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 free nationwide emergency road service telephone number (tel. 800/AAA-HELP).
Offices are usually open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Banks are open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. or later and sometimes Saturday mornings. Stores typically open between 9 and 10 a.m. and close between 5 and 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday. Stores in shopping complexes or malls tend to stay open late: until about 9 p.m. on weekdays and weekends, and many malls and larger department stores are open on Sundays.
Foreign exchange bureaus in South Florida are, unfortunately, foreign to the area. There are currency exchanges at the Miami International Airport, such as Miami Currency Exchanges (tel. 305/876-0040). Abbot Foreign Exchange, 230 NE First St. (tel. 305/374-2336), is located in downtown Miami and is open on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
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. On South Beach, in particular, the clubs and bars have become stricter since they raised the minimum age of entry from 18 to 21. Beer and wine can often be purchased in supermarkets, but liquor laws vary throughout the state.
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.
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. If your small appliances use 220 to 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 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.
In South Florida, the Canadian Consulate is located at 200 S. Bayshore Dr., Miami, FL 33131 (tel. 305/579-1600). The British Consulate is located at the Brickell Bay Tower, Suite 2110, 1001 S. Bayshore Dr., Coconut Grove, FL 33131 (tel. 305/374-1522). The French Consulate is located at 1 Biscayne Tower, Suite 1710, Miami, FL 33131 (tel. 305/372-9799); the Italian Consulate is located at 1200 Brickell Ave., Miami, FL 33131 (tel. 305/374-6322); the Israeli Consulate is located at 100 N. Biscayne Blvd., Miami, FL 33132 (tel. 305/925-9400); the German Consulate is located at 100 N. Biscayne Blvd., Suite 2200, Miami, FL 33132 (tel. 305/358-0290); the Australian Consulate is located at 2525 SW Third Ave., Suite 208, Miami, FL 33129 (tel. 305/858-7633); and Brazil's Consulate General is located at 2601 S. Bayshore Dr., Suite 800, Coconut Grove, FL 33133 (tel. 305/285-6200).
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/) to help direct you to a local branch. 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.
Petrol is known as gasoline (or simply "gas") in the United States, and petrol stations are known as both gas stations and service stations. Gasoline costs about half as much here as it does in Europe (though, at around $2 per gallon at presstime, prices are steeply rising), and taxes are already included in the printed price. One U.S. gallon equals 3.8 liters or .85 imperial gallons. A majority of gas stations in Florida are now actually convenience grocery stores with gas pumps outside. They do not service your automobile for you; all but a very few stations have self-service gas pumps.
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, Washington's Birthday), 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). 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 2004).
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. 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.
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 Miami's Main Post Office, 2200 Milam Dairy Rd., Miami, FL 33152 (tel. 305/639-4280); in Broward County, 1801 Polk St., Hollywood, FL 33020 (tel. 954/923-0201); and in Palm Beach County, 14280 Military Trail, Delray Beach, FL 33484 (tel. 561/498-8504). The addressee must pick mail up 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 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
At press time, domestic postage rates were 23¢ for a postcard and 37¢ for a letter. For international mail, a first-class letter of up to 1/2 ounce costs 80¢ (60¢ to Canada and Mexico); a first-class postcard costs 70¢ (50¢ to Canada and Mexico); and a preprinted postal aerogramme costs 70¢.
In the United States there is no value-added tax (VAT) or other indirect tax at the national level. Every state, county, and city has the right to levy its own local tax on all purchases, including hotel and restaurant checks, airline tickets, and so on. A 6% state sales tax (plus .5% local tax, for a total of 6.5% in Miami) 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 10.5%; in Bal Harbour, Miami Beach (including South Beach), and the rest of Miami-Dade County, a whopping 12.5%. In Miami Beach, Surfside, and Bal Harbour, the resort (hotel) tax also applies to hotel restaurants and restaurants with liquor licenses.
Telephone, Telegraph, Telex & Fax
The telephone system in the United States is run by private corporations, so rates, especially for long-distance service and operator-assisted calls, can vary widely. Generally, hotel surcharges on long-distance and local calls are astronomical, so you're usually better off using a public pay telephone, which you'll find clearly marked in most public buildings and private establishments as well as on the street. Convenience grocery stores and gas stations always have them. Many convenience groceries and packaging services sell prepaid calling cards; these can be the least expensive way to call home. Local calls made from public pay phones in Florida cost 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 telephone number of the person you are calling.
Calls to area codes 800, 888, 866, and 877 are toll-free. However, calls to numbers in 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 0 (zero, not the letter O) followed by the area code and number you want; an operator will then come on the line, and you should specify that you are calling collect, or person-to-person, or both. If your operator-assisted call is international, ask for the overseas operator.
For local directory assistance ("information"), dial tel. 411; for long-distance information, dial 1, 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/Mail Boxes Etc., a national chain of packing service shops. (Look in the Yellow Pages directory under "Packing Services.") There are two kinds of telephone directories in the United States. The so-called White Pages list private households and business subscribers in alphabetical order. The inside front cover lists emergency numbers for police, fire, ambulance, the Coast Guard, poison-control center, crime victims hot line, and so on. The first few pages will tell you how to make long-distance and international calls, complete with country codes and area codes. Government numbers are usually printed on blue paper within the White Pages. Printed on yellow paper, the so-called Yellow Pages list local services, businesses, industries, and houses of worship according to activity with an index at the front or back. (Drugstores/pharmacies and restaurants are also listed by geographic location.) The Yellow Pages also include city plans or detailed area maps, postal zip codes, and public transportation routes.
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, noon in Miami (EST) is 11 a.m. in Pensacola (CST), 10 a.m. in Denver (MST), 9 a.m. in Los Angeles (PST), 8 a.m. in Anchorage (AST), and 7 a.m. in Honolulu (HST). Most of Florida observes Eastern Standard Time, though the Panhandle west of the Apalachicola River is on Central Standard Time (1 hr. earlier than Tallahassee, Orlando, and Miami).
Daylight saving time is in effect from 1 a.m. on the first Sunday in April through 1 a.m. on the last Sunday in October, except in Arizona, Hawaii, part of Indiana, and Puerto Rico. Daylight saving time moves the clock 1 hour ahead of standard time.
Tips are a very important part of certain workers' salaries, so it's necessary to leave appropriate gratuities.
Here are some rules of thumb:
In hotels, tip bellhops at least $1 per bag ($2-$3 if you have a lot of luggage) and tip the chamber staff $3 per day (more if you've left a disaster area for him or her to clean up, or if you're traveling with kids and/or pets). 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. Tip the doorman only if he has provided you with some specific service (such as calling a cab for you).
As for other service personnel, tip cab drivers 15% of the fare; tip skycaps at airports at least $1 per bag; and tip hairdressers and barbers 15% to 20%.
Tipping ushers at movies and theaters and tipping gas station attendants is not expected.
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, libraries, department stores, railway and bus stations, or service stations. Note, however, that restaurants and bars in resorts or heavily visited areas may reserve their restrooms for the use of their patrons. Some establishments display a notice that toilets are for the use of patrons only. You can ignore this sign, or, better yet, avoid arguments by paying for a cup of coffee or a soft drink, which will qualify you as a patron. 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.
Visit http://www.frommers.com/destinations/miami/ for a complete guide to Miami and South Florida.
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