Bargaining is not really a thing in Northern California.

Dangers & Annoyances

Despite its seemingly apocalyptic list of potential dangers – guns, violent crime, riots, earthquakes – California is a reasonably safe place to visit.

  • The greatest danger is posed by car accidents (buckle up – it’s the law).
  • The biggest annoyances are city traffic and crowds.
  • Wildlife and riptides pose some small threats.
  • Natural disasters are unlikely but possible

Discount Cards

  • ‘America the Beautiful’ Annual Pass (12-month pass $80) Admits four adults and all children under 16 years for free to all national parks and federal recreational lands (eg USFS, BLM) for 12 months from the date of purchase. US citizens and permanent residents aged 62 years and older are eligible for a lifetime Senior Pass ($10), which grants free entry and 50% off some recreational-use fees such as camping.
  • International Student Identity & Youth Travel Cards (12-month card $25) Offers savings on airline fares, travel insurance and local attractions for full-time students (ISIC) and for nonstudents under 26 years of age (IYTC). Cards are issued by student unions, hosteling organizations and youth-oriented budget travel agencies.
  • Senior Discounts People over the age of 65 (sometimes 55, 60 or 62) often qualify for the same discounts as students; any ID showing your birth date should suffice as proof.
  • Go San Francisco Card (one-day pass adult/child three to 12 years from $65/49) Covers museums, bicycle rental and bay cruises. You’ve got to do a lot of sightseeing over multiple days to make the pass pay off. For discounts, buy online.
  • Student Advantage Card (12-month card $22.50) For international and US students, offers 15% savings on Amtrak trains and 20% on Greyhound buses, plus discounts of 10% to 20% on some rental cars and shopping.


  • Electricity 110/120V AC, 50/60Hz

Emergency & Important Numbers

Country code1
International access code011
Emergency (ambulance, fire & police)911
Directory assistance (local)411

Entry & Exit Formalities

Entering the Region

Under the US Department of Homeland Security’s Orwellian-sounding Office of Biometric Identity Management, almost all visitors to the USA (excluding, for now, many Canadians, some Mexicans, children under age 14 and seniors over age 79) will be digitally photographed and have their electronic (inkless) fingerprints scanned upon arrival.

Regardless of your visa status, immigration officers have absolute authority to refuse entry to the USA. They may ask about your plans and whether you have sufficient funds; it’s good to list an itinerary, produce onward or round-trip tickets, and have at least one major credit card. Don’t make too much of having friends, relatives or contacts in the US, because officers may think you're more likely to overstay. For more information about entering the USA, visit the website of US Customs & Border Protection (

California is an important agricultural state. To prevent the introduction of pests and diseases, certain foods (including meats, fresh fruit and vegetables) may not be brought into the state. Bakery items, chocolates and hard-cured cheeses are admissible. If you drive into California from Mexico, or from the neighboring states of Oregon, Nevada or Arizona, you may have to stop for quick questioning and inspection by California Department of Food & Agriculture ( agents.


  • Under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), all travelers must have a valid machine-readable passport (MRP) when entering the USA by air, land or sea.
  • There's an exception for some US, Canadian and Mexican citizens who can present other WHTI-compliant documents (eg pre-approved ‘trusted traveler’ cards). For details, check
  • All foreign passports must meet current US standards and be valid for at least six months beyond your intended stay.


Visa information is highly subject to change. Double-check current visa requirements before coming to the USA on the State Department's US Visa website (

Additional Visa Info

  • Currently, under the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), visas are not required for citizens of 38 countries for stays of up to 90 days (no extensions), as long as your passport meets current US standards. See the website of US Customs & Border Protection (
  • Citizens of VWP countries must still register online with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA; at least 72 hours before travel. Once approved, ESTA registration ($14) is valid up to two years or your passport's expiration date, whichever comes first.
  • For most Canadian citizens traveling with Canadian passports that meet current US standards, a visa for short-term visits (usually up to six months) and ESTA registration aren’t required.
  • Citizens from all other non-VWP countries, or whose passports don’t meet US standards, should apply for visas in their home country. The process costs a nonrefundable $160, involves a personal interview and can take several weeks. Apply as early as possible.


Northern California is an anything-goes kind of place. But abide by the following:

  • Drinking Don’t get too drunk wine tasting.
  • San Francisco Don’t call it ‘Frisco’: locals say 'SF.' Only flight attendants use 'San Fran.'
  • Smoking Don’t smoke indoors.

Gay & Lesbian Travellers

Northern California is a magnet for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender travelers. Hot spots include San Francisco's Castro District, along with Guerneville and Calistoga, both in Wine Country. Same-sex marriage is legal in California. Despite widespread tolerance, homophobic bigotry still exists. In small towns, especially away from the coast, tolerance often comes down to 'don't ask, don't tell.'

Helpful Resources

Damron ( Classic, advertiser-driven gay travel guides and ‘Gay Scout’ mobile app.

Gay & Lesbian National Hotline (; 888-843-4564) For counseling and referrals of any kind.

Out Traveler ( Free online magazine with travel tips, destination guides and hotel reviews.

Purple Roofs ( Online directory of LGBTQ accommodations.


Getting travel insurance to cover theft, loss and medical problems is highly recommended. Some policies do not cover ‘risky’ activities such as scuba diving, motorcycling and skiing: read the fine print! Make sure the policy at least covers hospital stays and an emergency flight home.

Paying for your airline ticket or rental car with a credit card may provide limited travel accident insurance. If you already have private health insurance, or a homeowner's or renter's policy, find out what those policies cover and only get supplemental insurance. If you have prepaid a large portion of your vacation, trip cancellation insurance may be a worthwhile expense.

Worldwide travel insurance is available at You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.

Checking insurance quotes…

Internet Access

  • Internet cafes typically charge $8 to $15 per hour for online access.
  • With branches in most cities and towns, FedEx offers internet access at self-service computer workstations (50¢ to 75¢ per minute) and sometimes free wi-fi, plus digital-photo printing and CD-burning stations.
  • Plenty of accommodations, cafes, restaurants and bars provide wireless access; some have online computer kiosks. There may be a charge for either.
  • Wi-fi hot spots (free or fee-based) can be found at major airports; many hotels, motels and coffee shops (eg Starbucks); and some tourist information centers, campgrounds (eg KOA), stores (eg Apple), bars and restaurants (including fast-food chains such as McDonald's).
  • Public libraries have internet terminals, although online time may be limited, advance sign-up may be required and a nominal fee for out-of-network visitors may apply. Libraries also increasingly have free wi-fi access.


  • Newspapers San Francisco Chronicle (, San Jose Mercury News (, Sacramento Bee (, East Bay Times (
  • Radio National Public Radio (NPR), lower end of FM dial.


ATMs and banks widely available. Credit cards required for car and hotel reservations. Checks rarely accepted. Tipping is customary, not optional.

Exchange Rates

New ZealandNZ$$0.70

For current exchange rates see


Tipping is not optional. Only withhold tips in cases of outrageously bad service.

  • Airport skycaps & hotel bellhops $2 per bag
  • Bartenders Minimum $1 per drink
  • Concierges Up to $20 for securing last-minute restaurant reservations, sold-out show tickets etc
  • Housekeeping $2 to $4 daily
  • Parking valets At least $2
  • Restaurant/room-service waiters, hairdressers, massage therapists 15% to 20%
  • Taxi Drivers 10% to 15% of metered fare


  • ATMs are available 24/7 at most banks, shopping malls, airports, and grocery and convenience stores.
  • Expect a surcharge of $3 to $4 per transaction, in addition to fees from your home bank.
  • Most ATMs are connected to international networks and offer decent foreign-exchange rates.
  • Withdrawing cash from an ATM using a credit card incurs hefty fees and high interest rates.


Most people do not carry large amounts of cash for everyday use, relying instead on credit cards, ATMs and debit cards. Some businesses refuse bills over $20.

Credit Cards

Major credit cards are almost universally accepted. You'll need one to rent a car, book a room or buy tickets over the phone. Visa, MasterCard and American Express are the most widely accepted.


  • You can exchange money at major airports, some banks and all currency-exchange offices such as American Express ( or Travelex ( Always inquire about rates and fees.
  • Outside cities, exchanging money may be impossible. Carry sufficient cash and/or a credit card.


  • The California state sales tax of 7.25% is added to the price of most goods and services
  • Gasoline is heavily and increasingly taxed in California; by July 2019 drivers will be paying 58.3¢ on the gallon, plus another 18.4¢ in federal tax.
  • Local and city sales taxes may add up to 1.5% more.
  • Hotel taxes vary statewide, but currently average at around 12%. In San Francisco, it's 14%.

Traveler's Checks

  • Traveler’s checks have pretty much fallen out of use.
  • Larger restaurants, hotels and department stores will often accept traveler’s checks (in US dollars only), but small businesses, markets and fast-food chains may refuse them.
  • Visa and American Express are the most widely accepted issuers of traveler’s checks.

Opening Hours

Standard opening hours:

Banks 9am to 5pm Monday to Thursday, to 6pm Friday, some 9am to 12:30pm Saturday

Bars 5pm to 2am daily (to midnight in rural areas)

Business hours (general) 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday

Nightclubs 9pm to 2am Thursday to Saturday

Post offices 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday, some 9am to noon Saturday

Restaurants 7am to 10:30am, 11:30am to 2:30pm and 5pm to 9:30pm daily, some later Friday and Saturday

Shops 10am to 6pm or 7pm Monday to Saturday, noon to 5pm Sunday (malls open later)


  • The US Postal Service is inexpensive and reliable.
  • For sending important letters or packages, also consider FedEx or UPS.

Public Holidays

On national 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

Caesar Chavez Day March 31

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 Day Fourth Thursday in November

Christmas Day December 25

School Holidays

  • Colleges take a one- or two-week ‘spring break’ around Easter, sometime in March or April. Some hotels and resorts, especially on the coast and in the mountains, increase their rates during this time.
  • Summer vacations run from early June to late August, making July and August the busiest travel months.


  • Smoking Generally prohibited inside restaurants and public buildings, including airports, shopping malls and train and bus stations; at hotels, you must request a smoking room (some hotels are entirely nonsmoking).


Dialling Codes

  • US phone numbers consist of a three-digit area code followed by a seven-digit local number.
  • When dialing a number within the same area code, use the seven-digit number.
  • If you are calling outside your area code, dial 1 plus the area code plus the phone number.
  • Toll-free numbers begin with 800, 855, 866, 877 or 888 and must be preceded by 1.
  • For direct international calls, dial 011, plus the country code, plus the city code (without the initial ‘0’), plus the local phone number.
  • For international call assistance, dial 00 – but if the operator places the call it will be very expensive.
  • If you’re calling from abroad, the US country code is 1 – the same as Canada, but beware international rates apply between the two countries.

Mobile Phones

Foreign GSM multiband phones will work in the USA. Prepaid cell phones are widely available. Coverage can be spotty in remote areas.

More Information

  • You’ll need a multiband GSM phone in order to make calls in the US.
  • SIM cards are sold at telecommunications and electronics stores. These stores also sell inexpensive prepaid phones.
  • You can rent a cell phone at San Francisco airport from TripTel (; pricing plans vary, but typically are expensive.

Payphones & Phonecards

  • Where payphones still exist, they are usually coin-operated, although some may only accept credit cards (eg in national parks).
  • Local calls usually cost 50¢ minimum.
  • For long-distance calls, you’re usually better off buying a prepaid phonecard, sold at convenience stores, supermarkets, newsstands and electronics stores.


Public toilets are common, free and in most cases well-maintained. In an effort to bolster transgender rights, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation requiring restrooms for single users to be designated all-gender in 2016.

Tourist Information

  • For pre-trip planning, peruse the information-packed website of the California Travel & Tourism Commission (
  • The California Travel & Tourism Commission operates nearly 20 California Welcome Centers ( around the state, where staff dispense maps and brochures and help find accommodations.
  • Almost every city and town has a local visitor center or a chamber of commerce where you can pick up maps, brochures and information.

Travel with Children

Young travelers love Northern California. It's an adventurous destination, and it's also safe for family travel. Because of the coast's mild climate, you can cycle, hike or beachcomb February to November. In winter there's great skiing in Tahoe. And year-round, you'll find family-friendly museums and indoor entertainment galore in the region's cities.

Best Regions for Kids

  • San Francisco & the Bay Area

In San Francisco, explore hands-on, whimsical science museums, hear the barking sea lions at Pier 39, traipse through Golden Gate Park and along that famous bridge, and make new friends at the city's many playgrounds.

  • Yosemite & the Sierra Nevada

Kids will gawk at Yosemite’s waterfalls and granite domes and can hike through ancient groves of giant sequoias, the world’s most massive living things. Mammoth Lakes is a four-seasons family adventure base camp, as are some of the resorts at Lake Tahoe, notably Squaw Valley, Heavenly and Northstar.

  • Gold Country

Young imaginations run wild in Gold Country, ignited by tall tales of rough-n-tumble forty-niners, gun-slinging bandits and treasure-hunters. Connect with the Wild West in historic towns such as Columbia State Historic Park and Nevada City. In late summer and fall, gather apples together at you-pick-'em orchards.

Northern California for Kids

Northern California has ample services and attractions geared toward kids. National and state parks often have ranger-led activities and self-guided ‘Junior Ranger’ programs, in which kids earn a badge after completing learning-based scavenger hunts.


Children’s discounts are available for everything from museum admissions to bus fares. The definition of a ‘child’ varies – in some places anyone under 18 is eligible, while at others the cut-off is age six.

Dining Out

Kids are welcomed at casual restaurants, which often have high chairs, children’s menus, and paper place mats and crayons for drawing.


Many public toilets have a change table, while places such as airports and museums may have gender-neutral, private ‘family’ bathrooms.

Children’s Highlights

Aquariums & Museums

  • San Francisco The Bay Area is a mind-bending classroom for kids, especially the hands-on Exploratorium, the multimedia Children’s Creativity Museum and the eco-friendly California Academy of Sciences.
  • Chabot Space & Science Center Stargazers will go gaga over this kid-oriented science and technology center in the Oakland Hills.
  • Bay Area Discovery Museum Excellent hands-on museum in the Marin Headlands, with multilingual exhibits including a wave workshop, a small underwater tunnel and a large outdoor play area with a shipwreck.
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium Get acquainted with the denizens of the deep next door to the Central Coast’s biggest marine sanctuary.
  • Seymour Marine Discovery Center Santa Cruz’ university-run aquarium makes interactive science fun, with nearby tide pools for exploring at the beach.
  • Turtle Bay Exploration Park In Redding, this indoor-outdoor attraction combines an eco-museum with arboretum, botanical and butterfly gardens.


  • Central Coast Beach towns line the coast, from Pismo Beach all the way north to Santa Cruz, famous for its beachside boardwalk and pier.
  • Lake Tahoe In summer, it’s California’s favorite high-altitude beach escape, a sparkling jewel in the craggy Sierra Nevada mountains.
  • North Coast No swimming – the water is too rough – but plenty of chances for beachcombing, collecting shells and building sandcastles on uncrowded beaches. The giant driftwood trunks of redwood trees strewn on the sand are ready-made climbing structures.


  • Yosemite National Park The ultimate in Sierra Nevada scenery, with gushing waterfalls, alpine lakes, glacier-carved valleys and 2-mile-high peaks.
  • Golden Gate Park The giant green swath in the heart of San Francisco has grassy areas for lounging, strolling ice-cream vendors, a carousel, children's playgrounds, model boating and plenty of space to fly a kite.
  • Redwood National and State Parks On the fog-shrouded North Coast, a patchwork of nature reserves protect magnificent wildlife, beaches and the world’s tallest trees.
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park An off-the-beaten-path destination in the Northern Mountains, with otherworldly volcanic scenery and lakeside camping and cabins.
  • Columbia State Historic Park Like a miniature gold-rush Disneyland, but with more authenticity and heart.


When to Go

Family travel is viable year-round in Northern California, but some family-centric attractions close during winter – check individual listings. Explore the coast from spring through fall. Once winter's rains arrive, consider a ski trip to the mountains.


Motels and hotels often have rooms with two beds or an extra sofa bed, ideal for families. Many hotels have roll-away beds or cots, sometimes for a surcharge. Most offer ‘kids stay free’ promotions, provided the kids are under 18 and traveling with their parents. Some B&Bs don’t allow children; ask when booking.

Resorts may have drop-off day camps for kids or on-call babysitting services. At other hotels, the front-desk staff or concierge may be able to help you make babysitting arrangements, whereby the sitter comes to your hotel room. Make sure the sitter is licensed, bonded and fully insured.


Airlines usually allow infants (up to age two) to fly for free, while older children requiring a seat of their own qualify for reduced fares. Children receive substantial discounts on Amtrak and Greyhound. In cars, any child under age eight must be buckled up in the back seat in a child or infant safety seat, unless they're over 4ft 9in tall, in which case they may ride in front with a seat belt.

Most car-rental agencies rent safety seats for about $10 per day or up to $80 per trip, but you must book them in advance. Hertz offers AAA members one free child seat. Take note: rest stops on freeways are few and far between, and gas stations and fast-food bathrooms are frequently icky.

A word of advice: don’t pack your schedule too tightly. Navigating metro areas, such as San Francisco, and the winding back roads to Northern California’s natural areas always takes longer than expected.

What to Pack

There are two magic words for traveling in Northern California: sunscreen and layers.

The first of these is always necessary, even where cool, high-altitude climates and overcast skies lull visitors into a false sense of security – the higher the elevation, the thinner the atmosphere, especially in the High Sierra. The second is an absolute must: a day that is blisteringly hot in the Gold Country can be chilly in the Sierra and downright bone-chilling on the coast. This is particularly true in San Francisco, where the weather changes fast.

For outdoor vacations, bring broken-in shoes and your own camping equipment. Alternatively, outdoors gear can be purchased or often rented from outdoor stores. But remember that brand-new hiking shoes often result in blisters, and setting up a new tent in the dark ain’t easy.

If you forget some critical piece of equipment, Baby’s Away ( rents cribs, strollers, car seats, high chairs, backpacks, beach gear and more.

Before You Go

  • For all-round information and advice, check out Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children.
  • ( lets you ask questions and get advice from other travelers on the Thorn Tree’s ‘Kids to Go’ and ‘USA’ forums.
  • California Travel & Tourism (, the state’s official visitor website, lists family-friendly attractions, activities and more – just search for ‘Family Fun’ and ‘Events.’
  • Family Travel Files ( is an info-packed site with vacation-planning articles, tips and discounts.

Feature: How Old Is Old Enough?

Naturally some outdoor activities will be easier to master than others. Those as young as five can take part in paddling and skiing. Horseback riding is a good choice for kids aged seven and up, and there are plenty of pleasant hikes easy enough for little legs. Teens will love the challenge of rock climbing, white-water rafting and surfing.

Travellers with Disabilities

Northern California is reasonably well-equipped for travelers with disabilities.


  • Telephone companies provide relay operators (dial 711) for the hearing impaired.
  • Many banks provide ATM instructions in braille.

Mobility & Accessibility

  • Most intersections have dropped curbs and sometimes audible crossing signals.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires public buildings built after 1993 to be wheelchair-accessible, including restrooms.
  • Motels and hotels built after 1993 must have at least one ADA-compliant accessible room; state your specific needs when making reservations.
  • For nonpublic buildings built prior to 1993, including hotels, restaurants, museums and theaters, there are no accessibility guarantees; call ahead to find out what to expect.
  • Most national and many state parks and some other outdoor recreation areas offer paved or boardwalk-style nature trails accessible by wheelchairs.
  • US citizens and permanent residents with a permanent disability qualify for a free lifetime ‘America the Beautiful’ Access Pass (, which waives entry fees to all national parks and federal recreational lands and offers 50% discounts on some recreation fees (eg camping).
  • California State Parks’ disabled discount pass ($3.50) entitles those with permanent disabilities to 50% off day-use parking and camping fees; for an application, go to

Helpful Resources

  • A Wheelchair Rider’s Guide to the California Coast ( Free accessibility information covering beaches, parks and trails, plus a downloadable PDF guide to the San Francisco Bay Area coast.
  • Access Northern California ( Extensive links to accessible-travel resources, including outdoor recreation opportunities, lodgings, tours and transportation.
  • Access San Francisco Guide ( Search the city's official tourism site for this free, downloadable PDF guide – dated, but useful.
  • Access Santa Cruz County ( Free online accessible-travel guide for visiting Santa Cruz and around, including restaurants, lodging, beaches, parks and outdoor recreation.
  • Accessible Travel ( Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide.
  • California State Parks ( Searchable online map and database of accessible features at state parks.
  • Flying Wheels Travel Full-service travel agency for travelers with disabilities, mobility issues and chronic illnesses.


  • All major airlines, Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains can accommodate people with disabilities, usually with 48 hours' advance notice.
  • Major car-rental agencies offer hand-controlled vehicles and vans with wheelchair lifts at no extra charge, but you must reserve these well in advance.
  • For wheelchair-accessible van rentals, try Wheelchair Getaways in San Francisco, or Mobility Works in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento, Fresno and Chico.
  • Local buses, trains and subways usually have wheelchair lifts.
  • Seeing-eye dogs are permitted to accompany passengers on public transportation.
  • Taxi companies should have at least one wheelchair-accessible van, but you’ll need to call ahead.


Casual drop-in volunteer opportunities are most common in cities, where you can socialize with locals while helping out nonprofit organizations. Browse upcoming projects and sign up online with local organizations such as San Francisco’s One Brick ( or HandsOn Bay Area ( For more opportunities, check local alternative weekly newspapers and Craigslist (

Helpful Resources

California Volunteers ( State-run volunteer directory and matching service, with links to national service days and long-term programs.

Habitat for Humanity ( Nonprofit organization that helps build homes for impoverished families across California; has day, weekend and week-long projects.

Idealist ( Free searchable database that includes both short- and long-term volunteer opportunities.

Sierra Club ( Day or weekend projects and longer volunteer vacations (including for families) that focus on environmental conservation (annual membership $25).

Wilderness Volunteers ( Week-long trips that help maintain national parks, preserves, forests, seashores and other wilderness conservation and outdoor recreation areas.

Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms ( Long-term volunteering opportunities on local organic farms (annual membership from $30).

Weights & Measures

  • Weights & Measures The imperial system is used.