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General Information

Best Times to Travel
California is a year-round travel destination, with weather that will please everyone from snowbirds to sun worshippers. The best time to visit really comes down to what you want to do and what you want to see.

Most people visit California between mid-June and August. It's summertime! Summer in California is undeniably delicious, but there are some things to consider: The state's top attractions and parks can be very crowded with visitors paying top dollar for lodging and waiting in long lines for popular sites. That said, it's never hard to hop off the beaten path and have forests, fields and even beaches all to yourself. If you're planning on visiting the Sierra Nevada high country, you have no choice but to wait until summer: roads above 8000ft (2450m) are often closed until late June or early July.

Spring (March through early May) is a marvelous time to visit California. Although it can still be cold at higher elevations, temperatures are comfortable throughout much of the state. The hillsides are green, the air is fresh, and wildflowers are blooming. During these months, you'll also encounter shorter lines and better deals: Many of the state's top tourist attractions are still operating at a slower pace, and hotels often charge low-season rates until June. California's desert areas are much more pleasant during spring than they are during the scorching heat of summer.

Fall (September through November) is another good time to beat the crowds, and it can be an especially beautiful time to see Northern California and the state's wine regions. San Francisco, often shrouded in fog all summer long, sees some of its sunniest days during its "Indian Summer," which generally lasts from September through October.

If you plan to ski, visit between December and February, when the Sierra Nevada almost always has snow. It's not uncommon for ski resorts to open by late October, but the snow is rarely as good as it will be later in the season. Lift lines are mobbed between mid December and the first week of January, when everyone hits the slopes during their holiday break.
Time Zone
California is in the Pacific Time Zone (GMT minus 8 hours). The state observes daylight saving time. Daylight savings time is in effect from the 2nd weekend in March to the 1st weekend in November. During this time, clocks are set one hour ahead to maximize daylight hours.
Customs
You must complete customs and immigrations formalities at the first point of arrival in the U.S., whether or not it's your final destination.

Visitors over 21 years of age entering the U.S. may bring 1 litre (2 pints) of alcohol, gifts worth up to $100, and 200 cigarettes, 100 cigars or 3 pounds (1.4 kilograms) of tobacco, without paying duty. All food must be declared to inspectors. A number of food items are prohibited including cheese, fresh fruit and meat products.

There is no limit on the amount of money you may bring with you. However, if you are travelling with more than $10,000 in currency, travellers cheques or other monetary instruments, you must declare it to a Customs Inspector. Failure to do so can result in the confiscation of your money. If two or more people are filing a joint declaration, they should declare the total amount of currency they are carrying. It is not necessary to declare credit cards.
Currency/Cash
One U.S. dollar is composed of 100 cents (¢). Cents come in coin denominations of 1¢ (called a penny), 5¢ (nickel), 10¢ (dime), 25¢ (quarter) and 50¢ (called a half-dollar or fifty-cent piece) . There are two US$1 coins (the smaller, copper-colour "Sacagawea" and the large, silver-colour "Susan B Anthony"), but they are seldom used. U.S. bills are all the same green colour and size and come in denominations of US$1, US$5, US$10, US$20, US$50 and US$100. The US$2 bill has been almost entirely removed from circulation, but it is still legal currency.
Travel Insurance
You should ensure that you have comprehensive travel insurance before you travel. If you intend to drive in California, you should check your car rental insurance covers occupants of your vehicle and any third party claims, including personal injury.
Exchange
Airports at San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose and San Diego all have currency exchange offices.
ATMs
The easiest and often most economical way to obtain cash in U.S. dollars is by withdrawing it from an automatic teller machine (ATM). Even the smallest towns in California usually have at least one ATM. Cirrus, Plus, Star and Maestro are the most commonly accepted networks, and these are available at nearly all ATMs. Most ATMs charge a service fee of between US$1 and US$2.50. Your bank may also charge a service fee on top of this. You may encounter problems if your personal identification number (PIN) is longer than four digits. If it is, contact your bank about creating a shorter PIN.
Credit Cards
Visa, MasterCard and American Express are widely accepted throughout California. Whether you intend to pay with a credit card or not, credit cards are almost invariably required if you plan to rent or reserve just about anything.
Travellers Cheques
Although not as commonly used as they once were, traveler's checks are still a good way to carry a large amount of cash that can be replaced in the case of loss or theft. Cheques in small denominations (US$20 to US$50) are widely accepted throughout California and can be used just like cash at many hotels and restaurants. Be sure they're in U.S. dollars unless you plan to change them into local currency at a bank or exchange bureau. American Express and Visa Travellers Cheques are the most commonly accepted brands.

Lost or stolen credit cards or travellers cheque
To report missing credit cards, travellers cheques or travellers cheque cards, call the corresponding freephone numbers:

Credit Cards
American Express: 800-528-4800
Diners Club: 800-234-6377
Discover: 800-347-2683
MasterCard: 800-826-2181
Visa: 800-336-8472

Travellers Cheques
American Express: 800- 221-7282
MasterCard: 800-223-9920
Thomas Cook: 800-223-7373
Visa: 800-227-6811
Tipping
Get used to tipping. At restaurants, unless you order and pay at the counter, tipping is expected to the point of being a requirement. To leave less than 15% of the pre-tax total is to beseech the rabid scorn of the entire restaurant staff. It is common to tip 18% to 20% if the service is exceptional. Finer restaurants often include a 15% to 18% service charge for parties of six or more, which takes the place of a tip.

Tip bartenders between US$0.50 and US$1 per drink. Tip taxi drivers US$1 to US$3 (most people just round up to the nearest US$5). Tip hotel porters US$1 to US$3 per bag, and valet parkers the same upon returning your car. On package tours, guides and drivers usually get $10 per day from the group as a whole: check whether this has already been figured into your cost and pre-paid. For local sightseeing tours, you may individually tip the driver or guide if he or she has been helpful or informative; the amount is at your discretion. Tipping is also appropriate at a beauty salon or spa (haircut, manicure, massage, etc., at 15% of total bill.
Alcohol Laws
To purchase or consume alcohol in California you must be 21 years of age. Proof of age is often requested, so carry photo identification that gives your date of birth. Some grocery stores sell beer and wine (and will also request a photo ID). It is illegal to carry open containers of alcohol in your car or any public area that isn't zoned for alcohol consumption, and it is illegal to drive while intoxicated. Choose a "designated driver" in your group (someone who will abstain from drinking alcohol) who will be responsible for driving you home.
Electricity
California uses the same electrical current (110V, 60Hz) and outlet/plug types as Canada. Plugs either have two flat pins (Type A) or two flat pins plus a round grounding pin (Type B).
Weights and Measures
The U.S. uses a partial metric and English system of weights and measures. Metric equivalents are:
1 inch = 2.5 centimetres
1 foot (12 inches) = 0.3 meter
1 yard (3 feet) = 0.9 meter
1 mile (5280 feet) = 1.6 kilometres
60 miles per hour = 100 kilometre per hour
1 ounce = 28 grams
1 pound (16 ounces) = 0.45 kilogram
1 quart (liquid) = 0.9 litre.
Foreign Language Assistance
(888) US-1-INFO provides free access to emergency services and travel assistance in more than 140 languages.
Smoking Rules
Smoking is prohibited in all public buildings (including restaurants, bars and casinos) and enclosed spaces throughout California. It is illegal to smoke within 20 feet of doorways or windows of government buildings. Most large hotels have designated smoking rooms; if you smoke, request one - most hotels will fine guests who smoke inside a non-smoking room. Many cities in California (including half the cities in San Diego County) have passed ordinances prohibiting smoking in all public places. It is even illegal to smoke on certain beaches in Southern California - watch for signs!
Using the Telephone
To place a call from your hotel, you often must first dial an access code. Check the instructions on the phone, or ask the concierge or front desk clerk for assistance. To reach the police, fire brigade or ambulance, dial 9-1-1. This number is only to be used in a true emergency. Most long-distance and international calls can be dialled directly from any phone.

For calls within the United States and to Canada, dial 1 followed by the area code and the seven-digit number. For international calls, dial 0-1-1 followed by the country code, city code, and the telephone number of the person you are calling. Calls to area codes 800, 888, 866, and 877 are freephone numbers, but a hotel access charge may still apply.

For reversed-charge or collect calls and for person-to-person calls, dial 0 (zero, not the letter "O") followed by the area code and number you want. Specify to the operator that you are calling collect or person-to-person, or both. If your operator-assisted call is international, ask for the overseas operator. For directory assistance within the U.S., dial 4-1-1 ; long-distance, 1 plus area code plus 555-1212; toll-free, (800) 555-1212.
Toll-Free Calls
Not all 800, 877, and 888 numbers work outside the U.S. Try a direct toll number or a fax.
Holidays
Banks, government offices and post offices are closed on the national holidays listed below. In addition, some attractions and many stores, restaurants and museums may be closed or have limited hours (call ahead to check).

January 1 (New Year's Day)
the third Monday in January (Martin Luther King Jr. Day)
the third Monday in February (Presidents' Day)
the last Monday in May (Memorial Day)
July 4 (Independence Day)
the first Monday in September (Labour Day)
the second Monday in October (Columbus Day)
November 11 (Veterans' Day)
the fourth Thursday in November (Thanksgiving Day)
December 25 (Christmas)
Taxes
The state sales tax is 8.25%. Local taxes may be as much as an additional 1.5%.
Getting Around
Considering the fact that some of California's finest attractions are inaccessible by public transportation, most visitors find driving the best way to see the state. That said, there's plenty to see by public transportation and plenty of public transportation to get you between metropolitan areas.

See the Getting Around section of our website for more information.
Driving Regulations
By law, everyone in a vehicle must wear a seatbelt, and motorcyclists must wear a helmet.

Speed limits are posted in miles-per-hour (mph). Generally, the speed limit on multi-lane freeways is 65mph. On two-lane highways it is usually 55mph. The speed limit on city streets is usually 35mph. In residential areas, near schools and in areas with heavy foot traffic, the speed limit is almost always 25mph.

Along freeways with heavy traffic, car pool lanes (or "diamond lanes") are identified by small black-and-white signs and by diamonds painted on the roadway. To drive in a car pool lane, you must usually have two people (including the driver) in the car. Some car pool lanes in the San Francisco Bay Area require three people (including the driver).

Roundabouts are uncommon in California. Most intersections are either signed by traffic lights or by stop signs. Unless signed otherwise, it is legal to make a right turn on a red light after you come to a complete stop.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) publishes an online version of its California Driver Handbook which thoroughly explains California road rules.

The new Wireless Communications Device Law (effective January 1, 2009) makes it an infraction to write, send, or read text-based communication on an electronic wireless communications device, such as a mobile, while driving a motor vehicle.
 

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