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Although all forms of public transport in the US are comfortable, convenient and often inexpensive compared with the UK, the excellent road system makes this charismatic, varied country one of the best in the world for self-drive. From the Big Apple of New York to the Florida resorts and everything in between, a drive through America is the journey of a lifetime.
A self-drive holiday here is a thrill a minute, as you can stop off where you please, stay in roadside motels, venture into the wide blue yonder and experience all the delights and sights along the way. UK drivers should remember that in most US states, speed limits are lower than in Europe, even on deserted roads in the middle of nowhere.
Driving licences: a valid UK driving licence is fine. International Driving Permits are also accepted.
Which side does the US drive on: the right.
Speed limits: Speed limits vary between states, but are always clearly marked. For example, the rural interstate speed limit in Delaware and Alaska is 55mph (88kmh) and in Montana and Nevada, it’s 75mph (120kph)
Alcohol limits: US states set their own alcohol limits, so it’s best to check online and better yet not to drink and drive. Offences are taken very seriously, resulting in heavy fines or jail time, and even having an empty alcohol container in your vehicle is illegal.
Driving age: 16 years dependant on the state; 25 years for car hire.
Seatbelts: regulations vary from state to state, as do fines if you break the law.
Mobile phones and GPS: several states forbid mobile phone usage with or without hands-free devices. Although GPS jammers are prohibited, the use of GPS for navigation is legal and helpful for visitors.
Cost of fuel in the US: far cheaper than in the UK.
Car hire and fuel payment: the majority of car hire firms require a credit card to hold an amount against when collecting the car. At petrol stations, fuel is paid either by cash or credit card before you fill up.
Insurance: ensure your rental agreement includes basic insurance, as not all car rental companies support this. Fully comprehensive insurance can be had at an extra cost.
Traffic and parking: in general, traffic conditions in all large cities are chaotic at rush hour and busy during the rest of the day. In rural areas, driving is a breeze as you’ll often have the highway to yourself. Parking in large cities is difficult and expensive, with many motorists parking in the nearest shopping mall’s car park and taking a taxi to their destination.
Travel by train across the huge distances involved is fast and comfortable, as well as a great way to see the country. Amtrak, the national rail system, covers the country with long-distance routes on comfortable trains at a price similar to that of domestic flights. However, there can be delays on rural routes as the service uses busy freight lines owned by other railroad companies. Privately-run commuter services and subway networks run in most cities. Amtrak’s Auto Train takes cars and passengers from Lorton, near Washington, to Florida for around £130 including meals, and New York to Miami costs from around £90 per person.
Taxi services vary from city to city, but are rarely found in rural areas across the US. New York’s taxis are famous for their eccentric, chatty drivers, and can be hailed on the street or booked in advance from your hotel. Small towns have radio taxis, also bookable in advance, and prices vary according to location and state, as well as time of day. The standard rate in New York is around £1.90 on entry and around £0.40 per one-fifth of a mile.
The famous Greyhound buses travel across America and are a favourite means of travel here. Frequent services link all major cities, with less frequent routes covering a huge number of small cities and towns. Safety records are excellent, with every long-distance bus stopping for a short service every 5-7 hours. All Greyhound buses are being refitted for increased comfort and Wi-Fi internet access. Most local operators are affiliated with Amtrak, and city buses offer a reliable, frequent service. Bus travel in the US is the most economical way to get around, with a trip from New York to Florida costing from around £85.
The US boasts a huge inland waterway network, making it possible to travel over much of the vast country by recreational boat. Public ferries run around the Great Lakes region, on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and along the coastlines. If you’ve plenty of time, ferry plus car hire is a great way to see the country.
New York’s three airports, Kennedy, Newark and La Guardia, are America’s arrivals hubs, offering onward domestic flights to every major city across the country. America has literally hundreds of airports, from international hubs in major cities to tiny facilities in Alaska and off-the-beaten-track towns in the rest of the country. Major US carriers such as American and Delta offer domestic routes along with a number of budget carriers, with costs varying according to the airline and its services. A round trip from New York to Las Vegas, for example, can cost from £200, but the competition on popular routes can result in bargains.
One thing is for sure – exploring all the US has to offer in one holiday is impossible, which is why many visitors to this astonishing country return again and again after their first visit. However, the absolute highlights are easily identified, beginning with New York for the towering ‘canyons’ of Manhattan, the Metropolitan Museum, Central Park, Broadway, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. Washington DC boasts the White House and the Capitol Building, and Chicago is in the heart of the Great Lakes region.
Mount Rushmore with its massive mountain face carved with four presidential heads is America at its most patriotic, and Niagara Falls is indescribable. The Las Vegas Strip is America at its craziest, and San Francisco is as individual and lovely as its famous bay. Florida has Disneyland, the Florida Keys and incredible beaches, and New Orleans’ historic French Quarter is a memorial to voodoo and the slave trade. Boston’s splendid architecture evokes memories of the founding fathers, and the deserts of Arizona and Nevada were the wild places for Native Americans.
Los Angeles and Hollywood are must-sees, and Arizona’s Grand Canyon ss breathtaking. The most overpowering sight in America is perhaps the Rocky Mountain range, the backbone of the nation from the remote Arctic state of Alaska to its southern borders with Mexico. One of the world’s great mountain massifs, it’s an unsurpassable scenic wonder, with its northern heights overlooking Yellowstone National Park with its bubbling geysers and simmering underground mega-volcano.
Blue Ridge Parkway – one of America’s most popular scenic drives, the Blue Ridge Parkway spans just under 470 miles and passes a host of natural and manmade attractions. How long it takes is up to how many sightseeing stops you make, with two unmissable regions being the dramatic Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the historic Shenandoah National Park.
Highway 1 – California’s Highway 1 links the great cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco with San Diego, running past many of California’s dream beach resorts and through several national parks.
Going-to-the-Sun Road – for a great day out, this 52-mile route curves around Montana’s spectacular Glacier National Park. The pristine ecosystem includes the rugged foothills of the Rocky Mountains, crystal lakes and endless flora and fauna species.
New Year’s Day (1 January )
Independence Day (4 July)
Veterans’ Day (11 November)
Thanksgiving Day (4th Thursday in November)
Christmas Day (25 December)
The climate of America varies due to its vast size, from Arctic in Alaska to tropical in Florida, taking in the freezing heights of the Rocky Mountains and the hurricanes which hit from the bay of Mexico to the far south along the east coast, to as far north as New York. The Great Plains, the agricultural centre of the country and the home of Tornado Alley, range between dry and hot in summer and snowy in winter. New York in winter sees lows of -6°C, while south Florida and the Nevada desert see summer highs of 38°C.
Whatever activities constitute your dream holiday, you’ll find them here. From lazing on a tropical beach, exploring your destination’s culture and history, clubbing until dawn and shopping until you drop, to simply marvelling at the supreme natural beauty of its vast open spaces, America offers its visitors an experience to remember. It’s no surprise that it’s one of the world’s five most-visited countries for its diversity and holiday opportunities.
US contact numbers
Country code - (+1)
Australian Embassy, Washington DC: +1 202 797 3000
British Embassy, Washington DC: +1 202 588 6500
Canadian Embassy, Washington DC: +1 202 682 1740
Traffic news/weather/road accident – 511
Emergency services – 911
America’s official currency is the US dollar, written as US$. Currency exchange is via banks, registered forex offices and hotel front desks, and ATMs are found almost everywhere across the country. Payment by credit card is widely accepted.
Health and safety
There are no specific vaccination requirements for a visit to the US, and medical care is excellent but expensive for foreigners, with a full medical insurance add-on to your travel insurance essential. In the south in high summer, sunburn and heat stroke are risks and, in more southerly rural and desert areas, poisonous snakes are common.
Patriotism and welcoming warmth are typical characteristics of the American people, although warmth and welcomes may be less noticeable in the huge cities. Tipping is expected and appreciated, and US foreign policy is a subject best avoided, especially in bars.
Visas for the US
Visitors from the UK and the other 36 Visa Waiver countries may enter the US visa-free for a stay of 90 days on production of a current passport, with the exception of those from Canada and Bermuda, who are permitted a stay for up to six months.
USA voltage comes at 100-120V/60Hz, meaning that UK and most European visitors whose laptops are not set to dual voltage will need a voltage adapter as well as a plug converter.
Businesses: 09:00 to 17:00, Monday to Friday
Government offices: 09:00 to 17:00, Monday to Friday
Shops: 09:00 to 17:00, Monday to Saturday, with many city shops opening later and on Sundays
Banks: 09:00 to 17:00, Monday to Thursday, 09:30 to 18:00, Friday, 09:00 to 13:00 Saturdays
Bell hop – Bell boy
Elevator – Lift
Trunk – Boot
Check – Bill
Bathroom – Toilet
Gas - Petrol