Friday, 18 January 2013

A Grand American Adventure

Next week is Blue Monday, the day that is supposed to be the most depressing of the year (it falls on 21st January this year). To keep all negative thoughts at bay, it sounded like the perfect time to enter Money Supermarket's bloggers' challenge and plan out an unforgettable dream holiday. They say : "Have you ever dreamed of packing up your suitcase, heading off on holiday and staying away for as long as possible for the adventure of a lifetime? Well now you can by entering our competition 'A Grand Adventure'. We want bloggers around the globe to tell us where they would go, what they would do and how they would make their £1000 last as long as possible for an epic adventure. Minus the cost of flights, we want people to explore their frugal side of living whilst still having a great time and we have £1000 to give away to the lucky winner." Well, it's easy enough to make your money stretch as a carefree lone traveller or as a childless couple, where backpacking and working your way around the world are options, but is it still possible with three under 11's in tow? Time to get my thinking cap on ...

Now, where in the world to begin? Well, I think this could be the ideal time for planning out my American dream. We spent a glorious three weeks exploring the east coast of the States as a carefree couple on honeymoon back in 2000 and I've dreamed of going back ever since. With three kids coming along for the ride of a lifetime, it wouldn't be so easy though, especially when trying to keep within a reasonable budget. This grand adventure challenge needs to come up with a grand old time for a "cool grand" price tag so I'll need to get my thinking cap on to stay within budget with a family of 5 ! Luckily flights don't count so I'll see how far we could make £1000 stretch with a bit of forward planning.

First up, I'd like to fly back into New York City and see how the city has changed post 9/11. I have very fond memories of NYC and still find it strange to see the Manhattan skyline without the iconic Twin Towers, so I'd love to retrace our steps and show some of the world's unmissable monuments to the Madhouse kids. Accommodation in the Big Apple can be eye-wateringly expensive but we have a very cool tip - "it's fun to stay in the YMCA, it's fun to stay YMCA" ... !

 I thought he'd gone mad when Madhouse Daddy Mike (who was just plain Mike back then in our pre-parenting days!) suggested staying at the YMCA - wasn't that for homeless people ? or "young men"? or people who like dressing up as policemen, construction workers and Native Americans?! - but they actually have private guest rooms that you can rent out just like a hotel. It's very basic accommodation but let's face it, what do you really need? I wasn't sure this would be a feasible option with kids but I've just had a look and three nights at the West Side YMCA, just a stone's throw from Central Park, in a 3 bunk room that sleeps 6 people costs an amazingly low £142.53. You'd pay more than that for one night in a twin room at most hotels ! The room may be spartan but it comes with cable TV and free use of the Health & Wellness facility, including two indoor swimming pools, which sounds pretty good to me. We stayed in the YMCA in Boston and were stunned to see that breakfast was included in the price - we had a late brunch each morning of a huge plateful of "home fries with eggs sunny side up" and that kept us going right through to the evening meal, keeping costs down even further.

Many of the attractions in The Big Apple are free (or can be, if you just look from the outside, and that's all that you really need for most of the skyscrapers). Central Park is a great place to wander around when the highrises start giving you vertigo - we had great fun seeing how many different colours of squirrels we could spot - red, grey but also black and white, which was a surprise. We were also over the moon to spot a skunk, which was much bigger than I expected. (We were careful not to get TOO close to that one though !)

Walking all the way downtown through Manhattan is fascinating, passing by Time Square, Chinatown, Little Italy, the Empire State Building, the Rockefeller Center and finishing up at Ground Zero. Grabbing a ferry to the Statue of Liberty is an unmissable and doesn't cost that much, and throwing in a visit to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum is fascinating too. There are always zillions of things going on in New York too, so look out for parades and other free events that can be a lot of fun.

Travelling by Greyhound bus is another iconic American thing to do - book in advance and you'll get up to 25% off your ticket price. If you travel overnight, you'll save on a night's accommodation (although this may not be ideal with kids, admittedly). Heading up to Niagara Falls from New York City is a 400 mile trip and takes about 10 hours and there's a night bus, leaving at 10.45pm and arriving at 8.05am, perfect timing for a new day of adventures. Again, counting on transporting all my tribe (2 adults + 3 kids), the journey would set us back $300 (£190) without the early booking discount.

Visiting the Falls by the famous Maid of the Mist boat isn't actually as expensive as I expected - about $15.50 for adults, $9 for kids and free for under 5's so it would only work out at about £30 for the whole family - and, as usual, you need to check out what you can do for free. Seeing the Falls Illuminations doesn't cost a penny, and neither does enjoying the weekly fireworks display, so make sure you time it right to get the most out of your trip. There are even dedicated websites such as Free Things To Do In and Around Niagara, telling you how to get the most of of your time there without spending a cent. I love the sound of the Jade Temple and the 7-level Asian-style Buddhist Temple, as well as hiking along the beautiful Niagara Parkway for a picnic in stunning surroundings after stocking up at the farmers' market.

Having popped across the border, I'd love to venture further into Canada. Taking a train up to Montreal would give us a chance to enjoy the spectacular scenery before discovering the Canadian city. I'd love to go in the autumn to see the leaves changing colour and grab some photos of the vivid reds, golds and yellows. The train from Niagara up to Montreal would set us back about £300 for a family of five, so we'd stop off at a local supermarket beforehand, to stock up on picnic foods to help keep costs down by avoiding eating out all the time. I always love grocery shopping when abroad anyway, because it really gives you a feel for how the locals live and gives you a chance to sample the local delicacies. Trying a peanut butter and jelly sandwich followed by the notorious artificial additive-packed Twinkies would cost a whole lot less than a meal in a restaurant, but would be even more exciting for the kids !

Keeping costs down would be a cinch in Montreal as I have a friend who has always said she'd love to put us up - always a bonus when travelling on a budget ! This means we could splash out on a bit of luxury and treat our hosts to a fabulous meal to thank them for their welcome, maybe at the restaurant crafted entirely out of ice at the Snow Village. How amazing would it be to sit in an igloo, eating gourmet food at a table and bench crafted out of ice? Pretty surreal ! Our Montreal friends are always telling us about spending cosy weekends discovering the local parks, museums and quaint little shops at the weekend, all of which sounds like a fun and cheap way to discover the city.

I would have to splash out on a day of whale watching here - it costs around $430 (£270) but would be worth every penny. We went on a whale watching cruise in Boston and it was absolutely amazing. The boats offer you a refund if you don't see whales so they basically just keep going until you come across some. We saw them breaching (jumping), making bubble traps, opening their mouths, flicking their tails- mind-blowing stuff. I vowed I'd do it again one day and I'd love to share the experience with the kids. From MontrĂ©al, you can combine a coach trip along the scenic St Lawrence River with a whale-watching cruise, which sounds ideal. You can also look out for seals, belugas and lighthouses along the rugged coastline. This is what memories are made of ! With older kids, I'd also throw in some extra outdoorsy activities like freshwater fishing, white-water rafting and canoeing down river, in the hopes of getting up close (well, not TOO close !) to the whales and other wildlife.

In researching this, I've actually been amazed at how cheaply you could take a family of five Stateside, with a few bits of insider knowledge and a strategically located friend or two. A colleague at work told me that her son had also managed a similar trip by doing a house swap, going to Canada for a fortnight while a Canadian family stayed in his UK home to watch the Olympics. That's definitely another way I'd look at for travelling on a budget with a family, as it would also enable you to cook at home, reducing your food budget too.

For this trip though, we're well under budget :

3 nights at YMCA in New York - £145
overnight Greyhound to Niagara Falls - £190
Maid of the Mist boat trip - £30
train from Niagara Falls to Montreal - £300
whalewatching - £270

Grand total - £935, leaving us a bit left over for food and souvenirs

Disclosure : This is my entry for the Grand Adventure competition, over at

Other blogposts you may be interested in :

Forward planning for the summer : Morocco here we come !

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