The USA is a unique country that truly has it all, with an extremely diverse landscape and population. No matter what you’re after, the USA will have something for you – from big cities to small towns, beautiful snowy mountains to tropical beaches, New Orleans jazz festivals to baseball games at Yankee Stadium. However, this incredible variety also means there are a wide range of risks and dangers to watch out for.
Key safety considerations for the USA
The beautiful and diverse landscape of the States provides endless opportunities for travellers, but also poses risks for various natural disasters. Although certain areas do carry known dangers, which we’ve listed here, it’s still important to research the area you’re visiting before you go.
Texas and California are the two most disaster-prone states, with a range of natural disasters striking each. Heatwaves are common in the lower states, while snow storms occur on both the West and East coasts, as well as Alaska.
Hurricanes and floods tend to occur around the lower states, especially coastal states such as Florida, Louisiana and Alabama. The infamous ‘Tornado Alley’ stretches through the centre of the country and includes Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and South Dakota.
If a natural disaster occurs in the area you’re visiting, your accommodation provider should have information about natural disasters and the procedures in place for such events. It’s a good idea to keep up with weather warnings and advisories during your stay. Sites like ‘Ready’ can provide information about natural disasters and what to do if one occurs.
Always check the government’s international travel advisory before booking any travel plans. Once you’ve booked your flights or accommodation, buy travel insurance straight away. It doesn’t cost you any extra to buy in advance of your travel date, but it does mean we can look after you for longer. For example, if a snow storm results in your travel being cancelled before you set off, we can refund any costs that your service providers can’t.
Sports and activities
The USA has many wonderful opportunities for sports and activities, in almost any capacity you can imagine. Whether it’s hiking in any one of the 58 national parks, horse trekking on a ranch in Texas or Montana, surfing in California, or skiing at any one of around 400 ski resorts; there’s something for everyone.
Your travel insurance will cover almost all of these adventures (within reason!), as long as you follow a few simple rules:
- If you’re riding a moped or motorcycle in the USA, remember to always wear a helmet, even if it’s not legally required by the state you’re in. You must also obey the local road rules, which means staying on the right hand side of the road!
- Make sure that any activities you book are with a licensed tour operator.
- If you’re going on a dive trip, you need to either be with a qualified diving instructor or you must hold an open water diving certificate.
- If you’re going on a trip to a remote area (e.g. doesn’t have telecommunications or medical services) then you must be part of a licensed tour.
- Taking part in any competitions, races or professional sports is not covered under our policy, for this you would need to seek specialist cover.
- If you’re skiing, always stick to on-piste runs that are open, groomed and patrolled. We cover skiing and snowboarding at no extra cost, as long as you follow these guidelines.
If you’re heading to the USA to participate in a fun run or charity run, we can cover you, as long as you’re not competing for prize money. If you’re unsure about whether your event will be covered, get in touch with us before you go.
Animals and insects
There is a huge variety of wildlife in the USA, with some incredible creatures to be found. Not only does the USA boast some of the world’s best zoos and wildlife parks, with over 2,000 to choose from, it also has many amazing wild animals in its various reserves, lakes, parks and oceans. As majestic as many of these creatures are, they are also wild and therefore potentially dangerous.
Bears are one of the most common animals to watch out for, with 40 out of 50 states having resident populations. They are even on the Californian state flag! Bears are commonly seen in wooded areas during summer and often come into nearby towns in search of something to eat. As a result, it’s important to be careful with food.
If you’re camping or staying in an RV, keep all food in sealed containers or your car if you have one, and don’t leave any food or scraps around your tent or accommodation. If you do see a bear, make sure you give it a very wide berth and do not approach it. If you’re travelling to an area where you’re likely to encounter bears, check out the guide on the Bear Smart Society website so you know what to do.
There are snakes in every state of the USA except Alaska and Hawaii, many of which are poisonous. Bites can happen easily if you accidentally step on one, so always wear covered shoes in areas where snakes are common, especially in the wilderness. If you see a snake, keep your distance. Avoid areas with tall grass or chopped wood piles and don’t put your hands into crevasses in rocks. At night, wear closed in shoes and carry a torch so you can see where you’re stepping. If you’re unlucky enough to receive a snake bite, it’s important to seek medical help immediately.
Alligators are found in the southeast states, especially Florida and Louisiana, in freshwater environments such as ponds, marshes, wetlands, rivers and swamps. There are over 1.5 million alligators in Florida and they’re even the official state reptile! As with other dangerous creatures, keep your eyes peeled when you’re in an environment where they are found and if you see one, stay well away. Avoid marshy areas and keep an eye out for signage warning of alligators. Don’t swim in any fresh water areas that aren’t designated as safe.
There are plenty of other creatures to watch out for in the USA, including scorpions, cougars, wolves and even killer bees. It’s always best to research the area you’re visiting before you go and find out what dangerous animals live there. If you’re unsure, ask a local or, if you’re heading to a national park, check at the ranger’s office for animals to watch out for.
With a country so large and diverse, it’s unsurprising that certain areas are safer than others and crime can be common. Depending on the area, petty crime and pick pocketing are usually things to keep an eye out for. Various states have different crime rates and different things to watch out for.
Although the USA is generally safe, some cities are considered to be more dangerous than others, with some areas that you should avoid. Detroit, St Louis, Chicago, Baltimore and Memphis all have some very dangerous neighbourhoods that should be avoided, but the city centres and tourist areas are generally safe. We recommend a few simple precautions to keep you out of danger:
- Do your research before you go. Find out if there are any neighbourhoods to avoid and where they are. Ask someone you trust, like the hotel concierge, if there are any dangerous areas near your accommodation.
- Always be aware of your surroundings and if you feel uncomfortable, relocate. Trust your instincts.
- Avoid emotionally charged environments like political rallies or protests and always follow police instructions if you find yourself in a situation where police are involved.
- There have been cases of bag snatching so remember to keep your valuables out of sight, close to you and zipped up.
- Don’t carry a lot of cash on you at one time. Distribute it between the hotel safe, your wallet and a pocket so that you won’t lose it all if your bag is taken or you are pickpocketed.
It is a well publicised fact that firearms are very common in the USA, with some estimates claiming there are more guns than people! Gun laws vary from state to state, so if you’re concerned it’s worth researching the area you’re visiting to know what to expect. However, the chances of travellers encountering gun violence are extremely small – roughly the equivalent to winning lotto.
Going out at night
Despite being the home to cities famous for nightlife like Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles, going out at night is a mixed bag in the USA. While certain areas offer incredible restaurants and famous bars, other areas frown upon parties and it’s important to check the drinking laws in the area you’re visiting.
If nightlife is what you’re into, there are a few things you should keep in mind to stay safe:
- Avoid going out at night to secluded or unlit areas, especially if you’re not familiar with your surroundings. If you’re in a group, stick together and try not to become isolated.
- Know how to get back to your accommodation at the end of your night out. If you’re in a group, take turns at staying alert and sober.
- Always leave valuables locked in your hotel safe.
- Never leave your drink unattended and don’t accept food or drinks from strangers unless you can see them being poured.
- Avoid letting people know where you’re staying and be cautious of anyone who asks about your accommodation without good reason.
- American culture is more conservative than our own, so keep this in mind when choosing your outfit and avoid anything too revealing or provocative.
- Try not to talk too loudly about your plans or where you’re staying when you’re out in public. You never know who could be listening!
A ‘dry’ area is one where alcohol laws are very strict and often drinking is not permitted, either in public or at all in some cases. In the USA there are three dry states: Kansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, plus multiple dry counties within almost all states.
The rules vary drastically, with some states allowing alcohol sales but not individual drink sales in bars, some forbidding alcohol sales and consumption on Sundays, and others forbidding possession of alcohol! To avoid breaking any laws, do your research before you travel and ensure you’re up-to-date with the alcohol laws at your destination.
Like the dry areas, there are some surprising laws and customs in the USA that some visitors might not be aware of. Here are a few basic rules to follow to avoid landing yourself on the wrong side of the law:
- The legal drinking age in the USA is 21.
- It is illegal to drink and drive in any state of the USA.
- Many states also have open container laws, whereby if there is an open container of alcohol (i.e. A beer can or wine bottle) in the passenger area of the vehicle, the driver can be penalized.
- Gambling is illegal in any form in Hawaii, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, but gambling laws also vary from state to state. Commercial gambling is illegal in 34 states, so check the local laws first if you’re interested in visiting a casino.
- 31 states in the USA still use capital punishment as a maximum criminal sentence.
- Some prescriptions drugs you can buy at home are illegal in the USA.
- American culture is more conservative and traditional than our own in some ways and many states are strongly religious. Be aware of the traditions and religions of the area you’re visiting and always show respect.
Hurricanes around the Gulf of Mexico have caused many major delays and even trip cancellations for travellers. In winter, we’ve also seen claims as a result of major airports like Chicago and New York closing due to snow.
You can prepare for this type of disaster by purchasing your travel insurance as soon as you book your flights and accommodation. That way, if your trip is cancelled due to an unexpected event before you depart, any pre-paid costs will be covered. If your flights are cancelled and you’re stuck overseas for an extra week, we can pay for your accommodation and other expenses so you’re not left out of pocket.
We often see claims for travellers who have had to seek medical care as a result of a skiing or snow accident. As well as medical costs or delays due to being unable to fly, there may be the costs of cutting the trip short to return home early for treatment. Avoid adding any stress to a situation like this by getting travel insurance cover so you don’t have to fork out thousands of dollars for expensive medical care.