United States of America
The United States of America ("USA", "US", "United States", "America", or "The States") is a large country in central and north-western North America. The USA also includes several Pacific islands (primarily represented by the state of Hawaii) and an unincorporated Caribbean territory (the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico). One of the largest and richest countries in the world, it has a mixture of densely-populated urban areas with wide areas of low population and incredible natural beauty. With a history of immigration dating to the 17th century, the USA prides itself on its "melting pot" of different cultures from around the globe. Even the briefest visit to the United States is a study in contrasts.
The USA stretches across the breadth of central North America, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, with non-contiguous states in the Arctic circle and in the equatorial region of the Pacific ocean. Its regions are far-flung and various. Following is a rough grouping of the country into regions relevant to the traveler:
Politically, the USA is divided into independent entities called states (thus the name); see list of American States for a full listing.
America has over 10,000 cities, towns, and villages. The following is a list of the most famous among travelers.
Other cities can be found in their corresponding regions.
These are some of the larger and more famous destinations outside of major cities.
The USA is difficult to characterize because of its size and diversity, diversity in both geography and in people, but an overview will help travelers to see these differences and perhaps help to find what it is that interests them most, since it is not realistic to see a little of everything unless one has a very long time to spend indeed. Part of the States' appeal is that you can experience so much diversity in one country.
The USA is the third-largest country in the world, both in terms of area (at 9.6 million sq km, it's about half the size of Russia) and population (though, even with 280 million residents, it's far behind China and India).
America is bound by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, with much of the country's population living on one of these two coasts. Its only borders are shared with Canada to the north, and Mexico to the south.
The climate is mostly temperate, with some amazing exceptions. Alaska is an arctic state, while Hawaii, essentially in the middle of the Pacific ocean, and Florida are tropical. The western half of the country is covered by plains, mountains. The Great Plains are dry, flat and grassy turning, further west into arid desert with startling outcrops of rock columns and deep canyons.
The Missouri-Mississippi river system runs from the far north to the Gulf of Mexico, cutting the country almost in half, and giving a convenient mental border between "East" and "West." Four major mountain ranges (the Appalachians, the Rockies, Cascades, and the Sierra Nevada) also run north-south through the continental US, giving another set of clear divisions.
America, in the large sense, was once populated by Amerindian peoples. In the United States those that remain are known as Native Americans. With populations once in the tens of millions, most led tribal, hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Later some settlements and political enclaves based on agriculture, such as the Five Nations of the Northeast and the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest, developed.
European settlement of the area began in the 16th century with the establishment of St. Augustine in Florida by missionaries from Spain. The Spanish also established colonies in much of the Southwest, California, Texas and Louisiana as extensions of their North American stronghold in Mexico. Meanwhile, French missionaries and settlers from Canada made inroads into the Great Lakes region of the Midwest and down the Ohio and Mississippi river systems. The colony of Louisiana, centered around New Orleans, subsequently became a French stronghold in the Gulf of Mexico. Smaller colonies were established by the Netherlands in present-day New York, by Sweden on the Atlantic Coast, and by Russia in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
The founding of British colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts in the early 17th century marks the beginning of what we now know as the United States of America. By the early 18th century, 13 colonies ranged along the Atlantic coast from Georgia to present-day Maine. It also marked the beginning of the displacement of the Native American population westward and the extinction of many others, as well as the end of the embryonic Dutch and Swedish footholds.
There were distinct differences between the British settlers of the north and south: the southern areas, because of a longer growing season, had richer agricultural prospects, especially for cotton and tobacco. Large plantations developed with most of the labor being provided by African slaves, as was typical of most of Central and South America, and for the same reasons. The Northern colonies on the other hand developed as mercantile societies modelled after the "home" country, Britain. This dichotomy would later lead to a civil war.
By the late 18th century, the colonials were divided between loyalists and those who wished to separate from Britain. The revolutionaries carried the day and declared independence on July 4, 1776. This precipitated a Revolutionary War against the British, and this date has become a national holiday commemorating the establishment of the country. The American Constitution was inspired by Enlightenment-era ideas about government and human rights and remains a model that is considered by newly forming democracies around the world.
The late 18th and early 19th century were characterized by the stabilization of the Federal government and the first steps of Western expansion. Many Americans felt a Manifest Destiny to expand all the way to the Pacific ocean. Territories in the Midwest were added as new states, and the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 gave the United States nominal control of former French territory along the Mississippi River, and stretching out to the Pacific Ocean. Much of this area was however contested by Britain, especially in the northeast. Florida was purchased in 1813 from the Spanish; American settlers in Texas and California both rebelled against the Mexican government, and these areas were added to the Union. The Mexican-American War of the 1840s won the territories of Arizona and New Mexico, giving the continental US the rough outlines it has today. The marginalization of the Native Americans, and their concentration in the west by treaty, military force, and by the inadvertent spread of European diseases, continued apace.
By the mid-19th century the differences between North and South had become severe. Though slavery was not the only issue between the two, it was an important one. In particular, the question of whether the new states in the west would be "slave" or "free" became a critical issue. By the 1860s, the Southern states decided to secede from the Union and civil war broke out. It was one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, costing hundreds of thousands of lives. With the victory of the North a single country was maintained. While slavery was abolished, the former slaves formed an underclass in the south and were not well integrated into the culture.
The late 19th century saw the USA cementing its power on the continent and making tentative expansions abroad. Alaska was purchased from the Russians in the 1870s, and Hawaii was annexed in the 1890s. The Spanish-American War gained the first "colonial" territories: the Philippines and Cuba (both later granted independence) and Puerto Rico (which remains by choice a US territory).
In the Eastern cities of the United States, an immigration boom had begun. Southern Europeans, especially Italians, and Eastern Europeans, including many Jews fleeing Russian pogroms, joined Irish refugees to become a cheap labor force for the country's growing industrialization. Many Southern African-Americans fled rural poverty for the relative security of industrial jobs in the North. Other immigrants, including many Scandinavians and Germans, moved to the now-opened territories in the West and Midwest, where land was available for free to anyone who would develop it. A network of railroads, most notably the transcontinental railroad which runs from the Atlantic to the Pacific, crisscrossed the country, allowing faster movement of people and materials, and thus accelerating development.
With its entrance into World War I near the end of the conflict, America truly established itself as a world power. The creation of real wealth grew rapidly in this period, yet in the Roaring 20s stock speculation created an immense "bubble" which, when it burst in October of 1929, created economic havoc, known as the Great Depression, across the country and around the world. This crisis exacerbated the disaffection among the working classes in the United States and around the world and led to a rise in socialist thinking that was to have a large effect on the rest of the century.
In late 1941 the United States entered World War II, which had begun in Europe in 1939. In Alliance with the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, the USA helped defeat the fascist regimes in Italy, Germany, and Japan. At the end of this war of unprecedented scale, the United States, because of its relative isolation and power, became the dominant economic power in the world, producing nearly half of the world's production. The Soviet Union, a former ally, though now devastated from the war was still a powerful military power, and became a rival of the United States and the other "western" countries, giving rise to what is now known as the Cold War.
Also at the end of the war, African Americans, who had long suffered de facto disenfranchisement, demanded equal rights, with widespread demonstrations. This, and the status of women and other "overdue" societal changes that had been contained by the effort of the war, flowered into a virtual revolution. The unpopular war in Vietnam, a byproduct of the Cold War, added to the social strife. Taken together these changes led to significant change in the country: the economic and political conditions for African Americans substantially improved; a majority of women entered the workplace, and this had a powerful effect on homelife, the workplace and the economy; homosexual rights were incorporated in the law. Yet the fruition of all these changes is still incomplete.
In some countries it can be said that there is a "culture" that typifies the country and distinguishes it from others, characteristics, for example, such as art, manners, religious outlook, and the knowledge and values of the population. This characterisation is not in general possible for the United States. In part this is because the population's culture originates from numerous roots in other countries, and in part it is because of the initial dichotomy between the agricultural south and the industrial north and the related distinction between urban and rural lifestyles that is common the world over. If one visits New York City, Peoria Illinois, Macon Georgia, and Dallas Texas, one should be prepared to see very distinct cultures indeed.
Yet there is a culture that is said to be American, in a way a stereotype of what America wishes itself to be, a culture that people over the globe have seen in Hollywood film, and that has energized immigrants from all over the world. Like all stereotypes there is a certain truth to it; likewise, there is a certain falsity. For example, it has been said that America is a "classless" society, in the sense that the term class might have had in, say, aristocratic Europe, or perhaps in India, societies in which the class one is born into largely determines one's station in life. In America there is class mobility in this sense. In some sense this is a residue of the country's original, boundless feeling and the self sufficiency that "pioneers" required.
It is also probably true that Americans are more materialistic and individualistic than other cultures, though that may be true of any very wealthy society. The wealth on display almost casually in large shopping malls all over the country might seem shocking to someone from a developing country. Yet it is also true that America is more religious than many other countries. So it is a mixed bag, and this should make it an interesting place to visit.
Politically, the country has recently been almost evenly divided, with the people on the east and west coasts resembling closely the center-left populations of Europe, while the people in the middle and in the south tend towards right of center. In a similar way, urban areas tend toward the left while rural areas tend toward the right. But politics in America are very fluid and in a historical sense have varied widely.
The USA currently has reciprocal documentation agreements with Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean islands, most Latin American countries, and most western European countries, making it unnecessary to get visas before arrival, but this is now (spring 2004) in flux. The terrorist attacks in 2001 precipitated stricter rules for passports, and new passports which are to contain biometric information such as fingerprints, facial or retina scans, are required in the fall of 2004. Yet the technology to implement this requirement is not expected to be in place by that date so this date may be extended; the issue is now under debate in congress and extension will almost certainly be granted. But if it is granted, then visas may temporarily be required (until the new passports are issued) even for residents of countries for which visas are not now required.
The best advice for travelers today, from any country, is not to assume, but to check on documentation requirements with the United States State Department or with your nearest United States consulate. In addition, if coming to the country by auto, be sure to have documents including car insurance, rental agreements, drivers license, etc., before trying to enter the US, as the process has become more strict in the last few years.
Travelers from other continents may not bring meat or raw fruit or vegetables into the USA, but may bring cooked nonmeats, such as bread. See APHIS for details.
There are basically three ways to get to the USA: By air and by ship and, from Canada or Mexico, by auto. But because of the size of the country the air and ship ports are described in the cities which contain international airports or ocean ports. As to roads from Canada and Mexico, they are too numerous to mention and travelers should consult Yahoo Maps or Mapquest or any other online mapping service. You will be able to get detailed itineraries from wherever you are to wherever you wish to go.
While even medium sized inland cities such as, for example, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have an international airport there are limited flights to most of these airports and most travelers find themselves entering the US at one of the major entry points along the coasts.
The three primary entry points to the country are:
Entering the US by sea, other than on a registered cruise ship, may be difficult. The most common entry points for private boats are Los Angeles and the surrounding area, Florida, and the Eastern coastal states.
The size of the US, its far-flung major cities, and its relatively non-existent rail mode of travel, make air the dominant mode of travel for short term travelers. But if you have time, travel by car can be interesting.
By far the most convenient form of intercity travel in the USA is air travel. Coast-to-coast travel takes about 6 hours, compared to the days or weeks necessary for land transportation. Most cities in the US are served by one or even two airports, with many small towns also having some passenger air service. A hub and spoke system of air travel is most common. In this scheme small cities' air traffic go first to a hub city where traffic is aggregated before flying on to the destination city. Transfer for for bags checked at the original airport is handled automatically to your final destination. Depending on where you are starting from, it can sometimes be cheaper to drive to a nearby large city and fly from there or, conversely, to fly to a large city near your destination and drive from there.
Major carriers compete vigorously for business on major routes, and bargains can be had for travelers willing to book two or more weeks in advance. The converse of this is that most smaller destinations are served by only one or two regional carriers, and prices there can be surprisingly expensive. There are some discount air carriers in the USA and they are becoming more dominant all the time. Southwest Airlines is the largest and best known; unlike its European counterparts, there are significant penalties for not booking in advance.
Most airlines have web sites where you can book flights on that airline directly, and they are often cheaper this way. In addition there are online travel agencies, such as Expedia and Orbitz which list most flights of all the airlines and you can pick and choose based on price, travel time, number of stops, etc. A little time spent familiarizing oneself with these websites can often save considerable money.
Passenger trains in the United States are surprisingly scarce and expensive. Most Americans don't use them and they are usually only used as a novelty or for short commute trips. Passenger rail in the USA is now nationalized since private carriers simply could not compete with air in carrying long distance travelers, although commuter passenger travel is alive and well, carrying workers from the suburbs into some of the very large cities. The national rail system, Amtrak (1-877-YES-RAIL), provides service to many cities, concentrating more on sightseeing tours than efficient intercity travel. They have promotional discounts of 15% for students and seniors, and a 30-day USA Rail Pass for international travelers only.
Perhaps the only Amtrak line in regular daily use by Americans themselves is the Northeast Corridor line, running between Boston and Washington (D.C.). It stops in New York, Philadelphia and many other cities on the way. This line is electrified, with top speeds of 125 miles per hour (though the average speed is a good deal slower). The fastest trains are the Metroliner and the Acela Express, both of which have first class service, but can be quite expensive. Given the difficulty and expense of getting from the center of some of the major Northeastern cities to their respective airports, trains can sometimes be more convenient than air travel.
While some trains in the Northeast Corridor and other medium-distance lines do not require advance reservations, the premium trains and most of the long-distance trains do require such reservations. During usual American vacation times, some long-distance trains can sell out weeks or even months in advance, so it pays to book early if you plan on using the long-distance trains.
One major scenic long-distance train route runs from Emeryville in the Bay Area of California to Chicago, via Reno, Salt Lake City and Denver. The full trip takes around 60 hours, but has incredible views of the Western deserts, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains, things that you just cannot see if you fly. The trains run only once per day, and they usually sell out well in advance.
America's love affair with the automobile is legendary, and most Americans prefer the convenience of car travel for getting to nearby cities in their state or region. Many "snowbirds" drive to a haven in the south for the winter so that they have their auto with them. Besides intercity travel, a car can be necessary even to get around in a single city. Travelers from outside the country may not sufficiently appreciate the need for an automobile in the USA. Of course in very large cities like New York City or Chicago there are extensive in-city bus service and large numbers of cruising taxicabs, but in most medium-sized American cities, particularly in the west and south, cities are very spread out and bus service thin. Taxis are always available but you may have to call ahead for one and wait a half-hour or so to be picked up, and then you have the problem of getting back and you will probably have to call again and wait.
A romantic appeal is attached to the idea of long-distance car travel; many Americans will tell you that you can't see the "real" America except by car. Given the dearth of public transportation within American cities, the loss of time travelling by car between cities, compared to flying, can be made up by the convenience of driving around within cities once you arrive. In addition, many of the country's major natural attractions, such as the Grand Canyon, are almost impossible to get to without an automobile.
The United States is covered with a convenient system of interstate highways, funded by the federal government, and built and maintained by the states. These huge roads stretch from one end of the country to the other, either north-south or east-west, and can make it easy to eat up long distances in record time. A drawback is that the highways usually run well outside small towns, served only by fast-food chains and gas stations. If the point is to "see America", traveling on the large highways can be somewhat counterproductive.
Renting a car in the USA usually runs anywhere from $30 and $100 per day, with some discounts for week-long rentals. The major rental agencies are Hertz (+1 800 230 4898) and Avis (+1 800 230 4898). There are no large national discount car rental agencies but in each city there is usually at least one. The internet or the Yellow Pages is how to find them. One more or less national chain is Rent-A-Wreck (+1 800 944 7501). It rents used cars at significantly lower prices. Most rental agencies have downtown offices in major cities as well as offices at major airports. Not all companies allow picking up a car in one city and dropping it off in another, and most have higher rates for long-distance travel; check with the rental agency when making your reservations.
You may wish to join some kind of auto club before starting a large American road trip, and a having a cell phone is a very good idea. Most rental agencies have some kind of emergency road service program, but they can have spotty coverage for remote regions. The largest and most popular club in the United States is The American Automobile Association (1-800-391-4AAA), known as "Triple A". A yearly membership runs about $60, which is well worth the peace of mind. AAA members also get discounts at many hotels, motels, restaurants and attractions; which may make it worth getting a membership even if you don't drive. Alternatively, Better World Club (1-866-238-1137) offers similar rates and benefits as AAA with often timelier service and is a more eco-friendly choice (1% of revenue is donated to environmental cleanup programs).
Intercity bus travel in the United States combines the bureaucratic inefficiency of its rail service with the mind-numbingly long durations of travel by car. However, a gigantic infrastructure in bus travel exists in the United States, mainly frequented by people who can't afford the high price of airplane tickets or who have a fear of flying. Traveling by bus in America is a truly democratic experience. Bus travel also fills an important gap where air travel would be ridiculous -- say, for cities only an hour or so away by car, mostly in the East and Midwest.
Greyhound Bus Lines (+1 800 229 9424) has the predominant share of American bus travel. Their North American Discovery Pass allows unlimited travel for ranges of 4 to 60 days, but you might want to try riding one or two buses first before locking yourself in to an exclusively-bus American journey.
The USA has no official language, but English, or, rather, American English, is by far the standard for everyday use. Visitors from Commonwealth countries may get some funny looks at more colorful or slang expressions, but should otherwise get along fine. A degree of romance is attached to non-American English accents, and people may be friendlier to you because of yours.
There are fascinating regional accents in the South and Texas, in New England, in New York City, in California, and in the upper Midwest, but aside from pronunciation and a few colorful local phrases Americans from different regions all speak English. Americans tend to speak their native dialect, but when speaking formally, they speak something similiar to a flat "Midwestern" accent, much popularized by radio, TV and movies. Many will also try to speak this way if they realize you have trouble understanding them. However, people with strong local accents may be difficult for non-native English speakers to understand.
African Americans and some people from poor urban areas across the country often speak a dialect popularly called "Black English," "ebonics," "Ghetto" or "Ghetto English" that derived from their Southern roots. Black English also has some characteristics of African languages, and often uses rhyming slang.
In many parts of the USA, such as California, the Southwest, Texas, Florida, and New York, Spanish is the first language of a large minority of residents, mostly immigrants from Mexico or Latin America. Although it's rare to be in areas where no one speaks English, a good handle on Spanish can make communications easier in some areas.
Besides immigrants or second generation Americans, few Americans can speak a foreign language fluently. Many educated Americans have received at least limited foreign language education (Spanish being the most common choice by far), but even so they likely haven't made use of it in years. Visiting America without at least a rudimentary knowledge of English will be quite difficult, yet if you learn a little, even from a phrase book, you will probably do alright, and generally, if you ask, people will be glad to help you.
People may have strong and unexpected feelings about local politics and US foreign policy and conversations about those topics need to be handled carefully.
The official US currency is the United States dollar (symbol: $). Conversion rates vary daily, but approximate ratios with other major currencies (as of January 2005) follow:
For current conversion rates you may go here.
Because of America's relative isolation, currency exchange centers are relatively rare outside the downtowns of coastal cities and international airports. However, some banks are able to convert foreign currency to U.S. dollars, although it is often unclear which banks will and won't and in any case the exchange rate is likely to be unfavorable.
Most automated teller machines (ATMs) can handle foreign bank cards or credit cards, but fees of $2-$10 can apply.
Credit cards such as Master Card, Visa, American Express and Discover are widely accepted, and almost all restaurants, hotels, and shops will accept them. When making large purchases, it is typical for the shop to ask for picture identification
Most Americans, except in big cities, shop at malls. These shopping centers vary from small strip malls with perhaps a dozen or so stores, to gigantic malls that contain hundreds of stores and acres of parking space. These will certainly include some so-called big box stores, facilities that in themselves are huge and that aggregate anything from baby shoes to lawnmowers under one roof. Nearly every mall will have a large supermarket where you can purchase an immense variety of groceries and food, as well as prepared food, and in many, you will find such things as pharmaceuticals, wine, liquor and beer, flowers, baked goods, and even clothing. Generally you can get to a mall only by car, although for the larger ones bus service is usually available.
American posted prices are usually set in stone and non-negotiable. Some retail stores have student or senior discounts but you will probably have to ask. Americans love a good bargain and respect a bargain-hunter, so it never hurts to ask store personnel how to get lower prices. Posted prices do not include sales tax, which is added in most states for most items. It will vary from a few percent to as much as ten percent, although some states do not tax essential items such as foodstuffs.
The variety of restaurants throughout the US is remarkable. One thing that a traveler from Europe or Latin America will notice is that many restaurants do not serve beer, wine or liquor. Another is the sheer number and variety of fast food and chain restaurants. Most open early in the morning and stay open late at night, a few are open 24 hours a day. And the majority are accessible only with a car.
Fast food restaurants, such as McDonalds, with which most people are familiar, are ubiquitous. But the variety of this type of restaurant in the US is astounding: pizza, Chinese food, Mexican food, fish, chicken, barbequed meat, and ice-cream only begins to touch on it. In general alcoholic beverages are not served in these restaurants, "pop", "soda", or other so-called "soft-drinks" are standard. The idea here is that one chooses the type of food one wishes first, and then selects a restaurant that serves it. The quality of the food served varies, but in general, because of the strictly limited menu, it is good. Also the restaurants are usually clean and bright, and the service, to the extent there is service, is friendly. Here again you will probably need a car to get to one that you want.
Take-out food is also very common. You will order by phone and then usually drive to the restaurant to pick it up and take it away. Many places will also deliver this type of food to your hotel or home.
Next in the classes of restaurants might be chain restaurants not of the fast-food variety. These normally specialize in a particular cuisine. A few larger are Red Lobster, The Olive Garden, Chi Chis for TexMex food and many others. These restaurants generally serve alcoholic beverages, though this is not always true.
Another class of restaurant is the so-called family restaurant. These can be chain restaurants or not, but the code meaning of the term is that they do not serve alcoholic drinks.
Chinese food is also widely available though a traveler from China might find it somewhat "Americanized". Japanese sushi and Thai food, have also been adapted for the American market in recent years. Fusion cuisine combines Asian ingredients and techniques with more traditional American presentation.
No compendium of American restaurants would be complete without mentioning the truck stop. You will only encounter these places if you are taking an intercity auto or bus trip. They are located on superhighways and cater to truckers, usually having a separate area for diesel fuel -- which incidentally is not available in regular gas (petrol) stations -- as well as areas for parking the big rigs. Many have shower facilities for truckers as well. These fabled restaurants serve what passes on the road for plain home cooking, things like hot roast beef sandwiches, meatloaf. fried chicken, and of course the ubiquitous hamburger and fries.
Very large cities in America are like large cities anywhere, and one may select from inexpensive neighborhood eateries to extravagantly expensive full service restaurants with extensive wine lists. With a rich tradition of immigration, America has a wide variety of ethnic foods. Everything from Ethiopian cuisine to Lao food is available in major cities with large immigrant populations. In 'up-scale" restaurants, rules for men to wear jackets and ties, while once de rigueur, are becoming more relaxed, but you should check first if there is any doubt.
In most medium sized cities you will also find a wide variety of restaurants of all classes, but in the south, midwest and west non-chain restaurants are more scarce.
As with other cooking traditions, Americans have given Mexican food their own twist. Combining in various ways beans, rice, cheese, and spiced beef or chicken with round flatbread loaves called tortillas, dishes are usually topped with spicy salsa, sour cream, and an avocado mix called guacamole. Small shops called taquerias can be found in the Southwest of the USA, where a good meal can be put together for $5-$10. The North and East usually have more pricey establishments, with entrees running about $10-15.
Vegetarian food is easy to come by in big urban areas. Most big cities and college towns have vegetarian restaurants serving exclusively or primarily vegetarian dishes. In smaller towns you may need to check the menu at several restaurants before finding a vegetarian entree, or else make up a meal out of side dishes. Veggie-only breakfast foods such as pancakes or eggs can be found at most diners.
People on low-fat or low-calorie diets should be well-served in the USA, as there has been a continuing trend in calorie consciousness since the 1970s. Even fast-food restaurants have "lite" specials, and can provide charts of calorie and fat counts on demand.
Unlike much of the rest of the world, tipping in America is essentially mandatory for polite patrons -- and, indeed, tips often form the majority of a worker's income. Because some tourists from other countries assume servers are paid a reasonable wage and do not tip, some servers retaliate by giving poor service to all foreigners. If it seems this is the case, it might be advisable to plainly state that you understand American tipping practices, and will be leaving a good tip for good service. A standard rate is 15% of the total bill, with 20% being expected for better than average care. Having said that, many restaurants automatically include a surcharge for the staff of 15% or more for parties of six or more. Check before you pay. And don't tip at "fast food" restaurants.
Drinking customs in America are as varied as the backgrounds of its many peoples. With some few interesting exceptions one will find that in the countryside bars or taverns, as distinct from restaurants, are few. However in urban settings you will find numerous bars and nightclubs where food is either nonexistent or rudimentary. In very large cities, of course, drinking places run the gamut from tough, local, "shot and a beer" bars to upscale "martini bars" where you may sample anything from the traditional martini cocktail to exotics which might include "coffee" martinis and "chocolate" martinis. Of course this fad may become extinct at any time, to be replaced by some new concoction. One thing that may at first startle visitors from more conservative countries is the number of women that go to bars, both accompanied by men, unaccompanied, and in groups.
While most American beer drinkers prefer light beers, a wide variety of beers are available all over the States. It is not too unusual to find a bar serving one hundred or more different kinds of beer, both bottled beer and "tap" or "draft" beer. And "Real" beer is making a comeback. Microbreweries -- not so micro anymore, by the way -- make porters, reds, lagers, and stouts in much smaller quantities with traditional methods. Most microbrews are distributed regionally; bartenders will know the local brands. Some brew pubs make their own beer in-house, and generally only serve the house brand. Some states also have a weird thing called 3.2 beer which is 3.2% alcohol, though many light beers aren't much more than that anyway but they get cans proclaiming 3.2%. In Colorado some restaurants have licenses where they can serve real beer and others only serve 3.2% beer
Wine in America is also a contrast in low-quality commercial fare versus extremely high-quality product. California wines are some of the best in the world, and are available on most wine lists in the country. California wines are labeled by the grape (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay) rather than the regional appellation, although wine producers are trying to give names like Napa Valley some more clout on the market. French wines are available, especially in the East. Some Chilean and Australian wines can also be found, but what's imported to the US is usually of lower quality. Other countries -- including Spain and Italy -- are also increasingly making their way on to America's wine map. Sparkling wines such as Champagne and Prosecco are available by the bottle in many restaurants, especially Italian restaurants, but are rarely served by the glass as they often are in western Europe. You will find that the wines served in most bars and taverns in America is of the "bulk" variety, not very good, and often not served in proper glasses. On the other hand, "wine bars", where wine is the featured attraction are becoming more common in urban areas and in these establishments a wide variety of quite good American and foreign wines are available.
Hard alcohol is usually drunk with a "mixer", such as tonic water, cola, or another type of "soda", and each combination usually has a catchy name: for example, vodka and orange juice is called a "screwdriver", while a combination of vodka, peach schnapps, orange juice, and cranberry juice goes by the pretentious and portentious name of "sex on the beach". Asking for liquor plus mixer will sometimes get you funny looks, but you'll get what you want. Drinking hard alcohol straight is mostly done in shots -- 1 or two oz. glasses that are often drunk in one swallow, usually after a toast. There is a long term trend in the US toward light colored liquors, especially vodka, and away from the more traditional darker liquors such as whiskey and bourbon that drinkers' fathers favored.
In some places, such as as Texas, many bars only have a beer and wine license and you are allowed to bring your own hard liquor in and then they sell you juice and sodas at inflated prices since they can't sell you the liquor at inflated prices. These are called setups. It can turn a $1 Coke into a $2.50 Coke but if you mostly are drinking liquor instead of Coke it can be a money saver on a night out on the town. There are places called "dry counties" in a number of southern states as well which means you have to plan ahead or belong to a private club to drink. Sunday sales are a problem in some states for hard liquor but beer and wine are invariably available after noon on Sunday almost everywhere.
Nightclubs in America run the usual gamut of various music scenes -- from discos with top-40 dance tunes to obscure clubs serving tiny slices of obscure musical genres. One dance format probably unfamiliar to foreign visitors is country music, a musical form derived from traditional folk tunes but played with electric instruments. Country music dance clubs, or honky tonks, are laid fairly thick in the South and West, especially in rural areas and away from the coasts, but one or two can be found in almost any city.
By far the most common form of lodging in rural United States is the motel. Providing inexpensive rooms ($25-$80 per night -- as of 2004) to automotive travellers, most motels are clean and reasonable with a limited array of amenities: telephone, TV, bed, bathroom. As with most low-cost accommodations around the world, the cheaper motels tend to attract a varied clientele. Motel 6 (+1 800 466-8356) is a national chain with reasonable rates ($30-$60, depending on the city).
Hotels are available in most cities. Rooms usually run about $80-$200 per night, with the top limit blowing wide open for some super chi-chi spots. In many rural areas, especially on the coasts, bed and breakfast (B&B) lodging can be found. Usually in buildings with less than a dozen units, B&Bs feature a more homely lodging experience, with complimentary breakfast served (of varying quality and complexity). Bed and breakfasts range from about $50 to $200 per night, with some places being much steeper. They can be a nice break from the impersonality of chain hotels and motels.
The two best-known hotel guides covering the U.S. are the American Automobile Association (AAA) guides, available to members of AAA and affiliated auto clubs worldwide at local AAA offices; and by Mobil Travel Guide, available at bookstores.
One method of booking hotels that will appeal to travelers on a budget is Priceline, a "blind bidding" web site that allows travelers to name their own price for lodging. The trade-off is that you do not find out the exact name of the hotel until your bid is accepted. More information on Priceline, as well as hotel reviews of participating hotels and lists of accepted bid amounts, can be found at Bidding for Travel.
There are also youth hostels across the USA. Most are affiliated with the American Youth Hostel organization (affiliated with Hostelling International). Quality of hostels varies widely, but at $8-$24 per night, the prices are unbeatable. Despite the name, AYH membership is open to people of any age. Independent hostels (not affiliated with AYH) are also available, particularly in larger cities (use a hostel guide to find them).
Camping can also be a very affordable lodging option, especially with good weather. The downside of camping is that most campgrounds are outside urban regions, so it's not much of an option for trips to big cities. There is a huge network of National Parks (+1 800 365-2267) in the US, with most states and counties having their own park system, too. Most state and national campgrounds are of excellent quality, with beautiful natural environments. Expect to pay $8-$20 per car on entry. Kampgrounds of America (KOA) has a chain of commercial campground franchises across the country, of significantly less charm than their public-sector equivalents.
The United States education system, as one might expect, is quite varied. Its elementary and secondary schools, in terms of relative quality, stand somewhere in the lower middle of the advanced countries, depending on how such matters are objectively measured, yet there are many excellent schools at this level throughout the country. The vast majority of these schools are publicly funded, that is all costs are born by the government through taxation. This is mainly at the county or city level of government, generally in the form of a tax on property. There are also numerous private schools at this level, most often religiously affiliated and funded through tuition or donations, or a combination of both. Both the organization and the funding of public schools at this level is currently a subject of hot political debate.
At the college or university level the United States, by almost any measure, has no peer. The types of universities and colleges run the gamut from large state university systems to a great variety of privately funded colleges and universities. Virtually all colleges and universities are funded by "tuition", that is a fee charged to the student. However for citizens there are government guaranteed loans, available from most banks at reduced rates of interest, and payments are deferred while the student attends school. Details can be found at the website of the US Department of Education. In addition, schools themselves often provide subsidies, or outright grants, ranging from a small supplement to one hundred percent of the tuition and room and board for very low-income families. Most of this money comes from the universities' "endowments", gifts donated to the school from former students or from wealthy people generally. As the most extreme example, Harvard's endowment stands (in 2004) at nearly $20 billion. Many colleges -- Harvard is again a notable example -- are or were religiously affiliated, and many, though not most, remain so -- though today this may be more reflected in spirit than in academic teachings.
One reason for the general excellence of these schools is attendance by top caliber foreign students, especially in graduate programs. This also has had a significant beneficial effect on the financing of college level learning, since these students contribute substantially in the form of tuition. Often financial aid for foreign students is provided by their home country, but some aid does exist in the US for international students via private organizations. Usually such programs will require a US citizen to guarantee that this form of assistance will be repaid.
State university systems are subsidized by state government, and while they are not restricted to residents of the state, residents of that state may attend at sharply reduced rates of tuition. A large state university may have up to twenty campuses spread around the state, with tens of thousands of students.
Medium and large cities often have what are known as commuter colleges, oriented towards education for both regular students and for working adults as well. These schools provide little in the way of student housing or a "campus culture".
Private technical institutes, which provide an education aimed at obtaining a specific job such as computer science or business management are also quite common. Some of these schools are state subsidized, in full or in part, while others are fully private, with the entire cost born by students in the form of tuition.
Application fees for college usually run from $50-$150, with no guarantee that you will be accepted. Casual students simply looking to improve their knowledge will find city colleges an excellent deal -- you can take one or two courses for a few hundred dollars on any of a variety of subjects, and admission is usually open to all comers. Part-time study is usually not sufficient to get a student visa, though - student visas require either half or full time enrollment.
There are any number of student exchange programs for full-time students in foreign universities who want to spend a term or a year in the United States. You can ask at your university's student exchange center for details. Be forewarned, however: many of the state universities are located in remote towns, hundreds or thousands of miles from any big urban centers. Be prepared for a lot of small-town living, and don't expect to spend your weekends in New York if your college is in North Dakota.
America is a mecca for job-seekers from around the globe, but it can be difficult to get documentation to work legally in the US. Work permits, or green cards, are given out on a quota system according to the seeker's country of origin. The safest course for an applicant is to find work in the USA before arriving, and let the company you plan to work for sponsor you for a work visa, but this can be quite difficult to do, and is usually time-consuming. The best opportunities in this regard are for people who bring skills currently in short supply in the USA.
The US has a reputation in other parts of the world as a hotbed of random crime and murder. There's some merit to this stereotype; America has the highest rate of shootings in the industrialized world. Other types of crime, however, are lower or on par with other developed countries. Like most things in the US, crime varies greatly depending on the area. Larger cities have higher crime rates, as might be expected. Standard cautionary procedures for traveling in high-crime areas should be observed.
In most cities, avoid walking alone in city centers after dark. Don't let anyone in your car you don't know; if anyone reaches for your car's doorhandle, drive away immediately. Keep any personal belongings in the trunk of your car, out of view of curious passersby. Picking up hitchhikers is generally considered to be unsafe, and is illegal in some states.
Note that Americans rarely carry large amounts of cash with them, and this causes thieves to often target foreign tourists.
Gay-bashing is rare, but physical attacks can and do happen, especially in cities and states where there's not an established gay and lesbian population.
Almost all cities in America now support the 911 program. Simply pressing 911 at any telephone will connect you to an area call center for all the emergency services in the area (police, fire, ambulance, etc.). Dispatchers will send appropriate personnel to deal with accidents, serious sickness, criminal or any other emergency situations. The 911 call center can trace your call to locate the caller. Abuse of the 911 program for non-emergency purposes can result in a heavy fine. Only use it if life, limb, or property are in immediate danger. Some cities have a 311 number for questions which are not of immediate danger.
The USA is the only industrialized nation in the world with no national healthcare system. Americans generally use private health insurance, paid either by their employer or out of their own pocket. As a traveler, make sure you have either traveler's insurance or insurance provided by your government, before arriving in the USA. Getting health care in the US without insurance can be quite costly.
The medical infrastructure is mostly handled at a city or county level. Generally, though not always, hospitals are private, not-for-profit institutions, though some are run by city governments, or by religious or charitable organizations. Some will not admit patients who are not members of a health insurance program with which they are affiliated.
A certain amount of free health care for the poor is available at all hospitals that accept government subsidies, and that is a very large percentage. And hospital "emergency rooms" are required by law not to turn anyone away -- emergency or not. Some Americans without health care rely on emergency rooms for non-emergency treatment. The waiting time can be long (hours) except for a serious emergency. Note that emergency room care costs about 2-3 times as much as care from a regular doctor. Some cities provide free clinics, or low-cost walk-in clinics, but these often provide only limited services.
Planned Parenthood has clinics and centers around the country providing abortion/birth control and other reproductive health services, as well as general healthcare services for any mother or child under the age of 18.
Prior to the popularity of personal cell phones, public telephones, "pay phones" which accept coins, were ubiquitous on sidewalks all over the United States. Now one will probably have to enter a store or restaurant to find one.
Cities and regions within the US are assigned three-digit codes, called area codes. Some medium and large cities have several area codes. If so, one needs to dial this code before dialing the "local" telephone number. Local telephone numbers, those within a particular area, are seven digits long and listed in the form, NNN-NNNN. Most visitor areas and some restaurants and bars have two books of telephone numbers: the white book, for an alphabetical listing of telephones; and the yellow book, a listing of business and service establishments by category, for example, "Taxicabs". Directory information can also be obtained on the telephone, usually by dialing 411. This is normally an extra cost call, unless dialed from a pay phone.
Unfortunately there are as yet no international standards for cell phones. Consequently, one you purchased in another part of the world will probably not work here. Most mobile providers in the US now support text messaging both within their own networks and frequently among each other's networks, though large delays are sometimes associated with inter-carrier messaging. Third generation, or 3G, mobile technology is slowly being deployed in the US but many carriers are still working on upgrading their existing first- and second-generation networks. There are a handful of nationwide carriers in the US who operate nationwide GSM networks, but they operate on different frequency bands from the rest of the world for regulatory reasons (the 900/1800MHz bands were already allocated for other uses). Nevertheless, they do have extensive domestic and international "roaming" co-agreements, so international travelers who have GSM "world phones" can likely roam in the US (check with your home provider for further information). Still, international travelers who are planning long trips should be advised that it may be less expensive to buy a local pay-as-you-go or prepaid phone, especially if you're planning to make many calls within the US.
Long-distance telephone calling cards are available at most convenience stores. Most calling cards have specific destinations in mind (domestic calls, calls to particular countries), so make sure you get the right card.
America is a highly technological country, with over 75% of it's population having Internet access, Internet cafes are not common, especially outside of major metropolitan areas. The best bet for computer rental is at a "photocopy shop, such as, Kinko's (+1 800 2KINKOS/+1 800 254 6567) which is a national chain. Most hotels are equipped with Internet connections. Some of these have "business centers" where you can use a computer connected to the internet, fax a message, and use a computer printer and make limited copies. Other hotels assume you will be using your own laptop and they provide in-room internet connections or in the business center. Sometimes access is wireless. Often this service is billed as a separate cost, but increasingly it is not extra and is part of the cost of the room. All public libraries now provide Internet access, free of charge, but you may have to wait in line and their hours of operation are limited. Many libraries limit user access to 30 minutes at a time.
Some cities also have free WiFi connectivity, although this movement is still in its early stages.
For more information
The Federal system of government in the USA puts the states in charge of tourism and the federal government in charge of foreign policy.
The result of which is that the Federal government provides the best information about legal requirements for entry, while the most detailed information about places to visit and see will be provided by the state tourism bureaus which will be happy to send you maps and literature.Contact information will be available in the individual state entries.