There are some things everyone should know before travelling to the US for the first time.
And I’m not talking about the extraordinarily large gaps between toilet stalls, although they are extraordinarily large (what’s up with that?). No, I’ll be letting you in on helpful USA travel tips to make your trip easier.
Coming from Australia, I thought travelling to the states would be a walk in the park.
I wouldn’t have to use a combination of vivid gesticulation, sign language and morse code to order lunch. I wouldn’t have to internally debate about whether a bow or little head-nod would be appropriate to show appreciation (hello, Japan!). Alas, no matter how many Adam Sandler movies I’ve watched, I found the United States of America unexpectedly different. Here, I give you my top 8 USA travel tips for first timers.
You don’t want to arrive at the airport and suffer from heartache before your holiday’s even started.
Chances are, you’ll likely require an ESTA or visa before stepping foot on American soil. I’m fortunate to be an Australian passport holder who’s able to travel to many countries quite freely. So when my friend asked me if I had applied for an ESTA a couple of months before our trip, I was like “a what, now?”.
For Australians, if you’re visiting the US for a holiday less than 90 days then you may be eligible to apply for an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). If there’s one thing all governments like, it’s long titles and abbreviations. You can apply for an ESTA here for $14 USD. It took me a day or two to get approved so I would suggest applying for one at least a week before your travel. If you’re unsure whether the ESTA will cover your trip, contact your local US embassy. This is probably a boring USA travel tip, but it’s an important one!
2. Americans are a friendly bunch
If you have a problem or need a direction somewhere, just ask! Americans are usually more than happy to help (at least on the West Coast).
I think Australians are a bit of a rarity for them as well since we’re usually on the opposite ends of the earth. Whip out your Aussie accent and a “g’day mate” and you’ll get the famous American hospitality. One of our Uber drivers told us to forego the usual “hey mate” greeting for something like “what’s up, man” in order to blend in around town. But hey, sometimes it pays to stand out a little. We received free chocolate cookies and waffle cones just because our servers recognised our Aussie accent!
What’s the saying again? In life, only two things are certain. Death and taxes. In Australia, our 10% GST is already added in to the cost of goods and services on the shelf price.
Do you ever haughtily pat yourself on the back when you’ve prepared the exact change, before you reach the register? Look at me everyone, I’m so efficient and organised and obviously doing well in life. Well in the US, get used to always paying a bit more than what you’re expecting. Sales tax is only added in at the end when you reach the front counter. Y’all really like to test my mental mathematics here.
Oregon, Delaware, Montana and New Hampshire are the only four states to not have any sales tax at all. Do with this information what you will.
4. Pedestrians are king
Whenever we were walking the streets in the US, we were always taken aback at how nicely pedestrians are treated.
It’s habit for us to stop and wait for cars to pass by first when we attempt to cross a road with no traffic light or signs. Every single time we did so in the US, we were always given right of way by traffic. That would never happen where we live. I think our step count really ramped up after seeing how easy and convenient walking to places could be.
I’m apart of a few travel related Facebook groups. Every few months, someone in one of these groups asks how to tip in the United States.
You can always expect a few up voted comments disapproving the tipping culture (“bleh, why should we tip? It makes everything so much more expensive!”). No matter what your personal opinion on tipping is, it is an ingrained part of American culture that should be followed by visitors. As gently reminded by many in these Facebook posts, tips sometimes make up the majority of people’s living wages.
The general consensus is that you should tip 15 – 20% to your server for a sit down meal. Sometimes if they notice a foreign accent, a gratuity will already be included in your bill (that’s the tip). You should be tipping a dollar per drink on a night out, or more if it was difficult to make. Tip your taxi and Uber drivers a few bucks, depending on distance.
6. Strict airport security
I’m the most rule abiding, straight as an arrow person I know. I was the annoying teacher’s pet with my arms folded across my chest and eyes towards the board. Don’t make fun of me, guys.
Yet, I still get strangely nervous coming across customs officers at airports. The US have strict airport security, so don’t make any funny remarks or jokes whenever you cross their paths. You have to take off your shoes and belt whenever you pass through check points. And then deal with the awkward personal item collection pile up after you pass through.
I think we spent two hours in line at immigration waiting to get into San Francisco. I was so tempted to snack.
7. Use Yelp
Everyone loves to find a hole in the wall or miraculously come across a hidden gem restaurant. However, sometimes you might fall into a tourist trap without knowing when you’re downright hangry.
Download the Yelp app on your phone to take away the guesswork of finding a reliably good restaurant. My boyfriend knows not to mess with Hangry Michelle. It’s much easier to find some place to eat and rest using this app. Locals and tourists alike leave reviews for restaurants on Yelp. The app aggregates the reviews and shows you the highly rated places in your area.
8. Get used to big servings
America is pretty famous for their generous sized servings… And I ain’t mad about it. In fact, I welcome it as an Asian person embracing my cheap (ahem, frugal) tendencies.
My boyfriend and I would often share food or order an appetiser and a main together because the serving sizes were generally super sized compared to back home. No one seemed to mind this. It was pretty great being able to take leftovers back to our hotel to eat later in the night for supper later in the night or breakfast the next morning.
What are your top USA travel tips? Leave them down in the comments below to share.
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