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Downtime in the USA

There were times in my life when, each year on average, I spent more time in the USA than the UK (where my home officially was).  Apart from stretches of crashing boredom, I rather enjoyed it.  I can’t pretend that I have any magic secrets on how to make downtime interesting, especially if you don’t have tons of money to burn.  So here are my suggestions; what I did back then, which are all extensively tested, as well as what I might consider doing now (that I couldn’t have done then, or just random stuff with the benefit of hindsight).

Where to stay

If I have to kill time in a USA town, I will check in to a cheap motel (needs advance research for in town, but out of town Motel 6 and too many other chains to mention – but still $40 – $80/night).  Some motels will give you a discount for showing your AA card, because it may be linked to the AAA (American Automobile Association); I have no idea if it really is, but the desk clerks often seem to think so.

Remember that if you are flying in from overseas, you will be required to give a street address on one of your forms – and “Motel 6, St Louis” doesn’t work, I know because I have tried it.  They actually want you to give a street number, which can be hard to find out.


Find a diner, because a cheap breakfast is dinner at any time, and quality is usually ok (Waffle House and IHOP good, Denny’s not so much – non-chain are usually the best).  One large smoothie (eg, Jamba Juice) has more than enough calories for dinner AND breakfast.  If you are in a small town, there is usually a restaurant of some form that can serve good steak and fries; failing that, look for a non-chain burger shack (seriously), as they can be good.  A lot of cheaper restaurants will include a free salad and vegetables, with their main course, so read the menu carefully to see what is included.

I like to find a supermarket, because I can spend a couple of minutes standing in front of the full section of spray cheese in amazement.  There are other scary things, like trying to find non-processed cheese. It is usually a good idea to buy a few bottles of water and/or diet soda, and a bag of bagels or fruit to cover snacks and non-diner breakfast days.  The problem there is that bagels aren’t great nutrition, and USA supermarket fruit is giant sized, looks great, and has the taste and texture of cotton wool.  I will probably buy toothpaste, shaving gel and disposable razors here, too.
Most supermarkets will also sell ok T-shirts – Hanes, Fruit of the Loom.  Although there are plenty of Gap and Old Navy for cheap and reliable supplies.


With food and basic shopping covered, the next priority is communications.

Take your phone!

Remember to disable mobile data, avoid texts like the plague, and try not to make phone calls if you don’t have to – although keep roaming on, so that you can call in an emergency.  But wifi enabled phones are really great to have with you.  Most coffee shops will have free wifi, as will McDonalds; most motels will probably have it too, but with awful signal quality.  Check email, use Skype and Facebook from your phone.  Free Skype voice calls beat phone calls one billion percent.  I usually would have a laptop, but back in the day I could make things work with a Palm (submitting stories and doing minor network admin work; I really need a real laptop for programming).


I don’t think I have ever been asked to enter my PIN, except at an ATM; just a signature for credit cards.  But UK banks (for me) usually won’t accept international charges unless I have told them in advance.  Which is why I still always take relatively large sums of cash with me (converted to dollars at the airport).  ATMs are fine, but there will probably be extra charges and lousy exchange rates.  Remember to tip!  15-20% in restaurants, seriously.


Make a list of special features that the places you are visiting are noted for. Browse some guide books – Rough Guide, Lonely Planet, Time Out – but do that in the UK and make notes, as you won’t want to be lunking ultra heavy books with you.  Look for free apps from these publishers for your iPhone (and if you don’t have an iPhone, tough luck).  There are some really good one region guide books that you can only find in the local area in the USA, so check the book stores after arrival if you run out of things to do (I’m think of ones like ‘Maui Revealed’).  There may be newspaper articles with suggestions of things to do, which Google can find quickly for you – but again, do this in advance and make lists of places and web sites.  You may like museums and art galleries; or you may find rollercoasters and sports bars more exciting.

You can also plan walks based on the guide book maps in city centres; I had a great walk route in San Francisco, and ones for New York and Washington DC too.

You can sit in bookstores and coffee shops and read and people watch for hours.

Find a cinema to catch up on films that aren’t out here, although the lag on release dates has been dramatically reduced – but it’s still a great way to kill time; don’t forget the popcorn, hot dog, slurpee and candy experience, too.

Find a mall.  You can window shop for hours, find a food court to eat or a coffee shop to just sit.  And it can be great exercise, just walking around the large ones.

Find a bookstore.  I like books, and will buy ones to read and dump.

One that I have almost never tried, but really should: go to a game (that means football, baseball, (ice) hockey, according to season and region).  I did it once at a Microsoft Developer Conference, and it was both fun and sensible, unlike (British) football.

See also: San Francisco.

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