Top Tips for Europeans Visiting the United States
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Great article Robert!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
What happened to the hyperloop idea Elon Musk was talking about? No 30 minutes from San Francisco to Los Angeles anytime soon?
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...
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.
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.
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.
What about six flags magic mountain? Is it worth going if you visit Los Angeles?
If you love roller coasters, Six Flags Magic Mountain absolutely is worth visiting. Read AJ Hummel's responses in
Thank you Robert!
To 18.104.22.168, 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.
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.
To add to what anonymous poster 22.214.171.124 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.
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.
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