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American Express -- You'll find American Express offices in Bal Harbour at 9700 Collins Ave. (tel. 305/865-5959; Mon-Sat 10am-6pm); and 32 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables (tel. 305/446-3381; Mon-Fri 9am-5pm and Sat 10am-4pm). To report lost or stolen traveler's checks, call tel. 800/221-7282. Universal Travel, 1425C SE 17th St. (tel. 954/525-5000) in Fort Lauderdale offers licensed American Express services.

Area Codes -- The original area code for Miami and all of Dade County was 305. That is still the code for older phone numbers, but all phone numbers assigned since July 1998 have the area code 786 (SUN). For all local calls, even if you're calling across the street, you must dial the area code (305 or 786) first. Even though the Keys still share the Dade County area code of 305, calls to there from Miami are considered long distance and must be preceded by 1-305. (Within the Keys, simply dial the seven-digit number.) The area codes for Fort Lauderdale are 954 and 754; for Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Vero Beach, and Port St. Lucie, it's 561.

ATM Networks -- ATMs are as ubiquitous in South Florida as the palm trees. Machines are found on nearly every street corner, in main shopping areas, and, in most cases, in supermarkets and even convenience stores.

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 -- Banking hours vary, but most banks are open weekdays from 9am to 3pm. Several stay open until 5pm or so at least 1 day during the week, and many banks feature ATMs for 24-hour banking. Most stores are open daily from 10am to 6pm; however, there are many exceptions. In Miami, shops in the Bayside Marketplace are usually open until 9 or 10pm, as are the boutiques in Coconut Grove. Boutiques on South Beach operate in their own time zone and hours range from 11am to midnight, sometimes earlier, sometimes later. Stores in Bal Harbour and other malls are usually open an extra hour 1 night during the week (usually Thurs). As far as business offices are concerned, Miami is generally a 9-to-5 town. In the Keys, hours are much more leisurely, and often left at the discretion of the proprietors. Call ahead before you go. In Key West, however, hours are similar to those in South Beach. Things are open rather late there. In Fort Lauderdale, hours are typically 9am to 5pm for businesses, but on the "Strip" (Las Olas Blvd. and downtown Fort Lauderdale), shops, restaurants, and clubs tend to stay open into the wee hours, or at least after midnight. Boca Raton, Palm Beach, and the Treasure Coast are entirely different and tend to keep earlier hours, with stores closing between 5 and 6pm and restaurants closing around 11pm, with the exception of those stores and restaurants on Clematis Street.

Currency -- The most common bills are the $1 (a "buck"), $5, $10, and $20 denominations. There are also $2 bills (seldom encountered), $50 bills, and $100 bills (the last two are usually not welcome as payment for small purchases).

Coins come in seven denominations: 1¢ (1 cent, or a penny); 5¢ (5 cents, or a nickel); 10¢ (10 cents, or a dime); 25¢ (25 cents, or a quarter); 50¢ (50 cents, or a half dollar); the Sacagawea and some presidential gold-colored coins, worth $1; and the rare silver dollar.

Drinking Laws -- The legal age for purchase and consumption of alcoholic beverages is 21; proof of age is required and often requested at bars, nightclubs, and restaurants, so it's always a good idea to bring ID when you go out.

Do not carry open containers of alcohol in your car or any public area that isn't zoned for alcohol consumption. The police can fine you on the spot. And nothing will ruin your trip faster than getting a citation for DUI ("driving under the influence"), so don't even think about driving while intoxicated. Drivers suspected to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs must agree to breath, blood, or urine testing under "implied consent laws." Penalties for refusing testing can mean suspension of the driver's license for up to one year. In Florida, the first conviction carries a mandatory suspension of the driver's license for 6 months; for the second offense, 1 year; for the third offense, 2 years. Underage drivers (21 or younger) have a maximum legal blood-alcohol content percentage of .02 percent. Above this amount, they are subject to DUI penalties.

At .20 percent above the legal limit of .08 percent, a driver faces much harsher repercussions. This also applies to drivers refusing chemical testing for intoxication.

As for open-container laws: Open alcoholic containers on public property, including streets, sidewalks, or inside a vehicle are prohibited, though opened bottles of liquor are allowed inside a car trunk. Beer and wine are sold in most supermarkets and convenience stores. Most liquor stores throughout South Florida are closed on Sundays, but liquor stores in the city of Miami Beach are open all week.

Electricity -- Like Canada, the United States uses 110 to 120 volts AC (60 cycles), compared to 220 to 240 volts AC (50 cycles) in most of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Downward converters that change 220 to 240 volts to 110 to 120 volts are difficult to find in the United States, so bring one with you.

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 log on to 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.embassyofireland.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/usa). 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.ukinusa.fco.gov.uk). Other British consulates are in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Emergencies -- To reach the police, ambulance, or fire department, dial tel. 911 from any phone. No coins are needed. Emergency hot lines include Crisis Intervention (tel. 305/358-HELP [4357]) and the Poison Information Center (tel. 800/282-3171). For crisis emergencies in Broward County, call First Call for Help (tel. 954/467-6333), and in Palm Beach, call Crisis Line (tel. 561/930-1234).

Gasoline (Petrol) -- At press time, in the U.S., the cost of gasoline (also known as gas, but never petrol), is abnormally high. Taxes are already included in the printed price. One U.S. gallon equals 3.8 liters or .83 imperial gallons. Fill-up locations are known as gas or service stations.

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, Jr., Day), the third Monday in February (Presidents' Day), the last Monday in May (Memorial Day), July 4th (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). The Tuesday after the first Monday in November is Election Day, a federal government holiday in presidential-election years (2008, 2012, and so on).

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. International visitors should call their embassy or consulate.

Lost & Found -- Be sure to tell 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. 800/307-7309 or 636/722-7111. 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 75¢ (79¢ to Mexico); a first-class international postcard costs 98¢ (75¢ to Canada and 79¢ Mexico). 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, or other). 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.

Newspapers & Magazines -- The Miami Herald is the city's only English-language daily. It is especially known for its extensive Latin American coverage and has a decent Friday "Weekend" entertainment guide. The most respected alternative weekly is the giveaway tabloid called New Times, which contains up-to-date listings and reviews of food, films, theater, music, and whatever else is happening in town. Also free, if you can find it, is Ocean Drive, an oversize glossy magazine that's limited on text (no literary value) and heavy on ads and society photos. It's what you should read if you want to know who's who and where to go for fun; it's available at a number of chic South Beach boutiques and restaurants. It is also available at newsstands. In the same vein: Miami Magazine and 944 Magazine, also free and available throughout the city.

Police -- For emergencies, dial tel. 911 from any phone. No coins are needed. For other matters, call tel. 305/595-6263. The Broward County Sheriff's Office number is (tel. 954/831-8900); the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office number is (tel. 561/470-5257).

Smoking -- Smoking is no longer allowed in restaurants. A law passed prohibiting smoking in any establishment that makes the bulk of its money in food sales. Outdoor areas are immune to these laws, and some restaurants have ignored the law and still permit smoking indoors.

Taxes -- A 6% state sales tax (plus 1% local tax, for a total of 7% in Miami-Dade County [from Homestead to North Miami Beach]) is added on at the register for all goods and services purchased in Florida. In addition, most municipalities levy special taxes on restaurants and hotels. In Surfside, hotel taxes total 11%; in Bal Harbour, 11%; in Miami Beach (including South Beach), 13%; and in the rest of Dade County, a whopping 13%. Food and beverage tax in Miami Beach, Bal Harbour and Surfside is 9%, in Miami-Dade restaurants not located inside hotels it's 8%, and in restaurants located in hotels, 9%. Broward County sales tax is 6% and resort tax is 5%. Sales tax in Palm Beach is 6.5%, while resort tax is 5%.

Telephone & Fax -- Generally, hotel surcharges on long-distance and local calls are astronomical, so you're better off using your cellphone or a public pay telephone. Many convenience groceries and packaging services sell prepaid calling cards in denominations up to $50; for international visitors these can be the least expensive way to call home. Many public phones at airports now accept American Express, MasterCard, and Visa credit cards. Local calls made from public pay phones in most locales cost either 25¢ or 35¢. Pay phones do not accept pennies, and few will take anything larger than a quarter.

Most long-distance and international calls can be dialed directly from any phone. For calls within the United States and to Canada, dial 1 followed by the area code and the seven-digit number. For other international calls, dial 011 followed by the country code, city code, and the number you are calling.

Calls to area codes 800, 888, 877, and 866 are toll-free. However, calls to area codes 700 and 900 (chat lines, bulletin boards, "dating" services, and so on) can be very expensive -- usually a charge of 95¢ to $3 or more per minute, and they sometimes have minimum charges that can run as high as $15 or more.

For reversed-charge or collect calls, and for person-to-person calls, dial the number 0 and then the area code and number; an operator will come on the line, and you should specify whether you are calling collect, person-to-person, or both. If your operator-assisted call is international, ask for the overseas operator.

For local directory assistance ("information"), dial 411; for long-distance information, dial 1, and then the appropriate area code and 555-1212.

Most hotels have fax machines available for guest use (be sure to ask about the charge to use it). Many hotel rooms are even wired for guests' fax machines. A less expensive way to send and receive faxes may be at stores such as The UPS Store (formerly Mail Boxes Etc.).

Time -- Florida, like New York, is in the Eastern Standard Time (EST) zone. The continental United States is divided into four time zones: Eastern Standard Time (EST), Central Standard Time (CST), Mountain Standard Time (MST), and Pacific Standard Time (PST). Alaska and Hawaii have their own zones. For example, when it's 9am in Los Angeles (PST), it's 7am in Honolulu (HST),10am in Denver (MST), 11am in Chicago (CST), noon in New York City (EST), 5pm in London (GMT), and 2am the next day in Sydney.

Daylight saving time takes effect at 2am the second Sunday in March until 2am the first Sunday in November except in Arizona, Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Daylight savings 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 $2 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%, and tip valet-parking attendants $2 per vehicle.

As for other service personnel, tip cab drivers 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 often the best bet for 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 -- U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory: tel. 202/647-5225 (manned 24 hr.).

U.S. Passport Agency: tel. 202/647-0518.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control International Traveler's Hot Line: tel. 404/332-4559.

Weather -- Hurricane Season runs from June through November. For an up-to-date recording of current weather conditions and forecast reports, call tel. 305/229-4522.

 

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.