Dangers & Annoyances
Southwestern cities generally have less violent crime than larger US cities but it is present. Take precautions:
- Avoid open areas, canyon rims or hilltops during lightning storms.
- Avoid riverbeds and canyons when storm clouds gather; flash floods are deadly.
- When camping in bear country, place your food inside a food box (one is often provided by the campground).
- Step carefully on hot summer afternoons and evenings, when rattlesnakes like to bask on the trail.
- Scorpions lurk under rocks and woodpiles; use caution.
Africanized 'killer' bees have made it to southern Arizona. Chances are you won't run into any killer-bee colonies, but here are a few things to know:
- Bees are attracted to dark colors, so hike in something light.
- Forget the perfume, and if a bee starts 'bumping' you, it could be its way of warning you that you're getting too close to the hive.
- If you do attract the angry attention of a colony, RUN! Cover your face and head with your clothing, your hands, or whatever you can, and keep running.
- Don't flail or swat, as this will only agitate them.
- They should stop following you before you make it half a mile. If you can't get that far, take shelter in a building or a car or under a blanket.
- Don't go into the water – the swarm will hover above and wait for you to come up for air.
- If you do get stung by lots of bees, get medical help. To remove the stingers, scrape them away, don't pull, which will inject more venom.
Take these precautions when driving:
- Pull off to the side of the road in dust storms and wait it out. They don't usually last long.
- Watch for livestock on highways and on Native American reservations and areas marked 'Open Rangelands.'
- Lock car doors and don't leave any valuables visible, especially at trailhead parking lots.
From printable internet coupons to coupons found in tourist magazines, there are price reductions aplenty. For lodging, pick up one of the coupon books stacked outside highway visitor centers. These typically offer some of the cheapest rates out there.
Travelers aged 50 and older can receive rate cuts and benefits at many places. Inquire about discounts at hotels, museums and restaurants before you make your reservation. US citizens aged 62 and older are eligible for the Senior Pass ($10), which allows lifetime entry into all national parks and discounts on some services (Golden Age Passports are still valid).
A good resource for travel bargains is the American Association of Retired Persons (www.aarp.org), an advocacy group for Americans aged 50 years and older.
Emergency & Important Numbers
If you need any kind of emergency assistance, call 911. Some rural phones might not have this service, in which case dial 0 for the operator and ask for emergency assistance.
|International access code||011|
|National sexual assault hotline||800-656-4673|
|Statewide road conditions||511|
Entry & Exit Formalities
US entry requirements continue to change. All travelers should double-check current visa and passport regulations well before coming to the USA.
Generally not required for stays of up to 90 days for countries in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) required (apply online in advance).
Getting into the US can be complicated and the entry requirements continue to evolve. Plan ahead. For up-to-date information about visas and immigration, start with the US State Department.
- Apart from most Canadian citizens and those entering under the VWP, all foreign visitors to the US need a visa. Pursuant 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 reexamination and bureaucratic rejigging. Check http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/english/visit/visa-waiver-program.html to see which countries are included under the waiver and for a summary of current VWP requirements.
- 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 get approval from the ESTA in advance. Register online with the Department of Homeland Security at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov at least 72 hours before arrival. The fee is $14. Canadians are currently exempt from ESTA.
- Visitors from VWP countries must still present 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 fewer and that they have a round-trip or onward ticket, adequate funds to cover the trip and binding obligations abroad.
- Every foreign visitor entering the USA from abroad needs a passport. In most cases, your passport must be valid for at least another six months after you are due to leave the USA. If your passport doesn't meet current US standards you'll be turned back at the border.
Gay & Lesbian Travellers
The most visible gay communities are in major cities. Utah and southern Arizona are typically not as freewheeling as San Francisco. Gay travelers should be careful in predominantly rural areas – simply holding hands could provoke aggressive responses.
The most active gay community in the Southwest is in Phoenix. Santa Fe and Albuquerque have active gay communities, and Las Vegas has an active gay scene. Conservative Utah has little gay life outside Salt Lake City. The following are useful resources:
- Damron (www.damron.com) Publishes classic gay travel guides.
- OutTraveler (www.outtraveler.com) News, tips and in-depth stories about gay travel for destinations around the world.
- Gay Yellow Network (www.glyp.com) Has listings for numerous US cities including Phoenix and Las Vegas.
- Purple Roofs (www.purpleroofs.com) Lists gay-owned and gay-friendly B&Bs and hotels.
- National Gay & Lesbian Task Force The website of this national activist group covers news and politics.
- Lambda Legal Defense Fund The website lists legal protections for LGBT people and their families by state.
- Public libraries in most cities and towns offer free internet access, either at computer terminals or through a wireless connection, usually for 15 minutes to an hour (a few may charge a small fee). In some cases you may need to obtain a guest pass or register.
- If you can bring your laptop do so, as most places that serve coffee also offer free wi-fi as long as you order a drink. Several national companies – McDonald's, Panera Bread, Barnes & Noble – provide free wi-fi.
- Computers with internet access can be found in small business centers in many chain hotels.
- Airports and campgrounds often offer laptop owners the chance to get online for free or a small fee.
- You may be charged for wi-fi use in nice hotels and resorts.
- Check www.wififreespot.com for a list of free wi-fi hot spots nationwide.
- If you are arrested for a serious offense in the US, you are allowed to remain silent, entitled to have an attorney present during any interrogation and are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
- You have the right to an attorney from the very first moment you are arrested. If you can't afford one, the state must provide one for free.
- All persons who are arrested are legally allowed to make one phone call. If you don't have a lawyer or family member to help you, call your embassy or consulate.
- If you are stopped by the police for everyday matters, there is no system of paying fines on the spot. The officer should explain to you how the fine can be paid, and many matters can be handled by mail or online.
ATMs widely available in cities and towns, but less prevalent on Native American land. Credit cards accepted in most hotels and restaurants.
ATMs & Cash
- ATMs are great for quick cash influxes and can negate the need for traveler's checks entirely. Watch out for ATM surcharges as they may charge $3 to $5 per withdrawal. Some ATMs in Vegas may charge more.
- The Cirrus and Plus systems both have extensive ATM networks that will give cash advances on major credit cards and allow cash withdrawals with affiliated ATM cards.
- Look for ATMs outside banks and in large grocery stores, shopping centers, convenience stores and gas stations.
- To avoid possible account-draining scams at self-serve gas stations, consider paying with cash instead of using your debit card at the pump.
Major credit cards are widely accepted throughout the Southwest, including at car-rental agencies and most hotels, restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores and tour operators. It's highly recommended that you carry at least one card.
- Banks are usually the best places to exchange currency. Most large city banks offer currency exchange, but banks in rural areas do not.
- Currency-exchange counters at the airports and in tourist centers typically have the worst rates; ask about fees and surcharges first.
For current exchange rates see www.xe.com.
- Airport & Hotel Porters Tip $2 per bag, minimum $5 per cart.
- Bartenders Tip 10% to 15% per round, minimum per drink $1.
- Housekeeping Tip $2 to $4 per night, left under card provided.
- Restaurant Servers Tip 15% to 20%, unless gratuity is included in the bill.
- Taxi Drivers Tip 10% to 15%, rounded up to the next dollar.
- Valet Parking Tip minimum $2 when keys handed back.
Most locals do not carry large amounts of cash for everyday transactions, and rely instead on credit cards, ATMs and debit cards. Small businesses may refuse to accept bills larger than $50.
Opening hours vary throughout the year. Many attractions open longer in high season. We've provided high-season hours.
Banks 8:30am to 4:30pm Monday to Thursday, to 5:30pm Friday; some open 9am to 12:30pm Saturday
Bars 5pm to midnight, to 2am Friday and Saturday
Restaurants breakfast 7am to 10:30am Monday to Friday, brunch 9am to 2pm Saturday and Sunday, lunch 11:30am to 2:30pm Monday to Friday, dinner 5pm to 9:30pm, later Friday and Saturday
Stores 10am to 6pm Monday to Saturday, noon to 5pm Sunday
Print film can be found in drugstores and at specialty camera shops. Digital-camera memory cards are available at chain retailers such as Best Buy and Target.
Some Native American reservations prohibit photography and video recording completely; when it's allowed you may be required to purchase a permit. Always ask permission to photograph someone close-up; anyone who agrees may expect a small tip.
Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Photography is full of helpful tips for photography while on the road.
- The US Postal Service provides great service for the price. For 1st-class mail sent and delivered within the US, postage rates are 49¢ for letters up to 1oz (21¢ for each additional ounce) and 34¢ for standard-size postcards.
- If you have the correct postage, drop your mail into any blue mailbox. To send a package weighing 13oz or more, go to a post office.
- International airmail rates are $1.15 for a 1oz letter or postcard.
- Call private shippers such as United Parcel Service (UPS) and Federal Express to send more important or larger items.
New Year's Day January 1
Martin Luther King Jr Day 3rd Monday of January
Presidents Day 3rd Monday of February
Easter March or April
Memorial Day Last Monday of May
Independence Day July 4
Labor Day 1st Monday of September
Columbus Day 2nd Monday of October
Veterans Day November 11
Thanksgiving 4th Thursday of November
Christmas Day December 25
- Always dial 1 before toll-free (800, 888 etc) and domestic long-distance numbers.
- Some toll-free numbers may only work within the region or from the US mainland. But you'll only know if it works by making the call.
- All phone numbers in the US consist of a three-digit area code followed by a seven-digit local number.
- All five Southwestern states require you to dial the full 10-digit number for all phone calls because each state has more than one area code. You will not be charged for long-distance fees when dialing locally.
- When calling a cell phone anywhere in the USA you need to always dial the 10-digit number; however, you do not need to dial the country code (1) when calling from within the United States.
- Pay phones aren't as readily found now that cell phones are more prevalent. But keep your eyes peeled and you'll find them. If you don't have change, you can use a calling card.
- To make international calls direct, dial 011 + country code + area code + number. An exception is to Canada, where you dial 1 + area code + number. International rates apply for Canada.
- For international operator assistance, dial 0. The operator can provide specific rate information and tell you which time periods are the cheapest for calling.
- If you're calling the Southwest from abroad, the international country code for the US is 1. All calls to the Southwest are then followed by the area code and the seven-digit local number.
Cell-phone reception can be nonexistent in remote or mountainous areas and map apps can lead you astray. Some models of unlocked mobile phones with a US chip or foreign phones with an international plan should work in areas with coverage.
- In the USA, most phones will work on US Mobile for talk, text, and data. A phone must have 1700 MHz (AWS) to get US Mobile LTE coverage. US Mobile uses 1900 MHz, common to all modern phones, for HSPA+/4G connectivity.
- Make sure to ask if roaming charges apply; these will turn even local US calls into pricey international calls.
- If your phone is unlocked, you may be able to buy a prepaid SIM card for the USA, which you can insert into your international cell phone to get a local number and voicemail.
- Even though the Southwest has an extensive cellular network, you'll still find a lot of coverage holes when you're driving in the middle of nowhere. Don't take undue risks thinking you'll be able to call for help from anywhere. Once you get up into the mountains or in isolated areas, cell-phone reception can be sketchy at best.
- Mapping apps are notorious for misleading drivers in remote areas, sometimes routing you over cliff edges! Always have a hard-copy map to check navigation.
Private prepaid phonecards are available from convenience stores, supermarkets and pharmacies. AT&T sells a reliable phone card that is widely available in the US.
Travel with Children
The Southwest is a blast for families, with entertaining attractions for all ages: national parks, aquariums, zoos, science museums, theme parks, lively campgrounds, and hiking and biking in outrageously scenic places. Geology, history and wildlife are accessible in concrete ways at every turn, making the Southwest as educational as it is fun.
Best Regions For Kids
Outdoorsy families can bike the Greenway near Grand Canyon Village and study saguaros outside Tucson. Water parks lure kids to Phoenix, while dude ranches, ghost towns and cliff dwellings are only a scenic drive away.
- New Mexico
Swoop up a mountain on the Sandia Peak Tramway, drop into Carlsbad Caverns or scramble to the Gila Cliff Dwellings.
National parks sprawl across swaths of red-rock country, offering fantastic hiking, biking and rafting. In the mountains, skis, alpine slides or snow tubes are equally fun.
- Southwestern Colorado
Chug through the San Juan Mountains on a historic steam train, relax in Ouray's hot springs or choose your adventure – hiking, fishing, skiing – in low-key Telluride.
Children are not allowed in the gaming areas of casinos, but roller coasters and animal exhibits cater to the kiddies in Las Vegas. For outdoor adventure, head to Great Basin National Park or Valley of Fire State Park.
Southwest USA for Kids
Why visit the Southwest with your family? Because it's fun. Yes, the long drives, harsh desert landscape and oppressive summer heat can be daunting, but the rewards for families far outweigh the challenges. These rewards can be found in the most mundane of activities – splashing in the creek in New Mexico's Jemez Mountains, picnicking on the edge of the Grand Canyon in Arizona or watching an old Western on the big screen at Parry Lodge's Old Barn playhouse in Kanab, UT.
Education comes easy too, with docents at museums, rangers in the parks and interpretative signage along numerous trails. Most national parks in the Southwest have a free Junior Ranger Program, with activities geared to children. Ask for details at the visitor center or check the park website before your trip for details.
Hotels and motels typically offer rooms with two beds, which are ideal for families. Some have cribs and rollaway beds, sometimes for a minimal fee (these are usually portable cribs which may not work for all children). Ask about suites, adjoining rooms and rooms with microwaves or refrigerators. Some hotels offer 'kids stay free' programs for children up to 12, and sometimes up to 18 years old. Many B&Bs don't allow children, so ask before booking.
Full-scale resorts with kids' programs, lovely grounds, full service and in-house babysitting can be found throughout the region, but particularly in Phoenix and, to a lesser degree, Tucson. For the real Western-immersion cowboy experience, complete with trail rides through the chamisa, cattle wrangling and beans 'n' corn bread 'round the fire, stay at a dude ranch, such as the Flying E Ranch in Wickenburg, AZ.
If it's late and you don't want surprises, head to a chain motel or hotel. Hilton perches at the high end of the scale, while Motel 6 and Super 8, usually the least expensive, offer minimal services. Best Western is notoriously inconsistent. Your best bets are Holiday Inn Express, Fairfield Inn & Suites and Drury Inn & Suites, which usually offers free popcorn and soda in the evening.
Beautiful campsites perfect for car-camping are easily found in national and state forests, and parks throughout the region. You can't beat the flexibility and price, and kids love it.
While the Southwest offers the usual fast-food suspects, you may find yourself driving mile after mile without a neon-lit fast-food joint anywhere. Be prepared with snacks and a cooler packed with picnic items. Many lodgings offer free breakfast.
Don't sacrifice a good meal or attractive ambience because you have kids. All but a handful of upscale restaurants welcome families and many provide crayons and children's menus. To avoid the dilemma of yet another fried meal, ubiquitous on kids' menus, simply ask for small adaptations to the standard menu, such as grilled chicken with no sauce, a side of steamed vegetables or rice with soy sauce.
- Grand Canyon National Park, AZ Explore the canyon trails.
- Oak Creek Canyon, AZ Swoosh down a red-rock waterslide at Red Rock State Park.
- Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, CO Chug into the San Juan Mountains.
- Ghost Ranch, NM Ride horses on the former property of Georgia O'Keefe.
- Wolf Mountain, UT Ski the powdery slopes.
Theme Parks & Museums
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ Take in coyotes, cacti and demos.
- Museum of Natural History & Science, Albuquerque, NM Check out the Seismosaurus in the Age of Super Giants Hall.
- Santa Fe Children's Museum, NM Visit with local artists and scientists.
- Rawhide Western Town & Steakhouse, Mesa, AZ Relive the rootin', tootin' Old West with gold panning, burro rides and shoot-outs.
- Thanksgiving Point, Salt Lake City, UT Enjoy 55 acres of gardens, a petting farm, a movie theater and golf.
- Oatman, AZ Take a photo of the burros that loiter in the middle of downtown.
- Grand Canyon Caverns, AZ Marvel at the fake dinosaurs and mummified bobcats.
- Rattlesnake Museum, Albuquerque, NM Gaze at the world's most comprehensive collection of rattlesnake species.
- International UFO Museum & Research Center, Roswell, NM Discover the truth, and lots of wild theories.
- Mexican Hat, UT Hey, that rock looks like a sombrero!
Native American Sites
- Bandelier National Monument, NM Climb four ladders to a ceremonial cave that combines education with adventure.
- Taos Pueblo, NM Explore ancient living history inside a multistory pueblo village dating to the 1400s.
- Acoma Pueblo, NM Discover this spot, aka Sky City, which sits atop a mesa 7000ft above sea level.
- Mesa Verde National Park, CO Climb into cliff dwellings for hands-on learning at its best.
- Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, AZ Match the names to the butte – Mittens, Eagle Rock.
Helpful Resources For Families
For all-around information and advice, check out Lonely Planet's Travel with Children. For outdoor advice, read Kids in the Wild: A Family Guide to Outdoor Recreation by Cindy Ross and Todd Gladfelter, and Alice Cary's Parents' Guide to Hiking & Camping.
Perhaps the most difficult part of a family trip to this region will be deciding where to go and avoiding the temptation to squeeze in too much. Distances are deceptive and any one state could easily fill a two-week family vacation. Choose a handful of primary destinations, such as major cities and national parks, to serve as the backbone of your trip. Then sit down with the map and connect these dots with a flexible driving plan.
Book rooms at the major destinations and make advance reservations for horseback rides, rafting trips, scenic train rides and educational programs or camps, but allow a couple of days between each to follow your fancy.
What to Bring
If you plan on hiking, you'll want a front baby carrier or a backpack with a built-in shade top. These can be purchased or rented from outfitters throughout the region. Older kids need sturdy shoes and, for playing in streams, water sandals.
Other things you'll want to include are towels, rain gear, a snuggly fleece or heavy sweater (even in summer, desert nights can be cold – if you're camping, bring hats) and bug repellent. To avoid children's angst at sleeping in new places and to minimize concerns about bed configurations, bring a travel playpen/bed for infants and sleeping bags for older children.
Car Seat Laws
Child restraint laws vary by state and are subject to change. The requirements listed here should be verified before departure.
Arizona law states that children under the age of five must be properly secured in a child-restraint device. Children five to seven years must use a booster seat unless they are 4ft 9in or taller. Children aged between eight and 15 years must wear a seat belt.
In Colorado, infants under the age of one year and weighing less than 20lb must be in a rear-facing infant seat in the back seat. Children aged one to three years and between 20lb and 40lb must be in a car seat. Four- to seven-year-olds must use a booster. Seat belts are required for children aged eight to 15, in both the front and back seats. Anyone 16 or older who is driving a car or is a passenger in the front seat must wear a seat belt.
Nevada requires children aged five and under, and those weighing less than 60lb, to use a child seat. In New Mexico, infants under one year must be restrained in a rear-facing infant seat in the back seat, children aged one to four or weighing less than 40lb must use a child safety seat, and five- and six-year-olds and kids weighing less than 60lb must use a booster seat.
Utah law requires children under eight years old or shorter than 4ft 9in to sit in a car seat; children who are not yet eight but who are 4ft 9in or taller can use the car seat belt alone.
Most car-rental agencies rent rear-facing car seats (for infants under one), forward-facing seats (for one to four years old or up to a certain height/weight) and boosters for around $15 per day, reserved in advance. Clarify the type of seat when you make the reservation as each is suitable for specified ages and weights only.
Children under two can fly free on most airlines when sitting on a parent's lap. Remember to bring a copy of your child's birth certificate – if the airline asks for it and you don't have it, you won't be able to board. Ask about children's fares and reserve seats together in advance. Other passengers have no obligation to switch seats. Southwest Airlines' open seating policy helps avoid this.
Travellers with Disabilities
Travel within the Southwest is getting better for people with disabilities, but it's still not easy. Public buildings are required to be wheelchair accessible and to have appropriate rest-room facilities. Public transportation services must be made accessible to all and telephone companies have to provide relay operators for the hearing impaired. Many banks provide ATM instructions in braille, curb ramps are common, many busy intersections have audible crossing signals, and most chain hotels have suites for guests with disabilities. Still, it's best to call ahead to check.
- Disabled US residents and permanent residents may be eligible for the lifetime Access Pass, a free pass to national parks and more than 2000 recreation areas managed by the federal government. Visit http://store.usgs.gov/pass/access.html.
- Accessing Arizona (www.accessingarizona.com) has information about wheelchair-accessible activities in Arizona. It's slightly out-of-date but still useful.
- For reviews about the accessibility of hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues in metropolitan Phoenix, check out www.brettapproved.com.
- Arizona Raft Adventures can accommodate disabled travelers on rafting trips through the Grand Canyon.
- The Utah tourism office has a list of programs and resources for disabled travelers in Utah at http://travel.utah.gov/publications/onesheets/Accessible_Utah_web.pdf.
- Wheelchair Getaways rents accessible vans in cities across the Southwest including Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, Las Vegas and Boulder City.
- Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
- Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality is a useful global resource for information on traveling with a disability.
Gentle haggling is generally reserved for flea markets; otherwise, expect to pay the stated price.
- Greetings Southwesterners tend to be very courteous, even when greeting strangers in small towns or at the parks; try to reciprocate.
- Tipping Respect tipping norms.
- Photography Avoid photographing individuals, including Native Americans, without consent.
- Smoking Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah ban smoking in enclosed work spaces, including restaurants and bars. Nevada's statewide ban permits smoking in bars, casinos, and designated restaurant smoking rooms.
Public toilets are common in parks and town centers; otherwise, service stations, restaurants and hotels have bathrooms for guest use.
American Southwest Covers parks and natural landscapes.
Best Friends Animal Society Has a wealth of general info. If you're volunteering at the Kanab, UT, center – working with adoptable dogs, rational horse training, etc – you may be able to bring one of the dogs to your hotel, and many hotels approve.
Bureau of Land Management Oversees public lands with recreational uses for the public.
Carson National Forest A 1.5-million-acre mountain recreation area in northern New Mexico.
Family Travel Files Ready-made vacation ideas, destination profiles and travel tips.
Grand Canyon Association Has an extensive online bookstore for the park.
Kids.gov Eclectic, enormous national resource where you can download songs and activities, and learn a bit about each state's history.
Woodall's RV website with information on campgrounds and forum for the RV community.