USA travel guide: Everything you need to know before you go

This is a nation so big you physically have to conquer it a small bite at a time - taking in canyons, skyscrapers, national parks, micro-food-scenes and glorious beaches along the way

<p>Views of the Pacific Ocean from California’s Route 1 highway</p>

Views of the Pacific Ocean from California’s Route 1 highway

A country as vast and diverse as the United States is impossible to sum up - and that is exactly what makes it such a pleasure to visit. Yes, there is a mainstream American culture, but in reality, each state and region has its own identity, dialect, cuisine and culture based on a variety of geographies, colonial legacies and histories.

From the bright lights of New York to the Navajo Nation; the Great Lakes to the soft southern Bayou; and from rainy Seattle to sunny Santa Fe, the USA is as vast and varied as all of Europe. The best way to tackle the Land of the Free is to plan your trip by a large chunk or region, or take it slow by diving deep into one state per trip. Visit time and again over the decades and you still won’t likely see it all.

Travel restrictions and entry requirements

UK travellers must have either a visa or Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (Esta) visa waiver to enter or transit through the USA - these must be applied for online in advance and are generally valid for two years. The requirement to take a pre-travel Covid test before your flight has now been dropped, but only fully vaccinated (two jabs of an approved vaccine) may enter the USA. Masking and public health restrictions vary regionally – travellers should check in advance for the current rules local to the city or state you’re visiting.

Best time to go

Because of its vast size and geographical spread, there is something to see, do and enjoy in the USA at almost any time of the year. In summer, head for California’s beaches or find an outdoorsy festival to attend. In winter, soak up the sun with the “snowbirds” in Florida, hit the slopes in Colorado or spend a twinkling, atmospheric Christmas in New York. Pick a national park to explore during shoulder season, or take a spring or autumn road trip to see the fantastic wildflowers or autumn leaves this country produces. Beware that March to June is tornado season in the Midwest, while June to November is hurricane season over the Atlantic.

Top regions and cities

California

Beach and sun; towering redwood trees and San Francisco trolleys; surfer babes and Silicon Valley techies; the glam of Hollywood and grit of Haight-Ashbury. California lives large in the world’s imagination and, let’s be honest, it needs no introduction. But beyond its vast collection of big-hitters, the Golden State is at its best off the beaten path, whether exploring the eco-conscious dining scene, getting to know the Hispanic and Chicano heritage, or sipping a lush, velvety glass of Cabernet overlooking a sun-kissed Sonoma vineyard.

New York

Manhattan is, for many, the first and only port of call in the USA, and why wouldn’t it be? The Big Apple has everything you could want in a city, from the glittering stages of Broadway to the hipster hangouts of Brooklyn and just about every type of international food offering imaginable. It’s easy to forget that there’s a whole, big state awaiting you outside of the city – drive upstate through antique towns along the Hudson River, settle in along the shores of mountain-framed Lake Champlain or head to Buffalo for its industrial heritage and eponymous hot wings.

Las Vegas

Your maiden trip to Vegas is a bit like riding a rollercoaster for the first time: exciting, scream-worthy, beautiful views at points, thrilling and, in the end, you walk away feeling a wee bit sick. Yes, come for the bright lights, casinos, pool parties, drinks and debauchery, but remember: there’s a lot more to Vegas, too. Away from The Strip, there’s excellent live music on Fremont Street, museums digging into its entertainment and mob history - and even wild desert nature, with the Grand Canyon and Valley of Fire both within easy reach.

Florida

With an average of more than 235 sunny days annually, Florida is a perfect place to escape dreary grey skies at almost any time of year. The Sunshine State’s eclectic combination of theme parks, beaches, historical sites and cultures will also keep the entertainment rolling whether you’re a family, road-trippers or a solo traveller. If beach resorts or Disney don’t float your boat, opt for an adventurous airboat tour of the Everglades; explore the art deco architecture and Cuban culture in Miami; take a truly unconventional, bridge-based road trip across the Florida Keys; or check out the history of rocket launches from the Kennedy Space Center on the Space Coast.

Underrated destinations

The Southwest

Cinematic landscapes that fuelled Western movies, the ancient and rich history of the Puebloan peoples, contemporary Native American culture, deep Spanish heritage and truly unique cuisine make the Southwest one of the most spectacular US regions. Encompassing New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and West Texas, there’s a lot to see but many of the highlights can be connected up in a smartly-planned road trip. Out here, wide-open skies meet the Rocky Mountains and historic cities like Santa Fe boast some of the oldest buildings in the United States.

Kansas

Dorothy wasn’t wrong when she said, “There’s no place like home” - Kansas is indeed a special place. Though sometimes missed by visitors less familiar with the middle of the US map, this bang-in-the-middle, landlocked state serves up a massive dose of Americana with its vast prairies, scenic byways and postcard-perfect “Main Street USA” towns. Don’t miss the 11,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, one of the few places where native buffalo still roam. Likewise, Kansas’s urban centres – from the craft breweries of Kansas City to the indie music clubs of college-town Lawrence – show off the cool side of Middle America.

Alabama

If you want to understand America’s Civil Rights movement and harrowing racial past and present, Alabama is the place. Head to state capital Birmingham to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the National Memorial for Peace & Justice – a confronting coffin-shaped memorial to 4,400 Black victims of lynching. Go further back in time to the remains of mound cities built by Mississippian Indigenous tribes, spend a few days on the state’s soft Gulf Coast beaches and sample the flavours of an incredible Deep South cuisine that draws on its peoples’ Franco-Caribbean and African roots.

Montana and Wyoming

Explore real cowboy country in the far northern states of Montana and Wyoming. Montana’s nickname – “Big Sky Country” – gives some clue about how vast and mountainous its landscapes are. With its spiky, stone peaks, the Grand Tetons range is a classic destination for American mountaineering and marks the northern end of the US Rocky Mountains. Opt for a stay at a real Montana dude ranch or head to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for its annual Fourth of July Festival in the shadow of the real “purple mountain majesties” in Grand Teton National Park.

Best things to do

Take a road trip 

Whether driving the Pacific Coast Highway top-to-bottom or crossing the horizontal Route 66, hitting the open road in true all-American style is a unique US experience.

Learn about African-American history

Head to the Deep South to understand America’s Civil Rights movement and the ongoing struggle for equality in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

See the sunset over the Grand Canyon

Camping out and watch the sunset over the most iconic natural landmark in the USA is a must-do when visiting a nearby base like Las Vegas or Phoenix.

Dig into Washington D.C.’s museums

Walk the National Mall, pay your respects to Abraham Lincoln and explore the Smithsonian Museum.

Walk the Freedom Trail

Follow Boston’s Freedom Trail to see where Paul Revere took his infamous midnight ride, signalling the beginnings of the American Revolutionary War.

Go autumn leaf-peeping in New England

Take a drive through Vermont or one of the northeast states to see trees in their annual, fiery, autumn colour.

Go wild at Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Eat king cake, pick out a mask, collect beads and party hard on Bourbon Street.

Hit the waves in Hawaii

Learn to surf on one of Maui’s stunning beaches or ​​watch the pros tackle the infamous Banzai Pipeline at Ehukai Beach on Oahu.

Getting around

Flying and driving are the most common ways of getting around the US. The classic American road trip is a favourite for travellers keen to experience the country’s expanses of nature and vast highways. The Amtrak train network has practical pockets of service in the northeast and west coast but can be slow and laborious for cross-country travel. On the other hand, the Greyhound bus network is cheap but can range from notoriously colourful to downright unsafe - check out Flixbus, too, which has a growing, eco-friendly bus network. Most major cities have subway (underground) train systems or public city buses, but generally, you’ll need to hire a car to get around.

How to get there

Flying is really the only way to reach the USA from the UK. Flights go between major cities in both countries, with New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles serving as the main entry points. Cunard has resumed its seven-night transatlantic cruise between Southampton and New York aboard the Queen Mary 2, which sails approximately once a month. Several cargo-ship companies offer passenger crossings between ports in northern Europe and cities along the US east coast.

Money-saving tip

Many US national parks allow camping for a minimal fee (around $20 per night). These often require advance booking online; many have dedicated pitch sites with basic facilities. Always adhere to campfire regulations. Pick up inexpensive tents and gear at chains like Walmart, Target or the outdoors shop REI.

FAQs

What’s the weather like?

The United States has just about every type of weather imaginable, from the sub-tropical northeast to the vast deserts of the southwest states.

What time zone is it in?

There are nine time zones across the entire USA (including Hawaii, Alaska and other dependencies). The contiguous United States has four time zones – Pacific, Mountain, Central and Eastern – which switch to daylight time from March to November. Arizona operates on Mountain Standard Time year-round.

What currency do I need?

US dollars.

What language is spoken?

English is the de facto official language, although Spanish is also widely spoken.

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