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USA

Planning a trip to United States

Plan your trip to the USA with Insight’s travel advice on visas, embassies, transport, health care, currency and what to read.

  • Visa and entry requirements
  • Embassies and consulates
  • Transport
  • Health and safety
  • Money and budgeting
  • What to read

Visa and entry requirements

Visitors coming to the United States must have a valid passport, visa, or other accepted documentation. However, in an effort to attract more tourists, the US initiated the Visa Waiver program for those coming on vacation for a maximum of 90 days. With 36 countries participating, the program allows for select travelers to enter the US with only a machine readable passport. Recent increased security now requires all VWP participants to apply with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization. Done on-line, authorization does not take much time and can occur at any point before entry into the US.

Embassies and consulates

  • UK: 3100 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC; tel: 202-588-6500; www.gov.uk/world/usa
  • Canada: 501 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC; tel: 202-682-1740; http://international.gc.ca
  • Australia: 1601 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC; tel: 202-797-3000; www.usa.embassy.gov.au
  • New Zealand: 37 Observatory Circle, NW, Washington, DC; tel: 202-328-4800; www.mfat.govt.nz
  • Ireland: 2234 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC; tel: 202-462-3939; https://www.dfa.ie/irish-embassy/USA/
  • South Africa: 3051 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC; tel: 202-232-4400; www.embassy-worldwide.com

Transport Getting to the USA

By air

  • American Airlines: www.aa.com
  • British Airways: www.britishairways.com
  • Continental Airlines: www.continental-corporation.com
  • Qantas: www.qantas.com
  • Virgin Atlantic: www.virginatlantic.com

Every major American city has an airport. Two of the biggest international hubs are New York City’s JFK International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport. Within the US, there are several non-stop flights every day betwen major cities. From Europe, the UK usually has the best airfares to the US, so some Europeans fly to London and then on to New York to take advantage of the lower rates.

Getting around the USA

By air

Air travel is the quickest and easiest way to travel between major centers. Once you’re in a given region or city though, driving is often the most convenient way to get around. In some cities, especially in the Northeast, public transit is the most efficient (and cheapest) way to explore.

Domestic flights

The largest and most popular airlines providing extensive coverage of domestic routes are:

  • American Airlines
  • Continental Airlines
  • Delta: www.delta.com
  • JetBlue
  • Southwest Airlines: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southwest_Airlines

It takes roughly six hours to fly non-stop between east and west coasts. Flights running north and south between coastal cities, such as routes between LA and San Francisco, take anywhere from one to four hours. Aggregator websites for discounted airfares are an easy way to simultaneously search several airlines for their best prices. Some, such as Momondo and Kayak, act as search engines just to review prices. Online travel agencies such as Orbitz, Travelocity, and Expedia let you compare costs and book tickets directly.

By train

Many of the most reliable routes are those that are popular with daily commuters, such as the Northeast Corridor line between Boston and Washington, DC. There are also good services along popular scenic routes, such as the Coast Starlight from LA to Seattle. Otherwise, intercity train travel is far more limited than in Europe.

Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) is the national rail provider. Tickets can be bought online, via the hotline, or at train stations from an agent or automated kiosk. The cheapest tickets are usually reserved several weeks in advance. Amtrak also offers several rail-pass options: the USA Rail Pass and the California Rail Pass. These passes cover multiple days of travel over a set time period. In addition to having a pass, you must reserve a seat for each leg of your journey.

By inter-city coach

Greyhound Lines (www.greyhound.com) is the largest national company, with services around the clock. In addition to single-journey tickets, Greyhound offers a Discovery Pass for unlimited travel within a certain time frame – for 7, 15, 30 or 60 days. Regional companies include Peter Pan Bus Lines (www.peterpanbus.com), which provides services between New England and Mid-Atlantic cities. For destinations that are a few hours apart, bus fares can run at less than $30.

Some discount bus lines have sprung up in regions with heavy commuter traffic. For instance, BoltBus (www.boltbus.com) runs between New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Newark and Washington, DC, with tickets costing less than $20.

By car

Despite the rising cost of gas, driving can be one of the cheapest ways to get around. A few cities are known for being difficult to drive in because of their confusing street systems and aggressive drivers. Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Dallas are perhaps the worst. LA has notoriously bad traffic, but since this sprawling city is built around freeways, it is almost impossible to get around without driving.

Road conditions

The interstate highway system is extensive, well-signposted and well-maintained. Odd-numbered highways run north to south, while even-numbered highways run east to west. Many, but not all, highways or turnpikes are toll-free. Gas stations stay open late or 24 hours along main arteries.

The average minimum driving age in the US is 16, but this limit is determined by individual states. Foreign drivers’ licenses are generally accepted in the US if they are in English; otherwise, it is best to get an international driver’s licence before your visit. All states have adopted .08 as the legal limit of blood alcohol content for drivers.

Health and safety

Medical Care

No vaccinations are required for travel to the US, though you should make sure you are up to date with your polio and tetanus vaccinations. Health-care provision in the US is generally of a good standard, but it doesn’t come cheap. Free medical services are not available in the US and a visit to a doctor or hospital can be very expensive. Federal law obliges emergency rooms to admit and care for any patient, but hospitals may balk at international-insurance carriers. Holiday medical insurance is essential.

For relatively minor health problems, such as coughs and colds, seek out a walk-in health clinic. Many pharmacy chains are adding these inexpensive treatment counters. The Walgreens chain, for example, offers Take Care Clinics, staffed by nurse practitioners, in over 300 drugstores across the country.

While there is no general symbol indicating a pharmacy, you will soon become familiar with the national drugstore chains such as Rite-Aid, Walgreens and CVS. In larger cities, you can usually find a 24-hour pharmacy or drugstore. In smaller communities, pharmacies may only stay open from 8am to 6 or 7pm.

Drugstores fill prescriptions and sell over-the-counter remedies. Some medicines you may buy over the counter in another country must be filled by a prescription in the US. The ban on HIV-positive travelers entering the US was lifted in 2010.

Crime

American police officers are generally fair and friendly. Don’t hesitate to approach one for assistance or information. City police handle local crime and traffic violations. Highway patrol officers or state troopers ensure road safety and watch for people speeding or driving while under the influence of alcohol. If you have been the victim of a crime, seek out the nearest police precinct station to file a report.

Since September 11, security checks have been stepped up at airports and other transportation hubs. In large cities, you may see armed security officers in train stations, subways, and other transit centers. Bags may be searched. Government buildings, museums, and other institutions usually run basic security checks as well. Tourist-centric areas are generally safe – though the risk of pickpockets is ubiquitous.

Emergency contacts

Call 911 for all emergencies, including police, fire and ambulance. This call is toll-free. Emergency responders speak English; in large cities there may also be assistance in Spanish or other common languages.

202-546-1127: Travelers Aid International. This is another resource for visitors who need assistance. This network connects travelers in need with affiliate organizations in each state, which can help anyone who is stranded, lost, or otherwise seeks help.

Money and budgeting

Currency

The US dollar is divided into 100 cents. Coins: 1 (penny), 5 (nickel), 10 (dime), 25 (quarter), 50 (half-dollar), and $1. Bills: $1, $2 (rare), $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100. Larger denominations ($500 and $1,000) are not in general circulation. Travelers arriving and departing are required to report currency or checks that exceed a total of $10,000.

Cash and cards

You can find ATMs (cash machines) at banks, convenience stores, some pharmacies, and some shopping malls. A transaction fee is usually charged, which varies between locations. (Tip: avoid using casino ATMs). Before your trip, ask your bank about their withdrawal policies abroad. If you bank is a member of the Global ATM Alliance, it won’t charge you a withdrawal fee for taking out money from another bank in the network.

These play an even greater role in the US than in Europe. The major credit cards, such as MasterCard and Visa, are accepted almost everywhere, as is American Express.

Tipping

There is no federal sales tax in the US but instead, sales taxes are levied by individual states or counties. Most states have sales taxes ranging from 4 percent to 8.25 percent; a few states, such as Oregon and New Hampshire, do not have sales taxes. In most states, but not all, food and medicine are not taxed. Hotel rooms usually get their own extra tax, which can be as high as 12 percent. Travelers also have to pay a $16.30 international transportation tax on any flight arriving in or departing from the US, Puerto Rico, or the US Virgin Islands.

Tax

There is no federal sales tax in the US but instead, sales taxes are levied by individual states or counties. Most states have sales taxes ranging from 4 percent to 8.25 percent; a few states, such as Oregon and New Hampshire, do not have sales taxes. In most states, but not all, food and medicine are not taxed. Hotel rooms usually get their own extra tax, which can be as high as 12 percent. Travelers also have to pay a $16.30 international transportation tax on any flight arriving in or departing from the US, Puerto Rico, or the US Virgin Islands.

Budgeting for your trip

  • Top-class/boutique hotel: $250-300 and upwards for a double
  • Standard-class hotel: $120-150 for a double
  • Bed and breakfast: $80-150 for a double
  • Motel: $70-100 for a double
  • Youth hostel: $20-40 per person
  • Campsite: $12-30 per tent
  • Inter-city coach ticket: $20-35 between NYC and Boston, or between NYC and Washington, DC.
  • Inter-city train ticket: $68-100 between NYC and Boston
  • Breakfast: $8-15
  • Lunch in a cafe: $8-15
  • Bottle of wine in a restaurant: $15-50
  • Beer in a pub: $4-7

What to read

  • Here is New York – E.B. White’s poignant observations are both particular and universal.
  • On the Road – Jack Kerouac’s Beat classic about the American road trip.
  • Roadfood – Jane and Michael Stern travel all over America’s smaller back roads to report on the best regional home cooking.
  • Travels with Charley – John Steinbeck’s travelogue of his 1960s cross-country journey.
  • Walden – Henry David Thoreau’s memoir of rural Massachusetts in the mid-19th century.