Howdy all. It seems my use of the word ‘Howdy’ might actually be appropriate for once in my introduction because today I am featuring a little look into those mighty United States of America and putting in my two cents about what to do and getting about. Etcetera. And this is completely from (well obviously) a non-American perspective. It’s been a long time since I ventured to destination: USA, but one thing is for sure it’s a country that doesn’t leave the mind and indeed is always in the news above all others.
But hey, I know that not all people have a great love for America. Even before the last four years it was not always everyone’s first choice destination. But at the same time, that was more than balanced out by those who absolutely LOVE America, those who almost worship the place. And those that actually do.
Whatever your feelings towards the States, and it’s fair to say my feelings are mixed, I can say that there is no doubt that it is a thoroughly worthwhile destination to sink your teeth into. It’s cities amaze, and make you feel tiny, but the natural beauty between sea and shining sea is really something else. And if I have one recommendation to you heading to the US, it’s to not skip the national parks and wilderness, the Grand Canyon and the like. I know I basically did both times I went, but if I went back I would be hiring a car and possibly driving from one side to the other. It’s a large, vast and varied country with well over 300 million people.
And about those people. With the exception of MAYBE NYC, they are very warm, welcoming and friendly. Different? Sure, at times. And there’s something about the American psyche that I don’t quite get. Things like the ‘whooo!’ culture, the way that people get so revved up. The way that audiences react with unbridled enthusiasm on a talk show. I went to New Orleans and as much as I liked it, and had a lot of fun, I couldn’t help but feel there were no limits to how people partied there to the point that I was no longer impressed, I was a little scared.
But generally people will take you into their homes and look after you. Well, I had the chance to stay with friends I had made backpacking Europe in 2004 at least and found myself staying with them in – Washington DC, Philadelphia, Boston, Houston, Austin and San Francisco. Okay, some were friends of friends, but that represented half of the time I was in the States if not more. It just shows the kindness and generosity of the people of the USA. And I didn’t mention I got to stay at a ranch in central Colorado too with the family of someone I had met. It’s humbling to think back on the generosity I received you know.
BUT. Tips! You want tips! I KNOW you do! Look it’s a huge place and it’s hard to know where to start and it also depends on your interests and tendencies in regards to WHY you are going to the states. Personally my experience is limited to in terms of individual states and cities – New York (NYC), Massachusetts (Boston), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), Louisiana (New Orleans including swamp tour), Texas (Austin, Houston, San Antonio), Colorado (including staying at a ranch, Denver and Colorado Springs), Nevada (Las Vegas), Arizona (Grand Canyon), California (Los Angeles, San Francisco & San Diego) and Washington DC. This might seem like a big paragraph but it’s only nine states. I also have been through a couple more states by bus including Utah. But that’s still only 20% of the individual states and then I haven’t seen a whole lot inside the said states. BUT I would say it’s a fair grounding for first time travel to the USA. I would say most of what I have seen a lot of people would choose when first coming to the USA.
Getting into the States.
So firstly, how do you get there and what do you need in terms of visa. Second question first, a lot of people are going to need a visa. When I went there was some sort of reciprocal visa waiver happening and so I didn’t need one as an Australian. And it seems something similar is still in place today and Australians can enter without a visa for less than 90 days. More than 90 days and yes you need one from Australia. Other countries such as the UK I believe have similar arrangements, whereas many countries do require a visa before entry so I advise you if you’re not Australian to do your research well in advance just to make sure you can enter without issue.
Transport into the USA is clearly limited to flying unless you are coming from either Mexico or Canada. I have only flown in and out of the USA in two trips, both of which included brief dalliances with Canada where I flew from one country to the other and back. Essentially the USA is brilliantly connected by air not only to international locations but also internally. Their main airlines include United and American Airlines, Delta and a few others. On that list I have only flown United, which was fine I guess but not memorable either. I also flew Continental in 2004 which no longer exists.
Then a lot of airlines worldwide fly and from Europe there are endless choices from BA to SAS to Lufthansa to any major European airline basically and plenty that aren’t major too. From Australia Qantas, Air Pacific and Air New Zealand along with AA and United are you most direct options. Plenty of Asian airlines too fly to the USA but I would think add a fair bit of flight time to the route. Direct from the Australian east coast to the US west coast I think it’s around 13-14 hours on a plane.
I’m not so sure about buses and trains from Mexico or Canada. There are train connections on the West Coast and over east to Toronto and Montreal from Chicago, New York. You CAN get a train from Tuscon to Copper Canyon in Mexico, but it’s an expensive luxury train. Otherwise you are looking at connecting between the three countries by bus or maybe boat (?).
All transport options are going to depend on the Corona Virus situation as it is when you are reading this of course because some countries like Australia in early 2021 and pretty much closed for inbound and outbound tourism.
And then when you’re IN the States…
Once you’re in the states there are even more airlines you can use. If you have a limited time and want to see multiple places, odds are they won’t be close together and so you will need to fly. And no country is as well connected internally by air as the USA. Even more options await as there are a number of budget carriers such as Spirit Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest and Frontier Airlines which in the recent past have kept flight prices down and meant that you can go most anywhere in the USA by quickly hopping on a flight. Be warned – domestic travel in the USA can be pretty basic. Even on Continental back in 2004 the domestic flights were packed in like sardines with only a bag of peanuts as your friend. And as I am allergic, well, wasn’t a great friend!
BUT if you have more time at your disposal, well, there are three main options as far as I can see it. My first option, which I didn’t take sadly, would be to explore via Amtrak, the train system. It does not cover the USA like the trains cover Europe it must be said, you look at a map and there’s a huge gap just in from the West Coast (West Coast is covered) and it looks like it covers around half the country where there simply is no rail network. So if you’re thinking of a rail tour to Wyoming or South Dakota, think again! But what there is is a lot of mileage covered by track and you can go east to west but if you start in the north-east you need to go south first. Rail will be quite a bit more expensive than bus, but passes are available. Maybe one day…
Greyhound connect the country quite comprehensively with their buses. And the passes are generally great value for money. This is how I crossed in 2004 from New Orleans to Texas, to Colorado, to Las Vegas, to California. A couple of epic overnight journeys in there too and the buses are generally frequent and I found in October, not too full so often I would have the spot next to me free and I could spread out. Although spending prolonged periods of time on a bus is not my favourite thing to do, I did enjoy the experience and the people I met on the buses.
Your final option is to hire a car. Obviously you are then free of most restrictions and petrol is still a lot cheaper in the States than in Australia and especially Europe. Some buy a car and sell it when they leave, there are companies which assist in this, and you can also find people who will let you drive for free if they’ve bought a car in Los Angeles and need it delivered to the east for example which seems like a great idea. Not sure how insurance works there.
Speaking of Insurance
A quick but important point here. Medical care in the USA is pretty much the most expensive in the world and you simply shouldn’t go if you don’t have a reputable travel insurance policy with ‘medical’ ramped up to the max. Because you will be mortgaging the house you don’t own if you need emergency medical care in the States. If you are unaware, the entire system is private basically and it’s expensive. So do yourself a favour. I wouldn’t recommend travel overseas anywhere without insurance, but the USA it’s vital because a trip to the hospital could result in a bill of $20,000USD or more. It’s really that expensive.
A Quick Overview of the Places I’ve Been
So now I’ll just run down where I’ve been and the highlights!
New York City – is all it’s hyped up to be and more in my opinion and you shouldn’t miss it. It’s epic in scale and just being there is almost enough. I recommend the Empire State Building, seeing the Statue of Liberty either by Staten Island Ferry if you’re cash strapped or you can take ferries to the island, spend as much time as you like in the incredible Central Park, walk the streets of Broadway and see a show, ride the subway all around for the experience, see Times Square (although it’s not as amazeballs as you might expect), if you can get into the Tonight Show do that, then there is the Guggenheim, have a night out partying, and…. Take lots of money and go NUTS!
Washington DC – Soak in the history of the country in its capital. See the various memorials to the different Presidents especially Lincoln and Jefferson, if you are allowed anywhere near the White House and Capitol, check them out. I would LOVE to do a tour of both one day. The Space and Air Smithsonian is awesome, explore the streets, do some walking and take it all in.
Philadelphia – if you are into your early American history you will love this place which is flush with historic buildings alongside modern ones. The original Congress, Christ Church, the Betsy Ross House for starters and then there’s the Liberty Bell. And the United States Mint was a personal favourite of mine. If you are into US history, don’t miss Philly!
Boston – I loved Boston but have little specific memories of it sadly. I did get inside some historic buildings there too including one of the colleges. I didn’t really have the handle I do now on US history back in the day and I would love to come back to Boston and self-guide myself around it with far better knowledge of the place and its significance.
New Orleans – Beautiful historic city on the Mississippi by day, and by night there is nothing like it anywhere in the world I would say. They know how to party! Don’t miss this experience. Also historical houses, Voodoo Museum and more to see – the French Quarter is SPECIAL. Loved the Swamp Tour where I saw a number of alligators too!
Colorado – I stayed at a ranch. It was pretty unique and despite it being freezing, I loved it. And then it snowed at Halloween when I went to Colorado Springs. It was a great part of my second trip to America.
Texas – I loved Austin and toured the University there. It’s a great city. People gathered underneath a bridge to watch scores of bats flying I remember. Did a day trip to San Antonio and saw the Alamo. Also a gun show on the way! Houston was humid as, but a visit to the Space Center was a true highlight. A great state to have your own wheels.
Nevada and Arizona – I went to Vegas and it was a interesting curiosity. Some of the buffet lunches are amazing. And watching the casinos in action is something else. You can catch free shows at different casinos if you’re there at the right time. Great idea to save up some money just to play a few tables before you go so if and when you lose it all, that was the plan all along. And know when to stop. Tour from Vegas to the Grand Canyon in Arizona along Route 66 was fantastic. Also saw the epic Hoover Dam.
California – If I went back I’d explore the southern beaches, but I haven’t as yet. I loved San Francisco the most, it’s a great city to explore with it’s trams, fire museum, Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower and more. Los Angeles I only stayed in Hollywood just off the strip. That was pretty cool I guess but the whole place is just for the tourist. I went to Universal Studios and Disneyland from there which were brilliant. If I went back I might do something cheesy like a Hollywood tour and have the stars’ houses pointed out to me. Who knows? San Diego is really nice with its waterfront but I didn’t do much other than chill there. Not a bad place for that. If I went back, I’d go on a boat.
I am hopeful that in life I will get to go back to the states. At the moment my hopes for travel in the somewhat near future when it’s possible don’t include the USA, but I think maybe in 20 years it would be a great chance to go back and do it in some style! A combination of Amtrack and self-drive I’m thinking. Head to the Rockies and even perhaps get to Mount Rushmore. That’s a little off the common tourist trails being in North Dakota.
Thanks for reading, and I hope I managed to both interest you and entertain a little! The US is a country where you really can have a lot of fun where you’re there and I don’t think it should be overlooked. You may even find the people you thought were plain crazy are actually some of the warmest and most hospitable there are, which is a point I tried to make earlier.
So before I sign off, I recommend you watch a little of Borat 2. He is taken in by a couple of Trumpists and QAnon followers. And despite them clearly having views that one might say are racist and fuelled by flat out lies, they look after a guy they believe to be from Kazakhstan and take him into their home DURING THE PANDEMIC. And to me that was actually one of the main take aways from the film.
Thanks for reading, take care, and May the Journey Never End!