Making telephone calls from hotel rooms is usually generally more expensive than from a payphone, though some budget hotels offer free local calls from rooms – ask when you check in. An increasing number of phones accept credit cards, while anyone who holds a credit card issued by an American bank can obtain an AT&T charge card (information on 1-800/874-4000 ext 359).
Post offices are usually open Monday to Friday from 9am until 5pm, and Saturday from 9am to noon, and there are blue mailboxes on many street corners. Ordinary mail within the US costs 44¢ for a letter weighing up to an ounce; addresses must include the zip code, and a return address must be written on the envelope. Air mail between the US and Europe generally takes about a week. Postcards cost 28¢, and international letters are 98¢.
The continental USA is so big that it spreads over four different time zones, plus another one for Alaska and Hawaii. The Eastern zone, which covers the area inland to the Great Lakes and the Appalachian Mountains, is five hours behind Greenwich Mean Time, so 10am London time is 5am in New York City. The Central zone, starting at Chicago and spreading west to Texas and the Great Plains, is an hour behind the east. The Mountain zone covers the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest states and is two behind the East Coast, seven behind Britain. The Pacific zone includes the three coastal states and Nevada and is three hours behind New York, eight behind London. Alaska is another two hours behind the Pacific zone, as is Hawaii.
Even when the exchange rate is at its least advantageous, most western European visitors find virtually everything – accommodation, food, gas, cameras, clothes and more – to be better value in the US than it is at home. However, if you’re used to traveling in the less expensive countries of Europe, let alone in the rest of the world, you shouldn’t expect to scrape by on the same minuscule budget once you’re in the US. You should also be prepared for regional variances; most New York prices, for example, are well above those in rural America.
Entering the United States
All passengers arriving in the US must present a completed customs declaration form (also handed out on incoming planes). Customs officers check whether you’re carrying any fresh foods and ask if you’ve visited a farm in the last month: if you have, you could well lose your shoes. As well as foods and anything agricultural, it’s prohibited to carry into the country any articles from such places as North Korea, Cambodia, Iraq, Libya or Cuba, obscene publications, lottery tickets, chocolate liqueurs or pre-Columbian artifacts. Anyone caught bringing drugs into the country will not only face prosecution but also be entered in the records as an undesirable and probably denied entry for all time. The duty-free allowance if you’re over 17 is 200 cigarettes and 100 cigars (not Cuban) and, if you’re over 21, a liter of spirits.
Information and maps
Each state has its own tourist office, which offers prospective visitors a colossal range of free maps, leaflets and brochures. Either contact them before you set off, or as you travel around the country look out for the state-run Welcome Centers, usually located along main highways close to the state borders. In the more heavily touristy states, these often have piles of valuable discount coupons for cut-price accommodation and food. In addition, visitor centers in most towns and cities – often known as the “Convention and Visitors Bureau”, or CVB – provide details on the area. The USTTA – United States Travel and Tourism Administration – has offices all over the world, usually in US embassies and consulates. These serve mainly as clearing houses, stocking vast quantities of printed material, but are unable to help with queries on specific states or cities. In Britain, you can contact them only by telephone, on 0171/495 4466 (Mon-Fri 10am-4pm).