing there.” “It’s dirty.” “I didn’t like it.” “Hollywood is a dump.” “I wouldn’t bother.” Just some of the comments I’d heard about the City of Angels, Los Angeles. But I’d seen it in the movies – Hollywood, the Walk of Fame, the beaches, the mansions, the glamour, the Californian sunshine – what wasn’t there to like, right? And so, I floated the idea to my friend of possibly spending a few nights in the city of dreams on the way back from the trip we were planning to Australia, making our flight ticket a round-the-world trip, and the next thing I knew, we’d booked it and were planning our stay. Truth be told, I was as excited about our few days in Hollywood as I was about our 2 weeks in Australia – if not more so! – and despite the various warnings? I loved it. I’ve been back multiple times and still love it. I’ve taken family and friends there and made them fall in love with it. I’m going back there for my 6th visit this summer. I really have no idea why so many people I talk to don’t love it!!

So here’s my guide to LA!

Where To Stay and Getting Around

“It’s impossible to get around LA without a car.” I read or was repeatedly told when investigating my first trip there. Time consuming and complicated at first, maybe. Impossible? No. I’ve not had a hire car on any of my trips to the city and I’ve rarely even used taxis or ubers and yet I’ve still managed fine and seen everything I’ve wanted to see each time. And looking at the traffic in the city, there’s no way I’d ever want to drive there! The trouble with LA is it’s such a big place. Everything is spread out and unlike in New York, although improving, the metro system is currently not comprehensive enough to make getting from one place to another as quick or easy as it should be. Instead you need to make use of a combination of buses and trains. Choosing the right place to stay goes a long way to making getting around easier. I’ve always said that in an ideal world, I’d spend a few days staying in different areas – downtown, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills…but assuming you’ve got just a few days to a week in the city then you need to choose just one area to base yourself in.

For most of my visits, I’ve based myself in Hollywood, as close to the corner of Hollywood and Highland as possible. From here, most of the Hollywood sights are walkable, you have plenty of entertainment options to keep you occupied in the evenings along Hollywood Boulevard and the red line metro can be accessed easily. This is the line that runs downtown to Union Station in one direction but also to Universal Studios and City Walk in the other direction. Anything not accessible by metro, you can probably catch a bus to it from Hollywood! If you plan on using the hop on/off tourist bus to get around, then 3 of the routes – the Hollywood route, downtown route and Hollywood Bowl bus – all have a stop on Hollywood Boulevard.

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard

I have stayed a couple of times in Santa Monica – which I absolutely love – but it’s not as convenient as Hollywood for getting around. The first time I stayed there we planned on taking the hop on/off bus to Hollywood the one day but it took so long to get there -it’s not even direct, you have to hop off at Rodeo Drive and wait for the Hollywood bus from there! – that we got less time than we thought we would there so decided to go back again the next day – which meant catching the hop on/off bus all over again! (Since then, I should point out that a new metro line has opened connecting Santa Monica with downtown and hopefully making the journey between there and Hollywood a bit easier – I’ll let you know after my trip this summer!) The second time I chose to stay there was for a quick visit before starting a tour which was meeting nearby, so a visit to Hollywood wasn’t on my itinerary and Santa Monica was just more convenient for my plans than Hollywood happened to be.

Santa Monica Pier at sunset

For my upcoming visit to LA this summer, we looked at possibly staying downtown as prices were a bit cheaper than Hollywood and from there we could easily catch the metro into Hollywood or the new line to Santa Monica. But not knowing the area as well, we were unsure which of the cheaper hotel options were in an area where it was ‘safe’ to stay – especially if we were out late and had to walk from the metro back to our hotel in the evenings. So we’ve plumped for a motel just off Hollywood Boulevard again, sticking with what we know!

If you’re arriving into Los Angeles from LAX airport then an easy way of reaching wherever you’ve decided to stay is the FlyAway bus service.
https://www.flylax.com/en/flyaway-bus

These buses run from the airport to most of the main touristy areas of the city – and slightly further a field – and I’ve found them to be a convenient, relatively cheap and easy way to get to and from the airport in the past. If there’s larger group of you then a taxi might be more cost effective and convenient .

If you’re arriving by train into Union Station then the metro is the cheapest way of getting to Hollywood or Santa Monica. Having tried it once, I wouldn’t advise the public buses as not only do they take forever in the LA traffic but there’s not much room to take a giant suitcase on there!!

Sunset on Hollywood Boulevard

To use the buses or metro system in LA you’ll need to get a $2 TAP card which you then load with cash or metro passes (you can add a one-day, 7-day or one-month pass). While cash fares are accepted on buses (exact fare only), you must use a TAP card on the metro so if it’s likely you’ll be using both forms of transport, you may as well just purchase a card. To plan your route, use the journey planner feature on the LA metro site.
https://www.metro.net/riding/trip-planner/

Just don’t expect to get to travel between places as quickly as you can in other big cities – the last time I caught the bus from Hollywood to Santa Monica, it took a good 2 hours to get there. I’m hoping the recent metro extension will cut this down a bit when I try it later this year but looking at the journey planner on the metro site, it won’t be by much!

Tourist cards

Whenever I’m doing a city break, I always weigh up purchasing a ‘tourist card’ where multiple attractions are included in one price against paying for the attractions individually. The problem is, a lot of the time many of the included attractions were never on my ‘to do’ list to start with but when I see them all listed on the card’s website, it seems too good value not to buy it as long as I can fit everything into my visit so I end up actually spending more by buying the card than I would have if I’d made a list of what I wanted to do and just bought admission to those things individually! Not that that’s always a bad thing – sometimes there I things included on these cards that I wouldn’t have otherwise considered going to but because I’ve purchased a card and I’m in the area I’ve popped in and actually really enjoyed then attraction!

Anyway, there are a few tourist card options for LA. On my first visit, we had just a few days stopover on the way back from Australia and were based in Hollywood but wanted to see a bit of Beverly Hills and the beaches too. Starline Tour’s Hollywood Pass was perfect for what we wanted – it included Hollywood attractions such as Madame Tussauds, the Hollywood Museum and Dolby theatre tour, a Star Homes Tour which took us into the Hollywood and Beverly Hills and the Hop on/Off bus pass which we used to get to Rodeo Drive and Santa Monica from which we walked to Venice Beach and back. We even had time to do a loop on the Downtown Hop on/off bus route – albeit without getting off to explore – on the last morning before we headed to the airport. Starline still offer similar passes now as well as add-ons and tickets and tours to many other LA attractions.
https://www.starlinetours.com/

The hop on/off bus tour run by Starline/Citysightseeing in LA will often offer tourist bundles as an incentive to sell tour tickets. When staying in Santa Monica, we enquired about bus tickets but were quite non-committal about it only for the cashier to suddenly offer to throw in a Madame Tussaud’s ticket in with every pass we purchased! Many other tour companies will off various combo packages on attractions so it’s definitely worth shopping around to see what discounts you can get.

Riding the Hop on/off sightseeing bus through Downtown LA

If you’ve got a bit more time and either have a car or are willing to spend time planning a way around the city on public transport, then the Go LA pass is probably the most extensive.
https://www.smartdestinations.com/los-angeles-attractions-and-tours/_d_Lax-p1.html?pass=Lax_Prod_Go

The company offer all inclusive cards valid for set number of days or you can build your own card starting from 2 attractions – the more you add, the more you save. In my opinion, the all inclusive card is only worth it if you’re staying for upwards of 3 days and you are going to spend one of those days at Universal Studios as this is one of the more expensive attractions to visit and goes a long way to getting your money back on the card and ending up in profit on what you’d have spent paying for attractions individually. Even with a visit to Universal, you need to plan your trip well to fit enough in to get the full value of it but if you’re planning to do one of the studio tours and a few of the Hollywood based attractions then it soon adds up.

As LA is such a huge city, I’ve written separate pages on different parts of the city and things to do:

Hollywood and Beverly Hills

Studio Tours

Downtown LA

Beach Cities

The Hollywood Sign

Santa Monica and Venice Beach

I really love the beach cities of LA, such a chilled out relaxed vibe! I’ve made Santa Monica my base for 2 of my trips to the Los Angeles and make a point of visiting here and Venice Beach on every trip I make to the city.

Watching the sunset over Santa Monica Hills from the beach
Statue of St Monica in Pacific Palisades Park

If you’re not staying in the area and haven’t hired a car, getting to Santa Monica has recently been made slightly easier with the opening of a new metro line running there from downtown LA. If you’re staying in Hollywood, just catch the red line downtown and transfer to the new line! If you’re staying where you can’t easily access the metro then Santa Monica is served by a variety of bus routes including a direct bus from Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills. The Hop on/off sightseeing buses also have routes which include stops in Santa Monica.

The Beach

The main attraction at Santa Monica is it’s vast beach and if you’re so inclined, it’s easy to spend a day just relaxing here in the hot Californian sun. The beach is peppered with the famous ‘Baywatch-style’ lifeguard huts (the show was actually shot on site at the north side of the pier!) and in peak times, lifeguards are present keeping an eye on bathers and surfers.

Having paddled in the ocean here, I can say there are strong current and big waves so just be careful! We bought a cheap body board from a beach side stall and had great fun riding the waves in but if you fancy a go at proper surfing, there are quite a few Surf Schools offering beginners lessons in the area. There’s also plenty of beach hire stores at the back of the boardwalk hiring and selling beach chairs, mats, parasols etc. As we were once visiting in August, the sand was red hot making it unbearable to walk on without something on our feet and meaning something to sit on and to shelter us from the powerful sun was a necessity!

View of Santa Monica Beach from the end of the Pier

At the back of the beach, just off the promenade and south of the pier, you will find the area known as the Original Muscle Beach (there’s another Muscle Beach further along in Venice). As well as training equipment for any fitness fanatics there’s also a few swings to sit and play on!

The beach is often at it’s busiest at sunset and I definitely recommend hanging around until the sun goes down if you can. While LA doesn’t have the reputation for the best sunsets in California due to the smog often filling the air, I’ve definitely never had any complaints about it!

Santa Monica Pier

The iconic Santa Monica Pier is always a fun place to wander along. Here you’ll find plenty of restaurants, fast food outlets, arcades, and amusement park and even a trapeze school! The pier is also the end of the iconic Route 66 and you’ll find a sign marks the exact spot.

If you walk to the far end of the pier and look back, you’ll see sweeping views of beach and beyond.

Pacific Park is the pier’s small amusement park. There’s a (not very exciting) roller coaster, pirate ship and, of course, the much photographed Ferris Wheel, amongst other smaller rides. Tickets to ride can be bought individually or on an all-day pass. The pier and Pacific Park are open throughout the day but, in my opinion, really come alive at night.

Looking down at Pacific Park from the Ferris Wheel

3rd St Promenade

If shopping is more your thing then Santa Monica offers plenty of opportunities for that too. Third Street Promenade is a pedestrianised shopping street and entertainment district where you’ll find department stores and familiar high street brands such as Levi, and Barnes and Noble. Even if shopping isn’t your thing then it’s worth wandering along Third Street Promenade to see it’s public art displays – topiary dinosaurs!

For higher end stores, try the Santa Monica Place Mall or for something a bit different, Main Street is just a short walk away where you’ll find more boutique and independent stores. If you’re after food then I highly recommend Third Street Promenade’s Barney’s Beanery with it’s extensive menu and reasonable prices but wherever you are you’re never far from a cafe or restaurant so you definitely won’t go hungry!

Boardwalk

Whenever I think of LA’s Beach Cities, images of people cycling, skating or jogging along the beaches’ boardwalk always come to mind and it is exactly as you would imagine it to be!

If you fancy joining them, there are plenty of stores hiring bikes around the Pier. It doesn’t take very long at all to cycle south along the boardwalk from the pier to Venice Beach. I remember someone once asking me how they’ll know when they’ve left Santa Monica and entered Venice – trust me, you’ll just know when you get there!! If you fancy cycling a bit further, the cycle path cuts away from the boardwalk and onto the road before turning right onto a back road that leads to Marina del Rey. Once there you can explore the harbour area or find a bar or restaurant for something to eat or drink before cycling back.

Venice Beach

Venice Beach is like Santa Monica’s cooler, quirkier sibling. The area has a very bohemian vibe which I like to compare to Camden, but by the beach, for those of you familiar with the popular area in London, England. While the long, sandy beach is still beautiful and palm trees still line the boardwalk, it certainly has a different feel about it to Santa Monica. A 30 minute or so stroll, or a 10 minute bike ride, from Santa Monica Pier, as soon as you reach Venice, you’ll probably find music playing, bustling market stalls lining the promenade, funky shops and stalls and street performers greeting you.

Spend some time watching the skateboarders whizzing around the huge concrete skate-park, people working out at Muscle Beach or drink in the atmosphere from one of the cool beach cafes.

Entering Venice Beach

To escape the hustle of Venice Beach, turn off the promenade and follow a sign to Venice’s canals. In complete contrast to the craziness of Venice Beach, the canals are a peaceful and serene area to wander around but equally photogenic!

Malibu

Cycle or drive north of Santa Monica Pier and you’ll eventually find yourself in Malibu. My one and only trip into this area was part of a Starline Star Homes Malibu Tour where, similar to the Star Homes Tours I’d taken through the Hollywood and Beverly Hills, we drove through Malibu in an open topped van while our guide pointed out houses supposedly belonging to various celebrities. We made a brief stop at the beach where the rules of the ‘private’ beaches in front of the huge beach mansions were explained to us before driving back to Santa Monica past Malibu Pier.

This year, we’re hiring a car and driving north up the Pacific Coast Highway so a slightly longer stop in Malibu is definitely on the itinerary!

LA Overview

Hollywood & Beverly Hills

The Hollywood Sign

Downtown LA

LA Studio Tours