USA by Rail
 information for visitors to the USA

Rail Travel in the USA and Canada        To contact USA by Rail, email:

Documents         When to visit

Getting there       Money

Food              Drink

Accommodation     Sightseeing

Telephones         On-line communications

Postal service       Newspapers

Tipping                 Car travel

Medical insurance        Other insurance

Crime                   Drugs

Sex                    Time zones

Public holidays           Customs

Working                Student card

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                                     Documents                             index

Travellers to the USA should have a full passport valid for at least six months after the intended date of return, although the US has an agreement with most countries, including the UK, automatically to extend the validity of a passport for six months past its expiration date. A British passport therefore needs to be valid only for the duration of your stay.

Children should have their own passport or be included in that of a parent or guardian. Canadians and permanent legal residents of the USA do not require a visa, nor do citizens of the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Uruguay, Singapore, Brunei, Japan and most countries in western Europe, provided you intend to stay for no more than 90 days. You must have an unexpired passport, a return or onward ticket and a completed form I-94W, obtainable from airline and shipping companies en route. UK travellers to Canada planning to cross the land border into the USA no longer require a visa.

British passports must state that the holder is a British Citizen. If the passport states British Subject the holder must apply for a visa, and visa-free travel does not apply if you intend to work, study or stay in the US for more than 90 days. You may then require either a B-1 visa (for business) or a B-2 (pleasure). Application forms are available from travel agents, airlines, US embassies and consulates. Applications must be made by post or through a travel agent or courier two weeks (preferably a month) before your departure date. No charge is made to UK citizens.

Indefinite visas are no longer provided (the maximum is now ten years) but those in existence remain valid for ten years from the date they were issued. A visa is still valid in an expired passport if you also have a current passport. Make sure that when your expired passport was cancelled it was not clipped by the authority in such a way as to damage the visa and thereby make it invalid. If you are travelling visa-free and your passport is valid for less than 90 days you will only be admitted until the date your passport expires. If you hold a visa of any classification you are not required to hold a return ticket and may enter the US on a one-way ticket.

If in doubt, contact your US embassy for the latest requirements (in the UK call the premium rate number 09061 500 599 or 09068 200 290).

Where appropriate you should obtain in advance an International Student identification card, an American Youth Hostel card and an International Driver’s Licence. If you are interested in study abroad programs, there are many to choose from. Whether you are learning a foreign language and want to immerse yourself in the culture, or if you want to take the chance to explore and travel other countries, there are many programs to research.

                                   Immigration                            index

Before passing through immigration control you are given a form to complete, asking where you will be staying and the date you intend to leave. This is attached to your passport and must be shown on your departure. If you lose the certificate or wish to extend your stay you should contact the nearest Immigration and Naturalisation office. For more details contact US Immigration and Naturalisation (INS), 425 Eye Street NW, Washington, DC 20536; tel: 202 307 1501.

Immigration officers may ask for some evidence that you can support yourself during your visit, usually reckoned on the basis of a minimum $150 per week. Take plenty of travellers cheques and perhaps a copy of your latest bank statement or evidence of current employment. Resist any temptation to test the officers’ sense of humour.

                                     Customs                               index

As well as personal belongings you can bring in 200 cigarettes and 100 cigars. If aged over 21 you can also import one litre of wine, beer or spirits for your own use or as a gift. Food, illegal drugs, firearms and endangered species products such as ivory are forbidden. If carrying prescribed drugs, only take the quantity a person in your condition would normally require, and keep them in their original containers. You are allowed to take in or bring out any amount of currency but if it comes to more than $10,000, including travellers cheques, you should report it to the Customs. The penalty for not doing so could be severe.

For more information contact the Customs Office of your US embassy or the Director, Passenger Programs, US Customs Service, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Room 4.5D, Washington, DC 20229; tel: 202 927 5580. Write to PO Box 7407, Washington, DC 20044 for a copy of Know Before You Go.

                                  Health Regulations                         index

No inoculations are required for visitors from Europe. Visitors from elsewhere should check with their US embassy.

                                    Student Card                           index

Students can claim discounts ranging from air fares to accommodation to sightseeing. An International Student Identity Card (ISIC) gives generous deductions for VIA Rail train travel in Canada and for hotel chains such as Travel Lodge and Howard Johnson throughout North America. Discounts are available on airlines and for airport shuttle services in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, DC, as well as at Busch Gardens, Sea World, Elvis Presley’s Graceland, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. There is a 24-hour emergency assistance service which card holders can call toll-free from anywhere in the world.

Cards can be bought at Council Travel and STA Travel (see Appendix 1) or on the ISTC website. To be eligible you must be a full-time student. Ask for a directory when buying your card.

                                    When to Visit                           index

Most people choose summer, when days are warmer and longer and most of the attractions will be open, but this can create problems. Hotels are more expensive, restaurants crowded and train reservations harder to come by. Large numbers of people, many as foreign as yourself, crowd around the very things you have come to see, and sometimes it can be too hot for comfort. Usually the weather is fine, though, and it can be exciting to travel when half the country seems on the move.

Train reservations, flights and accommodation are more readily available in winter, often at reduced prices. You see fewer tourists and more of the real America, with only an hour’s wait for the Washington Monument elevator. The sun still often shines, at least in the south, and the skiing season is open. Landscapes, especially the Rocky Mountains, can look even more spectacular when sprinkled with snow.

For many people, spring and autumn (known as ‘fall’ to Americans) are probably the best times to visit. During spring, flowers bloom in the mountains and the countryside is at its greenest. New England’s forests always put on a dazzling show for autumn ‘leaf peepers’.

                                       Weather                              index

The United States is a huge country with a diverse geography so the climate varies accordingly. Temperatures in some places can go well above 100F (38C) or as cold as minus 40F (-4C). Some places see dramatic differences between seasons; others scarcely change at all.

The north experiences European-type summers, but other regions, especially the southwest, become considerably hotter. The south and midwest are often humid. In winter the northwest continues to follow a European pattern, while the northeast and midwest become much colder. Florida, southern California and the southwest stay mostly warm throughout the year.

Although spring and fall are good times to visit, these seasons can be quite short. In the midwest summer and winter sometimes swap places within a few days. Autumn is the hurricane season along the Gulf of Mexico and tornadoes can occur in central regions during the spring.

                                 Getting There                            index

Competition has reduced the cost of flights, particularly over the North Atlantic, but fares vary tremendously according to date and season. Low season generally runs from November to March, excluding Christmas. Midweek flights tend to be cheaper and it usually pays to fly into a gateway airport such as Boston, Los Angeles or New York (John F Kennedy and Newark), though places such as Cincinnati, served by Delta (tel: 0800 414767) and Charlotte, served by BA (tel: 0345 222111) are worth considering. Never turn up at the airport without first pre-booking your airport parking or you will be paying way over the odds.

The main airlines flying from Europe include American, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. Air India, El Al and Kuwait Airlines may be cheaper to book through agents such as Trailfinders in the UK (tel: 020 7937 5400).

Charter flights are not necessarily less expensive but may offer a greater choice of departure airports, especially to Florida. British operators include Airtours (tel: 01706 260000) and Thomson (tel: 0990 133 122). Globespan, 10 West Mill Road, Colinton, Edinburgh EH13 0NX; tel: 0990 561522 operates mainly to Canada. For the latest deals check the national press or teletext for flight-only advertisements.

Council Travel sells Amtrak passes and specialises in student and budget travel. It offers flights to all the major North American cities and has offices world-wide, including 28A Poland Street, London W1V 3DB; tel: 020 7437 7767 and 205 East 42nd Street, New York, NY 10017; tel: 212 822 2700.

                                   Money                               index

The American dollar (or buck) is worth 100 cents. Coins are one cent (penny), five cents (nickel), 10 cents (dime), 25 cents (quarter), 50 cents (half dollar) and one dollar. Dollar and half dollar coins seem almost as scarce as two dollar bills (now no longer printed). The most common denomination banknotes, all confusingly similar in size and colour, are for 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 dollars. You need plenty of coins for telephones, buses, vending machines and tips so carry enough cash on arrival to last for two or three days. US dollars are widely accepted in Canada.

US dollar travellers cheques are the safest and most convenient currency, with American Express and Thomas Cook the most widely recognised varieties. You can use them as cash in hotels, restaurants and shops (take your passport for identification). Signs saying ‘no checks’ generally refer to personal cheques. Lost or stolen cheques can be replaced by contacting the issuing company by phone (American Express: 1 800 221 7282; Thomas Cook: 1 800 223 9920). Keep a note of your cheque numbers separately from the cheques.

Charge and credit cards such as American Express, Visa and Access (usually known as Master Card in the US) are accepted throughout the USA. Handy when paying a deposit for hotels, car hire or tickets by phone, they can also be used to obtain cash at banks and bureaux de change. Always make a note of the card number and keep it separately. In case of loss or theft you should notify the police and call the card company’s emergency number immediately. It pays to take two credit cards with you because hotels and car hire companies often ‘block’ an amount for themselves as a deposit and do not release it for some time after you have paid the bill. A second card helps in emergencies or if your first card balance gets too low. You could also ask your card company for a higher limit before you travel.

Banks generally open at 09.00 on weekdays, closing at 15.00 (Mon-Thur) or 17.00 (Fri). Not all of them will change foreign currency or travellers’ cheques and, even if they do, the commission may be high. In an emergency you can have money transferred from your bank account at home to an associated US bank, or to an office of Thomas Cook. International money orders take about a week to arrive by airmail. If you become desperate, consulates will reluctantly help you obtain money from home.

                                 Prices                              index

Unless you are rich or feeling extravagant you should reserve the uptown streets for window-shopping, looking for bargains where tourists are less in evidence. Books and records are particularly good value and are often found at a discount. Video tapes and computer games may not be compatible with your equipment at home but music cassettes and CDs should be fine. Clothing is also a good buy and New York’s garment district has many bargain stores. American clothing and shoe sizes are different from British or European, so try things on before you buy.

Car hire, gas (petrol) and cigarettes are often only a third the price of their European equivalents. You can save even more on gas by using a self-service station and paying with cash. US gallons (3.8 litres) are five-sixths the volume of Imperial gallons (4.5 litres).

Local buses and subways provide excellent value, especially with a travel pass. Tourist bureaux should have the details. Taxis, on the other hand, can be expensive, although occasionally there is no safe or reliable alternative.

In most states a sales tax ranging from 3% to 9% is added to retail prices except on some foods and other goods, and these taxes may also apply to hotel rooms, airline tickets and car rental. Municipalities often impose their own taxes, too, so prices shown are usually less than you actually have to pay.

                                      Food                               index

Americans dine out more than most people so finding somewhere to eat is rarely a problem. New York City alone boasts 15,000 places, from unpretentious cafes and hamburger bars to some of the finest restaurants in the world. Hot dogs, burgers, pizzas, Kentucky Chicken and McDonalds are sure to make you feel at home, although American versions are likely to be superior.

You may be lucky enough to find one of the few remaining 1940s-style diners. An authentic place should have chrome fittings, a juke box, ornate mirrors, counter seats and booths. Like coffee shops, diners are great for sampling the traditional American breakfast of eggs (cooked your way), crispy bacon, pancakes (with maple syrup), sausage, buttered toast and hash browns (fried grated potato). All washed down with coffee, tea (for the adventurous) or the ubiquitous Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Some places serve breakfast 24 hours a day.

Puddings are a major temptation, from home-made apple pie to chocolate fudge. No country has fancier doughnuts or better Danish pastries, not to mention chocolate-covered, peanut-filled pretzel nugget ice-cream. Other ice-cream varieties you may meet include garlic, lobster and many more.

America’s diverse population produces a formidable range of cuisines. Some of the world’s best Chinese food can be found in the Chinatowns of cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles. You can sample black-eyed peas and grits in the south, steaks in Texas, and lobster, crabs or clam chowder in New England. Chicago invented the deep pan pizza and in New Orleans eating is a way of life.

Some restaurants offer all you can eat for a fixed charge or have two for the price of one deals. Lunch is usually better value than dinner, but look for early bird specials where evening meals are discounted until five or six pm. Mexican food is tasty and filling and salad bars, delis and supermarkets provide the basis for an inexpensive picnic. Sandwich bars sell any filling or bread you can think of, including the famous bagels with cream cheese.

                                     Drink                               index

The water is safe to drink and Americans prefer it iced. If a glass is not delivered with your meal you only have to ask. Any soft drink is a soda. Pepsi and Coke come in small, medium (meaning large) and large (meaning gigantic) sizes. Sprite and 7-Up may be familiar but root-beer is definitely an acquired taste.

Bars range from the seedy to the glamorous and from cheerful to film-noir gloomy. The clientele may consist of businessmen, sports fans, gays, singles, TV addicts or any other all-American type. Look for cut-price drinks during happy hour, which sometimes stretches much further than 60 minutes. Arrive looking respectable between five and seven in the evening and you can often fill up on free hors d’oeuvres as you sample a margarita or mint julep.

Drinks served ‘on the rocks’ have ice added while those ‘straight up’ do not. If you fail to specify you will usually get the ice. Measures are generous and spirits often 90û proof so don’t underestimate your consumption. Draught, canned and bottled beer will most likely be served well chilled, with brands such as Budweiser familiar to many non-Americans. Canadian or Mexican brands can also often be found. Various low-alcohol and alcohol-free ‘Lite’ beers are widely available. Groups can save money by ordering draught beer in a (usually half-gallon/2 litre) jug or pitcher. American wines, especially those from California, can be excellent.

Some states, including Utah, have laws restricting the sale of alcohol in various ways or in certain areas. All states have a minimum legal age for the purchase of alcohol (usually 21) so if you look young enough you may be asked for identification. It is an offence in most cities to consume alcohol in a public place.

                                Accommodation                           index

All big cities have international-style hotels such as Hiltons and Hyatts where you can expect first class service. Many of these have a toll-free reservation number available by calling 1 800 555 1212. Prices vary with the season but a double room is likely to cost upwards of $100 per night. Single rooms cost almost as much as doubles or triples so it pays to travel in company. Hotels may offer American plan (meals included) or European (without meals). Rates are lower if you book for a week or more and some chains offer discounts with prepaid vouchers.

Smaller hotels are more individual and charge $25-$75 per night for a single room. The local tourist bureau will help you choose a place in a safe area convenient for sightseeing. Bed & breakfast is becoming easier to find, especially in rural areas. Standards are high and prices start at around $35. Check with the tourist bureau or contact one of the agencies or directories for details. Those covering the whole country include Bed & Breakfast International, PO Box 282910, San Francisco, CA 94128-2910; tel: 1 800 872 4500 or 408 867 9662 or 1 408 867 9662 (international); Bed & Breakfast USA; Bed & Breakfast Inns of North America, 4516 Lovers Lane, Suite 204, Dallas, Texas 75225.

Motels can cost as little as $25 a night but vary greatly in quality and service. Ask to see the room before accepting. The best motels will have a restaurant, a shop and possibly a swimming pool. Major chains include Holiday Inn, Travelodge, Marriott, Ramada and Best Western, all of which provide toll-free reservation numbers (1 800 555 1212). Econo Lodge (tel: 0800 444444) and Super 8 (tel: 1 800 889 9698; fax: 605 229 8907) are among the most economical places to stay. Unfortunately, motels tend to be a long way from downtown, making them less convenient for rail travellers.

An alternative, particularly for young people, are the YMCAs (2,400 altogether) found in most large cities in the USA. Many have swimming pools, cafes, a library and sports facilities. Single and double rooms are usually available to men and women. For information contact YMCA of the USA, 101 North Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL 60606; tel: 312 977 0031.

America also has more than 300 YWCA centres, for women only. Contact YWCA of the USA, Empire State Building, 350 Fifth Avenue, Suite 301, New York, NY 10118; tel: 212 273 7800; fax: 212 465 2281.

Hundreds of youth hostels provide some of the best value and friendliest accommodation, often located in a historic building. Some have family rooms. The Hostel Handbook, written by Jim Williams, gives details of over 700 hostels in the USA and Canada. The listings include the 200 hostels affiliated with Hostelling International and the almost 500 hostels not affiliated with HI. To obtain a copy write to The Hostel Handbook, 722 Saint Nicholas Avenue, New York, NY 10031, enclosing a cheque or money order for US$6 ($4 in the USA) made payable to Jim Williams. The book is also available from Amazon.

Most hostels close during the day and operate a midnight curfew. Cooking facilities are provided but alcohol and drugs are forbidden. For about $15 a night you get a bed in a dormitory (segregated by sex) but must supply your own sleeping bag. Although no age restrictions apply you are more likely to enjoy your stay if you remain young at least in spirit. International Youth Hostel membership can be taken out before travelling or guest membership purchased on arrival.

For more information contact American Youth Hostels, 733 15th Street NW, Suite 840, Washington, DC 2005; tel: 202 783 6161; fax: 202 783 6171.

For Canada contact Hostelling International-Canada, 400-205 Catherine Street, Ottawa, Ontario K2P 1C3; tel: 613 237 7884 or 1 800 663 57777 (for reservations); fax: 613 237 7868.

For information about discounts on accommodation for senior citizens contact the National Council of Senior Citizens, 8403 Colesville Road, Suite 1200, Silver Spring, MD 20910-3314; tel: 301 578 8800; fax: 301 578 8999.

Camping sites, public and private, can be found in most parts of the country. Unrestricted camping is still possible in wilderness areas (with a permit from the nearest park rangers’ office) and some youth hostels permit camping. Reservations are recommended for state sites and those in national parks. For information contact the Director, National Park Service, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240; tel: 202 208 6843.

Kampgrounds of America is a private organisation with 75,000 campsites throughout North America. Contact KOA, PO Box 30558, Billings, MT 59114; tel: 406 248 7444.

If staying in one place for a few weeks it might be worth checking the price of apartments and rooms. Usually you need to rent for at least a month. Ask around and check in local newspapers under ‘furnished rooms’. For college rooms available for let during summer you should enquire at the university housing office or local visitors’ bureau.

                                  Sightseeing                             index

CityPasses are available for visitors to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, Hollywood and San Francisco. The San Francisco programme includes unlimited rides aboard cable cars and all other Muni transportation. Each booklet contains actual tickets, not vouchers, to six of the most popular attractions and cultural institutions (except Hollywood, which includes eight), together with information about the best times to visit. Tickets are valid for nine days once the booklet has been presented to the first attraction.

Passes can be purchased at any CityPass attraction as well as many US travel agencies, visitor centres and at the website. Tel: 888 330 5008 or 707 256 0490 (for recorded information)

                                  Telephones                             index

The US telephone system is famous for its efficiency and economy. Public phones are found in train and bus stations as well as in stores, hotels, restaurants and bars. You don’t have to be a customer to use one. Read the instructions before making your call and have lots of change handy, or pay with a credit card by calling 1 800 CALL ATT. Local calls usually cost 25 cents. Press ‘1’ before the area code when calling from out of town, and for operator assistance press ‘0’.

If you need to find a local number and have no directory call 1 555 1212. For long-distance information call 1 (area code) 555 1212. Directory inquiries are free from pay phones. The international dialling code for the USA and Canada is 1. No international code is required for calls from the US to Canada and vice versa. Simply use the area code in the usual way.

Calls prefixed 800 or 1 800 are toll-free and any toll-free number can be obtained by calling 1 800 555 1212. Toll-free numbers can be dialled from outside the US but in that case they are charged at the same rate as any other international call. Use only the 800 part of the prefix, not the whole 1 800.

Calling home is cheaper from a public telephone than from a hotel, which may add a surcharge. It is easiest to call collect (reverse charges) and the international operator can be contacted on 1 800 874 4000. The international prefix for calls from the USA is 011, which must be followed by the relevant country code (44 for the UK). Use a private telephone and dial direct between 23.00 and 08.00 for the lowest call rates.

In most places the emergency number for police, fire or ambulance is 911. No coin is required. If in difficulty call the operator on 0 or 01.

                            On-line Communications                        index

Electronic mail (email) can be sent or received immediately by those with access to the Internet and there is no need to lug around a notebook computer or modem. Instead, look for cybercafes, web terminals, libraries or arrange to meet friends with internet connections along the way. You may also gain brief access to the Web in computer/Internet company showrooms (ask the salesperson nicely) or at universities and colleges. If this is not possible they may be able to recommend somewhere suitable.

With an email account through an Internet Service Provider, or if you sign up for a free POP mail account, you can access your mailbox using a Web-based POP mail interface such as Hotmail. You will need to know your email server name as well as your username and password. Write these down and test the system before leaving home. Your server name will most likely be the information after the ‘@’ mark in your email address and your username is usually the information before the mark.

If you want to keep the messages in your mailbox to read again when you get home, leave them on the server. Otherwise, make sure you select the ‘Delete’ option. Free email providers include Google, Hotmail and Mail2Web. Don’t leave your email account unused for more than two or three months or it may be closed.

                                Postal Service                            index

The US Mail service is less wonderful than America’s telephones, so when sending postcards home you should allow at least a week for delivery. Either put them in the appropriate box or hand them over the counter at a post office, where you will find information on mailing rates. Post offices open 09.00-17.00 on weekdays and 09.00-12.00 on Saturdays. Large cities often have one branch that opens 24 hours a day. You can also buy stamps (at 25% extra cost) from shops or vending machines.

Street corner mail boxes are dark blue and may be mistaken by the unwary for litter bins. Allow between two and four days for letters to be delivered within the US, or a day more without the Zip (area) code. The correct code can be obtained from the telephone directory or at a post office or by calling 1 800 ASK USPS (1 800 275 8777). This toll-free number also has details of mailing costs, post office hours and other information.

Packets or parcels weighing 16 ounces (half a kilogram) or more must be presented to a postal clerk or mailing agent. This is an anti-terrorist policy designed to eliminate the risk of terrorism on aircraft.

Mail can be delivered c/o General Delivery at any main US Post Office, which will keep it for up to a month. To collect your letters you will need a passport or other identification.


America has more daily newspapers than any other country in the world. There is no national press apart from the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, but the Los Angeles Times and New York Times are widely distributed outside their own cities. Local papers are inexpensive (some only 25 cents), heavy (especially at weekends) and great value for the funny pages alone. You can buy them from station shops and street corner vending machines. A local paper gives you insight into a town’s character and provides up-to-date information about clubs, hotels, shops and theatres. Look for restaurant and cinema advertisements offering special deals.

Foreign newspapers are hard to find even in big cities, although public libraries should be able to track down a week-old copy of something reassuring.

                                    Tipping                              index

You may think that tipping is a class-conscious anachronism inappropriate for a country where everyone has been proclaimed equal. This is not a good line to adopt with the average cab driver. He expects 10% or 15%, as do bartenders and hairdressers, and in restaurants 20% is more usual. Follow the practice of other customers or you may notice an abrupt change in the standard of service. Tipping is not necessary in self-service cafes or fast food restaurants.

Most hotels don’t include a service charge so a tip is expected. Hotel, airport and railway porters receive one dollar per bag. Of course, you don’t have to tip anyone who is rude or unhelpful. Amtrak service is free but attendants should be rewarded for exceptional assistance.

                                  Car Travel                             index

Trains and buses may not take you everywhere you wish to go so you may need to hire a car. You are allowed to drive for up to a year in the USA provided you hold a valid licence in a country (such as the UK) which has ratified the Geneva Road Traffic Convention. An international driving licence is not essential but will be more readily accepted by a traffic cop than the home country version. The speed limit is mostly 25 mph (40km/h) in towns, 55mph (88km/h) outside towns (65mph; 105km/h on some interstates) and strictly enforced. Always carry your licence when driving - it is a legal requirement.

Rental companies have a minimum age restriction (usually 21) and sometimes a maximum. Check the limits when booking and take your passport as proof. National firms have offices in most cities and can be reached on the following toll-free numbers - Hertz (1 800 654 3131); Avis (1 800 230 4898); Budget (1 800 527 0700); Dollar (1 800 800 3665); Thrifty (1 800 847 4389). For cheap transport, companies with names like Rent-A-Wreck (1 800 944 7501) hire out battered but roadworthy cars past their prime.

Local companies may be less expensive but national ones allow you to rent a car in one place and leave it in another, though this may be expensive. Prices depend on location, size of vehicle and rental period. Economy cars are smallest, followed by compact and standard (the normal American size). Virtually all have automatic gears. The cheapest rates are obtained if you book well ahead, especially online.

Make sure you obtain third party insurance of at least half a million dollars, and ask for a collision damage waiver (CDW) or loss damage waiver (LDW) that includes protection against vandalism and theft. Avoid ‘fuel purchase plans’ where you have to prepay for a full tank of gas or pay for what you have used when you return the car with a part-filled tank. The hire company will charge an exorbitant amount (by US standards) for the refill fuel.

If you plan to drive extensively you may find it more economical to take out car insurance before leaving home. American policies don’t always include third party protection and in some states insurance is voluntary - two good reasons for having full medical cover (see next section). Members of affiliated organisations can obtain free assistance and route maps from the American Automobile Association, 1050 Hingham Street, Rocklin, MA 02370; tel: 1 800 222 4357.

                               Cars for the disabled                        index

Some rental companies provide hand-controlled cars (call their toll-free numbers to check). For further information contact the Society for the Advancement of Travel for the Handicapped (SATH), 347 Fifth Ave, Suite 610, New York, NY 10016; tel: 212 447 7284.

                               Medical Insurance                         index

The USA has no free health service available to overseas visitors. A hospital room alone can cost $300 per night so horror stories about people being financially ruined by illness or accident are not apocryphal. Make sure you take out sufficient insurance cover for your entire stay, including provision to be flown home for treatment if necessary ($5 million is recommended). Airlines and travel agents usually try to sell you their own policies but check the small print and compare prices. If you plan a long stay it may be cheaper to buy annual cover.

Hospital clinics will often provide simple treatments and some have a 24-hour emergency room. Most towns have a late-opening pharmacy. If you need regular medication you should be sure to take sufficient to last for your visit. For prescribed drugs you should obtain a letter from your doctor explaining why you need them. If you wear glasses, carry an extra pair.

                                Other Insurance                          index

Make sure your policy protects against cancellation or delays, loss of baggage or passport, and claims for negligence. LIS (personal liability insurance) will protect you if you are sued by third parties in the event of an accident. PAI (personal accident insurance) provides a one-off payment in the case of death or serious injury. PEC (personal effects coverage) will pay for lost or stolen items, including those stolen from a car. If you plan to indulge in adventurous sports such as skiing or white-water rafting you may have to pay an extra premium. For motor insurance, see Car travel.

Take copies of all your insurance policies with you and make a separate note of their numbers and any emergency phone numbers.

                                    Crime                               index

Most people survive a visit to the United States without being mugged, assaulted or robbed, but sensible precautions should always be taken. Don’t keep all your valuables in one place, then if some are stolen you still have an emergency fund. Keep to downtown or well-lighted areas at night and avoid going to secluded places alone. Your hotel desk clerk will advise on safety for the part of town in which you are staying.

Try to be inconspicuous. Don’t flash money around in public but carry a small amount to surrender if threatened. Carry your camera in a bag, use the hotel safe for valuables and always lock your hotel door. Watch over your belongings and be wary of pickpockets or bag snatchers in crowded places such as train and bus stations. Don’t ask strangers to keep an eye on your things. At stations, only trust your bags to a uniformed member of staff. Report any theft to the police and ask for a reference number to show to your insurance company.

When driving, don’t stop if flagged down by anyone other than the police, and keep all windows and doors locked. If you get lost, drive to a well-lit area before asking directions. When leaving your car, lock any bags and packages in the boot and park in a busy place. Never hitch-hike or pick up hitch-hikers.

Many cities have residential areas which are effectively segregated by race so ask advice before venturing where your presence might be too distinctive. All policemen and some security guards carry guns. Do not run away if challenged.

                                       Drugs                            index

The authorities take a dim view of illegal drug use even in California, where possession of small amounts of cannabis may be overlooked. Apart from the dangers inherent in dealing with shifty characters on street corners you are more than likely to be ripped off. If caught with drugs the best you can hope for is to be put on the next flight home, and you will find it less easy to get into America another time. If you do run into trouble you should contact your nearest consulate, which will recommend a lawyer.


The dangers of casual sex are well known. AIDS is a serious problem in the USA, where upwards of 1.5 million people are thought to be HIV-positive. In many cities a majority of prostitutes carry the virus and Nevada is the only state where prostitution is legal. Enjoy the bars and night life but save your affections for those you can trust.

Some states, particularly in the south and midwest, have laws restricting certain types of sexual behaviour that may be permitted where you come from. In most places the age of consent is 16, although it may be up to 18. Statutory rape (consensual sex with a minor) is treated legally in the same way as any other rape.

                                   Time Zones                            index

Mainland USA has four time zones. Seattle (Pacific Time) is an hour behind Denver (Mountain Time), two hours behind Chicago (Central Time) and three hours behind New York (Eastern Time). Amtrak schedules take account of this and show local times for arrival and departure.

Canada and most of the USA, apart from Arizona and some of Indiana, observe Summer Time (Daylight Saving Time). Clocks are set ahead an hour at 02.00 on the last Sunday in April. Standard Time returns when clocks go back an hour on the last Sunday in October.

                                 Public Holidays                           index

Banks, post offices, businesses, museums and government agencies are likely to be closed on the following dates:


New Year’s Day January 1

Martin Luther King’s Birthday Third Monday in January

Lincoln’s Birthday First Monday in February

Presidents’ Day Third Monday in February

St Patrick’s Day March 17

Memorial Day Last Monday in May

Independence Day July 4

Labor Day First Monday in September

Columbus Day Second Monday in October

Veteran’s Day November 11

Thanksgiving Fourth Thursday in November

 (the day after Thanksgiving is also effectively, if not officially, a holiday)

Christmas Day December 25

Some states celebrate George Washington’s Birthday (February 22) instead of Presidents’ Day or make October 12 Columbus Day.


Public holidays in Canada include the following:

New Year January 1 and 2

Good Friday

Easter Sunday

Easter Monday

Victoria Day Next to last Monday in May

Canada Day July 1

Labour Day First Monday in September

Thanksgiving Day Second Monday in October

Christmas December 25

Boxing Day December 26

Travelling on holidays, even when possible, is sure to be crowded. However, if it is unavoidable, remember to book tickets and accommodation well ahead.

                                   Working                              index

If you are looking for working holidays in America or Canada as part of a gap year or career break, Real Gap has some excellent work projects in North America. If you get on well with children and are aged 18 or over you can apply to work at one of America’s 12,000 summer camps. Most are in the northeast but some can be found as far west as California and Oregon. Work starts in June and lasts for about nine weeks. You can also be employed as a family companion - providing child care and doing light household duties. You receive a return flight, the necessary work permit, pocket money, board and lodging, plus two months free time for independent travel. Also contact Camp America, 37a Queens Gate, London SW7 5HR; tel: 020 7581 7377.

BUNAC (the British Universities North America Club) has summer camp and other work programmes in the US and Canada. Jobs last for up to 12 months and are for students only. Early application is strongly advised. Visas are usually valid from June to October and support is provided from a New York office. There are good travel deals, loan plans and free job directories. BUNAC is at 16 Bowling Green Lane, London EC1R 0BD; tel 020 7251 3472; fax: 020 7251 0215. In the USA, contact PO BOX 430, Southbury, CT 06488; tel: 1 800 GO BUNAC; fax: 203 264 0251.

Working illegally can result in stiff penalties, including being deported and banned from re-entering the USA for up to five years. To work legally you must obtain a special visa (J-1 or H-2) prior to departure. Forms are available from US employer sponsors. For more information contact the Consumer Center, Department 455W, Pueblo, CO 81009; tel: 1 888 878 3256.

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