Culture in America
When travelling to another country it is important to understand the way they work - their customs and cultures - to make the most of your time there.
This page will contain important information to help you with your day-to-day living while in the USA, including tipping protocol, local currencies and taxes, and time zones that you will cross.
The US dollar is made up of 100 cents. Currency can be bought in advance from your bank or from bureaux de change. Travellers Cheques in US dollars can also be bought in advance from your bank. All major credit cards are recognised in the United States. Cash machines are found at banks and in retail areas throughout the United States. Many cash machines accept UK issued Visa and MasterCard cards. We recommend credit cards and travellers’ cheques as the best way to pay for your purchases. You must carry at least one major credit card with you in order to leave a deposit with the motorhome hire company. Banks normally open from 10am-4pm, Monday to Friday. Some banks open on Saturday mornings as well.
The 50 United States fall within six time zones. The lower 48 states plus Alaska span five of these, which are listed here from east to west, with their abbreviations and difference to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) in hours:
- Eastern Standard Time (EST)* incl. Florida and New England GMT -5
- Central Standard Time (CST)* incl. Florida (west) GMT -6
- Mountain Standard Time (MST)* GMT -7
- Pacific Standard Time (PST)* incl. California GMT -8
- Alaskan Standard Time (AKST) Alaska GMT -9
*These zones are shared with Canada.
The state of Hawaii and various overseas USA territories fall into other time zones.
- Daylight saving operates from 2am on the second Sunday in March to 2am on the first Sunday of November. It is not observed in Hawaii, the overseas territories or Arizona (except within the Navajo Nation, which participates because of its widespread location across the three states of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico).
Telephones and postage
International Direct Dialling is available, the country code for calls to the US and Canada being 1. To call the UK from the United States dial the outgoing international access code (00). Follow this with the UK’s country code (44) and then the full UK STD number minus the leading zero.
In most areas, the minimum charge for a local call of unlimited duration is 50¢, but, as in the UK, public payphones are more and more scarce.
Post offices do not have standard opening hours and these may vary even within a particular town. 9am-5pm would be fairly typical, but some open earlier and some close at 6 or 7pm. Some post offices open on Saturday (for instance 9am-3pm), while others do not. Ask at your campground for details of its local post office. Airmail to Europe usually takes between two to five days.
It is a very good idea to take some currency in small bills with you to cover tips on arrival. It is also standard practice to tip tour guides, so you might like to have some small bills to hand as you leave excursion buses.
Many people in service industries are paid low salaries and depend on tips to top up their earnings. If in doubt, overtip a little. Generally, appropriate rates for tips are as follows (vehicle rental agency employees do not expect tips).
- Waiting staff 15% or 20% at table; room service 15%; bar or counter 10% but at least 50¢ (preferably more). In restaurants, service is almost never included in the final bill. Any amount added on is usually the sales tax, not a service charge.
- Taxi drivers 15%.
- Car wash employees put $1 or so into the tip cup. Valet parking attendants at least $1 or $2.
- Petrol pump attendants do not expect tips, but if they give you good service or wash your windscreens, they will appreciate 50¢ or so.
- Porters $1 for the first bag or two, 50 cents for each extra bag.
- Hairdressers and barbers at least 15%. If a separate person washes your hair, tip a dollar or two.
- Shoe shiners 50¢-$1.
- Cloakroom attendants $1, if you are not charged for the service.
- Hotel room cleaners about $1 per day after the first night.
- Hotel concierge if they should go out of their way to help you, $10-$20 is appropriate.
- Local tour guides 10%-15% of the tour price, but at least $1-$2 for a half day tour and $3-$4 for a full day tour.
The world’s largest economy is a shopper’s dream, with that great American institution the shopping mall being a major draw for shopoholics. There are still some famous department stores in major city centres, but, more and more, the biggest shopping centres are now in the suburbs or several miles out of town.
Sears and J C Penny are famous American own-brand retailers with a reputation for quality and value for money (in much the same tradition as Marks & Spencer). Clothing sizes are different to ours so make sure you try clothes on before buying.
Electrical goods bought in the US may not work correctly in the UK. Video equipment and DVDs are manufactured for a different format to the UK, but the CD format is universal.
Shops are generally open daily and often until late, especially in the cities. Shopping for food and drink is easy, with supermarkets that are very similar to home. You may also find that fresh produce is often sold at roadside stands in fruit and vegetable growing areas.
There is no federal (national) sales tax in the United States. Most individual states apply their own taxes, but even in those that do not you may find that boroughs or municipalities apply a local tax. Local and state taxes paid by tourists in the USA cannot normally be claimed back. Any taxes on your motorhome hire, hotel room, campground fees and items included in the price of escorted tour itineraries have been included in your holiday cost.
Mineral water can be bought, but all tap water is drinkable unless marked otherwise.
Additional Tourist Information
The VISIT USA Association, a private not-for-profit group, offers a selection of information and literature on US travel. Please see in particular the destination information, for state-by-state information on US destinations.
We particularly recommend the VISIT USA Travel Planner brochure – simply select any of the drop-down search criteria on the website’s brochure search page and the Travel Planner will be at the top of the listing. You will then be given the options both to order a copy and to view the brochure online. In addition, many states of the USA have their own tourism representation in the UK. For individual telephone numbers please visit the information section of the US embassy website. Neither these offices nor VISIT USA provide visa information.
The Lonely Planet guide to the USA is also recommended. All Lonely Planet guides can be ordered by calling our Travel Sepcialists.
For further information please visit www.discoveramerica.com where you can find ideas and suggestions of when and where to travel.
Accuracy of information: The information provided here was correct to the best of our knowledge at the time of writing (29 July 2012).