The currency used in USA is the US Dollar (US$) which is divided into 100 cents (¢). Notes come in denominations of $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100. There are larger denominations but they are rarely used. Coins used are 1¢ (penny), 5¢ (nickel), 10¢ (dime), ¢25 (quarter), ¢50 and $1, although the final two aren’t seen regularly.
Because of its vast size, the US experiences considerable climate differences. In general late spring and early autumn are the two best times of year to visit. This is principally due to the fact that most of the natives go on holiday in summer and quite a few take their break in their homeland. So, as well as a huge influx of visitors from outside America, certain areas are also taken over by the Americans themselves. The other reason that spring and autumn are favoured is that destinations which are generally hot all year round, the central states for example, tend to get unbearably hot in summer. Similarily, in areas which are renowned for being particularly cold, temperatures rarely reach above freezing point during the winter months. Of course, there are areas which are perfect locations all year round from a weather point of view. Ideally, you need to check each region before travelling to see what its predominant weather type is and what the best time of year is to visit.
The US is divided into four time zones - eastern standard time (EST), central standard time (CST), mountain standard time (MST) and Pacific standard time (PST) – but Alaska and Hawaii also have their own time zones. EST is five hours behind Greenwich Mean Time, CST is six hours behind, MST is seven behind PST is eight hours behind and Alaska and Hawaii are nine and ten hours respectively. Daylight saving time, when the clock moves one hour ahead of standard time, takes place from 1.00am on the first Sunday in April until 1.00am on the last Sunday in October. It does not apply in Arizona, Hawaii, parts of Indiana and Puerto Rico.
Opening hours for shops, offices and banks vary from city to city and from state to state. In general, stores and shopping malls are usually open from between 10.00am and 9.00pm from Monday to Saturday and on Sundays from midday until 5.00pm. Offices open between 9.00am to 5.00pm from Monday to Friday. Finally, banks are normally open from 9.00am to 3.00pm on weekdays and some open until lunch-time on Saturdays.
The US uses 110 to 120 volts AC, 60 cycles. If you are using a European or an Australian appliance, you will need a 110-volt transformer and a plug adapter with two flat parallel pins. These adapters are difficult to find in the States so you are recommended to bring one with you.
There is no VAT in the US but every state, county and city reserves the right to levy its own local tax on all purchases, including hotel and restaurant bills, airline tickets etc. This sales tax ranges from four to eight percent and to avoid embarrassment when it comes to paying the bill, you should always check that a stated price includes tax.
Since August of last year, visitors to the States from most other countries need a visa of some description – stamp, sticker or insert - in their passport which will inform those checking it as to what exactly what your business in the country is. To obtain such a visa you need to contact the US Embassy in your native country. If you are travelling from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK or Uruguay and are staying for less than ninety days (you will need to be able to prove this), you can waive US visas through the Visa Waiver Pilot Program. If you are staying for more than ninety days, you will need to obtain a visa to allow you to enter the country. Canadians need only proof of citizenship to cross the border.
Bringing foreign currency to the States is not recommended as foreign exchange bureaus are extremely rare and even changing it in banks is inconvenient. If you do need to change foreign cash, however, the best place to do so is in any exchange branch of Thomas Cook. These are usually located in the major cities but once you leave it is difficult to find them in the smaller towns. The situation is the same with traveller’s cheques. While they are widely accepted, this is only the case if they are denominated in US dollars. The three types of cheque which are most widely recognized are Visa, American Express and Thomas Cook. These are also the easiest to change. Most businesses will accept traveller’s cheques but you are better changing them in a bank. You will also need identification to do so.
The other much more convenient alternatives are either credit cards (Visa, Mastercard or American Express) or your regular bankcard from your home country. In the case of the latter, however, you do need to check that it is a member of either the Cirrus or Plus network and that the ATM you are using is too. This information is usually displayed clearly on the machine and chances are if you don’t see it, you can’t use your card there. With both credit and regular bankcards, you should be aware that you pay a minimum charge every time you withdraw cash and this fee can be anything up to $3.
The US phone systems are divided into three digit area codes by city and/or region. In fact, in some cases there are even divisions within the same city. When you are calling an area code which differs from the area code you are calling from, you need to dial 1, followed by the thee digit area code, followed by the local seven digit number. If you are in the same area code you just dial the local number. And, if you are calling the US from outside the country you dial 00, followed by 1, the area code and the local number.
When using public telephones in the US, a calling card is your most convenient and cheapest option. You should also try to get a card which tells you what call and connection fees you are paying. If you do use coins be aware that for long distance and international calls, you will be surprised at how quickly they are used up.
To make calls within the country, prepaid calling cards again are the best method. Phone rates are highest between 7.00am and 11.00pm. To make the cheapest calls, you need to wait until Saturday or Sunday or late at night, as these times offer the best rates.
Because the income tax on tip earning service staff is based on money they should have received in tips, they may well have to pay tax on a tip that they never actually received. So, even if you never tip, you should feel bad enough about taking money out of people’s pockets, to do so while you are in the States.
As a general rule you should tip waiters and waitresses between fifteen and twenty percent of the bill, bartenders should receive between ten and fifteen percent, hairdressers, barbers and taxi drivers between fifteen and twenty percent. When it comes to luggage you should tip $1 dollar per bag and $2 to $3 if you have a lot of luggage. You should also leave $1 per day in your room for the cleaning staff.
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In the US they take place on January 1st and 15th, February 19th, May 28th, July 4th, September 3rd, October 8th, November 11th and 29th and December 25th. It is a good idea to check the particular area too as certain towns and cities also shut down during special events.