American Express -- There are branches throughout Texas. To report a lost card, call tel. 800/528-4800. To report lost traveler's checks, call tel. 800/221-7282.
Area Codes -- Area codes for Dallas are 214 and 972; Fort Worth, 817; Houston, 713 and 281; San Antonio, 210; and Austin, 512.
Automobile Organizations -- Auto clubs will supply maps, suggested routes, guidebooks, accident and bail bond insurance, and emergency road service. The American Automobile Association (AAA) is the major auto club in the United States. If you belong to an auto club in your home country, inquire about AAA reciprocity before you leave. You may be able to join AAA even if you're not a member of a reciprocal club; to inquire, call AAA (tel. 800/222-4357). AAA is actually an organization of regional auto clubs, so look under "AAA Automobile Club" in the White Pages of the telephone directory. AAA has a nationwide emergency road service telephone number (tel. 800/AAA-HELP [222-4357]).
Business Hours -- Offices are usually open weekdays from 9am to 5pm. Banks are open weekdays from 9am to 3pm or later and sometimes Saturday mornings. Stores typically open between 9 and 10am and close between 5 and 6pm Monday through Saturday. Stores in shopping complexes or malls tend to stay open late, until about 9pm on weekdays and weekends, and many malls and larger department stores are open on Sundays. A growing number of discount stores (such as Wal-Mart) and grocery stores are open 24 hours a day.
Drinking Laws -- The legal drinking age is 21, although minors can legally drink as long as they are within sight of their 21-or-older parents, guardians, or spouses. Where you can or cannot buy a drink, and what kind of drink, is determined in Texas by local option election, so the state is essentially a patchwork of regulations. In most parts of the state you can buy liquor, beer, and wine by the drink. However, there are a few areas where you can buy only beer (which Texas defines as having no more than 4% alcohol; anything higher is "ale"), and others where you can purchase beer or wine by the glass but not liquor. There are also some areas that are completely dry -- mostly in the Panhandle Plains and near the state's eastern border -- and other confusing areas where one county will be dry (meaning you have to join private clubs -- membership is normally free and immediately granted -- to drink in restaurants, and liquor stores will stock beer and wine only) and the county right next to it will be wet.
Electricity -- Like Canada, the United States uses 110-120 volts AC (60 cycles), compared to 220-240 volts AC (50 cycles) in most of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. If your small appliances use 220-240 volts, you'll need a 110-volt transformer and a plug adapter with two flat parallel pins to operate them here. Downward converters that change 220-240 volts into 110-120 volts are difficult to find in the United States, so bring one with you. Wherever you go, bring a connection kit of the right power and phone adapters, a spare phone cord, and a spare Ethernet network cable -- or find out whether your hotel supplies them to guests.
Embassies & Consulates -- All embassies are located in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. Some consulates are located in major U.S. cities, and most nations have a mission to the United Nations in New York City. If your country isn't listed below, call for directory information in Washington, D.C. (tel. 202/555-1212) or check www.embassy.org/embassies.
The embassy of Australia is at 1601 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20036 (tel. 202/797-3000; www.austemb.org). There are consulates in New York, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
The embassy of Canada is at 501 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20001 (tel. 202/682-1740; www.canadianembassy.org). Other Canadian consulates are in Buffalo (New York), Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle.
The embassy of Ireland is at 2234 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202/462-3939; www.irelandemb.org). Irish consulates are in Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and other cities. See website for complete listing.
The embassy of New Zealand is at 37 Observatory Circle NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202/328-4800; www.nzembassy.com). New Zealand consulates are in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Seattle.
The embassy of the United Kingdom is at 3100 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202/588-7800; www.britainusa.com). Other British consulates are in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle.
Emergencies -- Call tel. 911 to report a fire, call the police, or get an ambulance anywhere in the United States. This is a toll-free call. (No coins are required at public telephones.) If you encounter serious problems, contact the Traveler's Aid Society International (tel. 202/546-1127; www.travelersaid.org). The Texas office is at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (tel. 972/574-4420). This nationwide, nonprofit, social-service organization geared to helping travelers in difficult straits offers services that might include reuniting families separated while traveling, providing food and/or shelter to people stranded without cash, or even emotional counseling. If you're in trouble, seek them out.
Gasoline (Petrol) -- At press time, in the U.S., the cost of gasoline (also known as gas, but never petrol) is high. Texas often has some of the lowest gasoline prices in the United States; although prices fluctuate (and will surely rise sharply again), at press time regular unleaded gas ranged from $1.70 to $2.49 per gallon, with the lowest prices in the Gulf Coast area (for current prices, check out www.texasgasprices.com). Taxes are already included in the printed price. One U.S. gallon equals 3.8 liters or .85 imperial gallons.
Holidays -- Banks, government offices, post offices, and many stores, restaurants, and museums are closed on the following legal national holidays: January 1 (New Year's Day), the third Monday in January (Martin Luther King Day), the third Monday in February (Presidents' Day, Washington's Birthday), the last Monday in May (Memorial Day), July 4 (Independence Day), the first Monday in September (Labor Day), the second Monday in October (Columbus Day), November 11 (Veterans Day/Armistice Day), the fourth Thursday in November (Thanksgiving Day), and December 25 (Christmas). Also, the Tuesday following the first Monday in November is Election Day and is a federal government holiday in presidential-election years (held every 4 years, and next in 2012).
Internet Access -- You'll have trouble finding convenient Internet access in the smaller towns, where you might have the best luck at the local library. Before you go, check for an Internet cafe in your destination at www.cybercafes.com.
Legal Aid -- If you are "pulled over" for a minor infraction (such as speeding), never attempt to pay the fine directly to a police officer; this could be construed as attempted bribery, a much more serious crime. Pay fines by mail, or directly into the hands of the clerk of the court. If accused of a more serious offense, say and do nothing before consulting a lawyer. Here the burden is on the state to prove a person's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and everyone has the right to remain silent, whether he or she is suspected of a crime or actually arrested. Once arrested, a person can make one telephone call to a party of his or her choice. Call your embassy or consulate.
Lost & Found -- Be sure to contact all of your credit card companies the minute you discover your wallet has been lost or stolen and file a report at the nearest police precinct. Your credit card company or insurer may require a police report number or record of the loss. Most credit card companies have an emergency toll-free number to call if your card is lost or stolen; they may be able to wire you a cash advance immediately or deliver an emergency credit card in a day or two. Visa's U.S. emergency number is tel. 800/847-2911 or 410/581-9994. American Express cardholders and traveler's check holders should call tel. 800/221-7282. MasterCard holders should call tel. 800/622-7747. For other credit cards, call the toll-free number directory at tel. 800/555-1212. If you need emergency cash over the weekend when all banks and American Express offices are closed, you can have money wired to you via Western Union (tel. 800/325-6000; www.westernunion.com).
Mail -- At press time, domestic postage rates were 28¢ for a postcard and 44¢ for a letter. For international mail, a first-class letter of up to 1 ounce costs 98¢ (75¢ to Canada and 79¢ to Mexico); a first-class postcard costs the same as a letter. For more information go to www.usps.com and click on "Calculate Postage."
If you aren't sure what your address will be in the United States, mail can be sent to you, in your name, c/o General Delivery at the main post office of the city or region where you expect to be. (Call tel. 800/275-8777 for information on the nearest post office.) The addressee must pick up mail in person and must produce proof of identity (driver's license, passport, and so on). Most post offices will hold your mail for up to 1 month, and are open Monday to Friday from 8am to 6pm, and Saturday from 9am to 3pm.
Always include zip codes when mailing items in the U.S. If you don't know your zip code, visit www.usps.com/zip4.
Medical Conditions -- If you have a medical condition that requires syringe-administered medications, carry a valid signed prescription from your physician; syringes in carry-on baggage will be inspected. Insulin in any form should have the proper pharmaceutical documentation. If you have a disease that requires treatment with narcotics, you should also carry documented proof with you -- smuggling narcotics aboard a plane carries severe penalties in the U.S.
For HIV-positive visitors, requirements for entering the United States are somewhat vague and change frequently. For up-to-the-minute information, contact AIDSinfo (tel. 800/448-0440 or 301/519-6616 outside the U.S.; www.aidsinfo.nih.gov) or the Gay Men's Health Crisis (tel. 212/367-1000; www.gmhc.org).
Newspapers & Magazines -- The state's largest daily newspapers include the Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and San Antonio Express-News. Other cities and large towns, especially regional hubs, have daily newspapers, and many smaller towns publish weeklies. Free arts-heavy weeklies include the Dallas Observer and the Austin Chronicle. National newspapers such as USA Today and the Wall Street Journal can be purchased at newsstands in cities and major hotels; and you can also purchase two good monthly magazines, Texas Highways and Texas Monthly, throughout the state.
Police -- Dial tel. 911 for a police or medical emergency.
Smoking -- There is no statewide public smoking ban in Texas (a ban was proposed but significantly weakened in 2007); at least 20 individual cities have banned smoking in restaurants and/or bars and clubs and government buildings. Of major cities, San Antonio, Austin, and Houston have perhaps the strongest antismoking ordinances, with banning of smoking ranging from all public places (with exceptions for enclosed bar and outdoor seating areas designated as "smoking") to restaurants, bars, and restaurant bar areas.
Taxes -- The United States has no value-added tax (VAT) or other indirect tax at the national level. Every state, county, and city may levy its own local tax on all purchases, including hotel and restaurant checks and airline tickets. These taxes will not appear on price tags. Texans like to brag that the state is a great place to live because there is no state income tax. However, money for government services has to come from somewhere, and one of those sources is you, the traveler. Texas lodging taxes are among the highest in the region, ranging from the basic hotel rate of 6% to 17%, with the steepest rate in Houston. Sales taxes in Texas vary by county, but usually total from the basic state sales tax of 6.25% to 8.25%, slightly higher than in most surrounding states.
Telegraph, Telex & Fax -- Telegraph and telex services are provided primarily by Western Union (tel. 800/325-6000; www.westernunion.com). You can telegraph (wire) money, or have it telegraphed to you, very quickly over the Western Union system, but this service can cost as much as 15% to 20% of the amount sent. Most hotels have fax machines available for guest use (be sure to ask about the charge to use it). Many hotel rooms are wired for guests' fax machines. A less expensive way to send and receive faxes may be at stores such as the UPS Store.
Time -- Almost all of Texas is in the Central Standard Time zone (CST); the only exception is the state's far-western tip, which observes Mountain Standard Time (MST). The continental United States is divided into four time zones: Eastern Standard Time (EST); Central Standard Time (CST), which includes all of Texas except its far-western tip; Mountain Standard Time (MST); and Pacific Standard Time (PST). Alaska and Hawaii have their own zones. For example, noon in New York City (EST) is 11am in Dallas (CST), 10am in Denver (MST), 9am in Los Angeles (PST), 8am in Anchorage (AST), and 7am in Honolulu (HST).
Daylight saving time is in effect from 1am on the second Sunday in March to 1am on the first Sunday in November, except in Arizona, Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Daylight saving time moves the clock 1 hour ahead of standard time.
Tipping -- Tips are a very important part of certain workers' income, and gratuities are the standard way of showing appreciation for services provided. (Tipping is certainly not compulsory if the service is poor!) In hotels, tip bellhops at least $1 per bag ($2-$3 if you have a lot of luggage) and tip the chamber staff $1 to $2 per day (more if you've left a disaster area for him or her to clean up). Tip the doorman or concierge only if he or she has provided you with some specific service (for example, calling a cab for you or obtaining difficult-to-get theater tickets). Tip the valet-parking attendant $1 every time you get your car.
In restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, tip service staff 15% to 20% of the check, tip bartenders 10% to 15%, tip checkroom attendants $1 per garment, and tip valet-parking attendants $1 per vehicle.
As for other service personnel, tip cabdrivers 15% of the fare; tip skycaps at airports at least $1 per bag ($2-$3 if you have a lot of luggage); and tip hairdressers and barbers 15% to 20%.
Toilets -- You won't find public toilets or "restrooms" on the streets in most U.S. cities, but they can be found in hotel lobbies, bars, restaurants, museums, department stores, railway and bus stations, and service stations. Large hotels and fast-food restaurants are probably the best bet for good, clean facilities. If possible, avoid the toilets at parks and beaches, which tend to be dirty; some may be unsafe. Restaurants and bars in resorts or heavily visited areas may reserve their restrooms for patrons.
Useful Phone Numbers
- Texas Parks & Wildlife Park Information tel. 800/792-1112
- Hunting information tel. 512/389-4505
- Fishing information tel. 512/389-4505
- Poison Center tel. 800/POISON-1 (764-7661)
- Road conditions hot line tel. 800/452-9292
- Weather hot line tel. 512/232-4265
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control international traveler's hot line tel. 404/332-4559
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.