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American Express -- The main Amex office is in Seattle in the Plaza 600 building at 600 Stewart St. (tel. 206/441-8622). It's open Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 5:30pm. For card-member services, phone tel. 800/528-4800. Call tel. 800/AXP-TRIP or go to www.americanexpress.com for other locations or general information.

Area Code -- The area code is 206 in Seattle, 425 for the Eastside (including Kirkland and Bellevue), and 253 for south King County (near the airport). The area code east of the Cascade Range is 509.

ATMs -- The easiest and best way to get cash in the United States is from an ATM (automated teller machine). The Cirrus (www.mastercard.com; [tel] 800/424-7787) and PLUS (www.visa.com) networks span the country; you can find them everywhere in Seattle, Portland, and along the coast. You’ll find ATMs at banks, gas stations, supermarkets, and 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). The local Seattle office of AAA (tel. 206/633-4222; www.aaa.com) is in the University District at 4554 Ninth Ave. NE.

Business Hours -- The following are general guidelines; specific establishments' hours may vary. Banks are open Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm (some also on Sat 9am-noon). Stores are open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 6pm and Sunday from noon to 5pm (malls usually stay open until 9pm Mon-Sat). Bars can stay open until 2am.

Cannabis Laws -- If you are 21 and order (proof of age is required), purchasing small amounts of marijuana for recreational use is legal in Oregon and Washington, but only if purchased from a licensed cannabis retailer. Smoking in any public place, including parks, your hotel room, and on the street, is illegal, and driving while stoned is prohibited. The cannabis laws in Oregon and Washington do not apply outside of the two states.

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 gold-colored Sacagawea coin, worth $1; and the rare silver dollar.

Customs -- Every visitor 21 years of age or older may bring in, free of duty, the following: (1) 1 liter of alcohol; (2) 200 cigarettes, 100 cigars (but not from Cuba); and (3) $100 worth of gifts. These exemptions are offered to travelers who spend at least 72 hours in the United States and who have not claimed them within the preceding 6 months. It is forbidden to bring into the country almost any meat products (including canned, fresh, and dried meat products, such as bouillon and soup mixes). Generally, condiments including vinegars, oils, pickled goods, spices, coffee, tea, and some cheeses and baked goods are permitted. Avoid rice products, as rice can often harbor insects. Bringing fruits and vegetables is prohibited because they may harbor pests or disease. International visitors may carry in or out up to $10,000 in U.S. or foreign currency with no formalities; larger sums must be declared to U.S. Customs on entering or leaving, which includes filing form FinCEN 105. For details regarding U.S. Customs and Border Protection, consult your nearest U.S. embassy or consulate, or U.S. Customs and Border Protection (www.cbp.gov).

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 in any public area that isn’t zoned for alcohol consumption. The police can fine you on the spot. Don’t even think about driving while intoxicated. Aside from on-premises sales of cocktails in bars and restaurants, hard liquor can be purchased only in liquor stores. Beer and wine are available in convenience stores and grocery stores. Brewpubs tend to sell only beer and wine, but some also have licenses to sell hard liquor.

Drugstores/Pharmacies -- Fred Meyer, a major grocery chain in Washington and Oregon, has a pharmacy in many of its stores. Also look for Walgreens (Washington and Oregon) and Bartell (Washington only). Many prescription drugs have different names outside the U.S., so it’s important to know what the drug’s name is in the U.S.

Doctors -- To find a doctor, check with the front desk or concierge at your hotel.

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, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle.

The embassy of Ireland is at 2234 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202/462-3939; https://www.dfa.ie/irish-embassy/usa/). Irish consulates are in Boston, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco.

The embassy of New Zealand is at 37 Observatory Circle NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202/328-4800; www.mfat.govt.nz/en/countries-and-regions/north-america/united-states-of-america/new-zealand-embassy-washington/). 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). Consulates are in nine cities, including Boston, Chicago, New York, and Seattle.

Emergencies -- Call tel. 911 for fire, police, and ambulance. This is a toll-free call.

Gasoline (Petrol) - At press time, in the Seattle area, the cost of gasoline (also known as gas, but never petrol), was hovering around $3 per gallon. Taxes are already included in the printed price. One U.S. gallon equals 3.8 liters or .85 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 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 (2008 is an election year).

Insurance — The websites InsureMyTrip.com and SquareMouth.com serve as good marketplaces for insurance policies, all from reputable companies. In general, you don’t need insurance just for a hotel stay or airplane flight. But if you’re renting a house, or feel you may need medical insurance, getting travel insurance can be a smart purchase.

Internet & Wi-Fi -- The Pacific Northwest is very wired. Nearly all hotels and B&Bs in Seattle, Portland, and along the Oregon coast offer free Wi-Fi to guests. Other places to get access to the Internet are cafes and public libraries. Do not expect Wi-Fi or Internet access at campgrounds or in state parks.

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 26¢ for a postcard and 41¢ for a letter. For international mail, a first-class letter of up to 1 ounce costs 90¢ (69¢ to Canada and Mexico); a first-class postcard costs 90¢ (69¢ to Canada and Mexico). 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 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.

Mobile Phones -- If you have a U.S. mobile phone and network, it’s a good bet that your phone will work in in Seattle, Portland, and along the Oregon coast, but T-Mobile, Sprint, and Nextel are weak in rural areas and in some places along the coast. If you’re visiting from another country, be sure to find out about international calling rates and roaming charges before using your phone in the United States. You could ring up a huge phone bill with just a few calls and texts. Foreign visitors might consider using Skype in lieu of cellphone service (it can be used when you have access to Wi-Fi, which you will at all hotels).

Newspapers & Magazines -- The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Times are Seattle's two daily newspapers. Seattle Weekly (www.seattleweekly.comi) is the city’s free news, arts, and entertainment weekly

Passports -- Every air traveler entering the U.S. is required to show a passport. For more information on passports, see the following:

  • For Residents of Australia: You can pick up an application from your local post office or any branch of Passports Australia, but you must schedule an interview at the passport office to present your application materials. Call the Australian Passport Information Service at tel. 131-232, or visit the government website at www.passports.gov.au.
  • For Residents of Canada: Passport applications are available at travel agencies throughout Canada or from the central Passport Office, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Ottawa, ON K1A 0G3 (tel. 800/567-6868; www.ppt.gc.ca). Note: Canadian children who travel must have their own passport. However, if you hold a valid Canadian passport issued before December 11, 2001, that bears the name of your child, the passport remains valid for you and your child until it expires.
  • For Residents of Ireland: You can apply for a 10-year passport at the Passport Office, Setanta Centre, Molesworth Street, Dublin 2 (tel. 01/671-1633; www.irlgov.ie/iveagh). Those under age 18 and over 65 must apply for a 3-year passport. You can also apply at 1A South Mall, Cork (tel. 021/272-525) or at most main post offices.
  • For Residents of New Zealand: You can pick up a passport application at any New Zealand Passports Office or download it from their website. Contact the Passports Office at tel. 0800/225-050 in New Zealand or 04/474-8100, or log on to www.passports.govt.nz.
  • For Residents of the United Kingdom: To pick up an application for a standard 10-year passport (5-yr. passport for children under 16), visit your nearest passport office, major post office, or travel agency or contact the United Kingdom Passport Service at tel. 0870/521-0410 or search its website at www.ukpa.gov.uk.

Packing — The Pacific Northwest is a very casual place. Seattle has more “dress up” restaurants than Portland does, and the Oregon coast is about staying dry and comfortable in cool, wet weather. The weather can be warm in the summer, but typically cools down considerably at night. In the winter, there is frequent rain, and temperatures tend to hover in the 40s and 50s. When you’re packing, think layers. To keep yourself covered, bring a fleece jacket, a hoodie, and a rain jacket.

Police
-- To reach the police, dial tel. 911.

Smoking -- Smoking is banned in public indoor spaces throughout the state of Washington, so don't try lighting up -- even in a bar.

Taxes -- The state of Washington makes up for its lack of an income tax with its heavy sales tax, and counties add on their own as well. The state sales tax is currently 6.5%, but because of complex tax laws, it may be as high as 9.5% in some municipalities. Hotel-room tax in the Seattle metro area ranges from around 10% to 16%. On rental cars, you'll pay not only an 18.6% car-rental tax, but also, if you rent at the airport, an additional 10% to 12% airport concession fee (plus other fees for a whopping total of around 45%)!

Telegraph, Telex & Fax -- Telegraph and telex services are provided primarily by Western Union. You can telegraph 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 them). 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.).

Telephones -- Local calls require 10 digits (so include the area code). To make calls within the United States and to Canada, dial the area code and the seven-digit number. For international calls, dial 011 followed by the country code, city code, and the number you are calling.

For directory assistance (“Information”), dial [tel] 1-800-FREE-411 for local numbers and national numbers in the U.S. and Canada. For long-distance information, dial 1, then the appropriate area code plus 555-1212.

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. 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. Seattle is on Pacific Standard Time (PST), making it 3 hours behind the East Coast.

Daylight saving time, which moves the clock 1 hour ahead of standard 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.

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 (a few restaurants now add an additional 20% service charge to your bill—this takes care of the tipping), tip bartenders 10% to 15%, tip checkroom attendants $1 per garment, 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.

Visas -- Citizens from some countries must have (1) a valid passport that expires at least 6 months later than the scheduled end of their visit to the U.S.; and (2) a tourist visa. For information about U.S. Visas go to http://travel.state.gov and click on “Visas.” Or go to one of the following websites:

  • Australian citizens can obtain up-to-date visa information from the U.S. Embassy Canberra, Moonah Place, Yarralumla, ACT 2600 (tel. 02/6214-5600) or by checking the U.S. Diplomatic Mission's website at http://usembassy-australia.state.gov/consular.
  • British subjects can obtain up-to-date visa information by calling the U.S. Embassy Visa Information Line (tel. 0891/200-290) or by visiting the "Visas to the U.S." section of the American Embassy London's website at www.usembassy.org.uk.
  • Irish citizens can obtain up-to-date visa information through the Embassy of the USA Dublin, 42 Elgin Rd., Dublin 4, Ireland (tel. 353/1-668-8777); or by checking the "Consular Services" section of the website at http://dublin.usembassy.gov.
  • Citizens of New Zealand can obtain up-to-date visa information by contacting the U.S. Embassy New Zealand, 29 Fitzherbert Terrace, Thorndon, Wellington (tel. 644/472-2068), or get the information directly from the website at http://wellington.usembassy.gov.

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.