Whether you’re planning to party in the USA or road trip from state to state, this guide can help you plot the cities and sites you need to see to do it right.
Bursting with diversity and bustling with activity, the USA is an epic adventure waiting to happen.
Each of its 50 states has its own distinct character; cross their borders and you’ll find that landscapes, accents, festivals and food vary immensely. No two states are alike, and that’s the way they like it.
With so many quality cities to explore, you shouldn’t limit yourself to just one place. Rent a car and cruise along Route 66, drive up and down coastlines exploring beachfronts and port towns, spend days riding roller coasters in amusement parks or camp out in a forest-filled national park.
Whatever your style, this guide has all makings of the great American (travel) dream.
Fast facts about the USA
- Main airports: Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta (ATL) and John F Kennedy International Airport (JFK).
- Ground transport: Trains and buses are common in most cities, with trams and trolleys also available in some.
- Weather: America experiences all four seasons with temperatures varying depending on the state, climate and landscape.
- Visas: 90-day visa-free travel. Australians are required to obtain travel authorisation prior to arrival, which can be applied for online here. Authorisation is USD$14 per person.
- Top 10 must see locations: The Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Central Park, the White House, Niagara Falls, the Empire State Building and Yellowstone National Park.
- Power point plugs: Type A (Two pins, 15 A).
- Currency: US Dollar (USD).
Best places to go in the USA
Los Angeles: Known as the City of Angels, Los Angeles is the second largest city in the US and is the hub for all things Hollywood. Under the watchful eye of the famous Hollywood sign lies Sunset Strip and its world-famous landmarks and bars, Rodeo Drive and its rich clientele, Universal and Paramount Studios and their studio backlot tours and Santa Monica Pier and its bevy of sun-kissed bodies.
New York: The Big Apple is a must for anyone visiting the US. This sprawling metropolis is a mecca of activity and the place to be to see all-American icons such as the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Central Park, Grand Central Terminal, Wall Street, Brooklyn, Madison Square Gardens, Broadway and the High Line. Spend at least a week here, you’ll need it.
San Francisco: When you’re done walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, getting spooked in Alcatraz, riding the trams and rollercoasting down Lombard’s windy hairpin road, San Francisco’s rich arts and food scene will be there to entertain and delight.
Las Vegas: Sin City is a sensory expedition that should be approached with a no-holds-barred attitude. Neon lights fill the landscape, casinos ring with coins, clubs blaze with revellers into the early mornings and debauchery is rife. Adopt the adage of “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” and you’ll be doing the city a just service.
New Orleans: Baked in Louisiana Creole culture, a term used to describe settlers originating from France or Spain, the city of New Orleans offers a completely different flavour to the rest of America. Its European origins can be found in everything from its jazz music scene and its cajun cuisine right down to its celebrations, the most famous of which is Mardi Gras.
Florida: Known as The Sunshine State, Florida attracts holidaymakers, school breakers and retirees alike. It boasts endless stretches of beach, a Mexican-influence and some of the best amusement parks in the country including Walt Disney World and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Check out what accommodation is like in these areas:
Top things to do in the USA
- Visit Hollywood: America’s biggest export is arguably its entertainment industry. See what all the glitz and glamour is about with a trip to Hollywood where you can step onto the Hollywood Walk of Fame, match hands and feet with the stars outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and stalk the celebs on a celebrity homes tour.
- Go to Disneyland: Disneyland is where magic happens. It’s the ultimate fun destination with themed rides and restaurants, live performances, street parades, fireworks displays and the chance to meet your favourite Disney characters in real life. Don’t pass up the chance to be a kid again and spend at least one day here. Two if you can.
- Gamble, club and watch a show in Sin City: What else would you do in Vegas but gamble, drink and dance the night away?
- Go on a road trip: America’s network of highways was built to be driven. Recommended itineraries include Route 66, a loop drive from Los Angeles to Sequoia, Kings, Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks or Los Angeles to San Francisco, inclusive of San Fran’s famously winding Lombard Street.
- Visit the Empire State Building: Make your Sleepless in Seattle dreams come true and head to the observation deck of the Empire State Building for sweeping city views. If the line’s too long you can visit the Chrysler Building for similar views.
- Take a ferry to the Statue of Liberty: A trip to New York would not be complete without a visit to the lady herself. Ferries travel direct to the Statue and Ellis Island but if you’re on a budget, the free Staten Island ferry sails past the statue too.
- Party on Bourbon Street: If there’s one thing you have to do in New Orleans it’s party on Bourbon Street. The street never sleeps and is filled with all manner of bars and clubs offering live music for the cost of a drink.
- Helicopter over the Grand Canyon: Mother Nature outdid herself when she carved out the Grand Canyon. In it, red bands of rock revealing billions of years of geological history span a space of 446km by 29km. If you can’t spring for the helicopter ride over this phenomenal site, there’s a glass-bottomed observation deck and a myriad of walks and viewpoints that are just as special.
- Cycle the Golden Gate Bridge: San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is an architectural wonder of brilliant red sky-high towers and sweeping cables that connect the city to California’s northern counties. Drive it, walk it or cycle it; either way you’ve got to see it.
- Eat at a typical American diner: Granted, America is renowned for its greasy, heavy fast food options, but when in America don’t deny yourself the novelty of chowing down at a typical American diner. You can walk off the calories in Central Park later.
- Eat pizza in New York or Chicago: Chicago might be home to the deep-dish pizza, but New York is home to the first pizzeria in the USA. It’s called Lombardi’s and you’ll find it in Little Italy.
- Catch a game: Baseball is America’s national sport and if you’re in New York during the season, catching a game at Yankee Stadium is a must. Alternatively, you can go all out and visit New York’s best venues for baseball, American football, basketball, hockey and tennis.
- Cycle through Central Park: At the very least, cycle through part of it. The park houses a zoo and wildlife centre, nature observatory and castle.
- See Niagara Falls: There’s hot debate on whether the Falls are better seen on the US side or the Canadian side. We’ll let you decide.
- See a play on Broadway: When in the entertainment capital of the world, catching a play on Broadway is mandatory. If you’re the spontaneous type you can nab cheap tickets on the day of the play. Off-Broadway plays also tend to be cheaper.
Best events to attend in the year:
- Burning Man: This is an annual event where thousands gather at Black Rock City in a manic celebration of community, art and self-radiance. 27 August-4 September 2017
- New Year’s Eve in New York: One of the most iconic sights on New Year’s Eve is the ball drop in Madison Square, New York City. Be there. 31 December 2017
- Mardi Gras: New Orleans hosts the biggest Mardi Gras in the USA every year. It’s a day of floats, balls, costumes, beads, energy and all-night partying. 28 February 2017
- Governors Ball: Held in New York City, this three-day music festival attracts a lineup of A-listers such as The Strokes, The Killers and Kanye West. 2-4 June 2017
- Coachella: Thousands of hippies and dreamers let down their hair to party under the Californian sun yearly at this music and arts festival. Held over two weekends, the music is dance and folk-rock. 14-16 April and 21-23 April 2017
How much will a trip to the USA cost?
Typical hotel prices
Prices vary in The States depending on where you’re visiting. Each state has its own tax system and some cities are more expensive than others. New York City, for example, is one of the most expensive cities with hostel stays from about $45 per person, per night, modest 2-star hotel stays around at USD$130 per night and 5-star hotels upwards of USD$365 per night.
In a more affordable city like New Orleans, a 2-star inn starts from $78 and 5-star hotels start from $183 per night.
Prices mentioned above are for a one night stay in February 2017, twin share.
Typical meal prices
As with hotel prices, meal prices vary according to states and their taxes. You also have to keep in mind that if you are dining somewhere that you’re being served, you have to tip. The accepted tip percentage varies by state as well, but it’s generally between 15-20% of your bill.
In New York City you can expect to pay upwards of $5 for a beer and, while you can get cheap slices of pizza from $1, the average tends to be $2.50. In New Orleans, a beer starts at $2 with pizza slices costing around $2.50.
- Uber: Uber is an affordable means of transport throughout the USA and is found in most cities including New York City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco.
- Taxis: Taxis are available in all major cities. Prices vary depending on the city, destination and traffic.
- Local transport: Subway, bus and train systems run through major centres. Coaches, trains and planes are available to travel between states.