United States of America
The United States of America ("USA," "US," "United States," "America," or simply "the States") is a large country in central and north-western North America. The U.S. 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 most powerful and wealthy nations on earth and third largest in territory and people, it has a mixture of densely-populated urban areas with wide areas of low population and incredible natural beauty. There is also plenty of land in the United States covered with houses, lawns, parking lots, and strip malls - perhaps more so per major urban area than in most other countries.
With a history of mass immigration dating from the 17th century, the U.S. 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 U.S. stretches across the midsection of North America, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, with non-contiguous states to the north west and in the Pacific. As such, its many regions are varied. Following the admission of the state of Hawaii in 1959, the United States has 50 states as well as the city of Washington D.C. (a federal district independent of any state) and a few territories which are not states, such as Puerto Rico. Below is a rough grouping of the country into regions relevant to the traveler, from the Atlantic to the Pacific:
Politically, the U.S. is divided further into semi-independent states (hence the name); see list of American States for a full listing.
The United States has over 10,000 cities, towns, and villages. The following is a list of nine of the most notable. Other cities can be found in their corresponding regions.
These are some of the largest and most famous destinations outside of major cities.
See United States National Parks for a list of all national park areas.
The U.S. is difficult to characterize because of its size and diversity, both in geography and in people, but an overview will help travelers to see these differences and perhaps help to find what they are most interested in. It is not realistic to see a little of everything unless one has a very long time to spend; indeed, even lifetime residents have trouble taking it all in. Part of the States' appeal is that you can experience so much in one country.
Due to the vastness of their own country, and due to the fact that many of the neighboring countries did not require U.S. citizens to have them, fewer than a third of Americans have passports, although this number is expected to increase greatly. Recently, with the requirement of a passport to travel to its neighboring countries, Canada and Mexico, as well as to nearby Caribbean countries, there has been a surge in demand for passports.
The contiguous United States (the 48 states other than Alaska and Hawaii) are bound by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, with much of the country's population living on these two coasts. Its only borders are shared with Canada to the north, and Mexico to the south.
The country has three major mountain ranges. The Appalachians extend from Canada to the state of Alabama, a few hundred miles west of the Atlantic Ocean. They are the oldest of the three mountain ranges, and are not particularly high, but offer spectacular sightseeing and excellent camping spots. The Rockies are the highest in North America, extending from Alaska to New Mexico, with many areas protected as national parks. Their natural wonders offer impressive hiking, camping, and sightseeing opportunities. The combined Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges are the youngest. The Sierras extend across the "backbone" of California, with sites such as Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park, then give way to the even younger volcanic Cascade range, with some of the highest points in the country.
The Great Lakes define much of the border between the United States and Canada, also known as the North Coast. Formed by the pressure of glaciers retreating north at the end of the last Ice Age, the five lakes touch the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. The lakes span hundreds of miles, and their shores vary from pristine wilderness areas to industrial "rust belt" cities. They are the second-largest body of freshwater in the world, after the shrinking polar ice caps.
The overall climate is temperate, with notable exceptions. Alaska has Arctic tundra, while Hawaii and South Florida are tropical. The Great Plains are dry, flat and grassy, turning into arid desert in the far West.
Seasons vary dramatically in the northern and mid-western major cities. In a single winter storm, as much as 2 feet (61 cm) of snow can fall, with bitterly cold temperatures. Summers are typically mild but very humid. However, temperatures over 100°F (38°C) sometimes invade the entire Midwest and Great Plains region now. Some areas in the northern plains can experience dangerously cold temperatures of -30°F (-34°C) during the winter. Temperatures below 0°F (-18°C) sometimes reach as far south as Kansas or even Oklahoma.
The climate of the South also varies, but with the extremes coming instead in "the long, hot summer", somewhat resembling tropical climates (the climate in the South is partially tropical). Humidity and high temperatures make warmer months in these states good for little but sipping iced tea and plunging into cool bodies of water. But from October through April the weather is glorious, and nuisance insects subside.
The Great Plains & Midwestern states also experience tornadoes from the late spring to early fall, earlier in the south and later in the north. See the Tornado safety article for more information. States along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico, may experience hurricanes between June and November. These intense and dangerous storms frequently miss the the U.S. mainland, but if one is forecast to hit, do not take the situation lightly. Evacuations are often ordered for areas in the direct path of the storm and should be heeded.
The Rockies are very cold and snowy. Some regions see over 500 inches (1,200 cm) of snow in a season. Some of the world's most famous ski resorts are located in Colorado and Utah. Even during the summer, temperatures are cool in the mountains, and snow can fall nearly year-round.
The Southwestern deserts are extremely arid and hot during the summer, with summer temperatures exceeding 100°F (38°C) through most of the summer. This includes such cities as Las Vegas and Phoenix. Thunderstorms can be expected in the southwest frequently from July through September because of the summer monsoon that rises from Mexico. Winters in this region are mild, and snow is unusual. Average annual precipitation is less than 10 inches (25 cm).
Cool and damp weather is common in the northwest in areas such as in Seattle or Portland. Rain is most frequent in winter, and snow is rare along the coastal regions. The Pacific coast rarely sees snow and extremes in temperature are uncommon. Rain falls almost exclusively from late fall through early spring along the coast, except in western Washington, where rain falls year-round.
America was once populated by peoples who migrated there from northeast Asia. In the United States those that remain are known as Native Americans, or American Indians. With populations once in the tens of millions, most led tribal, hunter-gatherer lifestyles, although some developed political enclaves based on agriculture, such as the Five Nations of the Northeast and the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, various parts of the region were colonized by several European nations and/or their religious missionaries, including Spain, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Russia. The British colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts were the kernel 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. Their growth drove the displacement the Native American population westward and the extinction of many others, as well as the end of the embryonic Dutch and Swedish footholds.
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. The Northern colonies developed as mercantile societies modeled after the "home" country, Britain.
In the late 18th century, colonial revolutionaries declared independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776, eventually realized by a bloody Revolutionary War. The colonies formed a federal government, with its Constitution inspired by Enlightenment-era ideas about government and human rights. In the late 18th and early 19th century, this government established itself and expanded westward, under a "Manifest Destiny" for the nation to expand 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. Florida was purchased in 1813 from the Spanish; American settlers in Texas rebelled against the Mexican government, setting up a republic that was absorbed into the union. The Mexican-American War of the 1840s won the northern territories of Mexico, including such states as California, 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. By the 1860s, the Southern states decided to secede from the Union and the American 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 by and large remained an economic and social underclass in the South.
The late 19th century saw the U.S. cementing its power on the continent and making tentative expansions abroad. Alaska was purchased from the Russians in 1867, and Hawaii was annexed in 1898. The Spanish-American War gained the first "colonial" territories: the Philippines (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 and Eastern Europeans, especially Italians, and Slavs, 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 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, the United States established itself as a world power. The creation of real wealth grew rapidly in this period. In the Roaring 20s stock speculation created an immense "bubble" which, when it burst in October of 1929, contributed to 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, particularly the mid-century.
At the end of 1941 the United States entered World War II. In Alliance with the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, the U.S. helped defeat the fascist regimes in Italy, Germany, and Japan. At the end of this war of unprecedented scale, the United States, which had been mostly spared from fighting on its own soil, became the dominant economic power in the world, responsible for nearly half of the world's production. It stood as the primary opposing power to the Soviet Union, a former ally which was attempting to recover from devastation and ensure its security by asserting its influence with military backing, giving rise to what is now known as the Cold War.
Also at the end of WWII, 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 by-product 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.
Because of its size and because nearly all citizens are descended from diverse immigrants, there is no single universal "American" culture. Visitors to the South will find a far different culture from those traveling to California or New York City. However, 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 many 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. This is true in the sense of class as it is traditionally known in Europe or India, where one's class at birth largely determines one's social station in life. But there is a huge disparity in the socioeconomic status of the upper and lower classes in America. The "classlessness" means that one can freely move between them by changing one's financial situation; one's outcomes, not one's origins, determine one's class.
There is an impression that American culture is more materialistic and individualistic than many other cultures. 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 most other industrialized countries. So it is a mixed bag, and this should make it an interesting place to visit.
Many current trends in industrialized and developing countries began in the United States, and lots of modern inventions were either invented or first mass-produced in the United States. The dependence on cars and the national interstate system to get around has long been an American icon, and to this day the United States has one of the highest per-capita car ownership rates in the world. Other traditional elements of United States culture include Hollywood films, country music, blues, jazz, rock and roll, rap and hip-hop, baseball, American football, NASCAR racing, multiculturalism, as well as its infamously convenient fast food.
While numerous political parties exist, the system is dominated by the Democratic and Republican parties. The current Democratic party tends to be more to the left on fiscal and social issues and draws more support from urban voters, especially in the Northeast and West Coast. The Republican party is more to the right on these issues and draws more support from voters in rural areas, especially in the South and Texas. The United States political system tends to favor centrists (by American standards); far-right or far-left political movements that might take hold in other places tend to do poorly here.
The US has a number of holidays - official and/or cultural - of which the traveller should be aware (special events, closures, changed schedules, disruption, etc.) Note that holidays observed on Mondays are usually treated as weekend-long events. (A weekend consists of a Saturday and a Sunday.)
For more information
The Federal system of government in the U.S. puts the states in charge of tourism and the federal government in charge of foreign policy. The result of this 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 is available in the individual state entries. At state borders, highway rest stops usually serve as Visitor's Centers as well and often have a plethora of travel and tourism information and material for that state. If you call or write the state Commerce department, this is often the information they will mail you. Nearly every rest stop in the country has free maps of the state in which it is located.
Citizens of the 27 countries within the Visa Waiver Program , as well as Canadians, Mexicans living in the border and Bermudans, do not require an advance visa for entry into the United States, although other conditions may apply. Most notably, a machine-readable passport (with your information on the bottom of the front page) will be required; without that a visa is required. Mexican nationals living on the border should apply for a reusable Border Crossing Card.
Passports issued after October 26, 2005 need digital photographs embedded on them, and passports issued after October 26, 2006 must be e-passports, which have a chip embedded with the user's information. Some countries, e.g. France, did not have e-passports available at that date, meaning that citizens from these countries with newer passports but not e-passport have to obtain a tourist visa, which can be a cumbersome, costly and time-consuming process. If you have a non e-passport issued after October 26, 2006 and you are from a visa waiver country, try having your government exchange it for an e-passport, explaining that you wish to travel to the U.S.
The countries under the visa waiver program are Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom. South Korea would also be joining the visa waiver program from December 2008. Under the visa waiver, you're allowed to stay for a maximum of 90 days; note that this counter is not reset by travel to Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean! Visas can be waived for tourism or business visits, but work in any shape or form (including journalism, performances, etc) is forbidden.
All visitors should note that returning the card stapled in their passport on entry (green I-94W or white I-94) is their responsibility. If it is not returned at the end of your visit, you will be presumed to have never left the U.S. and then be refused entry in future. Airline or border staff will typically take this card from you on departure, but check and insist on it, and if you leave the country with it in your possession, contact U.S. officials about how to return it and update your departure records as soon as possible. US Customs and Border Protection has information about what to do if your slip is not collected. Note that it is acceptable to retain this form if you are traveling by land to Mexico or Canada and you will return to the U.S. within your allowed stay.
For the rest of the world (including Mexicans not living in the border), the visa application process is onerous, expensive, and slow. The application fee is US$131 (as of 1 January 2008; not refundable even if your application is rejected). The Immigration and Nationality Act states that all persons requesting entry into the United States as non immigrants are presumed to be immigrants until they overcome that presumption by showing evidence of "binding ties" to your home country as well as sufficient proof that your visit will be temporary. Most visa rejections are due to the fact that the applicant does not have enough binding ties to his own country to convince the counsulate officer that he or she is not planning to be an immigrant.Face-to-face interviews (where the official needs to be convinced that you are not a "potential immigrant") at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate are required for many nationalities, and waits for interview slots and visa processing can add up to several months.
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 with a car, be sure to have documents including car insurance, rental agreements, drivers license, etc., before trying to enter the U.S., as the process has become more strict in the last few years.
Before arrival, you will receive either a form I-94 or form I-94W that is to be completed. If you are entering under the Visa Waiver Program, make certain that you satisfy all of the conditions of entry listed on the back of the card. In addition, if you are denied entry under the Visa Waiver Program, unlike with a normal visa, there is no right to appeal.
If you are not a citizen or resident of the United States, you will go through a short interview at immigration, where the official tries to determine if the traveler's stated purpose of visit is valid. This questioning is most essential for travelers entering the U.S. through the Visa Waiver Program. Since these travelers are not interviewed by the U.S. Counsulate in their home country as they would be if they required a visa, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer must essentially conduct the interview there and make on the spot determinations on your admissibility. Just as any other foreigner, you are presumed to be a potential immigrant until you can prove that your visit is temporary, and that the purpose of your visit is allowable under Visa Waiver. Be prepared to show proof. For example if you are on a business visit, it is advisable to have an invitation letter from the company you are visiting, and a return ticket. If you are a tourist, you'll probably need to show proof of hotel bookings, etc. Usually, the determination of admissibility can be made in a minute or less, however if there are any doubts, you may be referred to further questioning in a more private area. Once they decide to let you in, you are fingerprinted and a digital photograph is taken. As in most countries, assume that customs official are humorless about any kind of security threat; even the most flippant joke implying that you pose a threat can result in lengthy interrogation.
For non-residents, your entry forms will need to state the street address of the location where you will be staying; this should be arranged in advance. The name of your hotel, hostel, university, etc. may not be sufficient; you must provide the street name and number. If staying in multiple locations, provide the address where you will be spending the first night of your stay. If it is a hotel or similar, have a reservation in advance under your name. If it is a private address, make sure that the people there know that they are expecting you that day, as if your plans are doubted border control officials may phone them and ask them for the name of the guest they are expecting.
The Department of Homeland Security has now named the program of additional security measures US-VISIT  and is now piloting a measure where you need to leave your fingerprint and photograph at a kiosk even while leaving. Currently, this is applicable at a majority of land, sea, and air enty ports. Check the list, as most of the important ports of entry are covered.
Just as they should for any other country, travelers should generally avoid bringing meat or raw fruit or vegetables into the U.S., but may bring cooked nonmeats, such as bread. See APHIS for details. The U.S. customs process is fairly straightforward. Most articles that are prohibited or restricted in any other country are prohibited or restricted in the USA. The only rule that is unique to America is that it is generally prohibited to bring in goods made in countries on which the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions. These include Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Myanmar (Burma). Besides their personal effects which will go home with them, visitors are allowed to import $200 of merchandise duty free, and that includes 1 liter of alcohol (21 and older only) and 1 carton of cigarettes. If you are bringing in more that US$10,000 or its equivalent, you must declare it on your customs form and you will be given a special form to fill out. At immigration, the officer usually puts some sort of a tick mark on your customs declaration form to alert the customs officer of any potential need to search you or your luggage. After you are admitted into the U.S. and you retrive your bags, you will proceed to the secondary inspection area (customs checkpoint). You will hand your customs declaration to the officer and one of several things can happen. Most of the time, the officer will point you to the exit and that will be it. The officer may ask you some routine questions and then let you go. The officer may refer you to the x-ray to have your bags inspected, or may refer you for a manual search of your bags. Customs has the right to search your person and your bags, but any search more intrusive than a bag search is pretty rare, and is usually only indicated if some sort of probable cause has been established through questioning or during the bag search to suggest suspicious activity.
Most visitors from outside Canada and Mexico arrive in the United States by plane. While many medium sized inland cities have an international airport, there are limited flights to most of these and most travelers find themselves entering the U.S. at one of the major entry points along the coasts:
Note that the United States requires entry formalities even for international transit, and the current state of international affairs means that this is not going to change anytime soon. You must have a valid visa to enter the United States if required by your citizenship, even if you are immediately continuing on a flight to a different country. If your citizenship requires a visa to enter the U.S., avoid transiting through the U.S. unless you want to spend time and money to obtain a C-1 transit visa. Further, when booking flights to the U.S. note that you will be required to clear customs and immigration at your first U.S. stop, not at your final destination, even if you have an onward flight. Allow at least 2 hours of stop-over (ideally more than 3) at your first U.S. stop.
Warning: ALL persons wishing to enter the United States by air must now possess a valid passport or similar travel document (such as a NEXUS card or Laser Visa).
Traffic on American roads travels on the right hand side (as it does in Canada and Mexico). Entry through certain checkpoints can be slow and difficult.
If you are entering under the Visa Waiver Program, you will need to pay a US$6 fee, in cash, at the port of entry.
Warning: ALL persons wishing to enter the United States by land must now possess a valid passport or similar travel document (such as a NEXUS card or Laser Visa).
Entering the U.S. 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.
Cunard offers transatlantic ship travel between the United Kingdom and New York City.
Warning: ALL persons wishing to enter the United States by sea must now possess a valid passport or similar travel document (such as a NEXUS card or Laser Visa).
The size of the U.S. and the distance separating major cities make air the dominant mode of travel for short-term travelers. If you have time, travel by car or rail can be interesting.
By far the most convenient form of intercity travel in the U.S. is air travel. Coast-to-coast travel takes about 6 hours from east to west or 5 hours from west to east (varying due to prevailing winds), compared to the days 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, although you will often have to detour through a major hub airport to get there. 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 a rental car 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. However 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 U.S. and they are becoming more dominant all the time. Southwest Airlines is the largest and best known.
Online travel agencies, such as Expedia Travelocity Priceline and Orbitz 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.
There are a number of ways to save money when flying domestically in the United States. See Cheap airline travel in North America.
By private jet
Private jet travel within the United States is no longer the exclusive realm of the super rich; the merely rich can pull it off also. In general, the advantages of private jet travel are:
Air Charter refers to hiring a private jet for one time journey. Jet Cards are pre-paid cards entitling the owner to a specific number of flight hours on a specified aircraft. As all expenses are pre-paid on the card, you do not need to concern yourself with deadhead time, return flights, landing fees, etc.
The cost of chartering the smallest private jet can begin at around $4000 per flight hour, with the cost substantially higher for larger, longer-range aircraft. While private flying is by no means inexpensive, a family of four or more can often fly together at a cost similar to or even favorable to buying first class commercial airline tickets.
See also: Rail travel in the United States
Passenger trains in the United States are surprisingly scarce and relatively expensive. The national rail system, Amtrak (1-800-USA-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 U.S. Rail Pass for international travelers only. Separate from Amtrak, commuter trains carry passengers to and from the suburbs of major cities.
Amtrak offers many amenities and services that are lacking from other modes of transport. Amtrak offers many routes that traverse some of America's most beautiful areas. Travelers with limited time may not find travel by train to be convenient, simply because the country is big, and the "bigness" is particularly evident in many of the scenic areas. For those with ample time, though, train travel offers an unparalleled view of America's scenic beauty, without the trouble and long-term discomfort of a rental (hire) car or the hassle of flying.
Travellers choosing Amtrak should be prepared to pad their schedules somewhat. Since Amtrak does not own the rails on which they operate their trains stop and go at the whim of the freight operators who do own them. In general it's a good idea to pad the schedule by 25% when planning connections with other trains or other transport modes. In recent years this is especially true for those few Amtrak lines which cross the Canadian border, since customs officials seem to delight in delaying the train for as long as possible. Expect to wait two hours rather than the advertised 30 minutes.
A major Amtrak line in regular daily use by Americans themselves is the Acela Express line, running between Boston and Washington, D.C.. It stops in New York, New Haven, Philadelphia and many other cities on the way. This line is electrified, with top speeds of 150 miles per hour (though the average speed is a good deal slower). The Acela Express has 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. There are also frequent, slower regional trains covering the same stations along the Northeast Corridor for lower fares.
All Amtrak trains in the northeast as well as all long-distance trains now require reservations. The only routes that don't require reservations are Hiawatha trains between Chicago and Milwaukee, and Capital Corridor (Sacramento-Oakland-San Jose), and Pacific Surfliner (San Diego-Las Angeles-Santa Barbara) Trains in California. 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. Booking early also results in generally lower fares for all trains since they tend to increase as trains become fuller.
One major scenic long-distance train route, the California Zephyr, 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. Many of the sights on this route are simply inaccessible to cars. The trains run only once per day, and they usually sell out well in advance.
Amtrak's single most popular train is the Chicago-Seattle/Portland "Empire Builder" train via Milwaukee, St. Paul/Minneapolis, Fargo, Minot, Glacier National Park, Whitefish, and Spokane. In FY2007, this train alone carried over 503,000 passengers.
Passengers traveling long distances on Amtrak may reserve a seat in coach (Economy class) or pay extra for an upgrade to a private sleeping compartment (there are no shared rooms), which also includes all meals in the dining car. Amtrak trains in the West feature a lounge car with floor to ceiling windows, which are perfect for sightseeing.
Bradt's USA by Rail book (ISBN 1841621277) is a guide to all Amtrak routes, with maps, station details and other practical advice.
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. Besides intercity travel, a car can be necessary even to get around in a single city (such as Phoenix). Travelers from outside the country may not sufficiently appreciate the need for an automobile here. Of course in very large cities like New York City or Chicago there are extensive in-city bus and/or train services 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 public transportation thin. Taxis are often available, but except at airports you may have to phone for one and wait a half-hour or so to be picked up, and make similar arrangements to return. Even in some very large cities (such as Los Angeles and Atlanta), a private car is your most practical option.
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 most American cities, the loss of time traveling between cities by car rather than 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. Just keep in mind that because of the distances, this kind of travel can mean many long days behind the wheel, so pay attention to the comfort of the car you use.
The United States is covered with a convenient system of U.S. and Interstate highways. Interstates are always freeways (limited access; no grade crossings), while U.S. Highways may be freeways on some sections and not on others. These roads network between major (and minor) population centers, and can make it easy to cover long distances – or get to the other side of a large city – quickly. Primary Interstates have one- or two-digit numbers, with odd ones running north-south (e.g. I-5) and even ones running east-west (e.g. I-80). Three-digit interstate numbers designate shorter, secondary freeways. An odd first digit signifies a "spur" into or away from a city; an even first digit signifies a "loop" around a large city. The second two digits remain the same as the primary Interstate that travels nearby. The U.S. Highways are generally older routes that lead through town centers. In many cases, Interstates were constructed roughly parallel to U.S. Highways to expedite traffic that wishes to bypass the city.
The vast majority of freeways do not charge tolls, but those that do are also known as turnpikes. Tolls are also frequently levied for crossing large bridges or tunnels.
American drivers tend to drive calmly in residential neighborhoods. Freeways around big cities, however, can become really crowded with a significant proportion of "hurried" drivers - who will exceed speed limits, pass unsafely, or follow other cars at unsafely close distances. Enforcement of posted speed limits is somewhat unpredictable and varies widely from state to state. Keeping pace with most local drivers will usually avoid a troublesome citation. Beware of small towns along otherwise high-speed rural roads (and medium-speed suburban roads); the reduced speed limits found while going through town are taken very seriously.
Traffic signs often depend on the ability to read English, using only words. The country is gradually adopting signs with internationally understood symbols, usually with English "translations" for locals not yet familiar with them. Signs rarely use metric units; distances and speeds will almost always be given in miles and miles/hour, without these units specified. (1 mile = 1.6 km.).
Renting a car in the U.S. usually runs anywhere from $30 and $100 per day, with some discounts for week-long rentals. The major rental agencies are Enterprise Rent-A-Car  (+1 800 RENT-A-CAR); Hertz  (+1 800 230 4898); Avis  (+1 800 230 4898); Thrifty Car Rental ; and Dollar Rent A Car . 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 are the easiest ways to find them. One widespread 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 (the ones that do almost always charge extra for the privilege); check with the rental agency when making your reservations.
Most rental agencies accept an International Driver's Permit only when presented along with a valid driver's license from your country. You may wish to join some kind of auto club before starting a large American road trip, and 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. 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).
Gasoline ("gas") is sold by the gallon. The American gallon is smaller than the UK gallon, and equals 3.785 liters. The U.S. octane scale is different from that used in Europe; a regular gallon of U.S. gasoline is rated at 87 octane, the equivalent of about 92 in Europe.
Despite increasing petroleum prices worldwide and some increases in gas taxes, the American consumer-voter's attachment to his automobile, combined with abundant domestic oil reserves and relatively low taxes on gasoline, has kept retail fuel prices much lower than in many parts of the world. Prices fluctuate by region and season, generally ranging from around $2.00 to $3.50/gallon ($0.50 to $0.90/liter) in recent years.
Intercity bus travel in the United States is widespread, but is not available everywhere. Many patrons use bus travel when other modes aren't readily available, as buses often connect many smaller towns with regional cities. The disadvantaged and elderly may use these bus lines, as automobile travel proves arduous or unaffordable for some. It's commonly considered a "lower class" way to travel, but is generally dependable,safe, and affordable.
Greyhound Bus Lines (+1 800 229 9424) has the predominant share of American bus travel. Steep discounts are available t o travelers who purchase their tickets 7-14days in advance of their travel date. 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.
Megabus offers inexpensive daily bus service in the Midwest from their hub in Chicago to Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, St. Louis, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Louisville.
For bus service between large East Coast cities (particularly Washington, D.C., New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston), travelers can purchase deeply discounted (below Greyhound prices) tickets from a number of small operators, typically called "Chinatown bus" operators, because they usually enter and depart from the Chinatown area of the cities they serve. These type of services are also beginning to appear on the West Coast.
By Recreational Vehicle (RV)
Main article: Car Camping
Recreational Vehicles – large, sometimes bus sized vehicles that include sleeping and living quarters – are a distinctly American way to cruise the country. Some RV'ers love the convenience of being able to drive their home anywhere they like and enjoy the camaraderie that RV campgrounds offer. Other people dislike the hassles and maintenance issues that come with RVing. And don't even think about driving an RV into a huge metropolis such as New York. Still, if you want to drive extensively within the United States and are comfortable handling a big rig, renting an RV is an option you should consider.
The thrill and exhilaration of cross country travel are magnified when you go by motorcycle. Harley Davidson is the preeminent American motorcycle brand and Harley operates a motorcycle rental program  for those licensed and capable of handling a full weight motorcycle. For those unexperienced with motorcycles, Harley and other dealerships offer classes for beginners. Wearing a helmet, although not required in all states, is always a good idea.
American enthusiasm towards motorcycles has led to a motorcycling subculture. Motorcycle Clubs are exclusive clubs for members dedicated to riding a particular brand of motorcycle within a highly structured club hierarchy. Riding Clubs may or may not be organized around a specific brand of bikes and offer open membership to anyone interested in riding. Motorcycle Rallies, such as the famous one in Sturgis, South Dakota, are huge gatherings of motorcyclists from around the country. Many motorcyclists are not affiliated with any club and opt to ride independently or with friends. However you choose to ride, and whatever brand of bike you prefer, motorcycling can be a thrilling way to see the country.
A long history of hitchhiking comes out of the U.S., with record of automobile hitchhikers as early as 1911. Today, hitchhiking is nowhere near as common, but there are some nevertheless who still attempt short or cross-country trips. The laws related to hitchhiking in the U.S. are most covered by the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC), adopted with changes in wording by individual states. In general, it is legal to hitchhike throughout the majority of the country, if not standing within the boundaries of a highway (usually marked by a solid white line at the shoulder of the road) and if not on an Interstate highway prohibiting pedestrians.
In many states Interstate highways do not allow foot traffic, so hitchhikers must use the entrance ramps. In a few states it is allowed or tolerated (unless on a toll road). Oklahoma, Texas and Oregon are a few states that do allow pedestrians on the highway shoulder, although not in some metropolitan areas. Oklahoma allows foot traffic on all free interstates, but not toll roads) and Texas only bans it on toll roads - and on free Interstates within the city of El Paso. Oregon only bans it in the three counties that make up the tri-met transit district (Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington (Metro Portland).) Missouri only bans it within Kansas City and St. Louis city limits.
Hitchhiking has become much less popular due to increasing wariness of the possible dangers (fueled in part by sensational stories in the news media). International travelers to the U.S. should avoid this practice unless they have either a particularly strong sense of social adventure or extremely little money. Even many Americans themselves would only feel comfortable "thumbing a ride" if they had a good knowledge of the locale.
The U.S. has no official language at the federal level, but English is by far the standard for everyday use. Several states have declared their official state language as English. Spanish is also official in the state of New Mexico, where it is widely spoken; French is official in Louisiana and the Hawaiian language is official in Hawaii, but neither approaches the use of English and are official for primarily historical reasons. Many other local authorities have declared Spanish an official language, particularly in the Southwest. Visitors from Commonwealth countries may get some funny looks when using certain expressions peculiar to their dialect, and may themselves be surprised by certain American English expressions, but they should otherwise get along fine. A degree of romance is attached to the accents of non-North-American anglophones, and people may be friendlier to you because of yours.
Americans seldom speak languages other than English, unless they are from an immigrant community; visitors are generally expected to speak and understand English. Even popular tourist sites might have signs and information only available in English, or perhaps one or two other languages, usually Spanish or French, though this is improving as international tourism increases.
There is something of a "standard" flat accent (native to the Midwest), popularized in the 20th century by radio, TV and movies. But in the South and Texas, in New England, in New York City, and in the upper Midwest you'll find regional accents and dialects are more common. Many Americans of whatever accent will try to approximate a "TV news" accent if they realize you have trouble understanding them, but people with strong accents unfamiliar overseas may be difficult for non-native English speakers to understand.
In many parts of the U.S., such as California, the Southwest, Texas, Florida, Chicago Metropolitan Area, and the New York Metropolitan Area, Spanish is the first language of a large minority of residents, mostly immigrants from Mexico or Latin America. In fact, the United States has the fifth largest Spanish speaking population in the world. 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. In addition to English and Spanish, French is spoken in rural areas near the border with Quebec, in some areas of Louisiana, and by immigrants from West Africa and Haiti. Hawaiian is the native language of Hawaii and in the various Chinatowns in major cities, Cantonese is common. Smaller immigrant groups also sometimes form their own pockets of shared language, including Russian, Italian, Greek, Arabic, Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese, and others. Chicago, for instance, is home to the second largest Polish-speaking population in the world, behind Warsaw. Another pocket comprises a group that has been in the country for generations, the Amish, who live in Pennsylvania and Ohio and speak a variety of German, and some Native Americans speak their respective native languages, especially on reservations in the west.
Here are a handful of itineraries spanning regions across the United States:
The official U.S. currency is the United States dollar (symbol: $), divided into 100 cents (¢). Conversion rates vary daily and are available online . Foreign currencies are almost never accepted. Canadian currency is sometimes accepted at larger stores within 100 miles of the border, but discounted for the exchange rate. Watch for stores that really want Canadian shoppers and will accept at par. Often, a few Canadian coins (especially pennies) won't be noticed, but less so the further south you go.
Common American bills are for $1, $5, $10 and $20, with $2, $50 and $100 bills considerably less common. All bills are the same size. All $1, $2, $5, and $100 bills, and older $10, $20, and $50 bills are greenish and printed with black and green ink. Newer versions of the $10, $20, and $50 bills incorporate different gradations of color in the paper and additional colors of ink. You will currently find up to three different designs of some bills in circulation. Some vending machines accept $1 and maybe $5 bills; acceptance of larger bills is less common, especially the newer designs.
The standard coins are the penny (1¢, copper color), the nickel (5¢, silver color, and made of a copper-nickel alloy), the dime (10¢, silver color) and the quarter (25¢, silver color). Note that the size doesn't necessarily correspond to their relative value: the dime is the smallest coin, followed by the penny, nickel, and quarter. 50¢ coins exist, but are rarely seen. The dollar coin is not as widely used, but is accepted by many newer vending machines; there are several recent varieties in both silver and gold color, all slightly larger than the quarter. Coin-operated machines usually only accept nickels, dimes, and quarters.
Currency exchange centers are rare outside the downtowns of major coastal and border cities, and international airports. You are best to bring dollars with you from your home country. Most automated teller machines (ATMs) can handle foreign bank cards or credit cards bearing Visa/Plus or MasterCard/Cirrus logo; note, however, that many ATMs charge fees of about $1.50 for use with cards issued by other banks (often waived for cards issued outside of the U.S., but banks in one's home country may charge their own fees). Smaller ATMs found in restaurants etc. often charge higher fees. Many banks can also provide currency exchange services.
Major credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard are widely used and accepted, even for transactions worth only a few dollars. In fact, in some cases, it may be the only way to make a transaction—although for purchases less than a few dollars you may get some strange looks in smaller stores, as well as some non-chain stores. (There are stores that only accept cash, and will often indicate that with a sign saying so. Some other stores specify a minimum amount of money for credit card use.) Other cards such as American Express and Discover are also accepted, but not as widely. Almost all sit-down restaurants, hotels, and shops will accept credit cards. Authorization is made by signing a sales slip or sometimes a computer pad. When making large purchases, it is fairly typical for the shop to ask for picture identification, but no additional security precautions are taken, so guard your cards carefully. Shops may also be suspicious of foreign cards and demand identification.
Gas station pumps, selected public transportation vending machines, and some other types of automated vending machines often have credit/debit card readers. Note, however, that some automated vending machines accepting credit cards ask for the Zip Code of the US billing address for the card, which effectively prevents them from accepting foreign cards. For gas stations, it would be advisable to check first with the station attendant inside.
Most states have a sales tax, ranging from 2.9% to nearly 10% of the retail price; 4-6% is typical. Sales tax is almost never included in posted prices (except for gasoline, and in most states, alcoholic beverages consumed on-premises), but instead will be calculated and added to the total when you pay. Groceries and a variety of other "necessities" are usually exempt, but almost any other retail transaction – including restaurant meals – will have sales tax added to the total. Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon have no sales tax. Regional price variations, indirect hotel and business taxes, etc. will usually have more impact on a traveler's wallet than the savings of seeking out a low-sales-tax or no-sales-tax destination. Many cities also impose sales taxes, and certain cities have tax zones near airports and business districts that are designed to exploit travellers.
Major retail. America is the birthplace of the shopping mall, and suburbs in particular have miles and miles of strip malls, or long rows of small shops with shared parking lots, usually built along a high-capacity road (the "strip"). Large cities still maintain central shopping districts that can be navigated on public transport, but pedestrian-friendly shopping streets are uncommon and usually small.
Garage Sales. On weekends, it is not uncommon to find families selling no longer needed household items in their driveway, garage, or yard. If you see a driveway full of stuff on a Saturday, it's likely a garage sale. Check it out; one person's trash may just be your treasure. Bargaining is expected and encouraged.
Flea Markets. Flea markets (called "swap meets" in Western states) have dozens if not hundreds of vendors selling all kinds of usually inexpensive merchandise. Some flea markets are highly specialized and aimed at collectors of a particular sort; others just sell all types of items. Again, bargaining is expected.
Auctions. Americans did not invent the auction but may well have perfected it. The fast paced, sing-song cadence of a country auctioneer, selling anything from farm animals to estate furniture, is a special experience, even if you have no intention of buying. In big cities head to the auction chambers of Christie's or Sotheby's auctioneers, and watch paintings, antiques and works of art be sold in a matter of minutes at prices that go into the millions.
Unless you live in Europe or Japan, the United States is generally expensive, but there are ways to limit the damage. A barebones budget for camping, hostels, and cooking your food could be $30-50/day, and you can double that if you stay at motels and eat at cheap cafes. Add on a rental car and hotel accommodation and you'll be looking at $150/day and up. There are regional variations too: large cities like New York and Los Angeles are expensive, while prices go down in the countryside.
If you intend to visit any of the National Parks Service sites, such as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park, it is worth considering the purchase of a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass . This costs $80 and gives access to almost all of the federally administered parks and recreation areas for one year. Considering the price of admission to many parks is at least $20 each, if you visit more than a few of them, the pass will be the cheaper solution.
Many hotels and motels offer discounts for members of certain organizations which anyone can join, such as the American Automobile Association. If you're a member, it's worth asking at check in.
Tipping in America is widely used and expected. While Americans themselves often debate correct levels and exactly who deserves to be tipped, generally accepted standard rates are:
The important one here is restaurants. Theoretically, tipping waiters is optional, but in practice you should always leave a tip. Tips are often the majority of a waiter's income, and the rest of the service staff may depend on their share of the tip as well. If you receive exceptionally poor service and the manager does not correct the problem when you bring it to their attention, a deliberately small tip (one or two coins) will express your displeasure more clearly than leaving no tip at all.
Tips are normally left as cash at the table when you leave (there is no need to hand it over personally or wait until it's collected), but if paying by credit card you can instead add it directly to the charge slip when you sign it. For larger parties (sometimes over 6, almost always over 10) it is common for "gratuity" of 18% or so to be added to the bill and included in the total. In this case, an extra tip is not necessary. This will be stated somewhere on the menu, but you should also review the bill carefully before paying to determine whether or not the tip is already included.
Tipping is not expected at restaurants (such as fast-food chains) where patrons stand at a counter to place their order and receive their food. Some such restaurants may have a "tip jar" by the cash register, which may be used at the customer's discretion in appreciation of good service. Some tipping at a cafeteria or buffet is expected since the wait staff often clears the table for you and provides refills of drinks and such.
Unlike in other countries, certain individuals are not customarily tipped. Doctors and dentists, for example, do not accept tips. Additionally, one should NEVER try to offer any kind of tip to a government employee of any kind, especially police officers; this could be construed as attempted bribery (a felony offense) and might cause serious legal problems.
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 alcohol. 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. A third remarkable fact is the size of the portions generally served by U.S. restaurants. Although the trend has moderated in recent years, portions have grown surprisingly large over the past two or three decades.
Types of restaurants
Fast food restaurants such as McDonald's and Burger King are ubiquitous. But the variety of this type of restaurant in the US is astounding: pizza, Chinese food, Mexican food, fish, chicken, barbecued meat, and ice-cream only begin to touch on it. Alcoholic beverages are not served in these restaurants; "soda" (often called "pop" in the Midwest through the Northwest, or generically "coke" in the South) or other soft drinks are standard. The quality of the food varies, but because of the strictly limited menu, it is generally good. Also the restaurants are usually clean and bright, and the service is limited but friendly.
Take-out food is very common in larger cities, for food that may take a little longer to prepare than a fast-food place can accommodate. Place an order by phone and then drive to the restaurant to pick it up and take it away. Many places will also deliver. Pizza is easier to get delivered than by visiting a restaurant.
Chain sit-down restaurants are a step up in quality and price from fast food, although those with discerning palates will probably still be disappointed. They may specialize in a particular cuisine such as seafood or a particular nationality, though some serve a large variety of foods. Some are well-known for the breakfast meal alone, such as the International House of Pancakes (IHOP) which serves breakfast all day. A few of the larger chain restaurants include Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Applebee's and T.G.I. Friday's, to name a few. These restaurants generally serve alcoholic beverages, though not always.
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 and prices to match. In most medium sized cities and suburbs, you will also find a wide variety of restaurants of all classes. 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.
The diner is a typically American, popular kind of restaurant. They are usually individually run, 24-hour establishments found along the major roadways, but also in large cities and suburban areas. They offer a huge variety of large-portion meals that often include soup or salad, bread, beverage and dessert. They are usually very popular among the locals for breakfast; some serve breakfast all day. Diner chains include Denny's and Norm's, but there are many non-chain diners. Cost is comparable to a chain restaurant.
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 interstate highways and they cater to truckers, usually having a separate area for diesel fuel, areas for parking "big rigs", and shower facilities for truckers who sleep in their cabs. These fabled restaurants serve what passes on the road for "plain home cooking": hot roast beef sandwiches, meatloaf, fried chicken, and of course the ubiquitous burger and fries. A general gauge of how good the food is at a given truck-stop is to note how many truckers have stopped there to eat.
Some bars double as restaurants open late at night. Note, however, that bars may be off-limits to those under 21 or unable to show photo ID proving they are not, and this may include the dining area.
American restaurants serve soft drinks with a liberal supply of ice to keep them cold (and fill the glass). Asking for no ice in your drink is acceptable, and the drink will still probably be fairly cool. If you ask for water, it will usually be chilled and served with ice, unless you request otherwise. In many restaurants, soft drinks will be refilled for you at no extra charge.
Types of food
Barbeque, BBQ, or barbecue is a delicious American specialty. At its best, it's beef brisket, ribs, or pork shoulder wood smoked slowly for hours. The brisket and ribs are usually sliced thin, and the pork shoulder can be shredded into a dish known as pulled pork. Sauce of varying spiciness may be served on the dish, or provided on the side. Various parts of the US have unique styles of barbeque. The big regions are Kansas City, Texas, Tennessee, and North Carolina, however, barbeque of some variety is generally available throughout the country. Barbeque restaurants differ from many other restaurants in that the best food is often served at very casual establishments. A typical barbeque restaurant may have plastic dinnerware, picnic tables, and serve sandwiches on cheap white bread. Barbeque found on the menu at a fancy chain or non-specialty restaurant is likely to be less authentic.
With a rich tradition of immigration, America has a wide variety of ethnic foods; everything from Ethiopian cuisine to Laotian food is available in major cities with large immigrant populations.
Chinese food is widely available, though a traveler from China might find it quite "Americanized". Japanese sushi, Vietnamese, 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. Indian food outlets are available in most US cities and towns.
Mexican food is very popular, but again in a localized version. 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 authentic Mexican taquerias can be found easily in the Southwest, and increasingly in cities throughout the country.
Vegetarian food is easy to come by in big urban areas. As vegetarianism is becoming more common in the US, so are the restaurants that cater to them. Most big cities and college towns will 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 main course, or else make up a meal out of side dishes. Meat-free breakfast foods such as pancakes or eggs are readily available at diners.
People on low-fat or low-calorie diets should be fairly well-served in the U.S., 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 request.
For the backpacker or those on very restricted budgets, American supermarkets offer an almost infinite variety of pre-packaged/pre-processed foods that are either ready or almost ready for consumption, e.g. breakfast cereal, ramen noodles, canned soups, etc.
It is usually inappropriate to join a table already occupied by other diners, even if it has unused seats; Americans prefer this degree of privacy when they eat. Exceptions are cafeteria-style eateries with long tables, and at crowded informal eateries and cafes you may have success asking a stranger if you can share the table they're sitting at. Striking up a conversation in this situation may be unwelcome, however.
Table manners, while varying greatly, are typically European influenced. Slurping or making other noises while eating are considered rude in most restaurants, as well as loud conversation (including phone calls). It is fairly common to wait until everybody at your table has been served before eating. Except in fast food restaurants, it is common to keep your napkin on your lap. Offense isn't taken if you don't finish your meal, and most restaurants will package the remainder to take with you, or provide a box for you to do this yourself (sometimes euphemistically called a "doggy bag", implying that the leftovers are for your pet). Visitors wishing to use this service option should ask the server to get the remainder "to go"; this term will be almost universally understood, and will not cause any embarrasement. Some restaurants offer an "all-you-can-eat" buffet or other service; taking home portions from such a meal is either not allowed, or carries an additional fee.
Many fast food items (sandwiches, burgers, pizza, tacos, etc) are designed to be eaten by hand.
Drinking customs in America are as varied as the backgrounds of its many people. In some rural areas, alcohol is mostly served in restaurants rather than dedicated drinking establishments, but 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".
While most American beer drinkers prefer light lagers – until the 1990s this was the only kind commonly sold – a wide variety of beers are now available all over the U.S. It is not too unusual to find a bar serving a hundred or more different kinds of beer, both bottled and "draft", though most will have perhaps a dozen or three, with a half dozen "on tap". Microbreweries – some of which have grown to be moderately large and/or purchased by one of the major breweries – make every kind of beer 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.
Wine in the U.S. is also a contrast between 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. These 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. Imports are widely available in better stores and establishments. Many other U.S. regions have also undertaken winemaking, with varying levels of success and respect. Sparkling wines such as champagne and prosecco are available by the bottle in up-scale restaurants, but are rarely served by the glass as they often are in western Europe. The wines served in most bars in America are unremarkable, but wine bars are becoming more common in urban areas.
Hard alcohol is usually drunk with mixers, but also served "on the rocks" or "straight up" on request. Their increasing popularity has caused a long term trend toward drinking light-colored and more "mixable" liquors, especially vodka, and away from the more traditional darker liquors such as whiskey and bourbon that older drinkers favor.
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. 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. Also, gay/lesbian nightclubs exist in nearly every medium- to large-sized city.
While most Americans drink alcohol, there are some often-peculiar legal restrictions leftover from the country's experiment with Prohibition in the 1920s. (Also, religion can influence alcohol restrictions, particularly in the American South and in Utah.) Although laws regulating alcohol sales, consumption, and possession vary somewhat by state and county, the drinking age is 21 throughout the U.S. except in most of the outlying territories (where it is 18). Enforcement of this varies, but if you're under 30 you should definitely be prepared to show photo ID when buying alcohol in a store or entering a bar (which often refuse admittance to "minors" under 21).
A foreign passport or other credible ID will probably be accepted, but many waiters have never seen one, and it may not even be legally valid for buying alcohol in some places. It's worth noting that most American ID's have the date of birth laid out as month/day/year, while frequently other countries ID's use year/month/day or day/month/year which may cause further confusion. Using false identification to misrepresent your age is a criminal offense in all 50 states, and while most alcohol vendors will simply refuse to sell or take a blatantly fake ID away, a few also call the police which may result in prosecution.
Selling alcohol is typically prohibited after a certain hour, usually 2 AM. In some states, most stores can only sell beer and wine; hard liquor is sold at dedicated liquor stores. Several "dry counties" – mostly in southern states – ban some or all types of alcohol in public establishments; private clubs (with nominal membership fees) are often set up to get around this. Sunday sales are restricted in some areas.
Most towns ban drinking in public (other than in bars and restaurants of course), with varying degrees of enforcement. Almost all communities have some sort of ban on "drunk and disorderly" behavior. Drunk driving comes under fairly harsh scrutiny, with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08% considered "Under the Influence" and many states considering 0.05% "Impaired". Drunk driving checkpoints are fairly common during major "party" events, and although privacy advocates have carved out exceptions, if a police officer asks a driver to submit to a blood-alcohol test or perform a test of sobriety, you generally may not refuse. Penalties for DUI ("driving under the influence") can include thousands of dollars in fines and a jail sentence. It is also usually against the law to have an open container of alcohol within reach of the driver. Some states have "open bottle" laws which can levy huge fines for an open container in a vehicle, sometimes several hundred dollars per container.
By far the most common form of lodging in rural United States and along many Interstates is the motel. Providing inexpensive rooms ($30-$85 per night as of 2006) to automotive travellers, most motels are clean and reasonable with a limited array of amenities: telephone, TV, bed, bathroom. Motel 6 (+1 800 466-8356) is a national chain with reasonable rates ($30-$70, depending on the city). Super 8 Motels (+1 800 800-8000) provides reasonable accommodations throughout the country as well. Reservations are typically unnecessary, which is convenient since you don't have to arbitrarily interrupt a long road trip; you can simply drive until you're tired then find a room.
Business or extended-stay hotels are increasingly available across the country. They can be found in smaller towns across the midwest or in coastal urban areas. Generally they are more expensive than motels, but not as expensive as full-scale hotels, with prices around $70 to $170. While the hotels may appear to be the size of a motel, they may offer amenities from larger hotels. Examples include the Marriott's chain of Courtyard by Marriott, Fairfield Inns, and Residence Inns; Hampton Inn; or Holiday Inn's Holiday Inn Express. Some of the hotels are for long term stays directed at business travelers or families, as they might feature kitchens in most rooms, afternoon social events (generally by a pool), and generally serve continental breakfast.
Hotels are available in most cities and usually offer more services and amenities than motels. Rooms usually run about $80-$200 per night, but very large, glamorous, and expensive hotels can be found in most major cities, offering luxury suites larger than some houses. An affordable and nationwide set of hotel brands exist such as Amerisuites, Hawthorn, Days Inn (+1 800 329-7466), and Microtel, all boasting the amenities and services of an expensive hotel at budget to reasonable rates.AmericInn offers very nice but reasonable lodging for families and business travelers alike throughout the 50 states.
In many rural areas, especially on the coasts and in New England, bed and breakfast (B&B) lodging can be found. Usually in converted houses or buildings with less than a dozen units, B&Bs feature a more homey 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. Unlike Europe, most American bed and breakfasts are unmarked; one must make a reservation beforehand and receive directions there.
The two best-known hotel guides covering the U.S. are the American Automobile Association (AAA) guides, available to members and affiliated auto clubs worldwide at local AAA offices; and the Mobil Travel Guide, available at bookstores. There are several websites booking hotels online; be aware that many of these sites add a small commission to the room rate, so it may be cheaper to book directly through the hotel. On the other hand, some hotels charge more for "drop-in" business than reserved rooms or rooms acquired through agents and brokers, so it's worth checking both.
There are also youth hostels across the U.S. Most are affiliated with the American Youth Hostel organization (a Hostelling International member). 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. Non-AYH hostels are also available, particularly in larger cities. Be aware that hostels are clustered in more touristy locations, do not assume that all mid sized towns will have a hostel.
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), with most states and many counties having their own park systems, 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, but with hookups for recreational vehicles and amenities such as laundromats. Countless independently owned private campgrounds vary in character.
Short courses may be undertaken on a tourist visa. Community colleges typically offer college-credit courses on an open-admissions basis; anyone with a high school degree or its equivalent and the required tuition payment can generally enroll. In large cities, open universities may offer short non-credit courses on all sorts of practical topics, from ballroom dance to buying real estate. They are a good place to learn a new skill and meet people.
Studying full-time in the United States is an excellent opportunity for young adults seeking an advanced education, a chance to see a foreign country, and a better understanding of the U.S. and its people. It can be done independently by applying directly to a college for admission, or through the "study abroad" or "foreign exchange" department of a college in your own country, usually for a single term or one year. (Either approach requires a student visa.) The latter is usually easiest; the two institutions will handle much of the arrangements, and you don't have to make a commitment to four years living in a strange country. Be forewarned, however: many state universities and private colleges are located in small towns, hundreds of miles from any big urban centers. Don't expect to spend your weekends in New York if your college is in North Dakota.
The types of schools vary dramatically. (In conversation, Americans tend to use the terms "school" and "college" inclusively: any college or university might be referred to as "school", and a university might be called "college".) State university systems are partially subsidized by state governments, and may have many campuses spread around the state, with hundreds of thousands of students. Private colleges are generally smaller (hundreds or a few thousand students), with a larger percentage of their students living on campus; some are affiliated with churches and may be more religious in character. Other kinds of colleges focus on teaching specific job skills, education for working adults, and providing inexpensive college-level education to local residents. Although nearly all colleges are open to students regardless of race, gender, religion, etc. many were originally established for a particular group (e.g. African-Americans, women, members of a particular religion) and may still attract primarily students from that group. Several private colleges remain female-only, there are a few male-only private colleges, and private religious colleges may expect students to practise the school's faith.
Colleges are funded by "tuition" charged to the student, which is often quite expensive, very commonly reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars per year. The most selective colleges (and hence, often the most desirable) run up to US$40,000-$50,000 dollars per year, including both tuition and "room & board" in that price. Most U.S. citizens receive substantial financial assistance from the federal government in the form of grants and low-interest loans, which are not available to non-citizens. Often financial aid for foreign students is provided by their home country. They may be eligible for privately-funded "scholarships" intended to provide educational opportunities for various kinds of students. Some U.S. banks offer loans to foreign students, which usually require a citizen to guarantee that they'll be repaid. Contact the Financial Aid Office of any college you are interested in attending for more information about the sources of aid available.
Almost all U.S. colleges and universities operate web sites (in the .edu domain) with information for prospective students and other visitors. Information on touring a handful of them has been collected into Touring famous universities in the U.S..
Work in America is best arranged long before you enter the United States. Young people who are full time students of certain nationalities can apply for a J1 "Exchange Visitor" visa  which permits paid work as au pairs or summer work for up to 4 months in virtually any type of job. The United States Department of State has full information on applying for this type of visa including the precise categories that qualify.
The H-1B visa allows a limited number of skilled and certain unskilled employees to work in the United States. It is based on a petition filed by an American employer. The most common careers of hard-to-get H-1B visa holders are nurses, math teachers, and computer science professionals.
Paid work is generally not allowed on a B1/B2 visitor visa. Working unlawfully in the United States runs the very real risk of arrest, deportation, and ineligibility to re-enter the country. Illegal immigrants also run the risk of dangerous work conditions.
If you are seeking to adjust visa status or to enter the U.S. on a working visa you should first check the official government websites of the US Department of State, which issues visas abroad, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services  which administers immigration programs within the United States. Unfortunately, con artists both in the U.S. and overseas often prey on people's desire to travel or work here. Keep in mind that visa applications do not usually require an attorney or other intermediary; be wary of and verify any "advice" offered by third parties.
Like most things in the US, crime varies greatly depending on the area. Most (but NOT all) large cities have higher crime rates, as might be expected. Outside of major cities and urban areas, however, crime rates are usually lower. As always, common sense goes a long way: do not go out alone at night, avoid high-crime areas, be wary of strangers, and do not draw attention to yourself. Carrying large quantities of cash is generally also not a good idea; tourists are sometimes targeted by thieves since they are more likely to be carrying cash with them. Credit cards are much safer and widely accepted.
When in cities, be ready for strangers who will approach, tell a tale of woe (often involving a car in need of refueling or some other scenario requiring a modest amount of money), and then request several dollars. In the majority of cases the tale is untrue, and they pose no threat, so don't feel any obligation to part with your cash. A polite "Sorry, I can't help" will usually be sufficient; a firm "No" and walking away will almost always work.
Gay and lesbian
Americans' opinions of homosexuality are incredibly diverse, ranging from very accepting to extremely intolerant. Younger Americans in general tend to either be more accepting or simply neutral. Several states and many major cities require equal treatment in public accommodation, and a 2003 Supreme Court decision struck the last remaining "sodomy" laws from the books. However, same-sex marriages and civil unions are not recognized by the federal government nor by most states (only Massachusetts recognizes same-sex marriage, although California, Vermont, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Oregon, Washington, and a few other areas do have civil unions or legal equivalents) and in many states it is legal – but uncommon – for a gay couple to be denied a shared room. Also beware that it is legal for gays to be fired from their jobs in over 30 states. Openly gay men and lesbian women are barred from serving in the US military. Gay-bashing is not especially common, but physical and verbal attacks do happen. Remember that, especially in the south (known as the "Bible Belt"), fundamentalist or otherwise conservative Christians tend to be less tolerant of open displays of homosexual behavior. Anti-gay political groups are active in US politics and if you go to any kind of gay celebration or event, you may encounter such groups. The residents of most large cities are used to visible homosexuality, with smaller towns – especially those where fundamentalist Christianity is prevalent – being less comfortable with it. But even those who disapprove of homosexuality would usually prefer to ignore it or channel their opinions into political activism, so if you don't identify yourself as gay, it will probably not become an issue.
Many large cities have neighborhoods where large numbers of gay/lesbian people live quite openly; New York's Greenwich Village, Chicago's Boystown, San Francisco's Castro Street and Noe Valley, Washington's Dupont Circle , and Los Angeles' West Hollywood are among the most established. Even outside of gay neighborhoods, major cities are overwhelmingly gay-friendly, especially on the east and west coasts. An increasing number of resort areas are known as gay-friendly; these include old standbys like Fire Island, Key West, Provincetown, Ogunquit, Rehoboth Beach, Saugatuck, and newer hotspots like Asbury Park. In these areas, it is not a problem to be open about one's sexual orientation. In many other smaller cities, there are small neighborhoods with a gay presence although not necessarily known by a specific name. The presence of a rainbow flag hanging outside of a building almost always indicates that whoever owns or runs the building, be it a home, hotel or shop, is gay-friendly.
Street drugs, including marijuana, are illegal throughout the U.S. Marijuana use is more widely accepted than other drugs (particularly on the West Coast), but generally not to the degree that it is in Canada or Western European countries. Although a few states have passed laws legalizing the medical use of marijuana, this will not protect any foreign citizen caught in possession. Outside of drug-using circles, most Americans frown upon illicit drug use regardless of quantity, and travelers would be wise to avoid using such substances in the United States. Attempting to bring any quantity into the U.S. poses a serious risk of being arrested for "trafficking".
Prostitution is illegal in all areas except at licensed brothels in rural Nevada counties. In other states, tolerance and enforcement of prostitution laws vary considerably, but be aware that police routinely enage in "sting" operations in which an officer may pose as a prostitute to catch and arrest persons offering to pay for sex.
During any emergency, dialing 911 at any telephone will connect you to an area call center for all the emergency services in the area (police, fire, ambulance, etc). Calls to 911 are free from payphones and any mobile phone capable of operating with local carriers. Dispatchers will send appropriate personnel to deal with accidents, serious sickness, criminal, or any other emergency situations. Unless you are calling from a mobile phone, the 911 call center can almost always trace your call to locate you; with mobile phones location technology is less accurate and reliable. Abuse of the 911 program for non-emergency purposes can result in a heavy fine; only use this service for true emergencies. Some cities have a 311 number for situations which are not of immediate danger.
The American health care system is world-class in quality, but very expensive for the uninsured. Americans generally use private health insurance, paid either by their employer or out of their own pocket; some risk paying high hospital bills themselves, or depend on government subsidized health plans. As a traveler, it is advisable to acquire health insurance with medical evacuation coverage before arriving in the U.S.; should you not do so and a medical incident occurs, you may face enormous hospital bills.
In a life-threatening emergency, call 911 to summon an ambulance to take you to the nearest hospital emergency room ("ER"), or in less urgent situations get to the hospital yourself and register at the ER's front desk. Emergency rooms will treat patients without regard to their ability to pay, but you will still be presented with a bill for all care. Do not use ERs for non-emergency walk-in care. Not only can this be 3-4 times more expensive than other options, but you will often wait many hours before being treated, as the staff will give priority to patients with urgent needs. In most areas, the charge for an emergency room visit starts around $500, in addition to any specific services or medications you may require. Most urban areas have minor emergency centers (also called "urgent care", etc.) for medical situations where a fully equipped emergency room would be excessive. However, their hours may be limited, and few are open overnight.
Walk-in clinics are another place for travelers to find routine medical care, letting patients see a doctor or nurse-practitioner without an appointment (but often with a bit of a wait). They are typically very up-front about fees, and always accept credit cards. To find one, check the yellow pages under "Clinics", or call a major hospital and ask. Make sure to tell the clerk you will be paying "out of pocket"; if they assume an insurance company will be paying for it, they may order tests that are not medically essential and in some cases bill for services that aren't actually provided.
Dentists are readily available throughout the United States (again, see the yellow pages). As most Americans do not have dental insurance, dental offices are accustomed to explaining fees over the phone, and most will accept credit cards.
Most counties and cities have a government-supported clinic offering free or low-cost testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases; call the Health Department for the county you are in for more details. Many county clinics offer primary health care services as well, however these services are geared towards low-income residents and not foreign travelers. Planned Parenthood (1-800-230-7526) is a private agency with clinics and centers around the country providing birth control and other reproductive health services for both females and males.
U.S. telephone numbers have a fixed format XXX-YYY-ZZZZ. The first three digits (XXX) are the area code, which is unique to a specific region of a state or sometimes a section of a city. You must sometimes dial "1" before the area code, if the area code differs from your phone's number. All of the digits must usually be dialed, even if "XXX" and "YYY" matches your phone's number. (In the smaller cities, XXX need not be dialed for local calls.) Calls to Canada and certain Caribbean islands can be dialed as if they were in the U.S. (some Caribbean islands are expensive); calls to other locations require an international access code (011). At some locations (businesses and hotels with internal phone systems), you will need to dial an access code (usually "8" or "9") to reach an outside line before dialing the number.
Numbers with the area code 800, 888, 877, or 866 are toll free within the U.S. Outside the country, dial 880, 881, 882, and 883 respectively, but won't be toll free. The area code 900 is used for services with additional charges applied to the call (e.g. "adult entertainment"). This is also true of "local" seven-digit phone numbers starting with 976.
Most visitor areas and some restaurants and bars have books with two listings of telephone numbers (often split into two books): the "white pages", for an alphabetical listing; and the "yellow pages", an advertising-filled listing of business and service establishments by category (e.g. "Taxicabs"). Directory information can also be obtained by dialing 411 (for local numbers) or 1-areacode-555-1212 (for other areas). If 411 doesn't work locally, try 555-1212 or 1-555-1212. Directory information is normally an extra cost call. As an alternative, directory information is available for free via 1-800-Free411, which is ad-supported. Information directories are also available online at each regional telephone company's web site (AT&T, Verizon, Bell South, and Qwest), as well as www.free411.com. Although each claims to have all the local phone numbers of the others, using the site of the region you are searching for yields the best results (i.e. AT&T for most of California, Verizon for the Northeast, etc.) Many residential land-line phones and all cellular (mobile) phones are unlisted.
Prior to the popularity of personal cell phones, pay phones were ubiquitous on sidewalks all over the United States, and commonplace in other places such as gas stations. Today, however, many phone companies have removed them or have increased their charges substantially. You will probably have to enter a store or restaurant to find one, though some are against the outer wall of such businesses, usually in front, or near bus stops.
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. Some cards may be refilled by phoning a number and giving your Visa/Mastercard number, but often operators refuse foreign cards for this purpose.
American mobile phone service (known as cell phones regardless of the technology used) is not very compatible with that offered elsewhere. While GSM has been gaining popularity, the U.S. uses the unusual 1900 and 850 MHz frequencies; check with your operator or mobile phone dealer to see if your phone is a tri-band or quad-band model that will work here. The two largest GSM network operators are T-Mobile USA and AT&T. Roaming fees are high and text messages may not always work due to compatibility issues between networks. Alternatives to using your own phone include renting one (most larger airports have a shop, with rental fees starting at $3/day) or buying a cheap local prepaid phone. Be aware, however, that prepaid mobiles in the U.S. are not nearly as common as in Europe; per-minute fees for prepaid service are generally high (usually around $0.25/minute).
First class airmail postcards and letters (if not oversized, or over one ounce/28.5 grams) are $0.69 to Canada and Mexico and $0.90 elsewhere. (All locations with a USPS zip code are considered domestic, including Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia (FSM only), U.S. Navy ships at sea, etc. With the rate increase as of 14 May 2007, domestic postcards are $0.26, and small letters up to an ounce are $0.41. If you put a solid object like a coin or keys in an envelope, you'll pay a surcharge.
You can receive mail sent both domestically and from abroad by having it addressed to you as "General Delivery." In other countries, this is often called Poste Restante. There is no charge for this service. You just go to the main post office, wait in line, and they will give you your mail after showing ID such as a passport.
The last four digits of the ZIP (postal) Code for General Delivery is always '9999'. If the city is large enough to have multiple post offices, only one (usually in the center of downtown) will have the General Delivery service. This means, for example, if you're staying in the Green Lake district of Seattle (a few miles north of downtown), you cannot receive your mail at the Green Lake Post Office, and must travel downtown to get it. On the other hand, if you're completely outside of the city of Seattle, and in a smaller town with only one post office, you can have it sent there.
Over 76% of Americans have Internet access, mostly in their homes and offices. Internet cafes, therefore, are not common outside of major metropolitan, tourist and resort areas. Even within major cities, Internet cafes are rarer than in their European counterparts.
If you bring your own computer,
If you don't bring a computer, you can access the internet by: