If there’s one constant about the USA, it’s change. The country’s pioneer spirit is reflected in its bold outlook and ever-evolving nature, which extends to all corners of the land, from the gleaming skyscrapers of New York to star-saturated Hollywood – and even beyond, to the first human landing on the moon. Here are 18 things you need to know to explore (and survive) the USA.
18 things everyone should know before visiting the USA
1. The US is big – 3.8 million square miles big
To put it into flying-time perspective: it takes roughly the same time – give or take an hour – to fly from NYC to LA or to London. Also, two-hour daily commutes? Completely normal.
2. It’s the United States of America – remember there are fifty of them
Is it called soda, pop or soft drink? A subway sandwich, hoagie, hero or grinder? Depends on which state you’re from. Regional differences across the US extend to accents, food, drink, laws and politics. It’s little wonder one of the New York Times’ most-read features was about pronunciation.
3. Everything’s open 24/7, if you know where to look
The hungry beast of commerce ensures that you can probably find a 24/7 joint willing to satisfy your need for a 2am Slurpee, a 3am Double Quarter Pounder (see Supersize It!, below) and a 5am Venti with quintuple espresso shots and a caramel drizzle – especially in the big cities. When travelling through smaller cities and rural areas, you'll need to plan ahead for earlier closing times or keep a sharp lookout for the odd 24-hour diner.
4. The country’s national parks are spectacular
The US’s national parks – which cover 84 million acres across every state – can claim many superlatives: The lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (Death Valley California); the highest point in North America (Mount McKinley in Denali National Park, Alaska); the longest cave system in the world (Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky); and the largest gypsum sand dunes in the world (White Sands National Monument, New Mexico).
5. There’s a festival for everything: roadkill, fungus, garlic – you name it
America is the land of weird and wonderful festivals, from the Chainsaw Carving Festival (Pennsylvania) to the Testicle Festival (Montana). Plus, deep in the heartland, state fairs are their own special brand of weird, where you can sample essentially everything deep-fried: Twinkies, butter, pig ears, White Castle burgers, bubblegum, Kool Aid and beer…
6. Americans are relentlessly friendly
But that can be more a mode of communication than a personality trait. A chirpy “How are you?” isn’t necessarily meant to be answered. And, the ubiquitous “have a nice day!” is often just another way of saying bye-bye (and perhaps receiving a touch higher tip…).
7. Speaking of tips, Americans give them out generously
Officially: Tipping is absolutely voluntary. Unofficially: 15% to 20% in restaurants is the norm, given that minimum wage is low, and tipping makes up for this.
8. You can always Supersize It!
Not only does fast food still dominate large tracts of the culinary landscape, but it has given rise to such intellectually stimulating phrases as, “Supersize it!” “Where’s the beef?” and “Do you want fries with that?” When in doubt, say yes. All that said, Americans work out with equal fervor – the US consistently tops the list of countries that exercise the most.
9. But the US also excels at wildly innovative, gourmet cuisine…
San Francisco and New York regularly show up on the top lists for number of Michelin stars, and celebrity chefs rival Hollywood royalty, with big names like Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck, Anthony Bourdain and Rachael Ray spawning multimedia empires, with dozens of restaurants, books, TV shows, films and more.
10. New York is not the centre of the universe
Unless you’re talking to a New Yorker, in which case it is.
11. Los Angeles is not the centre of the universe
Unless you’re talking to an Angeleno, in which case it is.
12. Regional stereotypes abound
The laidback Californian? The “welcome, y’all” Southerner? The headstrong New Yorker? According to a study reported by magazine, yes, yes and yes. The study divided the US into three key regions: the New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, which were termed “temperamental and uninhibited;” the South and Midwest, called “friendly and conventional;” and the West Coast, Rocky Mountains and Sun Belt – “relaxed and creative.”
13. Montana has three times as many cows as it does people
The east and west coasts get much of the attention, but the US’s rolling interior encompasses ocean-sized expanses of farmland. In some circles, it’s called “flyover country” for the reasons you’d think.
14. The US doesn’t use the brilliantly logical metric system like the rest of the world
Height is measured in feet; football fields in yards; distances in miles. Though the “use of the metric system has been sanctioned by law in the US since 1866” according to the CIA website, widespread use has been slow, to say the least. The US isn’t entirely alone: two other countries also don’t use the metric system – Myanmar and Liberia.
15. America’s car culture is unrivalled
A quintessential American experience? , the wind in your air and the road ribboning behind you. Though the country’s car culture has waned since its heyday in the ‘50s and Mustang-era ‘60s, the car is still the dominant force in transport – and seeps into every facet of culture, including music: Life is a Highway, Route 66, Born to be Wild, Pink Cadillac, and so on.
16. Baseball is America’s pastime
The rest of the world has soccer. America has baseball. During baseball season – April to September – there are few more classic American experiences than cheering on your favorite team (go, Yankees!) under the warm spring sunshine, enjoying a hot dog and beer (or five).
17. Relatively speaking, the US is just a toddler
Native Americans arrived more than a thousand years ago, but the formation of the United States is just a couple of hundred of years old – the US celebrated 239 years on July 4, 2015.
18. The American Dream is still going strong
No, the streets aren’t paved with the gold but the belief in the American Dream? Still going strong (especially if your last name is Rockefeller).
Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners