WHEN I was 21 my mate and I drove 3,000 miles across America, we had little money and no plans. All we knew was it was something we’d always dreamed of doing.
Bags all packed and passport at the ready, a flight to New York was the obvious starting point. Flights can be found fairly cheaply if you are patient and willing to shop around – we found a return flights for just £250 from London to New York.
We booked them immediately and seven hours later I found myself in the bright lights of the Big Apple. The Milford Plaza hotel proved the perfect place to stay for a few nights while we got our bearings. The Plaza is right around the corner from Times Square and close enough to all the other tourist hotspots. It’s reasonably priced and the rooms are incredibly spacious.
However, as alluring as New York was, we knew staying here longer than just a few days would mean spending more and more of our already limited budget, so on day three we hit the road.
There is no better way to experience this amazing country than by driving across it.
Hiring rather than buying, a car for the duration of the seven week trip was our best option. We didn’t have enough money to buy a car and couldn’t be bothered to look after one either. Hiring gave us the freedom to go and do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, it wasn’t as expensive as you might think either. £1200 for 52 days seemed a fair price given the amount of miles we were about to clock up.
We headed out of New York and across to Pennsylvania, stopping off in Philadelphia to see the sights.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, located at the end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, should be top of anyone’s list. Even if you’re not an art fan you’ll be impressed. Plus, you can’t visit this wonderful city without running up the famous Rocky steps. Don’t be embarrassed about doing it either as people come from all over the world to do exactly the same. People will forever be running into your picture too.
For a place to stay, we chose the Alexander Inn hotel located in the city centre for an affordable, comfortable room. Also in the city centre is Jim’s restaurant serving the world’s best Philly cheese steaks. Make sure you don’t miss out on one before you leave, even if the queue is out the door.
From Pennsylvania we drove across the Great Lakes, through Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. The scenery is incredible and the people are friendly wherever you choose to stop. Ohio State University is worth a look. It’s the biggest in the country has to be seen to be believed.
The football stadium alone is worth a stop off. College football is bigger in the States than Premier League football over here. Crowds of nearly 70,000 turn up to watch the students play.
We found we were enjoying being on the road a little too much and at the rate we were driving we’d be in LA in just a few weeks. So we took a detour and headed down to the south east to Memphis, Tennessee.
It’s here they do the ‘world’s best BBQ ribs’ (according to every waiter in every restaurant you go in). Beale Street is where you’ll find Southern Style BBQ Ribs. This is a restaurant that prides itself on their gigantic racks of lamb that wouldn’t disappoint even the harshest food critic.
We couldn’t visit Memphis without taking a trip to Elvis’ Graceland Be prepared to be totally caught up in Elvis mania if you ever stay in Memphis. They literally play Elvis tunes on the streets everyday. The tour of Elvis’ house is definitely money well spent. The moving tribute to the king of pop is always busy so expect to have to wait a day or two after booking.
For a place to stay, we checked into the Elvis Presley Blvd Inn. It’s perfectly located between the buzzing town centre and Graceland. Plus, it’s incredibly good value for money at under $30 for a double room. I say good value, it was cheap but it doesn’t look like it’s been decorated since it opened. We only stayed as we didn’t plan on being in the room for long.
Next we headed east from Tennessee through Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The picturesque drive made us feel like we were on the set of a western. We drove though endless ghost towns with tumble weed that does actually blow across the road like in the movies it turns out.
At this stage of the trip we had one eye on Las Vegas, which is only a few states away in Nevada. But, as tempting as it was to go straight there, thankfully we didn’t overlook a stop in Colorado. The state has so much to offer and it couldn’t be any different from the glitz and glamour of the Vegas strip.
The Colorado National Park is not to be missed. The famous red rock in the ‘Garden of the Gods’ is well worth getting out the car for, if only for a few hours. Then drive up through the Rocky Mountains for breathtaking scenery that you won’t find anywhere else on your journey.
If you’re looking for excitement, avoid Denver and spend most of your time in Colorado Springs. There is so much to do you’ll struggle to fit it all in. Mountain climbing, rock climbing, horse riding and fishing are just a few things to try in, what really is, the great outdoors. Stay in log cabins at Pikes Peak. They’re located just 6 miles west of Colorado Springs and offer spectacular mountain views. This is one place you won’t want to leave.
Next stop – Vegas. It was at this point we realised that hiring a car was a very wise move. Nothing beats driving along the 3-mile strip for the first time. We couldn’t quite believe that a few days before we were in a mountain range. Now we were getting sunburned in a desert.
Staying in Las Vegas needn’t be expensive. The casinos want you to stay in their hotels so you’ll gamble en route to your room. Those who’ve been to Vegas will tell you it’s practically impossible to not have a bet every time you’re walking somewhere.
The famous hotels on the strip like Bellagio, Ceasars Palace and The Mirage seemed a little extravagant for our trip, so we went for the Sahara hotel and casino, which is in at the cheap end of the strip. (In fact it’s now shut down, that’s how good it was).
As with all the hotels, the room prices soar at the weekends but during the week, double rooms at the Sahara were as little as $20. While in Vegas be sure to take a break from gambling to visit the Stratosphere tower The Stratosphere is the highest building in the west of America. Pay the $16 to get to the observation deck, preferably at night, and see the whole of Las Vegas from above. You won’t regret it.
I had one big win in Vegas, which was about $70 on a $1 bet. By now we were struggling for money and not able to enjoy Vegas as we wanted. We knew we’d come back one day so we left after a few days and got back in the motor, this time headed for LA.
Hollywood is bursting with things to see and do. Time here feels like a holiday within a holiday. We stayed in the Motel 6 just off Hollywood Blvd. It’s cheap, clean and perfectly located. We were minutes away from everything Hollywood has to offer. It sounds rubbish, but it was actually one of the best places we stayed during our journey.
We splashed out on a trip to Universal Studios and did some celebrity spotting on Rodeo drive in Beverly Hills, which was all within walking distance of our hotel. A lot of our time was spent in Santa Monica too. The beach there is one of my favourite places in the world.
A few days later we headed up to San Francisco to see another side of California. Here we found that some of the friendliest people in America live here. We walked down to Pier 39 on the waterfront and booked a day trip over to Alcatraz Island.
The guided tour of the prison was incredible, plus the views from the island of the bay and Golden Gate Bridge were worth the trip alone. Be sure to cross the famous bridge while you’re there. For some reason we walked it, which was exhausting. We ended up getting the bus back.
By now we’d done much of what we wanted, and seen more than we could’ve imagined on the budget we had. Needless to say, after seven weeks on the road we were now skint and relying on credit cards to get us home.
We got a flight back to New York and stayed in literally the worst hotel in the city. My bed had three legs and the hotel’s drainage system passed through our room. Every time someone went to the toilet, we heard about it. They say NYC is the city that never sleeps, and it certainly was that night.
Carry plenty of $1 notes with you. Americans expect to be tipped for everything, especially in the big cities. So when you’re checking into your hotel/motel and someone opens a door, carries your bag, or gives you directions, says hello (I jest), be prepared to put your hand in your pocket.
Give yourself a rough plan and a rough route to make things easier. Your journey across America will be hard to mess up but there’s so much to see and do you’ll struggle to fit it all in.
Motels will give you discounts. The Americans love a Brit. You can easily charm your way into their good books with just your accent. Motels, especially those along the highways, will knock some money off their rooms if you ask.
Tell your bank you’re going. This may seem obvious but make sure they know not to block your credit card being used halfway though your adventure.
The Las Vegas strip is a lot bigger than it looks. Get an all-day pass for the bus rather than walking up and down the Strip.
Stick to the speed limit! Americans are incredibly strict when it comes to this. You’ll find that despite the vast open roads the speed limits are often less than here in the UK.
Don’t bother with the Hollywood Wax Museum. It’s awful. The models look nothing like they should. In fact, they are so bad it’s funny, so go but only for a laugh, not to be impressed.
If a town is advertised locally (or in a guide book) as a ‘party town’ check out what they mean by that before turning up hoping for a massive knees-up. Some smaller towns will only have a single pool hall if you’re lucky, so don’t put your best threads on and expect to find a nightclub packed with girls.
Try your best to avoid driving at night. The scenery is incredible throughout the journey. Just when you think you’re getting bored of the same thing America will throw up something else. Don’t risk missing it by driving in the dark.