It's fairly unusual to bargain for something in the US, but not unheard of in certain situations.
Dangers & Annoyances
The Western US is a reasonably safe place to visit. The greatest danger is posed by car accidents. Wildlife can pose problems in national parks if you don't heed proper precautions (eg improper food storage). Of the urban areas, LA has the most crime, though tourists are unlikely to run into trouble.
America the Beautiful Interagency Annual Pass (www.nps.gov/findapark/passes.htm; store.usgs.gov/pass) This $80 pass admits the driver and all passengers in a single, non-commercial vehicle, or four adults aged 16 or older to all national parks and federal recreational lands (eg USFS, BLM) for one year. Children aged 15 and younger are admitted free. The pass can be purchased online or at any national park entrance station. US citizens and permanent residents 62 years and older are eligible for a lifetime Senior Pass ($10), which grants free entry and 50% off some recreational-use fees like camping, as does the lifetime Access Pass (free to US citizens or permanent residents with a permanent disability). These passes are available in person or by mail. A free annual US Military Pass for current members of the US armed forces and their dependents is available at recreation sites with Common Access card or Military ID (Form 1173).
American Association of Retired Persons (www.aarp.org) This advocacy group for Americans 50 years and older offers member discounts on hotels (usually 10%), car rentals and more. People over the age of 65 (sometimes 55, 60 or 62) often qualify for the same discounts as students; any ID showing your birth date should suffice as proof of age.
American Automobile Association (www.aaa.com) Members of AAA and its foreign affiliates (eg CAA, AA) qualify for small discounts on Amtrak trains, car rentals, motels and hotels (usually 5% to 15%), chain restaurants, shopping, tours and theme parks.
International Student Identity Card (www.isic.org; $26) Offers savings on airline fares, travel insurance and local attractions for full-time students. For nonstudents under 31 years of age, an International Youth Travel Card ($26) grants similar benefits. Cards are issued by student unions, hosteling organizations and travel agencies.
Student Advantage Card (www.studentadvantage.com) For international and US students, this card offers 10% savings on Amtrak and 20% on Greyhound, plus discounts at some chain shops and car rentals.
Embassies & Consulates
International travelers who want to contact their home country's embassy while in the US should visit www.embassy.org, which lists contact information for all foreign embassies in Washington, DC. On the West Coast some countries have consulates in LA; look under 'Consulates' in the yellow pages, or call local directory assistance.
Emergency & Important Numbers
To call any regular number, dial the area code, followed by the seven-digit number.
|USA country code||1|
|International access code||011|
|National Sexual Assault Hotline||800-656-4673|
|Statewide road conditions||511|
Entry & Exit Formalities
If you are flying into the US, the first airport where you land is where you must go through immigration and customs, even if you are continuing on the flight to another destination. Fingerprints are taken and biometric information is checked upon entry into the US.
For a complete and current list of US customs regulations, visit the official portal for US Customs and Border Protection (www.cbp.gov).
Duty-free allowance per person is typically as follows:
- 1L of liquor (provided you are at least 21 years old)
- 100 cigars and 200 cigarettes (if you are at least 18)
- $200 worth of gifts and purchases ($800 if a returning US citizen)
- If you arrive with $10,000 or more in US or foreign currency, it must be declared.
There are heavy penalties for attempting to import illegal drugs. Other forbidden items include drug paraphernalia, firearms, lottery tickets, items with fake brand names, and most goods made in Iran, Myanmar (Burma), North Korea and parts of Sudan. Any fruit, vegetables or other food or plant material must be declared (whereby you'll undergo a time-consuming search) or left in the bins in the arrival area.
- Under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), all travelers must have a valid machine-readable passport (MRP) when entering the USA by air, land or sea.
- The only exceptions are for most US citizens and some Canadian and Mexican citizens traveling by land or sea who can present other WHTI-compliant documents (eg pre-approved 'trusted traveler' cards).
- All foreign passports must meet current US standards and be valid for the length of your stay. Certain nationalities need passports that are valid for a minimum of six months longer than the intended stay.
Visitors from Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and many EU countries don't need visas for less than 90-day stays. Other nations, see https://travel.state.gov.
Be warned that all visa information is highly subject to change. US entry requirements keep evolving as national security regulations change. All travelers should double-check current visa and passport regulations before coming to the USA.
The US State Department (https://travel.state.gov) maintains the most comprehensive visa information, providing downloadable forms, lists of US consulates abroad and even visa wait times calculated by country.
- Apart from most Canadian citizens and travelers entering under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), all foreign visitors to the US need a visa. For more details about visa requirements, visit https://travel.state.gov.
- Most visa applicants must schedule a personal interview, to which you must bring all your documentation and proof of fee payment. Wait times for interviews vary, but afterward, barring problems, visa issuance takes from a few days to a few weeks.
- You'll need a recent color photo (2in by 2in), and you must pay a nonrefundable $160 processing fee, plus in a few cases an additional visa issuance reciprocity fee. You'll also need to fill out the online DS-160 nonimmigrant visa electronic application.
- Depending on the type of visa requested, applicants may have to provide documentation confirming the purpose of their trip, their intent to depart the US after their trip and an ability to cover all costs related to the trip. Visit the website for more details.
Visa Waiver Program
- Pursuant to the Visa Waiver Program, many travelers visiting the US for sightseeing or for short visits will not need a visa to enter the country.
- According to VWP requirements, citizens of certain countries may enter the US for stays of 90 days or fewer without a US visa. This list is subject to continual rejigging. Check https://travel.state.gov to see which countries are included under the waiver and for a summary of current VWP requirements.
- If you're a citizen of a VWP country you do not need a visa only if you have a passport that meets current US standards and you get approval from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) in advance. Register online with the Department of Homeland Security at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta at least 72 hours before arrival. The fee is $14. Canadians are currently exempt from ESTA.
- Visitors from VWP countries arriving by air or sea must arrive on an approved air or sea carrier. They must also demonstrate that their trip is for 90 days or fewer and that they have a round-trip or onward ticket.
- Every foreign visitor entering the US from abroad needs a passport. In most cases, your passport must be valid for at least six months after the end of your intended stay in the USA. If your passport doesn't meet current US standards, you'll be turned back at the border. If your passport was issued on or after October 26, 2006 it must be an e-passport with a digital photo and an integrated chip containing biometric data.
- For assistance, check out the Visa Wizard on the State Department (https://travel.state.gov) website.
Short-Term Departures & Reentry
- It's temptingly easy to make trips across the border to Canada or Mexico, but upon return to the USA, non-Americans will be subject to the full immigration procedure.
- Always take your passport when you cross the border.
- If your immigration card still has plenty of time on it, you will probably be able to reenter using the same one, but if it has nearly expired, you will have to apply for a new card, and border control may want to see your onward air ticket, sufficient funds and so on.
- Citizens of most Western countries will not need a visa to visit Canada, so it's really not a problem at all to pass through on the way to Alaska.
- Travelers entering the USA by bus from Canada may be closely scrutinized. A round-trip ticket that takes you back to Canada will most likely make US immigration feel less suspicious.
- At the time of writing, most visitors did not need a visa for short-term travel in Mexico (under 90 to 180 days, depending on your nationality).
- Greeting It's common for Americans to hug everyone, including strangers, but if you're in doubt, shake hands.
- Smoking Don't assume you can smoke – even if you're outside. Most Americans have little tolerance for smokers and have even banned smoking from many parks, boardwalks and beaches.
- Punctuality Do be on time. Many folks in the US consider it rude to be kept waiting.
- Smiling Americans smile a lot; doing the same and having a cheerful attitude will help break the ice.
Gay & Lesbian Travelers
LGBTIQ travelers will find lots of places where they can be themselves without thinking twice. Beaches and big cities typically are the most gay-friendly destinations.
You will have heard of San Francisco, the happiest gay city in America, and what can gays and lesbians do in Los Angeles and Las Vegas? Hmmm, just about anything. In fact, when LA or Vegas gets to be too much, flee to the desert resorts of Palm Springs.
Most major US cities have a visible and open LGBTIQ community.
The level of acceptance varies across the West. In some places, there is absolutely no tolerance whatsoever, and in others acceptance is predicated on LGBTIQ people not 'flaunting' their sexual preference or identity. In rural areas and extremely conservative enclaves, it's unwise to be openly out, as violence and verbal abuse can sometimes occur. When in doubt, assume locals follow a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy.
After a 2015 US Supreme Court decision, same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states.
Advocate (www.advocate.com) Gay-oriented news website reports on business, politics, arts, entertainment and travel.
Gay Travel (www.gaytravel.com) Online guides to US destinations.
GLBT National Help Center (www.glbthotline.org) A national hotline for counseling, information and referrals.
National LGBTQ Task Force (www.thetaskforce.org) National activist group's website covers news, politics and current issues.
OutTraveler (www.outtraveler.com) Has useful online city guides and travel articles to various US and foreign destinations.
Purple Roofs (www.purpleroofs.com) Lists gay-owned and gay-friendly B&Bs and hotels nationwide.
Getting travel insurance to cover theft, loss and medical problems is highly recommended.
- Some policies do not cover 'risky' activities such as scuba diving, motorcycling and skiing, so read the fine print. Make sure the policy at least covers hospital stays and an emergency flight home.
- Paying for your airline ticket or rental car with a credit card may provide limited travel accident insurance.
- If you already have private health insurance or a homeowner's or renter's policy, it is critical to find out what those policies cover and get supplemental insurance. You do not want to have a medical emergency in the US and then find you are not covered – the costs for even minor treatments are often astronomical.
- If you have prepaid a large portion of your vacation, trip cancellation insurance may be a worthwhile expense.
- Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you're already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
- Travelers will have few problems staying connected in tech-savvy USA. Most hotels, guesthouses, hostels and motels have wi-fi (usually free, though luxury hotels are more likely to charge for access); ask when reserving.
- Across the US, most cafes offer free wi-fi. Some cities have wi-fi-connected parks and plazas, and the public library is always a good standby. If you're not packing a laptop or other web-capable device, try the library – most have public terminals (though they have time limits) in addition to wi-fi.
- If you're not from the US, remember that you will need an AC adapter for your laptop, plus a plug adapter for US sockets; both are available at larger electronics shops, such as Best Buy.
In everyday matters, if you are stopped by the police, remember that there is no system for paying traffic or other fines on the spot. Attempting to pay a fine to an officer is frowned upon at best and may result in a charge of bribery. For traffic offenses, the police officer or highway patroller will explain the options to you. There is usually a 30-day period to pay a fine. Most matters can be handled by mail.
If you are arrested, you have a legal right to an attorney and you are allowed to remain silent. There is no legal reason to speak to a police officer if you don't wish, but never walk away from an officer until given permission to do so.
Anyone who is arrested is legally allowed to make one phone call. If you can't afford a lawyer, a public defender will be appointed to you free of charge. Foreign visitors who don't have a lawyer, friend or family member to help should call their embassy; the police will provide the number upon request.
As a matter of principle, the US legal system presumes a person innocent until proven guilty. Each state has its own civil and criminal laws, and what is legal in one state may be illegal in others.
In all states, driving under the influence of alcohol (the blood-alcohol limit is 0.08%) or drugs is a serious offense, subject to stiff fines and even imprisonment.
Recreational drugs are prohibited by federal and most state laws. Washington, Colorado, California, Nevada and Oregon all allow recreational marijuana use, but it is still illegal to smoke in public (which includes hotel rooms). As of 2017, it is legally possible to purchase marijuana in Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Note that pot use still remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Possession of any illicit drug, including cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, heroin and hashish – or more than an ounce of pot (outside of the states listed above) – is a felony potentially punishable by lengthy jail sentences. For foreigners, conviction of any drug offense is grounds for deportation.
- Newspapers & Magazines Leading national newspapers include the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today; Time and Newsweek are the mainstream news magazines.
- Radio & TV National Public Radio (NPR) can be found at the lower end of the FM dial. The main TV broadcasting channels are ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and PBS (public broadcasting); the major cable channels are CNN (news), ESPN (sports), HBO (movies) and Weather Channel.
ATMs widely available. Credit cards normally required for hotel reservations and car rentals.
- ATMs are available at most banks, shopping malls, airports and grocery and convenience stores.
- Expect a minimum surcharge of $2.50 per transaction, in addition to any fees charged by your home bank. Some ATMs in Las Vegas may charge more.
- Most ATMs are connected to international networks and offer decent foreign-exchange rates.
- Withdrawing cash from an ATM using a credit card usually incurs a hefty fee and high interest rates; check with your credit-card company for a PIN.
Most people do not carry large amounts of cash for everyday use, relying instead on credit cards, debit cards and smartphones. It is good to have some cash on hand on road trips, as you may need it for campsites or the occasional cafe or restaurant.
Major credit cards are almost universally accepted. In fact, it's almost impossible to rent a car, book a room or buy tickets over the phone without one. A credit card may also be vital in emergencies. Visa, MasterCard and American Express are the most widely accepted.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
- You can exchange money at major airports, some banks and all currency-exchange offices such as American Express or Travelex. Always inquire about rates and fees.
- Outside big cities, exchanging money may be a problem, so make sure you have a credit card and sufficient cash on hand.
- Sales tax varies by state and county, with state sales taxes ranging from zero in Montana to 7.25% in California.
- Hotel taxes vary by city.
Tipping is not optional. Only withhold tips in cases of outrageously bad service.
Airport skycaps and hotel bellhops $2 per bag, minimum $5 per cart
Bartenders 10% to 15% per round, minimum $1 per drink
Concierges Nothing for simple information, up to $20 for securing last-minute restaurant reservations, sold-out show tickets etc
Housekeeping staff $2 to $4 daily, left under the card provided; more if you're messy
Parking valets At least $2 when handed back your car keys
Restaurant staff and room service 15% to 20%, unless a gratuity is already charged
Taxi drivers 10% to 15% of metered fare, rounded up to the next dollar
- Traveler's checks have pretty much fallen out of use.
- Larger restaurants, hotels and department stores will often accept traveler's checks (in US dollars only), but small businesses, markets and fast-food chains may refuse them.
- Visa and American Express are the most widely accepted issuers of traveler's checks.
|Banks||8:30am-4:30pm Mon-Thu, to 5:30pm Fri (and possibly 9am-noon Sat)|
|Bars||5pm-midnight Sun-Thu, to 2am Fri & Sat|
|Post offices||9am-5pm Mon-Fri|
|Stores||10am-6pm Mon-Sat, noon-5pm Sun|
|Supermarkets||8am-8pm, some open 24hr|
- Print film can be found at specialty camera shops. Digital-camera memory cards are widely available at chain retailers such as Best Buy and Target.
- Some Native American tribal lands prohibit photography and video completely; when it's allowed, you may be required to purchase a permit. Always ask permission if you want to photograph someone close up; anyone who then agrees to be photographed may expect a small tip.
- For more advice on picture-taking, consult Lonely Planet's Guide to Travel Photography.
Tips for Shutterbugs
- If you have a digital camera, bring extra batteries and a charger.
- For print film, use 100 ASA film for all but the lowest light situations; it's the slowest film, and will enhance resolution.
- A zoom lens is extremely useful; most SLR cameras have one. Use it to isolate the central subject of your photos. A common composition mistake is to include too much landscape around the person or feature that's your main focus.
- Morning and evening are the best times to shoot. The same sandstone bluff can turn four or five different hues throughout the day, and the warmest hues will be at sunset. Underexposing the shot slightly (by a half-stop or more) can bring out richer details in red tones.
- When shooting red rocks, a warming filter added to an SLR lens can enhance the colors of the rocks and reduce the blues of overcast or flat-light days. Achieve the same effect on any digital camera by adjusting the white balance to the automatic 'cloudy' setting (or by reducing the color temperature).
- Don't shoot into the sun or include it in the frame; shoot what the sunlight is hitting. On bright days, move your subjects into shade for close-up portraits.
- For 24-hour postal information, including post-office locations and hours, contact the US Postal Service (www.usps.com), which is reliable and inexpensive.
- For sending urgent or important letters and packages either domestically or overseas, Federal Express (www.fedex.com) and United Parcel Service (www.ups.com) offer more expensive door-to-door delivery services.
At the time of writing, the postal rates for 1st-class mail within the USA were 49¢ for letters weighing up to 1oz (22¢ for each additional ounce) and 34¢ for postcards.
Sending & Receiving Mail
If you have the correct postage, you can drop mail weighing less than 13oz into any blue mailbox. To send a package weighing 13oz or more, go to a post-office desk for assistance.
On the following national public holidays, banks, schools and government offices (including post offices) are closed, and transportation, museums and other services operate on a Sunday schedule. Holidays falling on a weekend are usually observed the following Monday.
New Year's Day January 1
Martin Luther King Jr Day Third Monday in January
Presidents' Day Third Monday in February
Memorial Day Last Monday in May
Independence Day July 4
Labor Day First Monday in September
Columbus Day Second Monday in October
Veterans Day November 11
Thanksgiving Fourth Thursday in November
Christmas Day December 25
During spring break (March and April), grade school and college students get a week off from school. For students of all ages, summer vacation runs from June to August.
- Smoking Most Western states are entirely smoke-free in restaurants, bars and workplaces. The exception here is Nevada – casinos in particular are still quite smoky. You may still encounter smoky lobbies in chain hotels and budget-minded inns, but for the most part accommodations are smoke-free.
- US phone numbers consist of a three-digit area code followed by a seven-digit local number.
- When dialing a number within the same area code, you generally have to dial the entire 10-digit number, but not always.
- If you are calling long distance, dial 1 plus the area code plus the phone number.
- Toll-free numbers begin with 800, 866, 877 or 888 and must be preceded by 1.
- For direct international calls, dial 011 plus the country code plus the area code (usually without the initial '0') plus the local phone number.
- For international call assistance, dial 00.
- If you're calling from abroad, the country code for the US is 1 (the same as Canada, but international rates apply between the two countries).
GSM multiband models will work in the USA. If you have an unlocked phone, you can find prepaid SIM cards fairly easily.
- Expect little to no coverage in remote or mountainous areas.
- SIM cards are sold at telecommunications and electronics stores. These stores also sell inexpensive prepaid phones, including some airtime. Verizon and AT&T have the two largest networks in the US. Verizon tends to have better coverage in rural areas.
Payphones & Phonecards
- Where payphones still exist, they are usually coin-operated, although some may only accept credit cards (eg in national parks).
- Local calls usually cost 35¢ to 50¢ minimum.
- For long-distance calls, you're usually better off buying a prepaid phonecard, sold at convenience stores, supermarkets, newsstands and electronics stores.
- Most of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona follow Mountain Standard Time (GMT/UTC minus seven hours). California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington generally follow Pacific Standard Time (GMT/UTC minus eight hours). There are some variations within a state, usually based on location or season.
- Daylight Saving Time pushes the clocks ahead an hour. It runs from the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November.
- Arizona does not observe daylight-saving time; during that period it's one hour behind other Southwestern states. The Navajo Reservation, which lies in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, does use daylight-saving time. The Hopi Reservation, which is surrounded by the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, follows the rest of Arizona.
- The US date system is written as month/day/year. Thus, the 8th of June, 2008, becomes 6/8/08.
Public toilets are free. If you can't find a public toilet, head to a gas station, restaurant or cafe (you may need to purchase something).
- Most tourist offices have a website, where you can download free travel guides. They also field phone calls; some local offices maintain daily lists of hotel room availability, but few offer reservation services. All tourist offices have self-service racks of brochures and discount coupons; some also sell maps and books.
- State-run 'welcome centers,' usually placed along interstate highways, tend to have materials that cover wider territories, and offices are usually open longer hours, including weekends and holidays.
- Many cities have an official convention and visitor bureau (CVB); these sometimes double as tourist bureaus, but since their main focus is drawing the business trade, CVBs can be less useful for independent travelers.
- Keep in mind that, in smaller towns, when the local chamber of commerce runs the tourist bureau, their lists of hotels, restaurants and services usually mention only chamber members; the town's cheapest options may be missing.
- Similarly, in prime tourist destinations, some private 'tourist bureaus' are really agents who book hotel rooms and tours on commission. They may offer excellent service and deals, but you'll get what they're selling and nothing else.
Travel With Children
The West is a top choice for adventure-loving families, with superb attractions for all ages: amusement parks, zoos, science museums, unique campsites, hikes in wilderness reserves, boogie-board surfing at the beach and bike rides through scenic forests. Most national and state parks offer kid-focused programs.
Best Regions for Kids in the West
- Grand Canyon & Southern Arizona
Hike into the Grand Canyon, splash in Oak Creek and ponder the saguaro cacti outside Tucson. Water parks, dude ranches and ghost towns should also keep kids entertained.
- Los Angeles & Southern California
See celebrity handprints in Hollywood, ogle the La Brea tar pits, take a studio tour in Burbank and hit the beach in Santa Monica or San Diego. Theme parks galore.
The whole state is like a giant playground: museums and water parks in Denver, zip lines and horseback rides in the Rockies, rafting near Buena Vista and Salida, exploring cliff houses in Mesa Verde and ski resorts everywhere.
Red-rock fun park for older kids who enjoy the outdoors: slickrock mountain biking, slot canyon adventures and a bevy of unbelievable fantasy-worthy landscapes.
Western USA for Kids
Dining with Children
The US restaurant industry seems built on family-style service: children are not just accepted almost everywhere, they are usually encouraged by special children's menus with smaller portions and lower prices. In some restaurants children under a certain age even eat for free. Restaurants usually provide high chairs and booster seats. Some may also offer crayons and puzzles.
Restaurants without a children's menu don't necessarily discourage kids, though higher-end restaurants might; however, even at the nicer places, if you arrive early, you can usually eat without too much stress. You can ask if the kitchen will make a smaller order of a dish (check the price), or if they will split a normal-size main dish between two plates for the kids.
Motels and hotels typically have rooms with two beds, which are ideal for families. Some also have roll-away beds or cribs that can be brought into the room for an extra charge (these are usually portable cribs, which may not work for all children). Many hotels have adjoining doors between rooms. Some offer 'kids stay free' programs, for children up to 12 or sometimes 18 years old. Many B&Bs don't allow children; ask when reserving. Most resorts are kid friendly and many offer children's programs, but ask when booking, as a few cater only to adults.
Resort hotels may have on-call babysitting services; otherwise, ask the front-desk staff or concierge to help you make arrangements. Always check that babysitters are licensed and bonded, and ask what they charge per hour per child, whether there's a minimum fee, and if they charge extra for transportation or meals. Most tourist bureaus list local resources for child care, plus recreation facilities, medical services and so on.
Necessities, Driving & Flying
- Many public toilets have a baby-changing table (sometimes in men's toilets, too), and gender-neutral 'family' facilities appear in airports.
- Car-rental agencies should be able to provide an appropriate child seat, since these are required in every state, but you need to request it when booking and should expect to pay around $13 more per day.
- Domestic airlines don't charge for children under two years. Those two or over must have a seat, and discounts are unlikely. Very rarely, some resort areas (like Disneyland) offer a 'kids fly free' promotion. Currently, children from two to 12 years enjoy 50% off the lowest Amtrak rail fare when they travel alongside a fare-paying adult.
Discounts for Children
Child concessions often apply for tours, admission fees and transport, with some discounts as high as 50% off the adult rate. However, the definition of 'child' can vary from under 12 to under 16 years. Some sights also have discount rates for families. Most attractions give free admission to children under two years.
Yellowstone National Park, WY Watch powerful geysers, spy on wildlife and take magnificent hikes.
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ Gaze across one of the earth's great wonders, followed by a hike, a ranger talk and biking.
Olympic National Park, WA Explore the wild and pristine wilderness of one of the world's few temperate rainforests.
Zion National Park, UT Free shuttles, river access, rock scrambling and all levels of hikes.
Oak Creek Canyon, AZ Swoosh over red rocks at Slide Rock State Park in Arizona.
Moab, UT Mountain biking, rafting, petroglyphs and rock climbing make this a great destination for teens.
San Diego, CA Boogie boarding and tide pools on superb, laid-back beaches.
Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO An ankle-deep stream flowing through giant sand dunes – younger kids will spend hours here.
Disneyland, CA It's the attention to detail that amazes most at Mickey Mouse's enchantingly imagined Disneyland, in the middle of Orange County.
Legoland, CA Younger kids will get a kick out of the Lego-built statues and low-key rides scattered across this amusement park in Carlsbad.
Universal Studios, CA Hollywood-movie-themed action rides, special-effects shows and a studio back-lot tram tour in Los Angeles.
Epic Discovery, CO Eco-themed adventure park in Vail and Breckenridge.
Aquariums & Zoos
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, AZ Coyotes, cacti and docent demonstrations are highlights at this indoor-outdoor repository of flora and fauna in Tucson.
Monterey Bay Aquarium, CA Observe denizens of the deep next door to the California central coast's biggest marine sanctuary.
Aquarium of the Pacific, CA High-tech aquarium at Long Beach houses critters whose homes range from balmy Baja California to the chilly north Pacific; there's also a shark lagoon.
San Diego Zoo, CA This sprawling zoo is home to creatures great and small, with more than 3700 animals.
LA Museums, CA See stars (the real ones) at LA's Griffith Observatory, dinosaur bones at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, then get hands-on at the amusing California Science Center.
Pacific Science Center, WA Fascinating, hands-on exhibits at this center in Seattle, plus an IMAX theater, planetarium and laser shows.
New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, NM Check out the Age of Supergiants in Albuquerque.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science, CO From space to local Ice Age fossils, with an Imax and planetarium for good measure.
Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, AZ You may not get many rainy days in Tucson, but when the monsoon season arrives this museum of tiny but intricate houses and scenes is a mesmerizing place to explore.
Consider the weather and the crowds when planning a Western USA family getaway. The peak travel season is from June to August, when schools are out and the weather is at its warmest. Expect high prices and abundant crowds – meaning long lines at amusement and water parks, fully booked resort areas, and heavy traffic on the roads; reserve well in advance for popular destinations. The same holds true for winter resorts (eg the Rockies, Lake Tahoe) during the high season (January to March).
What to Pack
- Bring lots of sunscreen, especially if you'll be spending time outside.
- For hiking, you'll need a front baby carrier (for children under 12 months old) or a backpack (for children up to about four years old) with a built-in shade top. These can be purchased or rented from outfitters throughout the region.
- Older kids need sturdy shoes and water sandals for playing in streams.
- To minimize concerns about bed configurations, it's a good idea to bring a portable crib for infants and sleeping bags for older children.
- Towels, for playing in water between destinations.
- Rain gear.
- A snuggly fleece or heavy sweater (even in summer, desert nights can be cold).
- Sun hats (especially if you are camping).
- Bug repellent.
Resources for Families
Travel with Children For all-round information and advice, check out Lonely Planet's guide.
Undercover Tourist (www.undercovertourist.com) Discounted tickets and more at the big theme parks.
Find Your Park (https://findyourpark.com) Great way to research which national parks to visit.
Trekaroo (www.trekaroo.com) Reviews, ideas and itineraries for families.
Family Vacation (www.familyvacationcritic.com) Trip ideas and packages sorted by age, destination and style.
Tracks & Trails (http://tracks-trails.com) Squeezing everyone into an RV? Check out this handy planner.
Kids.gov The eclectic, enormous national resource, where you can download songs and activities and follow links to kid-focused information.
Travelers with Disabilities
- If you have a physical disability, the USA can be an accommodating place. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that all public buildings, private buildings built after 1993 (including hotels, restaurants, theaters and museums) and public transit be wheelchair accessible. However, call ahead to confirm what is available. Some local tourist offices publish detailed accessibility guides.
- Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
- Telephone companies offer relay operators, available via teletypewriter (TTY) numbers, for the hearing impaired. Most banks provide ATM instructions in Braille, and via earphone jacks for hearing-impaired customers. All major airlines, Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains will assist travelers with disabilities; just describe your needs when making reservations at least 48 hours in advance. Service animals (guide dogs) are allowed to accompany passengers, but bring documentation.
- Some car-rental agencies – such as Avis and Hertz – offer hand-controlled vehicles and vans with wheelchair lifts at no extra charge, but you must reserve them well in advance. Wheelchair Getaways (www.wheelchairgetaways.com) rents accessible vans throughout the USA. In many cities and towns, public buses are accessible to wheelchair riders; just let the driver know that you need the lift or ramp.
- Many national and some state parks and recreation areas have wheelchair-accessible paved, graded dirt or boardwalk trails. The website for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (www.traillink.com) lists wheelchair-accessible trails by state.
- US citizens and permanent residents with permanent disabilities are entitled to a free 'America the Beautiful' Access Pass, which gives free entry to all federal recreation lands (eg national parks).
Some helpful resources for travelers with disabilities:
Access Northern California (http://accessnca.org) Extensive links to accessible-travel resources, publications, tours and transportation, including outdoor recreation opportunities, plus a searchable lodgings database and an events calendar.
Arizona Raft Adventures (www.azraft.com) Can accommodate disabled travelers on rafting trips through the Grand Canyon.
Disabled Sports USA Offers sport, adventure and recreation programs for those with disabilities. Also publishes Challenge magazine.
Mobility International USA Advises USA-bound disabled travelers on mobility issues.
Splore Offers accessible outdoor adventure trips in Utah.
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures Weights are measured in ounces (oz), pounds (lb) and tons; liquids in fluid ounces (fl oz), pints (pt), quarts (qt) and gallons (gal); and distance in feet (ft), yards (yd) and miles (mi).
- Women traveling alone or in groups should not expect to encounter any particular problems in the USA. In terms of safety issues, single women just need to practice common sense.
- When first meeting someone, don't advertise where you are staying, or that you are traveling alone. Americans can be eager to help and even take in solo travelers. However, don't take all offers of help at face value. If someone who seems trustworthy invites you to his or her home, let someone (eg hostel or hotel manager) know where you're going.
- This advice also applies if you go for a hike by yourself. If something happens and you don't return as expected, you want to know that someone will notice and know where to begin looking for you.
- Some women carry a whistle, mace or cayenne-pepper spray in case of assault. If you purchase a spray, contact a police station to find out about local regulations. Laws regarding sprays vary from state to state; federal law prohibits them being carried on planes.
- If you are assaulted, consider calling a rape-crisis hotline before calling the police, unless you are in immediate danger, in which case you should call 911. But be aware that not all police have as much sensitivity training or experience assisting sexual assault survivors, whereas rape-crisis-center staff will tirelessly advocate on your behalf and act as a link to other community services, including hospitals and the police. Telephone books have listings of local rape-crisis centers, or contact the 24-hour National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-4673). Alternatively, go straight to a hospital emergency room.