The U.S. South is little calmer, kinder and hotter than the rest of the country. It offers vibrant, modern cities brimming with arts and culture — alongside rural towns with diners, blue plate specials and welcoming locals.
If you crave history, every state has a different story to share. And it’s not just United States Civil War history, with battlefields and commemorative parks. Since then the South has featured prominently in the civil rights movement, industrialization and pop culture.
The South offers milder winters and longer summers than its northern cousin. As such, year-round tourism is the norm. Varied and stunning national parks, breathtaking and rolling landscapes and abundant lakes and rivers vie for your attention.
Preview some state-by-state highlights of the South to get started.
It’s hard to talk about Alabama without saying Sweet Home first. That 1974 anthem, by southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, sums up the pride Alabamians feel about their state. Tourists flock here, to the Deep South, for white sand beaches in Mobile and Gulf Shores, to study significant historical sites in Birmingham and Montgomery, take in NASCAR races at Talladega, explore NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and watch the legendary football rivalry between University of Alabama and Auburn University.
Arkansas is small but mighty when it comes to things to do and see. Take a dip in Hot Springs National Park, thermal waters that reach 143 degrees (F). Golf at the 12 courses that constitute the Natural State Golf Trail. Immerse yourself in the US Civil War; follow in the footsteps of soldiers from both sides of the conflict. Arkansas’s largest city, Little Rock, is also its capital, and home to Little Rock Central High School, where desegregation began in 1957. Arkansas also boasts the Buffalo National River, which runs through the Ozark Mountains, and the gorgeous Mammoth Spring State Park. For a one-of-a-kind experience, head to Crater of Diamonds State Park to search for gemstones.
Georgia is known for more than sun-sweetened peaches and tasty pecans. You could spend a week in Atlanta visiting the Georgia Aquarium, Piedmont Park, World of Coca-Cola and Zoo Atlanta. And you’ll want to tour antebellum homes on historic plantations in Macon, Roswell and Savannah. Major US Civil War sites include Andersonville National Historic Site, Stone Mountain Park and Museum, and Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park. Small but mighty beaches rule Georgia’s east coast — among them Jekyll Island, St. Simons Island and Tybee Island.
The Bluegrass state is a terrific mix of old and new, country and city, bourbon and horses. Louisville hosts the annual Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs Race Track. Equally famous are Kentucky’s bourbon distilleries, like Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam. After you’ve covered the requisite horses and bourbon, taste some history at Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace (or his wife’s). Nature lovers make a worthy beeline to Cumberland Falls State Park and Mammoth Cave National Park.
Although Louisiana conjures images of wild Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans, the state offers more than hangovers and beaded necklaces (although everyone should experience Mardi Gras once in a lifetime). Yes, NoLa and its famous French Quarter are the state’s number one tourism draw, but Louisiana is also a fisherman’s and kayaker’s dream with all its waterways. Try Lake Bruin State Park, Lake Claiborne State Park, a classic swamp tour, or a riverboat casino in Shreveport.
The Magnolia State, Mississippi, is as gorgeous and heady as its namesake. The 400+ mile Natchez Trace Parkway is a must-see and do. History buffs flock to the state’s number one tourist destination: Vicksburg National Military Park. And for beach therapy, miles of soft white sand lure folks to Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.
On the western side of North Carolina you’ll find Great Smoky Mountains National Park and lots of magnificent mountains, forests and waterfalls. The eastern side features Atlantic Ocean beaches stretching the entire length of the state and including the popular Cape Hatteras and Nags Head. Believe it or not, though, the state’s number one attraction is the country’s largest home: the Biltmore Estate in Asheville.
The Volunteer State, as Tennessee is known, welcomes visitors to vibrant Memphis, where you can tour Elvis’s iconic home, Graceland, and the Peabody Hotel. The capital of the country music industry is Nashville, where you’ll find The Grand Old Opry and the Opryland Hotel. But far and away, the state’s number one attraction is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, perfect for nature-lovers, foodies and shopping.
South Carolina can brag about its world-famous Myrtle Beach or its more serene Hilton Head Island to lure beach lovers. But her number one attraction is Charleston, dripping in history and loaded with well-preserved architecture. You could spend an entire day enjoying the breath-taking gardens of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens and Middleton Place. No trip to South Carolina is complete without a visit to Fort Sumter National Monument, where the US Civil War began.
–Thanks to Deborah Kohl Kremer for help in getting this started.
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January (1st): New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King Jr. Day
February (third Monday): Presidents Day
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
July (4th): Independence Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
October (second Monday): Columbus Day
(not the same as Native American Day, which is only celebrated officially in two states, on September 25th)
November (11th): Veterans Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December (25th): Christmas
Parts of the South are located in the Eastern time zone with some in the Central time zone.
To check the local time where you are, click here.
Daylight Savings Time (DST) happens in the spring (on the second Sunday morning of March at 2 a.m.). It’s when clocks are advanced one hour so there is more daylight later into the evening. In the fall (on the first Sunday morning in November at 2 a.m.), clocks shift back one hour to standard time. The entire U.S. (except Hawaii and most of Arizona) participates in this ritual of springing forward and falling back.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.
Zipcar is another choice for rentals. Available in many major cities and college towns in the U.S., Zipcar is a great alternative for super-short term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transportation, so you don’t need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant 20 miles away in the suburbs. You can’t go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune. You’d have to wait a long time to get a return taxi. Open the Zipcar app; search for a nearby Zipcar locale. You need to apply for membership and download the app in advance. Memberships cost about $7 a month; rentals are about $8 to10 per hour; gas and insurance are included. Foreign drivers can apply and you don’t need to pay a monthly fee if you’re an occasional driver (from $25 per year for a membership).
Ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
Money Saving Tip:
Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you’ll save with a typical week’s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)
Did You Know:
Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day. By the way, when renting in California, there are no additional driver fees by law.
Hopefully, your trip to (or within) the U.S. goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation: About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical: Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption: For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay: Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage: Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework; check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions: Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance: If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.
Coins in wide circulation include the penny (one cent), nickel (five cents), dime (ten cents) and quarter (25 cents). The 50-cent and one-dollar coins are seen occasionally.
Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so have twenties or smaller bills in hand. ATMs usually dispense $20 bills.
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any U.S. travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration. General guidelines include:
For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many states, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.
To complicate matters, many restaurants in the major metropolitan areas are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.
Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included, usually for groups of six or more people. But at least it will be itemized in plain sight on the bill, if you look closely for it.
Most bell staff receive $1 to $2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5 to $10.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2 to $3 per day and about $5 per day in higher-end properties.
At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets around $10 to $20 per day. Concierge staff do not normally expect a tip for simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Car valet staff expect $2 when returning your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
Sales Taxes, Lodging Taxes & Resort Fees
In the South, the combined total for state and local taxes on all retail goods and services varies , depending on where you are. In general, cities have higher taxes than rural areas do. Taxes are not usually included in display prices, unless otherwise stated.
Lodging tax also varies by location. This tax applies whether you are staying at a private vacation rental, a bed-and-breakfast, or a full-fledged hotel. Taxes are not usually stated up front in the advertised room rate. Neither are the mandatory nightly “resort fees” being charged by an increasing number of hotels. Sometimes this fee covers internet access, parking, and a few incidentals, while at other times it’s merely a surcharge for amenities that should be free. Beware that third-party booking agents, especially online, often don’t include resort fees in their reservation charges, so you may be unhappily surprised by the final bill when you check out.