Gentle haggling is common in flea markets; in all other instances you’re expected to pay the stated price.
Dangers & Annoyances
Despite its seemingly apocalyptic list of dangers – violent crime, riots, earthquakes, tornadoes – the USA is actually a pretty safe country to visit. The greatest danger for travelers is posed by car accidents (buckle up – it's the law).
For the traveler it's not violent crime but petty theft that is the biggest concern. When possible, withdraw money from ATMs during the day, or in well-lit, busy areas at night. When driving, don't pick up hitchhikers, and lock valuables in the trunk of your car before arriving at your destination. In hotels, you can secure valuables in your room or hotel safes.
Pack your street smarts. In big cities, don't forget that three-card-monte card games are always rigged, and that expensive electronics, watches and designer items sold on the cheap from sidewalk tables are either fakes or stolen.
Most areas with predictable natural disturbances – tornadoes on the Great Plains, tsunamis in Hawaii, hurricanes in the South, earthquakes in California – have an emergency-siren system to alert communities to imminent danger. These sirens are tested periodically at noon, but if you hear one and suspect trouble, turn on a local TV or radio station, which will be broadcasting safety warnings and advice. Incidentally, hurricane season runs from June to November.
The US Department of Health and Human Services (www.phe.gov) has preparedness advice, news and information on all the ways your vacation could go horribly, horribly wrong. But relax: it probably won't.
Government Travel Advice
- Australia (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
- Canada (www.travel.gc.ca)
- New Zealand (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
- UK (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
The following passes can net you savings on museums, accommodations and some transport:
American Association of Retired Persons (AARP; www.aarp.org) For US travelers aged 50 and older.
International Student Identity Card (ISIC: www.isic.org) Discount card for full-time students 12 years and older; similar cards available for full-time teachers and for youth 30 years and under.
Student Advantage Card (www.studentadvantage.com) For US and foreign students.
Membership in the American Automobile Association (AAA; www.aaa.com) and reciprocal clubs in the UK, Australia and elsewhere can also earn discounts.
AC 120V is standard; buy adapters to run most non-US electronics.
Embassies & Consulates
In addition to the following foreign embassies in Washington, DC (see www.embassy.org for a complete list), most countries have an embassy for the UN in New York City. Some countries have consulates in other large cities – check online, look under 'Consulates' in the Yellow Pages, or call local directory assistance.
Emergency & Important Numbers
|USA country code||1|
|International directory assistance||00|
|International access code from the USA||011|
Entry & Exit Formalities
If you're flying to the US, the first airport that you land in is where you must go through immigration and customs, even if you're continuing on the flight to another destination. Upon arrival, all international visitors must register with the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Biometric Identity Management program, which entails having your fingerprints scanned and a digital photo taken.
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're continuing on the same plane or connecting to another one, it's your responsibility to get your bags to the right place. There are usually airline representatives just outside the customs area who can help you.
If you're a single parent, grandparent or guardian traveling with anyone under 18 years of age, carry proof of legal custody or a notarized letter from the non-accompanying 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.
For a complete list of US customs regulations, visit the official portal 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 years)
- $200 worth of gifts and purchases ($800 if you're 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, lottery tickets, items with fake brand names, and most goods made in North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan. Fruit, vegetables and other food or plant material must be declared or left in the arrival-area bins.
Every visitor entering the USA from abroad needs a passport. Visitors from most countries only require a passport valid for their intended period of stay in the USA. However, nationals of certain countries require a passport valid for at least six months longer than their intended stay. For a country-by-country list, see the latest 'Six-Month Club Update' from US Customs and Border Protection. If your passport does not meet current US standards, you'll be turned back at the border. All visitors wishing to enter the USA under the Visa Waiver Program must have an e-Passport with a digital photo and an integrated RFID chip containing biometric data.
Visitors from Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and many EU countries don't need visas for stays of less than 90 days. Citizens of other nations should check http://travel.state.gov.
Entering the USA
- Everyone arriving in the US needs to fill out the US customs declaration. US and Canadian citizens, along with eligible foreign nationals participating in the Visa Waiver Program, can complete this procedure electronically at an APC (Automated Passport Control) kiosk upon disembarking. All others must fill out a paper customs declaration, 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).
- No matter what your visa says, US immigration officers have an absolute authority to refuse admission to the country, or to impose conditions on admission. They 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.
- The Department of Homeland Security's registration program, called Office of Biometric Identity Management, includes every port of entry and nearly every foreign visitor to the USA. For most visitors (excluding, for now, most Canadian and some Mexican citizens), registration consists of having a digital photo and electronic (inkless) fingerprints taken; the process takes less than a minute.
Grounds for Exclusion & Deportation
If on your visa application form you admit to being a subversive, smuggler, prostitute, drug addict, terrorist or an ex-Nazi, you may be excluded. You can also be refused a visa or entry to the USA if you have a 'communicable disease of public health significance' or a criminal record, or if you've ever made a false statement in connection with a US visa application. However, if any of these last three apply, you're still able to request an exemption; many people are granted them and then given visas.
Communicable diseases include tuberculosis, the Ebola virus, gonorrhea, syphilis, infectious leprosy and any disease deemed subject to quarantine by Presidential Executive Order. US immigration doesn't test people for disease, but officials at the point of entry may question anyone about his or her health. They can exclude anyone whom they believe has a communicable disease, perhaps because they are carrying medical documents, prescriptions or medicine. Being an IV drug user is also grounds for exclusion. Visitors may be deported if US immigration finds out they have HIV but did not declare it. Being HIV-positive is no longer grounds for deportation, but failing to provide accurate information on the visa application is.
The US immigration department has a very broad definition of a criminal record. If you've ever been arrested or charged with an offense, that's a criminal record, even if you were acquitted or discharged without conviction. Don't attempt to enter through the VWP if you have a criminal record of any kind; assume US authorities will find out about it.
Often United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will grant an exemption (a 'waiver of ineligibility') to a person who would normally be subject to exclusion, but this requires referral to a regional immigration office and can take some time (allow at least two months). If you're tempted to conceal something, remember that US immigration is strictest of all about false statements. It will often view favorably an applicant who admits to an old criminal charge or a communicable disease, but it is extremely harsh on anyone who has ever attempted to mislead it, even on minor points. After you're admitted to the USA, any evidence of a false statement to US immigration is grounds for deportation.
Prospective visitors to whom grounds of exclusion may apply should consider their options before applying for a visa.
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 (www.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.
Short-term Departures & Re-entry
- It's temptingly easy to make trips across the border to Canada or Mexico, but on 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 re-enter 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.
- Traditionally, a quick trip across the border has been a way to extend your stay in the USA without applying for an extension at a USCIS office. Don't assume this still works. First, make sure you hand in your old immigration card to the immigration authorities when you leave the USA, and when you return make sure you have all the necessary application documentation from when you first entered the country. US immigration will be very suspicious of anyone who leaves for a few days and returns immediately hoping for a new six-month stay; expect to be questioned closely.
- Citizens of most Western countries will not need a visa to visit Canada, so it's really not a problem at all to cross to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, detour up to Québec, or 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.
- Mexico has a visa-free zone along most of its border with the USA, including the Baja Peninsula and border towns such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez. As of 2017, residents of the US, Canada, the UK, Japan, and Schengen countries (Europe) no longer need a tourist visa anywhere in Mexico. Others may need a Mexican visa or tourist card to travel beyond the border zone.
Apart from most Canadian citizens and those entering under the Visa Waiver Program, all foreign visitors will need to obtain a visa from a US consulate or embassy abroad. Most 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.
- Your passport must be valid for the entirety of your intended stay in the USA, and sometimes six months longer, depending on your country of citizenship. You'll need a recent 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.
- Visa applicants are required to show documents of financial stability (or evidence that a US resident will provide financial support), a round-trip or onward ticket and 'binding obligations' that will ensure their return home, such as family ties, a home or a job. Because of these requirements, those planning to travel through other countries before arriving in the USA are generally better off applying for a US visa while they're still in their home country, rather than while on the road.
- The most common visa is a nonimmigrant visitor's visa: type B-1 for business purposes, B-2 for tourism or visiting friends and relatives. A visitor's visa is good for multiple entries over one or five years, and specifically prohibits the visitor from taking paid employment in the USA. The validity period depends on what country you are from. The actual length of time you'll be allowed to stay in the USA is determined by US immigration at the port of entry.
- If you're coming to the USA to work or study, you will need a different type of visa, and the company or institution to which you are going should make the arrangements.
- Other categories of nonimmigrant visas include an F-1 visa for students attending a course at a recognized institution; an H-1, H-2 or H-3 visa for temporary employment; and a J-1 visa for exchange visitors in approved programs.
Visa Waiver Program
Currently under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), citizens of the following countries may enter the USA without a visa for stays of 90 days or less: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and the UK.
If you are 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 have received 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; once travel authorization is approved, your registration is valid for two years. The fee, payable online, is $14.
Visitors from VWP countries must still produce at the port of entry all the same evidence as for a nonimmigrant visa application. They must demonstrate that their trip is for 90 days or less, and that they have a round-trip or onward ticket, adequate funds to cover the trip and binding obligations abroad.
In addition, the same 'grounds for exclusion and deportation' apply, except that you will have no opportunity to appeal or apply for an exemption. If you are denied under the VWP at a US point of entry, you will have to use your onward or return ticket on the next available flight.
To stay in the USA longer than the date stamped on your passport, go to a local USCIS (www.uscis.gov) office to apply for an extension well before the stamped date. If the date has passed, your best chance will be to bring a US citizen with you to vouch for your character, and to produce lots of other verification that you are not trying to work illegally and have enough money to support yourself. However, if you've overstayed, the most likely scenario is that you will be deported. Travelers who enter the USA under the VWP are ineligible for visa extensions.
- Greeting 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 smoking has even been banned from many parks, boardwalks and beaches.
- 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).
- Punctuality Do be on time. Many folks in the US consider it rude to be kept waiting.
Gay & Lesbian Travellers
It's never been a better time to be gay in the USA. GLBT 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.
Manhattan has loads of great gay bars and clubs, especially in Hells Kitchen, Chelsea and the West Village. A few hours away (by train and ferry) is Fire Island, the sandy gay mecca on Long Island. Other East Coast cities that flaunt it are Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Massachusetts' Provincetown on Cape Cod and Delaware's Rehoboth Beach. Even Maine brags a gay beach destination: Ogunquit.
In the South, there's always steamy 'Hotlanta', and Texas gets darn-right gay-friendly in Austin and parts of Houston and Dallas. In Florida, Miami and the 'Conch Republic' of Key West support thriving gay communities, though Fort Lauderdale attracts bronzed boys and girls, too. New Orleans has a lively gay scene.
In the Great Lakes region, seek out Chicago and Minneapolis. Further west, you'll find San Francisco, probably the happiest gay city in America. There's also Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where pretty much anything goes. When LA or Vegas gets to be too much, flee to the desert resorts of Palm Springs.
Lastly, for an island idyll, Hawaii is generally gay-friendly, especially in Waikiki.
Most major US cities have a visible and open GLBT community that is easy to connect with. Same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide by the US Supreme Court in 2015, and a 2016 Pew Research survey showed a majority of Americans (55%) supporting same-sex marriage, with millennials (71%) leading the way.
The level of acceptance varies nationwide. In some places, there is absolutely no tolerance whatsoever, and in others acceptance is predicated on GLBT people not 'flaunting' their sexual preference or identity. Bigotry still exists. In rural areas and 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.
The Queerest Places: A Guide to Gay and Lesbian Historic Sites by Paula Martinac is full of juicy details and history, and covers the country. Visit her blog at www.queerestplaces.com.
Advocate (www.advocate.com) Gay-oriented news website reports on business, politics, arts, entertainment and travel.
Damron (www.damron.com) Publishes the classic gay travel guides, but they're advertiser-driven and sometimes outdated.
Gay & Lesbian National Help Center (www.glnh.org) Counseling, information and referrals.
Gay Travel (www.gaytravel.com) Online guides to dozens of US destinations.
National LGBTQ Task Force (www.thetaskforce.org) 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.
No matter how long or short your trip, make sure you have adequate travel insurance, purchased before departure. At a minimum, you need coverage for medical emergencies and treatment, including hospital stays and an emergency flight home if necessary. Medical treatment in the USA is of the highest caliber, but the expense could bankrupt you.
You should also consider getting coverage for luggage theft or loss and trip cancellation. If you already have a home-owner's or renter's policy, see what it will cover and consider getting supplemental insurance to cover the rest. If you have prepaid a large portion of your trip, cancellation insurance is a worthwhile expense. A comprehensive travel-insurance policy that covers all these things can cost up to 10% of the total outlay of your trip.
If you will be driving, it's essential that you have liability insurance. Car-rental agencies offer insurance that covers damage to the rental vehicle and separate liability insurance, which covers damage to people and other vehicles.
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. 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) in addition to wi-fi. Occasionally out-of-state residents are charged a small fee.
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, bear in mind that there is no system of 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 patrol 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 to, 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 them 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.
Bars and stores often ask for photo ID to prove you're of legal drinking age (21 years or over). Being 'carded' is standard practice; don't take it personally. The sale of liquor is subject to local government regulations – some counties prohibit liquor sales on Sunday, after midnight or before breakfast. In 'dry' counties, liquor sales are banned altogether.
In all states, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a serious offense, subject to stiff fines and even imprisonment. A blood alcohol level of 0.08% or higher is illegal in all jurisdictions.
Marijuana & Other Substances
The states have quite different laws regarding the use of marijuana, and what's legal in one state may be illegal in others. As of mid-2017, recreational use of small amounts of marijuana (generally up to 1oz/28g) was legal in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia. Another 13 states have decriminalized marijuana (treating recreational use as a civil violation similar to a minor traffic infraction), while others continue to criminalize non-medical use, punishing possession of small amounts as a misdemeanor and larger amounts as a felony. Thus, it's essential to know the local laws before lighting up – see http://norml.org/laws for a state-by-state breakdown.
Aside from marijuana, recreational drugs are prohibited by federal and state laws. Possession of any illicit drug, including cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, heroin and hashish, is a felony potentially punishable by a lengthy jail sentence. 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 accepted at most hotels, restaurants and shops.
ATMs are available 24/7 at most banks, and in shopping centers, airports, grocery stores and convenience shops. Most ATMs charge a service fee of $2.50 or more per transaction and your home bank may impose additional charges. Withdrawing cash from an ATM using a credit card usually incurs a hefty fee; check with your credit-card company first.
For foreign visitors, ask your bank or credit-card company for exact information about using its cards in stateside ATMs. If you will be relying on ATMs (not a bad strategy), bring more than one card and carry them separately. The exchange rate on ATM transactions is usually as good as you'll get anywhere. Before leaving home, notify your bank and credit-card providers of your upcoming travel plans. Otherwise, you may trigger fraud alerts with atypical spending patterns, which may result in your accounts being temporarily frozen.
Major credit cards are almost universally accepted. In fact, it's almost impossible to rent a car or make phone reservations without one (some airlines require your credit-card billing address to be in the USA – a hassle if you're booking domestic flights once in the country). It's highly recommended that you carry at least one credit card, if only for emergencies. Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com
Banks are usually the best places to exchange foreign currencies. Most large city banks offer currency exchange, but banks in rural areas may not. Currency-exchange counters at the airport and in tourist centers typically have the worst rates; ask about fees and surcharges first. Travelex (www.travelex.com) is a major currency-exchange company, but American Express (www.americanexpress.com) travel offices may offer better rates.
Tipping is not optional; only withhold tips in cases of outrageously bad service.
- Airport & hotel porters $2 per bag, minimum per cart $5
- Bartenders 15% to 20% per round, minimum per drink $1
- Hotel maids $2 to $4 per night, left under the card provided
- Restaurant servers 15% to 20%, unless a gratuity is already charged on the bill
- Taxi drivers 10% to 15%, rounded up to the next dollar
- Valet parking attendants At least $2 when handed back the keys
Typical normal opening times are as follows:
Banks 8:30am–4:30pm Monday to Thursday, to 5:30pm Friday (and possibly 9am–noon Saturday)
Bars 5pm–midnight Sunday to Thursday, to 2am Friday and Saturday
Nightclubs 10pm–4am 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
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.
For more advice on picture-taking, consult Lonely Planet's Travel Photography book.
For 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 internationally, FedEx (www.fedex.com) and UPS (www.ups.com) offer more expensive door-to-door delivery services.
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, you must go to a post office.
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, high school and college students get a week off from school so they can overrun beach towns and resorts. This occurs throughout March and April. For students of all ages, summer vacation runs from June to August.
As of 2017, 24 states, the District of Columbia and many municipalities across the US were entirely smoke-free in restaurants, bars and workplaces; an additional 11 states had enacted 100% public smoking bans in at least one of these venues. You may still encounter smoky lobbies in chain hotels and budget-minded inns, but most other accommodations are smoke-free. For more detailed state-by-state info on smoking laws, see www.cdc.gov and www.no-smoke.org.
Taxes & Refunds
Five states (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon) do not impose a statewide sales tax. Elsewhere, sales tax varies by state and county, and ranges from 5% to 10%. Hotel taxes vary by city from about 10% to more than 18% (in NYC).
The US phone system comprises regional service providers, competing long-distance carriers and several cell-phone and pay-phone companies. Overall, the system is very efficient, but it can be expensive. Avoid making long-distance calls on a hotel phone or on a pay phone. It's usually cheaper to use a regular landline or cell phone. Most hotels allow guests to make free local calls.
Telephone books can be handy resources: some list community services, public transportation and things to see and do as well as phone and business listings. Online phone directories include www.411.com and www.yellowpages.com.
Foreign phones that operate on tri- or quad-band frequencies will work in the USA. Otherwise, purchase inexpensive cell phones with a pay-as-you-go plan here.
Tri- or quad-band phones brought from overseas will generally work in the USA. However, you should check with your service provider to see if roaming charges apply, as these will turn even local US calls into pricey international calls.
It's often cheaper to buy a compatible prepaid SIM card for the USA, such as those sold by AT&T, which you can insert into your international cell phone to get a local phone number and voicemail. Telestial (www.telestial.com) offers these services, as well as cell-phone rentals.
If you don't have a compatible phone, you can buy inexpensive, no-contract (prepaid) phones with a local number and a set number of minutes, which can be topped up at will. Virgin Mobile, T-Mobile, AT&T and other providers offer phones starting around $20, with a package of minutes starting around $20 for 400 minutes, or $30 monthly for unlimited minutes. Electronics stores such as Radio Shack and Best Buy sell these phones.
Huge swathes of rural America, including many national parks and recreation areas, don't pick up a signal. Check your provider's coverage map.
If you're traveling without a cell phone or in a region with limited cell service, a prepaid phonecard is an alternative solution. Phonecards typically come precharged with a fixed number of minutes that can be used on any phone, including landlines. You'll generally need to dial an 800 number and enter a PIN (personal identification number) before placing each call. Phonecards are available from online retailers such as amazon.com and at some convenience stores. Be sure to read the fine print, as many cards contain hidden charges such as 'activation fees' or per-call 'connection fees' in addition to the per-minute rates.
All phone numbers within the USA consist of a three-digit area code followed by a seven-digit local number.
If you're calling long distance, dial 1 plus the area code plus the phone number.
Toll-free numbers begin with 800, 888, 877, 866, 855 and 844, and when dialing are preceded by 1. Most can only be used within the USA, some only within the state, and some only from outside the state. You won't know until you try dialing. The 900 series of area codes, and a few other prefixes, are for calls charged at a premium per-minute rate – phone sex, horoscopes, jokes etc.
- 1 is the international country code for the USA if calling from abroad (the same as Canada, but international rates apply between the two countries).
- Dial 011 to make an international call from the USA (followed by country code, area code and phone number).
- Dial 00 for assistance making international calls.
- Dial 411 for directory assistance nationwide.
- 800-555-1212 is directory assistance for toll-free numbers.
The USA uses daylight saving time (DST). At 2am on the second Sunday in March, clocks are set one hour ahead ('spring forward'). Then on the first Sunday of November, clocks are turned back one hour ('fall back'). Just to keep you on your toes, Arizona (except the Navajo Nation) and Hawaii don't follow DST.
The US date system is written as month/day/year. Thus, 8 June 2015 becomes 6/8/15.
The continental USA has four time zones:
- EST Eastern (GMT/UTC minus five hours): NYC, Boston, Washington, DC, Atlanta
- CST Central (GMT/UTC minus six hours): Chicago, New Orleans, Houston
- MST Mountain (GMT/UTC minus seven hours): Denver, Santa Fe, Phoenix
- PST Pacific (GMT/UTC minus eight hours): Seattle, San Francisco, Las Vegas
Most of Alaska is one hour behind Pacific time (GMT/UTC minus nine hours), while Hawaii is two hours behind Pacific time (GMT/UTC minus 10 hours).
So if it’s 9pm in New York, it’s 8pm in Chicago, 7pm in Denver, 6pm in Los Angeles, 5pm in Anchorage and 4pm (November to early March) or 3pm (rest of year) in Honolulu.
Toilets in the USA are universally of the sit-down variety and generally of high standard. Most states have rest areas with free toilets along major highways; alternatively, you can seek out toilets at gas stations, coffee shops and chain restaurants – technically these are for the use of paying customers, but you may be able to use them free of charge by asking or discreetly entering. Public buildings such as airports, train and bus stations, libraries and museums usually have free toilet facilities for public use. Some towns and cities also provide public toilets, though these are not widespread.
For links to the official tourism websites of every US state and most major cities, see www.visit-usa.com. The similarly named www.visittheusa.com is jam-packed with itinerary planning ideas and other useful info.
Any tourist office worth contacting has a website, where you can download free travel e-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 free state road maps, brochures and other travel planning materials. These offices are usually open longer hours, including weekends and holidays.
Many cities have an official convention and visitors 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 where the local chamber of commerce runs the tourist bureau, its 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 that 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
From coast to coast, you'll find superb attractions for all ages: bucket-and-spade fun at the beach, amusement parks, zoos, eye-popping aquariums and natural-history exhibits, hands-on science museums, camping adventures, battlefields, hikes in wilderness reserves, leisurely bike rides through countryside, and plenty of other activities likely to wow young ones.
Best Regions for Kids
- New York City
The Big Apple has many kid-friendly museums, plus carriage rides and rowboating in Central Park, cruises on the Hudson and theme restaurants in Times Square.
Get behind the movie magic at Universal Studios, hit the beaches, or head south to Disneyland and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. In Northern California, see redwoods, San Francisco's Exploratorium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
- Washington, DC
Washington has unrivaled allure for families, with free museums, a panda-loving zoo and boundless green spaces. Nearby, Virginia's Williamsburg is a slice of 18th-century America with costumed interpreters and fanciful activities.
Orlando's Walt Disney World® is well worth planning a vacation around. Then hit the beautiful beaches.
Ski resorts go full throttle in summer with camps, mountain biking, slides and ziplines.
The USA for Kids
Traveling with children can bring a whole new dimension to the American experience. You may make deeper connections, as locals (especially those with their own children) brighten and coo and embrace your family like long-lost cousins. From the city to the country, most facilities are ready to accommodate a child's needs.
To find family-oriented sights and activities, accommodations, restaurants and entertainment, just look for our child-friendly icon.
Dining with Children
The US restaurant industry seems built on family-style service: children are not just accepted almost everywhere, but usually are 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 restaurants may also offer children crayons and puzzles, and occasionally live performances by cartoon-like characters.
Restaurants without children's menus don't necessarily discourage kids, though higher-end restaurants might. Even at the nicer places, however, if you show up early enough (right on dinnertime opening hours, often 5pm or 6pm), you can usually eat without too much stress – and you'll likely be joined by other foodies with kids. You can ask if the kitchen will make a smaller order of a dish (also ask how much it will cost), or if it will split a normal-size main dish between two plates for the kids. Chinese, Mexican and Italian restaurants seem to be the best bet for finicky young eaters.
Farmers markets are growing in popularity in the USA, and every sizable town has at least one a week. This is a good place to assemble a first-rate picnic, sample local specialties and support independent growers in the process. After getting your stash, head to the nearest park or waterfront.
Motels and hotels typically have rooms with two beds, which are ideal for families. Some also have rollaway beds or cribs that can be brought into the room for an extra charge – but keep in mind these are usually Pack 'n' Plays (portable cots), which not all children sleep well in. Some hotels offer 'kids stay free' programs for children up to 12 or sometimes 18 years of age. Be wary of B&Bs, as many don't allow children; inquire before reserving.
Resort hotels may have on-call babysitting services; otherwise, ask the front-desk staff or concierge to help you make arrangements. Always ask if babysitters are licensed and bonded (ie they are qualified and insured), 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 childcare and 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.
Medical services and facilities in America are of a high standard, and items such as baby food, formula and disposable diapers (nappies) are widely available – including organic options – in supermarkets across the country.
Every car-rental agency 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 expect to pay $10 to $14 more per day.
Domestic airlines don't charge for children under two years. Those two and up must have a seat, and discounts are unlikely. Rarely, some resorts (eg Disneyland) offer a 'kids fly free' promotion. Amtrak, America's national train service, offers half-price fares for children 12 and under.
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. Unlike in Europe, very few popular sights have discount rates for families; those that do will help you save a few dollars compared to buying individual tickets. Most sights give free admission to children under two years.
All national parks have Junior Ranger programs that include activity booklets and badges upon completion.
- Florida Everglades Kayak, canoe or take guided walks.
- Yellowstone National Park, WY Watch powerful geysers, spy on wildlife and take magnificent hikes.
- Grand Canyon National Park, AZ Gaze across – or descend into – one of earth's great wonders.
- Black Hills, South Dakota and Wyoming State and national parks – such as Mt Rushmore – are filled with kid-friendly natural sights and adventures, and the buffalo do indeed roam free.
- New River Gorge National River, WV Go white-water rafting.
- Zion National Park, UT Wade in the Virgin River and hike to the Emerald Pools beneath the crimson canyon walls.
Theme Parks & Zoos
- Bronx Zoo, NY One of the nation's biggest and best zoos is just a subway ride from Manhattan.
- Walt Disney World®, FL With four action-packed parks spread across 27,000 acres, this is a place your children will long remember.
- Disneyland, CA Kids aged four and up appreciate the original Disneyland, while teenagers go nuts next door at California Adventure.
- San Diego Zoo Safari Park, CA A fantastic place to see creatures great and small, with more than 6500 animals spread over 1900 acres.
- Six Flags (www.sixflags.com) One of America's favorite amusement parks, with 11 locations across the country.
- Cedar Point, OH Has some of the planet's most terrifying roller coasters, plus a mile-long beachfront, a water park and live entertainment.
Traveling in Time
- Plimoth Plantation, MA Don 18th-century garb and mingle with costumed interpreters in this history-rich setting.
- Fort Mackinac, MI Plug your ears as soldiers in 19th-century garb fire muskets and cannons.
- Freedom Trail, Boston Go on a walking tour with Ben Franklin (or at least his 21st-century lookalike).
- Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, IL Fun, interactive galleries where you can learn about one of America's greatest presidents.
- St Augustine, FL Rattle along in a horse-drawn carriage through the historic streets.
- National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC Rockets, spacecraft, old-fashioned biplanes and ride simulators to inspire any budding aviator.
- American Museum of Natural History, NYC Kids of all ages will enjoy a massive planetarium, immense dinosaur skeletons and 30 million other artifacts.
- City Museum, St Louis There's a packed fun house of unusual exhibits here, plus a Ferris wheel on the roof.
- Port Discovery, Baltimore Three stories of adventure and (cleverly disguised) learning, including an Egyptian tomb, farmers market, train, art studio and physics stations.
- Pacific Science Center, Seattle Fascinating, hands-on exhibits, plus an IMAX theater, planetarium and laser shows.
- Children's Museum of Indianapolis, IN The world's largest kids' museum, with five floors of fun stuff (including dinosaur displays).
- Strawbery Banke Museum, Portsmouth, NH Role-play New England history from Colonial times through the 1940s at the interactive Family Discovery Center.
Weather and crowds are all-important considerations when planning a US family getaway. The peak travel season across the country is from 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 resort areas and heavy traffic on the roads – you'll need to reserve well in advance for popular destinations. The same holds true for winter resorts (in the Rockies, Tahoe and the Catskills) during their high season of late December to March.
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).
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.
Kids.gov (www.kids.usa.gov) Eclectic, enormous national resource. Download songs and activities, or even link to the CIA Kids' Page.
Travel BaBees (www.travelbabees.com) A 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, but 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 transport 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.
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.
Volunteer opportunities abound in the USA, and they can be a great way to break up a long trip. They can also provide truly memorable experiences: you'll get to interact with people, society and the land in ways you never would by just passing through.
Casual, drop-in volunteer opportunities are plentiful in big cities, where you can socialize with locals while helping out nonprofit organizations. Check weekly alternative newspapers for calendar listings, or browse the free classified ads online at Craigslist (www.craigslist.org). The public website Serve.gov and private websites Idealist.org and VolunteerMatch (www.volunteermatch.org) offer free searchable databases of short- and long-term volunteer opportunities nationwide.
More formal volunteer programs, especially those designed for international travelers, typically charge a hefty fee of $250 to $1000, depending on the length of the program and what amenities are included (eg housing, meals). None cover the costs of travel to the USA.
Recommended volunteer organizations:
Habitat for Humanity (www.habitat.org) Focuses on building affordable housing for those in need.
Sierra Club (www.sierraclub.org) 'Volunteer vacations' restore wilderness areas and maintain trails, including in national parks and nature preserves.
Volunteers for Peace (www.vfp.org) Grassroots, multiweek volunteer projects emphasize manual labor and international exchange.
Wilderness Volunteers (www.wildernessvolunteers.org) Weeklong trips helping maintain national-park lands and outdoor recreation areas.
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms USA (www.wwoofusa.org) Represents more than 2000 organic farms in all 50 states that host volunteer workers in exchange for meals and accommodations, with opportunities for both short- and long-term stays.
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. The community website www.journeywoman.com facilitates women exchanging travel tips, and has links to other helpful resources. The booklet Her Own Way, published by the Canadian government, is filled with general travel advice, useful for any woman; click to travel.gc.ca/travelling/publications/her-own-way to download the PDF or read it online.
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, and federal law prohibits them being carried on planes.
If you're 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 staff at rape crisis centers 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 on 800-656-4673. Alternatively, go straight to a hospital emergency room.
National advocacy groups that may be useful:
National Organization for Women (www.now.org) A grassroots movement fighting for women's rights.
Planned Parenthood (www.plannedparenthood.org) Offers referrals to women's health clinics throughout the country.
If you are a foreigner in the USA with a standard non-immigrant visitor's visa, you are expressly forbidden to partake in paid work and will be deported if you're caught working illegally. Employers are required to establish the bona fides of their employees or face fines, making it much tougher than it once was for a foreigner to get work.
To work legally, foreigners need to apply for a work visa before leaving home. A J-1 visa, for exchange visitors, is issued to young people (age limits vary) for study, student vacation employment, work in summer camps and short-term traineeships with a specific employer. One organization that can help arrange international student exchanges, work placements and J-1 visas is International Exchange Programs (IEP), which operates in Australia (www.iep.com.au) and New Zealand (www.iep.co.nz).
For nonstudent jobs, temporary or permanent, you need to be sponsored by a US employer, who will have to arrange an H-category visa. These are not easy to obtain, since the employer has to prove that no US citizen or permanent resident is available to do the job.
Seasonal work is possible in national parks and at tourist attractions and ski resorts. Contact park concessionaire businesses, local chambers of commerce and ski-resort management. Lonely Planet's Gap Year Book has more ideas on how best to combine work and travel.
Au Pair in America (www.aupairinamerica.com) Find a job as an au pair in the USA.
Camp America (www.campamerica.co.uk) Offers opportunities to work in a youth summer camp.
Council on International Educational Exchange (www.ciee.org) CIEE helps international visitors find USA-based jobs through its four work-exchange programs (Work & Travel USA, Internship USA, Professional Career Training USA and Camp Exchange USA).
InterExchange (www.interexchange.org) Camp, au pair and other work-exchange programs.