Temperatures, Weights and Measures

In the US we use Fahrenheit. To convert a Celsius temperature into degrees Fahrenheit:
F = ((9/5)*C)+32

To convert a Fahrenheit temperature into Celsius:
C = (5/9)*(F-32)

It is not too difficult. For instance, I know that 32F = 0C, and 75F = 24C, so if it is 0C then I'd better bring my coat, and if it is 24C then I don't need one.

1 Stone = 14 Pounds (useful if you get on a scale and weigh yourself)
1 Kg = 35 Ounces = 2.2 Pounds (useful for grocery shopping)

1 Gallon = 4 Quarts = 3.7843 Liters
1 Yard = 3 Feet = 36 Inches = .9144 Meters
1 Kilometer = .62 Miles

Roundabouts - What's wrong with them?

Americans may have seen Chevy Chase's "European Vacation" and know what they look like but generally do NOT know how to use Roundabouts! They don't know what the different lanes are for. They don't know that you don't have to stop first. They stop, and sit there reading the directions, then tentatively begin to drive.

I would hate for you to come over here and think, "Finally! Something familiar!" And go speeding onto one like you would in Europe. Go slowly, and assume no one knows what they are doing, and you'll be fine.

Driving in the US

If you are from Great Britain or one of its former colonies and used to driving on the other side of the road, and in a normal size car as opposed to a Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV), then I would recommend that you get a hotel room near the airport or take a shuttle to your destination and get at least one good nights sleep before attempting to drive.

If you are from Italy you will have no problem driving here.

If you are from Germany or used to driving on a roadway like the autobahn, you will be very frustrated here. I am every time I come back from Germany! People pass on the right (which just makes me want to scream). All the lanes have the same speed limit, so that makes it difficult to pass. Around cities the speed limit on major highways is 55mph and the cars in the right lanes are going the speed limit and the cars in the left lane are generally going slightly over that. Then there are the people that are in a hurry and switching lanes continually all to get just 5 cars ahead of you.

People also do all sorts of things when they're driving in the US. Women put on makeup (which is perfectly acceptable since WE can multi-task and watch traffic while putting on blush), people smoke, drink coffee, eat hamburgers, change CDs and SOME even read while driving. Oh, and our drunk driving laws are not as strict as those in Europe, so you should assume that 40% of the people driving on a Friday or Saturday late at night are drunk. (Not that they are all drunk, but it only takes one.)

So my suggestion is for you to get enough sleep before attempting to drive, know when and where rush hour is and avoid it, don't drive late at night and take public transportation whenever possible.

Smoking or Non?

In the United States, when you walk into a restaurant that allows smoking, the first thing you will hear is "Smoking or non?" These restaurants have separate seating sections for their smoking and non-smoking customers. When you enter a restaurant, usually there will be a sign that says, "Please wait to be seated" and a hostess will eventually appear to take you to a table. (I believe this arises from our tipping policies and this assures an even distribution of customers for each waiter or waitress.) At this point, you will have to choose smoking or non-smoking.

If you do sit in a smoking area, be prepared for it to be very smoky because the smokers are concentrated in one area. Or you could try sitting in the non-smoking section even if you smoke. It can be quite pleasant to eat in a smoke-free environment. And if you want to smoke and the restaurant has a bar that allows smoking, then you can sit or stand at the bar and smoke. Asking for a light is a good way to meet people and chat with the locals.

By the way, it is difficult to smoke in airports in the US. In some you'll have to go outside, in others you'll have to find the one concourse that has a bar that allows smoking but forces you to buy a drink. So when you fly over here, be prepared to go for a couple of hours - after you land - without smoking. You will have to claim your luggage, go through customs and find your way outside before being able to light up.

Eating Without Getting Fat

Eating in restaurants in America, even for a week, can cause you to gain weight. Portion sizes are very large here in the US. Plus there are appetizers and deserts that are hard to resist. There are two ways to avoid gaining weight. One is to split your meal with someone else at your table. This is fairly common and you can ask them to split it in the kitchen or bring you an extra plate. Another way is to divide your food in half when it is served, and plan to take half of it with you. When you get ready to leave, just ask for a box "to go".

Another tactic would be to eat lunch at a restaurant, then eat left-overs or appetizers for dinner. Lunch is usually the same size portions but for a cheaper price. And it is not usually as hectic and you can sit and enjoy your meal.

Another problem is that fast-food restaurants are on almost every corner. And if you do decide to partake, just don't "biggie size" your order. I realize there are fast-food restaurants in other countries, but they're just not the same. It would be a cultural experience to try a drive-through here (trying to understand the person at a drive-through is an experience for anyone), but just don't get addicted.

US Trains are NOT like Trains in Europe

It is possible to get from city to city by train. And public transportation within most major US cities is usually very good. But there is nothing like a Eurorail pass that will get you anywhere in the country that you want to go any time you want to go. For instance, you can get from Denver to Glenwood Springs (in Colorado) by train, but then you will have to spend the night because there is no return train until the next day.

You will want to investigate your mode of transportation carefully before you come over here. If you fly into a major city, you can usually get by without renting a car while in the city. Then if you want to visit an out of the way place, you can rent a car or check on guided tours. If you do rent a car, be careful though. Even though we are the United States, rental car companies may charge a very large fee for renting in one state then dropping off the car in another state.

Note: many of the sites that you will want to see, such as the national parks, are not easily accessed by public transportation.

Tipping in the US

In the US, many people rely heavily on tipping for a majority their wages. That is why waiters/waitresses may seem overly eager to please and in a hurry to rush you from your table. (Don't worry about hurrying your meal. YOU are on holiday.) Bartenders and waiters or waitresses should receive 10-20% of the bill depending on the type of restaurant and quality of service. If the restaurant has cloth napkins and real flowers on the table then the wait-person should receive 20% if their service is good. If the restaurant has paper napkins and plastic utensils, and the wait-person is ok then they should receive 10%.

If you are eating with a party of six or more people, then you may have 18% gratuity added to your bill. Be sure to look at the bill or ask the wait-person if the tip has been added. You wouldn't want to pay twice.

Other people that rely on tips are:

  • Anyone who helps you with luggage such as a bellman or porter should receive $1-5 per bag. (This is more dependant on the place. At airports I usually give $1 per bag unless I only have one bag, then I might give $2. If you are staying someplace that costs $500/night, then you should give $5 per bag because you obviously have money to spend.)
  • Taxi driver: up to 15% of the fare
  • Shuttle bus driver: up to $5 per person
  • Parking Valet: $1-5

You may want to get some US currency at the airport so you have money for tipping, public transportation and fast-food restaurants. :)

British vs American English

There are some very interesting differences between British and American English. If you are used to seeing signs in your country that say "Lift", you will have to get used to looking for an "Elevator" here. In the US, it is common to carry personal items in a bag worn around the waist and it is called a "fanny pack". (A fanny is a nice name for what you sit on.) And people say, "Pardon me" or "Excuse me" when they are trying to get around you or you are in their way. In England people say, "Pardon me" for a different reason. Here is a for a very good write up of British Slang.

Making Telephone Calls

Making phone calls in the US can be very confusing for an international traveler. We used to have one company that had a monopoly on the phone service in the US. Someone decided that wasn't fair and decided to allow competition but didn't think about how that would impact people visiting this great country. I used to work for a phone company and spent some time as an operator. A few years ago, I had a poor chap from Germany standing at a phone booth and all he wanted to do was call home. I couldn't pick one long distance company for him to use, because that would be showing preference and the company I worked for could be sued. *sigh* I ended up getting him to find the name of the long distance company that serviced that phone on a sticker that was stuck to the pay phone, then I could give him the number to use.

The moral of the story is to read up on how to use the phones BEFORE you come over here. It is not as difficult as it used to be, because now you can buy international phone cards at convenience stores almost anywhere in the US and they come with detailed instructions on how to use them. Also, mobile phones are becoming international although not inexpensive.

One last confusing item is 10 digit and 7 digit dialing. Some cities are all 7 digit, so you just dial the 7 numbers to call from one place to another within a city. Some cities, as they're changing over from 7 digit to 10 digit allow you to use 7 digits (without the area code) if you are calling someone with the same area code. The easiest thing to do is attempt to use only 7 digits and if that is not correct you will hear a recording telling you to use 10 digits. Typically, dialing 1 plus the area code and number indicates long-distance, but I read that New York City requires this for all calls. If you plan to make local calls from your lodging, you should ask the correct procedure when you check-in. ("Do I need to dial the area code when making local calls?" "Do I need to dial 1 first?")

Another alternative is to look up cyber cafes before you come over here and bring (or e-mail yourself) your list of friends and families e-mail addresses. E-mail is convenient because you don't have to worry about the time differences.

To make an international call, dial 011 + country code + city code + local number

011 is the "international access code" for the US and Canada that will be needed when using a calling card

To call Canada and Caribbean countries, dial 1 + the area code + local number

Operator: 0 (for help in completing calls - there could be a charge)

Directory Assistance: 411 (there is usually a charge for dialing 411)

Emergency: 911

Dates, Time and Numbers

Dates in the US are written MM/DD/YYYY so December 25, 2003 is written 12/25/2003

The US does not use a 24 hour clock. Times before noon are written am (eight in the morning is 8:00am), and times after noon start over with one and use pm (so 13:00 is 1:00pm, 14:00 is 2:00pm)

Daylight savings time starts on the first Sunday in April when the clocks are moved forward one hour (Spring forward) and ends on the last Sunday in October when the clocks are moved back one hour (Fall back).

For the time now see: The Official US Time

For a world clock map go to: World Time Clock & Map

The week on calendars in the US begins with Sunday and not Monday.

The number 1 is written straight up and down with no hook (i.e. "|"), and the number 7 without the line across the middle (i.e. "7").

The first floor in America is the ground floor.

Money in the US

The currency in the US is the dollar which is divided into 100 cents. The term "bucks" is used informally for dollars. (i.e. "He spent 300 bucks on that leather coat!" means he spent $300)
50 cents - half dollar
25 cents - quarter
10 cents - dime
5 cents - nickel (which is bigger in diameter than a dime)
1 cent - penny

Credit cards can be used almost anywhere in the USA (grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants) plus ATM machines are abundant. You will need cash for things like taxis, park entrances, and toll roads.

Note: Commas and decimal points are switched. A dollar and a half is $1.50 and a mile is 5,280 feet.

For a currency convertor go to: Currency Convertor

Electrical Converters and Adaptors

The electrical supply in the USA is 110 Volt/60 cycles per second alternating current so a converter may be necessary for electrical appliances such as shavers or curling irons and you should use a transformer when using items like computers that will be plugged in for several hours. American plug sockets have two flat contact pins so an adaptor is necessary. For more information, see: http://www.kropla.com/electric.htm

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