Ultimate Guide – 15 Steps to Plan Your Trip to the USA

Petr Novák

Are you planning a trip to the United States? Here’s a step-by-step guide to make sure you don’t forget anything important before you fly to the USA. You’ll also find advice and personal experiences on how to make your trip run smoothly.

Ultimate Guide – 15 Steps to Plan Your Trip to the USA | © Jerry Ferguson

  1. Complete the ESTA

    If you plan to travel to the USA for a maximum of 90 days and do not intend to work there, fill out the ESTA travel registration. It takes around 10 minutes, and an approved ESTA allows you to travel to the USA. However, this does not automatically grant you entry; that decision is made during the entry interview.

    A fee of $4.00 is charged, and if approved, an additional $17.00 will be deducted. In total, ESTA will cost you $21.00. If you have never been in the USA illegally and are not planning to engage in illegal activities, your application will likely be approved 99.99% of the time. ESTA can only be paid for by credit card, so you may ask someone close to you to pay if necessary.

    I always recommend filling out the ESTA travel registration before buying your ticket. If your travel is not approved, you may have problems getting a refund for your ticket.

  2. Purchase Your Flight Ticket to the USA

    If your travel registration has been approved, book your airfare to the USA. Always buy your ticket first, then book your hotel. This approach is usually cheaper than booking your accommodation first.

    When selecting your ticket, remember that you will be interviewed by an immigration officer at your first airport in the USA. If you have a connecting flight, allow approximately two hours for the transfer and interview.

    You will also need to collect your luggage at the first airport in the USA (this only applies to flights there). If all your flights are on one booking, you don’t have to worry about your luggage at other airports.

  3. Reserve Your Accommodation in the USA

    Once you know your travel dates in the USA, book your accommodation. As a rule, the earlier you start arranging accommodation, the more choices you have and the cheaper the prices.

    The cost of accommodation in the USA is dependent on the current demand. During the high season, rooms in larger cities tend to sell out quickly, and prices for the remaining rooms rise. Booking as far in advance as possible is advantageous. For road trips, you can choose a motel as you travel.

  4. Rent a Car

    If you plan to visit multiple cities and sights in the USA, you’ll likely need a car. In Los Angeles, for example, public transportation is subpar, and there are virtually no trains or buses to the national parks.

    Renting a car in the USA is most cost-effective online, and in my experience, prices are lowest 2-3 months before pick-up. If you only rent locally, you will almost certainly pay more, as the supply of available cars will be limited.

    I recommend comparing offers from multiple rental companies at a single location at once using RentalCars.com. Be sure to read these three articles:

  5. Acquire an International Driving Permit

    Are you renting a car and taking on the role of driver? Apply for an International Driving Permit for the USA under the Geneva Convention at any municipality or city hall.

    While the United States usually recognizes a European driver’s license with the EU logo, there are exceptions. For instance, my friend was unable to rent a car in Hawaii because he didn’t have an international driver’s license. The validity of an international driving license is 1 year.

  6. Obtain Travel Insurance

    The average cost of medical treatment for a tourist in the USA is $10,500. Therefore, good travel insurance is essential when travelling to America.

    The simplest way to secure travel insurance is online, with the added benefit of being able to compare quotes from several insurance companies. The cheapest insurance often isn’t the best value, so always compare coverage amounts.

    When considering insurance for travel to the USA, remember these two points: Read the policy carefully, particularly the exclusions section. If you plan to engage in extreme sports (even activities like surfing or paragliding), ensure you have the necessary coverage. For instance, if you plan to go paragliding or parasailing, ensure you have a policy covering these activities.

  7. Plan Your USA Travel Itinerary

    The most time-consuming, yet enjoyable part of trip preparation is creating your itinerary. To begin, check out these USA travel tips.

    If you’re planning to visit national parks in the United States, read about the America the Beautiful pass. This can save you a significant amount of money, as can the advice on how to travel affordably in the USA.

    For a better understanding, study the food prices in the USA and a detailed road trip itinerary for the West Coast. When creating your itinerary, understand that it’s impossible to see everything. Therefore, leave an extra day in your itinerary and decide what you’re willing to miss.

  8. Verify Your Roaming and Block Mobile Data

    As your departure date rapidly approaches, verify whether roaming is activated for your phone number outside the European Union. It’s recommended to block data roaming on your phone and purchase a prepaid SIM card upon arrival in the USA. Check your monthly spending cap, and consider making calls via WhatsApp, Messenger, or Skype for certainty.

    You can buy an American SIM card before your flight with Airalo. There are two options: either a pure data eSIM or an eSIM that includes free minutes for calls and texts.

    I recommend buying a data-only SIM card. You can choose from several package sizes depending on how much data you use and how long you’ll be in the USA.

    The advantage of Airalo is that all purchases are made through the mobile app. The service uses eSIM, so there’s no need to physically swap out the plastic SIM card in your phone. You don’t even need to go to a store once you land in the USA. Just click a few times in the app and you’ll have internet active when you land.

    Airalo doesn’t limit the user in any way with data speeds. If you’re in an area with 5G signal coverage, you can enjoy unlimited fast internet. Once your data package is exhausted, you can simply buy a new one in the app.

    For more information, read my Airalo review.

  9. Verify Your Credit Card

    While you can use Google Pay or Apple Pay on your phone for payments in the USA, it’s wise to bring a physical embossed card as a backup.

    If you’re not renting a car, a debit card should suffice. However, if you plan on renting a car, a credit card would be more suitable. In both scenarios, either a Mastercard or Visa is acceptable.

    The best cards for international payments are Revolut and Wise, which could save you between 2.5-4% on exchange rate differences compared to a regular card. Both of these can be obtained for free within minutes.

    Before you travel, it’s prudent to check your current card’s expiry date, which is printed on the front. From personal experience, I also suggest checking and potentially increasing your card’s payment limits.

    If you haven’t traveled much or used your card abroad in several years, contact your bank’s hotline. Inform them about your upcoming trip to the USA and your planned card transactions. There have been cases where banks have preemptively blocked credit cards due to suspicions of misuse.

  10. How to Pack Your Suitcase for the USA

    When packing your luggage, keep in mind that you will likely buy numerous souvenirs in the USA, leading to more items in your suitcase for the return journey.
    Don’t forget a travel adapter and an extension cord or splitter as outlets differ in the USA.

    I suggest packing a large water bottle in your suitcase to quench your thirst after landing and avoid purchasing overpriced water at the airport. Instead of suitcase locks, consider using the more practical cable clips. US officials randomly inspect suitcases and may cut off locks.

    Some restrictions apply to food imports into the USA. It’s advisable to review the list of banned items. You may bring personal medicines to the USA, but make sure to follow my recommendations.

  11. Flight to the USA

    If all your flights are on a single booking, you will not see your luggage until you arrive at your first destination in the USA. For example, if you are flying from Prague to London, then to New York, Las Vegas, and finally El Paso, you will check in your suitcase in Prague and collect it in New York and El Paso. On your return trip, you will check in your luggage in El Paso and collect it in Prague.

    At some airports, such as Amsterdam, you will undergo a security interview. This prevents individuals who would not be granted entry into the USA from traveling.

    This interview is conducted by a private company, hired by the airlines. If an individual is denied entry into the country by immigration officers, the airline covers their return trip. So if you have no records of violation in the USA and you’re not planning to work there illegally, you have nothing to worry about.

  12. Complete the Customs Declaration Form at the Self-Checkout Kiosk

    Upon arrival at your first airport in the USA, you will be required to fill out a customs declaration form at a self-checkout kiosk. This machine will scan your passport, fingerprints, and take your picture.

    The form asks for information about you and what you’re bringing into the USA. Once you’ve answered the questions, the machine will print a paper for you to submit during the entry interview. Periodically, customs officers randomly select individuals to verify if they’re carrying prohibited food items, for example.

  13. Prepare for Your US Entry Interview

    Following the completion of your customs declaration, an entry interview with an immigration officer will be conducted. This interview, which lasts a few minutes, determines if you will be granted entry into the country and for what duration.

    Unless you have overstayed your visa, intend to work illegally, or plan to engage in unlawful activities in the USA, you will be admitted into the country 99% of the time. Occasionally, individuals are sent to a separate room for a more comprehensive interview. Though uncomfortable, this doesn’t necessarily mean entry denial.

    Passengers causing problems are returned to their origin at the airline’s expense. During the interview, maintain a pleasant demeanor, avoid appearing nervous, provide clear answers, and most importantly, do not lie. If you don’t speak English, you can write your responses on paper.

  14. Shopping in the USA

    In the USA, credit cards are accepted almost everywhere. If a merchant finds card payments inconvenient due to the associated fees, an ATM can often be found within the store. I recommend using your card for payments and bringing minimal cash, if any.

    Be aware that tax is usually added to the final price when shopping in the USA and is not reflected on price tags. As a foreigner, you may be eligible for a tax refund in some cases.

    If a payment terminal or ATM abroad prompts you to choose between transacting in your home currency or the local currency, always select the local currency. In the USA, this means dollars. This choice usually results in a more favorable exchange rate.

    Upon your return home, you are required to declare all expensive goods and pay any applicable duty and VAT. Souvenirs valued up to €430$458 for adults and up to €200$213 for children under 15 are exempt from VAT. Random checks are conducted at airports.

If any information in the guide is unclear or you need additional details, please refer to the answers to the most common questions before traveling to the US.

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