Sunday, 1 September 2013

Post trip generalisations

How easy (or otherwise) was it buying fuel for our RV?

We never had any problems in obtaining fuel and rarely did we drive more than 30 miles before we passed a gas station. The most isolated region seemed to be parts of Utah. Gas was usually available in the very large National Parks (such as Yellowstone) but it was quite expensive.

Many gas stations had loyalty card schemes and whilst it is worth joining them, it is not worth driving out of your way to use them. Using the GasBuddy website saved a lot of money (see the blog entry here on buying gas in the USA using a European or non American Credit Card).

We had to look out for LPG because many gas stations did not have it but there was never a problem finding one that did – we just waited until we passed one on our planned route. Many camp sites sold LPG.

What was driving an RV like on American roads?

Our RV was 25ft long and driving it was quite easy other than that parking it could prove difficult because of its length. There were a number of occasions when we could not park where we wanted to visit because there were no parking spaces large enough. Parking over two bays seems to be accepted practice for large vehicles (although it seems you only pay for one if there are meters). Maybe were lucky never to pick up a ticket. In a few places we visited, we ensured that we got there very early in the morning in order to be able to park. A 22ft RV would have been far better – in fact we ordered a 22ft but when we went to pick our RV up, they had “run out” of our preferred size.

American drivers do not understand flashing headlight etiquette (and only rarely do they acknowledge when you may have done something to aid their driving) when you overtake or when you have been overtaken so we stopped using or expecting it.

Turning right on red seemed to be allowed everywhere unless otherwise indicated. Being undertaken could be a shock and we constantly had to look out for it. Other than in the cities, there was far less tailgating and aggressive driving than in the UK. In the few big cities we went to, driving standards were as bad as anywhere in the UK.

It is worth using a GPS in the USA?

Our GPS (TomTom satnav) was absolutely invaluable and navigation would have been very difficult without it. Using it was simple provided we had the full address of where we were going to (otherwise sometimes we had to settle for the location of “city centre” and then sort it out when we got there). We chose the “computer voice” rather than the “human voice” because that one could tell you the name of the road you were looking for and that was useful. Occasionally it got lost and told us to turn onto a road which was not there so we always treated its commands with a certain amount of caution.

We had a general road atlas and also picked up free large scale State Maps from “Welcome Centres” whenever we got to a new state because these gave quite a good detailed view of the State and its roads. Seeing where you are going on a map is always helpful and relying on a satnav only can be a disaster.

Speed limits on roads constantly changed and keeping track of the actual speed limit at any particular spot was difficult. Sometimes the GPS statement of what the speed limit was at a particular spot was wrong.

We saw lots of drivers being stopped (Oregon seemed to be the worst for this) and given tickets – we kept to at least 5 and usually 10 mph below the limit in order to avoid a ticket (it worked).

Some roads have minimum speed limits which you have to remember as well as the maximum. Unmarked police cars are very common.

Camping and RV Parks

We joined Good Sam and KOA and hence got a 10% discount at many campsites. This definitely saved us money. Most KOA campsites seem to be more expensive than non KOAs and were not necessarily better than non KOAs although booking a KOA was simplicity itself (freephone or Internet). There did not seem to be any relationship between how much you paid and how good or bad a camp site was.

The number of RV camps throughout the USA is astonishing and we found much more choice than we had expected. There are a lot of RV camps which do not have websites and / or are not in directories.

However, it was impossible to find an RV park near Chicago so we stayed in a hotel close to the airport which had a large external car park and used the Metro to get into town. This was very easy. Similarly, there are very few RV camps in Los Angeles.

There are numerous state parks throughout the USA where camping in an RV is very cheap. Usually they have no power but often have water and most times have a long drop toilet. If we were to do a similar trip in the future, we would make more use of them.

Other than the very popular areas such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, Malibu and a few others, we had no problems reserving a campsite place on the day or the day before we needed it. From mid August onwards every campsite we visited (other than a few national parks) had plenty of spaces available because the schools had gone back.

Buying Food and Drink

Finding supermarkets was never a problem although finding good quality fresh food was an issue. We were surprised at how poor the quality was in some of the largest supermarkets – in general small supermarkets had fresher food. Big food shops were open seven days a week, usually very long hours and often 24 hours a day,

Decent bread was impossible to find – only one supermarket we went to had what we would call “good tasty bread” and we found only one specialist bread shop.

In one state I had to produce proof that I was aged over 21 before they would sell me beer. I did not realise that at 63 years of age, I look like a teenager! They said “everyone has to prove their age”.

Some states do not charge SalesTax and we often saved quite a lot of money by stocking up in the Sales Tax free state before we crossed a state border.

Mobiles phones in the USA whilst on the road and staying in touch

We purchased a Virgin Mobile Phone for emergency use and to phone camp sites and it turned out to be not as good as we had be told in the store. Coverage was quite limited outside of urban areas and there was a period of 2 weeks when we could get no signal at all when we were in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota.

AT&T seem to have the best coverage and an AT&T PAYG sim card may have been a better purchase even though its call charges would have been slightly higher.

Only one of the three mobile phones we had with us would work in the USA because it is a tri-band country and two of our UK phones were bi-band, Strangely, we do not remember having this problem the last time we were there – maybe technology has changed. Our UK sims cards worked if we put them in our tri-band phone but the cost of making and receiving a call on a UK sim card was very very high and so our friends were encouraged to use email.

When our mobile phones were not working and we wanted to make a phone call, we found that if we asked in a store “can you tell me where the nearest phone is? My British mobile phone does not seem to work here and I want to make an 800 (or sometimes a local) call?” they would invariably hand us the store phone to use. This really surprised us and was most welcome. The definition of a local call seems to be one with the same area code and 800 free phone calls apply to any phone number where the area code begins with an “8”. Sometimes we had to put a 1 in front of the area code and sometimes we did not – we never worked out how to get it correct first time.

Internet connectivity was surprisingly poor at most camp sites throughout the USA. It seems to be due to a lack of bandwidth (in one town we stayed in, the new superfast 5Mb service was proudly being advertised) and as soon as the campsite gets busy and evening comes, everyone is using WIFI and no-one can get any reasonable response. We learnt to grab any connectivity we could get at any time of the day. No doubt if we had purchased a US data package life would have been easier. A number of cafes and fast food places had free WIFI.

The cost of data roaming on a UK registered mobile phone in the USA is extortionate – do not even think of trying it.

Odds and ends

Some over the counter (OTC) drugs are much cheaper in the USA than in the UK and others are more expensive, it is probably better to bring them with you.

The USA is shamefully bad at recycling and the only place you could be sure you could recycle was in a National Park.

American TV is terrible. The only time we found anything decent to watch was when we could get a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) channel. Our van had a normal and a digital TV aerial but it rarely picked anything up. Some campsites had cable but the first sentence still applies. UK DVDs will not play on American DVD players so it is not worth bringing any with you unless you know they are “area unrestricted”.

We paid for as much as possible using credit cards (we had a couple of the UK “foreign transaction commission free” cards) and quite often we had to produce some ID to use the card – our signature was not sufficient. Other than at ATMs, we never used PINs in the USA, they do not have the technology although there is talk of them being introduced in a few years time.

There are ATMs everywhere and it is useful to have a couple of debit cards just in case the machine swallows one card. On the one occasion we got cash from an ATM at a proper bank, we got a very bad rate of exchange  - $1.44 to £ as against the $1.55 we were getting on our credit cards. The rate we got for $ in the UK before we left was far better than that on offer anywhere in the USA.

Whilst we always were careful about our personal security, only once did we feel uneasy and then we made a speedy departure. We did find statements made by some of our fellow campers “of course we have a gun in our RV / handbag / bedroom / car” a little unsettling although no one ever produced one to show us.

The National Parks Service is superb and usually offered a range of ranger led activities throughout the day. We purchased an $80 one year America Pass which proved to be good value because we visited a lot of parks.

We went through four time zones and therefore had to be aware of when it changed. The clocks going back when travelling west was never a problem because we just had more time to get to where we were going but the clocks going forward an hour when travelling eastwards meant we had to be aware of the time in our destination. Arizona was a catch out because although in the Mountain Time region, it observes Pacific Standard Time. A helpful check was to say “what’s the time with you now?” when we were booking a campsite somewhere where we suspected there was a time change.

All of the above comments are of course generalisations but they reflect what we experienced. 

How did we plan the trip?

Many dark wintery nights were spent working out a draft route which:

  • visited all of the places we would like to go to;
  • had few really long days driving;
  • got us to certain places on set dates;
  • enabled us to determine the date we would be at some places; and
  • had sufficient space in it to allow us flexibility.

It also had to take into account Independence Day and Labour Day when much of America goes on holiday.

Explaining some of these planning constraints in more detail:

  • we wanted to go to the Deadwood City Rodeo which is held only on the third weekend in July;
  • visit a couple of friends en-route and it is only fair to them to let them know when we were going to arrive etc
  • whilst much of the time we could just turn up at a camp site or phone earlier in the day and expect to get a pitch, there were some places where that is guaranteed impossible. For us, these include Yosemite (reservations open in mid February), Yellowstone, Custer State Park and a few more.

So we have had to plan a route which enabled us to say with certainty, “we intend to be in Yellowstone from X to Y” so we could book a pitch as soon as bookings opened.

We also knew from experience that along the way it was highly likely that we would want to stay somewhere for an extra day or go and visit somewhere we had just heard about.

To do this we needed space in the plan and the ability to adjust the plan as much as possible.

Devising a route and plan which coped effectively with the above took a long time but eventually it resulted in:

Planned Route

The total distance of the above was just over 8000 miles so we were expecting our final distance to be around 10,000 miles allowing for diversions and all the other little trips which soon increase the distance.

The principal places we wanted to visit were:

Getty Museums in Los Angeles CA
Hurst Castle San Simeon CA
Yosemite CA
Bodie Ghost Town CA
San Francisco CA
Bodega Bay CA
Walla Walla WA
Glacier National Park MT
Craters of the Moon National Park ID
Grand Tetons National Park WY
Yellowstone National Park WY
Little Bighorn MT National Monument
Deadwood City SD
Mount Rushmore SD National Memorial
Chicago Il
Columbus In
Arthur IL
Springfield IL
Oklahoma OK
Amarillo TX
Holbrook AZ
Winslow AZ
Arches National Park UT
Las Vegas NV

and of course there were lots of other places in between the above which we saw on the way.

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