Theme Park Insider

Top Tips for Europeans Visiting the United States

January 18, 2016, 2:49 PM · Planning a trip to America? Here are some tips that can help you ensure that you spend as much time as possible enjoying your holiday, instead of wasting it sitting on planes, waiting in airports, and driving endless stretches of highway.

In short, don't act like an American visiting Europe when you visit America. Bouncing from city to city in an attempt to "see it all" on one trip will leave you spending almost all your time in America in transit between cities rather than enjoying the sights you came to see. While an American might be able to pull off an itinerary that includes London, Paris, and Rome on one trip, trying to see Los Angeles, New York, and Orlando in one go is a great way to end up hating your visit.

This came to mind when reading a Reddit thread over the weekend in which a European asked about his planned honeymoon trip to America, which included stops in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Toronto, among other cities. Let's take a look at the distances involved, by laying a map of the 48 contiguous United States over a map of Europe.

The United States of America, relative to Europe

If you align San Francisco with London, then Los Angeles is southeast of Paris, halfway to the Swiss border. Orlando is on the border of Russia and Georgia, and New York is way out on the Volga River. Keep in mind that there is no national high-speed rail network in the United States, and we don't have the same low-priced airlines as in Europe, either.

So here is our advice for new visitors to America:

1. Pick one region and stay within it — Want to visit Orlando? Fine. Book a flight into Central Florida and stay as long as your budget allows. But don't try to add a day trip to anywhere farther than Busch Gardens Tampa or the Kennedy Space Center. Even driving down to Miami in South Florida will take four hours each way... and that's assuming you don't hit much traffic. (Don't assume that, by the way.) If you want to venture beyond Central Florida, you will need to add travel days to your trip in addition to the days to experience those other destinations.

If you want a variety of experiences on your trip, instead of trying to fly or drive all around America, pick a region of the country that offers the variety of experiences you want. California is a great compromise for first-time visitors — you can sample beaches, mountains, theme parks, world-famous cities, and national parks in a two-week trip that keeps your transit times reasonable, if you order everything well.

Which brings us to....

2. Theme park fans should pick Orlando or Los Angeles, but not both — You can find Disney and Universal parks in both places, but there's just not enough difference between the two to justify visiting both on one visit. That said, there are enough differences that the two are not indistinguishable. In general, it's generally easier for theme park fans in Europe to find package tours to Walt Disney World in Orlando than to Disneyland in Southern California. But if you are assembling your own itinerary, look into both destinations and decide which one — including nearby destinations — best matches your dream holiday.

And if you are really set on a roller coaster getaway, consider steering clear of both Orlando and Los Angeles and fly into Chicago, instead. Rent a car and drive to Six Flags Great America, Cedar Point, and Holiday World. That's a one-week roadtrip that will allow you to ride many of the best coasters in America, without unbearable drive times.

3. Stay in tourist areas — The fastest ways between any two cities in the country are on airlines or the Interstate highway system (limited-access roads that start with a letter "I-"). Don't try to get creative and plot a straight-line driving course between distant cities, going on state or local roads. Not only will they rarely be faster than the Interstates, you could find yourself lost or stranded in areas with, let's just say, no support for tourists. Within cities, stay on Interstate or major roads, as well. Out in rural areas on Interstates, watch your fuel gauge. Especially in the Western United States, you might have to drive 100 miles between stops that have gasoline stations. You do not want to be caught running out of fuel before the next available station.

4. Don't assume public transport will be available — There are some great public transit system in the United States, but they cover a far smaller percentage of the country than transit systems do in Europe. Research your destinations and if you find an available subway or light rail service, don't be afraid to use it. But don't assume that there will be one there waiting for you wherever you go. There's a subway line in Los Angeles that goes to Universal Studios Hollywood but beyond that, you won't find any major pubic transit systems serving theme parks in the United States. Your best alternative to renting a car in the United States might be Uber, which is pretty much ubiquitous.

5. Don't forget to tip — Adding a tip of 15-20% of your restaurant bill is expected at almost all table service restaurants in the United States, including those in theme parks. Servers in the United States are paid less than the minimum wage, as tips are expected to provide the bulk of their income. Don't stiff them. Plan to tip bartenders, hotel bellhops, valet parking attendants, and taxi drivers, as well. Here's a good guide to tipping in the United States.

6. Buy health insurance before you leave — America does not have a national health care service, so there's no reciprocity with your country's health service. If you need any medical care in the United States, you will be expected to pay for it — at rates you will consider outrageous and obscene. The only exception you will find is within theme parks. Going to the First Aid office in parks won't cost you a thing and they can handle many minor ailments and injuries there. But if they refer or transport you to another medical facility, you will have to pay for that. Also, pharmacists in America simply fill prescriptions and cannot provide a diagnosis or other treatment, as they do in some European countries.

7. Prepare for the sun — Here's the one thing we did cheat in that map above — the United States are located at a much lower latitude than Europe. New York is located at about the same latitude as Madrid. Orlando's latitude would put it in North Africa. The sun feels much more intense just about anywhere in America than it does in Europe, and you will burn if you don't use sunscreen. Sun- and heat-related ailments are the top things that bring people into theme park First Aid offices, and you don't want to waste part of your valuable holiday time dealing with sunburn or heat exhaustion. Read our theme park safety tips for more advice.

Okay, American readers, what else would you add to this list?

Replies (27)

January 18, 2016 at 4:18 PM · The only way I see to easily/cheaply include two far-apart U.S. destinations is the extended layover, i.e. two or three days. For example, we met Brits who took a long layover in Chicago on the way to Hawaii, both to sightsee and to break up the lengthy travel. A European theme-park fan could do a layover in New York for a few days before visiting Orlando. A good travel agent would be helpful in a complicated itinerary.
January 18, 2016 at 5:14 PM · Great article, being from the uk I would add if it's your first time to America and you want to do the Disney, Universal, Sea World etc etc then your find it a lot easy to travel in Orlando Florida then you will in California, all the parks are within easy driving distance in Orlando Florida, having been to California as well as Orlando you appreciate the closeness of the parks in Orlando then you do in California. Example, driving distance between Disneyland California and universal studios California may appear short but with the traffic in between the time to drive between the two can take up to four hours in Orlando it's normally twenty minutes between parks unless your unlucky with traffic, California Disney to sea world is 100 miles as sea world is in fact in San Diego were in Orlando 5 to 10 miles tops, your see more of different areas as you drive around in California but you will be sitting in your car for longer, first time it's Orlando all the way for me, having said that I liked California as well.
January 18, 2016 at 5:54 PM · Absolutely. If you're coming to America just for theme parks, you can't beat Orlando for an easy visit. You don't even need to hire a car if you're staying on site at Disney or Universal. (Though you will need to hire a shuttle if you're staying at Universal. Disney offers its free Magical Express shuttle to and from the airport. Take an Uber to go in between Disney and Universal.)

The drawback to Orlando is if you're looking for a wider range of experiences in your American holiday. Then I'd consider California, as I wrote above. The trade off is more driving and transit, of course.

One more option for that roller coaster roadtrip: Fly into Philadelphia, then drive to Six Flags Great Adventure, Hersheypark and Kennywood. They also offer great coasters, so it's up to your preference for the specific rides.

January 18, 2016 at 7:21 PM · Honestly I would reccomend visiting orlando anyday over SoCal. The amusement parks are better, there's MUCH less traffic, and it's generally cheaper. The only benefit SoCal has over Florida is that there's more to do other than just amusement parks. For example, in SoCal, you have Hollywood, Santa Monica, San Diego, Anaheim, Big Bear, Palm Springs, and your not too far from Las Vegas. Visiting these cities can easily occupy you for at least a whole month. But honestly I'd still reccomend visiting Florida over SoCal. Just WDW alone can occupy you for at least a whole week. Plus, Universal Orlando can also occupy you for at least an additional 2 - 3 days. And like everyone else said, in Orlando everything is central. You'll never need to really drive farther than 30 minutes unless you want to explore Miami or the Keys which is a whole different story. So if your planning to visit America from Europe, I would 100% reccomend that you visit Florida over SoCal.
January 18, 2016 at 7:45 PM · We did a 3 week East Coast and West Coast tour in summer 2014. We flew into New York, spent 3 nights there, then joined a local tour for 6 days that included Washington, Niagara Falls and Boston.

We flew from Boston to LA. We then visited Hollywood for one day, Disney California Adventure for 1 day then spent 4 nights in San Diego. After that we drove to Solvang and Hearst Castle. We spent the night in Monterey. Next day we went to Monterey Bay Aquarium then drove to Yosemite in the afternoon. We spent 3 nights camping in Yosemite. After that we drove back to LA and flew home.

It wasn't too hectic actually except the East Coast local tour. I just wish we did it on our own.

January 18, 2016 at 8:05 PM · For Europeans the main and deciding difference between Southern California and Central Florida is probably the cost. As far as one being superior to the other in terms of parks, that's debatable and really comes down to preferences. If you are just looking for a theme park vacation you can't beat Orlando. I personally would never visit another country just to visit it's theme parks. But to each his own. I would add that Southern California has one advantage over Florida. The weather is typically much better year-around. But this is unlikely to matter much to people coming from an even wost climate.
January 18, 2016 at 8:16 PM · I will say one thing. In Florida, the idea of there being no High Speed Rail is literally about to be buried in the coffin for good. A Major Rail Project called All Aboard Florida is being done by a private railroad company called the Florida East Coast Railway. Their goal is to have passenger trains running between Orlando and Miami at 125mph by the year of 2017 (construction has been underway since last year). There is even the potential for expansions to cities like Jacksonville and rumors have begun to spread that the same project and company may expand the new service eventually to Tampa, Florida.

In general though, this article hits the nail on the head and should be a warning for those Europeans coming to visit the United States. Even though some of us are trying to fight for better connectivity, we are facing an up hill battle against heavily entrenched opponents whom do not want to lose their part of business which has plagued this country since the 1950s.

January 18, 2016 at 10:17 PM · For choosing destinations, I would suggest picking a maximum of one destination per weeek of the trip. For example, if you want to visit California and do both Los Angeles and San Francisco, do not try to do both if you've only got one week. If you have two, however, you can do both without much difficulty. The exception to this is locations within 200 miles of each other, as that distance can easily be covered in a half day's drive (adding to the above example, doing both Los Angeles and San Diego in a week would work).

When it comes to vacations including theme parks, Florida and California are the obvious choices. For which one to pick, I would say this: If you want to spend at least 7 days visiting theme parks or only want to do theme parks on your vacation, choose Florida, and otherwise choose California. The reasoning behind this is that the five major Los Angeles theme parks take 6 days (with one additional theme park day for those visiting SeaWorld San Diego), while it would take 7-10 days to do all the parks in the Orlando/Central Florida area. For those who want to visit a theme park or two in the US but don't want a theme park heavy vacation, good options include Boston (with Six Flags New England), New York (with Six Flags Great Adventure), Philadelphia (with Hersheypark and Knoebels), and Washington, D.C. (with Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Kings Dominion). While these parks aren't directly in the city (most are 1.5 to 3 hours away), they are close enough to do as a day or overnight trip for those with a car. For those who want more of a theme park road trip, doing a loop from Chicago that includes Cedar Point, Holiday World, Kings Island, and Six Flags Great America is probably the best option.

All the other tips in the article are spot on as well. Rent a car if you'll be traveling outside of the big cities, stay on the Interstates and/or US highways as much as possible for long distance travel, be sure to tip where appropriate, and do as much research as you can before visiting to make sure all your needs are met. When it comes to vacations, there is nothing worse than having it fall apart due to easily preventable mistakes.

January 19, 2016 at 12:32 AM · Great article Robert!
I think that this is good article for not just Europeans but also anyone outside North America wanting to come and visit it's theme parks. This would include Asians, New Zealanders, Australians etc.
January 19, 2016 at 2:33 AM · I have actually done Las Vegas/NYC/Orlando on one trip from London a while ago. It was do-able but we had the (relative) luxury of doing it over 3 weeks. I wouldn't recommend less than that.
But as someone who has been visiting the US since 1989 then all of the above are great tips.
For those first time visitors from the UK, check out any excursions offered independently, don't think that your tour operator has the best trips or deals.
As the world has moved on since our first visit there are so many tools online (like this very website) with amazing tips and tricks, read them - research!!!

And yes while Orlando is way way easier for Europeans (particularly Brits - so many flights from all over the country these days), if you find you have the opportunity to visit California, take it. I am so so glad I did in 2014. I am entirely in love with it, its so different to Florida and has so much to offer. (Although alluding to a previous post it never took us anywhere near 4 hours to drive from Anaheim to USH - eek!) Hopefully I'll see you again this year my beautiful West Coast!

January 19, 2016 at 7:13 AM · I live on the East Coast of the US (NJ) and would take a trip to California over Florida ANY day. If you're only going for the theme parks then Florida would be the better choice, however, since the parks are a lot bigger than their Californian equivalents, and the trip from Europe is much shorter (the west coast is a five hour trip by plane from the east coast). BUT, as several other folks have mentioned here, there is SO MUCH MORE to see in California than in Florida. Florida is basically flat has a wet climate and much of it is swamp (or was swamp). California, on the other hand, has an arid climate, and gets much less rain. California, geographically from north to south, offers so much: The Pacific Coast Highway (which runs the length of state, 655 miles (1055 km) along the coast and is one of the most spectacularly beautiful roads in the world); the Napa Wine Country (you could spend a week or two here alone); San Francisco (one of the most beautiful cities in the world - and home to the Golden Gate Bridge); Yosemite National Park (Google this, you won't want to miss it); Sequoia National Park (where the largest trees in the world exist); Death Valley National Monument (bizarre desert beauty - just don't go there in the summertime); Los Angeles (the theme parks are here - Disneyland, Universal Studios, etc.) but there's also the beaches, Hollywood, with Hearst Castle to the north--make reservations in advance for the castle tour); and then San Diego (the zoo and Sea World). I wouldn't suggest a side trip to Las Vegas unless you fly there. If you have two weeks, you can do most, but not all, of this; three weeks would be better. Otherwise, do it in separate trips, such as northern California in one trip and southern California in another. If you're real adventurous, consider a trip from Denver to California via the Grand Canyon. There are no major theme parks until you get to California, but you get to see the Rocky Mountains and the Western US. I know the general recommendation is to stay on the interstate highways, but the "back roads" are far more interesting and often more scenic.
January 19, 2016 at 9:11 AM · I'm probably biased, as a Texan, but I'd make the case for a week in Texas. Fly into DFW with dozens of direct intl flights (or take the new BA nonstop to Austin). Go to Six Flags with a couple of decent coasters. Drive about 3.5 hrs to Austin. No theme parks, because the entire town is a zoo (just kidding). Great food - barbecue, food trucks of every sort, inventive stuff. Renowned live music scene. Then, about an hour and a half S is San Antonio, home of Fiesta Texas and Sea World. Fantastic bi-cultural experience. See the Alamo and channel your inner Phil Collins.

Just don't come in the summer! Spring and fall are the best.

January 19, 2016 at 10:04 AM · One point that is sometimes forgotten is that from the middle of May until the end of September, Orlando is extremely hot. While California can get there at the end of the summer, it is nowhere near the heat in Orlando. Travelers from Europe may not plan on this. That being said, Orlando can be quite pleasant in the winter months with the crowds being light, especially at Universal. Just watch out for late March to early April due to school's spring break and the week of Easter. One vacation I would love to have would be to start in San Diego, rent a car, and take two weeks or more and drive to San Francisco. Also, I cannot state just how difficult it is to drive in L.A. Driving in Florida can be no picnic, but they are apples and oranges (but the oranges taste good in both places).
January 19, 2016 at 10:16 AM · As an European (if something like that excist) and visit Florida often, be prepared for beeing amazed about how slow, inefficient and bad American's drive. When a light turns green it'll take a while for them to start driving. Using a turning signal is hardly ever happening and don't expect someone to let you cross over to their lane by making a bit of room because they are to bussy texting or eating. If you see a car stopping and looking if it could drive on the road you are using be sure they wait until you are almost there and deside it's a great idea to start driving making you brake as hell.

On the positive side, make time to speak to American's. When you are open for it they'll start a conversation and you learn a lot about a very young country that you maybe precieved different from EU.
Yes keep traveling to a minimum to soak up the real life, not only the sights.
All tips also go for Americans visiting EU. Don't try to do everything because you see nothing. Go to France, The Netherlands or whereever amd take you time, there is so much to see and enjoy.

January 19, 2016 at 10:50 AM · In my experience, 1) the best value for a ticket you can get is in your home country. The tickets good for 2 weeks are often not available in the US let alone at the price you paid. Granted, the hotel and flight might change your overall value if you got everything as a package.

2) Going to Orlando? Do not underestimate how much there is at Disney World. If you want to relax at all on your vacation, Disney can easily take 7 days and you will still be cutting things out. If you think you can see 4 parks in 4 days, you have already decided not to do things whether you know it or not.

3) Try not ask for a refund. It is probably way more complicated than simply handing you what you paid and you will end up disappointed. If you have a problem, bring it up as diplomatically as you can as quickly as possible. Most of the employees of major theme parks, hotels, etc. are good and will OVER compensate you for the issue with things OTHER than a refund. It's simpler to address your concerns at that time and removes you from the pool of people with "buyers remorse".

January 19, 2016 at 2:30 PM · What happened to the hyperloop idea Elon Musk was talking about? No 30 minutes from San Francisco to Los Angeles anytime soon?
January 19, 2016 at 7:45 PM · Yeowser - I disagree with you, and maybe for Europeans this article has merit but coming from Australia when going to the US you HAVE to fly through Los Angeles - so if you are going to Orlando, LA is an easy stop on the way home. We have done Orlando, New York and LA on multiple trips and never felt it was too much to handle in one go. Then again, we usually take about 4 weeks to do it, having more vacation time in Australia then in the states. In addition I think if you are coming from as far away as Asia or Australia, you need to invest time and you need to see more than one place. For Europeans, who aren't as far away and for whom the trip might not be too expensive, doing one city and then coming back another time for another might be plausible but for many people traveling that far they may only have one trip to see as much as possible, so provided they plan enough time in each place I don't see why you shouldn't attempt multiple cities in one trip...
January 19, 2016 at 9:26 PM · I approve of OT's advice on American drivers. Just driving to the grocery store I see at least one driver doing something airheaded. And it feels like every time I turn on the news, be it TV or radio, there's always a report about some car accident that happened somewhere.

And as for whether to visit Florida or California....Listen, if you really want to do more noteworthy stuff outside of theme parks, California is the place to be. The San Diego Zoo is awesome; The Paciffic Coast Highway is a wonder to behold; LA has so much stuff to do; San Francisco is an amazing city; Monterey has the best aquarium I've ever been to (as well as some excellent whale-watching); and it's near other must-see locations such as Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam. But, as a local Floridian, I will say don't automatically rule out Florida. In fact, I suggest not only visiting Florida if all you're looking for is theme parks, but also less traffic and beaches. As stated by previous posters, while traffic in Florida isn't always perfect (and that's REALLY sugarcoating it), it's still pretty tolerable compared to LA traffic. And, personally, I think Florida's beaches are better than California's. I'm not saying California's beaches are bad, they are quite nice, but if you were to hold me at gunpoint and choose one or the other I'd have to go with Florida. And both times that I visited California, we couldn't actually swim in the water. I don't know if it was just poor timing on my part,but the weather was just way too cold to go for a swim. And I visited during what should've been relatively warm times; first visit during the Spring and second visit right in the middle of Summer. Sorry, California, your beaches are really nice, but when I'm at the beach I'd like to be able to swim. In my not-so-humble opinion, the beaches at Tampa, Ft. Myers and Daytona just can't be overlooked. Speaking of Tampa, if you ever wanna visit another city in the Central Florida region aside from Orlando, Tampa is definitely where you need to go. Maybe it's just because this is where I've lived almost my whole life, but I feel like we're a kinda underrated city. But there's so much stuff to do here!

First off, if you're a theme park fan whose disappointed by Orlando's lack of iron rides, then you NEED to come to Busch Gardens Tampa! If you're worried that you're kids won't enjoy it due to all the roller coasters, don't worry, they've got some nice flat rides, amusing shows (with some exceptions), and lots of animal exhibits. There's also Lowry Park Zoo, the Florida Aquarium, the Straz Center, Ybor City, the Dali Museum...and while we don't have nature areas and national parks as beautiful as California's (you guys definitely beat us there), there are still a lot of great national parks here. I specifically recommend a canoe trip through Weekeewatchee; (I might've mispronounced that) or, if you're somehow able to make it to Miami (in which case may God have mercy on your soul) you have to take an airboat ride through the Everglades. Now, all of this is nothing super major or noteworthy like Yellowstone or Alcatraz, but I still highly suggest you do some research on fun stuff to do in Central Florida and see if you find anything that catches your interest!
If not, ah well, just do California then.

Oh, and one last tip: don't be surprised if girls start swooning at the very sound of your voice. We Americans tend to find European accents very attractive. :)

January 19, 2016 at 10:58 PM · To clarify with regards to the previous anonymous post, What I meant to say is I may not completely agree with points 1-3, but I do think that foreign travellers to the US should keep in mind points 4-7 especially #6, probably #4 and maybe #5 as well.

I did do a cross country North american trip when I was young with my family visiting both Canada's wonderland (stopping by in NYC as well) and WDW when it was just two parks and before there was universal studios orlando so I may not necessarily agree with #1&2.

But travelling without health insurance in the USA is hazardous because I have read if one needs to be airlifted back home from the US, it will break the bank if one doesn't have comprehensive health insurance.

I am currently in Asia where 10% is automatically added to your restaurant bill and have access to one of the best public transportation systems in the world so people travelling to the US should keep in mind #4 & 5 as well.

January 20, 2016 at 6:02 AM · Tipping! Tip your waitstaff and bartenders--in many states (including Florida) they are paid well below the minimum wage (in Florida, tipped employees are only required to be paid $5.03 an hour; Glassdoor tells me that Disney waitstaff are paid $4.68 an hour, but that might be old information). It's not a very good system, but that's not the waitress's fault.

Also, by "waitstaff and bartenders," I am referring to the people who serve you at sit-down establishments (waitstaff) and establishments that serve alcohol (bartenders). Not quick-service counter staff, who are paid standard wages.

I live in France and despite the sometimes indifferent service that we get, I really prefer the system that we have here: the price on the menu is the price that you pay.

January 21, 2016 at 10:04 AM · What about six flags magic mountain? Is it worth going if you visit Los Angeles?
January 21, 2016 at 10:42 AM · If you love roller coasters, Six Flags Magic Mountain absolutely is worth visiting. Read AJ Hummel's responses in this discussion thread for some great advice on visiting the park.
January 21, 2016 at 11:17 AM · Thank you Robert!
January 21, 2016 at 4:57 PM · To 201.211.54.109, if you can only visit one theme park in Southern California I would absolutely choose Disneyland. After that, if you're a roller coaster fan I would probably rank Six Flags Magic Mountain next. However, you need to really like roller coasters and thrill rides in order to enjoy the park as that is all they have (you won't find dark rides or heavy theming at SFMM). If you're the type that will go on anything, SFMM has some of the most extreme and unique thrill rides ever built, but if your interest in thrill rides is low I wouldn't recommend the park.
January 22, 2016 at 5:12 AM · As a European who frequently visits America, I would just add a warning that unlike Europe where the price you see is the price you pay, in America tax is added to pretty much everything, hotels, meals, stuff you buy in the store.
January 22, 2016 at 6:15 PM · To add to what anonymous poster 108.171.130.172 said about taxes, Hotel taxes in particular are local phenomena, and can vary WILDLY between jurisdictions, even adjacent towns. A $100 hotel room can cost $115 after taxes in one place, and just down the street but across the city or county line it can cost $135.

One warning I would have for anyone planning a trip to the Northeastern US is that while on Google Maps it looks like everything is close together (and it is, relative to the rest of the US) inter-city travel time is not fast. The high(ish)-speed Amtrak Acela can get you from Washington DC to Baltimore, Philly, NYC and Boston faster than driving but it'll cost you. The slower Northeast Regional is more cost-effective and better if you're traveling with children, and is still faster than driving but can be subject to delays, especially if the train originates from south of Washington. But if you want to do anything outside of Amtrak's NE corridor, you'll be driving and I-95 is one of the busiest highways in the world.

January 23, 2016 at 1:15 PM · œAJ Hummel: thank you!, actually I only consider going to a theme park if it has good roller coasters, I think I`m a bit exhausted of disney, probably been to Orlando 16 times and Disneyland Paris twice.

I guess I have to go to Six Flags Magic Mountain considering all the good reviews I have read.

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