USA Travel Tips: Overview
The United States is an excellent destination for any traveler. With world-renowned cities known for their delicious cuisine, shopping, and culture, to expansive wilderness and national parks showcasing mother nature’s brilliance, deciding the best way to spend your time in the USA could be tricky.
Before planning your visit, be sure to read through all of our helpful USA travel tips.
Whether you want your visit to be about learning the history of a specific place, exploring natural wonders, trying unique regional dishes, enjoying the nightlife—or even if you want to experience a little bit of everything—the US has you covered.
John and I are both from the United States and have spent extensive time traveling across the country in our van. Along the way, we visited plenty of cities and national parks. We love how much the US has to offer, from beaches and mountains to cities and small towns. Whether you’re from the US or planning your first trip here, we’ve put together these USA travel tips to help you design your perfect tip across the country.
Entering the USA
Visa Waiver Program Eligible
If you are from one of 38 countries, you can travel to the US under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). This will allow you to visit the country for 90 days or less for tourism or business purposes. You must have a valid passport and obtain an approved Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ETSA) prior to travel.
If you are a citizen or national from a VWP-designated country but have visited any of the following countries (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen) on or after March 1, 2011, you are required to obtain a visa prior to travel as you are no longer eligible to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program due to the Terrorist Travel Prevention Act.
If you are from a country not included on the VWP, then you must obtain a visa to visit the United States. To apply for a visa you must complete an online DS-160 visa application and upload a passport photo (photo guidelines) that was taken within the last six months.
You must also schedule an interview at the US Embassy or Consulate where you live. You must print out the application page confirmation form and bring it to your interview. Children younger than 14 as well as adults over the age of 80 are usually exempt from interviews.
The visa fee is $160 USD and there may also be a visa issuance fee based on your nationality. You must also have a passport valid for at least six months beyond your period of stay in the United States.
A US tourist visa has a maximum duration of six months.
city spotlight: chicago
The United States is well-known for its diversity. Large cities such as Chicago bring millions of visitors a year to experience their charms. Chicago even features its own beaches along the shores of Lake Michigan. It’s one of our favorite cities in the country.
Quick USA Travel Tips
- 911 is the emergency number.
- Make sure you have health insurance coverage/travel insurance. Healthcare costs are extremely expensive.
- Credit cards are accepted at most establishments; some will have minimum purchase requirements.
- Tipping is not included on most bills. For meals, 20% is standard. Most everything else is up to you.
- The US still uses the imperial system of measurement.
- A valid drivers license is required to operate a vehicle; an international drivers license is not required in all states, however some states do require them. For more information you can reference this page
- Most cities offer Uber and Lyft ride sharing but only larger cities offer extensive public transit such as trains and busses.
- Power plugs and sockets are type A and B; standard voltage is 120 volts.
USA Travel tips: trip planning
Before you plan your next trip to or within the United States, there are some things you’ll want to think about. How long is your vacation going to be? What is your budget? Do you want to stay in one area or visit several different areas? If you are planning on visiting several different areas, do you want to road trip or fly to your destinations?
The United States is quite large—about the size of the entire continent of Australia and just a touch smaller than Europe—so the distance between the areas you’d like to visit needs to be taken into account. Do you prefer hotels or camping? What time of year are you planning on taking your trip and what will the weather be like?
To help make some of these decisions a little bit easier, let’s talk about the different regions of the United States and what each region has to offer. This should make narrowing down where you want to go within the US a little less of a headache.
Everyone seems to divide the USA into regions a little differently. Some maps show four regions, some maps show six, some show more. For planning purposes, I’m going to talk about eight different regions, similar to the National Park Service’s divisions.
The southeastern United States is home to eight states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. This area is known for its hot and humid summers and generally mild winters.
The best time to visit is between October and April when the humidity is lower and the oppressive summer heat hasn’t taken full effect. If you visit in the autumn months, you are also likely to see some lovely foliage in most of these states.
Known for its barbecue, fresh seafood, and southern cuisine, make sure you try out some of the local restaurants the Southeast has to offer. Some of our favorite areas in the southeast include: the Florida Keys; St. Augustine, Florida; Nashville, Tennessee; Charleston, South Carolina; Great Smoky Mountains National Park; and the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
The mid-Atlantic region is comprised of six states: West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. This area has a temperate climate with warm summers and cold winters. The humidity is slightly less compared to the Southeast but can still be pretty noticeable in the summer months.
The best time to visit the mid-Atlantic region is in the fall (September to November) or spring (March through April) when temperatures are mild. However, if you’re planning on spending most of your time on the coast, the summer months (July and August) are best for warmer ocean temperatures.
Our favorite areas in the mid-Atlantic include: Shenandoah National Park in Virginia; New River Gorge National Recreation Area in West Virginia; Washington, D.C.; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine make up the Northeast. This region has bitterly cold, damp, and snowy winters and semi-humid warm-to-hot summers.
It’s an area of the US known for its beautiful fall foliage so visit in early October if fall color is what you’re after. For skiing or winter activities, visit during the months of January or February.
We always love traveling around this area at the end of summer to early fall, when temperatures are cool but before the cold winter air really sets in.
Our favorite areas in the northeast include: Boston, Massachusetts; Saratoga Springs, New York; Niagara Falls; Woodstock, Vermont; and the coast of Maine from Ogunquit to Acadia National Park.
Make sure to eat lots of lobster while you’re there!
The Midwest includes the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Kansas. Summers in the midwest are hot and humid, with downright frigid winters.
So what’s the best time to visit? You guessed it: fall. (September through November). Although the summers are typically nice, watch out for the brutal humidity.
One thing to note: If it’s mountains you’re looking for, this isn’t the region for you. There are plenty of wide-open spaces, they’re just quite flat.
Our favorite place to visit in the midwest is by far Chicago, Illinois. But there are many other great cities throughout the region, such as: Minneapolis, Minnesota; Madison, Wisconsin; and Columbus, Ohio.
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is also quite lovely as it’s surrounded by Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, and Lake Huron. If visiting the Upper Peninsula in the summer months, make sure to pack plenty of bug spray. The mosquitos up there are gigantic!
This region is home to five states: New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. In New Mexico, summers are usually warm and dry, but the heat and humidity increase as you move east into Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. New Mexico and Oklahoma can have cold winters. However, winter weather becomes more mild as you move east.
The best time to visit this area is spring or fall. (March through May and mid-September through November). If you are interested in skiing or winter activities, visit northern New Mexico in January or February.
Our favorite areas to visit in this region are: Taos, Santa Fe, and Las Cruces in New Mexico; Big Bend National Park, Marfa, Austin, Waco, San Antonio, and Fredericksburg in Texas; and of course New Orleans, Louisiana.
One of our favorite areas in the US, the Rocky Mountain region includes the great states of Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, North Dakota, and South Dakota. We call this area home for a multitude of reasons!
The Rocky Mountain region features warm, arid summers and cold, snowy winters. Check out Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado for all the winter activities. They usually start getting snow in November, so look to visit after the first snowfall.
If you’re looking to explore the great outdoors, plan your trip in June through October. Days are warm and long, but the evenings are typically cool. Which is nice!
Something to keep in mind, many of these stats have a “fire season.” Toward the end of the dry summers, forest fires may impact your plans. For instance, a visit during these months could mean smoky conditions.
Our favorite areas in this region include: Glacier National Park and southwest Montana; Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, along with Devil’s Tower National Monument, in Wyoming; western South Dakota; the Mighty 5 National Parks of Utah; and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Rocky Mountain National Parks in Colorado.
Oh, and don’t forget Dinosaur National Monument in Utah if you love seeing huge dinosaur bones!
Idaho, Washington, and Oregon make up the Pacific Northwest (PNW). This region of the US is small, but mighty.
The PNW features a cool, wet climate. However, temperatures become drier the farther inland you move, with warmer summers and more harsh winters. The coastal areas are ideal in the summer (June through August), with warm temps and less rain.
Save the more mountainous areas for summer exploring and winter activities. Enjoy all the hiking, camping, and skiing in the PNW.
We love the North Cascades and Olympic National Parks in Washington. Be sure to visit the San Juan Islands as well. In Oregon, check out the town of Manzanita and Crater Lake National Park. Idaho features a ton of forest land, with great outdoor activities all across the state.
The western region of the US is made up of California, Nevada, and Arizona. Temperatures vary greatly across this region. Nevada, Arizona, and inland central California have extremely hot and dry summers. Additionally, areas in northern Nevada and California have cold, snowy winters.
The best time to visit the hotter areas for cooler weather is late fall (mid-October through December) or early spring (late March through April).
Temperatures along the California coast remain around 70 degrees year-round (yes, please!), especially as you go farther south. However, northern coastal California tends to be cooler. The Visit California website is excellent for trip planning and USA travel tips.
It’s extremely difficult to narrow down our favorites in this region, but here are a few of the highlights. Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, Redwoods State and National Parks, Yosemite, and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks in California.
The drive down the Pacific Coast Highway with stops in all the coastal towns along the way is unmissable. We love Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada, too!
Don’t limit yourself to just these spots though because there are so many amazing things to see and do in the western region of the country.
USA Travel Tips: Getting There
When flying within the country, John and I usually fly Delta when we can. They offer price matching, so you can still get the lowest fares if you find a better deal through a discount website such as booking.com. We’ve also found it’s a lot easier to get rebooked or change a flight if we need to when dealing directly with the airline we booked through.
As for international flights into the country, many of our friends abroad typically use United. The general consensus is that they provide the cheapest flights. In our experience, the customer service is, um, less than stellar. But it could be worth it if you’re looking to save on a flight.
There are tons of options for where you want to lay your head each night, too. During our cross-country trip we stayed mostly at state and national park campgrounds. But when we wanted to live the life of luxury(!) we scoured for a great hotel deal or a cool Airbnb.
If you love a particular hotel chain though, I’d recommend joining their rewards program and booking straight through them. Most hotels allow you to earn free nights and offer special discounts to rewards program members.
A lot of hotels also offer price matching, too. So if you find a really great deal online, they might just match it for you. In addition, booking straight through your hotel provides some benefits. Often, the hotel will work with you if something goes wrong. If you book through a third party? It’s hit or miss.
If you want to get more of a local feel, Airbnb is a great option. This lets you rent out a room, apartment, or house directly from its owner. Looking for a kitchen? Airbnb is perfect. You can typically find something in a nice variety of price ranges as well.
To save money, or to just spend more time in the great outdoors, try camping. John and I love staying at state and national park campgrounds. Some require a little advanced planning because they book up early during peak season, but most have a certain number of spots for walk-ins.
Most state park campgrounds have both electric and non-electric sites as well as showers within the facilities. National park campgrounds usually don’t have electrical hookups and most don’t have showers. However, pay-to-shower facilities are always nearby. To reserve, visit recreation.gov. I prefer their app to their website, though. It’s very easy to use.
Most state parks have different ways of making reservations, so visit their websites to find out more. Keep in mind if you are planning to camp you will also need to bring all of your camping gear.
USA Travel Tips: Things to do
There are so many things to do in the United States, the tricky part is going to be narrowing down your list so you can fit everything in. Here are our best USA travel tips.
The United States has some excellent city options. Visit one of the major cities if you’re interested in sporting events or more cultural experiences. These include amazing museums, fantastic shows, a variety of nightlife options, and a huge variety of food.
Some of the best big cities to visit include: Washington, D.C., Boston, New York, Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco. For a slightly smaller city that still has a ton to offer, check out Nashville, Charleston, or Asheville.
We love visiting cities because of the diversity of activities they offer without having to travel very far. Don’t limit yourself to the big cities though, we’ve found some of our favorite things in America’s small towns.
If you’re looking for some of the best beaches, look no further than California and Florida. The California coast is known for the surf, sand, and sunshine. If you want to try your hand at surfing, explore tidal pools, or enjoy the picturesque scenery, head to California.
Florida’s gulf coast features some of my favorite beaches, with their calm turquoise water and sparkling white sand. Don’t miss the Florida Keys, either. Each Key has something special to offer. For some killer food and tons of relaxation, head to Key West. Try Key Largo for kayaking, snorkeling, history, and more.
As you move up the east coast the beaches become less serene but are still a popular option among locals and tourists alike. New England (specifically Maine) is known for its beautiful rugged beaches with rocky coastlines. While there, admire the jaw-dropping scenery and wildlife viewing. But skip the swimming. Just to be safe.
The United States’ natural wonders and diversity are nearly unrivaled. From towering mountains and expansive cave systems to lush forests and vast deserts, the US offers visitors a bounty of beauty.
The best way to explore mother nature’s wonderland is through the US state and national park systems. John and I plan most of our trips around national parks we want to visit or hikes we want to take. If you’re an avid outdoors lover, you’ll definitely want to visit some of our country’s public lands.
A few of our favorite national parks include: the Dry Tortugas, Glacier, Yellowstone, Big Bend, Redwoods, and Zion. If you’re planning on visiting more than one national park during your visit, purchasing a National Parks Pass will save you money. These passes are good for a year and cover admission into all national parks and monuments. You can purchase these passes at most park entrance stations.
We’ve also loved exploring state parks in our travels. A few of our favorite state parks include: Custer State Park in South Dakota, Madison Buffalo Jump in Montana, Julia Pfeiffer Burns in California, and Kodachrome Basin in Utah. While not as expansive as national parks, these state parks impress just the same.
USA Travel Tips: Childfree options
Looking for childfree travel options in the United States? Here are some excellent resources. To be honest, childfree dining and entertainment is not prevalent, but more and more places are starting to offer “adult nights.”
Most chain hotels within the United States do not advertise childfree/adult-friendly floors, but it appears to be a growing trend. If this is something you are very interested in it would be worth calling business-oriented chains and asking if they have such an area.
Childfree Museum Experiences
Exploratorium, San Francisco, California: offers an adult-only After Dark experience every Thursday from 6pm to 10pm
American Museum of Natural History, New York City: an upscale adult-only sleepover experience
Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Washington, D.C.: the Snore & Roar takes place Fridays and Saturdays June through September
The Bronx Zoo, New York City: offers several adult-only programs
DoSeum, San Antonio, Texas: offers adult-only nights
SHEDD Aquarium, Chicago: features numerous after-hours adult programs