Whether you’re traveling to America for the first, second, tenth, or twentieth time, read on for a collection of tips to make your journey in the USA easier. Feel free to post your own tips in the comments below – our readers will appreciate them!
Remember to Complete the ESTA Travel Registration
It isn’t necessarily required to apply for a visa before traveling to the USA if you’re planning to stay for no more than 90 days and are traveling on business or vacation. Instead, simply complete and pay for an ESTA travel registration.
An approved ESTA doesn’t guarantee permission to enter the USA, but it does authorize you to travel there. Officially, it’s recommended that you complete it at least 72 hours before your departure, though the evaluation will occur within minutes.
If you head to the airport without a completed ESTA, you’ll most likely not be allowed on the plane.
Keep an Eye out for Deals on Cheap Flights to the USA
Quite often, there are promotions for round-trip airfare to the USA for €400$429, inclusive of all fees and taxes.
As always, it’s a give and take, so expect a limited choice of dates, fixed departure and arrival airports, stopovers and, not to mention, tickets sell out quickly. Checked luggage is usually not included in the ticket price, so you will have to manage with carry-on luggage.
For more tips, check out our article on how to buy cheap airline tickets to the USA.
Save on Accommodation in the USA
Finding accommodation in the USA is relatively easy, with a wide selection from the cheapest campsites to luxury hotels. For a night in a hostel, you can expect to pay $20.00–$25 per night, a budget motel or hostel from $45–$55 per night, and a hotel room from $60 upwards. Airbnb is also widely available throughout the United States.
The price of accommodation can vary considerably based on the destination, its rating, the time of year, and current occupancy. In general, the earlier you secure your accommodation, the more you’ll save.
If you’re not experienced in arranging accommodation, consider reading this article on affordable accommodation in the USA.
Make Copies of All Your Reservations
It’s crucial to keep backups of your airline tickets, ticket stubs, hotel reservations, and travel insurance contracts.
Personally, I find it effective to store these documents in a cloud that all trip participants can access. Moreover, I keep them downloaded on my phone in case I lose internet connectivity.
I always upload my travel insurance policy to a shared folder. If something were to happen to me, my fellow travelers can access it. I also keep a copy of my passport in a secure cloud.
Anxious About the Immigration Interview Due to Your English?
Upon landing at your first airport in the USA, you will be required to undergo a mandatory interview with an immigration officer. This officer will decide whether to let you into the country or send you back home on the next plane (which is very unlikely).
You can typically go through the immigration interview in a group with your fellow travelers. If you’re still worried about your English, have the answers to each question written on a piece of paper and present it to the officer.
Verify Your Credit Card
If you haven’t used your credit card abroad before, confirm with your bank that you can use it overseas. As unlikely as it may sound, I’ve heard of a case where a European bank’s credit card didn’t function in the USA.
Despite the term “credit card” being a misnomer, the majority of purchases in America are made using credit cards. Debit cards, where you spend your own money, are more commonly used elsewhere.
Nonetheless, when paying in the USA, declare that you are paying with a credit card to avoid any complications or inability to pay. For more information, check out how to pay by card in the USA.
Don’t Forget to Activate Roaming
Before your departure, be sure to check that your roaming to the USA is activated. Without it, your phone won’t log into the network, meaning you won’t have a signal or be able to make calls.
In the USA, I suggest not using roaming data, but purchasing a prepaid SIM card from a local carrier. This will give you access to data and cheaper calls in the USA, which you can utilize for tasks such as finding accommodation.
Prepare for the Time Shift
The United States spans six different time zones, meaning there’s a 6-10 hour difference between the eastern and western parts of the country compared to most parts of Europe. For the current time in any USA city, visit TimeAndDate.com.
Jet lag is a common issue for travelers due to the shift in time zones. Your body needs to adjust to a different time, so for the first few days after your arrival in the States, you may find yourself falling asleep in the afternoon and waking up in the middle of the night. Experts state that for every hour of time shift, your body needs one day to adapt.
From personal experience, I recommend preparing for jet lag in advance. For a few days before your flight, go to bed in the early hours of the morning (ideally between 3:00 – 4:00) and wake up after noon. Once you arrive in the USA, you won’t waste precious time, you won’t be tired, and you can begin exploring America immediately.
The USA Uses Imperial Units
While most of Europe (except perhaps England) uses metric units, the USA prefers imperial units:
- 1 foot (foot) = 12 inches (inches) = 30.5 cm
- 1 yard = 3 feet = 91.5 cm
- 1 mile = 1,609 meters
- 1 ounce = 16 drams = 28.35 grams
- 1 pound = 16 ounces = 453.59 grams
- 0 °C = 32 °F
- 10 °C = 50 °F
- 20 °C = 68 °F
- 30 °C = 86 °F
To convert between units, you can use the Google search engine. Just search for something like “25 C to F”. You can also easily convert between currencies (e.g., 10 USD to EUR).
A Good Plan Is Half the Battle
Whether you’re visiting New York City for a week or embarking on a month-long road trip from east to west, constructing a detailed itinerary is crucial. Research the attractions and locations that pique your interest. Look up the price of admission, potential savings, opening hours… and always keep a backup plan on hand.
Avoid Overloading Your Schedule
Even if you’ve set aside a month for a road trip through the western USA, you may find that it’s not enough time. The constant travel can be exhausting, you might discover new and intriguing places, and often, delays can occur more frequently than expected progress.
Never Underestimate Travel Insurance
Healthcare costs in the USA are extraordinarily high, which directly affects the cost of insurance to the USA.
Despite, or perhaps due to, these costs, I recommend securing travel insurance with adequate limits before your journey. For context – treatment for acute appendicitis costs $27,500 in the United States, while the average cost of treatment for an insured tourist in the USA is $10,000.
What You Need to Know About Driving in the USA
Most police officers and rental companies won’t require one, but exceptions do occur. A friend of mine was denied a car rental in Hawaii because he didn’t have one. Persuasion didn’t help.
Before renting a car, I suggest comparing offers from several companies to potentially save money.
Drivers should read the article on driving in the USA as there are a few differences in regulations. Cars with automatic transmission dominate in the USA, and you can turn right on red at traffic lights, yielding to vehicles coming from the left if necessary. Knowing the speed limit is important to avoid fines.
Additionally, familiarize yourself with the process of filling up at a USA gas station, as it differs from most European gas stations.
Greyhound and Megabus Provide Affordable Inter-city Travel
To commute between cities, you can use bus services like Greyhound and Megabus. If you purchase tickets online well in advance (e.g., two months), you can travel long distances for a few dollars. Despite the low prices, the buses are not subpar; free Wi-Fi and power outlets are standard.
For longer distances, consider Southwest Airlines – their ticket prices are relatively low and unlike their competitors, they offer two pieces of checked luggage free of charge. Train travel tends to be quite costly in the USA.
Download Offline Maps to Your Phone
If you plan to use the subway for transportation or travel by rental car, download offline Google Maps.
In case you don’t have a local SIM card, you will still be able to use maps without an internet connection. Having a downloaded subway map can also be useful. Wikipedia is a good source for clear diagrams and high-resolution pictorial maps are available for almost every USA city.
Prepare Your Supply of One-Dollar Bills
The USA is a country where tipping is expected. Restaurant servers, hotel maids, and airport shuttle drivers rely on tips as part of their income.
In restaurants (excluding fast food), a tip of 15-20% is expected, taxi drivers anticipate around 10%, and maids and porters are content with one or two dollars. I recommend having a supply of one-dollar bills on hand. In some restaurants, the tip is already included in the final price. Just look for the “Service Charge” included on your bill.
How to Choose a Good Seat on an Airplane
The best seat on an airplane is usually in the exit row. Most airlines charge a fee for these seats, while in other cases, you simply need to ask politely at check-in.
For a restful night’s sleep throughout the flight, it’s often worth choosing seats at the back of the plane. Unless the plane is fully booked, there’s a good chance you’ll have three seats to yourself. You can sleep quite comfortably across these.
If you want a quick immigration interview, select seats at the front of the plane. These allow you to disembark quickly after landing and minimize your waiting time.
To choose the best seat, I recommend using SeatGuru.com, which offers seat reviews by airline and aircraft type.
Learn Your Baggage Allowance Early
Verify the maximum baggage allowance before each flight to or within the USA. For the least expensive tickets to the USA, typically only a small carry-on bag is included. This bag is carried onto the plane.
Checked luggage is now generally included on pricier tickets and usually cannot exceed 20 kg44 lb–23 kg51 lb. Interestingly, an honorable exception is the USA low-cost carrier Southwest, which allows passengers two suitcases.
Personally, I always travel with carry-on only, as I don’t do much shopping. If you plan to bring back souvenirs, gifts, or inexpensively purchased clothes, ensure you have plenty of room in your suitcase.
Don’t Lock the Trunk, Secure It with a Cable Clamp
The USA Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has the authority to open your suitcase at the airport and inspect its contents. This is not an exception, but a common practice. The chance of being chosen randomly is quite high.
Moreover, security personnel have the right to forcibly remove the lock, and you will only discover the inspection from the leaflet when you retrieve and open your suitcase at your destination airport. There are two ways to avoid buying new locks – either acquire a “TSA approved” lock or use cable clamps to secure the zippers. A clamp costs about a penny, and if you attach another one to your suitcase, they will replace it after any inspection.
Pack Your Adapter into the Trunk
In America, the standard is a Type A or B 110-volt outlet – the one with two flat pins. Be sure to buy or borrow an adapter and pack it in your luggage. They tend to be very expensive at airports. You can purchase adapters for USA outlets at most electronics stores; the cheapest kits can be found for a few dollars.
Adapters with grounding (e.g., for a laptop) are usually more expensive.
Buy a Power Bank and Carry It with You
If you don’t already own a power bank, consider getting one. Traveling in national parks, taking long drives, and constant photography deplete your phone battery quickly. You may not always have the opportunity to recharge it.
You can also charge your laptop, headphones, or watch from a power bank.
Leave the Schnitzel at Home
Customs regulations prohibit the import of most meat and dairy products, including sausages or salami. On your flight to the USA, you will still need to complete a customs declaration, which must indicate whether you are importing any of the banned foods. If you check yes, or if you are detected in a random inspection, the food in question will be confiscated.
For a detailed list of permitted and prohibited items, see What foods can be imported into the U.S.A..
The Cheapest Food You Can Buy Is at Fast-Food Restaurants
Americans are extremely fond of eating at fast food restaurants. The variety of chains is vast, and I bet there are many you’ve never heard of. Subway, McDonald’s, Burger King, Five Guys, Wendy’s, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Jack in the Box, KFC, Taco Bell, Starbucks, Applebee’s, Domino’s Pizza, White Castle, Hooters, Krispy Kreme, Dunkin’ Donuts, In-N-Out Burger, El Pollo Loco, Pizza Hut… just to name a few.
Most of them serve various types of burgers with fries, and you pay $8.00–$15.00 for the meal. If you prefer a healthier lifestyle, I recommend Subway’s bagel or Mexican Chipotle. Menus usually include calorie counts and fat content, as part of the effort to combat obesity.
All fast food restaurants offer free refills of a post-mix drink, known in America as a fountain. In addition to sugary beverages, there’s usually a limited selection of unsweetened drinks, typically tea or water. If you want to try something distinctly American, fill up on A&W Root Beer, an herbal soda with a unique flavor.
The Amounts on the Price Tags Do Not Include Tax
In states where it is collected, sales tax is not included in the amount shown on the price tag. Thus, the advertised $10.00 for an authentic American ground meat bun can turn out to be less than $12.00. Keep this distinction in mind when making payments.
Save Money by Using Tourist Passes
If you enjoy visiting museums, galleries, and similar attractions, consider purchasing a tourist pass. This requires a one-time, albeit substantial, investment, which can give you access to dozens of different attractions.
For instance, The New York Pass and New York CityPASS could save you hundreds of dollars. The more attractions you plan to visit, the more you save.
You can also save money on admission to USA national parks with the America the Beautiful Annual Pass. It’s valid for one year after purchase. You can either purchase a new one for $80 or opt for a used one. Up to two different people can use the America the Beautiful pass.
Minimum Drinking Age in the USA: 21
In the USA, alcoholic beverages are not permitted until the age of 21. Underage individuals are not allowed to buy, import, or possess alcohol. This rule is stringently enforced, although exceptions occur when minors consume alcohol.
Most American states prohibit drinking in public places or possessing open bottles of alcohol. Paradoxically, this law can be circumvented by strategies such as concealing a beer bottle in a paper bag to drink from it.
How to Send a Postcard from the USA
You can purchase postcards in most souvenir shops, visitor centres, and similar places in the USA. They are often very graphic, unique in shape or size. The cost of a First-Class Mail International stamp is $1.40 (as of January 2023), and it is valid for shipping to any country in the world. You can purchase it along with the postcard, or at the post office. The stamps are self-adhesive, so there’s no need to moisten them.
The postcard usually reaches Europe within two weeks of dispatch.
You can deposit the postcards in the blue mailbox with the USPS logo. If multiple mailboxes are present at a particular location, make sure the mailbox is not designated for a specific type of mail. If you drop a postcard in the wrong box, it might not be delivered, although my personal experience suggests otherwise.
Hitchhiking in the USA: Allowed in Some Places, Prohibited in Others
Hitchhiking is generally allowed in most places, but in some states, particularly in the eastern part of the country, you can’t stand on the side of the road unless you’re on the grass, for instance. Police officers often are not familiar with the exact laws and can cause issues for hitchhikers in places where hitchhiking is allowed.