The United States of America is the third largest country on Earth, covering 3,717,000 square miles. Bounded by both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Bering Sea, the USA truly encompasses tropical, temperate and Arctic climates.
The diversity of scenery and wildlife cannot be under-estimated; deserts, mountains, prairies, beaches and vineyards are all here. The cities are non-stop and provide some of the world's finest museums, art galleries, shopping, entertainment and restaurants.
Whilst deemed a nation of the ʺNew Worldʺ, indigenous peoples have lived here for millennia and there is a rich history of European settlement — the French influence in Louisiana, the Spanish influence in California and, of course, the British influence that is most tangible in New England.
Contrary to many expectations there are many totally unspoilt regions that are off the beaten track, providing a unique insight into life here that makes exploring this diverse nation so rewarding.
English is the official language of the USA and is spoken throughout the country.
All visitors to the USA require a full electronically-readable passport valid for at least six months beyond the intended dates of stay. Children are required to have their own passports. Those holding British passports who are British Subjects (not Citizens) need to apply for a USA visa in advance from the USA Embassy. Your passport will state whether you are a British Citizen or a British Subject.
All UK citizens are required to have completed an online application for authorisation to travel to or transit through the United States (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation or ESTA) as part of the Visa Waiver Programme. Please visit the website https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/ at least 72 hours before travel and fill in the required information. In most cases a response will be received within seconds determining whether travel to the US has been authorised. If the application is not authorised then a visa may be requested through the US Embassy. Failure to complete this process may lead to boarding being denied at the point of departure. Approved travel authorisations are valid for two years and for multiple entries in to, or transits through, the United States, unless you renew your passport, in which case they have to be redone. There is a charge of $14 (approx. £10) for the ESTA.
In addition to the ESTA those clients visiting or transiting through the United States are required to provide Advanced Passenger Information (API) and Secure Flight Data (SFD). If you have booked your flights with Audley Travel this information is completed by us on your behalf. There will still be a requirement to provide fingerprint samples and photographs on arrival in the United States.
The USA's electricity supply operates at a current of 110 volts AC. A flat two pin plug is required.
National parks & monuments
The USA is blessed with wonderful national and state parks, forests and monuments. There is a fee to enter these, varying from $5 to $20 per car per day, and payable locally. There is also a National Parks Annual Pass providing entrance to all national parks for one vehicle and its occupants for a fee of $80. The fees are invested back into the park system to improve facilities and safety. Most parks have rangers who can provide guidance about the best parts of the park to visit for scenery and wildlife, walking trails, outdoor activities and the best picnic spots.
The international dialling code for the USA is +1. Some UK mobiles work in the USA but they usually have to be tri-band and it is best to check with your network provider about the international roaming facilities before leaving the country. The service can also be very intermittent in rural areas. It is possible to purchase pay as you go mobiles locally. Prepaid phone cards are available from stores in most major towns and cities and are an economical way to call. Many hotels have wireless email access and some have terminals that can be used. There are also many internet cafés throughout the country. For areas where mobile phone coverage is not available, you may wish to consider renting a satellite phone.
Money & expenses
The official currency is the US Dollar. All major credit cards are widely accepted and you will also be able to access US currency from ATMs as long as you have your four digit pin-code. US Dollar traveller's cheques can be exchanged at all major banks, international airports and foreign exchange bureaux. Some shops will also accept them as long as they are presented with your passport. A sales tax is applied to most purchases, including food and beverages, throughout the country and is not included in the price advertised; this will be added at the point of sale. The actual rate varies from state to state, with some states offering tax-free shopping.
Food & drink
The USA is rather unjustly known for being a nation of fast food outlets but, whilst these can be found all over the country, there are some wonderful regional specialities to enjoy, and perhaps the widest range of international cuisine anywhere on the planet. In the great metropolises such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles you can pretty much eat whatever you want, whenever you want it. New England is renowned for its lobsters and clam chowders, Texas for huge juicy steaks, the south for its Mexican and Cajun cuisines, the Pacific coast for its seafood. There are many specialist breweries and wineries but do bear in mind you must be at least 21 to buy or consume alcohol in the USA.
Health & Insurance
The USA has no national health care system so payment is required for any treatment or prescriptions received. The costs for private treatment can be exorbitant, even for a relatively minor treatment, so it is essential to travel with adequate health cover insurance. If you have a serious accident while in the USA the medical emergency services will treat you and then charge you later, unless you have an insurance policy to cover the costs. Should you need to see a doctor, they will charge you a consultancy fee which you should obtain a receipt for then claim the cost back from your insurance company. Please bear in mind that many medications available over the counter in the UK can only be obtained by prescription in the USA.
Public holidays vary between states but, in reality, there is no great disparity. Principal public holidays for 2013 are shown below. Please note that on these days many shops, restaurants and public transport services will either be closed, extremely busy, or operating limited services:
- 01 January - New Year's Day
- 21 January - Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.
- 18 February - Presidents' Day
- 31 March - Easter
- 27 May - Memorial Day
- 04 July - Independence Day
- 02 September - Labor Day
- 14 October - Columbus Day
- 11 November - Veterans' Day
- 21 November - Thanksgiving Day
- 25 December - Christmas Day
Tipping is part of the culture in the USA. Tips of between 15-20% are expected for all bar and restaurant service and about the same percentage should be applied to taxi fares. Hotel porters who have carried your luggage to your room expect a tip of around $2.00 per bag. It is handy to have some low denomination notes for this purpose.
Driving is on the right hand side of the road. Most traffic signs and signals are similar to those in the UK, however it is worth knowing that unless there is a sign stating you cannot do so, then you are allowed to turn right on a red light as long as it is safe, and you give way both to pedestrians and to traffic that is travelling on a green light. The four way junction is the other main difference from driving in the UK and Europe. It consists of a cross-roads where no-one automatically has right of way and everyone must stop to assess the situation before driving onward. It can be a slow process, but cars can proceed in the order they arrive at this junction, so it relies on a mixture on politeness and confidence. Do ask about these local rules at the car hire depot when you collect your vehicle.
All renters will need to present all parts of their valid driving licence, along with photographic identification, at time of rental. Please note you must also have a valid credit card (not debit card) as the car hire company will need to swipe your card to authorise a security deposit payment in case of damage to the vehicle.
It is always a good idea to be aware of how much fuel you have in the tank and how far you are planning on driving as on some routes you can travel a long way before the next fuel station.
In most cases, if you book a one-way car hire rental you will have to pay a one-way drop-off fee locally (this cannot be paid in advance). The amount payable will be stated on your quotation or in your final itinerary documents.
We include driving directions to all of the main places you will be visiting and, where possible, to individual accommodation. We recommend that you try to obtain more detailed maps for each individual area from the local tourist offices.
The climate can vary enormously in the USA, depending on whether you are near the coast, in the mountains or on the plains. It is therefore recommended to take a variety of clothes. Generally the USA is a very casual country, although, particularly in the cities, there are some very fine establishments that may have strict dress codes. We would suggest you take shorts, short sleeved shirts, jeans and trousers, a warm fleece, comfortable boots if you plan to explore the great outdoors, and a waterproof jacket and trousers for coastal regions or sea trips. Please contact your consultant for further advice about this.
Measurements & sizes
US measurements are in inches, feet, yards and miles, and weights are in ounces, pounds and tons. American pints and gallons are about four-fifths of imperial ones. Clothing sizes are four figures less what they are in the UK (British women's size 12 is a US size 8). Temperatures are always given in Fahrenheit. Dates are shown month first, for example 01/04/12 means 4th January not 1st April.
Our country specialists can advise on any safety concerns you may have. For current information, please refer to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office website.
When to go to The USA
You'll find temperature and rainfall information, together with a month-by-month guide on visiting, on our guide for when to go to The USA.