Welcome to Travel Planning 101. Find country specific information about where you are going and what to do to prepare to get there!
- Travel highlights of the country.
- Fun facts and background information.
- History notes, facts on currency, health, holidays and transportation.
- Pre-departure tips, when to go, and visa information.
- Information on weather and electricity plugs.
- Suggestions on things to do if you have extra time to explore on your own.
Places To See
Statue of Liberty
This great statue is an American icon and New York's best-known landmark. Unfortunately, visitor experience has been significantly marred by post-September 11 concerns. You can no longer go up into the body of the statue, just glimpse it from the base, where a specially designed glass ceiling lets you look up into the striking interior.
Mt Rushmore National Monument
Carved 18m (60ft) tall in the granite of a Black Hills outcrop, the stony faces of past presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, look like they're emerging from the mountain. One of the most famous images in the USA, Mt Rushmore is visited by over 3 million visitors a year.
You can't help but be overwhelmed by its sheer scale and the massive physical effort of the team (led by sculptor Gutzon Borglum) that created it. If Washington were depicted from head to toe, he would be 142m (465ft) high!
Death Valley National Park
The name itself evokes all that is harsh and hellish - a lifeless place hotter than Satan's hoof. Well, not quite. Closer inspection reveals Death Valley as a timeless medley of canyons, sand dunes, oases and sculpted mountains. Bring plenty of water for yourself and your vehicle. Wildflower groupies will want to visit in March and April.
It holds the US records for hottest temperature (56°C or 134°F, measured in 1913), lowest point (Badwater, 86m/282ft below sea level) and largest national park outside Alaska (12,139 sq km/4687 sq mi).
Black Hills National Forest
The majority of the Black Hills' attractions lie within a 1875-sq-mile mixture of protected and logged forest, perforated by pockets of private land along most roads. The best way to explore is on any of the 568km (353mi) of hiking trails or along the many scenic byways and gravel 'fire roads'. Good camping abounds in the forest.
Misty sprays and the majestic scale of this roaring cascade make it a marvellous spectacle. Split between New York and Canada, the Canadian side of the Falls has the more stunning views (as well as a strip of Vegas-like attractions including a towering casino), while the New York side has a handful of low-key, natural-park offerings.
Americans love parades and pageantry, so there's no shortage of events and festivities. Half the country comes to a standstill during the Super Bowl, the roving American-football finale held in late January/early February. New Orleans' Mardi Gras, in February or March, is a rowdy, touristy, bacchanalian knees-up. St Patrick's Day, in mid-March, is celebrated with parades and pitchers of green beer; it's especially fervent in New York, Boston and Chicago. The Kentucky Derby is raced in Louisville in May.
Independence Day (the Fourth of July) is celebrated with lots of flag-waving patriotism, fireworks and the odd beverage. Halloween (October 31) is a big deal for kids, who go trick-or-treating around their neighbourhood; in Greenwich Village, West Hollywood and San Francisco the holiday is subversively celebrated with glam parades. Americans go home to mom and pop for a big feed on Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday of November.
When to go?
The US is most popular with travellers during the summer, but this is when American families pack everything up and head out to visit Aunt Tilly. To avoid mobs (especially throughout the national park system), it's better to go during autumn or early spring.
Travel Visa Overview
All US visa information is highly subject to change. US entry requirements keep evolving as national security regulations change. All travelers should double-check current visa and passport regulations before coming to the USA. Although you can also access visa information through www.usa.gov, the US State Department (www.travel.state.gov/visa) maintains the most comprehensive visa information, providing downloadable forms, lists of US consulates abroad and even visa wait times calculated by country.
Apart from most Canadian citizens and those entering under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), all foreign visitors will need to obtain a visa from a US consulate or embassy abroad. Your passport must be valid for at least six months after the end of your intended stay in the USA.
Currently under the Visa Waiver Program, citizens of EU countries, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea may enter the USA without a visa for stays of 90 days or fewer. If you are a citizen of a VWP country, you do not need a visa only if you have a passport that meets current US standards and you have gotten approval from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) in advance. Register online with the Department of Homeland Security at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov at least 72 hours before arrival; once travel authorization is approved, your registration is valid for two years.
At the port of entry, visitors from VWP countries must still demonstrate that their trip is for 90 days or less, and that they have a round-trip or onward ticket, adequate funds to cover the trip and binding obligations abroad (the same conditions that nonimmigrant visa applicants must meet).
American-style plug with two parallel flat blades above a circular grounding pin
Japanese-style plug with two parallel flat blades
The climate is temperate in most of the US. Generally, it gets hotter the further south you go and seasonally more extreme the further you are north and inland from the coasts. Winters in the northeast and upper Midwest can bring long periods below freezing even though it's still warm enough to swim at the beaches in Florida and southern California.
History and Culture
Pre-20th Centure History
It's believed that the continent's first inhabitants walked into North America across what is now the Bering Strait from Asia. For the next 20,000 years these pioneering settlers were essentially left alone to develop distinct and dynamic cultures. In the modern US, their descendants include the Pueblo people in what is now New Mexico; Apache in Texas; Navajo in Arizona, Colorado and Utah; Hopi in Arizona; Crow in Montana; Cherokee in North Carolina; and Mohawk and Iroquois in New York State.
The Norwegian explorer Leif Eriksson was the first European to reach North America, some 500 years before a disoriented Columbus accidentally discovered 'Indians' in Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) in 1492. By the mid-1550s, much of the Americas had been poked and prodded by a parade of explorers from Spain, Portugal, England and France. The first colonies attracted immigrants looking to get rich quickly and return home, but they were soon followed by migrants whose primary goal was to colonise.
The Spanish founded the first permanent European settlement in St Augustine, Florida, in 1565; the French moved in on Maine in 1602, and Jamestown, Virginia, became the first British settlement in 1607. The first Africans arrived as 'indentured labourers' with the Brits a year prior to English Puritan pilgrims' escape of religious persecution. The pilgrims founded a colony at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, in 1620, and signed the famous Mayflower Compact - a declaration of self-government that would later be echoed in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.
British attempts to assert authority in its 13 North American colonies led to the French and Indian War (1757-63). The British were victorious but were left with a nasty war debt, which they tried to recoup by imposing new taxes. The rallying cry 'no taxation without representation' united the colonies, who ceremoniously dumped caffeinated cargo overboard during the Boston Tea Party. Besieged British general Cornwallis surrendered to American commander George Washington five years later at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781.
In the 19th century, America's mantra was 'Manifest Destiny'. A combination of land purchases, diplomacy and outright wars of conquest had by 1850 given the US roughly its present shape. In 1803, Napoleon dumped the entire Great Plains for a pittance, and Spain chipped in with Florida in 1819. The Battle of the Alamo during the 1835 Texan Revolution paved the way for Texan independence from Mexico, and the war with Mexico (1846-48) secured most of the southwest, including California. The systematic annihilation of the buffalo hunted by the Plains Indians, encroachment on their lands, and treaties not worth the paper they were written on led to Native Americans being herded into reservations, deprived of both their livelihoods and their spiritual connection to their land.
Nineteenth-century immigration drastically altered the cultural landscape as settlers of predominantly British stock were joined by Central Europeans and Chinese, many attracted by the 1849 gold rush in California. The South remained firmly committed to an agrarian life heavily reliant on African-American slave labour. Tensions were on the rise when abolitionist Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860. The South seceded from the Union, and the Civil War, by far the bloodiest war in America's history, began the following year. The North prevailed in 1865, freed the slaves and introduced universal adult male suffrage. Lincoln's vision for reconstruction, however, died with his assassination.
America's trouncing of the Spaniards in 1898 marked the USA's ascendancy as a superpower and woke the country out of its isolationist slumber. The US still did its best not to get its feet dirty in WWI's trenches, but finally capitulated in 1917, sending over a million troops to help sort out the pesky Germans. Postwar celebrations were cut short by Prohibition in 1920, which banned alcohol in the country. The 1929 stock-market crash signalled the start of the Great Depression and eventually brought about Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, which sought to lift the country back to prosperity.
After the Japanese dropped in uninvited on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the US played a major role in defeating the Axis powers. Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 not only ended the war with Japan, but ushered in the nuclear age. The end of WWII segued into the Cold War - a period of great domestic prosperity and a surface uniformity belied by paranoia and betrayal. Politicians like Senator Joe McCarthy took advantage of the climate to fan anticommunist flames, while the USSR and USA stockpiled nuclear weapons and fought wars by proxy in Korea, Africa and Southeast Asia. Tensions between the USSR and USA reached their peak in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The 1960s was a decade of profound social change, thanks largely to the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War protests and the discovery of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. The Civil Rights movement gained momentum in 1955 with a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. As a nonviolent mass protest movement, it aimed at breaking down segregation and regaining the vote for disfranchised Southern blacks. The movement peaked in 1963 with Martin Luther King Jr's 'I have a dream' speech in Washington DC, and the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Meanwhile, America's youth were rejecting the conformity of the previous decade, growing their hair long and smoking lots of dope. 'Tune in, turn on, drop out' was the mantra of a generation who protested heavily (and not disinterestedly) against the war in Vietnam. Assassinations of prominent political leaders - John and Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr - took a little gloss off the party, and the American troops mired in Vietnam took off the rest. NASA's moon landing in 1969 did little to restore national pride.
In 1974 Richard Nixon became the first US president to resign from office, because of his involvement in the cover-up of the Watergate burglaries, bringing American patriotism to a new low. The 1970s and '80s were a period of technological advancement and declining industrialism.
A conservative backlash, symbolised by the election and popular two-term presidency of actor Ronald Reagan, sought to put some backbone in the country. The US then concentrated on bullying its poor neighbors in Central America and the Caribbean by meddling in the affairs of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama and Grenada. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc's 'Evil Empire' in 1991 left the US as the world's sole superpower, and the Gulf War in 1992 gave George Bush the opportunity to lead a coalition supposedly representing a 'new world order' into battle against Iraq.
Domestic matters, such as health reform, gun ownership, drugs, racial tension, gay rights, balancing the budget, the tenacious Whitewater scandal and the Monica Lewinsky 'Fornigate' affair tended to overshadow international concerns during the Clinton administration. In a bid to kickstart its then-ailing economy, the USA signed Nafta, a free-trade agreement with Canada and Mexico in 1993. In 1994 it invaded Haiti in its role as upholder of democracy, and in 1995 committed thousands of troops to operations in Bosnia. It hosted the Olympics in 1996 and enjoyed, over the next few years, the fruits of a bull market on Wall Street.
The 2000 presidential election made history by being the most tightly contested race in the nation's history, but it was marred by a voting fiasco in Florida, which left the result in doubt for weeks. Demands for recounts and threats of lawsuits were eventually halted by the US Supreme Court, whose decision allowed George W Bush to declare victory on the strength of about 500 Florida votes.
The early part of Bush's presidency was dominated by efforts to fix a rapidly weakening economy, but everything changed following the terrorist attacks on US soil on September 11, 2001. Fear and anger among Americans led to widespread support for Bush's ensuing 'War On Terror', which began with the US invasion of Afghanistan in an effort to root out the terrorists and overthrow the repressive Taliban regime that supported them.
Then, in April 2003, the US launched a contentious pre-emptive strike against Iraq in order to remove Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and replace it with a popularly elected, 'democratic' Iraqi government. Nationwide arguments over the rationale for and conduct of the Iraq War split the US and led to a bitter 2004 presidential election, which George W Bush won by narrow margin over Democratic challenger John Kerry.
As the war in Iraq dragged on and the economy began to slide into recession, President Bush's approval rating plummeted, and with the Democrats claiming a landslide win in the 2006 congressional elections he became the lamest of lame-duck leaders. After seemingly endless primaries and heated campaigning from both parties, the 2008 election saw a contest between war hero and 'maverick' Republican John McCain and Democrat Senator Barack Obama. Obama was elected in November 2008 the first African-American ever elected president. Taking office in January 2009, President Obama is not only faced with the greatest economic crisis since WWII and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the pressing task of restoring faith in America's leadership abroad, including with Islamic nations.
© 2007 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.