USA family travel guide & tips
What to expect in the USA
The USA is a land of superlatives. Everything here is bigger, glitzier, more wild, more exciting. So why not super-size your next family holiday? Kids will be open-mouthed at the glitz and glamour, enthralled by the wildly beautiful scenery and unique wildlife and inspired by opportunities to try exciting new activities like surfing, supping, camping and skiing. There really is stacks to choose from. But don’t worry, we’ve compiled this USA family travel guide to help make your holiday in America the trip of a lifetime.
The USA is great for:
- Outdoor adventures: The natural scenery in the USA is spectacular. Snow-capped mountain peaks, mile-deep canyons, immense desert moonscapes – it’s just made for exploring. And then there’s the wildlife! You can see whales breaching and dolphins frolicking along the sparkling Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, spot bears in the foothills and forests and see immense herds of bison on the plains. It’s a vast natural playground made for making memories.
- Hitting the road: Route 66, the Pacific Coast highway – the USA is the ultimate road trip destination. Away from the cities, driving is carefree and easy and the sights along the way are dramatic. Pull in at historic Kingman or Seligman and feel like you’re on the set of a movie, take in the golden sands and secret bays of the California coastline as you sweep around the bends of the Pacific Coast Highway, check out the epic views of San Francisco as you cruise across famous Golden Gate Bridge.
- Bright lights and big cities: America does cities exceptionally well. Places like San Francisco, LA, New Orleans and New York are packed with high tech museums, movie sets and theme parks like you wouldn’t believe, lip-smacking food from all corners of the planet and amazing shopping. And there’s the neon magic of Las Vegas where hotels come with their own rollercoasters and pirate ships. The contrast with the natural landscapes couldn’t be greater. And that’s what makes it so fun.
Our top 4 USA highlights
- Treasure hunting in San Francisco – What better way to get to know a new city than with a treasure hunt? After joining a local guide, you’ll hear stories about the gold rush, count the Painted Ladies on Alamo Square, taste fortune cookies in Chinatown and play interactive games in the Italian Quarter.
- Learning to surf in San Diego – As one of the best places in the whole of the continent, with year-round perfect weather, it would be a shame not to give the Californian favourite pastime a try. A guided lesson is the perfect way to give surfing a go for the first time and is great fun for all the family.
- Horse-riding through Monument Valley – Monument Valley is one of the most photographed places in the country. There’s no better way to explore it than on horseback – you’ll feel like you’re in a Western film.
- Paddle-boarding through Moab’s canyons – Moab is the adventure capital of Utah. Famous for its rock formations and alien landscapes, it’s a dream spot for a family adventure. And what better way to navigate the Colorado River than atop a stand-up paddleboard?
Top things to do in California with the family
The USA is made for family holidays and if there’s one state that we think has it all, it’s California.
For starters, there’s the golden coastline with some of the best beaches on Earth. Here you can surf, swim, paddle and play to your heart’s content. But that’s not all. Why not hop aboard a boat for some truly once-in-a-lifetime encounters with whales, dolphins, and sea lions?
Dotted along the sparkling coastline there are friendly beach towns like Monterey and Pismo Beach and urban extravaganzas like San Francisco and Los Angeles. Inland there’s the wine region packed with exceptional vineyards and world-class restaurants. Rising up behind the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains offer up shimmering lakes, untouched forest teeming with wildlife and some of the best skiing in the world in winter.
And don’t forget the national parks. Some of the USA’s most iconic natural playgrounds are found in California. There are more here than in any other state including Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Sequoia with eons-old forests, enormous panoramas of ancient mountains and rushing canyons to explore.
USA Essential Information
Best time to go
Any time is good but most people on family holidays go during the summer.
Though the US doesn’t have an official language, English is widely spoken. Spanish is also spoken in the states closer to the Mexican border.
ESTA visa waiver
UK passport holders can apply for an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) visa waiver. You need to complete the online registration form and pay the $14 fee.
Direct flights to all major US cities are widely available from many UK airports. We’ll help you find the best flights for your trip.
The currency of the USA is, of course, the US dollar.
Usually, tips of between 15-20% are expected in bars and restaurants, and roughly the same for taxi fares. Hotel porters also expect a tip of approx. $2 per item carried.
Best US national parks
There are over 60 national parks in the USA and they cover millions of square miles. The scenery is on an epic scale. You can hike among armies of rose-coloured fairy chimneys in Bryce Canyon, stare skywards at 1000-year-old sequoia trees with trunks wider than a house in Sequoia, scramble to your heart’s content over vast boulders at Joshua Tree and take the ultimate selfie at Grand Canyon. Many national parks have campsites too. What could be better after a day spotting bears and hiking through waterfall-drenched canyons than sitting around a campfire and looking up at the star-spangled sky?
Best time to visit the USA
With its vast land mass crossing multiple climate zones there’s never a bad time to visit the USA. It really boils down to what you want to see and do. People typically take family holidays in America in the summer months. Family holiday favourites like California, Florida, Texas, New England, the Deep South and old Wild West are all hot and sunny at this time of year. Of course, school holidays are the busiest times of year, so if your kids aren’t school age go in late spring or early autumn when the weather is ideal and prices often lower. But if you’re looking for a family skiing holiday in the USA you’ll be going over the Christmas or spring half-term breaks.
A guide to American food
Think American food is just burgers, soft drinks, and hot dogs? Think again. The USA is huge, with big variations in geography and all kinds of climates. The result is fresh produce of every colour and flavour imaginable. Throw in a multitude of multi-cultural populations adding their unique dishes to the menu, and there’s a never-ending selection of tasty things to try. Chowder, apple pie, deep-pan pizza, barbecue, jambalaya, stuffed bagels. The list is endless. And don’t forget the smooth wines, craft beers, zesty smoothies, and small-batch coffees.
Beaches and the coast
Beaches in the USA are postcard perfect. On all three coasts there really is a beach for everyone. On the west coast in California there’s the glamour of Malibu and the razzamatazz of Venice Beach and golden sand and rolling waves just made for learning to surf around San Diego. And in Washington and Oregon, there are wild shorelines and secret coves. You may even see whales breaching out at sea and otters, puffins and seals closer to the shore.
The east coast beaches are similarly spectacular. The bright lights and beautiful people of Miami, the kid-friendly sheltered beaches of South Carolina, the rugged beauty of the coves and bays in New England, the funky urban beaches and old fashioned resorts close to New York and the glamour of Martha’s Vineyard – the hardest thing will be choosing.
And don’t forget the south coast of the USA along the Gulf of Mexico. The Texas shoreline is home to five different species of turtle. In Alabama, you’ll find wetlands packed with birdlife, alligators and crabs. Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida all have long stretches of pristine Gulf coastline to enjoy.
The US is enormous so distances can be huge. Internal flights are cheap and widely available, but most people stick to exploring one or two states as there really is stacks to see and do wherever you choose to base yourself. The best way to get around on a USA family holiday is by hiring a rental car and hitting the road. Driving in the USA is really easy. With wide-open roads, comfy cars with all mod cons and heaps of space for all your gear in the boot. Best of all, you can stop off wherever you fancy.