“It pays to plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.”
This trip wasn’t supposed to happen. We were thinking of going for a week – maybe two – to Alcudia, in Spain, for some nice sea, sand and generally a bit of a relax.
But we like theme parks. In 2009 we went to Florida (in late September/early October – best time for it) and spent two weeks at Busch Gardens Tampa, Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, Sea World, Wet n Wild and Aquatica. In 2010 we saw my parents in Australia, taking in Luna Park in both Melbourne and Sydney, then on the way back stopped off in Dubai to visit the new (and absolutely pants) Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi.
No, we were planning on a nice, cheap, relaxing summer holiday.
But this all starts with two words: Cedar Point.
I wasn’t a big fan of theme parks before I met my girlfriend, but since then they’ve become one of the things I pay attention to, along with video games and some sci-fi (and yes, I do stupidly still get the new Dune books, though Winds Of Dune wasn’t that bad). And, until she mentioned it back in 2010, I’d never heard of Cedar Point.
Cedar Point is, to many people, a theme park meccah. A pilgrimige that should be made at least once in a lifetime. Containing absolutely masses of rides and winning several awards, it was still not one I’d heard of.
This was back in 2010. Don’t worry – we didn’t plan THAT far ahead. Instead, she said that it’d be a nice place to visit.
Fast-forward to, I think, April 2011. We’d been looking at Alcudia – even got the brochures, been looking at hotels online etc. I’m playing something when my girlfriend comes downstairs with a sheet of paper.
She’s been dreaming. And planning. And scheming. And probably sacrificing goats. But the dreaming, planning and scheming are the most important here, unless you work for the RSPCA. In which case I’m sure no goats were killed. She’s done a bloody good job of tidying up if there were.
In any case, the piece of paper. It’s got a map on, with four locations marked on it.
The first is Six Flags Great America, a theme park near Chicago. The second is the eponymous Cedar Point in Sandusky. The third would be Six Flags Great Adventure, near-ish to Philadelphia. The fourth – Busch Gardens Europe, in Williamsburg.
It’s an interesting plan and we both laugh it off. There’s no chance we’d be able to plan and afford all that.
Or is there?
The next week or so, Alcudia is still somewhere we’ll probably go to. We look at costings, look at hotels, things to do whilst we’re there and so on. The Great American Theme Park Road Trip is so obviously out of our reach that it doesn’t bear thinking about. We’d only make ourselves miserable.
But come on, it can’t be any harm looking now, can it?
So we look. We dream. I’m initially looking at September – to get cheaper flights. I plan dates, to ensure we can *just* squeeze in all four parks inside three weeks. Unfortunately several of the parks open only on weekends from September onwards. It’s possible, but only just.
But then we start looking earlier. By now it’s probably late April – I don’t quite remember. And flights are possible – a not-too-bad £400-ish per person. There are change-overs, but that’s not too bad – barely any time on the ground. The dates – late June to mid July – are suitable. We even look at car hire and the price of going to these four parks. And it’s possible.
So we book the flights. We find the flights we’re after with much checking of various sites such as LastMinute, Expedia and a few others and book ourselves onto a flight out of Manchester with KLM early in the morning, stopping off at Amsterdam for literally an hour before flying into Chicago O’hare. On the way back we’re leaving from Norfolk in Virginia in the afternoon three weeks later, having a few hours in Atlanta before coming back to Manchester in the morning of the next day.
Theme parks were quite easy to plan. We planned out what we wanted to do and how long we’d spend at each park, and followed this rough guide:
Day 1 – arrive
Days 2 & 3 – Six Flags Great America and Chicago itself
Day 4 – travel to Sandusky
Days 5, 6 & 7 – Cedar Point (2 days), something else around
Day 8 – travel to Philadelphia
Days 9, 10, 11 & 12 – Six Flags Great Adventure and Philadelphia
Day 13 – travel to Washington DC
Days 14, 15 & 16 – Washington DC itself
Day 17 – travel to Williamsburg
Days 18 & 19 – Busch Gardens Europe and anything else around
Days 20 & 21 – travel home
So that’s the initial plan. But wait! Two things appeared which we didn’t realise at first.
The first was that there is another park we’d missed. We’d initially just thought “well, we’re passing close to Washington DC, we may as well visit”. But there’s another park – Six Flags America. Which we decide we may as well visit, bringing our total up to five.
The second thing was that we’d be in Philadelphia for the 4th July celebrations, where Americans celebrate all things American. Bizarre – celebrating your country! Here in the UK you’d get lynched nowadays, but there you go. If you can’t celebrate your country, may as well celebrate someone else’s.
So the theme parks. With our loose calendar in place, we go onto the website of each theme park and book through them. It’s pretty simple – choose when you’re going to go, pay your money, print off a voucher to scan when you get there and acts as your ticket. Cedar Point had an offer on for particular days which, fortunately, included the days we were planning on going anyway. For Busch Gardens Europe we got a two-day ticket in case we couldn’t do everything, but this also included the water park nearby, Water Country USA (does this count as six parks now?).
Theme park prices, largely, were pretty cheap. The Six Flags parks and Cedar Point, I think, worked out at roughly $37-ish each per day. This is online – I think prices at the door were more expensive. But then you do have parking on top – which also works out at something like $10 to $20 per day, depending on the park. Busch Gardens Europe is also pretty expensive by comparison, costing about $66 for the day, but the ticket we got (for two days, including Water Country USA) worked out at $76.
So, nowadays $37 amounts to about £24, $10-$20 is £6-£12, and $76 is £49.
That’s the parks booked, and inside a night I believe.
The car was a constant worry. We’d be taking a large suitcase each and weren’t sure some of the ones we were looking at would have the right space. They said they could take two large cases, but what are the definitions of “large case”? Do they match ours? No measurements were given on any of the sites.
Plus, going through the various rental companies, it was looking very expensive. Not to mention there’s some sort of tax added on in Chicago, which is about $8 for each day you hire a car. So that’d be an extra $168-ish dollars. Lovely.
It takes us a while, including trying (and failing) to use various voucher codes, but we plump with Alamo and a Chevy HHR. It looks big enough for the two of us and what luggage we have. Little did we know just how big it would be… The car, in total, cost us about £600, including having both of us as drivers. There is a small amount you can pay if you want an extra driver for your trip per day, but there is a limit to the amount you can pay. I was to be the extra driver, expected to pay an extra £10 per day. But you could only pay up to £90 – so, for an extra £90, I was to be an extra driver for the entire trip. Not bad.
But how would we find our way around? We could get a GPS with the car, for an extra £100. May as well buy our own for just a bit more. Instead, we found a company in the UK which sends you a GPS with both UK and USA maps loaded on, for £35. You just send it back to them once you’re done with it. Using this, we arrange for one to be delivered a few days before we go. I also find a big map book of America, for only a few quid on Amazon. It’s the 2011 edition, so I get that as a just-in-case measure.
Hotels, of course, prove to be another difficult point, and each hotel had it’s own problems and solutions:
Chicago – we don’t know what areas of Chicago are good, and also don’t fancy driving around the city. So we book a hotel close to the airport with free shuttle service to and from the airport. This way, we can drive to the hotel from the airport and, when going into Chicago itself, use the shuttle to go to the airport and take the train to the city, then get picked up by the shuttle.
Sandusky – God this was a pain. Sandusky seems to have NO good hotels, unless you want to pay loads. They cater to families coming to the park and that’s it (which, truth be told, should include us). In the end we plump for one a bit out of the city – it’s an extra way to drive to Cedar Point, but not by much, and the hotel seems a bit nicer and probably less crowded.
Philadelphia – we want to explore Philly but not have to drive. So we get a hotel right by one of the main parts of the city – the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Only problem, which we find out when we get there – the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is a NIGHTMARE to navigate around. I’m sure I’ve done a few circuits of that thing. Reminds me of the bit from one of the National Lampoon films where they’re in London, constantly circling a roundabout. “Look kids, there’s Big Ben. Look, there it is again…” for two hours.
Washington DC – technically we didn’t stay in Washington – instead, just outside it in Rosslyn. Hotels in Washington DC are pricey, especially during the week as all the politicians use them then for business.
Williamsburg – the same situation that occurred with the Sandusky hotel reared it’s ugly head again. Took a bit to find a decent hotel but we managed.
When planning hotels we used a HUGE mix of sites and software. I used Google Earth to enter the locations of the theme parks and add points so they were perpetually highlighted, then did the same with the two airports and any hotels we found. Again, using Google Earth I could check easily the location of hotels we’d found and also identify other hotels using the lodging layer. We also used Otels, Hotels, LastMinute, Expedia and TripAdvisor to find various hotels (though they were mostly booked through Hotels.com).
Finally, other stuff to do. We’d have days exploring each location and needed to identify things to keep us busy. Again, Google Earth came in handy, as did the websites of the actual cities themselves. I’ll go into more detail on each of these in their own section as there are several things that we did which weren’t planned.
And with that, we’re practically all ready. Only a few small details remained:
Travel Insurance. We’ve never had to use it yet but, in America, health care is private. Anything happens and you’re paying hundreds just for a doctor to have a look at you. What we frequently do is look online for quotes, though we normally use Insure & Go. We get a worldwide year-long cover so then, if we go on holiday again in the year, we can use the same insurance and save a bit of cash. It’s only a few quid more than insuring us for the single trip.
Holiday Money. Important, especially as we did make a catastrophic mistake which nearly completely messed up the holiday. Make a budget of how much you think you’ll need per day, and add a bit more. As we’ve been to America before, we know that meals will frequently cost *us* $10-$15, for each person for each meal. Add stuff on for fuel, any additional costs etc. Then go check exchange rates. We’ve recently used both Marks & Spencers and Ramsleys as both are only a short walk from us, so we can get them there-and-then. Though Travellers Cheques are going out of fashion (just about everyone seemed perplexed when we used them on this trip) they’re an excellent idea – more safe and secure than having cash and just about everywhere accepts them, whether they know this or not. A lot of people will want to give you a card with your money on so you can just use it at an ATM (cash machine). Unfortunately these are a LOT more scarce in America than here in the UK and, of course, if someone nicks your card, there goes all your cash. We generally take 50% cash and 50% Travellers Cheques, leaving all of the cash and cheques locked in our cases whilst we’re out (apart from obviously what we’re taking out with us).
ESTA. America requires that everyone going there registers using their ESTA service beforehand. Make sure you do this early, and unfortunately it does cost a little. Not much though. Do this online through the official ESTA website – it’s quite easy, quick and painless. If you book through a travel agent they may offer to do it for you for a charge – they’ll obviously charge more than what is on the ESTA website.
Home in general. You can buy some timers which you plug in. These will turn lights on and off at particular times throughout the day to give the illusion people are in. Make sure someone checks on your home every few days. Find friends or relatives who will look after your pets and make sure they’ve got vet details. Eat stuff in the fridge that will go off whilst you’re away. Book time off work, obviously. Make sure you’ve got your phone charger, camera charger, DS charger (not that I used it apart from in the airports and on the planes) and that everything’s charged anyway. Make sure you’ve got a book (again, for the plane). Make sure you can get to the airport and back – see if friends or relatives will take you, failing that you’ll need to use the train or book your car into a car park.
With all that done, all we need to do now is wait for the big day…