USA branch FAQ
Replies: 279 - Last Post: Apr 16, 2013 10:54 PM Last Post By: nutraxfornerves
Jan 29, 2009 1:41 AM
252Arlington House - my girlfriend and I stayed here in Nov 2008 and 3 out of 3 rooms had bed bugs! Really really hungry ones, and the roof in the 3rd room leaked into the closest.
We complained and got a nights reduction on the bill.
Its a great location very close to some great bars, but the itchy bed bug bites distract a little during the heat of the day.
Chicago is a great city to visit, really easy to get around, check out the free internet at the library!
Mar 22, 2009 3:30 PM
Trip of a lifetime, or a waste of time? This is an oft debated topic on this branch, and no discussion better goes into the pros and cons of the trip than this thread. Some posts are positive, much are negative, but more importantly, the discussion revolves around the realities of the trip, peeling away the glamor of pop culture and the effects of time to fully prepare those who truly wish to drive the entire 2,451 mi (3,945 km) route from Chicago to LA.
Also included in the thread are some resources to help those make the trip. Unlike FAQ posts, where only the writer or moderators may make changes, anyone may contribute to the thread. I highly encourage those who have made the trip to post their experiences--worthwhile stops, traps to avoid, places to sleep, etc--to do so. However, I do ask that you not reignite the debate by responding to other posts, except to only update previous information (in other words, what is said is said; there no need to beat a dead horse).
To those about to make the journey: good luck, and happy trails.
Mar 23, 2009 6:29 PM
254Here are some thoughts on our recent trip to Hawaii & Caifornia
USA Family Trip – Planning Advice
1. Research, Research, Research
Research where you want to go, what the conditions will be like, how much it will cost etc. Travel forums give the best advice as it is from travellers discussing their experiences rather then agents pushing their angle. Other good forums are Tripadvisor.com. Remember you will probably never come back to this area as a family so you want to get the most out of your stay.
2. Use On-line booking sites like hotwire, expedia, priceline etc.
We used Hotwire a lot and got good quality hotels like Sheraton and car hire from majors like Hertz for a fraction of the list price. We used expedia to book internal US flights, as the airlines won’t book direct without a US address.
3. Get Into Shape and look after your self
Get fit !! You want to get the most out of your days. This usually involves a lot of walking and time on your feet. Try and get everyone in your party in good shape and you will enjoy things more. Make sure you are careful about food and water. The last thing you want is a funny tummy walking around LA.
Plan breaks for kids, give them a swim in the afternoon and it will freshen them up for the evening
4. Get the Kids eating a variety of food
If you kids will only eat nuggets and hash browns you will be eating at fast food places only. If you can get them eating more variety you will find many more options when it comes to restaurant choices. This can be invaluable when you arrive in a town at 7 pm after driving all afternoon.
We bought bowls and cereal and ate breakfasts in our room. Most rooms didn’t have a toaster or kettle. Next time we would buy these locally and leave them behind at the end. We found the more stars a hotel had the less facilities they give you. Buy a cheap insulated cooler bag and use the ice machine to keep milk and drinks cool.
5. Check all bookings and receipts
Be careful of all your bookings and payments. Make sure there are no add ons before you sign off. We paid a pizza restaurant 15% tip after they had automatically put in on the tab. Look after your credit cards and try and use cash where possible.
6. Get a good camera and have some back ups
We bought a digital SLR for this trip. This was excellent for areas where there was no flash allowed. They also allow continuous shots to be taken. We bought the kids cheap digitals, which gave them a lot of interest. They photographed all the animal tracks at Yosemite then went to the ranger and identified all the animals.
7. Try and organise alternate hire car insurance
Our hire car insurance was as expensive as the car ! Full cover with the majors is about $36 a day. Some credit cards cover hire car insurance and locals seem to have it as part of their own private car insurance. This adds up if you hire a car for a few weeks.
8. Find the local tourist info office
These people are great. They will tell you the easiest way to get around, what current events are on, where to eat, where to go and not to go and so on. The will give you maps for public transport and city guides.
9. Use Public Transport
We used public transport in San Francisco (buy a muni pass for $11/day), LA (bus day pass for $5) and Hawaii. They are all great. Leave the car at the hotel unless you are travelling somewhere difficult to get to.
10. Consider taking a small notebook computer
Most hotels have wifi. Some for free. This is an easy and safe way of doing research and booking things. One hire car company knocked $20 off the rate they quoted me over the phone when I told them the rate I saw on the net ! Alternatively set yourself up with a net based email like yahoo or hotmail so people can keep in touch.
11. Consider buying a local mobile
These are super cheap and if you are making a lot of calls or texts this may work out cheaper than roaming.
12. Get a GPS if you are going to drive
These are essential if you are driving. The exits on the freeways come up very quick at 60 mph. Also have someone on the ball navigating. Get to know the major freeways to where you are going. Be sure to put the exact street name, as there is often more than one. eg Pico St & Pico Blvd
We bought our tickets online and got good deals. Use fastpass at disneyland. Go midweek if possible, crowds much smaller. Take some snacks and water into the park. Wear an easily recognisable top so the kids can find you. eg rugby jersey. Eat a big breakfast and then just snack till dinner. Stay nearby, along Harbour Blvd so you can walk to the park. There are some ok restaurants along there for dinner. Wear comfortable shoes, eg. runners and take a spare top for the kids if they get wet.
We had a great time, we saw heaps of California and Hawaii and didn’t have any problems at all. People were super friendly.
Edited by: flaggycreek
Apr 8, 2009 3:24 AM
255Greyhound Hop on Hop off Option
As I've not been able to find this gem of information elsewhere I'll put it here. Although Greyhound does not advertise it, passengers may hop off the bus at any stop along their route and rejoin at a later date so long as they reach their final destination within 30 days. This can work out to be considerably cheaper than their 30-day pass if you are planning on travelling along a direct route with side trips off of it -- ie Seattle to Chicago via Salt Lake City and Denver; New York to Miami via Philly, Washington etc. It's something I'd remembered from years ago and recently rang to inquire if the policy still held and it does -- you merely have to infom them of your intentions at each hop-off point.
Does anyone know if the above policy still exists? It was originally posted in 2003.
Apr 26, 2009 2:48 PM
256Telephones and Internet in the U.S.
Intended mainly for foreign travelers
This is a complicated subject because of the changing nature of telephony, which now includes traditional land-line, computer-Internet, and mobile. I’m going to start with my conclusions, and then offer more detailed explanations for those who are interested. I would add that there will always be exceptions and special cases where this advice won't apply. I have written this guide to apply to 99% of cases, not every single last situation. If I did that, I'd exhaust the TT server space and bore everyone, including myself, to tears.
- For mobile service, use your home phone and swallow the high roaming charges. Use fixed lines (including Internet telephony) for calls back home.
- Internet cafes are relatively uncommon here, because most American Internet users have their own computer. If you are planning to use the Internet here, bring a laptop or plan on buying one when you get here.
- If you have a laptop equipped with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, get a headset and use Skype or equivalent computer calling service for fixed-location phone calls. If you don’t have a computer or your machine lacks Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, shop on the Internet for a prepaid calling card for calls back home. Make those calls from the phone in your hotel room and/or pay phones in airports and train stations, or from a host's private home.
- If you think you'll be making a lot of mobile calls, use a GSM network. If you’re in big cities only and using your mobile phone for voice calls only, use T-Mobile. If you’ll need mobile service in the countryside and/or you will use your cellphone for e-mail and other data services, use AT&T. If you buy from a reseller, buy from one that resells service on a GSM network.
- For Internet use and fixed-location phone calls, see the "Short-Term" section above.
Fixed-line phone service, from a tourist’s viewpoint, consists mainly of hotel room phones and computer calling, and of course from the fixed-line telephone of your host if you're staying in a private home here. Mobile phones are steadily killing off pay phones, which increasingly are confined to airports and other transit points, and small towns. You are almost always best off using a computer to make calls. To do it, you need an Internet connection, usually via Wi-Fi, and a headset, usually via Bluetooth (ultra-short range wireless). Most laptops come equipped with both capabilities, but you’ll need to buy a headset.
Internet calling is available from a wide variety of sources. My favorite is Skype, which I recently used while in Japan to make calls to the U.S. for 2 cents a minute. You can’t beat that price. Internet connections are typically free in hotels in the countryside, which depend heavily on long-haul truckers and tourists for business, and tend to give away Wi-Fi. Many coffee shops offer free Wi-Fi, although the Starbucks chain typically charges you for the service through a connection card good at any Starbucks.
If you can’t use your computer for phone calls for one or more reasons, then your best bet is to shop online for a calling card. The terms vary quite widely, and you’ll need to shop. You can’t to pay attention to the billing increment, which can vary from 1 second to 1 minute, the monthly minimum usage, and per-call flat charges, among other things.
Internet service (usually via Wi-Fi), as I’ve noted, is typically free at hotels in the countryside and at some coffee shops. In downtown hotels in big cities, there is often a daily fee. Internet cafes are uncommon. Many public libraries have terminals available for surfing and/or free Wi-Fi, but etiquette there runs heavily against using them for phone calls. Some people will advise so-called "war driving," which is to walk or drive around and use your laptop to find unsecured networks. I wouldn't rely on this tactic, which is mainly of interest to computer hobbyists.
If you don’t have a laptop, I’d encourage you to buy one here if you’ll be in the U.S. for longer than a week or so, and want to use the Internet. As of this writing, so-called "net books" from Asus and other makers are selling for $300 or less, and come equipped with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Headsets start at about $20. The Best Buy chain operates throughout the U.S. and has reasonably good prices. Wal-Mart also sells computers cheaply.
Mobile phone service is a complex issue. There are four major networks, two based on the CDMA standard (Verizon and Sprint/Nextel) and two based on the GSM standard (AT&T and T-Mobile). In addition, there are myriad resellers that buy time in bulk on those four networks and sell it under their own brand names. Because the vast majority of non-U.S. (including all U.K. and European) mobile service is GSM-based, I recommend to foreigners that they use a GSM network here. If you have an "unlocked" phone, you can simply buy a GSM card with a service plan and use your own phone here, or even (at astronominal rates) roam on your foreign phone.
It really depends on how much mobile calling you plan to do. As a tourist, there isn’t all that much need to make mobile phone calls. A restaurant reservation here, a hotel reservation there. Even if each one of those calls costs you $3 (for your home phone’s roaming charge, etc.), it’s probably just as well to do it that way and skip the complexity of getting U.S. service. If you do it that way, then use your computer or a calling card, rather than your mobile phone, for calls back home.
On the other hand, if you’re going to use mobile a lot here, then you face some choices. You might still want to use your home phone, at least if all that mobile calling is business related. In that case, your company will likely be paying the charges and you need not worry. But if, for whatever reason, you’ve decided you’ll want a mobile phone here but don’t want to pay the high roaming rates specified by your home carrier, then you’ll need to shop for service here.
Start by checking to see if your home phone is "unlocked," in which case you should be able to find an American plan without any need to get a new handset. In that case, you’d want to pick a GSM carrier. AT&T’s network is the better of the two GSM networks, especially if you’ll want to use the data capabilities of your phone or if you'll be outside of cities. T-Mobile is cheapest, and perfectly adequate for voice service in major cities. If you are going to use a reseller like Virgin Mobile, and will be using your home phone with an American GSM card, then you’ll need to be the reseller operates on one of the GSM networks.
If you can’t use your own phone and have to obtain one here, then GSM vs. CDMA only matters if you're planning to use the American phone outside of North America at some point. If that’s the case, get a GSM phone. Otherwise, pay no attention to the issue and shop on price and features. Generally speaking, you’ll want to find a service that does not lock you into a long-term service obligation, i.e. a "prepaid" phone that is good for a fixed number of minutes per month. Contract terms vary quite widely. Anyone who tells you that this or that service plan from this or that carrier is "best" is blowing smoke. There is no substitute for shopping around yourself.
Final notes: Using a mobile phone while driving is often considered rude and dangerous (which is why so many people in L.A. do it), and is increasingly banned by state authorities. Using mobile phones in restaurants is rude, especially in upper-end places. Use of a mobile phone at a performance is the ultimate in rudeness; it will make everyone else in the crowd silently wish for your death, and might even cause the performer to stop the show and ridicule you.
Apr 28, 2009 4:07 PM
Jun 25, 2009 6:28 PM
258Booking with Priceline or Hotwire
If you are asking about "cheap" hotels, chances are someone has suggested or will suggest you use either Priceline or Hotwire. These are two opaque booking sites that generally offer discounted hotel stays when compared with direct booking, or "retail rates." "Opaque" refers to the fact that you do not know which hotel you booked until you have paid. They exist mainly to fill rooms that would otherwise remain vacant, especially in cities set up for large conventions during off-convention times of the year (Chicago, for example) or in places that have well-defined “high” and “low” seasons (such as beach/ski resorts). Discounts are often quoted as being up to 50%, though this is highly dependent on dates and city.
The catch: you do not know where you will stay until after you pay, and once you pay, the booking is non-refundable. If you erred on your dates, or if a family emergency occurs, etc., you are out of luck, and out of money. If you need to stay in a specific place (say, next to where a wedding/convention is held), need certain amenities (airport shuttle, non-smoking/pet-friendly rooms, etc.), or are trying to avoid a specific hotel, do not use these booking sites, because you cannot guarantee you will/won't get them. Also, each reservation only guarantees one bed in a room. If you are two people who won't share, or more than two, you should not use these sites.
These sites are best used within a few weeks or months of your stay. If you are looking well in advance, it is best to wait, unless you like the comfort of having a place lined up or there is a massive special event taking place in your destined city. Same day bookings are permitted until 11 pm, hotel local time, except for those with non-US billing addresses using Priceline, who must book at least two days before their stay.
You can also book flights and car rentals on these sites, however these websites are most often recommended in accommodation threads, so they will remain the focus here.
Hotwire is much like your standard booking site: you request a particular city, and a list comes up with available choices and costs per night. But instead of a hotel name, you will see a location zone and a star level. You will also see a short list amenities for each hotel, which can sometimes be used to guess which hotel you will book if chosen. Once you choose and confirm payment, you will find out which hotel you booked.
Priceline has two sections: a standard retail section and the "Name Your Own Price," or bidding, section. The retail section is your standard booking service, where you pick a hotel and pay the rate offered. These may or may not be cheaper than elsewhere. When people refer you to Priceline, however, they almost exclusively mean the bidding section. Pay attention to which section you have chosen.
Foreign users may need to use an alternative Priceline website, such as the UK version or the Hong Kong version, or use a random zip code, such as 90210 (the zip code for Beverley Hills), when typing in billing information.
How bidding works:
First, you will choose your city and dates. You will then be taken to a screen which offers regional zones and star levels. You can use the map to see the approximate boundaries of the zones offered to help you choose an area you wish to stay. For example, if you choose New York City, you will be offered zones such as Downtown, Times Square, and Chelsea, amongst others. Once you have chosen your zone, you will be able to choose your star level. These run from 1* to 5*, with a "resort" class added in some areas. Not all star levels are offered in each zone. You then input your bid, and progress to the next screen where you confirm the dates, location and cost, after which you enter your payment info. If the bid succeeds, you have booked a stay, and you will be charged. If not, you will be taken to a screen that allows you to "re-bid," but only as long as you change/add zones or star levels. If you do not wish to change any settings, you must wait 24 hours before you can bid again. On occasion, you may be given a counter-offer, in which Priceline allows you to re-bid immediately if you add a certain amount to your bid. These are not always a good deal, but it gives you a clear indication of about where you can expect to win.
Priceline additionally offers the option to extend your stay at your winning price, subject to availability.
However, you should reasonably remain cautious of booking too long of a stay, where you may end up stuck in a less than ideal hotel.
Priceline also has the one exception to the “no refund” policy: if you need an accessible room, but the hotel cannot offer you one. See Priceline's website for details if this may be the case.
Winning bids on Priceline are often less than offers from Hotwire, and Priceline has fewer fees (though not by much), meaning that using a price listed on Hotwire as a bid for Priceline yields a cheaper total on Priceline.
Tips for successful bidding on Priceline
There are two great resources to help you bid properly: BetterBidding and BiddingForTravel. Each is broken down into sections for flights, cars and hotels, with hotels broken down by region. The breakdown on BFT is more detailed than that of BB, having branches for major cities separate from their states, meaning you won't have to search all those New York City posts to find a winning bid in Buffalo. The individual hotel branches also have a thread at the top listing hotels by zone and star level that have been previously won by other users, giving you a reasonable guess as to which you may win. But as they note, you may receive a hotel not on the list. There is also information for more nuanced bidding strategies, such as using "free re-bid zones” to get around the 24 hour requirement, and BB also offers a “Calendar of Wins,” allowing you to view wins listed in a branch on a calendar. The expectation in return is that once you book, you will post your win to the forum to help others. See each website for how they expect you to do so. A word of caution: the administrator for BFT has a reputation for being fickle and banning people who don't exactly do as they want (including not using their third-party links to bid).
Now you know the process and are ready to start. But what will be your first bid? You do not want to bid too much and defeat the purpose of the process, but you don't want to get into a long, drawn out bid, re-bid process either.
A good way to start is to look at Hotwire and see what they are offering. Subtract about 15-20%, then check the BFT and BB forums to see if anyone is winning for the same or less than that amount. If so, you can likely afford to bid lower, and if not, it's a reasonable starting point. (This may not work if your dates are during holiday periods or during conventions and other special events.)
Do NOT simply assume Priceline or Hotwire will be the cheapest. Always check traditional retail sites and hotels, just in case.
Jul 29, 2009 3:03 AM
259Priceline - Cash Back Scam
I recently booked a hotel through Priceline. I was then asked to do a review which I did. I was then given a 10% cash back opportunity. Of course, I clicked on the button to take up the cash back. People: don't do it. It is a scam. You get taken to a third party site, Great Fun. That site will give you a chance to subscribe, with a month's free membership and then a monthly charge. Even if you don't subscribe, you'll get an email saying you have subscribed. Your credit card details will be passed from Priceline to Great Fun. You will be debited monthly without ever subscribing. It is all a big con. Google Great Fun Scam if you don't believe me.
Aug 23, 2009 3:59 PM
260Everything you ever wanted to know about tipping:
Oct 7, 2009 3:46 PM
261Can you do the National Parks without a car?
The short, advice-filled answer is “no.” For the overwhelming majority of the US national parks, the only options for seeing them are to (a) rent a car, or (b) join a group tour. A relative handful of the National Parks can be reached without a private automobile, but even in those cases, it’s going to be time-consuming, fraught with hassle, and probably non-cheap.
And then getting around the park once you’re there will be a pain. Almost all of the parks are not points on the map but large-to-vast regions. Some parks provide a shuttle bus to get around (generally to the major tourist draws only), but most do not. So if you want to go someplace that the shuttles don’t go, or if you want to go to a park without a shuttle, you’ll be in for some serious backpacking. (That’s “backpacking” in the American sense, i.e., the kind where you carry everything you need on your back (food, water, tent, sleeping bag) and hike to your destination.) If you are one of those long-distance bikers, traveling with a bike will increase your range to the point where many parks are more doable. But even in that case, you’ll need to plan fairly carefully. That subject is beyond the scope of this post.
All that having been said, we here are aware that there are people for whom, for one reason or another, driving is not an option, and joining a tour may not be either. For those folks, here is a list of those national parks that can be reached with at least some level of success without a car.
The list includes, at this writing (autumn 2009), ALL units designated as National Parks, National Seashores, and National Lakeshores, for which some combination of Greyhound, Amtrak, public buses, commercial flights, and/or ferries can get you within at least hiking distance (defined here as ten miles (16 km)) of the front door. ( Note that even if you can get to the entrance of the park, it may be many more miles of hiking before you get to the main points of interest. Plan ahead before you go.) I also included any of the National Monuments that are at all well known. The list includes all of the battlefields, plus some of the more prominent historic parks/sites, but no claim is made as to completeness for those. There are simply too many of them, and I didn't want this project to spiral out of control any more than it has already.
So: If it is a National Park, National Seashore, National Lakeshore, or National Military/Battlefield Park, and it is not on this list, you need a car (or in Alaska, a charter plane) to get there. If it is a National Something Else and it's not on the list, assume you need a car until you can prove otherwise.
Notice that there are some big names that are not on this list. Zion. Bryce. Smoky Mountains. Rocky Mountains. Gettysburg. Cape Hatteras. Mount Rushmore. Just to underscore that you really are better off with a car, or a tour group.
YOU ARE STRONGLY ADVISED TO CHECK THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, AMTRAK, GREYHOUND, AND/OR LOCAL TRANSIT AGENCIES' WEBSITES FOR FURTHER DETAILS, AND TO USE YOUR TELEPHONE TO CONFIRM. Otherwise you may find yourself with a long, unplanned hike, or stranded at some dreadful bus depot.
For more info: National Park Service. Each individual park has a website, which you can reach via a search from that link. From the park’s main page, click on “Directions” or “Plan Your Visit,” and it will describe or have a link to transit options, if any.
Lastly, remember that just because a place is not administered by the National Park Service does not mean it isn't worth your time. Many state parks are as spectacular, or more so, than their national counterparts, and many of them are easier to get to. But that's going to have to be your research project.
Key to the following list:
A = Amtrak (rail), G = Greyhound (bus). Other transportation modes or companies are spelled out in full.
NP = National Park; NS = National Seashore; NL = National Lakeshore; NM = National Monument; NMP = National Military Park; NB = National Battlefield; NHP = National Historical Park. These are standard National Park System abbreviations.
Parks people request most often are in bold.
Parks where transit is possibly workable but includes some major issues are in italics. The issues are spelled out in the entry, and might include things such as a private tour boat or shuttle, a hike longer than a couple blocks, or other complexity.
“Shuttle=Y” means there is an internal shuttle once you’re at the park. Otherwise, assume Shuttle = N.
The units of the national park system that are located within the limits of major cities are for the most part reachable by the relevant city’s mass transit. I’m thinking specifically of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York, the Freedom Trail sites in Boston, the stuff in and around San Francisco harbor, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and of course the National Mall and its contents in Washington, DC. There are also dozens of lesser-known examples. If a site is in this category, it’s not specifically listed with its state below.
Obviously, in cases where such attractions are on islands (e.g., Statue of Liberty, Fort Sumter in Charleston, SC, etc.) what you do is take the city buses or trains to the ferry dock, and then you buy a ticket on the relevant ferry.
Denali NP: Alaska Railroad. Private buses and vans also available from Anchorage or Fairbanks. Shuttle = Y.
Glacier Bay NP: Air from Juneau (Alaska Airlines, in season) or via cruise ship; then take a tour boat.
Kenai Fjords NP: Alaska Railroad or boat (Seward, about 7 mi). Thence, boat tours from Seward.
Wrangell-St. Elias NP: Bus (Alaska Direct Bus) from Anchorage to Glenallen; private buses run daily from there.
Note for other Alaska parks: Most others can be reached primarily or only by chartered plane (“air taxi”) or chartered boat. These areas are deep in the wilderness, and services will be very limited when you get there.
Grand Canyon NP: A or G to Flagstaff or Williams. From there, the Grand Canyon Railroad (a privately run “scenic railroad” and priced accordingly) or any of several bus services (including one associated with Amtrak) will take you to the South Rim. Shuttle = Y.
Saguaro NP: A or G to Tucson, then city bus to S Harrison and E Golf Links, then 4.5 mi walk to east unit visitor’s center. West unit is harder to reach. Both are easily bikeable, however.
Hot Springs NP: G.
Channel Islands NP: A or G to Santa Barbara or Ventura, thence by boat to the islands.
Muir Woods NM: Golden Gate Transit (bus) from San Francisco (you change buses in Marin City). This is seasonal.
Point Reyes NS: Marin Transit buses (limited areas of the park are served).
Redwood NP: Commercial air to Crescent City, thence local bus (Redwood Coast Transit) to within a mile or so of (part of) the park (the main section of the park is about 20 miles further south).
Sequoia & Kings Canyon NPs (treated as a single unit): Seasonal: A or G to Visalia, then a shuttle to Sequoia. Shuttle = Y (seasonal). Out of season, it’s not doable.
Yosemite NP: A (with a bus connection in Merced). Shuttle = Y.
Dry Tortugas NP: G to Key West. From there, you have to join a day cruise to the islands. Links to the providers’ websites are given by the park’s website.
Everglades NP: Miami-Dade public buses can get you within about 10 mi from the main Homestead visitor’s center. Good luck doing anything else when you get there, though.
Gulf Islands NS (Florida half): G to Pensacola, then local bus to within a mile or so.
Kennesaw Mountain NBP: Marietta, G, then city buses to within 3 miles.
Hawai’i Volcanoes NP: Heleon Bus (limited service). Shuttle = N.
Indiana Dunes NL: South Shore Line train from Chicago.
Acadia NP: Vermont Transit (bus, seasonal) or fly to Bar Harbor. Shuttle = Y (serves Bar Harbor).
Antietam NB: Hagerstown, G, 10 mi. Or, Martinsburg by MTA commuter rail, PanTran bus to Shepardstown, and then 5 mi.
Assateague Island NS: Via Ocean City, G, 8 mi.
Cape Cod NS: Ferry from Boston to Provincetown, or there are several (non-Greyhound) bus options out to the Cape from Boston or Providence via Hyannis.
Minute Man NHP: MBTA commuter train from Boston to Concord.
Isle Royale NP: Houghton, G, and take the ferry to the island from there.
Sleeping Bear Dunes NL: Traverse City, G, then local bus to Empire, MI, where the visitor’s center is, but you’re on your own getting to the park itself. Shuttle = N.
Gulf Islands NS (Mississippi half): G to Biloxi or Gulfport, then local bus.
Vicksburg NMP: G, then it’s about a 5-mile walk to the visitor’s center.
Glacier NP: A. Shuttle = Y.
Fire Island NS: Long Island Railroad or Suffolk County public buses to the ferry terminals.
Guilford Courthouse NMP: G, then Greensboro city buses.
Theodore Roosevelt NP: G.
Cuyahoga Valley NP: Cleveland city bus to within less than a mile of the north end of the park.
Valley Forge NHP: Philadelphia city bus. Shuttle = Y.
Badlands NP: Wall, G, 10 mi.
Chickamauga and Chattanooga NMP: You can only get to the Chattanooga part. G to Chattanooga, then Chattanooga city buses to the base of Lookout Mountain.
Arches NP: There exist private shuttle buses between Salt Lake City and Moab, 5 miles from the park entrance.
Colonial NHP: A or G (via Williamsburg). Shuttle = Y.
Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP: Virginia Railway Express or A to Fredericksburg, then it’s less than a mile walk to the visitor’s center. For the Chancellorsville part of the park, a Fredricksburg bus (RideFred route VS1) will get you to within 5 mi.
Manassas NBP: Virginia Railway Express to Manassas, then local bus to within a mile of the park.
Petersburg NB: A or G, then public bus to within 0.5 mi.
Richmond NBP: Main visitor's center: A or G. Richmond public buses can then get you within hiking distance of other units of the park (including, e.g., Cold Harbor).
Shenandoah NP: Valley Connect commuter bus from Washington, DC, to Front Royal, then a Front Royal city bus to the edge of the park. There's a trail there where the bus drops you--no need to walk down Skyline Drive.
Olympic NP: G to Port Angeles, where the visitor’s center is. Local buses (Clallam Transit, Jefferson Transit) serve various locations around the area, but you still have to hike in from where the bus drops you off.
Harper’s Ferry NHP: A. Shuttle = Y.
Grand Tetons NP: Commercial air to Jackson Hole Airport, located within the park. Shuttle = N.
Yellowstone NP: Commercial shuttles exist seasonally from Bozeman (MT), Cody, or Jackson to the edge of the park. Shuttle = N.
Virgin Islands NP: Ferry to St. John from St. Croix, then local bus.
NP of American Samoa: controls parcels of land scattered throughout American Samoa; some of them are reachable by transit. Apparently, it’s complicated.
Edited by: mrpenney
Feb 12, 2010 10:40 AM
Mar 23, 2010 4:21 PM
264The arts in America (Part 1)
We don't have to hang our heads in shame. When it comes to culture, we have this inferiority complex vis-a-vis Europe, so much so that we include French words like "vis-a-vis" in everyday conversation. We think that our main contributions to the world culture are the fast-food hamburger, the gangsta rapper, and Hollywood schlock. But America has more capital-C culture than we give ourselves credit for. We're not Europe's full equal in this department by any means--America simply is too much younger. But our museums, galleries, orchestras, and theaters are worth a look. And of course, everyone knows about America's biggest contributions to the world of arts: jazz, blues, bluegrass, and rock & roll.
So do consider the arts as part of your look at this country.
Unsurprisingly, the capital (Washington), the three mega-cities (New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles), and a few others of the older big cities (Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia) are the best places to look for the arts. All of those seven do not necessarily lead the pack in every field of artistic endeavor, but there's where you should start looking.
Some places, for various reasons, do punch above their weight in one field or another. Nashville for music (not classical, but far more than just country), for example, or the Santa Fe area if you like art galleries. Minneapolis, for some reason, has good theater. Et cetera. But in general, the answer to the question "Where can I find the best [insert art form here] in America?" will involve New York for sure, probably Chicago, possibly Los Angeles, and then one or two among Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington DC.
The rest of this post is going to be about visual arts. Performance arts will be part 2, if I ever get around to writing it.
America has great art museums. It's not a subject that's susceptible to rankings, and this isn't Conde Nast Traveler magazine, so I'm not going to shoe-horn a ranking in anyway. But if you thumb around on the web, you'll find that most lists of the world's greatest / most-visited / largest / most-respected art museums include about a dozen in Europe, three or four in the United States, and basically none anywhere else. These are awesome places.
Art museums here are constructed differently than they are in Europe. There, the watchword is depth. The extreme example in Europe of that style of museum is the Prado in Madrid. Ever been there? Room after room of nothing but Velasquez. Then room after room of nothing but Rubens. Same thing, El Greco. Same thing, Goya. There's some Bruegel and some Bosch, and a smattering of other stuff, but that's about it. It's fantastic--thanks to the fact that those artists are worth that treatment.
Even the Louvre is a little bit like that. When you think French art, you think Impressionism. But that stuff's NOT in the Louvre. It's in the Musee d'Orsay, since the Louvre focuses exclusively on earlier eras. The Orsay, meanwhile, is basically nothing but Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Want to see where French art went in the post-war era? Gotta go to the Centre Pompidou for that.
In America, by contrast, the scheme is usually breadth. Most art museums here try to cover Art--and I mean all of Art, ancient, modern, European, American, non-Western. It's a different sort of experience.
Seven museums that (in my opinion, but I'm not alone) stack up well against anything they have in Europe. In no particular order:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
The Getty, Los Angeles and Malibu.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The National Gallery of Art, Washington.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York (the biggest exception to the remark about American comprehensive galleries).
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia.
If you're an art person, a visit to any of those seven can easily be an all-day affair.
If you only go to the Met and the MoMA, you've only scratched the surface in New York. The Guggenheim, the Frick, and the Brooklyn Museum should be the next three on your list. It keeps going from there, of course.
The Smithsonian is (if you take it as a whole) a Museum of Pretty Much Everything, but a big part of their holdings is art. Among the Smithsonian units that focus exclusively on art are the Hirshhorn Museum (modern art), the Sackler Gallery (Asian art), the American Art Museum (like it says), and the National Museum of African Art (also, like it says). There's also the National Portrait Gallery, and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum (the latter, unlike most of the Smithsonian, is in New York).
Both the National Gallery and the Smithsonian are federally-sponsored institutions. Washington's largest private art museum is the Corcoran.
In Boston, there's the Isabella Stewart-Gardner Museum, the astonishing personal collection of one wealthy (and a little eccentric) woman. It's neat: great art in a beautiful setting. Another choice if you're in Boston: If you're in need of a day trip, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem is another standout.
In San Francisco, the Legion of Honor is notable at least as much for its spectacular setting as its collection, but it's still (part of) a great museum. It's complemented by the larger DeYoung, in Golden Gate Park. The two are managed as a single institution.
Many of the best smaller art museums in America are on university campuses. Some outstanding examples of this type in the big cities are the Harvard museums (currently undergoing a major renovation and reorganization) in Cambridge (basically Boston), and the Oriental Institute and less well-known Smart Museum at the University of Chicago. Despite the name, the Oriental Institute is actually devoted to a world-class collection of antiquities from the Near East.
In Philadelphia, check out the Rodin Museum, which houses the largest collection of the sculptor's work outside of France.
I did mention that Santa Fe punches above its weight in this area. Starting with the area's most famous artist, there's a museum in Santa Fe devoted to the work of Georgia O'Keeffe, who spent the latter decades of her career painting in New Mexico. Link. More broadly, the New Mexico Museum of Art heads a long list of museums. Also, there are galleries all over the old-town area of Santa Fe, with the work of local artists, of Native Americans, and of those from farther afield.
Smaller cities: Every American city of any pretension to greatness, or at least bigness, has an art museum. Some have better collections than others. I won't bother trying to list them all. But the one in Milwaukee is a standout, because of its lakefront location and remarkable architecture. Also, I have a soft spot for the one in Indianapolis, another museum with a beautiful setting--it's built on (and includes) the grounds of the old Eli Lilly estate, overlooking the White River. Most other large Midwestern cities, for example Cincinnati (another great setting, in Eden Park on Mt. Adams), Cleveland, and even Detroit, also have notable museums. There are many others.
This sort of thing is useful if you're driving across the country and have to stop somewhere to break up the drive. Want something to do in Kansas City? Yep, they have an art museum that's worth at least a look-in. Omaha? Yep again (and that one has gotten good reviews here). And so on.
Three more, all in the southeast, worth mentioning: The Telfair in Savannah occupies two old houses in the city's historic district. In St. Petersburg, Florida, there's the Dali museum, housing a collection of the surrealist's work. Lastly, just for pure oddball value, the art museum in Nashville is a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Athens (but with Elgin marbles fully intact). You might remember it from the climactic scene of Robert Altman's classic film Nashville; too bad the actual art inside disappoints.
That should get you started.
As I said, performing arts will have to wait for another time.
Edited by: mrpenney
Mar 30, 2010 6:10 AM
265Orlando and area attractions are written up in a website called
May 31, 2010 3:28 PM
266Niagara Falls: to go or not?
This question comes up all the time, often from people whose travel plans take them anywhere within 500 miles of the place. Let's just type this up here so we don't have to repeat it.
What there is at Niagara
There are two big waterfalls, and a third, smaller one. The two big ones are called Horseshoe Falls and American Falls; the smaller Bridal Veil falls is separated from American Falls by a small island. Horseshoe Falls straddles the international border; American Falls, as the name implies, is entirely on the U.S. side.
There are vantage points, on both sides of the border, from which you can view the falls for free. In part because you can't really get a good view of American Falls from the American side, it's generally agreed that the Canadian side is better. If you wish to pay money, you can get various other, more extravagant views of the falls--above, beside, below, even behind. Boats, hiking tours, elevators, helicopters--you name it, they've got it.
Niagara is not in any way, however, unspoiled nature. It's been a tourist attraction almost from the very moment Europeans laid eyes on it--at any rate long before people developed the idea that nature ought to be preserved. Around the waterfalls, there are two cities that have grown up: Niagara Falls, Ontario (on the Canadian side) and Niagara Falls, New York (on the American). Nobody would describe the cities themselves as attractive. Many people would describe them as tourist traps. There is a casino on the Canadian side. There are golf courses and whatnot. There are attractions--a Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, a waxworks, t-shirt shops, overpriced restaurants--in short, your standard carnival midway dedicated to separating you and your dinero. It can be good fun, so long as you know what you're getting into.
Factors to consider
1. Contrary to what many people seem to assume, Niagara is nowhere near New York City. The nearest major city is Buffalo (half an hour's drive); the nearest major city that tourists often express interest in is Toronto (about an hour and a half). New York City, on the other hand, is in the opposite corner of New York State from Niagara--a seven-hour drive.
2. On the other hand, that seven-hour drive does pass through some beautiful territory. Stretch it out into three days, and you might be able to see the Catskills, Cooperstown, the Finger Lakes region, Ithaca, Corning, Rochester, or any number of other places of historical or scenic interest. Tell us your interests, and ask for details.
3. When you get to Niagara, how long do you really want to spend? Most people can get their fill, and then some, of gawking at a waterfall after about three hours, max. So the question becomes, are you interested in any of that other stuff?
4. Are you eligible to travel into both Canada and the United States? Your experience at Niagara will be better if you are. Consider visa questions before going--you must meet Canada's requirements to enter Canada, and the USA's requirements when you re-enter the US. Note that time spent in Canada (at Niagara or anywhere) counts as part of your original 90-day entry if you entered the USA on the Visa Waiver Program. That is, a border hop at Niagara (or anywhere else) does not reset the clock and give you a fresh 90 days. So don't go to Niagara if what you want is a visa "adjustment"--it won't work.
As noted, it's a seven-hour drive if you take the direct route from New York City. But what if you can't drive? If so, the question of whether to visit Niagara becomes much less of a close one.
There are trains that serve Niagara from New York or Toronto (currently three trains daily; it takes 9.5 hours from New York). Bus is even slower. Both bus and train avoid the scenic parts of New York State. If you decide to fly, Buffalo is probably your best bet; there is a city bus that runs between the airport and downtown Niagara Falls NY.
Now for some opinion: This is strictly my own view, but I think it's shared by the majority of people here. Go to Niagara if you've always wanted to go. Go if you're in the area anyway (either headed to Toronto, or headed to Ohio and points west). If you're not in either of those two categories, don't go out of your way to see Niagara (at least not far out of your way). This is especially so if you're not interested in, or don't have time for, anything else in upstate New York.
In any case, I'd say Niagara is worth a half-day, or an overnight stay at most. The people who want to spend three days at Niagara are, in my view, wasting two days.
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