Traveling State-To-State in America: Things to Keep in Mind

(Photo: Fotolia)

(Photo: Fotolia)

Although it’s all one, big United States of America, there are some differences between the states to bear in mind when traveling around the country.

Time differences
There are four time zones in the continental U.S. (Pacific, Mountain, Central and Eastern), and it’s important to know when you’re crossing those zone lines. When flying, your departure and arrival times are in local time, so calculating the flight time based on this information may catch you out. For example, a five and a half hour flight from Los Angeles to New York City (11:50 am – 8:22 pm on United) looks hours longer because you’re also crossing all four time zones.

When driving across state lines, it’s also worth knowing which time zone you’re in. The first time I drove from Chicago to Michigan, I forgot about the one-hour difference. It was early afternoon when I arrived at a very small village and all the restaurants had closed at 2 pm, (my watch was still saying 1pm), meaning I had to wait till 5 pm to calm my roaring hunger pangs.

Medical insurance and prescription filling
Check your health insurance coverage to make sure you’re covered out of state. HMOs, for example, are usually geographically restricted and may not cover medical services from a health care provider outside their network. Some HMO’s cover emergency room visits, but again, read your policy carefully to avoid having to shoulder the cost yourself.

If you take regular medication, think about what might happen should you lose it or need a refill. If you use a national chain pharmacy, it usually isn’t an issue to have a prescription refilled, and many independent pharmacies also recognize out-of-state prescriptions. If you need an emergency prescription or refill, first call your doctor to have him/her phone the prescription through to a local pharmacy. (Remember to have the pharmacy’s phone number ready for your doctor.)

Most car insurers cover you to drive in any U.S. state. If you take up residence in another state however, you will probably need in-state insurance to ensure that you meet that state’s minimum coverage requirements. (Here’s an excellent source giving the requirements in each state.) You’ll also need to obtain new license plates and possibly take a written driving test at some point.

Although the rules of the road are mainly the same around the country, there are different speed limits everywhere and some odd rules, such as not being able to pump your own gas in New Jersey, or not being able to turn against a red light in a New York (state) city with a population of over one million (unless a sign expressly allows it). Laws governing motorcycle helmets, seat belts and child restraints also vary state to state. You can find specific state road rules at the DMV web site.

Weapons and Firearms
If you’re traveling with any kind of legal weapon or firearm, it is especially important to know the laws in the states you’ll be visiting as they can vary widely, especially regarding concealed carry permits. Some states recognize permits from other states, but reciprocity is not universal. You are subject to the laws governing the state you’re in and not your state of residence.

Alcohol laws
If you like a wee dram (obviously not while driving), do some research on dry counties (of which there are over 200) and other restrictions. Although alcohol availability isn’t a vacation deal breaker for most people, not being able to buy wine or beer to go with your Sunday meal might be a mild irritant.

Weather in the U.S. can be extremely volatile in the summer, when many of us are traveling around. Tune into local weather channels if a storm is brewing, and take the advice of locals and weather reporters in the event of extreme weather. Flood conditions, in particular, can be surprisingly dangerous so don’t go driving or wading through rushing water and puddles where you don’t know the depth.

Want to discover the hidden gems of U.S. travel? Join @MindtheGap_BBCA and guest co-host @BBC_Travel on Twitter on Wednesday, September 3 from 2 to 3 pm ET for the inside information. Tweet your questions using hashtag #MindTheChat for a chance to win The Thick of It: The Complete Collection on DVD, courtesy of BBC Shop.

See more:
10 Affordable U.S. Travel Destinations – and How to Experience Them on a Budget
Traveling DIY Style: Tips for Brits Planning U.S. Holidays
Tips for Easy Travel During the Winter Season (from #MindTheChat)


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • bjvl

    Oregon, like New Jersey, doesn’t allow you to pump your own gas.

    Sometimes, traffic officers will prioritize out-of-state license plates for speeding violations, with the expectation that you will be unable to come to court to dispute the fine. Depends on the officer, of course.

    • Toni Hargis

      Thank you. Good to know.

    • Andrea

      Yeah, state troopers and traffic cops do sometimes go for out-of-state vehicles over locals.

      Simply owning a car can have its state-specific issues. For instance, in Pennsylvania, all cars registered there must pass a regular inspection for safety and driveability. Some of my relatives there have paid several hundred dollars just to get a car up to snuff. Not true in my native Nebraska, where you’re only in trouble if the car’s state of (dis)repair causes an accident.

      Other weird inter/intra-state things: pet ownership (what animals qualify as pets, how many you can have, what you have to do to register a pet), fireworks (when they can be purchased, which kinds are legal), bonfires/firepits (illegal in many cities, seasonally restricted in some rural areas, and definitions vary), and much, much more.

  • Anon Y. Mous

    The only city in New York State with over one million people is New York City. Number two has only about 261,000.

    • monday morn QB

      You could win a lot of bar bets with that. I was stunned.

      • AB

        I am from the #2 city and therefore was not stunned. 😉 Also, that #2 city is about a six-hour drive from New York City. How long does it take to drive, say, from one side of England to the other?

  • Brittany

    I know that some towns in eastern Pennsylvania are dry. While the towns next to them are not. Pittsburgh is in Allegheny County, while Philadelphia has its own. The eastern part of Pennsylvania has the most people in the commonwealth. Yes, Pennsylvania is a commonwealth, not a state. :)

  • anonymous

    You also can’t make a left turn over a divided highway in NJ .. you have to take a jug handle (a.k.a. 2 rights to make a left). Having been born and raised in NJ, the idea of pumping my own gas or making a left or a U-Turn over a median is beyond crazy!

  • therealguyfaux

    The biggest state-to-state difference any Briton traveling in the US is likely to run into or notice is probably “closing time.” And just because a state may generally allow drinking establishments to stay open until 2AM (a fairly widespread closing time) it does not mean they MUST stay open, nor that there might not be “local option” laws to allow counties/municipalities to “shut the town down” earlier.

    • Thor

      also be careful because that when the cops are out to look for drunk drivers

  • Jennifer Howze

    Great tips. I remember the first time I went to a dry county. You could only buy wine if you were part of the restaurant’s private club, but lo and behold, you could join the club on the spot — which cost the same amount as a drink — and receive your “free” welcome drink.

  • Violette Retancourt

    Last May I almost got a ticket just ten miles over the state border I live on because of a law I didn’t know about. Only a malfunctioning squad car computer saved me.

  • Gwynneth

    Some other things to consider while driving in the US is that concerns vary widely from region to region. For instance, when in New England, especially in Autumn, watch out for tourists who are watching the foliage and not the road! Also be alert for native drivers, who are some of the worst in the country. Worcester, Mass. ranks #1 and Boston close behind! It’s true (I live here).

    If you plan to trek across large expanses of desert, say from L.A. to Las Vegas, and have a breakdown, the heat could kill you. Make sure your car is in good shape and you bring extra water and an emergency kit. The same holds true in winter, especially when driving in northern states. You might travel for hours without seeing a service station or even a house to stop for help. Bring extra clothes and blankets in case you are stuck in a blizzard. For other useful tips, check out AAA’s site.