For your next vacation adventure, are you interested in joining an organized tour of the American West?
Do San Francisco, the Sierra Nevadas, Death Valley, and Yosemite call your name? Do you like meeting and traveling with new people from around the world in an affordable group tour format? If so, read on!
I asked my former student, Steph Alexandre, to write up an account of her recent tour experience, because it sheds light on something many Americans don’t realize: economical, efficient group tours of America are being enjoyed by people from worldwide countries — but rarely by Americans!
In this account, Steph explains what it was like to view her country alongside group members from other continents. My hope in sharing this hilariously-written story (and Steph’s stunning photos, too) is to inspire more people to consider touring a country they think they already know — because there’s still so much to learn.
Steph, take it away!
Steph: Hello! Now, you may be wondering how I ended up as the only American on a group tour of the American West. Though my excitement about touring California started a few summers ago while working at Stanford University, I always put this rendezvous at the back burner. After all, if I was going to take time off of work, I would need to travel internationally, right? Why take vacation time to stay in my own country?
Even so, I would periodically dream of the Panoramic Hike at Yosemite National Park, marvel at Instagram photos online, and peruse various California vacation websites. After enduring many Boston winters since that fateful summer at Stanford, I soon found myself in the process of transferring jobs, and a plan started to hatch to travel during the short period between them.
Transferring jobs was exciting! Frustrating! Exciting again! Clerical! Frustrating again! And finally — exciting! On one hand, everything was up in the air, but on the other hand, it also felt like everything was coming together to part the skies of work so the sun of vacation travel could shine through the crack.
I did not know exactly which two weeks I would be able to take for vacation between jobs, but I knew that it would most likely be early July, and I began vigorously budgeting to afford a trip.
(Yes, this is not a sponsored review — I definitely paid for my own tour! That said, feel free to use the affiliate links in this article for browsing trips, as they can provide a commission at no extra charge to you.)
My last epic travel to Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore was thrilling, but the 23 hours of traveling left me exhausted. I began to embrace the decision to travel domestically.
Since I have really grown to enjoy solo group travel with G Adventures, I began browsing their tours of America’s West Coast.
Soon I was packing my carry-on, checking camera batteries, and packing extra wool socks for my 8-day Las Vegas to Los Angeles camping trip! See the exact American West tour itinerary and map here.
This being my third G Adventures trip, I knew what to expect. The first step is going to the meeting spot to meet the rest of the group, and the CEO: Chief Experience Officer.
Audrey, our CEO, had everything planned in advance and LOVES leading this specific trip, as Yosemite is one of her favorite national parks. After my a three hour delayed flight, I arrived in Las Vegas and was quickly stunned by the lights and loud music that played on the long commercial strip.
“So, nobody sleeps here?” I asked my Uber driver as the neon blazed.
“Pretty much,” he replied.
“Do you like my night glasses?!” he asked enthusiastically.
“Yes… yes I do,” I replied, noticing for the first time that he was wearing sunglasses at night.
“These are special glasses that I wear at night because of the lights beaming everywhere,” he responded matter-of-factly. “See, you guys don’t have that in Boston,” he went on.
I slept like a rock, and woke up the next day, ready to get on the road! On the bus, I quickly met the amazing group of people that I would be spending the next week with.
We each went around to introduce ourselves. As each person was saying where they were from, I quickly realized that I was possibly the only American on this trip.
“Hi, My name is ___, and I’m from Germany.”
“I’m from the UK.”
“I’m from South Africa.”
“I’m from Ireland.”
Wait — no, it can’t be! I scanned the group and repeated what they said internally… and I was right. Apart from Audrey, I was the only American on this tour of the American West!
The next week consisted of camping bliss, hiking Yosemite, eating delicious food, and catching up on sleep on the tour bus. During our 8-day tour, I learned a few key differences between American life and European life. Here are the top three, mixed in with descriptions of what we saw and did on the tour, so you can get a flavor for what it was like.
One of the funnier exchanges was our shopping trip. The bus came to a halt in a Walmart parking lot, and we ran the few feet to the air-conditioned store.
I started perusing around for fresh fruits that I could snack on for the next few days until the next grocery shopping day. Since we were not going to buy much (as most meals were included in the trip), I decided to share my cart with Leonie. She started perusing the snack aisle and quickly had a question.
“Ok, so this snack is $3.99, yes?” Leonie asked.
“Yes, but it is going to end up being more because of tax.”
“How much is tax?”
“I’m not sure what the tax percentage is in this state. Sorry!”
“Yes, but why is it two prices — one listed, and one I have to find out later,” Leonie replied, rightfully annoyed.
“It’s a surprise,” I explained sarcastically. Leonie wasn’t laughing.
“In Germany, the price you see is the price you pay,” she stated, continuing to fight a battle she had already won.
“Yes, I have no rebuttal,” I responded, giving a sympathetic look. We both exhaled a defeated sigh and moved on to the produce area.
I explained to her that I usually just add everything up and dedicate a few extra dollars to tax. The more I buy, the more I expect to pay in taxes. And lo and behold, we did get a surprise second price after scanning our goods. Taxes are always there for you. Always.
2. Portion Sizes in Restaurants
We longed for San Francisco way before we set foot on that famous city! After two days in Yosemite, I knew that I would need an ordinary bed for a good night’s sleep. A few days before driving along the beautiful but scary winding road, Route 1, passing the glistening cliffs of Big Sur, we hiked the Panoramic Trail at Yosemite.
The hike day began bright and early with a hefty breakfast and loading our day-packs on the bus. The trees swayed back and forth as the bus managed to get up the hill to the vista point. We ran out of the bus and stood in awe of Yosemite, looking back at us.
The Mist Trail is part of the Panoramic Trail, so as I began to hear the screams, shrieks, and laughter of other hikers, I knew I was close and had to put my phone away. Soon, I was squeezing my tired, 5.6 miles-so-far body up and down wet stairs as Vernal Fall sprayed buckets of water at hikers.
I looked up and saw the most beautiful rainbow glimmering across the sky. Yosemite is truly unforgettable in every way. Yosemite is best experienced by camping for at least a few days.
As it was a camping trip, we enjoyed cooking together by the fire and telling stories. But soon, we longed for San Francisco which was the next stop!
One of the first things I realized was how unnoticeable the restaurant portion sizes in San Francisco were to me as an American… but those sizes were a great shock to the rest of the team!
Even though the rest of the world is catching up by serving bigger and bigger portion sizes (meaning a global health shift from infectious to chronic diseases is happening), American restaurants still serve large portion sizes on their menus compared to many other countries.
While most of the trip was camping outside eating delicious food we cooked by the fire, we still went to great restaurants while in San Francisco, especially around the Fisherman’s Pier.
We arrived at the restaurant that Audrey reserved in advance — close to the water as the sun was setting. We had just sailed under the Golden Gate bridge and stuffed our faces from cheekbones to chin with delicious cheese and crackers platters. We got to the restaurant, where I soon got a chance to read my favorite book genre: restaurant menus.
I knew right away that I would be able to finish a cheeseburger because, well, I’ve almost always been able to finish a cheeseburger. You see, my body was built for and by cheeseburgers. It never occurred to me how big portion sizes were until I saw others planning to split meals.
I scanned around the table and realized that my friends were used to ordering many small plates to share. While that was not completely out of the ordinary, I knew that this is still not a strong trend in the US.
Mostly, everyone orders their individual meal in America — and it’s a big one. That evening, it was great fun seeing others share their meals… while I devoured a cheeseburger the size of my head.
3. The Metric System
Death Valley National Park was unlike anything I have ever seen. Located between Nevada and California, it truly is one of the driest spots I have ever visited.
This vast, arid land covers over 5200 square miles, and seemed to be expanding eternally in every direction. And there it is — our first measurement. It will not be a shock to anyone that the metric system is a major difference.
Death Valley is North America’s driest and hottest spot. Thus, when Audrey was telling us more information about the park prior to entering, she gave the temperature ranges in Celsius. It can get up to about 57 degrees Celsius (134 degrees Fahrenheit).
As soon as I got off the bus, my phone started beeping because the 110 degrees Fahrenheit was too much to bear. I got back on the bus, put my phone down, and grabbed my ice cold water bottle.
We walked up the small hill to the vista to truly grasp how wide, vast, and deep Death Valley really is. And it was awesome. We stood in awe, sipping our cold waters and struggling to take in the dry hot air.
Being from Boston, I am very familiar with humidity, especially in the summer. However, I was not ready for the dry heat. It was somehow worse and better simultaneously.
After we arrived safely back in the air-conditioned bus, Audrey continued with more fascinating information while occasionally screaming back non-metric system conversions for me.
“This park covers over 13,000 square kilometers — THAT’S ABOUT 5200 SQUARE MILES FOR YOU BACK THERE, STEPH!”
“Oh, great! They’re all for me. All 5200 of them — all especially for me,” I said in fake excitement.
“It’s 86 meters below sea level — THAT’S 282 FOR YOU, STEPH.”
“Exemplary. All for me. Great,” I responded.
I should have been honest with Audrey. I should have informed her that I intended an international middle school in Port-au-Prince and learned the conversions long ago. I should also note that I attended a great high school and re-learned these same conversions in English ten years ago. But all’s well that ends well.
So, Is it Worth it to do a Group Tour in America as an American?
Being the only American on the trip was an amazing experience, and one that I will never forget. I have learned more than ever before that my perception is my reality. I knew that American restaurants serve big portion sizes, but compared to what?
It has always been the norm for me to have a ton of food put in front of me at restaurants. If anything, I would get a to-go box since everyone else around the table has similar portion sizes to me. I also measure everything in feet, pounds, and miles, but the rest of the world uses another system of measurement.
I think perception is very tricky. Moreover, my narrowed perception about travel is very tricky. My perception is widely shaped by what I see on my timeline, and for the most part that is an expensive plane ticket to another continent, perfectly filtered pictures, and expensive hotel rooms. But that doesn’t need to be the only way a “vacation” looks.
For this American West camping trip, I was mostly covered in dirt, I laughed heartily at cultural differences around campfires, and hiked more miles than I care to count. And I did all of those things in my home country.
Often, I think I have to travel across the world to meet new people or that I have to endure long flights, 10+ hour time differences, and foreign tongues to have a substantive travel experience.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Thanks so much, Steph!
Here are the G Adventures tours Steph has tried:
- Las Vegas to LA Road Trip (8 days)
- Costa Rica Adventure (16 days)
- Bangkok to Singapore on a Budget (14 days)
Feel free to ask Steph questions about any of those tours, or about her group travel experiences and advice in general!
Finally, if you’re seeking vacation trip inspiration for a tight budget, consider checking out the G Adventures sale page for some excellent deals on travel, which are updated frequently!
Readers, what comments or questions do you have about this lively account of touring the American West?
The author, Lillie Marshall, is 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English from Boston who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched TeachingTraveling.com in 2010 to share expert global education resources, and over 1.6 million readers have visited over the past decade. Lillie also runs AroundTheWorld L.com Travel and Life Blog, and DrawingsOf.com for educational cartoons. Do stay in touch via subscribing to her monthly newsletter, and following @WorldLillie on social media!