North America

Countries: Canada, United States (for info on the Caribbean and Mexico see “Central America and the Caribbean-coming soon)

Most Useful Languages to Know: English, French

You’ll Love: The “melting pot” of cultures in the big cities, the national parks, the road trip experience, the friendly and attentive customer service

You won’t Love: The near-lack of public transportation, the ugly suburban sprawl and disgraceful inner city poverty, the distances between destinations

Cultures: This region is firmly part of the western world. The cultures of Canada and the US are politically different, but to a tourist they are similar; English is by far the most spoken language (with regions that speak French in Canada and Louisiana). Both the US and Canada are diverse nations with large immigrant populations, especially in major cities.

Travel Advice

Transportation

Cars and airplanes are the main modes of transportation in North America. Distances are vast, and outside of a few cities, public transport is rare. Intercity bus companies (such as Greyhound) do exist, however, and are used by backpackers despite the safety concerns. Amtrak is a rare and slow service outside the Northeast US. Canada has some rail routes but the distances covered are vast and make flying the best option in most intercity itineraries.

Itinerary Advice

As a traditional backpacker, it’s hard to “do” North America in the European sense, going city-to-city by ground transport and sightseeing. There are several reasons for this: the destination cities tend to be further apart than in Europe (San Francisco and Los Angeles are further apart than Rome and Florence, for example), the rail service is very limited, and the Greyhound buses often have inconvenient departure times and terrible service. It is still possible however. Just be patient, be willing to sit for hours in traffic on buses, and maybe fly every now and then for longer routes. And don’t expect to see the national parks, unless you are in one of the few with shuttle bus services. Generally, the easiest regions to backpack, seeing a few cities in a trip without a car, are in the Northeast and the West Coast. With a bit of patience, one may also be able to combine Savannah and Charleston in a similar way, Nashville and Memphis, or maybe Montreal and Quebec City.

 

Cities

Cities in North America are generally large and sprawling, with distinct neighborhoods across central downtown areas and seemingly endless suburbs. The best tourist cities in North America tend to be the exceptions to this rule, such as San Francisco and New York. Be wary of certain neighborhoods, however. American cities generally have higher violent crime rates than their European and Asian counterparts, although the most tourist-friendly areas of major cities have gotten considerably safer and more gentrified since the 1990s.

Rural Areas

Rural areas in North America are culturally conservative by western standards and almost entirely car-dependent. Don’t let that put you off, however. Driving endlessly through the web of roads between different parts of rural north America is an experience like no other. You can stumble upon gorgeous state and national parks, find those little diners you always imagined, and see incredible wildlife. This region of the world has some of the most unique landscapes by far, from the red rocks of Utah’s canyons, to the massive snowy peaks of Alaska.

Etiquette and social norms

  • North Americans generally are polite and willing to make small talk with strangers (especially outside the Northeast US), but there are also ways in which the culture can be perceived as antisocial by outsiders. The politeness and the “how are you”s are surface level etiquette, and should not be mistaken for sincere openness to friendship. North Americans desire a high degree of personal space and privacy in their conversations and everyday lives.
  • Racism is a large part of the region’s history and issues relating to race divide people to this day. Asian-American, Native American, Hispanic, Latino, African-American, multiracial, and White are acceptable terms for races. Be sensitive if talking to locals about issues related to race. You never know what somebody’s opinion is about these things or how strongly they feel it, and you don’t want to find out the hard way.
  • Some visitors to North America find restaurant staff to be intrusive when they come over and ask “how is your food, is everything alright?”, hoping to get you to buy something else. In this region it is the norm, however, and in many ways, North American customer service is some of the best in the world.
  • Tipping in North America is 15-20%. ALWAYS tip your waiter at least 15%. The restaurant staff here are paid less than their European counterparts and pretty much live off of the tips they get. That’s why the customer service is so good, they want to earn your tip. So tip. There is NEVER an acceptable excuse not to tip.

 

 

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