My first small group tour travel experience – Part 1

The start of a 3-week road trip across America with 10 strangers!

Getting ready for the Oscars – red carpet lining Hollywood Blvd

Within minutes of meeting my companions for the next 3 weeks You can read my previous blog on this here), we were all climbing into our mini-bus and being driven by our tour guide across the city to our first stop – Hollywood. Conversations in the bus at this point mainly consisted of the “What’s your name again?”, “Where did you say you’re from again?” kind and when we were dropped off and given an hour to wander around Hollywood Boulevard, we drifted into smaller groups – the 2 Swedish girls sticking together, the 20-something guys grouping up and then those of us that didn’t fit any other group wandering off together too. Hollywood was setting up for the weekend’s big Oscar Ceremony which, having been to the Walk of Fame many times before, made the stop a bit more exciting for me as we saw the preparations going on and watched through the fence as reporters broadcast from the red carpet already running down the middle of the road to the Kodak Theater.

Oscar preparations outside the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood

Once we were all back at the bus, we made one more quick hop off and on stop nearby to get a photo of the Hollywood sign from Beachwood Canyon before settling in for the 2 hour drive to San Diego. Lunch was at a truck stop just outside the city with a choice of fast food options (most of us tried Wendy’s!) and then it was off to drop our things at our hostel in the Gaslamp District. Like me, this was to be the first hostel experience for most of the group. We were allocated two 6-bed dorms to share between us, there were plenty of bathrooms along the corridor and breakfast was provided in the morning. Our room overlooked the main street in the Gaslamp Quarter, where all the bars were so we had loud music pumping through the walls until the early hours of the morning but it was only for 2 nights and our next stop would be a hotel in Vegas.

The Hollywood sign
Paddling in the sea on Mission Beach

After we had settled, we met back at the bus and were taken to Mission Beach for the afternoon. Despite it being February, the weather was a balmy 20 degrees and we wandered along the sands chatting and getting to know each other a bit more before returning to the city for our first group dinner at Bepe di Bucco’s family dining restaurant. That night, we split into those who wanted to go partying and those who didn’t with some of us opting instead to keep out of the bars and get frozen yoghurt instead as we planned to be up early the next day for a trip to the zoo.

What we did on our free day was completely up to us but with the suggestions being SeaWorld or San Diego Zoo, most of the group was keen on going to the zoo so our tour guide offered to drive us there and then we could make our own way back. Only 2 of the group – the two Swedish girls who were mainly keeping themselves to themselves at this point – decided to stay in the city and do their own bit of sightseeing. The zoo was huge, so much so that we lost one group member at one point which was a good point to decide we should all swap numbers and start a Whatsapp group! After spending most for the day there, we walked through Balboa Park and back to the hostel. Our tour guide suggested a seafood place for dinner but with none of the group too keen in that idea, we ended up in Hooters which, if nothing else, was cheaper!

It was a very early start the next morning to begin our drive to Las Vegas and most of us slept in the bus. Lunch was at a bizarre Greek-style diner in Baker, California, opposite the World’s Largest Thermometer(!) before continuing to our destination.

Our seemingly luxurious hotel room at Bally’s!

After 2 nights in a hostel, our room at Bally’s Casino seemed like luxury and I was surprised we were in a hotel on the Strip and in such a good location, expecting to be Downtown from reading other Trekkers’ experiences online. With hotel rooms being for 2, the two Swedish girls shared a room, I shared with the other solo girl (we’d already become good friends at this point – 2 days can seem a lot longer when you’re spending all that time in someone’s company!) and then the guys paired up, taking it in turns to have a room to themselves with there being an odd number of them.

We had the rest of the afternoon as free time but were to be back early evening for our included Party Bus activity. As my roommate and I had decided we’d like to see Britney play the following night, we headed straight to the Planet Hollywood box office to acquire some tickets before joining the others strolling through some of the hotels on the strip. Then it was all round to our tour guide’s room for some group-bonding drinking games and Chinese food before we piled onto our private Vegas Party bus. The bus drives up and down the strip while music blasts out and the inside is like a mini-dance club.

Downtown Vegas

Unimpressed by the very clubby music, one of the group asked if he could instead plug in his iPhone and we instead sang and danced along to cheesy 90s pop tracks from the Spice Girls and 5ive and tunes from Disney’s Frozen. The bus made a stop Downtown in time for us to catch the hourly laser show at Fremont Street and then at the Welcome to Vegas sign for us to get photos before dropping us off at the Bellagio to watch the penultimate dancing fountain show of the night. We loved this so much we decided to wait 15 minutes to watch the final show of the night too before following our tour guide to her favourite karaoke bar at Ellis Island Casino just behind Bally’s.

The Bellagio Founains

The next morning we split into 2 groups – those of us who had returned to our hotel at a reasonable time and were up to spend the day exploring Vegas, and those who were sleeping it off! By the time we met with the rest of the group later that afternoon, we had already had a huge Denny’s breakfast, took a gondola ride at the Venetian hotel, and got lost in Circus Circus. We were joined by a few more group members at the top of the Stratosphere where we screamed our way through the 3 rides sat on top of the tallest building in the Strip.

Britney!

That evening, we all went off to see various shows and for me that meant the chance to see Britney’s Piece Of Me show, something I’d wanted to do since it was announced so I was ecstatic to discover she was playing on our free evening in the city. We’d managed to get our hands on pit tickets so were up close, especially when Britney came out along the catwalk and the show was every bit as amazing as I’d hoped. After, we met up with a few other group members for a late night ride on the High Roller Ferris Wheel to see the bright lights of Vegas from above.

I’d been to Vegas a few times before this trip but never experienced it quite like this. Being in a group tour situation was already taking me out of my comfort zone – drinking games, party buses, late night karaoke bars, none of these things were how I’d usually spend my time on holiday – and yet I was loving every minute and really enjoying the company of this eclectic band of individuals.

4 days in and things were going great but I should know by now to expect the unexpected…

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!

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