Regular readers will know I’ve been a bit of a cheerleader for Trek America, a small group US tour company aimed at 18-38 year old solo travellers which I credit with changing my life by quashing my fears and doubts of travelling alone, instilling my love of small group tours and adventure travel in general and leading to me forming many lifelong friendships. So it was with great sadness that I met the news that the company had been disbanded, another casualty of the effects of Covid on the Worldwide travel industry. Trek America wasn’t a baby in the World of escorted touring having started offering its unique adventures across the Americas all the way back in 1972, but global travel restrictions along with the logistics of how to operate group tours which essentially consist of up to 15 individuals crammed together on a minibus for much of the time in a World of social distancing, eventually made the business unviable.
At the grand old age of 34, I took the plunge and booked myself onto the 3-week Trek America Southern BLT tour, my first foray into solo travel and group tours and I loved it so much that I returned to the States just a few months later to join the company’s 3-week Northern BLT Trek. Since then, I have travelled with them through Alaska and introduced my sister-in-law the joys of small group travel when I won 2 places on their Deep South Tour. While I’m now more likely to plan my own self-driven road trips with some of the many friends I made on Trek and the news of the company’s demise came *just* as I was too old to join onto any more of their tours anyway, I still felt a huge loss at hearing its fate and especially thinking of all those who now won’t get to go through the experience of touring with them.
So to celebrate its existence rather than mourn its loss, here are my top 5 memories from the 4 tours I took with Trek America!
Just three days into a 3 week trip, our stop in Vegas is mainly memorable because, unusually, it wasn’t how I’d ever spent my time in Vegas before.
Playing drinking games in the hotel followed by piling onto a ‘party bus’ on which we spent our time on board hooking up our own ipod and singing and dancing along to the cheesiest of cheesy pop tunes. Then catching the last 2 shows at the Bellagio dancing fountains before karaoke at an off-Strip dive bar until the early hours.
And yet we were still up reasonably early the next day to make the most of everything else Vegas has to offer. Only on Trek.
At completely the other end of the spectrum to the time I spent in Vegas on the Southern BLT but equally unforgettable was the afternoon I spent in Memphis on the Deep South BLT at the National Civil Rights Museum.
Compelling, humbling and thought-provoking, the museum took us on a journey through the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the US and Worldwide including a deeply moving look at the events leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King before seeing the room where he died. A sobering experience.
A magical visit to Monument Valley a week into the Southern BLT. After an unexpected snow storm suddenly hit as we visited the Grand Canyon, it was on to Utah where we found the snow getting deeper and deeper.
Despite the weather making it impossible to do the complete tour of the Navajo Tribal Park site, the snow made the visit even more special bringing a serene calm over the area. And underneath a clear blue sky with the sun shining on it, the famous red rocks poking up from the valley floor looked even more beautiful covered in the heavy, white snow.
Still the moment from the tour we talk about the most.
Not strictly a Trek America memory as although I booked the tour of Alaska with them, I was transferred onto a tour with their sister company Grand American Adventures, but it still felt very much like Trek so I’m going to count it!
The highlight of a trip full of highlights, this expensive tour extra was worth every penny as we flew in a light aircraft over Denali National Park and finally caught sight of the until then elusive Mount Denali.
Only 30% of visitors to Denali National Park get to see Mount Denali and the weather had not been on our side while touring the park so having it suddenly come into view as we flew over the park was an amazing surprise and a strangely emotional experience.
Even without the appearance of Mount Denali, the scenic flight over glaciers and the Alaskan Range, followed by a glacial landing, was a wonderful, once in a lifetime, experience.
Despite it being a very National Park heavy tour, nothing could have prepared me for sheer beauty and spectacle of Yellowstone National Park. From bison and bear sightings to colourful canyons and of course, the famous geysers and geothermal activity, never has my jaw dropped so may time in such a short amount of times.
If it looks amazing in the photos, they don’t do it even the slightest justice. The park has to be seen to be believed. And as if that wasn’t enough, we continued from the park through its home state of Wyoming visiting the neighbouring Grand Teton National Park where we were met by more breath-taking scenery before spending the rest of our time in old west-style town of Jackson horse riding in the mountains and rafting through the rapids of Snake River. The one state on the tour I couldn’t wait to return to!
There are hundreds of other memories I could have mentioned from my Trek America trips – line dancing the night away in Nashville, listening to a jazz band play as we floated down the Mississippi on a New Orleans paddle boat, spending the day exploring the valley at Yosemite National Park, watching the sunset over Lake Tahoe, hiking in the amazing US National Parks, visiting the studios Elvis recorded at in Memphis… not to mention all the amazing food we ate, fun nights out we had and all the interesting places we stayed in.
Thanks for all the memories Trek America, you will be missed.
Find links to read about my adventures travelling across America with Trek here.
It was the final full day of our tour across America’s Deep South with Trek America. So far, we had spent time in New Orleans, Alabama, Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains, Nashville and Memphis and today we would be travelling to the state of Mississippi to visit the city of Natchez.
I had passed through the state of Mississippi once before on a previous road trip through the Southern States of America but that day, our only stop in the state had been at a Burger King so I was looking forward to spending just a bit more time and seeing a tiny bit of what the state has to offer.
We made one stop on the way from Memphis, for lunch at a roadside cafe/green grocers store called The Tomato Place which had a range of delicious sandwiches and toasties on offer. Then it was on into the historic centre of Natchez.
Our first port of call in Natchez was at the visitor centre for Natchez National Historic Park. Here, we spoke to the park rangers and looked at the displays and exhibits to learn about the history of Natchez, completing the complimentary Junior Ranger activity booklets to earn a Junior Ranger badge each!
We had some free time in the area next, to explore, during which some of us decided to take a tour of one of the historic houses to find out more about life in Natchez during the Antebellum era.
After our tour, we spent a bit of time in the park overlooking the river before going to check in at our motel for the evening right on the Mississippi/Louisiana border.
It was the last night of our group tour so in the evening we went out to a nice restaurant by the river for a final group meal, stopping to watch the sunset over the Mississippi River after. Then it was back to the motel for a few drinks around the pool, reminiscing about our adventures over the last week.
Tomorrow, we would be heading back to New Orleans where our tour would come to an end.
After leaving Natchez early, we arrived in New Orleans late morning, stopping at a roadside bar to pick up cocktails to drink as we toured the Garden District. My sister-in-law and I had visited the area during our pre-tour stay of New Orleans just a week earlier but it was nice to have a guided tour this time. We all felt a bit strange drinking cocktails from brightly coloured plastic glasses as we strolled through the Lafayette Cemetery #1 and past the mansions lining the streets but when in New Orleans…!
Our next stop was at Louis Armstrong Park, on the edge of the city’s French Quarter. We wandered through the park looking at some of the sculptures dotted around the area.
Then it was time to say goodbye to our tour guide as we were dropped back at the gateway hotel in the French Quarter. Most of the group would be staying on in New Orleans for a few extra days but as we had stayed before the tour, we would be flying out that evening.
Before waving goodbye to our new friends, we all took a walk into the French Quarter, revisiting the French market, looking inside St Louis Cathedral and strolling along the riverside. Then, after grabbing some Pizza fries for lunch at one of the nearby bars, it was time to say our goodbyes.
We’d had an incredible time exploring America’s Deep South region. We’d seen a lot, had a lot of fun and felt we had learnt a lot along the way too.
This would be my second time in ‘Music City’ after a stop there on a previous Trek America tour but as regular readers may know, last time, bad weather had prevented us arriving with time to do much exploring so this time I was hoping to actually get to visit one of the museums and spend a bit more time exploring the city!
The group was excited today because it was Hallowe’en and, from what we’d seen in the media, the USA celebrates Hallowe’en in a big way. We’d already seen buildings in New Orleans decked out in over-the-top decorations and revellers dressed up in all sorts of costumes wandering around Birmingham, Alabama on a Saturday night out as well as taking part in a spooky Hallowe’en themed night out at Sloss ‘Fright’ Furance that same night so we had high hopes for actual Hallowe’en night.
Many of the group had bought some kind of outfit or make-up to wear from a previous Walmart stop and, my sister-in-law being a professional face painter, was going to help us get made up for a night on the town!
A few of us in the group were fans of the TV show Nashville so we made a quick stop at The Bluebird Cafe, the famous country music venue often featured in the show. There wasn’t really a lot to see, especially as there was even a notice on the door requesting that visitors don’t peep through the windows but we at least took some photos outside it.
Then we made a lunch stop at Nashville Farmers Market. There were so many food outlets, it was difficult to decide where to grab some food from but with its food court seating area in the centre it did at least allow us all to get whatever took our fancy and meet back with our purchases rather than all having to decide on one place to all eat at.
Lunch done, we were dropped just off Broadway, Nashville’s main central street, and given a few hours of free time before reconvening to o and check in at our hostel. Some of the group decided to visit the Johnny Cash Museum, some to wander around Broadway and visit some of the live music venues while we decided to go to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
While I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a huge fan of country music, I’ve definitely become more familiar with a lot of popular country songs and artists since I started travelling in the US and there were enough exhibitions and displays relating to artists that were well known in the UK such as Shania Twain and Taylor Swift, that it made the visit worthwhile. We especially enjoyed the more interactive exhibits such as a recording booth where we sang a group version of a Taylor Swift hit!
With a bit of time still to spare after leaving the museum, we talk a walk along Broadway, browsing at some of the souvenir and gift stores and taking in the energetic atmosphere. As we wandered along, we even bumped into Country music star Kelly Pickler who I recognised from her American Idol days as she was filming for her daily chat show.
After walking along Broadway, we took a quick walk up to the Shelby Street Pedestrian bridge to get some photos of the city skyline and the Cumberland River before meeting back up with the rest of the group and going to check in at our hostel and getting ready for a Hallowe’en evening out.
We were beginning the evening at the Wild Horse Saloon, a music venue I had visited on my last visit to Nashville and had absolutely loved. Whereas my last visit had been on a weekend, it was now midweek and the venue was a lot quieter than it had been before and we were disappointed to find we were pretty much the only people there in costume, out tour guide explaining that most people would have had their costumed Hallowe’en night out at the weekend instead.
Despite the lack of customers putting a slight dampener on the atmosphere, we still had a fun time enjoying the live band playing some country music and taking part in the regular line dancing lessons while we waited for our food to be served. While I would have happily stayed and line-danced the night away, the drinks were on the dearer side so instead, we decided to move on to try some bars along Broadway. Here, the bars were a bit livelier and we hopped from one to the other including the famous Tootsies.
Not being a drinker or one for late nights, I left the rest of the group to it not long after midnight and retired to the hostel where us girls had a private en suite dorm.
The next morning, a few of us were up in time to take the short walk back into the city and grab some delicious breakfast waffles at Another Broken Egg, a cafe which our guide had recommended to us. Then it was time to climb back on the van and head for more Deep South adventures, this time at our next Tennessee destination, the city of Memphis.
I’d enjoyed my return to Nashville and was pleased that I’d had a bit more time to spend in the city this time around but there was still so much I’d like to see and do and I was definitely making plans to return soon.
Day 2 of our 8-day tour across the Deep South USA with Trek America and a pre-tour stay in New Orleans and an interesting start to the trip in Alabama, we were now driving through a corner of the state of Georgia and into Tennessee – the state where we’d actually be spending 5 of the 7 nights of our trip.
Keeping ourselves occupied on the van with a group game of Card Against Humanity and making a few stops along the way to stretch our legs (including one at a gas station in Georgia so we could all officially say we’d set foot in that state!), the time passed quickly and we were soon arriving in our first Tennessee destination of Gatlinburg.
Having not left Birmingham, Alabama until mid-afternoon, it was already dark as we pulled up to our hotel on the main Gatlinburg strip. We were given an hour to settle in before meeting in the lobby to head to dinner together.
We followed our tour guide to the Smoky Mountain Brewery for dinner where I had one of the nicest pizzas I’ve ever eaten! Some of the group sampled some of the the beers on offer and stayed on at the bar after but as we had an early start the next day, most of us headed back to the motel.
The following day would mainly be spent exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As a huge fan of the American National Parks, this was the day of the trip I was most looking forward to. After a pit stop at a local supermarket to grab sandwiches for lunch and snacks and drinks for hiking, we drove the short distance from Gatlinburg to the entrance of the park, jumping out the van for the traditional photo with the park sign.
The area had experienced its first snow of the season, just a light dusting over night but enough to linger on the trees this morning. As we drove further into the park we were all agape at just how beautiful it looked – the autumn colours of the trees mixed with the glistening snow. Our guide pulled over a few times so we could take pictures but they failed to capture the beauty before us in full.
Our first main stop in the park was at Sugarlands Visitor Centre to use the facilities and pick up any maps, leaflets and souvenirs we wanted. After meeting back up at the van, our guide told us that the weather meant the road leading to the area she was planning to take us hiking in was closed so we’d have to make alternative plans.
Instead, we spent well over an hour in the van driving through the park to go hiking in a different area.
The journey didn’t feel anywhere near as long as it was as we passed more stunning scenery – streams and waterfalls glistening through the trees alongside the road, endless woods showing their autumn colours and then wide open stretches of meadowland.
Once we reached our destination near the Cades Cove area of the park, we found the Abrams Falls Trailhead and followed the moderately easy, 5-mile roundtrip hiking trail alongside a river, through woods and rocky areas opening out to Abrams Falls itself – a pretty waterfall and lake.
Here, we sat for lunch, enjoying the view, scrambling over rocks in the lake and climbing up behind the waterfall before hiking back the way we came.
Being tired, what had seemed an easyish hike out, felt longer and more a chore heading back and most of the group slept on the van back to Gatlinburg afterwards!
We were back in Gatlinburg mid-afternoon and had the time to spend as we liked. Making arrangements to meet up with the rest of the group for dinner in the evening, my sister-in-law and I decided to go and explore the small mountain resort town.
As we had driven in the night before, my first impression had been that it was in a similar vein to the holiday towns of Wisconsin Dells and Branson, Missouri – a tourist trap full of souvenir shops and expensive attractions – but as we wondered down the main strip, downtown Gatlinburg endeared itself to me a lot more and seemed to have a lot more charm about it with its surrounding mountains, European mountain resort themed ‘Village Shoppes’ area and its breweries and distilleries dotted around.
Later, we met up with the rest of the group deciding on the Texas Roadhouse for dinner – my first visit to an American chain that is now one of my firm favourites! – before visiting the Ole Smoky Moonshine distillery.
Here, we took part in a Moonshine tasting session where for $5, we were provided with shots of Moonshine – various flavours and a range of strengths – to sample along with a hilarious commentary from our fast-talking host.
Many of the group bought bottles of Moonshine to take along for the rest of our tour after while the rest of us sat out in the courtyard rocking chairs enjoying a live band playing country music while we waited for them to make their purchases.
Not wanting the night to end just yet, we found ourselves in a small karaoke bar just off the strip and seemingly full of locals. I’m not sure what they made of us demonstrating our singing talents to a range of cheesy British pop hits by the likes of 5ive and Westlife. Hopefully they appreciated some of the groups’ attempts at some Dolly Parton country classics a bit more!!
Exploring Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains had been a really fun part of our trip and I was already making plans in my head to return to the area on a roadtrip I was mentally planning for the near future as there was so much more of the National Park to see. But for now, it was time for our Deep South adventure to continue and tomorrow morning we’d be leaving for Music City itself, Nashville!
Watch my vlog of my visit to the Great Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg here:
Hailing from Birmingham in the UK myself, I found it quite amusing that the first stop on my tour of the Deep South would be in it’s namesake in the USA! It was the first day of our Trek America Deep South BLT tour and after completing the usual formalities at our New Orleans‘ hotel early this morning, we were hitting the road in our Trek van. As we left New Orleans and crossed the border into Mississippi (a state we’d be returning to later into our 7 days tour), we spent the time getting to know the rest of the guys in our group and sharing our excitement for our trip.
After making a few stops along the way for comfort breaks, giving us the chance to pick up a few snacks for the journey from the gas station then, later, lunch from a Walmart, we arrived in the state of Alabama, pulling over on the roadside to grab a photo with one of the famous ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ welcome signs.
Once in the city of Birmingham, we were dropped Kelly Ingram Park opposite the Civil Rights Institute and historic 16th Street Baptist Church and containing a range of civil rights monuments.
Given the choice of free time to explore the are or of visiting the Civil Rights Institute, we all chose the latter. The museum was a sobering but interesting experience, taking us through the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement including the Jim Crow laws and the protests and demonstrations of ’50s and ’60s America through a range of informative exhibitions and displays.
After spending a few hours exploring the museum, we were taken to check in at our motel before heading into the city for dinner. Our guide recommended Paramount Bar to us and we were happy to go along with her suggestion, especially once we got inside to find a collection of retro arcade machines filling the rooms! After taking it in turns playing Pac-Man and on the old pinball machines, we sat down to order off the bar menu of basket meals – burgers, sandwiches and the like all at reasonable prices. My burger was delicious and my sister-in-law’s grilled cheese was one of the biggest sandwiches I had ever seen!
Full up, we left the bar to head to our final destination of the evening, Sloss Furnaces.
Sloss Furnaces is actually a National Historic Landmark but every October, it is transformed for Sloss Fright Furnace. The furnace is said to be haunted after the mysterious death of one of its foremans many years ago and other strange goings on since and the organisers play on this creating a walk round experience through the property. After our tour guide had briefly explained this history to us, we were asked if any of us wanted to take part in a walk around the furnace. I love things like this and immediately volunteered along with the 4 others on our tour. One dropped out minutes before we entered leaving it to just me and the 3 boys to work our way around. We moved along dark, narrow corridors as people dressed in hideous outfits and make up jumped out at us or chased us along. It was great fun and I wasn’t scared at all, honest!!
The next morning was a Sunday and we were up early to check out of our motel and go to church! We put on our Sunday best to attend a service at the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The church is known for being the centre of a bombing attack by white supremacist groups in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, resulting in the deaths of 4 young girls and it has since been designated a National Historic Landmark.
We were welcomed at the church by the friendly congregation and before the service began, were shown around. As our group was made up entirely of Britons, they were especially keen on showing us the beautiful stained glass window donated to the church by the people of Wales to honour the victims of the bombing.
The service itself was really uplifting and we all felt honoured to be attending and welcomed so generously. After it had finished we made the short trip back to the city centre where we called into another Alabama institution – Milo’s Hamburgers, a fast food chain that is exclusive to Alabama state. After grabbing burgers, chicken, crinkle cut fries and traditional Southern sweet tea, it was back on the van to say goodbye to Alabama and begin our journey towards Tennessee.
A couple of years ago I was ecstatic to win 2 places on Trek America’s Deep South Budget Lodging Tour (or Deep South BLT as it’s known for short). The 7 night tour would begin and end in New Orleans, taking in Birmingham, Alabama, Gatlinburg/Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi along the way.
Having previously taken Trek America’s Southern BLT, I had visited New Orleans, Nashville and Memphis before so this probably wasn’t a tour I would have paid to take part in but, last time I visited Nashville and Memphis, things hadn’t exactly gone to plan (read all about it here!) thanks to the onset of wintry weather forcing us to abandon most of our plans so I was ecstatic to get a second chance to experience these cities, this time, hopefully, snow free!
Deciding to invite along my sister-in-law who had only ever been to New York and LA in the USA before, we added on a few extra days in New Orleans before the tour was to begin. Wanting her to get the most out of the experience, I borrowed heavily from my last experience of visiting the city in planning our itinerary for the 2 full days we had there.
So on day one, we walked from our hotel on the edge of the French quarter to Jackson Square where we would be meeting for a swamp tour. Last time, I had taken Dr Wagner’s Honey Island swamp tour which had been organised by our Trek leader. It was February, cold and wet and not alligator season. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the experience, I had a great time. But this time, I wanted to visit a different swamp so I booked us on a tour offered by Grayline. The weather was warm and sunny and it was, just, still alligator season.
We were taken by bus to the swamp, where we boarded our boats and headed out onto the bayou. Today, there were plenty of alligators to see as we glided through the water and past the lush, green scenery. While the commentary was sometimes difficult to hear over the conversations going on between passengers, it was still a really fun and exciting way to spend the morning.
Once back in New Orleans, we spent the afternoon exploring the French Quarter. It was Hallowe’en week and many of the buildings had been dressed up in preparation. We sampled some beignets from a local cafe and finished up with drinks on Bourbon Street.
That evening we took a ghost tour with Free Tours By Foot. This company allows you to sign up to its walking tours for free then at the end of the tour, you pay what you feel it was worth or what you can afford. On my previous visit to New Orleans I had taken a ghost tour with a company where you pay a set price up front and I have to say that of the two tours, the ‘free’ tour was much better.
The next day, we took a street car out to New Orleans’ Garden District. Rather than taking a guided tour like I had on my previous visit, this time I’d downloaded a self-guided walking tour which directed us around the area pointing out houses of interest along the way. The Garden District is a really pretty place to explore and with many celebrities living in the are, you never know who you might bump into!
That afternoon, we took another streetcar, this time, out to City Park, a large park on the edge of the city and a new experience for me. The park is home to a sculpture park which we explored before stumbling across a mini-golf course.
As it was Hallowe’en week, the course had been decorated with cobwebs and a range of spooky figures and as we played, we were regularly interrupted by witches cackling and skeleton dogs howling, livening up the game.
Back in the city, we walked towards the Mississippi River and watched the pipes play on the Natchez steamboat. We had booked an evening dinner cruise as I had enjoyed taking one on my previous visit to the the city. After enjoying the delicious buffet dinner, we sat out on the deck enjoying the sunset and city views and listening to the jazz band play.
It had been fun to return to New Orleans a few years on, revisiting some of the places I had seen before and reliving some of my previous experiences but now I was looking forward to beginning our tour of America’s Deep South, starting with a trip to Birmingham, Alabama!
When I quit my full time teaching position to travel more, I knew this would have to be solo as most of my friends were also teachers and were stuck with having to travel in school holidays. I’d done plenty of city breaks in the past but wanted to see more of certain countries than the obvious. Having never travelled solo before, I wasn’t confident to organise or take this kind of trip alone. I wasn’t a confident driver and had never driven abroad before but many of the places I wanted to see such as the National Parks, weren’t particularly accessible by public transport.
So after a lot of research, I decided joining a group tour was the best way forward. I’m not good with large crowds so I narrowed it down to a few small group tour providers and I didn’t want to be camping for 3 weeks so that narrowed down my search a bit more. Eventually, I booked a coast to coast tour with Trek America, the Southern BLT (Budget Lodging Tour).
As excited as I was to get on the road, in the days leading up to my tour, there were a few things I was nervous about. Luckily, it more than worked out but here’s some things I wish I’d known…
I didn’t need to worry about being a solo traveller
Maybe it goes without saying when you’re doing a group tour like Trek America but I still worried that everyone else would be there as a couple or with a friend. As it turned out, my first group tour with Trek was mainly made up with solo travellers and just one pair of friends and it was everyone’s first time doing such a tour which instantly gave us something in common!
I didn’t need to have to worried about taking too much luggage long
This was something I had looked to the internet for advice on before travelling – how much luggage was it alright to take? Would everyone else have backpacks, should I try and squash everything into a small suitcase? On my first Trek, I went for a medium sized suitcase in the end and squashed as much as possible in but I needn’t have worried. Only one person in our group had a backpack for their luggage, everyone else had a case and those cases were all a lot bigger than mine! So on subsequent tours, I have taken my larger case instead and packed more. Apart from my main case, I also took a small backpack to take on the van on a daily basis which I could put my drink and snacks in, and other essentials like my camera and portable phone chargers.
Age wouldn’t be an issue
This was quite a big one for me in choosing a group tour. I was approaching my mid-30s and was worried everyone else would be late-teens/early 20s. As it turned out, the group was a mixture of ages ranging from 20 to myself. I think choosing a budget lodging tour over a camping tour possibly lends itself to the older demographic of Trek but it was still a worry for me. Yes, I was the oldest, and on this tour (although not subsequent tours), I was the only one in my 30s but did it make a difference? Absolutely not. Again, everyone was there for the same reason, for the same shared experience and in fact, one of the group members I got on best with, and am still good friends with to this day, was one of the youngest in the group!
It wouldn’t be all partying
Another quite big worry for me, and kinda tied in with the age issue. I don’t really drink, I don’t like late nights out partying at bars and clubs very often so I was anxious that my fellow travellers would be heavy drinkers, out partying all the time and that this might even be encouraged on the tour (I’d read nightmare reviews of Contiki tours and the like and was worried this could be similar). Again, my worries were unfounded. If you do like to drink and party (and there were a couple of group members that did) then yes, there was plenty of opportunity for this but again, everyone had signed up for this tour for a similar reason – to travel and see new places and while socialising was a part of this (else we’d have travelled completely solo), you don’t feel up to much or want to throw yourselves into some of the amazing activities offered over the 3 weeks if you are constantly hung over so any partying was done in moderation.
And for those of us that like to stick to our diet Cokes and our early nights, it was never frowned upon by anyone else in the group. That’s not to say I didn’t have any late nights out – an extremely late night out for my birthday in Austin, a fun night out on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and hitting the country music bars on Broadway in Nashville were all huge highlights of the trip and I was extremely thankful for van time the next day!!
Being a fussy eater is fine
Another worry for me was my eating habits. I’m pretty fussy. I don’t eat fish, I don’t like spicy food, I don’t like a lot of sauces, I don’t eat Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Indian… I know, I’m ridiculous but that’s the way it is, I have very plain tastes and I was worried this would be a hindrance on a tour where I expected at least, we’d be taken to a restaurant and told that’s where we’re eating today and I’d have to make do and find something I liked. Luckily, this wasn’t quite how it worked and, as it turned out, I wasn’t the only fussy eater on any of my tours.
My tours have all worked differently. On the first tour I did, our tour leader favoured group meals where she’d book somewhere, or we’d just turn up somewhere, and we’d all eat together at that place. But we’d be told in advance the place she had in mind and occasionally, like when a fresh fish restaurant was suggested in San Diego, if we didn’t like the sound of the idea, we’d say so and go to an alternative restaurant instead. Being America, most of the places we went to offered something that I ate even if it was a basic pasta dish, a burger or a grilled cheese. On my New Zealand tour there was a couple of times when the group chose places I knew I wouldn’t find anything I liked at and each time, I opted to eat elsewhere – something I’d have happily done alone but each time, another group member offered to come along with me to keep me company. On one of my Trek America tours, we had someone in our group with a severe peanut allergy and everyone in the group was really accommodating and supportive. That tour, we tended to be dropped in a town with multiple eating options where we could all go off and find something suitable in small groups rather than all eating together at one place every day. Occasionally on cabin stay days, we’d cook around the campfire, again making sure that when we shopped, food was bought that suited everyone. Either way, my eating habits were never a problem on any of the group tours I’ve taken!
Van time would be fine
That last section brings me nicely onto ‘van time’. With a huge distance to cover on a cross-country trip in a relatively short amount of time, I was worried we’d spend most of the trip sat on a bus and not doing much else. And yes, a lot of the journey’s between each overnight stop were long but we were often grateful for those journeys. They were a chance to catch up on much needed sleep after late nights out, noisy hostel nights or early mornings. They were a chance to chat and get to know each other better and on most of my tours, the group would make an effort to switch around where we sat each day so we could spend time with different people. They were a chance for banter and silly games.
On one tour I did, someone had brought Cards Against Humanity with them and we played a group game while driving through the state of Georgia. And they were a time to listen to each other’s music collection and sing along to some classic tunes at the top of our voices with each group member taking it in turns to sit ‘shotgun’ and control the music for that day.
There’d be a range of weather along the way
When I booked my first Trek America trip, 3 weeks travelling coast to coast through the Southern states in February and March, I assumed that being down south would mean mild weather. I knew from previous experience that New York would still be cold at that time so packed a couple of jumpers, hat and gloves and a big coat for the last few days of the tour travelling from Washington DC – Philadelphia – New York, but otherwise, I packed mainly summery clothes.
Last minute, I threw in a couple of long sleeved t-shirts that I could layer under t-shirts in case it became chillier in the evenings. And it’s a good job I did because from the moment we left Las Vegas on day 5 of our trip until the end of our trip over 2 weeks later in New York, with the exception of a couple of gloriously warm days in New Orleans, we had nothing but what could be described as wintry weather. Cold, rain, SNOW! There were a few group members even less prepared than I was – some of the Australians in the group had never even seen snow before – and many of us ended up buying cheap hoodies etc from souvenir stores or Walmart stops. I certainly learnt my lesson to be prepared for all sorts of weather and now always check temperatures for all the stops along the way before going on any type of roadtrip!!
Things Might Go Wrong – anything can, and probably will, happen (but it doesn’t matter and you’ll still have a great time!)
Leading on from weather issues, this was the main cause of anything that went wrong on my first Trek trip. Not enough warm clothes was a minor issue and when the snow first fell, it was actually quite a nice surprise – who else can say they saw the Grand Canyon covered in heavy snow?! Not many people – I didn’t even know that ever happened there! But wintry weather can become tiresome after a week or so, especially when it interferes with your plans.
Van journey’s taking twice the time and arriving in places a lot later than expected with less sightseeing time because of road closures was annoying enough but when planned activities have to dropped because of safety fears and snow closures, it’s downright disappointing. So there was no hiking down into the Grand Canyon and, worse still, no helicopter ride over it. Instead we watched a film about the Grand Canyon at the IMAX in Grand Canyon Village. And there was no visit to Graceland (or anywhere else really) after Memphis completely shut down after more heavy snowfall.
Yes, this was all disappointing – the helicopter over the Grand Canyon and the visit to Graceland were both things I was really excited for when I booked the trip – but seeing Monument Valley covered in snow, something so rare that even the Navajo were taking photos was not just one of the highlights of the trip, but a highlight of my life. A group snowball fight on Beale Street in Memphis a week or so later, a stop at a small town diner in the middle of nowhere Texas for pancakes where all the staff were fascinated to have a motley crew of Brits, Australians, Swiss and Swedes suddenly invade the premises followed by the joy of randomly finding a British store next door selling Cadbury chocolate bars – all things we look fondly back on that wouldn’t have otherwise happened!
It would be easy to keep in touch with everyone back home
With the extra days I had booked in LA and New York at either side of the Trek America tour, I was going to be away for 4 weeks on my first trip and I was worried that with a busy itinerary, stops in the middle of nowhere and being on the van travelling so much that it might be difficult to find time – or wifi – to be able to keep in touch with everyone back home and, at the very least, let my parents know I was ok on a regular basis. This was not a problem though. Our Trek van was equipped with wifi – this was unlimited on our first trip and although it only allowed 5 people on at time, most of the group were pretty good at limiting the time they spent online so that everyone could get on at some point.
On my second trip, our group leader told us the wifi was supposed to be limited to a set amount per trip and somehow, our group managed to use up most of this allowance within the first few days.
But we were still all able to easy get online to keep in touch with those back home. Wifi is easy to come across in the US and we were usually able to find it at service stations, bars and restaurants, some tourist attractions and in motels, hostels and cabin parks!
There will be (many) ups and (occasional) downs
I’ve loved all my Trek America – and other group tour – experiences, I really have, but there’s always the occasional time when you feel a bit down. The first low point for me on my first Trek came just after my birthday. We were staying in my nightmare of a hostel in Austin – we’d been used to mainly staying in small dorms where it would just be us group members in a room but here we were in a huge, noisy co-ed dorm and didn’t get a lot of sleep.
The next night, we were staying in a motel that had seen better days – filthy, stank of cigarettes and we worried for our safety after a huge argument erupted right outside our room and sirens and flashing lights started going off. A night later, we were staying at a B&B in Louisiana where a rock concert was being hosted and our room backed onto the stage area, with the room shaking so much that pictures fell off the wall, it meant another night of little sleep. We laugh about it now but at the time, we were pretty fed up. This was all forgotten about a day later when we arrived at our New Orleans’ accommodation to find we were in an actual hotel with proper rooms and beds but that feeling came back briefly again in Washington DC when we were told our hotel dorms would be similar to the huge co-ed Austin dorms and a few of us almost burst into tears and started looking up prices of local hotels!
As it turned out, we were in 6-bed dorms with each other and it was all fine and we carried on with our trip happy as anything again!
Hostel Life would be ok
I’d never stayed in hostels before doing group tours and going into my first trip, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like them much. But on the whole, I had a better experience staying in them than I imagined and even booked hostel accommodation for myself travelling solo in Australia a year later – a pair of ear plugs, an eye mask and a pair of flip flops to wear in hostel showers and its fine!!
For the most part, Trek and any other group tour companies I’ve used, will book dorms where you will just be sharing with those on your tour but depending on the group numbers, this doesn’t always work out. So for example, on my first group tour, there were only 4 girls so if we were in a 6-bed dorm, the other 2 beds would sometimes be given to independent travellers booking into the hostel rather than going to waste. This kinda thing almost caused an embarrassing incident in our San Francisco hostel when our group of 7 girls had to split into a 3 and a 4 across two 4-bed dorm rooms. I was in the group of 3 and as it was late, we assumed no one would be taking that last bed, sprawled our stuff out everywhere and started really making ourselves at home only to have a random late arriving guy walk in on us to take up bed 4!! I was in the shower down the hall at the time and one of my dorm mates was banging on the door to tell me about our unexpected guest. It’s a good job they did or I’d have probably waltzed back into our dorm in just a towel!
We’d see some amazing places and have some amazing experiences
Maybe this goes without saying, after all, it was the reason for travelling, for taking this trip but I don’t think anything prepared me for how amazing this element of the trip would be. I’d been to a lot of the main cities of America before and specifically wanted a tour which would take me to those harder to reach places and it delivered. The National Parks in America especially are absolutely breath-taking and I’d say to anyone, if you get the chance to visit Yellowstone National Park in your lifetime, take it, you won’t regret it! You’ll see some amazing places and you will want to go back to them in the future!
Even the cities I’d been to previously, I experienced in new way I would never had done on a city break with a friend – taking a ‘party bus’ along the Vegas Strip where we put our own music on and danced along to the Spice Girls and 5ive, cycling down a busy main road in Chicago on a nighttime tour, sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge on a catamaran in San Francisco.
And then there were the outdoor adventurous activities, the long hikes in the National Parks to spectacular view points, horse riding though the hills of Wyoming, white water rafting – something I’d never have seen myself doing! – kayaking out to iceburgs in Alaska, hurtling down over a huge canyon on a ‘Flying Fox’ zipline and black water rafting through a glowworm-filled cave in New Zealand…
A lot of these experiences are optional extras but they’re often what makes the tour so take the opportunity and do something you wouldn’t usually do, get out of your comfort zone, it’s what its all about!
I’d learn a lot
Yes, group tours can be educational! I learnt a lot about geography, about the history of the countries and cities I visited on the tour and about the cultures and people there. But it’s often the little things that stick with me like even now, if I’m back in the States visiting a National Park, or out taking extended walks anywhere else, the advice our Trek America guide gave us about hiking, tips on snacks to take, hiking at higher altitudes etc etc, always comes back to me!
I learnt a bit about myself too – that I can do without 8 or more hours of sleep a night, that I can adapt to situations and people around me, that I can hike for hours on end and enjoy it and that I can get on with different people of all ages and from all backgrounds.
I’d bond with the group quickly
One of the main reasons for choosing a group tour was for companionship while travelling. I’m not the kind of person that can walk into a bar or restaurant and strike up a conversation with someone so I knew if I travelled completely solo for 3 weeks, I’d probably not speak to anyone other than to buy/order something! I figured that in a group tour of 10 plus people there would hopefully be at least one person I’d get on with and company is better than no company but what I didn’t expect was how quickly you get to know these people and how you become firm friends fast. When you’re on the road for 3 weeks, you are around each other pretty much 24/7. I probably spent more time with my tour mates in those 3 weeks than I had with some of my ‘real life’ friends in 3 years! You’re in this little bubble with each other, pretty much switched off from what is happening in the outside World and after the first few days discussing with each other you ‘story’ – where you’re from, what you do for a living, why you’re here, now – you just start to be yourself around each other, the banter starts and it’s like you’ve all known each other for years. That’s not to say you won’t get on with some group members more than others and that there won’t be days when you want some alone time away from the group – and there are some opportunities for this on free days. But these people become your family for the length of the tour and when it comes to an end and you have to say goodbye, it can be horrendous. I’ve always found that the longer the tour, the harder saying goodbye has been and there’s been a couple of times when there’s been tears!
I’d make friends for life
On most of the group tours I’ve done, we’ve had a WhatsApp or Facebook group active during the tour where we can exchange photos of the group or each other, arrange where to meet if we’ve split up on free days etc etc. In the days after a tour finishes, this group is always at it’s most active as we miss each other and want to continue that group banter and reminisce. But a lot of my tour group chat groups are still active months and years on, even if its just a ‘Happy Christmas’ message that starts the conversation off once a year, we’re all still in touch and very much a part of each other’s lives.
Not only that but some of my very best friends now are people I’ve met on a group tour. There’s group members I regularly meet up with and those I talk to on a weekly basis. I’ve been on holiday with these people, we’ve since been travelling together on our own roadtrips across the US and Australia, I’ve been to their weddings, gone to concerts and on nights out with them, celebrated landmark birthdays together.
Our shared experiences on the group tour is a huge part of why we still communicate now but we have more than that in common and are now real life friends and will be for a long time to come.
I’d want to talk constantly about my experiences…
but most people just won’t want to listen. It’s one of those things that will forever be a milestone in your life, a real highlight but only those people who were there with you, who had that shared experience, will really ever understand and that’s why you will be forever bonded with them. A lot of my friends took a leaf out of my book and have joined group tours over the last few years and now they understand a bit more but with anyone else it can be frustrating when you get back and it’s all you can think or talk about and no one else in interested. But that’s what the group’s Whatsapp chat is for!
I really wish I’d known how addictive group travel would be. Within days of returning from my first tour, I’d booked another and then another. Few of the tours I’ve done have quite lived up to those first couple but everyone has been special and exciting and amazing in it’s own way. And even now when I tend to plan my own travel with friends I met on group tours, we use our group tour experiences to guide trips, planning huge road trips full of unusual activities and experiences along the way in the style of Trek America and sometimes revisiting places we loved on our group tour.
It would be the best thing I’d ever do
So if you’re thinking of taking a group tour with Trek America or another company*, my advice is to stop thinking about it and just book it. It really will be the best thing you’ll ever do!
*While I have been a customer of small group tour companies including Trek America, Grand American Adventures, Haka Tours and Macbackpackers, all the opinions expressed here are my own.
Have you ever been on a group tour with Trek America or any other companies? Let me know about your own experiences!
It was the last full day of our trip and after beginning the day with a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, we started to make our way down the California coast towards our final destination of Los Angeles. Too far to travel in a day, we would be spending the night at a motel around the half way point in the city of San Luis Obispo and today’s drive would include plenty of stop offs along the way at various view points along the famous Pacific Coast Highway.
Our first stop was for lunch at an In-N-Out Burger, a fast food chain which mainly exists in California and had been requested by some group members. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about!
After we’d all eaten, we continued on to our main stop of the day at Santa Cruz Boardwalk. This was a really fun stop off and although we didn’t have time to queue for some of the bigger rides, some of us did have lots fun trying out the spooky walk-through Haunted House before spending the rest of our time in the many souvenir stores, amusement arcades and on the beautiful, sandy beach.
Before leaving we all indulged in some of the many unhealthy snacks on offer – huge Texas doughnuts, funnel cake and various other fried or sugar-filled treats!
From Santa Cruz, we continued our drive down PCH stopping at various breathtakingly-pretty overlooks along the rugged Big Sur coastline.
Our final stop before we reached San Luis Obispo was to see the Elephant Seals at a beach in San Simeon.
Once at our motel and settled in, it was off into San Luis Obispo town for dinner at a local BBQ/diner before returning to our motel for last night drinks.
Our adventure wasn’t over just yet and we began the final day of the tour with a stop at the upmarket coastal city of Santa Barbara. Here we spent some time walking along the pier, souvenir shopping and enjoying the views.
Continuing on to Los Angeles, we avoided the city itself and instead stopped at the beach city of Santa Monica, one of my favourite places in LA. After taking a walk along the beach and yet another pier, a group of us headed inland to Third Street Promenade for some last minute shopping.
Short on time with some of the group having evening flights to make, our original plan to walk from Santa Monica to Venice had to be abandoned and instead we hopped back on the bus to be driven the short distance along the coast.
Venice is always a fun place to visit with it’s quirky shops and stalls lining the boardwalk, fun to watch street performers and the always busy skate park where skateboarded impress onlookers with an array of stunts. We maybe didn’t enjoy or make the most of our visit as much as we should have as the impending goodbyes at the end of our tour loomed over us and we all sat in silence on the van as we left the beach cities behind to make our way to the gateway hotel near LAX airport.
Once there, the tears soon started as the first few group members started to drift away, some making their way to the airport for flights home, some, like myself, off to hotels or AirBnBs elsewhere in the city while others were remaining at the gateway hotel for another night before going home or starting another tour through the Southern states. It had been one of those groups that just really gelled from the outset. We’d all had the time of our lives travelling together across the country and were devastated it was now over but at the same time immensely happy that it had happened to start with and we’d all be leaving with amazing memories to last a lifetime!
This morning, after a stop for a pancake breakfast in a Mariposa diner, it was off to San Francisco, a city I had visited twice before and is one of my favourite cities in the USA.
We arrived early afternoon and were dropped in Fisherman’s Wharf and given a couple of hours to explore. Most of us walked down to the busy Pier 39 where we looked around the many souvenir and gift stores before walking down to the end of the pier to see the famous Pier 39 sealions which gather on the decks floating in the bay. Unfortunately there were only a few there compared to the hundreds I’d seen gathered there on my previous visits but it was still fun to watch them jump on and off the wooden decks and scramble around each other before lazing in the sun.
After grabbing snacks and ice creams we spend the rest of the time walking around the Fisherman’s Wharf area visiting more souvenir stores and soaking in the atmosphere before reconvening with the rest of the group ready to head to our Union Square accommodation. For the next 2 nights, we would be staying in a hostel located a short walk from Union Square. As hostels go, it wasn’t too bad and once we were settled in our dorms, we headed back out and down the hill to the Union Square cable car turnaround.
It was early evening by now and the huge queues which gather earlier in the day for the cable cars and gone down leaving just a handful of people. 10 minutes of waiting and watching the cable car operators push the cable cars around on the turntables and it was time for us to board.
The more adventurous of us in the group, including me, took our places on the outside of the cable cars, stood on the narrow steps and clinging to the bars as the cable cars climbed and descended the famous hills of San Francisco. We managed to survive and got off at the stop at the top of Lombard Street. Lombard Street is known as the ‘crookedest street in the World’ and cars line up to drive down it’s twisty turny section of road. We walked down stopping to watch the cars manoeuvre its tight turns and posing for photos from the bottom of the road from where you can see the wiggly road more clearly.
From Lombard Street, we walked towards the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, passing Washington Square Park and the church of Sts Peter and Paul – famous from many movies set in the city and as the church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMagio posed for photos outside after they married.
It was dusk by the time we reached Telegraph Hill and the Coit Tower was bathed in blue light. The city around it was lighting up and we spent some time taking in the views and taking photos before walking back down the hill towards the North Beach area of the city. North Beach is the city’s Italian quarter and we ended the night with a delicious meal in one of the many small Italian restaurants in the vicinity before catching an Uber back to the hostel.
The next morning, we were dropped at the Embarcedero area of the city to catch the ferry across to Alcatraz Island. I’d toured Alcatraz on both of my previous visits to San Francisco but as this was another included extra on our tour, meaning we didn’t have to pay any extra for it, I was more than happy to return!
Upon arrival at the prison, visitors are handed audio guides which give instructions on where to walk around the prison while talking about what it is you are seeing. It’s a really interesting place to visit, especially as many of the audio clips are narrated by previous Alcatraz workers and inmates.
After catching the boat back to the mainland, we were taken back to Union Square where the group split up to spend the rest of the day in different ways. Some went shopping in and around the Union Square while some of us went sightseeing.
As I was already familiar with the city, I took some of the group out towards Haight-Ashbury. We used public transport and took the bus to Alamo Square to see the Painted Ladies houses then walked from here along to Haight-Ashbury to explore the quirky shops, cafes and see the many wall murals.
From here we took a local bus to the Mrs Doubtfire house before heading back towards Union Square. We still had a few hours to kill before we had to meet with the rest of the group so we decided to visit the Cable Car Museum, a free museum near Chinatown before catching a streetcar to Fisherman’s Wharf for dinner at the Rainforest Cafe.
That evening, the whole group was booked on a sunset cruise on the Bay. We could tell as soon as we arrived at the pier that we would not be seeing much of a sunset and as we cruised around, the Golden Gate Bridge repeatedly appeared and disappeared under a cloud of fog!
It was still a fun, if a little chilly, way to spend the evening though and after, a few of us rounded the evening off with drinks and dessert at Hard Rock Cafe at Fisherman’s Wharf.
On our final morning in San Francisco, and our last full day of the tour, we had breakfast at the hostel before checking out and driving to the Golden Gate Bridge. We were dropped off on the city side and told to walk across where the van would meet us at the other end.
As I had crossed the bridge by bus and then bike on my previous 2 visits to the city, it was nice to get a different perspective by walking across this time but like the previous night, the fog kept rolling in hampering the views slightly.
Once at across the bridge, we were jumped back on the bus ready to continue our journey down the Californian coast.
Day 2 in California, the last state we’d be visiting on our tour, and we would be leaving the shores of Lake Tahoe to travel to the last National Park of our trip, Yosemite.
Making a few stops along the way at Bridgetown to pick up a few snacks and then Lee Vining for a delicious diner lunch, we still made it to the park for early afternoon. Our first stop was going to be at the highest altitude alpine lake in the park, Tenaya Lake. Some of the group had their swimming suits handy so they could take a dip while the rest of us strolled along its shores enjoying the beautiful views across the lake.
From here, we drove along Tioga Pass, the road winding across the east side of the park, stopping every now and then to enjoy the sweeping views across the park. Our next stop was at Tuolumne Grove where we followed the trail to hike down and see the impressive giant sequoias.
From here we drove out of the park towards our KOA in Mariposa, stopping at a lodge along the way to grab some dinner. Once at our cabins, we were provided with Yosemite National Park maps and the options for the next day were outlined for us. We had the choice of various longer hikes in the park or of spending time in Yosemite Valley where a shuttle bus ran to take us to different points of the park and there were a few shorter hikes available. Deciding to sleep on the decision we all took ourselves back to our cabins.
The next morning, we were up early to get into Yosemite Valley before all the parking spaces disappeared. The group had all decided on different activities for in the park, some had decided to do a long hike up to a waterfall, one had decided to go even further and do a longer, more strenuous hike and the rest of us had decided to have a more relaxing day in the valley area.
After enjoying our horse riding trail so much in Wyoming a few days earlier, a few of us caught the free shuttle bus to the Valley stables to see if there were any slots available that day. Unsuprisingly, they were all booked out so instead we hired bikes and followed the cycle path around the valley area. This was a great way to see the valley area of the park quickly although with temperatures reaching over 40 degrees, we had to make a lot of stops along the way!
We parked our bikes up and met up with the rest of the group who had chosen to stay in the valley to hike out to Mirror Lakes, one of the short, easy hikes available in the area but with it being summer, the lakes had pretty much dried up so the mirror effect wasn’t really visible.
After lunch at Yosemite Village and some souvenir shopping at the visitor centre, some of us decided to cool down on the river so after returning our bikes, hired a raft to spend our afternoon floating along. This was a really fun way to spend time in the valley! Once we reached the end of the float, we were returned to the starting point by a shuttle bus and we met up with the rest of the group including those who had spent the day hiking.
Next we grabbed some pizza in Curry Village before making our way back to the Trek van in time to head to a park view point for sunset then returning to our KOA site.
We’d all really enjoyed our time exploring Yosemite National Park and I definitely hoped to return some day in the future.