Australia & Melanesia | New Zealand & Polynesia | Central America | Caribbean | South America | North America | Southern Asia | Northern Asia | South East Asia | Indochina | North Africa | East Africa | Southern Africa | West Africa | The CIS | Middle/Near East | France/Swiss/UK | Guides & Other Books
Mexico is shown here, but is often classed by travellers as part of Central America. Both the United States summary (which was authored by Peter John), Canada (which was authored by Zamil Ansu) and the Mexico write up cover huge areas and for this reason the USA summary has been split up into various regions.
Mexico and certainly the USA and Canada need a little more money to travel in that other options, but are fantastic destinations, highly varied and very rewarding. Too many closed-minded independent travellers object to American foreign policy or American mass culture, and don't bother with the US. Their loss.
It is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based on - or for other travel advice and site home head for travelindependent.info
Get your bearings... show/hide map of the region
Intro: Canada might be stereotyped as the land of beer-drinking hockey players who pass the time producing maple syrup or partaking of lumberjack activities. Some will probably think of it as adrift politically and culturally to the USA and as a second thought to its much publicised, big-city, neighbour to the South. While some of the stereotypes are true, there is much more to Canada.
The Great White North is an outdoors paradise both in the winter and the summer and rivals the likes of New Zealand, South Africa and Brazil for spectacular natural beauty. It is a popular skiing and winter sports destination with loads of possibilities and winter festivals. In the summer, there are endless hiking, mountain biking, rafting, canoeing, and camping sites. With a rich history and multi-ethnic population, any traveller will feel right at home when travelling within the country.
Canada can be considered liberal, tolerant and, without doubt, very tourist-friendly. Several aspects of Canada will appeal to the independent traveller. From coast to coast, there is an extensive range of hostels and budget accommodation. There are also campsites all around that are popular among Canadians and tourists. It is also safe, especially in comparison to the US and affordable compared to parts of Western Europe/USA. Canada is sparsely populated outside the big cities and getting off the beaten track is not difficult at all.
Nevertheless, don't get too enthusiastic and think you can tour tour the entire length of the country at one go (unless you have about 6-8 weeks & healthy budget). Whether you visit during the summer or winter, it is guaranteed your long flight will be worth it as you meet fun Canadians who will be proud to show you what the country has to offer.
Vancouver Island, Whistler, Canadian Rockies (Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper), Okanagan Valley, West Edmonton Mall, Churchill (polar bear capital of the world), Quebec's Old City, Rideau Canal, Cape Breton Island (& other coastal areas in the Atlantic), whale watching, outdoor activities. Extensive hosteling network, transportation (hop-on/off buses in most provinces).
More adventurous travellers should head north to watch the finest Aurora Borealis or to Athabasca for sand duning (yes there is a desert in Canada). Once the snow clears, patios come alive during the day and Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver offer some of the best nightlife.
It gets VERY cold during winters. Unless you are American, getting in is expensive and getting around is long and strenuous. While Canada is certainly rich in culture, Native history is showcased only in limited areas.
Note: Many thanks to Zamil Ansu for supplying this summary on Canada of a period of travel. The information here is from this author and not the site author. The views and facts expressed here are well researched and good quality, but just bear in mind they should perhaps not be compared directly to other country summaries by other authors.
Visa strategy: Commonwealth nationals, US, Cubans, EU nationals among others who can enter without visa. None of the current and planned USA visa hassle.
Health: Use common sense when out in the wild. Make sure you have travel insurance. The Canadian healthcare system is designed for Canadians only, so if you (a tourist) end up with a broken leg or a skiing accident, you must deposit around CN$500 to receive any sort of medical attention.
Typical tourist trail: No specific trail to follow, but there are two distinct regions. East: Halifax - Cape Breton Island- Quebec City/ Montreal- Kingston, Ottawa- Toronto & West: Vancouver- Vancouver Island, Whistler- Okanagan Valley, Kooteneys- Banff/Jasper- Calgary/Edmonton
Getting around: Very similar to New Zealand/Australia with many backpacker buses and cheap train tickets for students. While the tourist buses are great value, they can (as is the case with networks all over the world), be full of snobby, pretentious "backpackers”, which is a shame as moosenetwork (www.moosenetwork.ca) and saltybear (www.saltybear.ca) tours are very insightful and creative. Rent a car and share fuel costs, etc. to design your own fun. Hitchhiking to ski/hiking resorts is very common (just be sensible). Greyhound offers bus and VIA Rail offers rail travel. Travel times are long so be prepared. Air Canada Jazz and West Jet are best bets for getting around by air.
Guidebooks: Many, check out hostel lobbies (even if you don't intend on staying at one). Lonely Planet useful, but don't expect to find something that isn't there at your hostel lobby.
Costs & Money: Hostels range from US$18 for dorm rooms to US$45+ for privates. Entry to campsites around US$10-15 (US$20-30 in national parks + entry fee). Food is no different from other western countries. Overall, value for money is fair. E.g. Montreal is far cheaper than Paris, so is Vancouver to L.A, and Banff in comparison to Aspen or Vail.
Money: ATMs, Credit and Debit cards.
Weather & Dangers: Very cold in the winters, but can be tolerable with the right gear. It only gets extreme in the far north - still Calgary or Saskatoon are pretty nippy in February. Rains frequently in western Canada. Few dangers, just use common sense when in the wild or out in the mountains.
Working: Common, many working holidays on offer, look for packages like "Ski n’ stay”. Commonwealth members can get insurance, work permits, accommodation very easily. Not uncommon to find travellers from Oz or UK who work from winter-spring and spend the earnings during the summer.
Communication: Pay phones and internet easily accessible.
Comment: At first I really enjoyed this site. It's easy to read really engaging when looking for travel info. But as a Canadian traveller I was really disappointed to see Canada being omitted almost entirely from this site or being grouped with the US. Its a really great site for information on countries, places to see and travel advice. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to see that Canada was not included nor was it even mentioned as a place to visit. I understand that Canada as a country may not be as old or have many ancient sights to visit or seem uninteresting compared to a lot of others places around the world. - Okay we added Canada now!
Tourist factor: 7/10, 8/10 in major cities. Many, many backpackers (book hostels, etc. weeks ahead). Expect many Japanese, Australasian, Scandinavian, British tourists. American students take advantage of the lower drinking age, particularly in Quebec. The downside is that you are bound to run into a drunk or stoned American who will treat the place like his own back-yard (sad but true)
Accommodation: something for everyone. From Hosteling Internationals to high end hotels, cheap campsites and backpacker lodges. Prices from US$18-20 (dorms) to US$45 for singles.
Average cost: Staying at a campsite, cooking own food and getting around on foot/hitchhiking will cost you less than US$40/day. Stay at a hostel, cook in the kitchen and get around on a backpacker bus for US$40-60/day. Long term discounts are of course available.
Food: nothing out of the ordinary, unless you end up going to Yukon or Nunavut and indulging in Arctic cuisine, vegetarians: no problems. Plentiful supermarkets, fast food joints and possibilities to cook your own.
Local poisons for the body: Legendary beer, drinking laws vary from province to province, but usually cost is cheap. Cigarettes are heavily taxed and smoking is banned in public gatherings, nightclubs (again differs in provinces). Pot is widely available and Vancouver's ‘pot block’ is a must see. It is still illegal though, but as long as you don't act like an ass, the cops probably won't care. "Pot Cafes” can be found in Toronto and Vancouver. Just remember this isn't Amsterdam so it's not offered on the menu.
Intro: Viva México! It's huge and has tons to offer! Right across the spectrum, from the nadir of Cancún to the zeniths of Palenque, Oaxaca (Wa-ha-ka) and Porto Escondido to mention a few. México's size has two major effects on travellers. One good, one not so. Firstly [the good] the sheer size of the country and its variety means that with some effort you can find many gems and have them completely to yourself, in addition to the fact that there are many great things to see and do without even venturing off the beaten track.
The downside from the country's size (and terrain which is far from flat) is the necessity to spend many hours on buses of which the cost of can seriously mount up - even more so if you take advantage of the better services. For example the six hour journey from México City (N.B. referred to as México City here, but really just México or México DF) to Oaxaca on a premier bus will blow the daily budget of any budget traveller and then some.
It is common to hear backpackers throughout the Americas moan at just how expensive México is and wonder how locals can afford to live. It is not that México is expensive, I mean far from it when compared to the super power to the north, but in relation to the rest of Central America it is more pricey in the same way as Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina used to be to South America, and just like these countries it is transport and tourist hot spots that get you. Let's take the Yucatan for example: Cancún is nearer to Miami than México City and has many daily direct charter flights from Europe.
Such an influx of tourists, many who have considerable (by Mexican and backpacker standards), money to spread about is bound to push prices up. In addition the rapid development in México fuelled by the NAFTA agreement has brought in standards of services (such as buses of which many are excellent) that you just don't find in most other Latin American countries. With increased quality comes increased prices.
Let's go back to that seemingly expensive bus journey from México City to Oaxaca. The bus will have AC, movies and the road is excellent. Much cheaper alternatives exist, of course you don't get AC and a movie, but you don't even get the same road since the good one is a toll road that the cost of using is the main contributor to the cost of your ticket. So take the cheaper bus if you want it to take twice as long. Let's be fair: in the big scale of things the extra money is probably worth it. The analogy works with most things such as seemingly expensive food and accommodation.
Enjoy México for the right reasons (take touristy attractions especially the Yucatan, like the tequila - with a pinch of salt), learn some Spanish, get off the beaten track and enjoy for along with Guatemala it is a real highlight of this region and one of the world's most underrated countries.
A traditional route from the Capital
South towards Central America will take in the following
highlights: México City (inc. surrounding areas such as
Teotihuacán), Palenque, Oaxaca
and Porto Escondido - but that's only the tip of the ice-berg.
As a general rule of thumb, the main tourist focus of the country
is the Yucatán (where there's plenty to explore) and with direct
flights from Europe and North America this is an obvious entry
point for package tourists seeking sun/sea and backpackers
heading for central America.
Those who enter the country at Mexico DF the greatest temptation is to head South towards the well-known aforementioned highlights and to Central America. Distances and/or limited time often put those heading this way off routes to the North and West of the capital. Discount or write off these routes at your expensive... among the less crowded highlights are: Guanajuato, a phenomenal colonial city, more Spain than Spain, great tunnels, architecture, mazes of alleys, college culture and street actors; Zacatecas, the beauty of this city at sunset can't easily be described, the food and museums are cheap and world class. The architecture is a great mix of Mexican and Moorish. Accommodation is great and seemingly hardly anyone on the circuit in Mexico gets here.
San Miguel de Allende, despite the hype that it's full of Americans, it rarely is. A great cathedral, wonderful cheap authentic food, perhaps the best nature preserve in all Mexico (the botanical gardens - over hundreds of acres - above town), one of the best hostel owners/hostel in Mexico, mellow street life, calm mornings, great art scene and Spanish schools await those who visit. Morelia, a colonial gem with amazing local artisans and street life, cathedrals are world class, food (try the sopa tarasca) is to die of.
Another gem, abet albeit more well-known, is Real de Catorce, a little tiny town in the mountains of North Mexico. Very popular with the backpacker crowd due to its otherworldly landscape (The Mexican with Brad Pitt was filmed here) and Peyote usage by local Indians (and of course travellers), this little town has horseback riding (3$ US an hour) into the local mountains and deserts, a hippie market, and the place looks like a Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood film. The journey itself is a highlight, with a bus along on the world's longest cobblestone road, into a one way tunnel through a mountain.
Diving - On a world scale, there is some truly superb diving in Mexico. You can dive the cenotes in the Yucatan through caverns with stalagmites, stalactites and haloclines - it really is an incredible experience and pretty unique. There is also excellent reef diving on Cozumel, in Baja California, and you can snorkel with whale sharks in Holbox and Isla Mujeres.
Many thanks to Eric Beecroft and Jason for sharing their expert knowledge here.
Lowlights: If you are 21 or under have limited taste, you will love Cancún. For most it's one of
those loathsome places with only novelty value and nothing
(unless you have a big budget to keep you there). Playa de
Carmen and Cozumel Island are not far behind. The rate of change
in these places on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan is
unbelievable. See them to believe them. Large parts of the
Yucatan are not so bad as to be avoided.
Another common complaint along with the crowds and modernisation in tourist hot-spots is the simple fact that México is not a shoestring budget country when compared to Central America and long distances on buses kill a budget. On a more critical side not everyone is smitten by the highly and definitely over rated San Cristóbal de las Casas, where due to the history of uprisings and the military presence in the area many of the 'cooler' travellers head to hang out and do little. San Cristóbal de las Casas is to backpackers what Cancún is to package tourists - a Mecca in México. For that reason if you don't have time to 'hang-out' or wind your way there on the bus you could happily give it a miss and spend your time elsewhere such as some of the great places listed above in the highlight section.
Last, but not least, the border towns of Tijuana and Cuidad Juarez (across from El Paso, Texas) are definite lowlights where trouble is extremely easy to find.
Visa strategy: Tourist cards are issued free for 90 days at entry points for most nationalities.
Typical tourist trail: The majority of tourists disregard the north of the country (above México City) which is mainly dry and harsh and not particularly rich in highlights. Unless they are making trips from America into the spectacular scenery of Baja California or to the Copper Canyon (which are both highlights). The vast majority of tourists fly into the Yucatan and spend their time there. Those with a bit more time may start in México City which is brimming with things to see and do. From there a typical path may head either directly to Oaxaca or to the coast at Acapulco (or further north) and then down along the coast to Porto Escondido and then up to Oaxaca. From Oaxaca the trail heads to Palenque, either via Villahermosa or Cristóbal de las Casas. For here on either Guatemala or the many amazing temple sites of the Yucatan will call you.
Costs: Costs vary hugely for México depending on where you are and what you are doing. On the two ends of scale let's use Cristóbal de las Casas and Cancún for example, the latter and around US$35 won't get you too far especially if you want a drink or two. In the former lazing around in a hammock you would be hard pressed to spend half the Yucatan amount living pretty well. There is a definite tourist economy, with high prices and, sometimes, unhelpful service. To avoid this as much as possible and find places used by locals a good understanding of Spanish really makes a difference. Another certain key to budget travel in Mexico is planning a good circular route so as to backtrack as little as possible and keep those fund killing bus trips to a minimum. To the woe of Mexico and the new political direction north of the border the Mexican peso has taken a real beating and represents excellent value now.
Money: ATMs are plentiful throughout much of the country a. Any funds you take with you should be in USD. Credit cards can be used in some circumstances and are worth having.
Getting around: México has a highly developed bus system with many different options and of course considering its size a large network of internal flights. Taking into consideration how developed the bus system is most will favour this rather than taking internal flights. For flying the most popular and recommended option is México City to Cancún or vice versa as this is a hell of a long way to backtrack if you have a flight out of say Cancún.
With regards to buses the subject could fill a web site alone. The system is both complicated and confusing and trying to understand it is impossible. Luckily you don't have to and in reality most Mexicans don't. At the end of the day anywhere you want to go there will be a bus going, you just have to find the station it goes from. Most cities have numerous stations (México DF has four). These may be split further by one for first class, one for second and so on. Just take it easy it is not too hard to get anywhere and buses are generally organised, clean and prompt - but no bargain.
There now exist three superior classes of bus plus second class buses. These are usually called Primera Plus, Futura and Ejecutiva. All these first class buses (not always all available), are excellent, but have prices about 40% higher than regular services making them really quite expensive for long journeys where you can do with the extra comfort. For most regular first class is the way to go, you still get AC, TV and a WC (for what they are worth).
Be aware that AC buses can get quite cool in the day and very cold at night. Have a sweater handy. Cheaper buses without AC and all the windows open are pleasant for shorter journeys. Films shown on buses are 50% of the time in English with Spanish sub-titles. When travelling over-night, front seats will keep you away from smelly toilets. On popular routes, booking in advance is often necessary and at busy times of the year (Christmas, August) very necessary, particularly in the Yucatan or in and out of México City. Due to the size of México it is more than likely you will have to do at least a few overnight trips.
Second class buses normally operate from a different terminal from 1st class buses and look a lot more antiquated. They call at towns and villages and use side roads that 1st class buses would never touch. For longer journeys 1st class buses are better, but on a second class bus with the windows wide open, music playing, local colour you have a great Mexican experience.
More info can be found in any guidebook and most major companies such as ADO (www.adogl.com.mx) have websites for more info, timetables and prices.
book: The 9th or 10th edition Rough Guide is an excellent guide and our
recommendation for a 'Mexico only' guide (Buy/view:
in the USA (amazon.com),
in Canada (amazon.ca) or
in the UK (amazon.co.uk)), but so are the Lonely Planet and
Footprint. The Footprint does however cover Central America which
may be of use to you and is therefore recommended.
Also highly recommended is the The People's Guide to Mexico the classic guide to "living, travelling, and taking things as they come" in Mexico. - Thanks to Cia Parker
Locals: The friendliness of locals does vary dramatically especially in an out of tourist hot spots. There is a definite anti-gringo attitude around Cristóbal de las Casas and in other areas. However, on the whole if you speak Spanish Mexicans are wonderful people.
Other travellers: Various. Mainly European backpackers apart from on the Yucatan where the large numbers of tourists are mainly North American.
Tourist factor: From 10/10 to 5/10. As with many countries, many spots get very crowded during the European/North American summer holidays and there is a signification increase in tourists/travellers.
Accommodation: There is a wide range of accommodation in most places from very cheap dives to more expensive very nice rooms.
Hot water: In hotter areas and at the cheaper end, hot water may not always be available.
Average cost: From US$7 to US$30 (normally about in the middle). Found many cheap places that were very dirty and noisy so took a more expensive option. Prices are higher on the Yucatan and lower in backpacker hubs.
Communications: Internet plentiful and good value.
Books: American newspapers and magazines on the Yucatan. Elsewhere books and newspapers/magazines are in Spanish.
TV: Due to its proximity to America, cable TV is wide-spread and always available in better hotels and in bars in tourist hot spots on the Yucatan, where sporting events are often shown. Cinemas in major cities are good quality.
Food: México is all about food. Outside of Asia, it has the best street food in the world. Don't be afraid just dive in. Smarter restaurants aimed at tourists can be quite expensive by comparison. The best value is always small family run places. The meal of the day or set menu (comida corrida - make sure they give you the menu with this on) as in the rest of Latin America is always the easiest and cheapest way to eat. There are many fast food restaurants, both Mexican and American and numerous supermarkets (with excellent bakeries) so eating cheaply on the move is easy.
Vegetarians: Fine, although eating on street stalls and taking advantage of the cheap set meals of the day will be complicated and often not possible especially if you don't eat chicken.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Limited, this is not Asia.
Women alone: Fine on the whole. Care is required same as everywhere.
Local poisons for the body: Fantastic Tequila and Mezcal bars, especially in Oaxaca. Great beer everywhere, but open-air drinking places are not very common. Pot is widely available in many places in particular along the pacific coast and any backpacker 'hubs'.
Introduction: the information which applies across the United States, such as visas;
The North-East: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Washington D.C.;
The South: Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas;
The Mid-West and the Great Plains: Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma
The West: Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, California;
Intro: The world's dominant economy, military power and origin of so much mass culture. Its third most populous country, and fourth biggest in area. Many of the world's most exciting cities, and a good chunk of its best scenery. The people are also remarkably diverse, from the Cajuns of Louisiana to the cowboys of Montana to Little Italy in New York to the Melungeons of West Virginia or the indigenous Hawaiians. Although Americans reading this might find it strange to hear, America (as a whole, explored in some depth) is every bit as strange and culturally bizarre/perverse to other nationalities as somewhere in Asia might be for an American. Everyone has an opinion on America and Americans. Too many closed-minded independent travellers object to American foreign policy or American mass culture, and don't bother with it. Their loss.
Visa strategy: 3 months, available on arrival for Europeans, Australians, South Koreans and New Zealanders under the "visa waiver program” (VWP) scheme. Eligible nationals of countries on the "visa waiver” list get the 90 day visa on arrival, but must possess an e-passport and an approved authorisation through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). The ESTA is a free (with a $14 admin fee, which of course is bullshit), automated system used to determine the eligibility of visitors United States under the VWP. It collects the same information as the paper I-94W form that VWP travellers currently fill out en route to the United States. ESTA applications may be completed online at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/ and submitted at any time prior to travel. They are valid for up to two years and for multiple entries. Extensions available. Working in the US is very difficult for non-Americans without special skills. The 'Immigration and Naturalisation Service' (now merged with the Department of Homeland Security) is inflexible and rules-bound.
Citizens whose countries are involved with the US in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) will need a machine-readable passport and depending on where and when the passport was issued you might need one with a chip in (biometric passport) or US visa to enter the country. Further details and information on the changes to the visa system can be found at the US government visa website. Fingerprinting is now in effect at most airports.
Dangers: Tiny chance of violent crime – the usual, common sense precautions apply.
Costs: Expensive, especially for single travellers. With car hire and motels, difficult to get by on less than 100 USD/day, though sharing reduces these substantially. Many motels will take 3-4 in a room for the same price of 1/2 pushing costs down to very cheap on a per person basis. New York and San Francisco as expensive as they come. Of course a visit based in one city staying in a hostel will run to about 50 USD/day. It's motels and car hire (if not split) that really eat the money. It is America's big cities that are arguably the most interesting and where accommodation costs are by far the highest. With a car, staying in a motel outside a city, costs can be very much reduced, only having a car in cities is a nightmare and it can be expensive to park. Equally having a car (if shared) is one of the more cost effective ways to cover longer distances.
Money: Many banks off the tourist trail refuse to take travellers cheques (too many fakes). America is covered in ATMs, which usually take all cards, generally with a 1-2 USD fee (rising to 5 USD in clubs).
Tourist factor: 7/10 on the beaches, 8/10 in major highlights and 4/10 elsewhere. Getting off the beaten track in America is fairly easy from an international traveller's point of view, but American domestic tourists can be found in large volumes almost everywhere.
Getting Around: It's not cheap or really easy to get around the whole country and the cost of doing so is significant for a budget traveller. Greyhound and similar buses services are the staple for many travellers. Trains are useful for some routes, but almost always more expensive than the bus alternative. Quite simply the best way of seeing most of America is with a car, either hired or bought. Costs aren't too bad if sharing and the freedom you get can't be beat. Many rental companies have excellent deals for one week+ rentals, but quotes that can be as attractive as US$100-150 per week will include no insurance which will at least double if not triple (for full coverage) the cost. If driving long distances and transiting cities a GPS is a very worthwhile investment (or rental).
Accommodation: Extremely high standards and high prices, even in hostels. Motels are everywhere, but are not really a budget option (35-75 USD/night for a single room, 10-20 USD more for a double, plus local taxes, except in big cities, where you can easily pay 100 USD/night for the cheapest room). Always heating and hugely powerful air-conditioning if appropriate. Hostels mostly in big cities or camping areas, usually 20-30 USD/night, and sometimes attract local beggars and winos.
Hot water: Always.
Average cost: Hostels at least 20 USD/night. Roadside motels cost at least 35 USD/night+tax for a single room, considerably more near big cities.
Communications: Wi-Fi access for free in most motels and many other public places (including most coffee shops, at least in the West and NE) if you take a laptop or smart phone.
Health: The only exceptional danger is the huge cost of American health care. In one LA hospital, it cost 235USD just to walk in the door, and would have cost me much more had I seen anyone or had anything done. Get the best insurance you can afford.
TV: everywhere. Most motels have 50-100 channels, some many more. Much of it is formulaic and terrible, but there are good documentaries and innovative programming on HBO or other similar channels. Plenty of places to see a movie.
Reading: There are dozens of excellent reads based around travel in the USA, but probably the best place to start is The Lost Continent, by Bill Bryson (if you like his quirky humour), or the book that inspired a generation to travel the country - On the Road by Jack Kerouac. (more details: USA, Canada or UK). Also recommended are: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson; The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
Food: the whole gamut in New York or LA (Japanese-Ecuadorean or New Age Ethiopian are some of the more unusual). In small towns, you may be stuck with roadside diners and lousy fast food, most of it deep-fried (especially in the South). Portions are famously gigantic. Don't forget that restaurant prices can seem low compared to Europe, but you have to add 15-20% tip (unless the service has been disastrous) and local sales tax onto the bill. Also, juice bars for smoothies and coffee shops are everywhere. It is worth noting for budget travellers that water is free in all restaurants and fast-food places, and soft drinks are often free in bars, if bought with alcohol (as the bars will assume that you are a designated driver).
Vegetarians: No problems, except maybe in rural diners, but even there you can usually find something vegetarian, finding healthy food is normally more challenging.
Hassle and annoyance factor: No real hassle. Annoyances include the (on the whole) strictly-enforced minimum age of 21 for alcohol.
Women alone: as usual, avoid walking in big cities after dark.
Local poisons for the body: cigarettes and alcohol widely available. The minimum age for buying cigarettes is 18 to 19 (depending on the state), and for alcohol always 21, and these are strictly enforced (with only a very few exceptions). Marijuana is widely available, especially in student towns and big cities, and sort-of legal in some states, such as Colorado. The penalties vary by state, and there are some savage laws – being caught with drugs near a school is very bad news indeed. If you are caught with any drugs, you can be deported and will never be readmitted.
Note: Many thanks to Peter John for supplying this summary on mainland states and Michael Cain for information on Hawaii. The information here is from this author and not the site author. The views and facts expressed here are well researched and good quality, but just bear in mind they should perhaps not be compared directly to other country summaries by other authors.
Intro: the cradle of Yankee civilisation, the most densely populated part of the country, with some of its greatest cities, and most beautiful countryside.
Nightlife and restaurants in New York City , the Staten Island ferry in New York, museums in Washington D.C., New England clam chowder, fall colours in New England, Philadelphia and train travel.
Industrial and suburban sprawl throughout, and disgraceful inner city poverty.
Typical tourist trail: Boston to Washington D.C., through Philadelphia and New York. Maybe taking in the fall colours of New England, the colonial villages of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania and Cape Cod.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Long punishing winters the further north you go, and hot and humid summers the further south. But even New York can be unbearably hot and sweaty in August, and Washington D.C. often gets very cold in winter. Spring and fall are pleasant throughout.
Getting around: the best part of America for public transportation. Trains go most places in the cities, and buses (including the nationwide Greyhound network) everywhere else. Distances are relatively small, so there's no need to fly. You CAN rent a car, but parking in New York or Boston is an expensive nightmare, and the traffic is appalling.
Intro: the South is the region that lost the Civil War, and still remembers it. Former slave states, with the racial divide often all too evident.
But the region has more than its share of places of historical interest, and "southern hospitality” is by no means a myth. The poor communications have meant that isolated peoples such as the Cajuns in Louisiana have survived for much longer in the South than elsewhere in the US, though a car is necessary to find them. Texas and Louisiana are very distinct in their own ways.
Beaches of South Carolina, Florida and the Gulf Coast; the Alamo; Austin, Texas; the French Quarter of New Orleans and Cajun country.
Mosquitoes, deep fried diner food, Dallas and Houston.
Typical tourist trail: Florida, along the Gulf Coast to New Orleans or up to South Carolina, the Civil War battlefields and Washington D.C.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: hot and humid summers, usually mild and pleasant winters. Coastal areas often get hurricanes in the summer, and sudden downpours can occur at any time of year.
Getting around: "Public transportation? What's that?” A car is all but essential – relying on buses is very time consuming and frustrating. Cities like Atlanta or Houston sprawl for hundreds of square miles, but have virtually no buses. Greyhound has its usual skeletal inter-city network. Car rental places are everywhere, and gas is much cheaper than elsewhere in the US. Flying as always saves time, and Southwest and other low-cost airlines make it very affordable.
Intro: Known as the nation's "breadbasket", the Midwest is primarily flat and used for farming. Midwesterners are open, friendly, and straightforward. Home of Mark Twain and the Mississippi River. The heartland, the breadbasket... whatever you call it, this is often considered "real" America. The people are generally open and hospitable but, in small towns, can be narrow minded and are famously poorly dressed. Culturally the least diverse area of the US, there are lots of Scandinavian and Germanic roots to be found here.
Chicago has Lake Michigan and an assortment of entertainment palaces including The House of Blues. Minneapolis for the strong arts scene or the Mall of America if you like kitsch and all the outdoor sports you could ever want. Kansas City has awesome barbeque while St. Louis' Gateway Arch is the sight to see. Des Moines has the Bridges of Madison County and a huge new Science Center and IMAX.
Cleveland has Lake Erie if you're hopping the Great Lakes. Duluth and the north shore of Lake Superior, Wisconsin beer tours, the Michigan Upper Peninsula, the sand dunes in western Michigan and the Badlands, driving along the Mississippi during fall colours, canoeing in the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. Basically anywhere that is near the Great Lakes. Music fans can track down the Buddy Holly crash site (it's a field) and Mount Rushmore stands as one of the most impressive sights in the country.
If you're not near a city it's probably a lowlight. The long, soul-crushingly boring drives through the plains. Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota (except Mt. Rushmore/Badlands), North Dakota, Iowa, western Minnesota and southern Illinois are incredibly flat and empty. Food choices outside of the cities are poor, repetitive and not very vegetarian friendly. Winter is brutally cold in the more northern states. There are some BIG empty open spaces and some real oddities such as Branson, but this is real America?
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Winters can be brutal in the northern states, lasting from November-March and sometimes going a month at a time before the temperature gets above freezing. Spring (late March-May) is rainy with pleasant temperatures, Fall (Sept-October/November) is cool, crisp and clear. Summers (June-August) are warm and humid, but generally pleasant.
When to go: Avoid winter (Nov/Dec-Feb/March) and late July / early August (hot and humid) if you can. May, June and September have the nicest weather.
Getting around: a car is virtually essential to explore outside Chicago, and the distances are so small that flying is not recommended. Greyhound buses go between cities, but are slow. Car rentals are everywhere, and often cheaper if booked in advance from abroad. Mass transit and cabs are available in cities.
Rating: 5.5/10, much higher in/for Chicago and Minneapolis
Intro: mostly deserts and mountains and the size of western Europe. Still surprisingly empty off the Pacific coast. California alone has enough to occupy the (well-off) traveller for years: beaches, cities, forests and mountains. The desert scenery in Utah and Arizona is stunning. San Francisco is the most beautiful, liberal and cosmopolitan city in America, and Seattle and Los Angeles are definitely worth seeing.
The coastal drive in California, San Francisco, Seattle, the national parks of southern Utah, the Grand Canyon , Las Vegas, camping in the Redwoods in northern California.
Reno, Salt Lake City, the California's Central Valley and inland Washington and Oregon.
Typical tourist trail: LA to San Francisco up the coast of California, then inland to Vegas or Reno, and maybe taking in the national parks of Utah. Also, skiing in Colorado.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: hot, dry summers throughout (except coastal Washington and Oregon). Winters are punishing in Montana, but warm in Arizona or New Mexico. San Francisco has its own micro-climate where you can get four seasons in one day. Southern California is famously pleasant year-round.
Getting around: a car is virtually essential to explore outside San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle, and the distances are so huge that flights on low-cost airlines such as Southwest are well worth considering. Greyhound buses go between cities, but are slow. The Green Tortoise goes up the coast from LA to Seattle, and is quite cheap, but isn't nearly as frequent. Car rentals are everywhere, and often cheaper if booked in advance from abroad. LA is building a mass transit, but it is designed around commuters. Southwest's Internet specials mean that you can fly around the West for 30-70 USD.
Local poisons for the body: Visitors to Colorado and Washington are able to purchase one quarter of an ounce of marijuana for private consumption. Public consumption is banned and this [legalisation] is still something in its infancy to be treated with respect. This is not Amsterdam. Well done Colorado for its forward thinking in this respect.
Intro: mountains, fjords and glaciers and roughly twelve times the size of England, but with the population of one London suburb, of whom half (250,000) live in Anchorage. Some of the world's most dramatic mountain scenery and exotic wildlife – in fact, the grandeur of the scenery can get overwhelming at times. Great, though expensive, winter sports facilities. Alaska is, however, an extremely expensive destination to explore properly, and prices rise in high season.
The wildlife, Denali (Mount McKinley), the Alaska Marine Highway, the Northern Lights.
The expense, the huge distances, Whittier.
Typical tourist trail: ferry up the coast from Bellingham, Washington or Vancouver to Anchorage or Seward, a cruise or three through the glaciers along the coast from Seward or Whittier, and then inland to Denali National Park with the tallest mountain in North America.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: four months a year of summer (June-Sept) when it can get up to 80F in Fairbanks in the interior and mosquitoes are the main problem, brief springs and autumns, then a long, cold winter. The interior and the far north are much colder in the winter. Needless to say, prices rise considerably during the tourist season.
Getting around: for once in America, having a car isn't everything, as roads are generally limited and in poor condition. In fact, you can't even get to the state capital, Juneau, by road. To explore the interior, be prepared to rent a plane and pilot from Anchorage or Fairbanks, though this is very expensive (200-250 USD/day). There is a railroad which goes from Seward, through Anchorage to Fairbanks, though it is so expensive that you are likely to be better off renting a car.
Along the coast, there are plenty of ferries, including the state-run Alaska Marine Highway, up from Seattle through the islands and fjords to Anchorage and beyond. For non-Americans, Alaska Airlines does an airpass which will get you to the state and fly you around at discounted rates.
O'ahu: Learn to surf (summer in the south shore) or watch the pros surf the big waves (60 ft faces some days in winter in the north shore). Great Asian and Fusion cuisine. Visiting the Arizona Memorial is surprisingly powerful and moving, and should not be missed. Good public transportation. Amazing hiking trails are a quick bus ride away. Ocean Kayaking to the Moku Lua islets is a great afternoon.
Maui: Makena's Little Beach is unofficially nude, and has great body surfing and a surreal Sunday sunset drumming circle / fire dance / party. Hiking in Haleakalā is otherworldly.
Hawai'i: Best bet for backpackers. Excellent opportunities for hiking, biking, and adventure. Stunning beauty and diversity – desert, alpine landscapes, Ōhi'ā and koa forests, waterfalls in the jungle, etc. Hilo is still very local and mostly un-touristed thanks to all the rain. Hilo and Pahoa have the only budget accommodations outside O`ahu. Hilo's Saturday market is a major event. Must sees include Waipi’o Valley, the old plantation towns on the Hāmākua Coast, the wild jungles of Puna, and – of course – Kīlauea, the world's most active volcano.
Kaua'i: Kaua'i offers a lot for the outdoors-person. The Nā Pali trail is a rugged, two-day trek to the isolated Kalalau Valley. Waimea Canyon has numerous hiking opportunities. Polihale is a huge, isolated windswept beach on the west side. Has a small handful of budget options in Kapa'a and Hanalei.
Moloka'i: The most Hawaiian of the islands. Few accommodations, but camping is easy. Visiting the leper colony at Kalaupapa is a haunting and unforgettable experience. There are still a few residents – it will become a National Park when the last ones pass away. Should not be missed.
Oahu: Any tourist bus! Polynesian Culture Centre is expensive and more like a Disney-version of the islands. Luaus are expensive and not authentic – go only for the kitsch value. Food in Waikīkī is expensive and not good. Waikīkī nightlife can be trashy [but maybe that's a highlight!].
Maui: There is no escape from the tourists. They are everywhere. Mega-resorts occupy the best beaches. Fewer locals than on other islands, and Maui can feel more like Marin County than Hawai'i. Few budget options. No public transport, although hitching is a bit easier than on other islands.
Hawai'i: No public transport, and hitching can be difficult. A car is a necessity. Kona side is over-developed and dominated by Californians. Kihei is run down.
Kaua'i: No public transport, and hitching can be difficult. Hard to escape the tourists.
Moloka'i: Not really designed for tourists.
Dangers: Break-ins occur at isolated beaches and trailheads – don't leave valuables in your car. Violent crime is rare, and there are fewer guns around than in the rest of the US. Smile and live aloha and you’ll be fine. Walk around with an attitude and people will take offense.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Winters are slightly cooler and wetter, but the islands all have their own micro-climates. Locals think that 70 degrees F is cold and will wear coats. Windward sides tend to be wet, leeward sides hot and dry. If the trade-winds die down this reverses itself. Hottest time is generally August-November. Surf season: the south swell comes between Mother's Day and Halloween, and is the best for long borders, beginners, and recreational surfers. The huge winter waves can come anytime between Thanksgiving and the beginning of March. Pro contests are clustered around the holidays.
Costs: As you might expect, the islands are expensive compared to the mainland USA.
Money: ATM's are plentiful. Banks can exchange Yen and Euros, but few other currencies.
Getting around: Bus on O'ahu, rental cars on all other islands. Hitching is an option on Maui.
Locals: Show aloha, you’ll get aloha back. Smile, say hi to everyone, make small talk... you’ll be fine. Throw around attitude, you might get beat up.
O'ahu / Waikīkī – everyone under the sun!
O'ahu / North Shore – surfers, Brazilians, celebrities
Maui – Skinny guys with dreadlocks, condo owners
Kaua'i – Rainbow children, Gen X types, golfers
Hawai' – hippies, radical faeries, Angelenos
Tourist factor: Usually very High. O'ahu has the most tourists, but most stick to the beaten track, so that it is the easiest island by far to escape the tourists. Maui and Kaua'i see more tourists than residents, but they all have rental cars and books on "Hidden and Secret Places in Hawai'i” - and it will be virtually impossible to escape them. In Hawai'i, the tourist factor for Hilo, Ka'ū, Puna, Hāmākua, and North Kohala Districts is low. It is very, very high in North and South Kona and South Kohala.
O'ahu / Waikīkī – Some basic hostels in the Lemon Rd / Cartwright area
O'ahu / North Shore – Camping; "hostels” in Sharks Cove where you rent a room in a small plantation house; vacation rentals are a good deal if you have a group.
Maui – Budget options are limited
Kaua'i – Camping, limited budget hotels
Hawai'i – Hilo has hostels, Puna/Pāhoa has affordable vacation rentals if you have a group.
Communications: Waikīkī has internet cafes.
Health: A warning about entering fresh water with open sores as schistosomiasis is common. Equally remember that the ocean is a dangerous place, and that the mountains and jungles are true wildernesses – even on O'ahu! People can and do get lost and die.
Food: Plate Lunches are filling: grilled or fried meat, two scoops of rice, and macaroni salad. A healthier bet is to look for the smaller Korean, Thai, or other Asian restaurants. Tourist areas are significantly pricier.
Vegetarians: Easy in Asian restaurants.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Almost none.
Women alone: Should have no problems
Local poisons for the body: Smoking is illegal in bars and restaurants. Drinking age is 21. Pot can be found in the countryside, but isn't as easy to score as you’d think. Crystal meth is a serious problem in rural communities on all the islands and something to stay well away from.
Many thanks to Michael Cain for contributing the above Hawaii summary.
"The tragedy of life is not so much what men suffer, but rather what they miss"