Known for its counter-culture roots, eclectic music scene, startup tech companies, booming immigration populations, and picturesque views, San Francisco is an exciting city to visit. Here you’ll find hippies, college students, tech giants, artists, immigrant enclaves, and everything in between. I’m always amazed at the diversity of the city.
To me, visiting San Francisco is all about the outdoors and the food. You come here to dine on some of the best Asian food in the country, relax in a chill cafe, and then head out to the parks to lounge away the day.
While it is one of the most expensive cities in the United States, there are still plenty of ways to visit on a budget (even I, a person used to living in New York City, get sticker shock when I visit).
This travel guide to San Francisco can help you plan a fun and affordable trip!
Table of Contents
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Top 5 Things to See and Do in San Francisco
1. Tour Alcatraz
2. Walk the Golden Gate Bridge
3. Visit Golden Gate Park
4. See Wine Country
5. Visit the Palace of Fine Arts
Other Things to See and Do in San Francisco
1. Hang out in the Mission
The mission district is a fabulous place to spend a night out. After a busy day, relax in Dolores Park for great views of the city (the famous “Full House” house is here), incredible Mexican food, cool bars, and an eclectic food scene thanks to all the hipsters!
2. Ride the cable cars
Riding the cable cars is an excellent way to tour the city and experience the various neighborhoods of San Francisco. Originally built in 1823, the city’s cable cars are the last manually operated system in the entire world. Of the 22 lines that were originally created in the 19th century, only three are still in operation. They are fun to ride and will save you lots of time since the city is so hilly. A one-way fare on a cable car is $8 USD and a single-day pass is $13 USD.
3. Visit Lombard Street
This is the world’s windiest street. Surrounded by gardens and flowers, it’s made up of eight hairpin turns. The roads were made this way during the 1920s when people in San Francisco were beginning to drive around in automobiles. Since many of the city’s famous hills were too steep to navigate, the idea of using a curved street to help vehicles move downhill was embraced. This took the hill’s incline from 27% to 16%. Today, you can watch cars and bikers navigate the sharp turns as tourists gawk at them.
4. Head up Coit Tower
Perched atop Telegraph Hill, this art deco tower was built in 1933. Standing 180-feet tall (55m), it’s home to over 25 murals and offers a panoramic view of the city. The murals here were painted in 1934 by local artists and depict life in San Francisco during the Depression. The tower became a San Francisco Designated Landmark in 1984 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
5. Head to Chinatown
After New York City, this is the most famous Chinatown in the United States (it’s also the biggest). Immigrants from China first arrived on the west coast and set up shop in San Francisco. Due to racial segregation, this neighborhood became predominantly Chinese. Though mandatory segregation is over, the area has remained Chinese. Chinatown here has some of the best places to eat Chinese food in the country as well as wonderful teahouses, bars, souvenir stalls, and fortune cookie makers.
6. Take a harbor tour
Take an afternoon cruise of the bay to see the city from the water. There are many tour companies available, but a budget way to see the harbor is to take the public ferries starting at $7 USD (prices vary depending on which route you take). Same views, lower price. If you really want to do a tour, go with Red and White Fleet. Their tours start at $38 USD.
7. Hang out in the Castro
The Castro is known as the LGBTQ district of San Francisco. The area has lots of restaurants trendy restaurants serving local and seasonal food, as well as the GLBT Historical Society Museum and the Rainbow Honor Walk, a walk of fame for LGBTQ members who left a significant impact on society. Plus, there are a plethora of lively bars and clubs that cater to the LGBTQ community (but are fun for everyone!).
8. Explore Haight-Ashbury
The birthplace of America’s counter-culture, the Haight was ground zero during the summer of 1967, a.k.a. The Summer of Love. Hippies used to live here (including Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead), but yuppies have since moved in, buying up all the colorful Victorian homes and replacing head shops with high-end boutiques, chic restaurants, and hip cafés. Flower Power Walking Tours run in-depth and informative hippie history tours throughout the neighborhood from $20 USD.
9. Take a walking tour
Free SF Tours runs daily free walking tours that can show you the main sights of the city. You’ll not only get to learn about the city but you’ll have access to an expert local guide who can answer all your questions. Just be sure to tip at the end! For more in-depth paid tours, check out Take Walks.
10. Eat at the ferry building
My top place to eat in San Francisco, this place is a foodie dream. On the weekdays, you’ll find are a lot of food stands outside the building. On the weekends, there’s a big farmer’s market. Inside, you’ll find restaurants and food vendors selling specialty food items as well as butchers, cheesemongers, a wine bar, and more. Come here with an appetite!
11. Visit Crissy Field
This park is located near the Golden Gate Bridge. It has a beach, some restaurants, piers where you can see locals fishing, and plenty of green space to relax. It offers sweeping views of the harbor, making it a laid-back place to come in the summer to have a picnic, lounge in the sun, read a book, and watch life go by.
12. Explore Japantown
Come here for amazing sushi, Japanese food, Korean food, and kitchen ingredients. Shabu Sen has amazing ramen, and Yama-chan has delicious onigiri (rice balls) and takoyaki (octopus balls). To learn more about the food and the neighborhood, you can take a food tour with Edible Excursions for $120 USD (they have a specific Japantown tour, as well as other food tours around the city). Tours last around 3 hours.
13. Explore Fisherman’s Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, and Ghirardelli Square covers numerous blocks along the waterfront and is one of the most popular (touristy) things to do in the city. There are street performers, souvenir shops, and tons of overpriced restaurants. This is a good place to wander and explore for people watching, but don’t eat here. The food is overpriced and, to be honest, not that good. If you want to try some of the mouthwatering seafood that San Francisco is famous for, I liked Waterbar and the Anchor Oyster Bar.
14. See Muir Woods
Named after famed naturalist John Muir, Muir Woods is the closest place to San Francisco where you can see giant redwood trees (it’s just 17 miles outside of the city). You don’t get to encounter the huge, iconic redwoods (which are sequoias and further away at Sequoia National Park), but if you’re looking to see something close to the city, this is as good as it gets. Admission is $15 USD.
15. Explore Oakland
Just across the Bay Bridge, Oakland is considered the Brooklyn to San Francisco’s Manhattan. In recent years, Oakland has developed a niche for craft beer and specialty restaurants. There are tons of bars and breweries, and they even have their own “Ale Trail” if you want to wander the city and sample its best drinks. You can also visit Oakland Redwood Regional Park, Lake Merritt, or catch a baseball game at Oakland Coliseum. There’s a lot you can do in Oakland and you can easily spend a day or more here!
16. Visit the Beat Museum
Dedicated to the Beat Generation (the 1950s counter-culture), here you’ll find original manuscripts, rare books, letters, and more from authors like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Founded in 2003, the museum has over 1,000 pieces of memorabilia including Ginsber’s typewriter and a first edition copy of Kerouac’s novel The Town and the City. They also hold regular events (and walking tours) so check the website to see if anything is happening during your visit. Admission is $8 USD.
17. Visit Berkeley
Across the bay and close to Oakland is the city of Berkeley, home to music, hippies, students, and the University of California – Berkeley. Here you’ll find even more vegan and vegetarian restaurants, street performers, and eclectic shops (including booths selling jewelry and other goods on the streets). Don’t miss the University of California Botanical Garden, which has over 10,000 plants!
For more information on other cities in the United States, check out these guides:
San Francisco Travel Costs
Hostel prices – A bed in a 6-8-bed dorm costs around $40 USD. Private rooms cost $100 USD per night. Free Wi-Fi is standard and most hostels have self-catering facilities. Only a couple of hostels include free breakfast.
Campgrounds are available outside the city starting at $30 USD per night for a basic plot for two people without electricity.
Budget hotel prices – Budget two-star hotels start at $125 USD per night. Expect basic amenities like free Wi-Fi, TV, AC, and a coffee/tea maker.
There are lots of Airbnb options in San Francisco. A private room averages about $55 USD per night while an entire home/apartment averages closer to $120 USD.
Food – Although eating out here can be expensive (there are lots of fancy restaurants and rich techies driving the cost of food and rents up), you can keep your spending in check by going to the local supermarkets, markets, food trucks, and mom-and-pop restaurants. It’s easy to find street food like burritos and falafel for $10 USD. Pizza costs around $15 USD while fast food (think McDonald’s) is $10 USD for a combo meal.
Eating Chinese food is a must in San Francisco because it’s delicious and is less expensive than other choices. Expect to spend $10-15 USD for a main dish.
A meal at an inexpensive casual restaurant costs around $20 USD. A three-course meal with a drink costs closer to $50 USD.
There are lots of high-end dining options in San Francisco. You can find a 6-8 course tasting menu for about $150 USD (but some go for nearly double that). A plate of pasta or fish starts from about $20 USD, while a steak dinner costs about $45 USD. A glass of wine costs at least $12 USD.
Beer is around $8 USD while a latte/cappuccino is $5 USD. Bottled water is $2 USD.
If you cook your own food, expect to pay around $60-65 USD per week for basics like pasta, rice, vegetables, and some meat.
Two restaurants you shouldn’t miss are Naan ‘N’ Curry and Old Siam.
Backpacking San Francisco Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking San Francisco, expect to spend about $75 USD per day. This budget covers a hostel dorm, using public transportation to get around, limiting your drinking, and sticking to mostly free activities like the parks and free walking tours. If you plan on drinking, add $10-20 USD per day to your budget.
A mid-range budget of $205 USD you can stay in a private hostel room or Airbnb, eat out for most meals at Chinese restaurants and fast-food chains, have a few drinks, take the occasional taxi to get around, and do more paid activities like museum visits and visiting Alcatraz.
On a “luxury” budget of about $445 or more per day, you can stay in a hotel, eat out anywhere you want, drink more, rent a car to do some day trips, and do more guided tours. This is just the ground floor for luxury though. The sky is the limit!
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in USD.
San Francisco Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the United States. You’re going to spend a lot of money here if you go out a lot, see lots of attractions, and decide to drink! But, like any major city, there are lots of ways to save if you know where to look. Here are some ways to save money in San Francisco:
- Get the CityPASS – This pass is good for nine days and costs $76 USD. It includes unlimited transportation on the cable car and MUNI bus system, as well as admission to a bunch of attractions. If you’re going to see a lot of attractions, this will save you money.
- Eat cheap in Chinatown – Chinatown here has some of the best places to eat Chinese food (especially dim sum) in the country, with teahouses, bars, souvenir stalls, and fortune cookie makers. Eat your heart out here!
- Hit up happy hour for food and drink – Booze will really wreck your budget, so take advantage of San Francisco’s many happy hours (usually between 4pm-6pm). Ask your hotel/hostel staff for suggestions near where you’re staying.
- Find the oyster happy hours – There are lots of restaurants that offer an oyster happy hour at least once a week for about $1 USD per oyster. Ichi Sushi, Waterbar, and Waterfront Restaurant are good places to start.
- Take a free walking tour – This is the best way to see the main sights on a budget. I always do one when I visit a new city. Free SF Tours has a great tour that provides a solid intro to the city. Just be sure to tip your guide at the end!
- Couchsurf – Couchsurfing is the best way to meet locals and save money. You’ll get to meet a local whose brain you can pick for tips and suggestions all while getting a free place to stay. Just be sure to send your request well in advance.
- Save money on rideshares – Uber and Lyft (my preferred company) are way cheaper than taxis and are the best way to get around a city if you don’t want to take a bus or pay for a taxi. You can save money off your first rides with the following codes: Lyft (MATTHEW999 to save $10) and Uber (jlx6v to save $15).
- Fly into Oakland Airport (OAK) – OAK is nearly as close to downtown as SFO is and sometimes flights there are cheaper. Make sure you make a comparison before you book your trip.
- Get a Go San Francisco pass – If you’re going to be doing a lot of sightseeing, this card will save you money. The All-Inclusive Pass is good for up to five days and offers free admission to 25+ attractions, starting from $78 USD. You can also build your own pass to cover only the things you really want to do!
- Bring a reusable water bottle – The tap water here is safe to drink so bring a reusable water bottle to save money and reduce your plastic use. LifeStraw is my go-to brand as their bottles have built in filters to ensure your water is always clean and safe.
Where To Stay in San Francisco
Accommodations are expensive in San Francisco. Before you book, make sure you have a hostel in the location where you want to spend most of your time. Here are my recommended places to stay in San Francisco:
- HI San Francisco – Downtown
- Green Tortoise Hostel
- Orange Village
- HI San Francisco – Fisherman’s Wharf
For more hostel suggestions be sure to check out my list of the best hostels in San Francisco!
How to Get Around San Francisco
Subway – The subway can get you all over the city, as well as to the airport and eastward to places like Oakland and Berkeley. Fares depend on where you’re going but cost at least $2.75 USD. You can use either a cash ticket or a Clipper card to tap in and tap out. Although the Clipper card is $3 USD to purchase, it’s cheaper in the long run because a regular ticket comes with a small surcharge of $0.50.
Bus – San Francisco’s bus system is even more extensive than the subway. If you want to save money, download the MuniMobile ticket app or use a Clipper card. One-way rides are $2.50 USD with the Clipper card or $3 USD cash (exact change is required).
You can also get a single-day Visitor Passport for unlimited use across the bus, cable car, and streetcar network. If you purchase the Visitor Passport through the MuniMobile app or Clipper card, it costs $13 USD. If you purchase a paper Visitor Passport, it costs $24 USD. A 3-day passport is $31 USD ($36 USD for paper), and a 7-day passport is $41 USD ($47 USD for paper).
Cable Cars – This system is limited, but it’s a fun way to travel between the waterfront and Union Square. Their website (sfmta.com) has a listing of all routes and schedules. Single rides cost $8 USD, however, a Visitor Passport gives you unlimited rides.
Streetcars – The historic streetcars are an excellent way to see certain parts of San Francisco, especially the touristy places along the Embarcadero (which stops at Fisherman’s Wharf, the Ferry Building, etc.). Streetcars are part of the MUNI system, so prices are the same as for the bus.
Ferry – You can get a Golden Gate Transit ferry to Sausalito or Tiburon for $13.50 USD. A Blue and Gold Fleet ferry to Tiburon costs $13 USD. The ferry to Alcatraz is including with your ticket ($41 USD).
Bicycle – Bay Wheels (operated by Lyft) is San Francisco’s biggest bike-sharing program and the cheapest way to get around the city at just $3 USD per ride. When you’re using your Lyft app, you’ll see a bicycle icon show up on your app’s home screen when you’re in the bike service area. Just return your bicycle to the nearest Bay Wheels station when you’re done.
Taxis – Taxis are expensive. Everything is meter-based, starting at $3.50 USD and then an additional $3 USD per mile after that. Avoid them if you can!
Ridesharing – Uber and Lyft are way cheaper than taxis and are the best way to get around a city if you don’t want to take a bus or pay for a cab. The shared/pool option (where you share a ride with other people) offers even better savings. You can save money off your first rides with the following codes: Lyft (MATTHEW999 to save $10) and Uber (jlx6v to save $15).
Car rental – Car rentals start at $35 USD per day for a multi-day rental. Unless you’re doing some day trips outside the city (such as Muir Woods or Napa Valley) you won’t need one. Renters need to be at least 21 years old.
When to Go to San Francisco
September-November is the best time to visit San Francisco. It offers warm temperatures (70°F/21°C) but with much fewer crowds compared to the summer.
Summer (June-August) is the busiest time of the year as people flock to Cali for some fun in the sun. The weather averages around 65-68°F (18-20°C).
Winter is an excellent time to come for the lowest accommodation prices and the least number of visitors. It can be chilly during this time, though, with temperatures averaging about 57°F (14°C) in December and January.
Spring starts out cool and rainy, but temperatures eventually get a bit more comfortable, ranging from 57-64°F (14-18°C) from the beginning and end of the season.
Regardless of the time of year, bring some rain gear and pack some warm clothing for when temperatures dip.
How to Stay Safe in San Francisco
San Francisco is a very safe place to travel and has a much lower crime rate than other major U.S. cities. Petty theft is the most common crime here, with a particularly high rate of car break-ins. If you have a rental car, make sure it is locked at all times. Don’t leave any valuables in it overnight.
You might encounter petty theft, especially around famous tourist landmarks. Keep an eye on your belongings at all times, especially while taking crowded public transportation.
There’s a serious drug and homeless problem in downtown San Francisco, and there’s no way to sugar coat this situation. It’s not uncommon for visitors to witness drug use in the streets, as well as mental health episodes. The city is making moves to resolve these issues, but you’ll still need to stay aware of your surroundings.
The Tenderloin (one of the city’s neighborhoods) is especially known for its street drug activity, and it’s near enough to the city’s touristy areas that you might find yourself in the neighborhood at some point. You’re better off avoiding this area altogether at night (especially the intersection of Turk and Taylor).
If you experience an emergency, dial 911 for assistance.
You can more about the 14 major travel scams to avoid when you travel.
Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, move. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID.
If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it when you’re in San Francisco. Follow that rule, and you’ll be fine.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
San Francisco Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
Below are my favorite companies to use when I travel around San Francisco. They are included here because they consistently turn up the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and, overall, are better than their competitors.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments. The big cities have tons of listings!
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around the United States, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- EatWith – This website allows you to eat home cooked meal with locals. Locals post listings for dinner parties and specialty meals that you can sign up for. There is a fee (everyone sets their own price) but this is a great way to do something different, pick a local’s brain, and make a new friend.
- Take Walks – This day tour company will give you inside access to attractions and places you can’t get elsewhere. Their guides rock too!
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
San Francisco Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
San Francisco Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
Written in 1957, Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation classic is a must-read travel novel. Kerouac’s character’s (who he modeled after himself) frustration, desire to see the world, and adventures resonate with all of us who need a little relief from modern life. The story follows Sal as he leaves New York City and heads west, riding the rails, making friends, and partying the night away. He finds thrills, adventure, love, sex, drugs, poverty, and excitement while moving from a weak character into someone whose life experience brings confidence. It’s a true American classic.
Tip of the Iceberg, by Mark Adams
In 1899, Edward H. Harriman (a rich railroad magnate) converted a steamship into a luxury cruise for some of America’s best scientists and writers and embarked on a summer voyage around Alaska. Now, author Mark Adams retraces that expedition, traveling over 3,000 miles along the coast of the state. Mark is one of my favorite writers, and this book is very reminiscent of Turn Right at Machu Picchu. Mark brings insight into the people, history, and culture of the state in a way he did with his other book.
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
Forgetting the hype of the book (and the subsequent movie), I really did like this book. Cheryl Strayed’s book is about her journey along the Pacific Crest Trail when she was 26. She sets off in hopes of finding herself and coming to grips with the death of her mother, break-up of her marriage, and drug use. She’s looking for a fresh start. Along the way, she encounters kindness, happy fellow hikers, and a deep sense of belonging. Filled with wonderful prose, I found this book deeply moving. It’s easy to see why the book became such a hit.
Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, by Richard Grant
As a big fan of the state of Mississippi, I was keen to read this book. The state is an often-overlooked tourist destination with eccentric but wonderful people; beautiful parks, rivers, and swamps; stunning architecture; and a complex and rich history for history buffs like myself. In this book, English writer Richard Grant and his girlfriend move to rural Pluto, Mississippi, to live a better life, escape the big city, lower their cost of living, and try something new. They learn to hunt, garden, fend off wild animals, handle snakes, and befriend interesting characters along the way.
The Not-Quite States of America, by Doug Mack
The United States of America is more than just 50 states. There’s also the non-states of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. In this funny, detailed, fact-rich book, Doug Mack explores these territories largely forgotten by the rest of the country, which play a more important role in our country than we realize. I had the pleasure of listening to Doug talk about his book in NYC, and he’s a wealth of knowledge — just like his book! This one of those travel books that expands your mind about the place you don’t really know.
Blue Highways: A Journey into America, by William Least Heat-Moon
This is a deep dive into America’s unknown tiny towns scattered across the country map, like New Hope (Tennessee), Remote (Oregon), Why (Arizona), and Whynot (Mississippi). Yes, those are real town names! Heat-Moon’s book is considered a masterpiece in American travel writing and you’ll love his adventures and the incredible people he encounters as he reveals the “real” American experience.
San Francisco Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on United States travel and continue planning your trip: