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Thursday, 26 November 2015

Trek America Tip & Tricks - Part 2

Trek America Grand Canyon

Trek America Las Vegas

For those of you getting fed up with me talking about my American Backpacking trip, don't worry this is the last post.  Taking off were my last Trek America post ended, I'm answering all your questions about life on and after Trek.

On Trek
How did you feel travelling with strangers for a week? Did you get on with everyone?
All my friends find it really weird that I went travelling with people I'd never met before, but it was honestly amazing. I'm quite a bubbly, confident person so I found getting to know everyone quite easy but nobody was isolated and we all gelled perfectly. I don't think there was one awkward moment. At the end of the day everyone is there for the same reasons and its really interesting to get to know other people; we had people from different countries so learning different words for things or sayings was hilarious, as well as different foods/music and culture. It was all part of the experience, but I've now got 12 new friends across the country, and world!

Do you have any free time? What activities are planned?
A little yes. As the Western BLT is quite a short trip by Trek America standards it was less than most tours but we still had freedom. Basically, if your not on the bus, your time is your own. We tended to stick all together, but then there were times we went off alone to explore. The main places you have free time are in Las Vegas and Yosemite. There was a little at the Grand Canyon, but that was down to you to choose which hike you fancied doing. Shawn e-mailed us handy little city guides for San Francisco and Las Vegas and in Grand Canyon and Yosemite he went through all the different things we could do to help us pack in as much as possible. At the end of the day, this isn't a school trip. Your all adults and you can control what you do. As with actives included in your tour, this varies depending on which on you choose. All the tours will tell you exactly what is included.

What is  was your Trek Leader like?
The best way to describe Shawn was a really tall, Californian surfer. He was really laid back and chilled listening to our input. He went over basic ground rules on the first day but like I said, it wasn't like a school trip, it was all common sense. He was totally approachable and ended up becoming just like one of us. 

Did you feel pressurised to do everything on the Trek?
Nope, I didn't feel like I had to do any of the included or optional activities. You might remember from my travel diaries that I was pretty ill towards the second half of the trip which stopped me doing some the longer hikes. It was fine just to sit out and relax while the rest of the group went for a walk. Nobody pushes you to do anything you don't want to as its your holiday after all. At the same time, I would recommend trying to step out of your comfort zone. Doing the hike down into the Grand Canyon was something I was absolute terrified of doing, but I am so glad I attempted it, even if I only managed a small section. I went home feeling like I'd accomplished something.

How does a BLT work? Would you recommend a BLT over a camping tour?
OK, so a BLT is a Budget Lodging Tour. They cost a little more than the camping tours, but in my opinion, are definitely worth it. Rather than having to leave places earlier or get their later because you have had to set up tents, we had the luxury of just checking into Hotels and Motels at night. The Hotels are pretty much in the centre of the action, and were all of a really good standard. When I say really good standard, don't expect The Ritz. But they were all clean and safe, and that's all you need when you are in and out. Doing a BLT was definitely a perk when we encountered storms as we had nice warm rooms, opposed to a water-logged tent. Another difference was that we didn't have a food kitty. Instead of making and cooking our own food, we ate out and grabbed things on the go. This can end up a little bit more expensive, but it does mean you have no washing up and get more time to explore. For me, you can't put a price on a good nights sleep so it's a BLT tour every time. 

What were nights like?
They varied. Most nights we had a big group meal and then either stayed out for drinks, or headed back to our rooms. The only nights that we did something properly organised was at Las Vegas for the party bus and at Yosemite at the camp fire. Don't forget you leave the hotels at 8.30am at the latest and most nights I wasn't in bed until 1.30am. The only wild night out was in Las Vegas, and all the others were pretty chilled, with just some drinks and giggles before getting ready for the next day. Whilst everyone on our tour drank, there was certainly no pressure to.

What were the long drives like?
It's common sense that if you are travelling round a large area, there will be long drives. Most of the drives were around the 3 hours 30 minutes mark, except from the drive from Las Vegas to Yosemite National Park that was 9 hours 45 minutes! Despite the length, the drives were possibly one of my favourite parts. I loved driving through different areas of America that you would not see, and believe me you see some amazing sights. I remember on the first day when we saw HUGE freight trains and were all amazed, or heading to San Francisco when we saw the wine towers. Shawn advised us to move around the bus to get to know everyone and we all sat somewhere different everyday which meant the bus conversations never got boring. We played the most competitive games of I-Spy you have ever heard of and just had a laugh. We stopped every hour and half to 2 hours and half for a toilet break and to grab some water, and the rest stops were just as unique as the main places.  All the vans have WiFi, but you have a daily quota as a group, and it's shared between everyone. Also, don't forget you won't get signal in the desert. You soon find that any signs offering free WiFi dictated where you eat. Personally, the bus trips were part of of the experience and one I wouldn't change. It's a road trip after all.

Any advice for spending money?
Whatever you budget, stick to it. I took a stupid amount and brought a lot of it home. For a BLT tour I'd probably recommend at least $150 each day so that you don't have to worry about money. Its common sense that some days are going to be more expensive than others. In Yosemite I hardly spent anything, but in LA and Las Vegas, I spent a fair bit. If you want to do any tours pre or post trip, book these in advance as you will probably grab a deal and it won't eat into your spending money. Don't forget to work in snack for drives. To cut down to cost of drinks most of us bought water bottles to re-fill too. 

What did you you pack but find out you didn't need? What didn't you pack but wish you had taken? 
I am a dreadful over packer and definitely realised it on this tour when we had to carry our suitcase up a flight of stairs at the Grand Canyon. Looking back, I wish I didn't pack my hairdryer as most places had one, and at Yosemite, where their isn't one, I just let it naturally dry over night. UK Hair Dryers aren't as strong over in the States as they are here, so there is honestly no point. Other things include excessive clothes as I probably stuck to the same couple of outfits. Clothing wise make sure you bring a hoody and leggings. These fold up to nothing but come in handy if a storm rolls in or you have early morning activities. I loved my packing cubes and found that helped to organise my suitcase so well when it came to moving round place to place nearly every day. Similarly, make sure you take some plasters, as you are always on your feet. I wish I had brought most trainers instead of my sandals. I did like my sandals, but didn't wear them. Instead I stuck to flip flops which did the exact same job anyway! 

What was it like living out of a suitcase and constantly moving around?
Sometimes it was hard work, but I actually really enjoyed it. I don't think I would have survived without my packing cubes from amazon as it meant I knew where everything was and kept my case organised. Instead of having to empty my entire case, I just had one designated cube to search for, which meant re-packing was super quick. I'd also recommend taking 5 minutes every night to tidy your case. Put everything you will need the next evening at the top of your case, because when your exhausted, you just don't want to root through everything. For all your valuables and important documents, make sure you always know where they are at all times. Check them before you leave your room, down in the foyer, and as you get onto the bus. If you loose your passport, your stuck.

What were your highlights?
As cheesy as it sounds, the people. I'm getting a little emotional about it now just thinking about it, but they became my best friends in a couple of minutes. We experienced so much together in such a short space of time, it's hard not to form friendships. As for the places, the Grand Canyon and San Francisco were my ultimate places. I don't think I'll ever get over the Grand Canyon reveal and watching the sunrise, and my love affair with San Francisco won't end soon. Despite being ill, I can't think of a single bad thing and at the airport in Sand Francisco I did cry a little watching planes take off as it hit me this was the end of a life changing journey.

Were there any negatives?
I think because its such a short trip, you haven't got time to adjust. Its just started by the time it ends. Because their is so much packed in, it is honestly like a whirlwind. You do need to be on your A game as to energy levels and health. Me being ill half way through was not ideal but I just had to grin and bear it. Be prepared to come home and be absolutely exhausted. Oh, and be prepared to have the most severe holiday blues you have ever had. Honestly, it took me a good month to stop sulking. Even now, I look at the photos and sigh. 

Would you recommend travelling alone?
I think everyone needs to do it once. If you are anything like me, you will be nervous and scared the first day, and then actually embrace it. The freedom of being able to do anything you want and the excitement of exploring somewhere new is second to none. Being alone I found I was more open to try new things and grab any opportunity. I also met a lot of new people because I had to and didn't have anyone to clutch to.

Would you recommend Trek America?
If you need any sort of proof that Trek America is amazing, you should know that I booked my second trip with them a week after I returned. It would have actually been the next day, but I couldn't decide which tour to do. From the help and advice before you go, to the organisation and trek itself, it made travelling so easy. The Western BLT tour was the trip of a lifetime and has well and truly given me wanderlust. Even after my trip in August, I think I'll be a Trekker for a good couple of years.

Are you still in contact with your fellow Trekkers?
Yes! We all have each other as friends on social media, and I talk to them pretty regularly. While we've all settled back into our regular old lives, I don't think any of us will truly forget the amazing experience we shared. We're even having a reunion in January in Newcastle!

Do you feel like travelling has changed you?
It might have only being a relatively short period of time, but I do think my trip was life changing. I've come home more independent and confident, and a lot less anxious. If I can survive in a new city in a different country without knowing anyone, I can survive going shopping on my own in my own hometown. I think I've got more of a positive attitude, and will jump at every opportunity rather than think I'm not good enough. If you never try you never know.  I also realised I was quite materialistic and thought my happiness depended on what things I had. Of course I am still addicted to shopping, but I like fewer good quality items, rather than masses and masses of things. Living out of a suitcase does that to you I guess. I'm also much more into enjoying the moment and experiencing things and enjoy memories over a good Instagram picture anyway.

So that's all my tips. If you still have questions or want some advice, please feel free to contact me. I'll always be happy to help.



Monday, 23 November 2015

Fast & Fuss-free || How I edit my blog photos

Free simple fast blogger photo editing

As a general rule, Autumn and Winter are my favourite seasons. It's full of excitement and festive cheer with a lot of celebrations packed in to a couple of months. But, as a blogger, winter sucks. Whilst you have to be super organised at all times of the year, if you want to take a decent picture, you need to be smart about your timings. Oh and if the weather changes? Your day can be completely wasted. 

Now I am definitely not the world's best at blog photography. When I started out, I used grainy phone photos and didn't even know how to rotate a picture on blogger. Everyone has to start somewhere right?! After asking other bloggers for tips and tricks and having a play around with things myself, I've got my photo editing routine down to a couple of minutes max! And thanks to a rainy Manchester afternoon of messing around on my computer with an old photo, I can now make bad winter lighting a think of the past. 

Whilst this guide may be extremely basic for some of you tech-savy extrodinares, for us mere mortals, it may just give you an extra 5(0) minutes in bed on those cold Sunday mornings. 

So, let's start off with the original photo, taken mid day on a particularly dark and dismal weekend morning. Doesn't exactly show off the project in the best light (hehehe) does it?

Free simple fast blogger photo editing

I'll be perfectly honest here. I can't afford fancy dance photo editing software, and to be honest, it would be wasted on me. Nope, I get my photo editing fix for free and we can all say thank you Mr Internet for that. Whatever your need, collages, re-sizing, cropping, the internet has got you covered. The site I mainly use is Pic Monkey, a one-stop shop for all your editing needs. You can so so much on this site, but for today, we are sorting out the horrendous lighting.

After clicking Edit and selecting your chosen photograph, you should then be presented with this screen.

Free simple fast blogger photo editing

On the left side you have a platter of tools you can choose from to enhance your photo. The Basic ones are free, and the Royale ones are for fee-paying members. In order to improve the lightening on your photograph, click on exposure.

Free simple fast blogger photo editing

In the exposure section you have a couple of options to choose from. I only tend to use the Brightness and Contrast options. Have a play with increasing the different levels and finding a combination you like. Once you are happy with the result, click Apply. It's really important not to click apply before your happy with the final combination, as that will save the combination on to your edited photo, so if your not happy you will have to start the entire process again.

Free simple fast blogger photo editing

Although I've not used it on this picture, the other tool I use is in Colors. If you think the colours in the photo are a bit washed out (either from over-exposure, or just naturally), just increase the Saturation to pep them up a bit a make them pop. Similarly, if your photo is a bit too cold, have a play with the Temperature, to get a warmer look.

So let's have a look at the final look.
Free simple fast blogger photo editing

I hope this has helped some of you who are struggling with the winter lighting or can't take photos during the day.



Thursday, 19 November 2015

Trek America Tips & Tricks - Part 1

Trek America Tour

You asked, and I'm answering. This is my Trek America FAQ's post which will hopefully answer all of your questions and help any of you who are thinking about booking or going on. If I have skipped your question or not answered something that you'd like to know, just give me a quick tweet (click one of the contact buttons to the right or left) and I'll be happy to help!

Because this post got rather lengthy, I've split it into two parts.

Why Trek
What made you travel alone?
Honestly? Because nobody else could get the time or work/university. Well that's the main reason. The other reason is because I wanted to do something independent and quite adventurous. A lot of my friends have been on Gap Years or took part in Camp America alone and managed fine. In fact, they had all raved about travelling alone, so I thought I might as well give it a try.

Couldn't you have started with a tenting holding to ease yourself in?
I've never been the camping kind of girl. I absolutely love the outdoors and will walk miles with my dog in the Peak District but I like to come home to a proper mattress, indoor plumbing, electricity whenever/wherever I want and heating/air-con. Call my high maintenance, I really don't mind. I love my modern luxuries. As this is supposed to be a holiday, I didn't see why I should put myself through something I didn't really enjoy. As for travelling round another country, if I'm going to do it, you might as go the whole way. American's speak English too, so it's really just like staying in England, but with the bonus of better weather!

Why did you choose Trek America? Why this trip?
I wanted the independence of travelling alone, but not the hassle of organising my entire trip myself. Trek America meant I could have the best of both worlds and travel alone, but then also as a group with other trekkers. It meant I wasn't completely stuck on my own and had the comfort of somebody being able to help me get the most out of my trip. The Western BLT really appealed to me. I could only get 10 days off work at one time, so that did limit the choice of trips, but as this trip covered so many places I wanted to see, it was like a match made in heaven. Because it was only 7 nights on the official Trek, it also meant that if I didn't enjoy it, it wouldn't be as bad as being on one of the longer Trek America tours.

Booking Trek
Is it easy to book a Trek America trip?
Super easy! I know some people on my tour did it over the phone, but I just did it only. All I did was click on what tour and dates I wanted to do, and complete a quick form. It was similar to placing an order with ASOS! What's great with Trek America though is that the staff genuinely want to make your trip the best possible so will be happy to help and answer any questions.

How much does a Trek America trip cost and what do I have to pay up front?
I'm not going to lie, this isn't cheap. I had to save like mad to be able to afford this trip. The actual tour cost just over £900 which includes all travel and hotels whilst on the tour. My flights were £900ish too. I also stayed a total of 4 extra nights in hotels. With Trek America though you only have to pay a deposit up front, and the rest is due at a later date. I actually paid a little off each month every time I got paid, so I didn't miss the money too much. I will say this though, it is worth every single penny. 

What did you do about flights?
Some people booked their flights themselves, but I just went through Trek America. The reason for this is because I didn't have to pay for my flights completely up front and the cost was just added on to my account, so I could pay it off with my Trek. It also let's you amend your booking if you need to change anything. 

You stayed extra days before and after the Trek. What hotels did you stay in? Did everyone stay after? 
I stayed in the Gateway hotels recommended by Trek America which were pretty decent. Their in a good location for the airport and exploring and, again, have the added perk of not having to pay up front. I would suggest booking at least one night in the hotel before and after the trek as they start early in the morning, and after the Trek you won't want to say goodbye straight away. On my tour there were a couple of us who started in LA a couple of days before, but the majority came the day before. There were definitely more people staying on in San Francisco. Again, the vast majority were in Gateway hotels but there were others in ones they'd booked themselves. It wasn't a problem as we all still met up.

What did it feel like being in strange cities on your own? Did you feel safe?
I was the first to arrive in LA at the Gateway hotel and I'll happily admit that when I checked in to the hotel and sat in my room, it hit me how alone I actually was. I did have a bit of a panic but a shower knocked some sense into me and I realised how lucky I was. I tended to travel by taxis to main areas and then walk around as I didn't fancy getting lost. I also made sure I had things plan so I didn't waste time and didn't feel isolated. As for feeling safe, I didn't go to any "bad" areas and didn't really stay out late at night on my own, but in the hotels I felt absolutely fine.

Did you speak to anyone on your Trek before you left?
Yes, quite a bit actually. Trek America have this thing called Trek Live, and we all started talking on there. A Facebook group was then made and it was later moved to WhatsApp. There were a handful of people who I hadn't spoke to, and they got on amazing with the group, there was no cliques or anything. It was really nice though to know a few faces and names, and have someone to ask questions to. Sharing our excitement pre-trek was part of the build up and we even spoke when we were all in the airport!

Next week I'm answering your On Trek questions and Post-Trek Questions, so if you have any, it's not too late to ask them!


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