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The United States of America - "Land of the free, home of the brave." The United States' pursuit of establishing its own culture and identity has seeped through to many of today's western cultures. Through film and television, the USA has crafted an image of itself that is recognized the world over.
Despite the sense of familiarity it instills in its own citizens as well as foreigners, the United States is a fine destination for holiday-makers from within the country and from countries abroad. Vast areas are devoted to public land including a diverse national park system and many landmarks are well worth the trip: the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park, New York, San Francisco, just to name a few. And don't forget the 50th state of Hawaii or the 49th Alaska - complete opposites of climate which helps illustrating the diversity of experiences that can be explored in the USA.
The early history of USA is very interesting and complex. It dates back to at least 10,000 BC, although some people argue earlier. Nomadic and semi nomadic people populated most of the continent while Pacific islanders populated Hawaii. Several interesting civilizations grew up on USA soil, such as the Pueblo Culture in the present day states of Colorado, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, with one of the most fascinating parts of the culture preserved at Mesa Verde National Park. Another interesting farming civilization were the Mississippian people, who lived across the present day Midwest and built amazing mounds and cities out of dirt and wood.
The United States are a product of European colonialism. After Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492 as he searched for a quick route to India, exploration began of North America and South America. These areas were colonized by the English, French, Spanish, Russians and other Europeans over the next several centuries, much to the peril of Native Americans, who were fatally susceptible to the colonizers' foreign diseases.
The first European settlements on what was to become the USA were in Florida and New Mexico. The British set up many failed colonies in present day North Carolina until Jamestown was finally settled in 1607 that survived and thrived. The north was settled by the pilgrims, religious refugees from England, at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. During the time of colonization several wars broke out with the indigenous tribes, which usually ended with the colonials defeating and killing people. The plight of Native Americans was not set to improve, as the British Colonies declared independence in 1776 translated into the colonizers' gradual, determined march west because of the theory of manifest destiny. This settlement of the west forced westward migration of indigenous Americans. The Indian Wars were fought off on and one from the foundation of American history until the 1890s. At the same time the USA government set the foundation for the future modern democracies of the world.
In the century after the War for Independence, the issue of slavery gained momentum, culminating in the Civil War between the northern states, which had outlawed slavery, and those in the south, where slavery had not been outlawed. The war was fought between 1861 to 1865 with the north winning. But policies of the 1870s reconstruction continued to limit the rights of African Americans, notably with the creation of Jim Crow laws.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the USA exploded with industrial might, slowly growing to become one of the most important countries in the world. The world wars forged its industrial might into a military powerhouse. Following World War II, the United States entered a period of cold war with the former Soviet Union and the world of communism in general with its European Allies. Controversy marked the United States' war in Vietnam in the 1970s. War is also a central and controversial theme of recent US history, as the current situation in Iraq highlights.
In the 20th century, the United States also took the lead in many scientific fields and became a world leader in education. These included events and inventions like the space race, the personal computer, the internet and many medical discoveries.
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With a land area of 9.6 million square kilometres, the USA is the third largest country in the world. The largest are Russia and Canada. The United States shares borders with Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. It is bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and on the west by the Pacific Ocean. The Gulf of Mexico runs along parts of the southeast section of the country, from Florida to the border between Texas and Mexico. Hawaii is in the Pacific Ocean, while the state of Alaska borders the Arctic Ocean, which gives a good reflection of the country's size. This is reflected in the different landscapes to be found in the United States, from tropical marshes to Arctic tundra.
There are several mountain ranges. These include the Cascade Ranges near the Pacific coast, the Rocky Mountains in the inner west of the country. In Alaska, Mount McKinley is the highest point in the USA at 6,194 metres above sea level. This is followed by Californian Mount Whitney, the highest point outside Alaska at 4,421 metres. The Cascade range also has a number of distinctive peaks, most prominent of which is Mount Rainier in Washington State at 4,392 metres. The Appalachian Mountains in the east typically have lower peaks than those found in other ranges.
In the north, along the border with Canada are the Great Lakes, with the northernmost Lake Superior being the highest inland body of water. The longest and most important river in the country is the Mississippi River which acts as a border between many states, among which are Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri, Illinois and Wisconsin. Its source is located in the state of Minnesota.
Between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains are the Great Plains. West of the Rocky Mountains lays a system of basins, salt flats, plateaus and gorges, with the Grand Canyon being one of the most visited natural wonders on earth. Here you'll find the Great Basin desert system and further west and south are the warmer deserts of the Mojave (including Death Valley and the Sonora desert).
Although the Atlantic coastal areas are a rather flat and bleak area, the Pacific coastal zone is more rugged and mountainous with mountain ranges like the Sierra Nevada, located in California.
Apart from these general geographical divisions, there are many smaller systems. From the swamp areas of the southeast of the country, with the Everglades in Florida being on of the top spots to visit, teeming with alligators and other wildlife, to the arctic tundras in the northeast in Alaska.
But the USA has some more fragile areas as well, with areas sensitive to earthquakes (the San Andreas fold for example) and volcanic activity in the western part of mainland USA and in Alaska and Hawaii. The area from California upwards towards the southwestern islands of Alaska is also known as the Ring of Fire, with major eruptions throughout history, for example the one of Mount St. Helens in Washington State in 1980.
The United States is a federal union of 50 states and a federal district. The U.S. Census Bureau splits the country into four geographic regions:
|Northeast||Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York , Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont|
|South||Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia|
|Midwest||Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin|
|West||Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming|
The USA is a massive country with countless cities and towns of great interest. Listed here are some of the most popular major cities in the USA that also happen to major domestic and international tourist destinations.
Boston is the Massachusetts capital and the largest city in New England. The city was originally settled by Puritan Christians in 1630 and quickly grew into a major trading port. The city was instrumental in the events leading up to the American Revolution such as the Boston Massacre, when British soldiers fired into a mob of civilians in self defense, and the Boston Tea Party, when colonists destroyed tea owned by the East Indian Company in protest over favored status from Britain.
Chicago, Illinois, known as the Second or Windy City is the pearl of the midwest and a favorite destination among international travelers. Resting on Lake Michigan there is great art, food, music and bars to find in this city. For the traveller with more time on their hands exploring some of the outlying neighborhoods, with great local museums and summer festivals, can give a truly unique travel experience. Just try to avoid the winters and go in the summers to enjoy the beaches.
Las Vegas, Nevada, is the only city in the world were someone can win a fortune, see a show, eat more food then they ever thought imaginable and then lose a fortune in an afternoon and still consider it a good day! The city is home to several mega casinos costing over a billion dollars a piece to make. If bored with indoor entertainment and air conditioning some of the best natural attractions in the world are only a short drive away.
Los Angeles is definately not the prettiest city in the United States. In fact, many travellers seem to agree upon the fact that it's one of the least attractive cities in the country. On the other hand, there really is a lot to see and do, albeit mostly outside of the downtown area of Los Angeles. Places like Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Beverly Hills, Hollywood and Malibu are names that everyone knows and would like to experience just once. Added to that are other attractions like the Universal Studios and nearby Disneyland (Anaheim), and you will see why after all this city is deservedly so popular.
Miami is a young city but has taken full advantage of its prominent location to become one of the United States' foremost cities. Miami enjoys a resplendent location in southeast Florida. Tropical weather year-round ensures a steady stream of tourists, especially in winter. The city has some of the United States' most popular beaches and also has a vibrant Latin American community.
New Orleans, Louisiana, was settled by the French, then blended with countless other European, West African, Native American and West Indies cultures to create a truly unique city. The blend of cultures and languages gives the city amazing food, architecture, music and a one of a kind Mardi Gras. New Orleans is also considered the birth place of jazz!
New York, New York, is one of the most famous cities and should be a trip all on its own. The Big Apple is a place filled with shows, restaurants, bars, international culture and just about anything you can imagine. Just be prepared to see fashion that won't reach the rest of the world for several years. And remember that there is a lot more to New York then just Manhattan. New York really does live up to it reputation as The City That Never Sleeps.
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San Diego, in Southern California, has a worldclass zoo, a perfect climate, great beaches and a lively historical district, the Gaslamp Quarter. There also is a great old town, the Embarcadero (waterfront walk), Balbao Park, Sea World and good surfing in nearby places like La Jolla and Ocean Beach. And if the Mexican food and beer is not the way you really want it, you can always hop over the border into the Mexican city of Tijuana.
San Francisco is just a 6 hour drive north from Los Angeles, but the two couldn't be more different. Here, the ocean and beaches are not home to surfers and iron pumping muscle guys, but hikers and sealions instead rule the world. Also, it is said to be one of the prettiest ones in the country and certainly the one with the most premium location. Famous attractions include the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Fisherman's Warf.
Seattle is home to Nirvana, Boeing, Starbucks and Microsoft, but few of those claims to fame will attract the visitor to the northwesternmost city of the 'lower 48'. Instead, they come for its cultural climate and summer outdoors activities. At other times, the weather can be downright appalling but still, it surrounding beauty with forests, water and islands more than makes up for that.
Washington, D.C. is America's capital city, and in addition to being the center of the country's politics, it is also home to a large number of significant cultural institutions, memorials and historic monuments. The city lies on the banks of the Potomac River, between Virginia and Maryland, on the east coast of the US. The city was built in the 18th century to serve as the national capital and lies within its own federal district, the District of Columbia (D.C.).
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The Adirondacks refers to the park and mountains located in this area. The Adirondack Park is both the largest and the first government-protected park in the contiguous United States. It covers a vast expanse - bigger than New Hampshire - of rugged, thickly wooded, mountainous terrain in northeast New York State. The Adirondacks are a popular destination for all lovers of outdoor activities, from hiking and skiing to ice and rock climbing.
The Alamo in San Antonio is famous for the battle that took place here. The battle is the most well known battle that took place during the Texan Revolution. On the first day of the battle (February 23, 1836) 2,400 Mexicans attacked the Alamo, where between 180 and 250 Texan soldiers where housed. After a couple of attacks on the building the Texans ran out of possibilities to fend off the attacks.
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The United States in a huge country with several amazing coastline with excellent beaches and some with great surfing. The Atlantic coast hosts excellent beaches from all the way in the north of Maine to the tip of Florida. There are also Beaches along the Gulf of Mexico from Florida all the way to the tip of Texas. Then jumping to the west coast there are wonderful beaches all the way from the Mexican border all the way to Canada, although the further northern beaches have a shorter season. And don't forget the beaches along the Great Lakes, even in cities like Chicago or on many of the large reservoirs like Lake Powell in Arizona.
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While Santa Monica Beach is more of a family style beach, Venice Beach is more the beach for the young and the ones that like to see and to be seen. Apart from the beach, there is also lots of sport grounds, including the famous Muscle Beach, where you'll find the big guys pumping their iron.
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The western part of the USA contains quite a few deserts, ranging from hot deserts like the Mojave desert to colder ones like the Great Basin.
Named after the Mojave tribe of Native Americans, the Mojave desert stretches across four states in the western part of the United States. The majority is located on Californian grounds, while the remainder can be find just across the borders with Utah, Arizona and Nevada.
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To the south is the Sonoran desert (low desert as opposed to the high desert that Mojave is called). The Mojave desert does see occassional rain and thunder storms, but it's drier than its southern counterpart. Death Valley is located within the Mojave as well, being the lowest and hottest place anywhere in North America. Officially, the highest recorded temperature ever is its honour, being 56.7 °C (the record in Libya is doubted!). The desert is easily accessible by good tarmac roads that cross California and into the other three states and is one of the most popular and most beautiful areas anywhere in the country.
The Great Basin desert is a large arid region in the western states of the US. The Great Basin itself is actually a little bigger and the Great Basin desert proper is defined by the extent of characteristic plant species. It is roughly located roughly between the Wasatch Mountains and the Sierra Nevada mountains and covers the extreme east and northeastern border areas of California, a southern portion of Oregon, a very small part in Idaho, the western half of Utah and most of the state of Nevada. The Great Basin itself follows approximately the same borders, but extents onto the border with Wyoming and mainly covers a larger area to the south, including parts of the Mojave desert.
It basically forms a high plateau in between the above mentioned mountains ranges and and covers a significant amount of watersheds, bounded by larger ones at all sides. Some of these have become dry as a bone, leaving behind places like the Bonneville Salt Flats (where world landspeed records are broken over and over again, it's totally flat!) and the Black Rock Desert. Main urban areas within the Great Basin Desert are Salt Lake City in Utah and both Reno and Carson City in Nevada. The scenery is fantastic and it's a good area to travel along some of the most amazing roads anywhere in the US, including Route 50, the Loneliest Road in America, which runs across of Nevada on its way between the west and eastcoast of the country. Several railroads, including the California Zephyr, run across the area as well, one of the most scenic Amtrak routes in the USA.
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The Colorado Plateau is a cold winter desert in the central west of the United States. It is a plateau in between several mountains ranges and is bounded by the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and by the Uinta Mountains and Wasatch Mountains branches of the Rockies in northern and central Utah. It is also bounded by the Rio Grande Rift, Mogollon Rim and the Basin and Range. It covers the west of Colorado, the north of Arizona, west and south of Utah and northwest of New Mexico. About 90% of the area is drained by the Colorado River.
The area is one of the most popular to go on a typical American roadtrip and visit dozens of fantastic places with many national parks and monuments to choose from. It has the greatest concentration of national parks in the United States, including Grand Canyon NP, Zion NP, Bryce Canyon NP, Capitol Reef NP, Canyonlands NP, Arches NP, and Petrified Forest NP. Among the national monuments are Dinosaur NM, Hovenweep NM, Wapatki NM, Grand Staircase-Escalante NM, and Colorado NM.
The Empire State Building at the junction of Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street is the tallest building in New York City. It is 381 metres tall (448.7 metres if you include the antenna). Built in a typical art deco style, that was in fashion before World War II, it was the tallest in the world from the opening in 1932 until it was surpassed by the North Tower of the World Trade Center in 1972. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, it again became the tallest building in the New York City skyline. Visitors primarily come to the tower to have a look at the panorama over New York at the observation deck, which is located on the 86th floor. It has been the place of countless romantic scenes in movies and also has been destroyed, or threatened to be destroyed, by many a monster, alien invader or evil antagonist. Considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world, a visit to New York would not be complete without a visit to the Empire State Building.
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The Florida Keys are made up of 1,700 individual islands which flow from the foot of Florida towards Cuba. The chain which starts around 25 kilometres south of Miami are connected by a road which ends at Key West. A drive of some 200 kilometres across many bridges connecting the keys finally ends in this popular place, from where you can even venture further towards Dry Tortugas National Park. There are loads of towns and even a few places to spot local flora and fauna above the water. But the main drag are aquatic sports, bot above as well as underwater.
The Golden Gate Bridge at sunset is one of the most beautiful scenes in San Francisco. Not only it is a beautiful sight to see, no matter what the time of day it is, is also one of the most famous bridges in the world. When it was built all the technology of the time was pushed to its limits in order to build a bridge to connect San Francisco with the neighboring Marin County. Even with supporting massive amounts of weight this bridge still has a certain grace that most mega-structures usually don't have. The bridge crosses the body of water north and northwest of San Francisco, forming the connection to the area north of here. Follow Interstate 101 north to cross the bridge.
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Monument Valley is located in the south of Utah and north of Arizona and once approaching it, you will instantly recognize it from many movies, commercials and other things you saw somewhere at least. The landscape surrouding it is, unlike much of southern Utah or northern Arizona actually, rather uninspiring, even a bit drab. It's a rather flat nondescript landscape, but turn around the corner and you suddenly in a totally different environment of rocks, walls and spires towering about the dry desert.
The National Mall is one of the most amazing sights in all of the USA. Located in downtown Washington, D.C., this wonderful national park is home to several amazing sights. Some of these sights are the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Memorial and the Vietnam War Memorial. Some of the of capital's finest museums are located around the edge of the mall. If anything the mall is just nice green space in the heart of the city.
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The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is one of the most beautiful roads along one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. It stretches along much of the Californian coastline. It starts at Interstate 5 near Dana Point in Orange County, south of Los Angeles and runs north past places like Santa Barbara, Cambria, Santa Cruz and San Francisco up to US Highway 101 near Leggett in Mendocino County. There is plenty to see and do along this magnificent drive, including the great Elephant Seal Colony near Cambria, the San Simeon Castle, the beautiful stretch of Big Sur with the famous Bixby Creek Bridge and of course the Golden Gate Bridge, shared with Highway 101.
Route 66 is probably the most imaginative route there is in the United States. Route 66 was established in 1926 and officially removed from the US Highway System in 1985, but keeps being popular among people wanting to travel as much of the original route by car or motorcycle. Route 66 basically was not just one simple road between Chicago and Los Angeles.
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The United States are home to some amazing downhill skiing. Although skiing can be found in most of the northern states the best skiing is either in the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada or along the east coast. There is also some good skiing to be found in Alaska, if you want to brave the cold and long nights. If interested in cross country skiing it can be found in almost all of the northern states. One place with great cross country skiing is the upper peninsula of Michigan. For more information on skiing in specific states read the articles:
One of the most famous statues in the world is the Statue of Liberty. It is not only an icon for New York but also for the nation. The statue was a gift from the French people to celebrate the centennial of the Independence of the United States. The statue was constructed in France, and after completion shipped to the USA, where it was stored for 11 months, to await the completion of the pedestal. It was finally unveiled in November 1886.
Liberty Island is open to only 15,000 visitors each day, and only 3,000 passes a day are available for the crown section of the statue. Two smaller statues predates the statue that is placed in New York. One stands in Paris in the Jardin de Luxembourg, and a second stands in front of the city hall in Maceió, in Brazil. After the success of these statues, it was decided to go huge. Nowadays copies of the Statue of Liberty can be found all over the world, including one of the biggest replicas in Las Vegas.
See also: United States National Parks
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Mardi Gras basically is the celebration prior to the fasting season of Lent. Although it refers to the events of the Carnival celebrations, Mardi Gras itself typically culminates on the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday), referring to the practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season, which begins on Ash Wednesday. Popular festival events are wearing masks and costumes, dancing and parades. Mardi Gras is celebrated mainly in South and North America, and probably the best known is the one in New Orleans. Other famous ones include those in Rio de Janeiro, Barranquilla, Port of Spain, Quebec City and Mazatlán.
The USA is a huge country that covers a great diversity of ecological zones. From the tropics of Hawaii and Florida to the barren arctic waste lands of northern Alaska there is something for everyone in the USA. Remember that many of the states have extremely hot summers and very cold winters. Therefore it's always a good idea to check local area weather information before departing. In general though, the months of April and May and also September and October are great months for a visit to most parts of the country, except for the northwest of mainland USA (Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana) and Alaska where June to August are the best months. Hurricanes can hit the southeastern parts though from June to November, while tornados are a possible threat from February to early May in the central states like Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and South Dakota. During the summer months (June to early September), much of Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico as well as the Californian deserts can be extremely hot, over 40 °C or sometimes close to 50 °C, especially in Death Valley National Park.
If you're planning a trip to the United States, chances are that you will be flying there, unless you live in Canada, Mexico. If you are coming from Mexico or Canada and don't want to travel by plane, there are plenty of roads, railroads and even some boat trips to get you across.
International arrivals will need to clear US customs and immigration services upon arrival, unless pre-cleared if traveling on the Amtrak Cascade service from Vancouver, British Columbia and Seattle, Washington, where there are pre-clearance facilities at the Pacific Central Station (Vancouver), or traveling on a ship out of the port of Vancouver and the port of Victoria in Canada, where a number of cruise liners visit Alaska or southbound to Seattle, Astoria, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego.
There are dozens, if not over a hundred, of airports in the USA with international connections. If not mentioned below, other (usually smaller) airports are mentioned under the respective regional and/or state articles, though the most important ones in the USA for travellers with quite a few connections to other countries/continents include:
Other airports have more limited connections, mainly throughout the USA, with incidentally also flights to Canada, Europe, Japan, Mexico or the Caribbean. Smaller airports can be found in the articles about the specific state of the USA.
Internationally arrivals will need to clear US customs and immigration services upon arrival, unless coming from an airport with US pre-clearance facilities. Operated by the USA Customs and Border Protection service, travelers pass through Immigration and Customs, Public Health, and Department of Agriculture inspections before boarding their aircraft, ship or train. This process is intended to streamline border procedures, to reduce congestion at ports of entry, and to facilitate travel between the pre-clearance location and some USA airports that may not equipped to handle international travellers. Airports with pre-clearance are:
Although both Canada and the United States have extensive rail connections, especially the latter, there are surprisingly few international connections between the two. In the northeast of the continent however, several train rides might be of some use to overland travellers. Also in the west, between Washington state and British Columbia in Canada, there is a pleasant ride as an alternative to the bus.
It is very easy to drive between Canada and the USA. There are several major and minor road crossings that are pretty easy to cross. There are over 20 official ones. Windsor to Detroit and Buffalo to Niagara Falls in the east and the Blaine crossing from British Columbia are the most popular and busiest. Remember when traveling with animals to have all the proper paper work ready for processing. Some of the major crossing are open 24 hours a day 365 days a year, while many of the smaller ones have more restricted hours.
Due to the massive amount of traffic between the Mexican and USA border, crossing as a tourist can be pretty easy. Remember that many of the border towns on the Mexican side can be very dangerous. It is best to cross as early possible after the crossing opens because traffic can get very busy later in the day making for long waits.
There are over 30 border crossings here, the most popular being the ones to/from Texas (El Paso and Brownsville) and of course the San Diego to Tijuana/Nogales crossing, which is a very popular daytrip.
It is possible to take international buses from Mexico and Canada into the USA. Remember that crossing the border can take a while and have all the proper paper work lined up. Greyhound and Greyhound Canada have many crossings between the USA and Canada. Greyhound has some services connecting to Mexico. Autobuses Americanos offers cross border services between southern USA and northern Mexico as well, while Autotransportes Tufesa has connections from Phoenix and Tucson and Transportes InterCalifornias travels from San Diego across the border to Mexicali and Tijuana.
There are several options to get from the United States to Canada and back by boat:
Also there is an option to travel by ferry to/from the Bahamas:
Traveling by air is the fastest way to move between major cities. There is no national carrier in the USA, where the industry is fully privately run. Competition is strong on frequently traveled routes, resulting in lower fares.
There are literally dozens of airlines, some of them having routes only within states or between a limited number of states, while other fly almost anywhere. It's beyond the scope of this article to list all airlines, but the biggest airlines are American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines, which are the most used airlines by foreigners arriving from other countries and many people using connecting flights afterward. Many of them have air passes as well, which enable people to add 3 to 10 flights within the USA at discounted fares.
JetBlue Airways is a well known budget airline, although rates are competitive with many other airlines.
Passenger rail services in the US are run by Amtrak. Although freight travel in the USA is busier than anywhere else in the world, passenger numbers are low, due mostly to the convenience of domestic air travel. Traveling by train is most popular in the Northeastern United States, between the major cities of Washington, D.C., New York City and Boston. But there are great journeys to be made if you are a train enthusiast and you can travel the main routes from coast to coast by train if you want. Chicago to Seattle or Chicago to California are beautiful trips. There are money saving passes, like the USA Railpass (15 or 30 days) and the North America Railpass (30 days, also valid in Canada), which are especially economical when doing a lot of train travel in a short period of time.
Driving around the USA is a popular choice for many travelers. Not only is it a relatively cheap way to get around, but it also allows visitors to see the beautiful countryside on offer. Many international rental companies have a wide selection of rental cars and these include Hertz, Avis, Dollar, Sixt rent a car, Thrifty, Enterprise, Budget and Alamo/National. Most companies will require you are at least 25 years of age, although younger people might be able to rent cars at slightly higher rates and with some insurance differences as well. A national driver's license is usually enough, but an additional international one is recommended. Also note that it usually costs more to include extra drivers, GPS, the first full tank and other extra items. Always take SLI (Supplemental Liability Insurance). Usually, your home insurance will cover for loss of luggage or personal injury, so PAI (Personal Accident Insurance) is not necessary (but check at home to be sure!). Finally, some of the companies might offer a sort of road assistance/service plan, which would cover costs of assistance when you loose a key, need another spare tyre etc. It's relatively expensive (US$10-15 in general) and chances are you won't need at all, so skip it. Finally, be aware that there might be drop-off costs for one-way rentals. These are generally based on distances covered and the maximum is mostly around US$500 (1001+ miles). In those cases, it might be worth checking National because they have a flat rate of US$250. The drop-off costs apply to almost all rentals, except between places in Florida, California and between a few states (mostly Arizona-California vv and Nevada-California). One-way rentals to/from Alaska are usually not allowed. You are allowed to drive in Canada (with one-way rentals possible in general), but not in Mexico. Again, there might be differences between the car rental companies, so be sure to check beforehand or at the desk when picking up the car.
If you want to book a car, it is recommended that you book your car before arriving in the USA. This is almost always (much) cheaper compared to just showing up. Also, try and book with a so-called 'broker', which usually works together with a few or many car rental companies and can offer the best deal. Some examples include Holidayautos, Holidaycars and Sunny Cars. Some of the cheapest deals to book from Europe, includes Drive-USA, which also has a German version.
Cruise America has a wide range of campers and motor homes, which are fantastic and save on costs for motels and hotels. Prices of these vehicles are quite high though and you still have to pay for camp grounds, to figure costs out before you leave home. Autodriveaway is an increasingly popular way to deliver a car from point A to point B without paying the rental price. You only need to pay for petrol. There are however time restrictions, which make travelling coast to coast a rather rushy business.
Maps and fuel
To help you get around by car, gas stations usually sell regional and national maps, although many drivers choose to get driving directions on their home computers prior to their journeys; MapQuest and Google Maps are popular websites for obtaining directions. Drivers can get directions in the midst of their travels by calling 1-800-Free411, which will provide text message directions, or they can stop and ask locals for nearby directions. Americans are usually happy to give directions to travelers. There are plenty of gas stations along most roads, but fuel up when driving to more remote areas when the tank is half full. You can pay with most major creditcards or pay cash (the cassier will allow you to fill up until the amount paid) inside before filling up the car. Although you mostly can use your creditcard by swiping it through the machine at the fuel pump, sometimes you need to enter a 5-digit zipcode (American creditcards). This means you have to go inside and use your creditcard so the cassier can authorize you to fuel up.
The USA has an extensive interstate highway system that makes for fast travel around the country. On most interstate highways the speed limit will be beteween 65 and 80 mph (roughly 100 to 130 km/hour) depending on the state and population density. The western States tend to have higher speed limits, except California. One of the downsides of the interstate is that fast travel and avoiding most medium cities makes for a lot of similar fast food chains and motels.
There are also national, state, county and Indian highways. These roads are usually only two lanes and go into the centre of towns. Many of these roads will have lower speed limits in towns of between 25 and 40 mph (roughly 40 to 60 km/hour) and in the country side mostly between 55 and 65 mph (90-105 km/hour). Local police officers make lots of money by giving out of state people speeding tickets. Therefore do not speed when in small towns. To reach most sights outside of major cities will require a combination of using the interstate and more local highways.
The USA has a wide range of National Scenic Byways throughout the country, which are one of the best options to travel across different states. Each state has a number of those recommended routes, which are much better than the faster interstate highways.
Greyhound is the main bus service in the USA and services almost all towns and cities. Although time consuming, Greyhound is very reasonably priced and has many discount deals, including the popular Discovery Pass discount programs.
Getting around by boat is especially popular on both the west coast and the east coast, as well as on some rivers like the Ohio River, and of course the Great Lakes area with many services on Lake Erie and Lake Michigan. For an overview of many possibilities, have a look at the Youra website, which has information about many states and direct links to ferry companies.
Alaska Marine Highway handles transport along most of Alaska's southern coastlines. It's officially even part of the National Highway System.
Citizens of the 38 countries within the Visa Waiver Program, as well as Canadians, Mexicans living on the border (holding a Border Crossing Card), and Bermudians (with British national (overseas) passports) do not require visas for entry into the United States. Canadians and Bermudians are normally allowed to visit for up to six months.
The Visa Waiver Program permits visa-free stays of up to 90 days; it applies to citizens of Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.
Citizens of U.S. overseas territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa are considered to be U.S. nationals, and therefore do not require a passport to travel to or live in the United States (unless they are travelling from non-U.S. territories).
Citizens of the Bahamas may apply for visa-free entry only at the U.S. Customs pre-clearance facilities in the Bahamas, but a valid police certificate may be required for those over the age of 14. Attempting to enter through any other port of entry requires a valid visa.
Cayman Islands citizens, if they intend to travel directly to the U.S. from there, may obtain a single-entry visa waiver for about $25 prior to departure.
A criminal record will likely revoke any right to visa-free travel to the U.S. Although there are exceptions e.g. traffic violations, civil infractions (such as littering, noise violations, disorderly conduct), purely political offenses (e.g. non-violent protest in countries where it is not allowed), and offenses committed before the age of 16. Anyone with a criminal record, including Canadians and Bermudians should seek advice from a U.S. embassy on whether they need to obtain a visa.
See also: Money Matters
The US Dollar, or "greenback", is the national currency of the United States. One dollar consists of 100 cents. Frequently used coins are the penny (1¢), nickel (5¢), dime (10¢) and quarter (25¢). 50¢ and $1 coins also exist, but are rarely used. Frequently used banknotes are the $1, $5, $10 and $20 notes. $2, $50 and $100 notes can also be found, but are rarely used.
Tipping is not mandatory but many people rely on it for their living. In bars and restaurants it's normal to tip around 15%, 20% if service is really good. At a busy bar 1 dollar per drink is normal, for large orders of 4 or 5 five drinks leaving 2 or 3 dollars is fine. Sometimes a gratuity tax is already added to the bill if in a large group, so check that first. In many places, a gratuity tax of around 18% is added to parties of 6 or more.
Leave about 2 to 3 dollars a day for staff of hotels and tip around 10 to 15% for taxi drivers as well. A tip of around 1 to 2 dollar per piece of luggage is also recommended at airports and hotels. Don't tip at fastfood restaurants, selfservice places etc. For more details on tipping, have a look at the eat section below.
Getting a work visa for the USA is very hard and extremely complicated. There are some guest worker programs but those are mainly for seasonal jobs at summer camps or resort areas. In general it is easier to get a visa if you have some sort of skill that is in demand in the USA. Remember J Visas mean that you can't come back to the USA for 2 years.
The USA has some of the best Universities in the world. If looking to study it is best to apply and after being accepted the student visa procedure will start. If looking for some short term English study there are many for profit English schools in many cities. This includes schools like Kaplan Aspect and for more information look at Study in the USA.
See also: Spanish Phrasebook
Although there is no official language in the USA, English is considered the national language and spoken at home by close to 90% of the population. Spanish is the second most common language, spoken at home by over 10% of the population. At state level, English is the official language in over half the states. In Hawaii, both English and Hawaiian are official languages. Many Indian Reservations have their original indigenous language as the official language of the reservation.
Food in the USA can be as diverse as the country is large. It is however very hard to avoid the myriad of chain-operated fast food venues that can be found on virtually every street corner. Naturally enough, the American staples of fried chicken, hamburgers, pizza and hot dogs are all well represented as is Mexican fast food and an increasing trend towards somewhat healthier sandwich shops. Restaurants often follow with similar offerings though usually cooked to a somewhat higher standard. Of course, there are many high quality restaurants within the USA as well, particularly in the larger cities.
Many visitors to the USA are baffled by the strict adherence to tipping protocol. Not tipping appropriately is seen as either very poor manners or an expression of disgust at the service offered. Tipping percentages usually range from 10% to 20% of the total bill, with 15% being a relatively average tipping amount. In some cases, particularly with larger parties (say 8 or more), a 15% tip could already be added on to the bill. You should always review the bill to ensure this isn't the case before adding your own tip. It is not necessary to tip in fast food restaurants. However it is expected to tip skycab at airports, taxi drivers, cleaning staff at hotels and bartenders.
For most smaller cities and towns the only options for sleeping will be a hotel or bed and breakfast. Some larger cities are starting to have a hostel scene but they vary greatly. The USA has hotels that can be extremely dingy and scary to the super high end and everything in between.
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There are dozens of hotel and motel chains around the country, ranging from budget to top end. Allthough they are not the most charming accommodations, they usually have a very decent midrange service with good rooms and are generally good value. At least you know what to expect and in some cases they are either the only or the best option in the area. Some of them include:
Bed and Breakfasts have sprung up across the country in the last 30 years. They exist in almost every major town or tourist destination. Finding a Bed and Breakfast could have been a bit difficult in the past but that has changed nowadays. The problem has become how to find the right Bed and Breakfast for you. Most states have lists of Bed and Breakfasts which is a good resource. Several search sights have also appeared in the last few years:
For people on a smaller budget camping is always an option, mainly in the western part of the country. There are privately owned developed camp grounds like KOA and almost all national and state parks and monuments have some sort of developed camping. For the more rustic/cheap traveler camping on most BLM, forset service and wilderness area land is a free option as long as certain rules are followed.
All US states have a minimum purchase age of 21, although the actual legal drinking age may be different. If you even resemble a 21 year old, carrying ID is essential to enter many establishments. Depending on the venue, an overseas driver's license may not even be enough - a passport is a safer bet to ensure you will be allowed to purchase alcohol. Although some states, such as Texas, will only accept local ID's. Remember even the more wild cities of New Orleans or Las Vegas do have a 21 and over drinking age.
Remember that the drinking laws, called blue laws, vary state by state. In some states, like Nevada, allow 24 hour 365 days a year drinking with no last call. Other states, like Utah, force people to buy alcohol at state owned stores and all bars are private drinking clubs at which people have to buy a 1-day membership. Most states are somewhere in the middle but make sure to learn the local blue laws because they can get a bit weird. Almost every state does not allow open containers in public places but some cities have areas were open containers are legal, like the French Quarter in New Orleans. In contrast to the strict drinking age, the legal blood alcohol level in the USA is relatively lenient by world standards at 0.08%.
Although international American brands of beer are known for being a bet weak, the USA has given birth to some great craft beers, also known as microbrews. Reviews of these microbrews have beer experts around the world saying they compete even with the best European varieties. Some of these beers have national distribution, such as Samuel Adams Boston Lager and New Belgium. So a great trip to the USA involves trying some local beers.
The USA has very strict water quality laws. That means all tap water in the USA is potable and clean to drink. This is not true for water in the wilderness. If drinking water from natural sources, such as rivers, lakes and creeks remember to clean it with iodine tablets, a steripen or a filter.
The USA has always been a coffee culture since we dumped British Tea in the Boston harbor. In the last few decades chains and local shops selling very high-quality coffee have sprung up across the nation. However, most of the coffee in the USA is not super fancy and rather than coming in different varieties it does come in large quantities. Where else in the world can you go to a diner and they put your own personal pot of coffee at your table and when it runs they put another for only $1?
See also: Travel Health
The United States' health care system is not socialized. Travelers in need of non-emergency treatment will be required to provide proof of medical insurance coverage (travelers or private insurance) or proof of sufficient funds (credit/debit cards). Emergency room services are available (though not always) regardless of monetary status and dependent on the immediate need. USA medical services are also considered quite expensive when compared to other countries. Travel insurance policies for the USA usually cost more as a result of the potentially high medical costs. It is strongly recommended that you take out a comprehensive policy to cover any unforeseen circumstances.
There are no vaccinations required for entering the United States. If you are entering from a yellow fever endemic area (or you have been to one within 7 days of entering the country), you may be required to show proof of immunization. Recommended vaccinations include Tetanus (Lockjaw), Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B. Rabies vaccinations are recommended for wilderness travel and/or wildlife volunteer projects. Lyme disease is endemic in the northeastern, Mid-Atlantic and upper midwest areas and transmitted via blacklegged ticks. West Nile Virus in humans has been reported in 43 of the 50 states in 2007. The use of insect repellent is highly recommended throughout the contiguous 48 states.
See also: Travel Safety
Safety can be a concern when travelling in the USA, though there is no need to panic. Most of the larger cities have more dangerous neighborhoods and areas that should be avoided after dark. Just remember to be smart when being in a more dangerous area and keep your wits about you.
Also if planning a long road trip traffic accidents are a leading cause of death and injury in the USA. In general though American behave very nice on the roads and speeding or other hazards on the road are generally not a problem.
Many of the wilderness areas in the western area of the country can be very hazardous. Mountain lions (also called pumas or cougars) attacks are becoming more and more common. Therefore if travelling with small children remember to teach them about animal safety. In the drier and higher elevation areas remember to drink plenty of water as dehydration kills several people a year. This includes many of the national parks in the western half of the USA.
Other potentially natural hazards include extreme heat in places like Death Valley, where temperatures can rise over 120 °F during the summer months (June to August), and hurricanes and tornados. Hurricanes usually are possible from June to November, but mainly in the coastal areas of the southeast of the USA. Tornados are possible from February to June, mostly in the midwestern states of the USA. Few travellers are affected though by these possible natural hazards and there is no need to worry. If sirens, for natural disasters, go off it is best to turn on the radio to find out what is going, the emergency broadcast system takes over all radio frequencies.
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The internet system in the USA is a little different compared to most other western countries because there is a very small internet bar/cafe culture in the USA. Even then most of the internet bars/cafes tend be located in major urban centers. Therefore getting access to the internet without a personal computer and not in a major city can be difficult. Most public libraries have public internet computers that non-members can use for free. If you have a personal computers many restaurants, bars, coffee shops and hotels offer wifi for free or for a small charge. Accessible WiFi networks, however, are common. The most generally useful WiFi spots are in coffee shops, fast-food chains, and bookshops, but also restaurants and hotels more and more have a network to connect on. Some of them might require you to buy something and you might need a password too, especially in hotels.
See also International Telephone Calls
The general emergency phone number is 911. The USA has a great landline phone system that is easy to use. The country code for the U.S. is +1. The long-distance prefix (trunk code) is also "1", so U.S. telephone numbers are frequently written as "1-nnn-nnn-nnnn". The rest of the telephone number consists of 10 digits: a 3-digit area code, and a 7-digit number. Any small grocery store or pharmacy has pre paid domestic or international phone cards. These phone cards are very cheap and offer good rates. The once ubiquitous pay phone is now much harder to find. Likely locations include in or near stores and restaurants, and near bus stops. The cellphone network in the states is slowly getting better but is still not as good when compared to other western countries. Cell phones tend to operate using different frequencies (850 MHz and 1900 MHz) from those used elsewhere in the world (2100 MHz). This used to prevent most foreign phones from working in America. Phones must be tri- or quad-band to work in the U.S. Fortunately, the relentless march of technology has meant that unless your phone is ancient or very basic, it should be able to pick up one of the U.S. networks. Prepaid phones and top-up cards can be purchased at mobile phone boutiques and at many discount, electronics, office supply and convenience stores. A very basic handset with some credit can be had for under $40.
The following carriers operate in the USA (carrier, network, frequency are given below):
The US Postal Service is a very good and well priced mail system. There are post offices in every small and large town for sending packages internationally or domestically. Although some might keep longer hours, most are open at least between 9:00am and 5:00pm. If wanting to send a letter or postcard it is best just to leave it in a blue mail box with the proper postage. First-class international airmail postcards and letters (up 28.5 grams) cost $1.10. There are also private postal services like FedEx, UPS, TNT and DHL, which might be better value sometimes and are generally very quick and reliable too.
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Ask Sander a question about USA
I've travelled extensively through California, and am reasonably familiar with Philadelphia and Chicago. All this was quite a while ago, so probably better not to ask me too detailed questions about practical matters. I should be able to help out some with pointers of what's worthwhile and what isn't, though.
Ask GregW a question about USA
Have worked in the USA on and off for 12 years. Have spent extensive time (at least 1 month) in Denver, Detroit, Columbus (OH), San Antonio, St. Louis, San Francisco, New York/New Jersey, Seattle, Houston and Atlanta. I have a good grasp on other parts of the country as well.
Ask vegasmike6 a question about USA
I have been in Las Vegas for over 50 years and have been to 49 states. I will help if I can.
Ask rabudman a question about USA
Native Nashvillian and traveled mostly east coast. Don't know anything about Visa's or Immigration but could help mostly with the south eastern part of the country or Nashville in particular.
Ask Nick_ a question about USA
I'm British so can possibly help other British people when travelling to the USA. I spent 3 month travelling by Amtrak, plane and car throughout a large portion of the USA. I visited the big cities and many national and state parks in and around the Utah area. 17 cities and 11 parks.
My intent on visiting the USA was to understand the country and people, while seeing the amazing landscape.
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