Our USA Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to the USA or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
A country, an icon, an idea; the United States of America is more than just another mark on the map. Endlessly diverse in culture, geography and ecology, the US would take a lifetime to explore and perhaps even longer to fully understand.
For many holidaymakers, the big cities are the first port of call. There's New York, the shining light of capitalism, where the streets have lived in a thousand songs, books and films; Los Angeles, the city of opportunity where the fables of the American Dream are lived and told; Washington DC, the seat of the world's most influential head of state; or Dallas, the booming star of the south. Where European cities boast history, American cities boast energy, potential, bright lights and dreamers.
And there's more to be discovered between each of these urban playgrounds. Vast and empty national parks, plains and deserts are an adventure traveller's paradise. There are great dried up canyons, humid swamps and rich coral reefs, vast mountain ranges, thick primeval forests, tropical beaches and icecaps. Grizzly bears stalk the frozen forests of Alaska, Florida panther hunt among the everglades and the iconic bald eagle circles the skies above every State except Hawaii.
Culturally, there are the great American institutions, from the Coney Island hot dog to the twelve bar blues, but as a nation of immigrants, the US is as culturally diverse as any other. Communities of the first indigenous Americans, who settled over 10,000 years ago, are beginning to thrive again. And alongside European Americans and African Americans, there is a new and growing population of Asian Americans and Hispanic and Latino Americans. The result is a melting pot of different cultures and idiosyncrasies, which have made their way into the conscience of each of the 50 states. A frequent question when booking a holiday to the USA is not so much where to start exploring, but when to stop.
Culture & etiquette
Americans are engaging, enthusiastic, talkative, extroverted, honest and welcoming. It's not unheard of to find strangers in deep conversation, whether sat at a bar, on the train or just shooting the breeze at the side the road. If you're traveling alone you'll likely find yourself in long conversations with anyone from bartenders to shop assistants, taxi drivers to hotel maids. (This camaraderie does not apply to members of homeland security who are notoriously abrupt).
It's an urban myth that Americans don't understand sarcasm - watch any number of US TV comedies and you'll find it layered on thick. But be wary of overdoing the irony in certain company. American's are an honest bunch who will share deeply personal stories with strangers and may be offended if you don't offer a heart-felt response.
They also take their national identity seriously and you'll see the stars and stripes stuck in car windows or hanging above front doors across the country. Politics - domestic and foreign - can therefore be a tricky subject.
Arrive with no preconceptions about regional stereotypes and you may be surprised by what you discover.
US drink goes beyond the country's reputation for weak lager and cans of fizzy pop. Fine wines are produced in the lush valleys of California, Washington and Oregon, microbreweries have cropped up across the country, offering beers that are closer to rich pale ales than sweet bottles of Bud and old-school American bourbons remain a staple part of any cocktail list.
All fifty states now produce wine - though most keep their wine to themselves, for better or worse. The most productive state is California, which produces way over half of the country's wine and is particularly famous worldwide for rich Merlots and Pinot Noirs, complex Sauvignon Blancs and light Chardonnays. The Sonoma and Napa valleys are the centre of this booming trade and many wineries offer tours and tastings to visitors. Northern California wineries are worth incorporating into a trip to the West Coast of the USA.
For the beer drinker, the US microbrewery craze means that many bars offer something new and local that, chances are, you won't have come across before. Seattle and the wider Pacific Northwest is a hotbed of microbreweries - the Black Raven, is a particular local favourite, whilst The Pike brewing company's pub offers unique heavy stouts and light ales, just around the corner from Pike Place Market. Massachusetts also produces some fine local drops and the most famous, Samuel Adams, is available across the States.
The southern states are still the spiritual home of bourbons and other American whiskeys. Made primarily from corn, bourbon brands such as Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and Evan Williams all originate from Kentucky and are inseparable from American drinking culture. The home of the most famous American whiskey, Jack Daniel's is in Moore County, Tennessee, which strangely, is a dry county.
Driving is a fantastic way to see the US, and self-drive holidays are a rewarding way to experience the geographic changes from region to region. Roads are well maintained and the road network is extensive. Though the distances can be huge - it's over 3000 miles from San Francisco to New York City via Route 80 - those with plenty of time should consider hiring a car or campervan and taking to the road. Long-range car journeys are an American obsession, so all major roads are lined with motels, service stations and other conveniences to cater for this popular national pastime.
Numerous airlines operate flights across North America and if time is tight and you are planning on visiting a number of far-flung locations, flying is really the only viable option. Be sure to book your flights in advance, as domestic fares can be cheaper well ahead of time or as part of your international ticket. Be aware that virtually all airlines charge extra for baggage on domestic economy ('coach') class fares.
Amtrak operate long-distance trains across the US, though the network is far from extensive and generally expensive.
Food & drink
There's nothing as American as apple pie. Except for hot dogs, and cheese burgers and fried chicken. Or perhaps bagel and lox, barbeque ribs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and key lime pie. Or pot roast, macaroni cheese, and meat loaf. But the list is so much longer than that, and stretches way beyond fast food.
American food is, as you'd expect in a country founded by immigrants, incredibly varied. There are restaurants serving every kind of ethnic cuisine you could imagine in virtually all the big cities, but beyond that, you could stick to what are American classics and eat something different every day of the month. Each state will have at least a speciality or two of its own, influenced by geography, climate, and the immigrants that settled there.
New England is worth visiting for clam chowder alone, but the famous Maine lobster, served boiled or in soft rolls, is pretty good too. And while baked beans are associated with cowboys and campfires, Boston is not nicknamed Beantown for nothing - navy beans in molasses have long been a speciality here, though New England Indians were mixing beans with maple syrup and bear fat long before that, baking them in holes in the ground.
The south-eastern states are known for soul food, their 'down-home Southern cooking', which generally comes with 'home-style' gravy. This is hearty fare, often fried, the most famous example being Southern fried chicken. Chicken fried steak - a deep-fried beef cutlet - is just as popular. Collard greens, black-eyed peas and cornbread are common sides, and the puddings verge on the legendary, including classic pecan pies and peach cobblers. Fish and seafood dominate menus in Florida and Louisiana.
New Orleans, though a part of Louisiana, has a distinct and delicious cuisine of its own, and is a destination beloved by foodies. The city was settled by Spanish and French colonists who brought slaves from Africa and the resultant Creole and Cajun cooking here is a spicy melange laced with African and West Indian influences, with plenty of herbs, garlic, onion and peppers. The intensely flavoursome gumbo, a thick soup of seafood, chicken, okra and other vegetables, can be found on most menus, as can jambalaya, based on the same ingredients but cooked paella-style with rice. Both are quite divine, as are po-boys, French baguettes stuffed with fried shrimp or oysters - the oysters in this region are particularly good, as are the crawfish (or mud-bugs). There are some affordable French restaurants in town too (elsewhere in the US these tend to be pricier expense-account dining affairs).
The south-western states share a cuisine that has been influenced first by Native Americans, then early Spanish settlers and most recently by Mexicans. Tex-Mex, barbeque and chilli are popular, so much so that there are several annual chilli festivals and barbeque cook-offs. Salsa, nachos, tacos and burritos are other local favourites.
Healthier options are the norm in California, blessed as it is with a rich supply of fresh produce, including vegetables, fruit and a wide range of seafood in all seasons. The ethnically diverse populations have all made their mark on the cuisine too, so a green salad might be served with an Asian style spicy peanut sauce, simply grilled fish may be served with Chinese greens, and of course, this is the state that created the crab and avocado filled California roll which now features in grocery stores across the country.
Alaska's cold water seafood is the centrepiece of the state's cuisine. Alaskan salmon is a firm favourite, and for good reason. It's wild, from clean water, and absolutely delicious, especially when smoked over red cedar wood in the traditional Pacific Northwest Indian style. Reindeer, moose and elk meats are widely loved here, as are the local wild berries. Hawaii enjoys the freshest seafood too, delicious tropical fruit, and plenty of Pacific Rim influence. The national snack is a version of sushi probably only found here - SPAM musubi, rice topped with a slice of fried SPAM and wrapped in nori.
The first people to arrive in North America came from Siberia, some 10,000 years ago. Most experts believe that these primary groups, who established the Folsom and Clovis cultures, walked the land bridge that joins western Alaska with Eurasia and were settled across North America by the end of the last ice age.
Over the centuries these cultures diversified into new groups, developing new traditions and languages, and establishing increasingly advanced settlements. In Ohio, Mound Builders, pre-Columbian inhabitants, created the Great Serpent Mount and in the west, the Anasazi developed intricate stone villages in the Colorado Plateau. In fact, so advanced were these indigenous populations that by the time the first Europeans arrived, there were some ten to 12 million people living across North America.
The Vikings were the first group of Europeans to arrive. Under their leader, Eric the Red, they established a colony in nearby Greenland around 900 AD and from there they made brief expeditions to North America. Though they didn't settle for long - it's understood that they were forced to flee by the unwelcoming Algonquin - traces of their settlements can still be seen at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Given their seafaring abilities, it's likely that they travelled further south along the coast, though there is little archaeological evidence of these forays.
Then in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and reached the Bahamas, officially 'discovering' the New World. Other European explorers soon followed - English navigator John Cabot spotted Newfoundland four years later - a mad rush for bounty ensued and the first European settlements were established and religious missions founded.
One of the most important moments in US history came in 1620, when a group of hardy pilgrims, at odds with the religious turmoil in Europe, boarded the Mayflower in Devon and sailed west, eventually landing on Cape Cod and establishing a new colony in what would become Plymouth, Massachusetts. Though only half of the original 102 survived the first winter, by 1640 over 10,000 colonists were settled in New England. Modern America was well and truly born.
With such rapid progress came a darker side - by the end of the 17th century it is estimated that up to 90% of the indigenous American peoples, their settlements, societies, traditions and languages had been decimated. A mix of European disease and - to a lesser extent - gunpowder were to blame, and many groups never recovered.
By the 1760s, the British Crown was looking to the new colonies for greater financial support following the Seven Years War. Increasingly alienated from Europe and disenfranchised with British interests, the colonies chose to boycott new British tax laws and, following the fabled Boston Tea Party, the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775.
A wealthy landowner known as George Washington was assigned by the Second Continental Congress to lead military actions against the British. Initially ill-equipped and inexperienced, the American armies struggled against the superior Red Coats. But with the 1776 Declaration of Independence came renewed support and, with help from the French, Washington's armies forced General Cornwallis' surrender on 17th October 1781. Two years later the Treaty of Paris formally recognised the United States of America as its own nation, free from colonial taxes, laws and responsibility. For many years to come the States stayed clear of international affairs.
The unity of the States was, however, relatively short lived. In 1860 the election of Abraham Lincoln, a President committed to the abolition of slavery led to revolt by the southern States, 11 of which split from the union and joined a new Confederacy. Civil War followed; one of the bloodiest periods of American history. On 9 May 1865, the Confederacy surrendered to the north and slavery was abolished across the country - Abraham Lincoln's wish was granted.
A period of economic boom followed - countered by brief periods of deep depression - and by 1945 the US had emerged from the Second World War as one of only two world-super powers, resulting in the years of Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union as it was then, which in many ways still dictate global geopolitics today.
A number of high-profile controversies have marred the US image in modern times. The 1961 Bay of Pigs was a major embarrassment for JFK, who was later assassinated. The US invasion of Vietnam, designed to defend the south against a communist north, ended in defeat. Inequality and prejudice remained ripe, notably in the south, against black Americans until the 1970s. The US led invasion of Iraq following the events of 9/11 sparked major protests at home and abroad. The legacy of the War on Terror is polarisation; today the US is revered by some, reviled by others.
The 2009 inauguration of the USA's first black president, Barack Obama, brought renewed hope to the country as it faces continuing crises at home and abroad. The fifty States are still united, at least by federal law, and look to stay that way for the time being.
The information below provides general health advice. Always consult your doctor about vaccinations and health issues before you travel
No special vaccinations are required before visiting the US, unless you have visited a yellow fever-infected country within six days prior to your arrival. WHO recommends that all travellers should be covered against tetanus, diptheria, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, rubella and hepatitis B, whatever your destination. Even in countries where there is a high rate of childhood vaccination against these diseases, outbreaks can occur.
In remote areas, emergency service response can be significantly delayed in the event of serious accident or illness. Consider taking a wilderness first-aid course, and carry a comprehensive first-aid kit to cover for any accidents arising from your planned activities. Keep mobile phones charged, and consider taking radio communication as back-up.
Sunburn, heat exhaustion and sunstroke should be guarded against in the summer months, especially in the southern states. Carry plenty of water and other fluids, use high-factor sunscreen, wear protective sunglasses, cover your head and seek shade.
If travelling to areas of very high altitude (such as the Rocky Mountains) take care to avoid the ill effects of being at altitude including acute mountain sickness, a potentially life-threatening condition.
Travellers should be aware that the rabies virus circulates in terrestrial animals, e.g. racoons and skunks, and you should avoid all contact with these animals.
Travel insurance that covers you for theft, loss, accidents and medical problems is highly recommended, including cover for adventure activities such as scuba diving, horse riding, hiking, or travelling in remote areas as necessary. Be sure to bring your policy details and emergency contact numbers with you, or if you haven’t got any then get in contact with one of our travel specialists.
The NHS Fit For Health offers useful and up to date health advice for travellers at www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk. More information can also be found at the World Health Organisation's website www.who.int and the National Travel Health Network and Centre www.nathnac.org.
The US Dollar ($) is the official currency. Coins come in denominations 1¢, 5¢ (Nickel), 10¢ (Dime), 25¢ (Quarter), 50¢ and $1; notes in denominations of $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100.
ATMs are available at all times of the day throughout the country. There will likely be a small charge for foreign transactions, but exchange rates at ATMs are generally as good as you'll find anywhere else. Be sure to notify your bank of your travels to avoid them from blocking your card when an international transaction is made. Credit and bank cards are accepted at most shops, hotels, bars and restaurants, but be sure to carry some cash with you for tipping purposes.
There are numerous slang terms for money in the US that might be worth remembering: $1 note is often referred to as a 'buck', $10 a 'Hamilton' or 'sawbuck', $100 note as a 'Benjamin'.
Tipping is expected across the country and should be considered as an additional cost when budgeting for your trip. When dinning, 15% is the standard amount added to the bill - 10% is acceptable in local diners but expect to tip up to 20% in high-class restaurants. Unlike the UK, tipping is also expected when buying drinks from a bar and bartenders generally expect $1 per drink.
In the past, the US struggled with the preservation of its numerous and diverse wildlife. The sheer size of the country led early European settlers to believe that man could make little impact. Man was, of course, wrong.
In 1903, Teddy Roosevelt set up the pioneering National Wildlife Refuge System - today it is the world's largest system of preserves, protecting over 95 million acres of wildlife habitat - and various acts have been passed ensuring the protection of the nation's creatures great and small over the next century.
The US national parks are home to some iconic animal life and recent conservation efforts have meant that many species, once threatened with extinction, are making a strong comeback. Another advantage of a self-drive holiday is being able to pick and choose which parks and trails to visit as-you-go.
Numerous species of bear, including the great Grizzlies - most prevalent in Alaska - and the more common black bear are top of most visitors' 'must see' lists. Other large mammals such as elk, moose, coyotes, gray wolves and beavers are common in national parks, notably Yosemite, the Big Bend and Yellowstone, home to the largest herd of bison in North America.
The States is also home to a species of large cat, which goes by numerous titles - cougar, mountain lion, puma, panther. Numbers have been on the rise, increasing visitors' chances of spotting one of these majestic mammals, particularly in the west.
The humid plains of the Everglades in Florida are home to various species of reptile including caimans, crocodiles, American alligators and several species of land and sea snake. Mammals include the Florida panther and the West Indian manatee.
The US is a birdwatcher's paradise. All the northern hemisphere's migratory songbirds and shorebirds stop here and, in all, the US boasts almost 1000 bird species.
The most famous is the bald headed eagle, the national bird of the US and present on many official seals, including that of the President. It is the only endemic sea eagle in North America and despite being critically endangered in the mid 20th century, the species has experienced an extraordinary resurgence and now can be seen in all continental states.
Other impressive bird species include the Californian condor - the largest North American land bird - wild turkey, puffin, golden eagle, wood stork, pacific loon, blue-footed booby, roseate spoonbill and, in the south, red-crowned Amazon parrot.
Hawaii boasts some impressive species, too, including black-footed albatross, the nene, osprey and the colourful 'i'iwi.
US shores are visited by a rich variety of mammals and other large fish. Right, sperm, bowhead, humpback, blue and gray whales can be spotted as well as orcas, manatees and various species of dolphin and shark, including great whites and tiger sharks. Sea lions and seals are common sights on the western coast - keep an eye out for groups lazing on large shipping buoys and pontoons, even in busy ports.
One of the greatest spectacles is the Pacific Northwest salmon runs. Thousands of salmon swim from the ocean to the up river to spawn, attracting grizzlies, bald eagles and keen fishermen.
Rich coral reefs can be found surrounding the Hawaiian Islands, which are home to a colourful array of fish and invertebrates. The islands are also home to five different species of sea turtles and snorkelers and divers are likely to see green sea turtles close to shore.
The vast size of the US means that there's a huge variety of flora, from thick deciduous forests to grassy plains, mangrove swamps to arid zones of hardy cacti.
The Everglades is one of the most delicate ecosystems in the US and as such, is protected by a federal law introduced by President Bush senior in the late 80s. The nation's last subtropical wilderness supports mangroves, cypresses and sea grasses and both salt and fresh water ecosystems support abundant tropical plant life.
By contrast, the arid deserts of the southwest see little rain and support little life besides cacti and scrub. However, during springtime the rains bring forth swathes of small wildflowers across the lower reaches of the western mountains; a special and colourful display.
California is home to the world's tallest tree species, the coast redwood, the largest of which stretches to 115 metres tall. And further north from here, in Washington and Oregan, the country's last primeval forests exist, home to spruces and Douglas firs and Western Red Cedars - used for the many towering totem poles of the Pacific Northwest.