Of the many things we would tick off our list of cultural experiences in the US, I hadn’t really considered low-budget air travel as high on the list. We were flying Frontier from Des Moines to Denver, dumping our “executive SUV” (as the Budget salesman pimped it when selling in the upgrade; we were so over-tired and jetlagged we didn’t even notice we were being upsold, we were too busy nodding and signing anything he put in front of us) that had so comfortably conveyed us across the past 1300 miles.

It’s safe to say one budget airline is much like another (unless you’re flying Ryanair, in which case welcome to Purgatory). Three things stood out for me though: the amazingly friendly and helpful staff (except for the lady at the gate, who was the only peevish person in a service role we met all trip); the sheer volume of hand luggage (by which I mean bulk as well as numbers of items – you can pay to take extra on Frontier, so nobody appeared to have checked anything in*; needless to say, this meant we couldn’t board and our hand luggage was taken away and stashed in the hold); and the fact that – somehow – they managed to make the Ryanair approach of pay-for-everything seem less offensive.

Because on Frontier, there’s a fee for checking in online. Seriously dude, justify that. I’m doing all the work on the website you have to pay for to sell me a ticket in the first place. I’m saving you check-in staff and printing. And I have to check in. It’s not something I can opt out of. It shouldn’t cost extra – it should be part of the ticket price. By all means charge me a top-up fee to check in at a desk if you must (and oh, how I hate myself for writing that) – so long as it’s a reasonable additional cost (paging Ryanair) – but there should be some sort of check-in option that doesn’t attract an additional cost unless you waive check-in… which you can’t. In spite of this mindboggling piece of business engineering, the Frontier experience was perfectly fine – even after they took my boy’s hand baggage away because there was simply no overhead space to be had. I blame those lovely, friendly, helpful staff.

On landing, we were subjected to another piece of clever upselling from the car hire man at Avis. We had booked exactly the same vehicle we had just left in Des Moines (we’d originally booked a smaller SUV on the first leg, but the upgrade meant we knew what the rest of our trip felt like – which is to say fabulously comfortable and very warm. Heated seats, baby. Heated seats). The Avis man was having none of it. The first flakes of snow were starting to fall on the lot. “That’s not a real 4-wheel drive, sir. If you’re crossing the mountains in this weather, you’re gonna want something that can handle snow.” Cunningly, he pulled out his phone and called up a weather forecast for Breckenridge. Sure enough, snow dumps. I made a last-ditch attempt to save money, pointing out that we were crossing the Rockies that afternoon, not staying in them – if it had only just started snowing, how bad could it be? We’d be fine in the fabulously comfortable Ford Edge. Besides, it had heated seats. Snow on, sky, snow on.

But my boy was already nodding and reaching for his credit card. Upgradetastic. Watching the salesman spin into overdrive in his attempt to push us up through the categories was almost amusing, but by now I was clocking how quickly the snow was thickening and what it was doing to the light. We had a 5-6 hour drive ahead of us. Thankfully, my boy does have limits – it would be just the one category bump. Luckily for him, the Ford Explorer also has heated seats, or it would have been a very, very long 5-6 hours.

For the record, I am absurdly grateful to the salesman. The blizzard we found ourselves in about 60 minutes later was beautiful and reasonably terrifying. Enormous American trucks on long hills and slippery roads are not as much fun as they sound. When we pulled through the other side, we were in a sunset winter wonderland.Β The rest of our trip seesawed between majestic snowy mountains and parched desert plateaus, red rock rearing up in water and wind-cut shapes that give you a true understanding of the concept of ‘geological time’. Spoilt? Hell yes.

Sunset at Sunrise Point

As a footnote – Bryce Canyon (above) is every bit as staggering as you would expect. We sadly didn’t have time to go hiking down into it (definitely on my bucket list), although we did (sadly) have a night at leisure in Bryce Canyon City. I’ll just say that it’s a generous usage of the word city, unless you say it like Sean Connery. In which case it’s entirely accurate. Still, they gave me pie a la mode, so it wasn’t all bad.

* I should add at this juncture that I was once detained by US Customs because I didn’t have enough luggage, so my appreciation of what constitutes a reasonable volume to travel with is up for question. The sheer lack of baggage (I had a backpack as carry-on and a single checked bag) made me suspect. I was going to San Fran for a week on business; I had limited needs – hell, I managed to fit Christmas shopping into that bag on the way home, so it wasn’t even full. The customs officer eventually gave up trying to break through my British bewilderment, accepted I was just a weird foreigner, and pointed out a princess arriving with her 3 suitcases, make-up bag, handbag, and so on all loaded up. “We’re used to young ladies travelling like that.”