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!!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
Dubai. I’d been through the airport (and what an airport!) on trips to Australia and New Zealand many a time and always said that one day I’d leave the airport and actually visit the city either as a stopover or as a holiday in itself. Despite this, each year, it never came up as a destination I ever seriously thought about going to, maybe because I do a lot of trips independently and it felt like the type of holiday to do with friends and almost definitely because of the cost – it always seemed a lot to spend on flights and a hotel for somewhere I’d only want to spend a few days. But when my friend and I were awarded some compensation for a heavily delayed flight, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally see beyond the airport’s passport control gates!
Our compensation money went a long way towards funding our 6-night stay. Deciding on practicality over opulence, we settled on a stay at the Barcelo Residence Dubai Marina, serviced apartments rather than a hotel, meaning we could save a bit of money making our own breakfast and lunch and even dinner if we wanted to. The stay and the flights with Royal Brunei Airlines came to under £600 each in total. As we’d be arriving very early in the morning and leaving very late at night, we could have had the option of saving some money by not including the first and last night of our stay but that would have meant having to hang around to check in at 2pm after arriving at 5am on our first day and having to stay out all day til midnight on our departure day. So instead we decided to bookend our 4 full nights with extra nights each side. This worked out well as it meant when we arrived just before 5 in the morning, our apartment was ready and we were able to have a few hours sleep before getting up at about 11am, feeling refreshed and ready to go; and on our flight home day we were able to leave our things in the apartment all day and go back to shower and freshen up before checking out just after midnight to get to the airport.
Although living nearer Birmingham, we flew from Heathrow as the flights were a lot cheaper from here. Despite regularly flying from Heathrow, I’d not been to Terminal 4 before and was surprised at how small it was compared to the other terminals with just a handful of shops and restaurants on the departure concourse. Flying with Royal Brunei Airlines was another first for me – again chosen purely because they were the cheapest flights on offer – but I was impressed with theHub flight, staff and in-flight service and wouldn’t hesitate in booking with them again. I would usually look into using public transport to travel between the destination airport and my accommodation but seeing as we arrived at 3.30am, and especially after a very long process waiting for shuttles to take us to passport control in the huge Dubai airport, we just wanted to get there so jumped in a taxi instead. Luckily our driver was familiar with our apartment block and we were soon there, checked in and in our room asleep!
Our 32nd floor serviced apartment was lovely – good sized, well-equipped kitchen, living area with a large TV, separate bedroom with a huge king-sized bed and a really nice bathroom but the best thing about it was the view of the marina and the beach! It was so nice to open our curtains each morning and look out to blue skies and that view and just as amazing to look out and see Dubai all lit up at night.
We had roughly planned how to spend each day in advance, deciding on buying a Turbo Pass tourist card which basically gave us access to the hop on/off sightseeing bus service for the entirety of our stay along with all the inclusions that usually come with it (boat trips, Atlantis aquarium…) and also included a trip up the Burj Khalifa observation deck and a desert safari so after a quick trip to the convenience store next to our apartment block to pick up some supplies, we took a stroll to the Marina Mall where we could redeem our Turbo Pass e-ticket.
We easily navigated our way to the Marina walk and found the Mall. We had been slightly worried about dress code inside the malls of Dubai and had both worn cut-offs that covered our knees and slipped on cardigans when we entered the mall but most tourists we passed inside were dress like they were heading to the beach in shorts and vest tops! The mall was huge and it took a while to find the Dubai Bus vendor but once we had located it, our e-ticket was quickly exchanged for our bus pass. The bus offered 3 different tour routes and we jumped on the Marina route bus which would take us to Dubai’s famous Palm Jumeirah and Atlantis hotel.
We hopped off at the Atlantis and were given wristbands for our included entry into The Lost Chambers Aquarium just inside the hotel. The hotel really reminded me of the themed hotels in Vegas with it’s attention to detail. We had a quick wander around the parts open to non-residents including a ‘street bazaar’ down one of the passageways before heading to the aquarium. While not being much different to visiting the local sealife centre, we had still had fun looking at all the colourful fish on display.
After leaving Atlantis, we jumped back on the bus and listened to the commentary for the rest of the route, hopping off again once we’d reached the marina again. The sun was just starting to go down so we returned to our apartment to freshen up before going to find somewhere for dinner.
For dinner that – and most – evenings, we visited The Walk, a lively area sandwiched between Jumeirah Beach and the Jumeirah Beach Residence where lots of cafes and restaurants are situated. Over the course of the trip, we had good and relatively well-priced meals at restaurants in the area including Margherita Pizzeria and Mighty Quinn’s BBQ.
Full from dinner, we wandered around The Walk a bit more before fighting the jetlag to visit Hilton The Walk’s Skybar. We’d had this recommended as a nice rooftop bar by friends who had previously visited and had read that every Tuesday was ‘Ladies Night’ where there were free drinks for all ladies after 9pm! We had the rules explained to us by bar staff – coupons were provided for a few free drinks from a set list and there was also unlimited access to treats including a chocolate fountain with marshmallows and fruit to dip in!
On our second day, we decided to take the marina and lagoon boat tour included in our bus ticket. We made it to the Marina Mall ticket booth in what we thought was plenty of time to make the next boat only to be told we had a 10 minute walk to where the boat departed from! Deciding to make a dash for it, we hurried off and found the boat just in time. The boat was one of the traditional Dhow boats used in the evening for dinner cruises. During the day, the cruises don’t include the food or entertainment but instead cruised out from the marina to the ocean for views of Jumeirah Beach and the Palm. There was a sporadic commentary as we sailed in which we learnt that much of the area we were cruising through had not existed just 10 years earlier and was still just desert. The constant development and expansion of the country was something we saw a lot of during our stay. Construction work was going on in every direction – new skyscrapers, new hotels, new beaches and islands…!
After lunch at a bar along The Walk, we spent a couple of hours on Jumeirah Beach. While sat relaxing, we were surprised as a couple of camels wandered along the shore and continued up the beach towards the Palm. Certainly not something you expect to see everyday!
With it being another hot and humid day, I decided to cool off with a dip in the crystal clear water only to discover it was warm and didn’t really help me to cool down at all!!
This evening, we had booked a place on a desert safari. We were picked up at our apartments and taken along with some fellow tourists out of the city to see the sand dunes of Dubai. Here, we drove around in a 4 by 4 jeep, up and down across the huge dunes. There were a few times I thought the car was going to flip over but it was great fun and I wished we had spent a bit longer on this part of the trip. Instead, we were then dropped at a ‘Bedouin camp’ in the desert where as soon as we exited the vehicle, we were pounced upon by people trying to sell us a variety of trinkets and experiences – a traditional headscarf was placed on my head before I even knew what was going on, someone else tried to place a falcon on our arm for a photo, others shouted at us to take a camel ride to the tallest dunes for yet another photo opportunity.
We politely turned down these offers and instead took the included activities – a free camel ride in which the poor, grumpy camel literally walked around in a circle (this was more than enough of a ride for my friend!), trying on traditional Arab robes and having a henna tattoo – before we were asked to take our seats for the buffet meal and traditional entertainment.
While for the most part, the food didn’t suit my very plain taste, I still found enough to eat to fill up on and the entertainers – a spinning dancer and a flame juggler – were fantastic. The night finished very abruptly not long after the meal service had finished and we all piled out of the camp to look for our driver to take us back to the city and our apartment.
On our way to the desert safari, we had had our first glimpse of the Burj Khalifa, Dubai’s tallest building and the tallest building in the World. We had booked a trip to the observation deck today so began our morning navigating our way there on public transport. Using the metro system turned out to be relatively easy but we we didn’t count on was the long walk from the station and through the huge Dubai Mall to find the entrance to the building!
Once we arrived it didn’t take too long queuing for the elevator to take us to the top. The views were stunning although I was a little disappointed that the observation deck was nowhere near the top of the building (although still higher up than any other observation deck in the world!)
We spent about an hour on the observations deck then managed to find our way back through the huge mall to the viewing area for the Dubai fountains show. Similar to the fountain show in from of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, these fountains ‘dance’ to the music. There are limited show during the day and then more regular shows in the evening. While we enjoyed watching the fountains dance, we both agreed it would be more magical at night and made a mental note to return one evening before leaving the city.
From Dubai Mall, we took another hop on/off bus tour, this time the Beach Tour route. This took us out of the built up downtown area towards Jumeirah Public Beach passing the famous sail-shaped Burj al Arab hotel along the way. We hopped off the bus at Souk Madinat, at shopping centre themed like a traditional Middle Eastern Bazaar. It was a great place for souvenir shopping and out the back there were canals where you could take boat rides and lots of cafes and restaurants to sit out at enjoying the views.
We spent about an hours at Souk Madinat before catching the next bus. The next stop was at the Mall of the Emirates, another huge shopping centre. We had half an hour to wait before our connecting bus back to the marina area departed so had a wander around but had to be very careful not to get lost!
That evening we had a night out at nearby club, Zero Gravity. Most of the venue is outside and the club opens during the day for pool parties too. The club attracts quite a few well known acts and DJs and that evening, Europop group The Vengaboys were playing. It was a really fun night out at a great venue!
After the extra late night, we slept in late the next morning but once up and awake, we hopped on the metro to the Dubai Mall where the final sightseeing bus route, the downtown loop, departed from. This route took us through downtown past the Egyptian-themed WAFI mall (yes, yet another shopping centre – I’ve never known a city with so many!!) and up to Dubai Creek.
We hopped off the bus by the Creek in Bur Dubai and caught an Abra boat across to the Deira area on the other side. Abras are tradition wooden boats which act like water taxis ferrying locals back and forth across Dubai Creek for just 1 Dirham (approximately 20p in UK money!). It was certainly an interesting way to travel squashing onto the side of the raft-like boat and I was quite glad when we safely reached the other side!
Our sightseeing bus ticket included a cruise along Dubai Creek departing from the Deira area. We had hoped to have time to visit some of the local Souks or markets in the area but traffic had delayed the bus meaning by the time we had crossed the creek, we were just in time for the last departure of the day. Once again, the cruise was on a traditional Dhow boat and there was a bit of a commentary of what we were passing as we cruised back and forth along the Creek.
After our boat trip we caught the last sightseeing bus back to Dubai Mall and spent some time looking around and trying not to get lost! The mall is the largest shopping centre in the world and has a huge aquarium, fountains, an ice rink and many other attractions all under its roof. We ate dinner at the Rainforest Cafe where animatronic jungle animals screech and move all around as you eat before fighting our way through the Friday night crowds to watch the dancing fountains again.
As expected, watching the fountains at night, lit up and dancing to the traditional music, was much more atmospheric and special than it was watching during the day. We just about arrived early enough to find a good spot at the front with a great view but it is possible to book balcony seats at the overlooking restaurants to watch as you’re eating or even to watch from a boat!
Our walk back to the apartment from the metro station took us past the marina – the first time we had seen it lit up at night / so we spent some time wandering past the towering buildings and across the bridges watching the Dhow boats sail past before returning to our room.
It has been a busy week so we decided to have a bit more relaxed final day. We spent our time close to the area we were staying, walking a bit further along the marina walkways and venturing further along The Walk than we had before. After a light lunch at a cafe, we spent a lazy afternoon on the beach before returning to our apartment to pack up our things. After one last meal out on The Walk and one more wander past the bright lights of the marina, it was time to check out and get a taxi back to the airport.
I’d been pleasantly surprised by my visit to Dubai, having a great week exploring and I’d definitely like to return a few years down the line to see the latest developments in the ever changing and growing city!