Gentle haggling is common in flea markets; in all other instances you’re expected to pay the stated price.
Dangers & Annoyances
- Hurricane season along the Atlantic seaboard extends from June through November, but the peak season is late August through October.
- The chances of encountering a hurricane are slim, but if you do, take the threat of danger seriously and pay close attention to all alerts, warnings and evacuation orders.
- When in doubt, listen to radio and TV news reports; for more information on storms and preparedness, see the National Weather Service website (www.weather.gov).
Emergency & Important Numbers
To call a number within the USA, dial 1, followed by the area code and the seven-digit number.
|USA country code||1|
|International access code||011|
|International directory assistance||00|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Entering the USA can be pretty straightforward, though at the time of writing, the Trump administration was making changes to immigration policy. Before you travel, check to see if you're affected at www.usa.gov/visas-and-visitors.
If you are flying, 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.
You'll be asked to fill out the US customs declaration form, which is usually handed out on the plane. Have it completed before you approach the immigration desk. For the question, 'US Street Address,' give the address where you will spend the first night (a hotel address is fine).
The immigration officer will look at your customs form and passport, and have you register with the Dept of Homeland Security’s Office of Biometric Identity Management. This entails having your fingerprints scanned and a digital photo taken.
The immigration officer may ask about your plans and whether you have sufficient funds. It's a good idea to list an itinerary, produce an onward or round-trip ticket and have at least one major credit card.
Travelers from some countries, ie Canada and Visa Waiver Program nations, can bypass the immigration desks and use self-service kiosks for automated passport control. Not all airports have this technology. See www.cbp.gov/travel for details on participating locations and for further eligibility requirements.
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.
Remember: your passport should be valid for at least six months longer than your intended stay in the US.
For a complete list of US customs regulations, visit the official website for US Customs and Border Protection (www.cbp.gov).
Duty-free allowance per person is 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. Forbidden items include drug paraphernalia, items with fake brand names, and most goods made in Cuba, Iran, Myanmar (Burma) and Sudan. Fruit, vegetables and other food must be declared (whereby you’ll undergo a time-consuming search) or left in the bins in the arrival area.
Visitors from Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and many EU countries do not need visas for stays of less than 90 days, with ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) approval. For other nations, see www.travel.state.gov or www.usa.gov/visas-and-visitors.
Visa Waiver Program & ESTA
Admission requirements are subject to rapid change. The US State Dept (www.travel.state.gov) has the latest information, or check with a US consulate in your home country.
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows nationals from 38 countries (including most EU countries, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) to enter the US without a visa for up to 90 days.
VWP visitors require a machine-readable passport and approval under the Electronic System For Travel Authorization (www.cbp.gov/esta) at least three days before arrival. There is a $14 fee for processing and authorization (payable online). Once approved, the registration is valid for two years.
In essence, ESTA requires that you register specific information online (name, address, passport info etc). You will receive one of three responses: ‘Authorization Approved’ (this usually comes within minutes; most applicants can expect to receive this response); ‘Authorization Pending’ (you'll need to check the status within the next 72 hours); or ‘Travel not Authorized.’ If the latter is the case, it means you will need to apply for a visa.
Those who need a visa – ie anyone staying longer than 90 days, or from a non-VWP country – should apply at the US consulate in their home country.
Canadians are exempt from the process. They do not need visas, though they do need a passport or document approved by the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (www.cbp.gov/travel/us-citizens/western-hemisphere-travel-initiative).
- Greetings Don't be overly physical when greeting someone. Some Americans will hug, urbanites may exchange cheek kisses, but most – especially men – 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.
- Politeness It's common practice to greet the staff when entering and leaving a shop ('hello' and 'have a nice day' will do). Also, Americans smile a lot (often a symbol of politeness, nothing more).
Gay & Lesbian Travellers
Big cities in the Mid-Atlantic tend to be the most tolerant, and many have long-standing gay communities. Charlottesville and other small cities with universities also tend to have more relaxed attitudes.
Mid-Atlantic cities with gay and lesbian scenes are Baltimore, MD, Richmond, VA, Washington, DC, and Delaware's Rehoboth Beach.
Most major US cities have visible and open LGBTIQ communities that are easy to connect with.
However, note that the level of public acceptance varies nationwide. In some places, there is absolutely no tolerance whatsoever, and in others acceptance is predicated on LGBTIQ people not ‘flaunting’ their sexual orientation or identity. Be aware that bigotry still exists here. In rural areas and conservative enclaves, it’s unwise to be openly out, as verbal abuse and even violence can sometimes occur. When in doubt, assume that locals follow a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. Prior to 2015, 37 states (and DC) allowed gay marriage. In 2015 the US Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. This means that no state can ban same-sex couples from getting married.
The Queerest Places: A National Guide to Gay and Lesbian Historic Sites, by Paula Martinac, covers the country and is full of juicy details and history. Visit her blog at www.queerestplaces.com.
Advocate (www.advocate.com) Gay-oriented news website reporting on business, politics, arts, entertainment and travel.
Gay Travel (www.gaytravel.com) Online guides to dozens of US destinations.
National LGBTQ Task Force (www.thetaskforce.org) The national activist group's website covers news, politics and current issues.
Out Traveler (www.outtraveler.com) Gay-oriented travel articles.
Purple Roofs (www.purpleroofs.com) Lists gay-owned and gay-friendly B&Bs and hotels.
Gaycation (www.vice.com/en_us/topic/gaycation) VICE TV's excellent documentary series on same-sex issues in the US and beyond.
Travelers will have few problems staying connected in the tech-savvy USA.
- Wi-fi (in-room, with decent speed) is common in lodgings across the price spectrum.
- Many properties also have an internet-connected computer for public use.
- Many restaurants, bars and cafes (such as Starbucks) offer free wi-fi. Some cities have wi-fi connected parks and plazas.
- If you’re not packing a laptop or other web-accessible device, try the public library. Most have public terminals (though they have time limits) and wi-fi. Occasionally out-of-state residents are charged a small fee for use.
- If you're not from the US, remember that you may need an AC adapter for your laptop (if it's not 110/220 dual-voltage), plus a plug adapter for US sockets; both are available at large electronics shops, such as Best Buy.
- For a list of wi-fi hot spots, visit www.wififreespot.com.
Note that, if you are stopped by the police, there is no system of paying traffic tickets or other fines on the spot. The officer will explain your options to you; there is usually a 30-day period to pay fines by mail.
If you are arrested, never walk away from an officer. You are allowed to remain silent, and you are entitled to have access to an attorney. The legal system presumes you’re innocent until proven guilty. All persons who are arrested have the right to make one phone call. If you don’t have a lawyer or family member to help you, call your embassy or consulate. The police will give you the number on request.
Drugs & Alcohol
In most places it’s illegal to walk with an open alcoholic drink on the street.
Being ‘carded’ (ie asked to show photo ID to prove you’re of legal drinking age, which is 21 years old) is standard practice everywhere.
Some states have ‘dry’ counties where liquor sales are banned altogether.
In all states, the blood alcohol limit is 0.08 per cent. Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a serious offense, subject to stiff fines and even imprisonment.
Delaware and Maryland treat possession of small amounts of marijuana as a misdemeanor (generally punishable with a fine of around $100 for the first offense). Adults 21 years or older may possess up to 2oz of marijuana in their residence without penalty in Washingon, DC. Since pot policy varies from state to state, it's prudent to know the local laws before lighting up.
Aside from marijuana, recreational drugs are prohibited by law. Possession of any illicit drug, including cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, heroin or hashish, is a felony potentially punishable by lengthy jail sentences.
ATMs are widely available. Credit cards are accepted at most hotels, restaurants and shops.
Most locals do not carry large amounts of cash for everyday use, relying instead on credit cards, debit cards and ATMs. Don’t, however, plan to rely exclusively on credit cards, as some machines (notably at many gas stations) won’t accept foreign cards. Smaller businesses may refuse to accept bills over $20.
ATMs are available 24/7 at most banks and in shopping centers, airports, grocery stores and convenience stores.
Most ATMs charge a service fee of $3 or more per transaction and your home bank may impose additional charges.
For foreign visitors, ask your bank for exact information about using its cards in stateside ATMs. The exchange rate is usually as good as you’ll get anywhere.
Major credit cards are almost universally accepted. In fact, it’s next to impossible to rent a car or make phone reservations without one. Visa and Mastercard are the most widely accepted.
For current exchange rates see www.xe.com.
Tipping is not optional; only withhold tips in cases of outrageously bad service.
Airport and hotel porters $2 per bag, minimum $5 per cart.
Bartenders 10% to 15% per round, minimum $1 per drink.
Hotel housekeepers $2 to $5 daily, left under the card provided.
Restaurant servers 15% to 20%, unless a gratuity is already charged on the bill.
Taxi drivers 10 to 15 per cent, rounded up to the next dollar.
Valet parking attendants At least $2 on return of keys.
Typical opening times are as follows:
Banks 8:30am–4:30pm Monday to Friday (and possibly 9am–noon Saturday)
Bars 5pm–midnight Sunday to Thursday, to 2am Friday and Saturday
Nightclubs 10pm–3am Thursday to Saturday
Post offices 9am–5pm Monday to Friday
Shopping malls 9am–9pm
Stores 9am–6pm Monday to Saturday, noon–5pm Sunday
Supermarkets 8am–8pm, some open 24 hours
The US Postal Service (www.usps.com) is reliable and inexpensive. The postal rates for first-class mail within the USA are 50¢ for letters weighing up to 1oz (21¢ for each additional ounce) and 35¢ for postcards.
International airmail rates are $1.15 for a 1oz letter or postcard.
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
- As of 2017, a little more than half the eastern states, plus Washington, DC, had enforced statewide bans on smoking in restaurants, bars and workplaces, with many municipalities enforcing controls in other states and/or in more specific ways (public areas, schools, etc).
- Smoking is allowed in restaurants and bars in Virginia if the smoking area is structurally separated, with a separate ventilation system, from non-smoking areas of the restaurants. These are not commonly seen.
- Some counties in West Virginia still have liberal attitudes toward smoking: cigarettes are inexpensive and smoking in bars and restaurants is still permitted, although sometimes smoking areas are separated.
- For the full list of exactly where smoking in public places is permitted, refer to the Americans for Non-smoker's Rights (ANR) website (www.no-smoke.org).
The US phone system mixes regional service providers, competing long-distance carriers and several cell-phone companies. Overall, the system is efficient. Calls from a regular landline or cell phone are usually cheaper than a hotel phone or pay phone.
Foreign phones operating on tri- or quad-band frequencies will work in the USA. Or purchase inexpensive cell (mobile) phones with a pay-as-you-go plan here.
Most of the USA’s cell-phone systems are incompatible with the GSM 900/1800 standard used throughout Europe and Asia (though some convertible phones will work). iPhones will work fine – but beware of roaming costs, especially for data. Check with your service provider about using your phone here.
It might be cheaper to buy a prepaid SIM card for the USA, such as those sold by AT&T or T-Mobile, which you can insert into your international mobile phone to get a local phone number and voicemail.
You can also buy inexpensive, no-contract (prepaid) phones with a local number and a set number of minutes, which can be topped up as needed. Virgin Mobile, T-Mobile, AT&T and other providers offer phones starting at $30, with a package of minutes starting at around $40 for 400 minutes.
Electronics store chain Best Buy (www.bestbuy.com) sells prepaid phones, as well as international SIM cards. Online retailer Telestial (www.telestial.com) also sells SIM cards and cell phones; it rents phones, too.
Rural swaths of the East, especially in the mountains and various national parklands, don’t pick up a signal. Check your provider’s coverage map.
All phone numbers within the USA consist of a three-digit area code followed by a seven-digit local number. Typically, if you are calling a number within the same area code, you only have to dial the seven-digit number (though if it doesn't work, try adding 1 + the area code at the beginning).
More information on dialing:
US country code 1
Making international calls Dial 011 + country code + area code + local number.
Calling other US area codes or Canada Dial 1 + area code + seven-digit local number.
Directory assistance nationwide 411
Toll-free numbers 1+ 800 (or 888, 877, 866) + seven-digit number. Some toll-free numbers only work within the US.
Prepaid phonecards are a good solution for travelers on a budget. They are available from convenience stores, supermarkets and pharmacy chains. AT&T sells a reliable phonecard that is widely available.
Toilets are of the standard Western sit-down variety, with urinals for men common in public places. That said, public toilets in the East aren't the most savory or squeaky-clean of places, and toilets in national and state parks are commonly of the pit variety: take some backup toilet paper, just in case.
The official tourism website of the USA is www.visittheusa.com. It has links to every US state tourism office and website, plus loads of ideas for itinerary planning.
Most cities and towns have some sort of tourist center that provides local information, typically operated by the convention and visitors bureau (CVB) or chamber of commerce. These entities tend to list only the businesses that are bureau/chamber members, so not all of the town’s hotels and restaurants receive coverage – keep in mind that good, independent options may be missing.
A few websites to get you started:
West Virginia (www.gotowv.com)
Washington, DC (www.washington.org)
Travel with Children
Across the Mid-Atlantic, you’ll find fun distractions for all ages: bucket-and-spade adventures at the beach, amusement parks, zoos, eye-popping aquariums and natural-history exhibits, hands-on science museums, camping adventures, battlefields, leisurely bike rides through the countryside and plenty of other activities likely to wow young ones.
Best Regions for Kids
- Washington, DC & the Capital Region
Washington, DC, has unrivaled allure for families, with free museums, a panda-loving zoo and boundless green spaces. Virginia’s Williamsburg is a slice of 18th-century America with costumed interpreters and fanciful activities.
Keep the kids busy with Baltimore's aquarium, science center and various historic parks. For the beach-and-boardwalk scene, head to Ocean City. Active families will enjoy the C&O Canal National Historic Park.
Spend a few days in the Historic Triangle for a history-themed trip then hit a regional amusement park. There's hiking and wildlife watching in Shenandoah National Park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
- West Virginia
Head to the coast for boardwalk adventures and easy paddle trips through salt marshes.
- Shenandoah National Park, VA Hike and look for wildlife.
- New River Gorge National River, WV Go white-water rafting.
- Cape Henlopen State Park, DE Cycle trails near the coast.
- Upper James River Water Trail, VA Hop in a tube and float in the shadows of mountains.
- Deep Creek Lake, MD It's all about the water sports in this big mountain lake.
Pondering the Past
- Williamsburg, VA Don 18th-century garb and mingle with costumed interpreters in the history-rich triangle where America began.
- Great Falls Tavern, MD Take a ride in an 18th-century canal boat on the Potomac River.
- Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, WV Wander through the historic buildings to learn the town's role in John Brown's raid.
- Mount Vernon, VA Tour the home of the America's first president and learn about his passions and accomplishments.
Rainy Day Activities
- National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC Inspire budding aviators with rockets, spacecraft, old-fashioned biplanes and ride simulators.
- National Aquarium, MD Roam the seven stories to shudder at blacktip reef sharks and smile at the clownfish.
- Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, WV Take a ride 1500ft into a former coal mine and learn about mining life.
- American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, VA The 4D Movie The Siege will jolt you to attention as you learn about the great battle ending the Revolutionary War.
To find family-oriented accommodations and restaurants among our reviews, just look for the child-friendly icon.
When to Go
- Peak travel season is June to August, when schools are out and the weather is warmest. Expect high prices and abundant crowds – meaning long lines at amusement and water parks, fully booked resorts and heavy traffic on the roads; book well in advance for popular destinations.
- High season for winter resorts (in Virginia and West Virginia) runs from late December through March.
Need to Know
- Many public toilets have a baby-changing table (sometimes in men’s toilets, too), and gender-neutral ‘family’ facilities appear in airports.
- Medical services and facilities in America are of a high standard.
- Items such as baby food, formula and disposable diapers (nappies) are widely available – including organic options – in supermarkets across the country.
- Single parents or guardians traveling with anyone under 18 should carry proof of legal custody or a notarized letter from the non-accompanying parent(s) authorizing the trip. This isn’t required, but it can help avoid potential problems entering the USA.
out For all-round information and advice, check out Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children. To get the kids excited, check out Not for Parents: USA (also by Lonely Planet), filled with cool stories about candy bars, astronauts, heroic animals and more.
Baby's Away (www.babysaway.com) Rents cribs, high chairs, car seats, strollers and even toys at locations across the country.
Family Travel Files (www.thefamilytravelfiles.com) Ready-made vacation ideas, destination profiles and travel tips.
Travel BaBees (www.travelbabees.com) Another reputable baby-gear rental outfit, with locations nationwide.
Travellers 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.
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; bring documentation.
Some car rental agencies, such as Budget 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 and will 'kneel' if you are unable to use the steps; just let the driver know that you need the lift or ramp.
Most cities have taxi companies with at least one accessible van, though you'll have to call ahead. Cities with underground transportation have varying levels of facilities such as elevators for passengers needing assistance – DC has the best network (every station has an elevator), while NYC has elevators in about a quarter of its stations.
Many national and some state parks and recreation areas have wheelchair-accessible paved, graded-dirt or boardwalk trails. US citizens and permanent residents with permanent disabilities are entitled to a free 'America the Beautiful' Access Pass. Go online (www.nps.gov/findapark/passes.htm) for details.
For tips on travel and thoughtful insight on traveling with a disability, check out online posts by Martin Heng, Lonely Planet's Accessible Travel Manager: twitter.com/martin_heng. Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guides from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
Some helpful resources for travelers with disabilities:
Disabled Sports USA (www.disabledsportsusa.org) Offers sport, adventure and recreation programs for those with disabilities. Also publishes Challenge magazine.
Flying Wheels Travel (www.flyingwheelstravel.com) A full-service travel agency, highly recommended for those with mobility issues or chronic illness.
Mobility International USA (www.miusa.org) Advises USA-bound disabled travelers on mobility issues, and promotes the global participation of people with disabilities in international exchange and travel programs.