USA //

Travel essentials

Costs

When it comes to average costs for travelling expenses, much depends on where you’ve chosen to go. A road trip around the backroads of Texas and the Deep South won’t cost you much in accommodation, dining or souvenir-buying, but petrol prices will add to the expense – these vary from state to state, but at the time of writing average between $3.50 and $4 per gallon. By contrast, getting around a city such as Boston, New York or Chicago will be relatively cheap, but you’ll pay much more for your hotel, meals, sightseeing and shopping. Most items you buy will be subject to some form of state – not federal – sales tax, anywhere from less than three percent (in Colorado) to more than eight percent (in California). In addition, varying from state to state, some counties and cities may add on another point or two to that rate. Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon have no state sales tax, but goods may be liable to some other form of tax from county to county.

Unless you’re camping or staying in a hostel, accommodation will be your greatest expense while in the USA. A detailed breakdown is given in the Accommodation section but you can reckon on at least $30–50 per day, based on sharing, more or less double that if travelling solo. Unlike accommodation, prices for good food don’t automatically take a bite out of your wallet, and you can indulge anywhere from the lowliest (but still scrumptious) burger shack to the choicest restaurant helmed by a celebrity chef. You can get by on as little as $20 a day, but realistically you should aim for more like $40.

Where it exists, and where it is useful (which tends to be only in the larger cities), public transport is usually affordable, with many cities offering good-value travel passes. Renting a car, at $150–220 per week, is a far more efficient way to explore the broader part of the country, and, for a group of two or more, it could well work out cheaper. Drivers staying in larger hotels in the cities should factor in the increasing trend towards charging even for self-parking; this daily fee may well be just a few dollars less than that for valet parking.

Tipping

In the USA, waiters earn most of their income from tips, and not leaving a fair amount is seen as an insult. Waiting staff expect tips of at least fifteen percent, and up to twenty percent for very good service. When sitting at a bar, you should leave at least a dollar per round for the barkeeper; more if the round is more than two drinks. Hotel porters and bellhops should receive at least $2 per piece of luggage, more if it has been lugged up several flights of stairs. About fifteen percent should be added to taxi fares; round up to the nearest 50¢ or dollar, as well.

Crime and personal safety

No one could pretend that America is crime-free, although away from the urban centres crime is often remarkably low. Even the lawless reputations of Miami, Detroit or Los Angeles are far in excess of the truth and most parts of these cities, by day at least, are safe; at night, however, some areas are completely off-limits. All the major tourist areas and the main nightlife zones in cities are invariably brightly lit and well policed. By planning carefully and taking good care of your possessions, you should, generally speaking, have few problems.

Car crime

Crimes committed against tourists driving rented cars aren’t as common as they once were, but it still pays to be cautious. In major urban areas, any car you rent should have nothing on it – such as a particular licence plate – that makes it easy to spot as a rental car. When driving, under no circumstances should you stop in any unlit or seemingly deserted urban area – and especially not if someone is waving you down and suggesting that there is something wrong with your car. Similarly, if you are accidentally rammed by the driver behind you, do not stop immediately, but proceed on to the nearest well-lit, busy area and call t 911 for assistance. Hide any valuables out of sight, preferably locked in the trunk or in the glove compartment.

Electricity

Electricity runs on 110V AC. All plugs are two-pronged and rather insubstantial. Some travel plug adapters don’t fit American sockets.

Entry requirements

Citizens of 35 countries – including the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and most Western European countries – can enter under the Visa Waiver Program if visiting the United States for a period of less than ninety days. To obtain authorization, you must apply online for ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) approval before setting off. This is a straightforward process – simply go to the ESTA website (esta.cbp.dhs.gov), fill in your info and wait a very short while (sometimes just minutes, but it’s best to leave at least 72hr before travelling to make sure) for them to provide you with an authorization number. You will not generally be asked to produce that number at your port of entry, but it is as well to keep a copy just in case, especially in times of high-security alerts – you will be denied entry if you don’t have one. This ESTA authorization is valid for up to two years (or until your passport expires, whichever comes first) and costs $14, payable by credit card when applying. When you arrive at your port of entry you will be asked to confirm that your trip has an end date, that you have an onward ticket and that you have adequate funds to cover your stay. The customs official may also ask you for your address while in the USA; the hotel you are staying at on your first night will suffice. Each traveller must also undergo the US-VISIT process at immigration, where both index fingers are digitally scanned and a digital headshot is also taken for file. All passports need to be machine readable; any issued after October 2006 must include a digital chip containing biometric data (most countries issue these automatically nowadays, but check).

Prospective visitors from parts of the world not mentioned here require a valid passport and a non-immigrant visitor’s visa for a maximum ninety-day stay. How you’ll obtain a visa depends on what country you’re in and your status when you apply; check travel.state.gov. Whatever your nationality, visas are not issued to convicted felons and anybody who owns up to being a communist, fascist or drug dealer. On arrival, the date stamped on your passport is the latest you’re legally allowed to stay. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has toughened its stance on anyone violating this rule, so even overstaying by a few days can result in a protracted interrogation from officials. Overstaying may also cause you to be turned away next time you try to enter the USA. To get an extension before your time is up, apply at the nearest Department of Homeland Security office, whose address will be under the Federal Government Offices listings at the front of the phone book. INS officials will assume that you’re working in the USA illegally, and it’s up to you to convince them otherwise by providing evidence of ample finances. If you can, bring along an upstanding American citizen to vouch for you. You’ll also have to explain why you didn’t plan for the extra time initially.

Foreign embassies in the USA

Australia 1601 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC 20036 202 797 3000, austemb.org
Canada 501 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington DC 20001 202 682 1740, canadianembassy.org
Ireland 2234 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC 20008 202 462 3939, embassyofireland.org
New Zealand 37 Observatory Circle NW, Washington DC 20008 202 328 4800, nzembassy.com
South Africa 4301 Connecticut Ave NW, Suite 220, Washington DC 20008 202 232 4400, saembassy.org
UK 3100 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC 20008 202 588 6500, ukinusa.fco.gov.uk

Gay and lesbian travellers

The gay scene in America is huge, albeit heavily concentrated in the major cities. San Francisco, where between a quarter and a third of the voting population is reckoned to be gay or lesbian, is arguably the world’s premier gay city. New York runs a close second, and up and down both coasts gay men and women enjoy the kind of visibility and influence those in other places can only dream about. Gay public officials and police officers are no longer a novelty. Resources, facilities and organizations are endless.

Virtually every major city has a predominantly gay area and we’ve tried to give an overview of local resources, bars and clubs in each large urban area. In the rural heartland, however, life can look more like the Fifties – homosexuals are still oppressed and commonly reviled. Gay travellers need to watch their step to avoid hassles and possible aggression.

National publications are available from any good bookstore. Bob Damron in San Francisco (damron.com) produces the best and sells them at a discount online. These include the Men’s Travel Guide, a pocket-sized yearbook listing hotels, bars, clubs and resources for gay men ($18.36); the Women’s Traveller, which provides similar listings for lesbians ($15.16); the Damron City Guide, which details lodging and entertainment in major cities ($18.36); and Damron Accommodations, with 1000 accommodation listings for gays and lesbians worldwide ($19.16).

Gayellow Pages in New York (gayellowpages.com) publishes a useful directory of businesses in the USA and Canada ($25, CD-ROM edition $10), plus regional directories for New England, New York and the South. The Advocate, based in Los Angeles ($3; advocate.com) is a bimonthly national gay news magazine, with features, general info and classified ads. Finally, the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association in Fort Lauderdale, FL (954 776 2626, iglta.org), is a comprehensive, invaluable source for gay and lesbian travellers.

Health

If you have a serious accident while in the USA, emergency medical services will get to you quickly and charge you later. For emergencies or ambulances, dial 911, the nationwide emergency number.

Should you need to see a doctor, consult the Yellow Pages telephone directory under “Clinics” or “Physicians and Surgeons”. The basic consultation fee is $50–100, payable in advance. Tests, X-rays etc are much more. Medications aren’t cheap either – keep all your receipts for later claims on your insurance policy.

Foreign visitors should bear in mind that many pills available over the counter at home – most codeine-based painkillers, for example – require a prescription in the USA. Local brand names can be confusing; ask for advice at the pharmacy in any drugstore.

In general, inoculations aren’t required for entry to the USA.

Medical resources for travellers

CDC cdc.gov/travel. Official US government travel health site.
International Society for Travel Medicine istm.org. Full listing of travel health clinics.

Insurance

In view of the high cost of medical care in the USA, all travellers visiting from overseas should be sure to buy some form of travel insurance. American and Canadian citizens should check that they are already covered – some homeowners’ or renters’ policies are valid on holiday, and credit cards such as American Express often include some medical or other insurance, while most Canadians are covered for medical mishaps overseas by their provincial health plans. If you only need trip cancellation/interruption coverage (to supplement your existing plan), this is generally available at a cost of about six percent of the trip value.

Internet

With most American homes now online, cybercafés, where you can get plugged in for around $3–5 an hour on a terminal in the café, are not as common as they were. Most hotels and many coffeeshops offer free wi-fi for guests and nearly all public libraries provide free internet access, but often there’s a wait and machine time is limited. A useful website – kropla.com – has information on how to plug in a laptop when abroad, as well as handy worldwide communications info.

Mail

Post offices are usually open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm, and Saturday from 9am to noon, and there are blue mailboxes on many street corners. At time of publication, first-class mail within the USA costs 46¢ for a letter weighing up to 28 grams (an ounce), $1.10 for the rest of the world. Airmail between the USA and Europe may take a week.

In the USA, the last line of the address includes the city or town and an abbreviation denoting the state (“CA” for California; “TX” for Texas, for example). The last line also includes a five-digit number – the zip code – denoting the local post office. It is very important to include this, though the additional four digits that you will sometimes see appended are not essential. You can check zip codes on the US Postal Service website, at usps.com.

Rules on sending parcels are very rigid: packages must be in special containers bought from post offices and sealed according to their instructions, which are given at the start of the Yellow Pages. To send anything out of the country, you’ll need a green customs declaration form, available from a post office.

Maps

The free road maps distributed by each state through its tourist offices and welcome centres are usually fine for general driving and route planning.

Rand McNally produces maps for each state, bound together in the Rand McNally Road Atlas, and you’re apt to find even cheaper state and regional maps at practically any petrol station along the major highways for around $3–7. Britain’s best source for maps is Stanfords, at 12–14 Long Acre, London WC2E 9LP (020 7836 1321, stanfords.co.uk), which also has a mail-order service.

The American Automobile Association, or AAA (“Triple A”; 877 244 9790, aaa.com) provides free maps and assistance to its members, as well as to British members of the AA and RAC. Call the main number to get the location of a branch near you; bring your membership card or at least a copy of your membership number.

If you’re after really detailed maps that go far beyond the usual fold-out, try Thomas Guides ($20–40; mapbooks4u.com). Highly detailed park, wilderness and topographical maps are available through the Bureau of Land Management for the West (blm.gov) and for the entire country through the Forest Service (fs.fed.us/maps). The best supplier of detailed, large-format map books for travel through the American backcountry is Benchmark Maps (benchmarkmaps.com), whose elegantly designed depictions are easy to follow and make even the most remote dirt roads look appealing.

Money

The US dollar comes in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 denominations. One dollar comprises one hundred cents, made up of combinations of one-cent pennies, five-cent nickels, ten-cent dimes and 25-cent quarters. You can check current exchange rates at xe.com/ucc; at the time of writing one pound sterling will buy $1.50–1.55 and a euro $1.30–1.35.

Bank hours generally run from 9am to 5pm Monday to Thursday, and until 6pm on Friday; the big bank names are Wells Fargo, US Bank and Bank of America. With an ATM card, you’ll be able to withdraw cash just about anywhere, though you’ll be charged $2–4 per transaction for using a different bank’s network. Foreign cash-dispensing cards linked to international networks, such as Plus or Cirrus, are also widely accepted – ask your home bank or credit card company which branches you can use. To find the location of the nearest ATM, call AmEx (800 227 4669); Cirrus (800 424 7787); Accel/The Exchange (800 519 8883); or Plus (800 843 7587).

Credit and debit cards are the most widely accepted form of payment at major hotels, restaurants and retailers, even though some smaller merchants still do not accept them. You’ll be asked to show some plastic when renting a car, bike or other such item, or to start a “tab” at hotels for incidental charges; in any case, you can always pay the bill in cash when you return the item or check out of your room.

US travellers’ cheques are the safest way for overseas visitors to carry their money, and the better-known cheques, such as those issued by American Express and Visa, are treated as cash in most shops.

Phones

The USA currently has well over one hundred area codes – three-digit numbers that must precede the seven-figure number if you’re calling from abroad (following the 001 international access code) or from a different area code, in which case you prefix the ten digits with a 1. It can get confusing, especially as certain cities have several different area codes within their boundaries. Note that some cities require you to dial all ten digits, even when calling within the same code. Numbers that start with the digits 800 – or increasingly commonly 888, 877 and 866 – are toll-free, but these can only be called from within the USA itself.

Unless you can organize to do all your calling online via Skype (skype.com), the cheapest way to make long-distance and international calls is to buy a prepaid phonecard, commonly found in newsagents or grocery stores, especially in urban areas. These are cheaper than the similar cards issued by the big phone companies, such as AT&T, that are usually on sale in pharmacy outlets and chain stores, and will charge only a few cents per minute to call from the USA to most European and other western countries. Such cards can be used from any touchpad phone but there is usually a surcharge for using them from a payphone (which, in any case, are increasingly rare). You can also usually arrange with your local telecom provider to have a chargecard account with free phone access in the USA, so that any calls you make are billed to your home. This may be convenient, but it’s more expensive than using prepaid cards.

If you are planning to take your mobile phone (more often called cell phones in America) from outside the USA, you’ll need to check with your service provider whether it will work in the country: you will need a tri-band or quad-band phone that is enabled for international calls. Using your phone from home will probably incur hefty roaming charges for making calls and charge you extra for incoming calls, as the people calling you will be paying the usual rate. Depending on the length of your stay, it might make sense to rent a phone or buy compatible prepaid SIM cards from US providers; check triptel.com or planetomni.com. Alternatively, you could pick up an inexpensive pay-as-you-go phone from one of the major electrical shops.

Senior travellers

Anyone aged over 62 (with appropriate ID) can enjoy a vast range of discounts in the USA. Both Amtrak and Greyhound offer (smallish) percentage reductions on fares to older passengers, and any US citizen or permanent resident aged 62 or over is entitled to free admission for life to all national parks, monuments and historic sites using a Senior Pass (issued for a one-time fee of $10 at any such site). This free admission applies to all accompanying travellers in the same vehicle and also gives a fifty percent reduction on park user fees, such as camping charges.

For discounts on accommodation, group tours and vehicle rental, US residents aged 50 or over should consider joining the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons; t 888 687 2277, aarp.org) for an annual $16 fee; the website also offers lots of good travel tips and features. Road Scholar (t 800 454 5768, roadscholar.org), runs an extensive network of educational and activity programmes for people over 60 throughout the USA, at prices broadly in line with those of commercial tours.

Shopping

Not surprisingly, the USA has some of the greatest shopping opportunities in the world – from the luxury-lined blocks of Fifth Avenue in New York, the Miracle Mile in Chicago and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, to the local markets found in cities both big and small, offering everything from fruit and vegetables to handmade local crafts.

When buying clothing and accessories, international visitors will need to convert their sizes into American equivalents. For almost all purchases, state taxes will be applied.

Time

The continental US covers four time zones, and there’s one each for Alaska and Hawaii as well. The Eastern zone is five hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), so 3pm London time is 10am in New York. The Central zone, starting approximately on a line down from Chicago and spreading west to Texas and across the Great Plains, is an hour behind the east (10am in New York is 9am in Dallas). The Mountain zone, which covers the Rocky Mountains and most of the Southwest, is two hours behind the East Coast (10am in New York is 8am in Denver). The Pacific zone includes the three coastal states and Nevada, and is three hours behind New York (10am in the Big Apple is 7am in San Francisco). Lastly, most of Alaska (except for the St Lawrence Islands, which are with Hawaii) is nine hours behind GMT (10am in New York is 6am in Anchorage), while Hawaii is ten hours behind GMT (10am in New York is 5am in Honolulu). The USA puts its clocks forward to daylight saving time on the second Sunday in March and turns them back on the first Sunday in November.

Tourist information

Each state has its own tourist office. These offer prospective visitors a colossal range of free maps, leaflets and brochures on attractions from overlooked wonders to the usual tourist traps. You can either contact the offices before you set off, or, as you travel around the country, look for the state-run “welcome centres”, usually along main highways close to the state borders. In heavily visited states, these often have piles of discount coupons for cut-price accommodation and food. In addition, visitor centres in most towns and cities – often known as the “Convention and Visitors Bureau”, or CVB – provide details on the area, as do local Chambers of Commerce in almost any town of any size.

Travelling with children

Children under 2 years old go free on domestic flights and for ten percent of the adult fare on international flights – though that doesn’t mean they get a seat, let alone frequent-flier miles. Kids aged between 2 and 12 are usually entitled to half-price tickets. Discounts for train and bus travel are broadly similar. Car-rental companies usually provide kids’ car seats – which are required by law for children under the age of 4 – for around $10 a day. You would, however, be advised to check, or bring your own; they are not always available. Recreational vehicles (RVs) are a particularly good option for families. Even the cheapest motel will offer inexpensive two-bed rooms as a matter of course, which is a relief for non-US travellers used to paying a premium for a “family room”, or having to pay for two rooms.

Virtually all tourist attractions offer reduced rates for kids. Most large cities have natural history museums or aquariums, and quite a few also have hands-on children’s museums; in addition most state and national parks organize children’s activities. All the national restaurant chains provide highchairs and special kids’ menus; and the trend for more upmarket family-friendly restaurants to provide crayons with which to draw on paper tablecloths is still going strong.

For a database of kids’ attractions, shops and activities all over the USA, check the useful site gocitykids.parentsconnect.com.

Travellers with disabilities

By international standards, the USA is exceptionally accommodating for travellers with mobility concerns or other physical disabilities. By law, all public buildings, including hotels and restaurants, must be wheelchair accessible and provide suitable toilet facilities. Most street corners have dropped curbs (less so in rural areas), and most public transport systems include subway stations with elevators and buses that “kneel” to let passengers in wheelchairs board.

Getting around

The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) obliges all air carriers to make the majority of their services accessible to travellers with disabilities, and airlines will usually let attendants of more seriously disabled people accompany them at no extra charge.

Almost every Amtrak train includes one or more coaches with accommodation for handicapped passengers. Guide dogs travel free and may accompany blind, deaf or disabled passengers. Be sure to give 24 hours’ notice. Hearing-impaired passengers can get information on t 800 523 6590 (TTY/TDD).

Greyhound, however, has its challenges. Buses are not equipped with lifts for wheelchairs, though staff will assist with boarding (intercity carriers are required by law to do this), and the “Helping Hand” policy offers two-for-the-price-of-one tickets to passengers unable to travel alone (carry a doctor’s certificate). The American Public Transportation Association, in Washington DC (202 496 4800, apta.com), provides information about the accessibility of public transportation in cities.

The American Automobile Association (contact aaa.com for phone number access for each state) produces the Handicapped Driver’s Mobility Guide, while the larger car-rental companies provide cars with hand controls at no extra charge, though only on their full-sized (ie most expensive) models; reserve well in advance.

Resources

Most state tourism offices provide information for disabled travellers. In addition, SATH, the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality, in New York (212 447 7284, sath.org), is a not-for-profit travel-industry group of travel agents, tour operators, hotel and airline management, and people with disabilities. They pass on any enquiry to the appropriate member, though you should allow plenty of time for a response. Mobility International USA, in Eugene, OR (541 343 1284, miusa.org), offers travel tips and operates exchange programmes for disabled people. They also serve as a national information centre on disability.

The “America the Beautiful Access Pass”, issued without charge to permanently disabled or blind US citizens, gives free lifetime admission to all national parks. It can only be obtained in person at a federal area where an entrance fee is charged; you’ll have to show proof of permanent disability, or that you are eligible for receiving benefits under federal law.

Women travellers

A woman travelling alone in America is not usually made to feel conspicuous, or liable to attract unwelcome attention. Cities can feel a lot safer than you might expect from recurrent media images of demented urban jungles, though particular care must be taken at night: walking through unlit, empty streets is never a good idea, and, if there’s no bus service, take a taxi.

In the major urban centres, if you stick to the better parts of town, going into bars and clubs alone should pose few problems: there’s generally a pretty healthy attitude toward women who do so, and your privacy will be respected.

However, small towns may lack the same liberal or indifferent attitude toward lone women travellers. People seem to jump immediately to the conclusion that your car has broken down, or that you’ve suffered some strange misfortune. If your vehicle does break down on heavily travelled roads, wait in the car for a police or highway patrol car to arrive. If you don’t already have one, you should also rent a mobile phone with your car, for a small charge.

Women – as well as men – should never hitchhike in the USA. Similarly, you should never pick up anyone who’s trying to hitchhike. If someone is waving you down on the road, ostensibly to get help with a broken-down vehicle, just drive on by or call the highway patrol to help them.

Avoid travelling at night by public transport – deserted bus stations, if not actually threatening, will do little to make you feel secure. Where possible, team up with a fellow traveller. On Greyhound buses, sit near the driver.

Should disaster strike, all major towns have some kind of rape counselling service; if not, the local sheriff’s office will arrange for you to get help and counselling, and, if necessary, get you home. The National Organization for Women (202 628 8669, now.org) has branches listed in local phone directories and on its website, and can provide information on rape crisis centres, counselling services and feminist bookstores.

Resources and specialists

Gutsy Women Travel Anaheim, CA 866 464 8879, gutsywomentravel.com. International agency that provides practical support and organizes trips for lone female travellers.
Womanship Annapolis, MD 800 342 9295, womanship.com. Live-aboard, learn-to-sail cruises for women of all ages. Destinations may include Chesapeake Bay, Florida, the Pacific Northwest and Mystic, Connecticut.
The Women’s Travel Group Bloomfield, NJ 646 309 5607, thewomenstravelgroup.com. Arranges luxury and unusual vacations, itineraries, room-sharing and various activities for women.

Working in the USA

Permission to work in the USA can only be granted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the USA itself. Contact your local embassy or consulate for advice on current regulations, but be warned that unless you have relatives or a prospective employer in the USA to sponsor you, your chances are at best slim. Students have the best chance of prolonging their stay, while a number of volunteer and work programmes allow you to experience the country less like a tourist and more like a resident.

Study, volunteer and work programmes

American Field Service Intercultural Programs afs.org, afs.org.au, afsnzl.org.nz, afs.org/southafrica. Global UN-recognized organization running summer student exchange programmes to foster international understanding.
American Institute for Foreign Study aifs.com. Language study and cultural immersion, as well as au pair and Camp America programmes.
BTCV (British Trust for Conservation Volunteers) tcv.org.uk. One of the largest environmental charities in Britain, with a programme of unusual working holidays (as a paying volunteer) – around £300 for two months wilderness camping while restoring the deserts in Nevada, for example.
BUNAC (British Universities North America Club) bunac.com. Working holidays in the USA for international students.
Camp America campamerica.co.uk. Well-known company that places young people as counsellors or support staff in US summer camps, for a minimum of nine weeks.
Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) ciee.org. Leading NGO offering study programmes and volunteer projects around the world.
Earthwatch Institute earthwatch.org. Long-established international charity with environmental and archeological research projects worldwide.