Area Codes -- Virginia has several area codes. The 703 and 571 codes are both in northern Virginia and the eastern Hunt Country, where you must dial both the area code and local number even when calling locally. The 540 code runs from Fredericksburg west to Winchester and south to Roanoke. The 804 code is in Richmond, Petersburg, and the Northern Neck. The 757 code covers Williamsburg, Hampton Roads, and the Eastern Shore. The 434 code is in Charlottesville. And the 276 code is in the Southwest Highlands.
Automobile Organizations -- Motor 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 a motor 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; www.aaa.com). AAA has a nationwide emergency road service telephone number (tel. 800/AAA-HELP [222-4357]).
Business Hours -- Offices are usually open weekdays 9am to 5pm. Banks are open weekdays 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 on these days -- until about 9pm -- and many malls and larger department stores are open until 6pm on Sundays.
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. In Virginia, many grocery and convenience stores sell beer and wine, but only state-licensed Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) stores are permitted to sell bottles of hard liquor. Any licensed establishment (restaurant or bar) can sell drinks by the glass. Bars must close by 2am. 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.
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 220-240 volts to 110-120 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 check www.embassy.org/embassies.
The embassy of Australia is at 1601 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20036 (tel. 202/797-3000; usa.embassy.gov/au).
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, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City, 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 City, 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 City, 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). Dial tel. #77 on your cellphone to reach the state highway patrol.
Gasoline (Petrol) -- Petrol is known as gasoline (or simply "gas"), and petrol stations are known as both gas stations and service stations. Like elsewhere in the world, gasoline prices have fluctuated widely in the past few years. It is around $2.50 a gallon in Virginia as I write. Whatever the price here, it still costs about half as much in the U.S. as it does in Europe. Taxes are already included in the printed price. One U.S. gallon equals 3.8 liters or .85 imperial gallons. All but a few stations have self-service gas pumps.
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 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). The Tuesday after the first Monday in November is Election Day, a federal government holiday in presidential-election years (held every 4 years, and next in 2012).
Insurance -- Visitors from outside the United States should consider buying travel insurance, especially a policy providing medical coverage while you are here. Unlike many European countries, the United States does not usually offer free or low-cost medical care to its citizens or visitors. Doctors and hospitals are expensive, and in most cases will require advance payment or proof of coverage before they render their services. Good policies will cover the costs of an accident, repatriation, or death.
Packages such as Europ Assistance's "Worldwide Healthcare Plan" are sold by European automobile clubs and travel agencies at attractive rates. Worldwide Assistance Services, Inc. (tel. 800/777-8710; www.worldwideassistance.com) is the agent for Europ Assistance in the United States.
Canadians should check with their provincial health plan offices or call Health Canada (tel. 866/225-0709; www.hc-sc.gc.ca) to find out the extent of their coverage and what documentation and receipts they must take home in case they are treated in the United States.
Language -- English is the common language in the United States, although Spanish is spoken by millions of immigrants from South and Central America.
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 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.
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.
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 forth). 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 -- Each major city in Virginia has its own daily newspaper. The Richmond Times-Dispatch (www.timesdispatch.com), The Roanoke Times (www.roanoke.com), and the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot (www.pilotonline.com) are the largest. The Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com) and USA Today (www.usatoday.com) are available at newsstands and coin boxes throughout the state.
Police -- To reach the police in an emergency, dial tel. 911 from any phone (no charge).
Smoking -- Virginia has come a long way since the days when tobacco was the backbone of its economy, and its legislators steadfastly refused to enact anti-smoking laws. It is now illegal to smoke in public buildings in Virginia, including restaurants and bars unless they have a smoking room with its own ventilation system. As is true throughout the United States, you must be at least 18 years old to purchase tobacco products.
Taxes -- The Virginia state sales tax is 5% for most purchases plus 2% on hotel rooms. Local hotel taxes vary; in most communities it's 5%, which makes the total tax on your hotel bill at least 12%. Most local jurisdictions also add a restaurant tax, which jacks up the price of food and drink by 10% or more.
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.
Time -- 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.
Virginia is on Eastern Standard Time, the same as New York City and other East Coast cities. For example, when it's noon in Richmond, it's 11am in Chicago (CST), 10am in Denver (MST), 9am in Los Angeles (PST), it's 7am in Honolulu (HST), 5pm in London (GMT), and 2am the next day in Sydney.
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 and bartenders 15% to 20% of the check, tip checkroom attendants $1 per garment, and tip valet-parking attendants $1 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. Restaurants and bars in resorts or heavily visited areas may reserve their restrooms for patrons.
Visitor Information -- Each city and town has a visitor information office. I list contact information for these offices in the destination chapters.
The best source for statewide information is the Virginia Tourism Corporation, 901 E. Byrd St. (P.O. Box 798), Richmond, VA 23219 (tel. 800/847-4882 or 804/786-2051; fax 804/786-1919; www.virginia.org). It publishes or distributes a host of information, including a statewide travel planner; official state highway maps (including the state's "Civil War Trails" and a very useful "scenic byways" map highlighting the state's many beautiful routes); lists of hotels, motels, country inns, and bed-and-breakfasts; an outdoor guide to the state; a golf directory; a biking guide; a state park directory; a list of Virginia wineries and wine festivals; and a guide for travelers with disabilities. Most are available on, or can be ordered from, its website.
A good regional source is www.visithamptonroads.com, operated by the Hampton Roads Partnership and covering Norfolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, Hampton, Newport News, the Williamsburg area, and other localities in southeastern Virginia.
Another is the Shenandoah Valley Travel Association, 277 W. Old Cross Rd. (P.O. Box 1040), New Market, VA 22844 (tel. 877/847-4878 or 540/740-3131; www.visitshenandoah.org), which covers the valley from Winchester to Lexington.
The National Geographic Society (www.nationalgeographic.com/maps) publishes excellent maps of Shenandoah National Park (map no. 228) and of Mount Rogers National Recreation Area (no. 786).
I'm an ardent reader of Virginia Living (www.virginialiving.com), a slick lifestyle magazine published bimonthly in Richmond. Its compilation of festivals and events is comprehensive.
I post updates to the information in this guide on my personal website, www.billgoodwin.com.
Dial 511 for Info -- You can dial tel. 511 from anywhere in Virginia and receive up-to-date travel, traffic, and weather information.
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.