We call it the Plains. But early explorers looked at the vast sweep of treeless prairie between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains and dubbed it the Great American Desert. While it technically encompasses about a third of the U.S. and a good bit of central Canada, the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma are the heart of the area. As settlers moved west, plowing and planting the prairie, they changed the nature of the area. Nebraska’s L. Sterling Morton, father of Arbor Day, made it his mission to plant trees across his state – a movement that found sympathy through the region. Today it is hard to find reminders of the land in its native state; the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserves in Kansas and in Oklahoma are important sites to visit. Throughout the states you’ll find historic sites, beautiful scenery, interesting small towns and vibrant cities. For most travelers, this area isn’t a main course, but you’ll find lots of desserts.
From marbles to moon rocks, Kansas will rock your socks
Explore the Wild West in Dodge City and Wichita; learn about the Civil War and civil rights on the Kansas/Missouri border and at the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka. Check out the Eisenhower Presidential Museum and boyhood home in Abilene. Get down in Hutchinson – 650 feet below the prairie in Strataca, the Kansas Underground Salt Museum or reach for the stars at Cosmosphere. And for fun, check out Moon Marbles in Kansas City, Kansas and get your thrills at nearby Schlitterbahn’s Verruruckt, the world’s tallest water slide. For gentler adventure tour the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the beautiful, rolling Flint Hills. Follow the yellow brick road in Liberal to the Land of Oz Museum and a replica of Dorothy’s house. Like Dorothy, you’ll find out why Kansans say, “There’s no place like home.”
Even the Kool-Aid is cooler in Nebraska
Yes, Kool-Aid was invented in Nebraska and you can learn all about it at the Hastings Museum. It’s even the state’s official soft-drink. Most of the state is fairly flat but a couple of spots stand out. Chimney Rock National Historic Site was a landmark on the Oregon Trail and Scotts Bluff National Monument was a way-mark for travelers on both the Oregon and Mormon Trails. Located on the Central Flyway, the state is on the route of both spring and fall migrations of the endangered whooping crane. According to a Forbes publication, the spring migration on the Platte River is the world’s number one bird-watching spot with sandhill cranes, ducks, geese and other migratory species. For more dependable wildlife watching, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo often makes national Top Ten lists. The capitol in Lincoln is worth touring and the University of Nebraska has a great collection of museums. A big do-not-miss is Lied Lodge and Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City. Find out why the plains aren’t so plain any more.
Prepare to be surprised in Oklahoma
The wind does come sweeping down the plains – and through the trees, over mountains, mesas and lakes. Oklahoma has eleven distinct ecosystems from prairies to plateaus, rolling Ozark hills, ancient mountains and even a coastal microclimate complete with alligators. Major cities like Oklahoma City and Tulsa offer urban attractions. Explore Oklahoma’s Native American heritage in cultural centers across the state. Walk Victorian streets in Guthrie, the first capital, or trek trails beaten by bison in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Indulge in the state staple, chicken-fried steak or sample cutting-edge cuisine in a wide variety of restaurants. Diversity doesn’t end with the palate as Oklahoma serves up an earful of music from Red Dirt or the Tulsa Sound, bluegrass, jazz, rock, classical – you name it. Activities range from art walks to zip-lines. If Oklahoma had a middle name, it would be “Diversity.”
Cast a vote for the presidential state of South Dakota
Mount Rushmore may be the first image that comes to mind when you think about South Dakota. But there’s so much more to see and do here. Western South Dakota is a tourist mecca not only for Mount Rushmore but Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Badlands National Park and Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Deadwood is a hotbed of history while Hot Springs is a bone-bed of mammoth proportions – think fossils of more than five dozen Columbian and wooly mammoths. The flatter central and eastern portions of the state have their own treasures including the grand capitol building in Pierre, De Smet with its Laura Ingalls Wilder heritage. Mitchell’s quirky Corn Palace and Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village and Sioux Falls with a charming downtown studded with public art.
Top tier treats in North Dakota from glacial lakes to barren badlands
Theodore Roosevelt slept here. He hunted here and had a ranch and it may have been here, in western North Dakota, that he formulated his philosophy about protecting and preserving the natural environment. His legacy is celebrated in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The Missouri River was integral in the settlement of the state. Get at great view of the river from the top of the state capitol in Bismark. Be your own Corps of Discovery at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Travel back further in time at the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site. This state has a long and interesting history plus some amazing scenery.
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 (except South Dakota which, instead, celebrates Native American Day on this day.
November (11th): Veterans Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December (25th): Christmas
You have to watch your watch — and a map — in this region!
North Dakota: Most of the state is in the Central Time Zone. The southwestern corner is the the Mountain Time Zone.
South Dakota: The state is divided roughly in half with the eastern half in the Central Time zone and the western half on Mountain Time.
Nebraska: Approximately the western third of the state, including the panhandle, is in the Mountain Time Zone. The eastern two-thirds is in the Central Time Zone.
Kansas: All of Kansas is in the Central Time Zone with the exception of four western counties. Sherman, Wallace, Greeley and Hamilton Counties are in the Mountain Time Zone.
Oklahoma: All of Oklahoma is in the Central Time Zone, except the tiny, northwestern, panhandle town of Kenton. Spitting distance from the neighboring states of Colorado and New Mexico, the folks there operate on Mountain Time.
All these states observe Daylight Saving Time
Travelers to the Great Plains states find the area extremely reasonable, price-wise. Restaurant meals, in particular, often shock visitors from mega-cities. While there are fewer metropolitan areas in these wide, open spaces, you’ll still find excellent restaurants with innovative chefs and great down-home-cookin’ spots. And even in unlikely areas, there are gustatory diamonds to be found.
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.
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 — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — 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.