The USA offers its visitors a vast selection of landscapes, cultures and experiences, differing hugely from state to state. California – known as the Golden State – has all the iconic highlights you’ve dreamed of visiting, plus a countless number of incredible off-the-beaten-track experiences. From quaint coastal towns with stunning beaches, to vast wide open spaces alongside towering mountains and deep canyons, vibrant city life buzzing with activity, art, food, architecture and music – travellers can immerse themselves in whatever takes their fancy!
In California, you will find thrilling outdoor adventure, rejuvenating spas, relaxing beaches, fascinating wildlife and awe-inspiring national parks. With so much to choose from, spread across over 163,000 square miles, you’ll want to return to again and again.
Food & Drink
The USA is a melting pot of cultures, reflected in the huge diversity of food and drink available. Locals eat out frequently, hence you could find a vast amount of fast food diners, cafes and drive-thrus of varying service and pricing. These are particularly prevalent in smaller or more remote towns, where as in the larger cities you will find world-class restaurants as expected.
You will find so much more than the predicted (but ever so tasty) hamburgers, fried chicken and cheesecake! The east coast is famous for many dishes, including the freshest lobster and seafood, while Californians like to pride themselves on seasonal local produce and you will hear the term ‘farm to table’ in many establishments in this part of the country.
Wine production is prolific in all 50 states but most commonly in California. Helped along by its ideal Mediterranean climate, the state produces 9 out of every 10 bottles of American wine – so no visit to the wine regions of California is complete without a tasting tour. There are also a plethora of craft breweries in California producing new, unique flavours with something to suit everyone’s taste, but if you are travelling as a family with older children please remember the legal drinking age in California is 21.
Farmers markets are ever popular and these are a great place to get your hands on some local produce, where there are inevitably one or two stalls offering you a taster. Whatever your choice of cuisine, the portions in the US are generally huge, so the real challenge will be to still fit into your skinny jeans when you get home from your trip!
When to Travel
At any time of year, there will be a USA holiday that’s perfect for you. California is a great year-round destination, with different seasons offering totally varied experiences.
In the spring time (Mar-May) it can still be a little chilly at higher elevations but in general is a fantastic time to visit; fewer crowds and much shorter queues into attractions.
Summer (Jun-Aug) has perfect beach weather and pretty much guaranteed sunshine in the central and southern regions. The deserts are best avoided in summer – in Death Valley, the temperatures can regularly sore to nearly 50°C. These months are the peak time for travellers and locals to take their summer holiday, so expect bigger crowds and less availability for the popular touristy areas. Northern California can be quite foggy in summer and actually sees some of its best days during the autumn (Sept-Nov).
Autumn is the busiest time to visit the amazing wine regions – known as ‘the crush’, as this is the grape harvest season. However, once the schools go back, similar to spring, the queues for attractions get shorter and the beaches become less crowded, so take advantage of this time of year if you can.
During winter, (Dec-Mar) reservations for the myriad of Michelin star restaurants become much easier to come by. California’s higher elevations also become a haven for boarders and skiers alike, with the mountain scenery a photographers’ dream. Some of the national parks become trickier to visit, due to some entrance roads closing for the snowy season. Most attractions outside of the higher elevation parks stay open and this is a good time to visit if you would prefer a more peaceful Californian experience.
Direct flights from London to California are plentiful, with airlines such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic flying daily into the major cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Las Vegas. These flight times can vary between 10-12 hours direct. Domestic US flights are also easily organised and frequent.
All eligible international travellers who wish to visit the United States under the Visa Waiver Programme must apply for electronic system travel authorisation (ESTA). This must be done within 72 hours of travel but recommended to do as soon as you have booked your holiday. The cost of the visa is $14 and is valid for two years. You will need all your personal details to hand including your passport, an email address and the address of your first night of accommodation in the US.
Please check that your country is listed in this programme and you have everything you need to apply by following this link to the official ESTA website.
Never travel to the USA without a good travel insurance policy. If you are unfortunate enough to need medical treatment, there is no reciprocal healthcare system so a visit to the GP or the hospital can be extremely costly. Is it not necessary to have any vaccinations in order to visit the USA, but if you are in any way concerned about your health and fitness we highly recommend you contact your G.P. for expert advice before you start planning.
We also like these guys (though this does not replace a trip to your G.P.): The Travel Doctor, an interactive website providing specialist health information for travellers plus tips and advice on a range of common travel related topics.
Like all major cities, you should be vigilant against petty theft such as pick pockets, but in general the greatest danger for travellers to the USA is posed by car accidents. Just as it is in the UK, its the law to wear seat belts, so buckle up! Our advice is to not pick up hitch hikers, wear helmets if enjoying activities such as horse-riding (as in some US states it isn’t compulsory) and lock your valuables in your room safe where available. More remote areas see much less crime, but just ask us if you are unsure of anything before you travel.
MONEY & TIPPING
The local currency is the US Dollar. Credit and debit cards are widely accepted at hotels, restaurants and shops. The California state sales tax is 7.5% which will usually be added at the till. ATMs are available in most towns, however in more remote areas local stores may only accept cash.
Tipping in the US is widely practised. Regardless of the quality of service you have received tipping is expected, and whilst you can normally get away with tipping the bare minimum for bad service if you don’t tip at all be prepared to be challenged on it. Unfortunately, hospitality staff are often paid a very low wage and tipping is an essential supplement to their income. In restaurants, service charges are not usually included within the bill, only really for large parties. There is sometimes a guide on how much you should leave at the bottom of the bill and restaurant staff generally expect 15-20%. It should be noted that a cover charge is for admission to an establishment, not a tip for service.
The service you receive whilst in the USA can vary enormously from place to place. In larger resort towns and certainly larger hotels it’s worth bearing in mind that many staff are seasonal and so at the beginning or end of the season service may not be quite up to standard as the staff are either learning the ropes or winding down for winter.
Self-drive is the best way to explore the USA – it means you can stop at any points of interest that you stumble across, jump out to take photos of the spectacular views along the way and take the journey at your own pace. The roads are generally a lot wider than in the UK and outside of the towns and cities there is notably less traffic so whilst driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road can seem a little daunting, with the right vehicle it needn’t be. All road signs are in English, distances are in miles and there are plenty of rest stops and picnic areas which means that the journey is often as enjoyable as the destination. As part of your self-drive itinerary we will book a hire car for you and make suggestions for your free time so you can pick and mix between this and any other ideas you may have to create your own schedule.
Horse riding can be a wonderful way to enjoy California’s landscapes, but there are inherent risks involved with riding, anywhere in the world. Wearing a helmet is highly recommended for your own safety – ask your guide if they are not automatically offered, as it is not the law in the USA to wear one and it could invalidate your insurance if you don’t.
The USA operates on a 120V supply voltage and you will need an adaptor with two flat pins.
There is no departure tax to pay when leaving the USA.
Travellers Code of Conduct
– We provide all of our clients with a “Travel Facts” document upon confirmation of your booking. This details useful facts and travel advice for your chosen destination, including restaurant recommendations, reading tips, basic language, cultural traditions, climate information and brief historical overviews. We feel that this offers a useful insight into the country you are visiting, and can help you interact with local residents in a more sensitive, well-informed manner. Please try to take the time to read this information before your visit, if at all possible.
– A number of the countries in which we operate holidays are religious societies with a widely observed set of customs. Always respect these norms, particularly when visiting religious buildings.
– To the best of our knowledge, all of the hotels, lodges and camps within our portfolio operate stringent measures to minimise water usage. All of our destinations have issues with water supplies to a certain extent so feel free to raise any possible wastage should you encounter it during your stays, either with the accommodation or with us upon your return.
– Please ask before taking photographs of people, and respect their wishes should an individual not be happy to be photographed. We find that friendly requests and a smile are usually met with assent.
– Strive where possible to make your own contribution to environmental practices within the destination you are travelling. This might include minimising your electricity usage, avoiding smoking in protected areas, avoiding coral while snorkelling and safely disposing of all litter (recycling where possible).
– Where possible, try to purchase from local suppliers. This includes shopping for souvenirs, eating out in restaurants and booking further excursions during your free time. In areas where haggling is an accepted part of daily life, don’t become angry or offended if you are unable to obtain what you perceive as a fair price for an item. We emphasise to local suppliers that our clients should never be taken on unsolicited shopping trips, but if this does happen, try to retain your sense of humour, provide a firm refusal to participate and tell us about this on your return. We pass on all feedback from every trip undertaken with Holiday Architects to the relevant local suppliers, who share our commitment to travelling with sensitivity.
– Please don’t remove any indigenous items from their natural habitat and attempt to bring them back as a souvenir. This particularly applies to coral, shells, plants and food in the natural world, and to cultural artefacts and antiques.
– If you are unsure about anything relating to the above, please feel free to ask our local suppliers or your Holiday Architects specialist. All of these people either live or have travelled extensively in the country you are visiting and will be more than happy to offer their considered advice.