Vacation in the USA’s west, the experience

One of the first things we noted when we arrived in the USA is the amount of gas guzzlers on the roads, starting with our own car which did 16,1 mpg (14,6 l/100km, or over three times the amount of a Toyota Prius). Sports cars like the Ford Mustang for example seem to be almost a commodity and you see a lot of SUV’s. Of course cars like those would be taxed to death in the Netherlands. Which I think is a good thing, because I live in close proximity to a highway. You see a lot of cars which are not available on the European market, and while in the Netherlands French and German cars are most popular, in the USA you see a lot of Japanese and American cars. In the USA cars cost a lot less as well, for example a Nissan 370Z starts at $30.410 (€ 23.521) while it starts at € 55.100 ($71.239) in the Netherlands. I wish some cars, like the Chevrolet HHR with it’s distinctive design, which appear only on the American market would be sold in Europe as well. Also of note are the customised license plates. While listening to the radio during trips with the car, you often hear commercials with voices speaking very fast, as if they desperately would want to save money by reducing the length of the commercial. Amusing.

I really appreciated that almost all hotels offer WiFi free of charge. Being able to use Google Maps gives you a good tool to look for restaurants in the vicinity of your hotel. We definitely would have missed some great restaurants if I wouldn’t have been able to use Google Maps. Concerning food, some hotels featured elaborate breakfast buffets, either included or for an extra charge, and some other hotels were a serious disappointment in that regard. I’m going to name and shame an example here, the Alpenhof Lodge in Mammoth Lakes. Decent hotel with a nice swimming pool, and breakfast was included. However, the breakfast turned out to be some doughnuts and muffins placed near the entrance of the hotel, they didn’t even serve bread. The hotels which did a good job served tasty breakfast. I liked baked/boiled egg and bacon, muffins and doughnuts were okay, baking your own waffles with a waffle iron was fun. Dutch stroopwafels win over American waffles though!

One thing we noticed in restaurants is that in some restaurants a gratuity is optional, at the discretion of the customer. In other restaurants, they include a gratuity of 15% or so on the bill! Wikipedia is my best friend here, telling me that a gratuity added by the restaurant without customer input, the so called autograt, is not unheard of in certain situations in the USA. The most common reason would be if a large group was served; we always were with five persons however. Even so, I think it’s odd you would charge extra if you had a large group of customers in your restaurant? More customers means more revenue, if I were a restaurant owner I certainly wouldn’t ‘punish’ them with an autograt and be grateful for more customers. It is uncommon for restaurants to place an autograt on every customer’s bill by default, and considered dishonest according to Wikipedia. I also read there that it’s considered normal to inform customers of an autograt in advance, but this was not the case in the restaurants we visited. Fortunately, and as I expected, customers have the right to refuse giving an autograt, even if they were informed of the autograt in advance. In the Netherlands this practice would probably be considered outrageous, gratuities are expected here but at the customer’s discretion. I voiced my opposition to giving in, but my father didn’t object and paid these autograts. It’s his money and he should do with it as he pleases, but I certainly would have flat out refused to pay an autograt. In the end, restaurants which were okay and charged an autograt received more gratuity than the restaurants we thought were above average and didn’t charge an autograt. There is a very suitable idiom for that in my language, ‘de brutalen hebben de halve wereld’. In other words, if you’re cheeky you receive more than you should. Funny to read in the Wikipedia article by the way that in some Asian countries tipping is not part of the culture at all, and could possibly even offend those receive it.

The air conditioning was often used unnecessary in many places in my opinion. For example in Bryce Canyon City it was turned on at breakfast and it was too cold, while the temperatures outside even in the afternoon were not too warm at all. Most of the time it was unnecessary during the night in the hotel rooms, but my family insisted on turning it on. Our own house doesn’t have air conditioning at all, even though we do have the occasional heat wave in a summer in the Netherlands. The only places where I appreciated air conditioning were Phoenix and other places with very high temperatures. It takes a few years to get accustomed to the heat in those places if you’re new we were told by hotel personnel, and another local told us you can sleep without air conditioning in Phoenix. Another aspect of environmental unfriendliness of my family were the frequent instances of buying bottled water, because ‘the tap water contained too much chlorine, which could make you sick’. Yes, the tap water in the USA didn’t taste very well, but buying bottled water is ridiculous and wasteful.

I’m careful not to generalise, but I the Americans we met were on average quite friendly. For example when we stopped in Zion National Park and met the snake there, two cars passed us in what was the middle of nowhere, and both of them stopped. The man in the first car noticed we were taking photos, so he offered to take our photo so all the five of us could be photographed. We accepted. The man in the second car stopped to ask us if we had any problems, if our car had broken down or something. I wouldn’t have seen that happening in the Netherlands. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much people who were obese, especially the amount of people I’ve seen which are morbidly obese is staggering. Not surprisingly, obesity rates in the USA are among the highest in the world.

I enjoyed this vacation, but if I hadn’t come along I wouldn’t have missed it, except for the Getty Villa. I enjoyed seeing so much, but I do not think it was worth all the long flights with their lack of leg space, the vying for space on the armrests, the car trips, and tiresome hotel switching. I do not think there is much added value to seeing things like the Grand Canyon, Death Valley with your own eyes while you are physically there. Most nature documentaries offer you a better view of those places, with cameras revealing what you can’t see if you only walk for a few miles across the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. If you search for ‘bryce canyon’ on Flickr you get 171.243 results, including impressions of the landscape in the winter, which I didn’t see with my own eyes. I’d rather take a look at what Flickr has to offer than go there myself so I can save a lot of time, effort and money. The sort of vacation I like best are intra-European city trips. Flights are short, or you can take the train, you don’t need 18 days and it’s more friendly to your budget. And with five people you’ve got to take account of a lot of different wishes, which makes planning more inflexible.

One more thing, the usage of the U.S. customary system instead of the metric system was very annoying for me as an inhabitant of the Netherlands. You constantly have to convert measurements made in units like gallons, miles, feet and Fahrenheit. Americans should be very proud that they, along with Burma and Liberia, have not yet officially adopted the metric system unlike the rest of the world. The U.S.A. should join the rest of the world and start the process of metrication instead of miring itself in backwardness.

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