I had this idea of a nice long trip, on my own, without any flying or driving. I hate both. As Paul Theroux wrote: “There is not much to say about most airplane journeys. Anything remarkable must be disastrous, so you define a good flight by negatives: you didn’t get hijacked, you didn’t crash, you didn’t throw up, you weren’t late, you weren’t nauseated by the food. The airplane passenger …crawls into a carpeted tube that is reeking of disinfectant… and from the moment he steps into the tube and braces his knees on the seat in front, uncomfortably upright – from the moment he departs, his mind is focused on arrival.”
And don’t get me started about driving. When friends hear I’m going on a trip to North America, they start banging on about the joys of spending hours on Route 66, or some other piece of tarmac that only sounds romantic because it was mentioned in the early days of rock’n’roll.
That’s not my idea of a holiday, staring straight ahead for hours, gripping the steering wheel, wondering how much fuel is left in the tank, and feeling like I can’t stop and stretch my legs for another two hours, because I just did it. The only redeeming feature of a recent 11-hour drive home from Scotland was listening to some great podcasts, but I can do that on any form of transport, including those where someone else is taking the strain of pointing me in the right direction.
Enjoy the trip
I really wanted to visit my god-daughter on Vancouver Island in Canada. I also wanted to catch up with an old friend who now lives near San Francisco in the USA. But I wanted to enjoy every moment of the journey too. Was it practical to do it by ship, train and the occasional taxi? Why yes, it looked like it was.
Time was not a problem. I’m fortunate enough to be semi-retired, and I can keep up with anything I need to while I’m travelling. Finance wasn’t unlimited, but I had a decent budget and hoped I could work within it. Let the planning begin.
I have no idea if it’ll run forever, but there’s still a transatlantic liner service, operated by Cunard with the Queen Mary 2. It shuttles back and forth for most of the year from Southampton to New York, taking seven days. I love cruises anyway, so this one was a no-brainer.
Can you still get right across the USA by train? Of course you can! Indeed, one of the legs of the journey (Chicago to San Francisco) is generally regarded as one of the three great train routes in North America. It has sleeping cars and looks great. Also, if you’re used to UK rail fares, the cost isn’t at all unreasonable.
So there we have it. A week on a cruise liner, followed by a week on Amtrak travelling from the east coast of the USA to the west coast. And as a bonus, there’s a great train journey north from there to Seattle, from where I can get the ferry to Vancouver Island. Let the booking begin!
Is it expensive?
The organisation went fairly painlessly. Amtrak’s online booking was pretty straightforward. The cost of a standard seat is a fraction of the cost of a ‘roomette’ with a fold-down bed, so it looks very tempting to save some money there. However, everyone online recommends springing for the sleeping facilities if you’re doing the full journey, and as I mentioned, the cost compares favourably with what we’re used to at home – it’s the standard seat being so much cheaper than UK rail fares that makes the roomette look expensive!
Cunard was also fairly painless as a booking experience. It’s a 3000-mile cruise, so of course it’s expensive, but offset it against the airfare which would be the alternative, and then remember that you’re getting a seriously nice 7-day holiday for the money, and it’s not so bad. How much would a week’s accommodation and food like that cost you on land?
I had another bonus. Cruises tend to be priced like hotels, on a per-room basis, with only a small premium for additional passengers. As it happened, my son had to go over to the USA at this time, to start a university course. So with two of us sharing a cabin, the cost per head would be almost halved, ending up at not that much more than the airfares!
Not the best start
Great plan in theory. However, as departure day approached, we got increasingly worried that my son’s student visa wasn’t going to be sent within the couple of weeks that the US Embassy had promised. Worse, they had his passport, so if it wasn’t issued, he couldn’t go anywhere.
Our fears were realised, and I had to leave without him, which was more than a disappointment. I know that the rest of the travelling would be solo, and this just meant more of the same, but it would have been great to have spent the week’s transatlantic crossing together. Oh well.
Returning to where we came in, I planned the trip this way simply to avoid flying or driving, at least as far as getting to my destination was concerned. I hadn’t really considered it to be re-creating some sort of pioneer trail, until a friend posted this online. Now I feel like it’s quite an epic event! We shall see.
The Queen Mary 2 sailing through the Solent on its voyage from Southampton to New York. @ChrisRandWrites is on board, the first stage of his plane-less trip to California, like it’s 1900 or something. pic.twitter.com/jP7h5ti8R2— Ian Walker (@fenlandgent) June 23, 2023
I plan to post about the various legs of the journey as I go along. If everything goes to plan, the whole trip should last about seven weeks. I’m only blogging everything because I really enjoy doing so, and would like a good diary record of the trip. However, if you’re interested, do check back here regularly for updates. I’ll probably do one or two a week.
For now, here are a few photos from the first 24 hours on the ship. If you want to find out what the cruise was like, that will follow in due course!
Thanks to Judi Preston for the photo of the ship leaving Southampton. I’m waving from near the bow. But you may have to take my word for it.