California: a quick guide to state attractions

CALIFORNIA…… Just the mere mention of it already calls to mind a vibrant part of the United States that is renowned for its multi-cultural ambiance, and its miles and miles of enticing beaches and forests, perfect for beach bums and nature lovers alike.

The state of California is one of the most popular travel destinations in the US, not just because of its excellent tourist delights, but also because it is one of the more progressive-thinking places in North America.

For non-residents, it is of course the historical landmarks, the social and cultural dipping pots, and the tourist spots – both natural and manmade – that continue to attract and motivate people from all over the world to visit again and again.

 Top 5 Tourist Spots in California State

Got favorite movie dialogues running through your head? Feel like hiking in some wooded parks? Eager to be one of thousands of sun-worshippers at the beach? Looking forward to having your picture taken with a Disney Princess? California lets you do all that, and not surprisingly, even more!

Here are top 5 tourist spots in California:

  • Disneyland – Your trip to California would be incomplete if you don’t drop by “the Happiest Place on Earth.” Pamper your inner child or gift your child companion with an unforgettable journey to Disneyland Park in Anaheim, in downtown Los Angeles. Hobnob with Disney or fairy tale characters in a magical world where really do wishes come true (or not, but then again, that’s more than compensated for by the numerous attractions such a theme park, shopping and dining complexes, and 8 Lands with their own special themes, among other pleasures).
  • Universal Studios – Starstruck? Great, because Hollywood, the movie capital of the world, is the best place to “ooh and aah” over memories of great performances and outstanding movie scenes that many remember for a long, long time either because of their realism, or their grasp of imagery. Take a Universal Studios tour and immerse yourself in some of the best moments ever to come out of Hollywood.
  • Alcatraz – When you’ve got a taste for the offbeat, try an Alcatraz Island tour. The former federal prison in San Francisco Bay that operated for 30 years until its shutdown in 1963 is now a US National Historic Landmark. Choose from the Day and Night Tours of the now-abandoned prison facility and let your imagination run free about what life must have been like for the notorious once housed there. Compare that with the gifts of nature that abound on “The Rock” and be glad that you’re a law-abiding citizen.
  • Yosemite National Park – Prepare to be overwhelmed by the grandeur of creation when you take a Yosemite tour in central eastern California. Imagine 308,205 hectares of breathtaking vistas of exposed granite and a profusion of streams, lakes, waterfalls, and towering sequoia trees to deepen your love of nature.
  • Golden Gate Bridge – This is one of the busiest landmarks in California for both vehicular and pedestrian traffic (on the railings).  Tour the Bridge, enjoy the great views, and vicariously experience the extent of human emotions – from hopeful, romantic love to suicidal depression – that have been portrayed in various works of art including photographs, movies, books, music, and documentaries.

Top 3 Cities to Live in California State

At 163,695 sq miles, California is the 3rd largest American state, and the one with the most number of residents. According to Area Vibes, the most livable cities in California based on criteria such as high income per capita, low crime rates, stable housing market, and plenty of local amenities are:

  • Los Altos – This city at the southern end of the San Francisco Peninsula has a livability score of 87%. As of 2010, it has a population of 28,976.
  • Monte Sereno – This city is located in Santa Clara County and has a livability score of 86%. The name is Spanish for “serene hill” which accurately depicts this charming metropolis.
  • Rancho Santa Margarita – This is one of the most affluent cities in Orange County with a livability score of 86%.

Top 3 Foods to Try in California

Fusion cuisine is a hallmark of California dining, owing to its multi-racial and multi-cultural atmosphere.  When in California, you can feast on these delectables:

  • Cioppino –  this seafood stew with distinct Italian culinary overtones was created in San Francisco by immigrants who later became fishermen on the Bay. Immigrant Sicilians later on improvised and added tomatoes to the seafood medley, which is the version usually served today.
  •  Fish Taco – this Mexi-Cali fusion features fried or grilled fish that is sprinkled with lime juice to taste, and partnered with some avocado.
  • Shrimp Louie – depending on availability of the catch and your inclination, this features cooked shrimp or crab with Louie dressing (chili sauce, mayonnaise, peppers) over a mix of California salad standards such as sliced hard boiled eggs, asparagus, lettuce, avocado, tomatoes, and cucumber.

Top 2 Party Places in San Francisco, CAclub-1-1147773-m

After eating, many tourists would like to party hard, but since California is so big, it’s not easy to pinpoint which would be the best place to enjoy some drinking or dining. So, here are two great spots randomly chosen from the best bars and clubs in San Francisco:

  • Smuggler’s Cove at Gough Street, San Francisco – this extremely famous Tiki bar features a pirate ship theme, ginormous drinks, and a sizable crowd during most days of the week. Wait to be accommodated, and thank your stars when you get in.
  • Dirty Trix Saloon at Clement Street, San Francisco – if you’ve never been in a “dive” bar, get baptized at this fun bar that features stand-up comedy acts and is well-patronized by locals. Like all other dives, Dirty Trix serves real cheap drinks, an incentive that’s enough to make you visit if getting all-boozed up is in your agenda.

Top 2 Shopping Malls in California

Shopping is a favorite tourist activity, so, to wind up our California tourist recommendations, here are two must-visit malls in the state:

  • Westfield – this is a mall with a global presence, that is fortunately also present in the city of San Francisco. Aside from the well-known brand names on sale in its shops, this mall also has tie-ins with trendy hotels and numerous seasonal events that make it very attractive to visit.
  • Gump’s – this mall has got nearly everything covered, from dining and entertainment, to home furnishings, jewelry, bed and bath, apparel and accessories, office supplies and materials, décor, and gift galleries.  It’s the perfect place to go to if you want to buy presents to bring home.

Photo by: hdkam1(Yosemite valley)

Photo by: Ale_Paiva (club)

Flying to USA

Before you board the flight, make sure you have everything in place.  Check for your visa, ensure that your passport is not expired, get your ticket booking confirmation, check in online (where possible), take a print of your boarding pass, get enough cash in change (like $1 bills, quarters, and travelers checks (if this is your first time)).

Airport security, luggage restrictions and what you can and cannot take on a flight have been changing frequently these days and if you are not alert – you could face unnecessary inconvenience.

Travelling to USA (first time or otherwise):

Photo by: ba1969

  1. 1205741_27111092Documents: You should always carry all your documents in a convenient laptop bag or a backpack.  This is THE most important piece of luggage that you will not check-in or otherwise lose sight of.  Keep the boarding pass, passport, visa documentation and the completed port of entry document (this will be given to you in the flight) handy.  By handy I mean accessible yet safe. If you cannot find a luggage cabin closer to you on the flight, keep the bag with documents with you (under the seat or tucked in the pouch in front of you).  It is important that you do not club your carryon luggage and documents in one bag as you may not be able to fit in carryon luggage under the seat and as we mentioned earlier – you should not lose sight of your documents bag – and it is important that you keep these separate. Photo by: ba1969
  2. Ticket:  Someone may try to buy tickets separately to save money.  For example, if you are flying from India to US, you may have been told that booking ticket to London (or wherever your changeover is) and London to US separately will save you money (and this is in some cases true).  However, what happens if your India to London flight gets delayed?  Since you did not book all of it together – if you miss your London to US flight, you will have to shell out money to buy another ticket.  Same thing holds true for local flights.  If your ticket is not booked from origin to destination the local flights may charge you extra for your luggage. Given the risks and costs associated, we always recommend you book your flight from origin to destination through one airline/booking agent.
  3. Luggage: The airline and the class in which you fly will determine your luggage restrictions. If you fly economy, most airliners have restricted the baggage to 1 check in, 1 carry on and 1 laptop bag.  For women, they can carry one purse in addition.  Each of these bags again have weight restrictions.  Most airlines allow 23 kgs (51 pounds) for check in, 8 kgs for carry on and most airlines do not check your laptop bag weight but some do (like Air India).  Check with the airline that you booked your ticket with in advance so that you can plan your packing.
  4. What to take?:  There are strict restrictions on what you can and cannot take on a flight to US.  You cannot take seeds, plants, raw meat, hazardous material or anything that could be construed as hazardous and items that are specifically prohibited.  You can, however, take fried seeds, plant based food, pickled meat, clothes, cosmetic items and host of other items.  Remember that most of these items can only be checked in.  If you pack them in carry on you could be asked to throw them away at the security checking.  Safe measure is always to keep clothes, electronic items (camera/phone/laptop) and documents in your carry on and laptop bags and everything else in checked in bag.
  5. Port of entry: After you land in US, you will be directed to the port of entry.  This is where you are asked few questions by the Immigration officer about your visit, where you are going to live in the US, how long do you intend to stay in US, nature of your business, what kind of work you do, how long have you been doing this work (if you are on work visa), how did you find out about the university (if you are on student visa) etc., There are no set questions and the immigration officer can ask you anything that relates to your visit, being prepared for at least above questions will help you be confident.  Verify before leaving the counter that your Form I94 as well as Customs form are stamped.
  6. Customs: After you have been cleared to enter into the US by the immigration officer, you will head straight to collect your luggage after which you will be going through customs.  Hand over the completed (and stamped) customs form to the officer and answer any questions you are asked.   Standard questions at the customs include:      Are you carrying any plant or animal products?
    Are you carrying any illegal or prohibited items?Purpose of visit to the US.
    Your final destination etc.,

    Sometimes customs officer may open your bags and inspect them, sometimes they don’t. Make sure you do NOT carry anything that is not allowed to avoid stressful situations.

  7. Shuttle/cab/public transportation to your destination:  Almost all major airports in USA have ‘help desks’.  Always take the airport approved cabs or shuttles.  If you want to use the public transportation, ask the help desk personnel.  If you do not know where the helpdesk is located, ask any flight counter personnel and they will help you.  There are clear signs all over the airports to the ground transportation too. is a good source as well for cab services.
  8. CashAlways carry enough cash in small denominations ($1, $5, $10, $20).  You should always carry some quarters too in case you have to call someone at the airport (if it is your first time).  First timers should carry travelers checks as they are safe mode of carrying cash to a new place.   Please note that if you carry more than $10000 in total value to US, you may have to declare it on your customs form.

Flying from US

When flying back to your home country (or any other place outside of US) from the USA you have to ensure that your paper work is right.  See below items and make sure you do not overlook any of them.

  1. Expired visa:  On most visas, you can stay in US even after they expire as long as you have proper authorization extending your stay.  However, some countries will NOT let you fly through their air space on an expired visa.  For example, you cannot fly on British Airways (via England) on an expired US visa.  Make sure your airline lets you travel on an expired visa (with proper extension authorization documentation) before you book the flight.743005_boston_airport
  2. Transit visa: Some countries will require you to have a transit visa to travel through their country.  This may be due to the fact that the need to shuttle through one airport to another.  Check with your booking  agent/airlines before you make the purchase. You can find information about transit visa requirements at Travel.State.Gov website.
  3. Letter from employer/school:  Always ensure that you get a letter from your employer about your current employment standing.  If you are student, ensure that your I-20 forms are updated and you get a letter from your school stating that you are a ‘continuing student and intend to return to US to complete your courses’.   The school needs to know your travel plan to update the SEVIS system to authorized travel. If the SEVIS system is not updated, the student could not issues returning to the USA. The scool usually issues a seperate ‘Travel I-20’ for this purpose. The travel I-20 ofr the letter is required even if you don’t have to appear for a visa interview to renew your visa.
  4. Labor Certification Application (LCA)/ Form I- 797: If you have a LCA and / or if you are an H-1 holder, always carry a copy of your LCA and / or Form  I-797 (H-1B receipt notice) with you.  This is the proof that you are working in ‘said’ location in USA and is an evidence of the validity of your current status in the USA.
  5. I-94: Ensure that your I-94 is handed over at the flight check in counter at the port where you are boarding.  It is your responsibility to remind them even if the flight check in agent forgets to take it out. You will receive a new I-94 each time you enter the USA. The I-94 is a record of your authorized arrival date and once you hand it over, it marks your authorized departure.
  6. Electronics:  You can take most items with you when travelling from US. The real challenge is in the customs of your destination.  Most countries have limits on the value of electronics you bring in for personal use.  Visit your country’s customs site and comply with the rules.  Worst case, you may be asked to pay customs fees on the items over and above the approved limit.
  7.  Cash: Carry enough cash in your destination country’s currency.  This will help you with calling, cabs, customs and food. Note that you can carry any amount of cash outside of the USA; however if you or the family carries $10,000 or more in total, then you have to fill out the “Report of International Transportation of Currency and Monetary Instruments” . Click here for link to the form – FinCen Form 105. This form can be filled out prior to travelling or a customs officer can help you.  Family members travelling together can not split the currency to smaller denomination to avoid declaration.

Other things to remember before and while travelling:-

  • Travel miles – Add miles to your skymiles card. If you don’t have a skymiles card with the airline, you may want to apply for one before flying. Most airlines update the miles for a very limited period after the travel and you may end up loosing your miles if you don’t add the miles within their limited window.
  • Credit cards charges – Most card card will allow you to withdraw cash or making credit card payments outside of USA; however there will be certain charges associated with those transactions. You may want to check with your credit card company before travelling about transactions outside of USA and foreign currency.
  • Phone calls – Most phone carriers in the USA have a international roaming plan where you will be charged a reduced / discounted rate for calling international. Note that even if you have the phone with a USA phone carrier and a USA number, you will be charged international for calls to USA from outside of USA.

Email us at  for a FREE list of top 10 cheap international calling cards. If you have any questions or need any travel tips from travel from USA or if you would like us to research anything for you, please let us know and we will be happy to help.



Illinois: a quick guide to state attractions


Photo by: Wikimedia Commons

Thinking of where to go and what to do as a tourist in the state of Illinois can be challenging because Illinois has an abundance of theme parks, museums, zoos, and numerous places where exciting outdoor and indoor activities can be held.

Top 5 tourist spots in Illinois

Here are five highly recommended tourist spots in Illinois:

For those fond of history, and wish to know more about Abe Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, this museum is a perfect destination. The  simplicity of Lincoln belied his noble vision for America, a country where slavery was outlawed. The museum contains the world’s biggest collection of memorabilia related to Lincoln and his times. This museum is closed on Sundays, so plan your visit accordingly.

This is a popular tourist spot that has been in existence since 1934.  It is famous for its exceptional exhibits and design.  You can watch the training sessions for the sea lions or dolphins, or take in the dolphin shows at Seven Seas.  If you’re fascinated by simians, you can also go to Tropic World and enjoy observing the apes.

If you’re traveling with kids, make sure to drop by this museum which features natural history. Exhibits include anthropological artifacts from the Pacific Northwest, the country of Tibet, and even ancient Egypt. Kids and adults alike will have fun learning about different cultures from long ago.

For adults who are more into seeing expansive, panoramic scenery from above, then this Observatory is a must-visit destination. Make sure you don’t fear heights, because the breathtaking beauty of the city of Chicago in Illinois can only be best appreciated at a thousand feet from the ground. After you take in the splendid vista, relax with some cocktails at the 95th floor’s Signature Room.

Fans of the outdoors, hiking, and natural rock formations, trails, and cliffs will surely be enthralled with this highly frequented tourist spot. Stand on a rock outcropping and take all the photographs you want of the lush greenery that surrounds the huge rock structures.

Top 3 cities to live in

After being given a sample of lovely places to visit, maybe you’re now thinking about which Illinois cities you’d possibly like to live in. The cities of Illinois all have their unique and enticing identities, such that it’s not easy to make a choice. Chicago, the Windy City that’s been immortalized in films, poems, novels, TV shows, plays, comics, and even video games, easily comes to mind.

But, if you were to base it on a combined evaluation of the following socio-cultural and economic concerns:

  • Crime Index (should be low)
  • Cost of Living (should be manageable)
  • Housing (should be affordable and in pleasant neighborhoods)
  • Weather Conditions
  • Employment Opportunities (should be varied and not scarce)
  • Educational Opportunities (should be comparable to that found in major US cities)

…then top 3 Illinois cities to live in would be:

  • Winnetka – while the cost of living is rather high in this city, it has a very low crime index, great housing and employment opportunities, and educational institutions that are known for maintaining above-average standards of excellence. Note, however that weather here can be highly humid.
  • Orland Hills – low cost of living, low to average crime index, more than average education and employment opportunities, above average housing, weather conditions vary (can be hot, rainy, or humid)
  • Jerome – very low cost of living, very low crime index, slightly above average housing, education and employment opportunities, average weather, but can be highly humid

Top 2 kinds of food

Speaking of socio-cultural concerns, one of the best indicators for a vibrant and fun culture is the quality of the food found in the state.

Let’s look at the top 2 kinds of food to try in Illinois:

  • RealHorseshoesandwichHorseshoe Sandwich – don’t be put off by the quirky name! This is a traditional, open-faced sandwich with fillings as varied as hamburger, chicken, ham, turkey, cheese, shrimp, and crawfish, with various salad-type vegetables piled on or scantily mixed, according to taste. What makes it different from other open sandwiches is the use of toasted sourdough bread.

Photo by: Wikimedia

  • Various Mexican dishes – in Chicago, as well as other parts of Illinois, Mexican food is a big thing. Got a craving for tacos, tortilla soup, or quesadillas? No need to cross the border because many Illinois restaurants have got these for you.

As you can see, the tastes of many people in Illinois are not specific to locally-developed recipes. Many favor fastfood fare like pizza and hotdogs, and outlets for this kind of food dot the landscape of various Illinois cities.

How about trying samples of the best Chi-food? Chicago Food Planet Food Tours , an award winning food tour, offers a tour of the best Chicago specialities where you can try several delicious samples of local and international food.

A food lovers guide to Chi- food containing the best farmers market, grocery stores, speciality shops can be found here – TheKitchn.

Top 3 party places

Aside from food outlets, nightlife is also one of the staples of some cities in Illinois.

Here are the top 3 party places in Illinois that you shouldn’t miss if you’re in the mood to relax and have great fun:

  • Level Nightclub – located in Chicago at 7,000 sq ft. from sea level, and is the scene of many high end parties since 2004. Its clientele has included local and national celebrities and power players. Great music, great ambiance. A dress code is imposed.
  • Hard Rock Café – this is a fixture in Illinois and other parts of the world. If you like Bruce Springsteen and rock music, you’ll definitely want to visit this non-café (it’s actually a drinking spot, to the uninitiated). Plenty of drinks, lots of awesome music from live bands, dynamic crowds, great food, and all the elements for a terrific parteeyyy can be found here.
  • Ontourage – there are more people from out of town than locals who go here to have fun. Intelligent lighting, ideal sound system, 7 VIP areas, dance floors and 4 bars. Come here to drink and dance until you drop!

Top 2 shopping malls

Finally, to round up our list of great things to see and do, here are our top 2 shopping malls in Illinois:

  • Chicago Ridge Mall – there are 89 stores and several restaurants to choose from in (and out) of this mall that features several globally popular brands such as Victoria’s Secret, Aéropostale, Bath & Body Works, Forever 21, Victoria’s Secret,  Chili’s and Buffalo Wild Wings, among others. Check out their website for coupons and events.
  • Cherryvale Mall – located in Rockford, this mall has 128 stores and at least 13 restaurants for your shopping and dining pleasure. Retail items from American favorites JCPenney,  Sears,  Bergner’s, and Macy’s can be found here. They also have a site that you can visit for more information.