Getting there & away
Very soon, every person entering the USA from abroad – meaning every foreign visitor and every US citizen – will need a passport. Currently, passports are required of everyone arriving by air. At land and sea checkpoints, the only exceptions are for US and Canadian citizens, who may enter with proof of citizenship, such as a citizenship card with photo identification. Unless foreign visitors qualify for the Visa Waiver Program, visitors must also have a visa.
The US planned to implement its mandatory passport policy at all borders in 2008, but due to a backlog in passport applications, this may not become a reality until 2009.
Getting a cheap airline ticket is a matter of research, reserving early – at least three to four weeks in advance – and timing. Flying midweek and in the off-season (normally, fall to spring, excluding holiday periods) is always less expensive, but fare wars crop up anytime. The only way to ensure you’ve found the cheapest possible ticket for the flight you want is to check every angle: compare several online travel agencies with the airline’s website, and then call the airline directly. Engaging a living, breathing travel agent is best when your plans are long and/or complicated.
Keep in mind your entire US itinerary. Some deals for travel within the USA can only be purchased overseas in conjunction with an international air ticket, or you may get discounts for booking air and car rental together. Or, you may find domestic flights within the USA are less expensive when added on to your international airfare.
For a good overview of online ticket agencies, visit Airinfo (www.airinfo.aero), which also lists travel agents worldwide.
The big three agency websites are Travelocity (www.travelocity.com), Orbitz (www.orbitz.com) and Expedia (www.expedia.com). Similar and worth trying are Cheap Tickets (www.cheaptickets.com) and Lowest Fare (www.lowestfare.com). Typically, these sites don’t include budget airlines such as Southwest.
Meta sites are good for price comparisons, as they gather from many sources (but don’t provide direct booking) : try Kayak (www.kayak.com), Mobissimo (www.mobissimo.com) and Sidestep (www.sidestep.com).
Bidding for travel can be very successful, but carefully read the fine print before bidding. Try Hotwire (www.hotwire.com), Skyauction (www.skyauction.com) and Priceline (www.priceline.com). See www.biddingfortravel.com for advice about Priceline, which can be great for car rentals.
Finally, peruse Travelzoo (www.travelzoo.com), which gathers and passes along the airlines’ promotional deals; their email alerts might inspire a trip!
You can travel to and from the USA on a freighter, though it will be much slower and less cushy than a cruise ship. Nevertheless, freighters aren’t spartan (some advertise cruise-ship-level amenities), and they are much cheaper (sometimes by half). Trips range from a week to two months, and stops at interim ports are usually quick. Excellent sources of information are the Cruise & Freighter Travel Association (800-872-8584; www.travltips.com) and Freighter World Cruises (800-531-7774; www.freighterworld.com).
The USA shares long land borders with Canada in the north and Mexico in the south. It is relatively easy crossing from the USA into either country; it’s crossing into the USA that can pose problems if you haven’t brought all your documents. The US Customs & Border Protection Agency (apps.cbp.gov/bwt/) tracks current wait times at every border crossing. Some borders are open 24 hours, but most are not.
The USA has more than 20 official border crossings with Canada. Busy entry points include those at Detroit (MI) /Windsor, Buffalo (NY) /Fort Erie, Niagara Falls (NY) and Blaine (WA) /British Columbia. The downside to choosing a quiet border crossing is that officers have plenty of time to take apart your luggage. For border wait times returning to Canada, visit www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca/general/times/menu-e.html.
The USA has more than 30 official entry points with Mexico. The main ones are San Diego (CA) /Tijuana, Nogales (AZ), El Paso (TX) /Ciudad Juárez and Brownsville (TX) /Matamoros. As always, have your papers in order, act polite and don’t make jokes or casual conversation – officers take a dim view of friendliness.
Greyhound has direct connections between main cities in Canada and the northern USA, but you may have to transfer to a different bus at the border. Book through either Greyhound US (US customer service 214-849-8966, international customer service 214-849-8100, reservations 800-231-2222; www.greyhound.com) or Greyhound Canada (800-661-8747; www.greyhound.ca). Greyhound’s Discovery Pass allows unrestricted travel in both the USA and Canada.
If you’re driving into the USA from Canada, don’t forget the vehicle’s registration papers, liability insurance and your home driver’s license. Canadian auto insurance is valid in the USA. Canadian driver’s licenses are valid and an international driver’s permit is a good supplement.
If your papers are in order, taking your own car across the US–Canadian border is usually quick and easy, but occasionally the authorities of either country decide to search a car thoroughly. On weekends and holidays, especially in summer, traffic at the main border crossings can be heavy and waits long.
Amtrak (800-872-7245; www.amtrak.com) and Canada’s VIA Rail (888-842-7245; www.viarail.ca) run daily services from Montreal to New York, Toronto to New York via Niagara Falls, Toronto to Chicago, and Vancouver to Seattle. Customs inspections happen at the border, not on boarding.
Greyhound US (US customer service 214-849-8966, international customer service 214-849-8100, reservations 800-231-2222; www.greyhound.com) and Greyhound Mexico (in US 800-229-9424, in Mexico 800-710-8819; www.greyhound.com.mx) have cooperative service, with direct buses between main towns in Mexico and the USA. Northbound buses can take some time to cross the US border, as sometimes US immigration insists on checking every person on board.
If you’re driving into the USA from Mexico, don’t forget the vehicle’s registration papers, liability insurance and your home driver’s license. Mexican driver’s licenses are valid and an international driver’s permit is a good supplement. Very few car-rental companies will let you take a car from the US into Mexico.
US auto insurance is not valid in Mexico, so even a short trip into Mexico’s border region requires you to buy Mexican car insurance, available for under $20 per day at most border crossings, as well as from the AAA (800-874-7532; www.aaa.com). At some border towns, including Tijuana or Ciudad Juárez, there can be long lines of vehicles waiting to re-enter the USA. For a short visit, it’s usually more convenient to leave your car in a lot on the US side and walk or bus across the border. For a longer driving trip into Mexico, beyond the border zone or Baja California, you’ll need a Mexican permiso de importación temporal de vehículos (temporary vehicle import permit). See Lonely Planet’s Mexico guide for the tedious details, or call the Mexican tourist information number in the USA 800-446-3942).
Travel Alert: Stricter security measures have been introduced at US airports for passengers traveling from destinations considered to have links with terrorism. For details check the Transport Security Administration website. The usual restrictions on airline carry-on baggage remain in place throughout the US.
The USA is working hard to counter any lingering ‘Fortress America’ image post-September 11, and in fact, despite new security procedures, it’s not really any more time-consuming to enter the country now than pre-September 11. That said, US officials are strict and vigilant: have all your papers in order; neatness and politeness count.
If you are flying to America, the first airport that you land in is where you must go through immigration and customs, even if you are continuing on the flight to another destination.
Once you go through immigration, you collect your baggage and pass through customs. If you have nothing to declare, you’ll probably clear customs without a baggage search, but don’t assume this. If you are continuing on the same plane or connecting to another one, it is your responsibility to get your bags to the right place. Normally, airline representatives are just outside the customs area to help you.
If you are a single parent, grandparent or guardian traveling with anyone under 18, carry proof of legal custody or a notarized letter from the nonaccompanying parent (s) authorizing the trip. This isn’t required, but the USA is concerned with thwarting child abduction, and not having authorizing papers could cause delays or even result in being denied admittance to the country.
Group travel can be an enjoyable way to get to and tour the USA.
If you’re interested in taking a cruise ship to America – as well as to other interesting ports o’ call – a good specialized travel agency is Cruise Web (800-377-9383; www.cruiseweb.com). Or just book a bunk ($1500 and up) on a luxury liner run by Cunard (in US 800-728-6273, in UK 0845-071-0300; www.cunardline.com). The standard London–New York run is six days, but there are oodle more options.
Reputable tour companies:
Elderhostel (800-454-5768; www.elderhostel.org) This venerable, nonprofit runs ‘learning adventures’ around the world for those 55-plus years young.
North America Travel Service (020-7569-6710; www.northamericatravelservice.co.uk) This UK-based tour operator specializes in US trips.
Trek America (in US 800-873-5872, in UK 0208-772-3758; www.trekamerica.com) Specializes in active outdoor adventures; Trek America will book flights from the UK only. Group sizes are small (max 13 people).
The USA has more than 400 domestic airports, and a baker’s dozen are the main international gateways. Many other airports are called ‘international’ but most have only a few flights from other countries – typically Mexico or Canada. Even travel to an international gateway sometimes requires a connection in another gateway city. For example, many of the London–Los Angeles flights involve a transfer connection in Chicago.
Airports in the USA:
Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International (ATL; 404-530-7300; www.atlanta-airport.com)
Boston Logan International (BOS; 800-235-6426; www.massport.com/logan)
Chicago O’Hare International (ORD; 773-686-2200; www.flychicago.com)
Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW; 972-574-8888; www.dfwairport.com)
Honolulu (HNL; 808-836-6413; hawaii.gov/hnl)
Houston George Bush Intercontinental (IAH; 281-230-3000; www.worldairportguides.com/houston-iah)
Los Angeles (LAX; 310-646-5252; www.lawa.org/lax)
Miami (MIA; 305-876-7000; www.miami-airport.com)
New York John F Kennedy (JFK; 718-244-4444; www.panynj.gov)
Newark Liberty International (EWR; 973-961-6000; www.panynj.gov)
San Francisco (SFO; 650-821-8211; www.flysfo.com)
Seattle Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA; 206-433-5388; www.portseattle.org/seatac)
Washington, DC Dulles International (IAD; 703-572-2700; www.metwashairports.com/dulles)
The national airlines of most countries have flights to the USA, and the USA has several airlines serving the world. Here is a list of the main international carriers. Online, www.smilinjack.com has links to international airlines, and www.seatguru.com has extensive airline information, including seat-by-seat reviews for each aircraft.
Airlines flying to/from the USA:
Aerolíneas Argentinas (AR; 800-333-0276; www.aerolineas.com.au; hub Buenos Aires)
British Airways (BA; 800-247-9297; www.britishairways.com; hub London)
Lufthansa (LH; 800-399-5838; www.lufthansa.com; hub Frankfurt)
Qantas (QF; 800-227-4500; www.qantas.com.au; hub Sydney)
Virgin Atlantic (VS; 800-821-5438; www.virgin-atlantic.com; hub London)
A few cities in West and North Africa have direct flights to the USA – Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), Accra (Ghana), Cairo (Egypt), Casablanca (Morocco) and Dakar (Senegal). Apart from South African Airways flights from Johannesburg to New York, most flights from Africa to the USA go via a European hub, most commonly London.
Agents serving Africa:
Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo all have good connections to the US West Coast. Many flights to the USA go via Honolulu and allow a stopover. Bangkok is the discounted fare capital of the region, though its cheapest agents can be unreliable.
Agents serving Asia:
No 1 Travel Japan (03-3205-6073; www.no1-travel.com)
Some flights go from Sydney and Melbourne direct to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Flights to other US cities will usually involve a stop in Los Angeles, or possibly San Francisco or Honolulu. Qantas, Air New Zealand and United are the main airlines on the route. Fares from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and sometimes Adelaide and Canberra are ‘common rated’ (the same for all cities). From Hobart and Perth, there’ll be an add-on fare.
Low season is roughly February, March, October and November. High season is around mid-June to mid-July and mid-December to mid-January. The rest of the year is considered shoulder season. Discounted tickets have minimum- and maximum-stay provisions.
Agents serving Australia:
Flight Centre (1300-133-133; www.flightcentre.com.au)
STA Travel (1300-134-782; www.statravel.com.au)
Travel.com (1300-130-483; www.travel.com.au)
Zuji (1300-888-180; www.zuji.com.au)
Daily flights go from Vancouver, Toronto, and many smaller cities to all the big US centers. Commuter flights to cities such as New York and Chicago can be very expensive. Some of the best deals are charter and package fares to sunny destinations such as Florida, California and Hawaii, with higher prices in the winter peak season.
It may be much cheaper to travel by land to the nearest US city, then take a discounted domestic flight. For example, round-trip fares to New York are much cheaper from Seattle, WA, than from Vancouver, BC, only 130 miles away.
Agents serving Canada:
Travel Cuts (866-246-9762; www.travelcuts.com)
Travelocity (877-282-2925; www.travelocity.ca)
There are nonstop flights to many US cities, but the discounted fares often involve indirect routes and changing planes. The main airlines between Europe and the USA are Air France, Alitalia, British Airways, KLM, Continental, United, American, Delta, Scandinavian Airlines and Lufthansa. Sometimes an Asian or Middle Eastern carrier will have cheap deals on flights in transit to the USA, if you can get a seat. Also try Icelandair connections via London.
Airstop (070-233-188; www.airstop.be)
Nouvelles Frontieres (0825-000-747; www.nouvelles-frontieres.fr)
Voyages Wasteels (01-55-82-32-33; www.wasteels.fr)
Voyageurs du Monde (0892-235-656; www.vdm.com)
Just Travel (089-747-3330; www.justtravel.de)
Reiseboerse.com (030-2800-2800; www.reiseboerse.com)
STA Travel (069-743-032-92; www.statravel.de)
CTS Viaggi (199-50-11-50; www.cts.it) Student and youth travel.
ISSTA (31-20-589-3000; www.issta.nl)
Barcelo Viajes (902-116-226; www.barceloviajes.com)
The main gateway from Central and South America is Miami, but there are also many direct flights to Los Angeles and Houston. Check the national airlines of the countries you want to connect to as well as US airlines such as United and American. At times, it can be much cheaper to fly to a Mexican border town than to the adjacent town on the US side. A flight from Mexico City to Tijuana can cost quite a bit less than a flight to San Diego, just a few miles north on the US side.
Agents serving Latin America:
Mundo Joven Mexico (01800-000-0789; www.mundojoven.com)
Star Travel Argentina (54-11-5199-4445; www.startravel.com.ar)
Student Travel Bureau Brazil (11-3038-1555; www.stb.com.br)
Student Travel Center Colombia (1635-3827; www.travelstc.com)
Air New Zealand has regular flights from Auckland direct to Los Angeles. Flights from Christchurch and Wellington require a plane change in Auckland or the Pacific Islands. You’ll find that low, shoulder and peak seasons are roughly the same as for Australia.
Agents serving New Zealand:
Flight Centre (0800-24-35-44; www.flightcentre.co.nz)
STA Travel (0800-474-400; www.statravel.co.nz)
One of the busiest and most competitive air sectors in the world is from the UK to the USA, with hundreds of scheduled flights by British Airways, American Airlines, United, Delta, Northwest, Continental, Kuwait, Air India and discount specialist Virgin Atlantic.
Discount air travel is big business in London. Advertisements for many travel agencies appear in the travel pages of the weekend broadsheet newspapers, in Time Out, the Evening Standard and in the free magazine TNT. Discounted fares are highly variable and subject to restrictions. From UK regional airports, discounted flights may be routed via London, Paris or Amsterdam, and will probably not fly direct to smaller US cities such as Las Vegas or Denver.
Most British travel agents are registered with the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), which will guarantee a refund or an alternative if you’ve paid money to an agent who goes out of business. Using an unregistered agent is not recommended.
Agents serving the UK and Ireland:
Ebookers.com (0800-082-3000; www.ebookers.com)
Flight Centre (0870-499-0040; www.flightcentre.co.uk)
North-South Travel (01245-608-291; www.northsouthtravel.co.uk) Donates part of its profit to projects in the developing world.
STA Travel (0871-2300-040; www.statravel.co.uk) Discount and student travel specialist.
Trailfinders (0845-058-5858; www.trailfinders.com)
Travel Bag (0800-804-8911; www.travelbag.co.uk)
Travelocity (0870-273-3273; www.travelocity.co.uk)