The USA travel guide: what you need to know

Best time to go, culture, health, safety, laws, watchouts, emergency contacts and more.

United States overview

Where and when to go for a White Christmas, autumn foliage, or the summer holidays and how much, who and why you should tip - download the USA travel guide.

Travel-size tips

  • Most Australians don't need a visa to visit the USA, just an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization).
  • Flying to the USA can take anywhere from 10 hours (to Hawaii) to more than 20 hours (to New York).
  • The USA is a big place. It takes at least three days to travel by car or train from one side to the other – or about six hours in a plane.
  • Sales tax is often not included in advertised prices for accommodation, events, meals and goods – always check what the final price will be.

Know before you go

  • US Customs and Border Protection is notoriously strict. Make sure you know all the rules before you go – tourists have been turned away at US borders for even minor infractions.
  • The cost of medical care in the United States is extremely high. Travel insurance is a must.

Best time to go

America is a big place, so the weather can vary from sub-zero blizzards during winter to baking hot heatwaves during summer. Check the average temperature and rainfall by month and state based on when and where you're planning to travel.

  • If you're hoping for a white Christmas, New York often delivers. The city also delivers some serious heatwaves and humidity during summer.
  • Los Angeles, and the rest of California, enjoys a more temperate climate year-round with a dry but intense heat in summer.
  • Extreme winter weather in the north of the country, including in New York, Boston and Washington DC, can sometimes disrupt travel.
  • Peak holiday periods include Independence Day on July 4, Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November, and Christmas.
  • The summer school holidays usually span July and September; exact dates change each year.
  • Summer is the high season for much of the country, but it's hurricane season (peaking from August to October) for the Gulf Coast, which includes Miami, New Orleans and Walt Disney World in Orlando.
  • Winter is Hawaii's peak season, but the islands are also busy during mid-summer. Since Hawaii enjoys year-round warm temperatures, the shoulder seasons are a great time to grab a bargain.
  • Autumn (or 'fall') is the time to visit areas famous for their foliage, such as Vermont and New England. The farmer's almanac lists the peak fall foliage dates for 48 states.
  • The ski season generally begins in November, with many resorts first opening their doors for business on the Thanksgiving long weekend. Peak ski times are during January and February, but many resorts stay open until April, when prices may drop for the shoulder season.


American culture and language is similar to Australia's, with only a few differences.

  • Tipping is expected. Remember that the minimum wage in the US is far lower than in Australia and many workers rely on tips to make ends meet. As a general guide, tip taxi drivers, restaurant staff and other servers 10–20%. Porters, valets and hotel maids should receive up to a few dollars.
  • Some restaurants automatically add 'gratuities' or 'service charges' to the bill, particularly in tourist areas or when serving large groups. In these cases it's up to you whether you want to add more to the tip.
  • Sales tax may come as a surprise, as it's often not included in advertised prices.
  • The US still operates on the imperial measurement system, which means you'll need to do the 'math' to translate miles into kilometres and gallons into litres. Better yet, use an app.
  • There are a few minor language differences; for example it's better to ask for a 'restroom' than a 'toilet', and an order of a 'flat white' will most likely earn you a blank stare (although Starbucks has recently introduced the Aussie brew to the mainstream). See this Australian-American dictionary for more examples.

Health and safety

The US health care system has no reciprocal deals with Australia, which means if you get sick, you'll have to pay your own bills. And boy, can those hospital bills skyrocket! Think AU$20,000 for a broken arm or AU$55,000 for an appendectomy. The quality of care is as good as Australia's, but it goes without saying that you'll need good travel insurance to cover the cost.

Warning: If you can't prove that you have insurance, hospitals may charge you upfront.

For the latest advice on risks, including terrorism, natural disasters and potential outbreaks of disease, visit

Do I need vaccinations to travel to the USA?

Laws and watchouts


For road rules, see Driving in the USA.


The USA is generally a safe place to visit, but risks can vary depending on where you are and what you're doing.

  • America's violent crime rate is much higher than Australia's, and risks of muggings can be higher in certain neighbourhoods. Check with locals or hotel staff to find out if there are areas of some cities that you should avoid.
  • Keep your belongings close, as pickpockets and bag-snatchers may operate in crowded areas.
  • Bank card skimming and credit card fraud is a problem in the USA, as it is in Australia. Keep an eye on your statements and let the bank know if you see any unexplained transactions.
  • Be careful using free Wi-Fi hotspots. Follow these tips to keep your device safe from hackers, and avoid logging in to internet banking on untrusted connections.

See our list of tourist traps for more advice on avoiding common scams while on holiday.

Making a complaint

If you fall victim to theft, call the police by dialling 911.

The US has similar consumer protection laws to Australia. If you have a dispute with an accommodation, transport or tour provider, or any other local service, follow the guidelines at for making complaints and resolving problems.

If your gripe is with an Australian tour operator, airline, or booking site, follow the usual procedures for making a complaint or seeking compensation.

Emergency contacts

Emergency number: 911

Australian Embassy

National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036, United States (temporary location until 2022)

+1 202 797 3000
24-hour emergency number: +1 888 239 3501
Facebook: AusInTheUS

Australian Consulates-General

New York: 150 East 42nd Street, 34th Floor, New York, NY, +1 212 351 6500

Los Angeles: 2029 Century Park East, Suite 3150, Los Angeles, CA +1 310 229 2300

San Francisco: 575 Market Street, San Francisco, CA +1 415 644 3620

Honolulu: 1000 Bishop Street, Penthouse, Honolulu, HI, +1 808 529 8100

Chicago: 123 North Wacker Drive, Suite 1330, Chicago, IL, +1 312 419 1480

Houston: 4623 Feagan Street, Houston, TX, +1 713 782 6009

Denver: 9200 West Cross Drive, Suite 1100, Littleton, CO, +1 303 321 2234

Atlanta: Atlanta Financial Center, 3353 Peachtree Road, NE, Suite 1140, Atlanta, GA, +1 404 760 3400

24-hour Australian Consular Emergency Centre: +61 2 6261 3305 (from overseas) or 1300 555 135 (within Australia) or SMS +61 421 269 080

Got a travel tip about the USA? Or spotted something in our guide that needs updating? Add a comment below.