14 Things Australians Must Know When Planning a USA Trip

 
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The USA: I visited three years ago now and I’ve been homesick for it ever since.  From the bedazzling lights of Las Vegas to the magic of Disneyland to the breathtakingly spectacular Grand Canyon, America is a world famous tourist destination for a reason.  We believe it’s a place that everybody should experience at least once.  We were there just briefly, a short and wonderful five days, but the USA wowed us and left an indelible mark on our hearts forever.

No matter what part of the USA you choose to experience, you are sure to be in for one epic trip.  We can guarantee that you are going to love it!  However, America is different to Australia in a lot of ways. There are a few customs, laws and tips to know before you go to ensure that you have an awesome time and eliminate potential travel issues.

Here are our top tips.

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#1: Arriving in the USA

Generally speaking, Australians enter the USA through either Los Angeles, Dallas, Honolulu or San Francisco airports.  Flying to any of these airports is definitely a long haul trip.  From personal experience, we know that flights to LA from Brisbane are about 13 hours.  If you’re from Melbourne, it’s even longer at 14.5 hours and longer still if you’re flying from the west coast.

Prepare for a long flight accordingly.  Wear comfy cloves, don some super sexy compression stockings in need, do your exercises on the plane and expect to be at least slightly jetlagged when you arrive.  Or, consider breaking up your trip with a stopover.

If you’re only stopping in to the USA as a transit stop en route to neighboring countries like Canada or South America, it pays to beware.  You will still have to clear US customs.  This is true even if you’re immediately headed to another flight.  This happens almost nowhere else in the world, but it happens here.

If you book a flight with a transit stop in the USA, allow a minimum of two hours between flights to give you time to get through customs.  It can also help to ensure your bookings are connected so that the airline can keep a bit of an eye on you.

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#2: Know your visa requirements

When you’re planning a trip to the USA, make sure you read the Australian Government’s Smartraveller websiteso you know the deal with your visa requirements.

If you’re visiting for business or pleasure you may be eligible for admission up to 90 days under the Visa Waiver Program, or ESTA.  Before setting off, eligible Aussies under the VWP must apply for an ESTA at least 72 hours prior to travel.  You can fill out the form online and it is easy to do.  It only takes a couple of minutes.  It isn’t free but it only costs about USD$14.  Once you’ve filled out the form and paid the fee the ESTA remains valid for 2 years.

Note that this ESTA waiver only applies if you will be in the USA for up to 90 days.  If you will be in the USA for longer than this, you are not eligible under the ESTA program and will need to obtain a visa.  Your 90 days starts from the day you hit US soil.  And remember it does not reset if you cross the border to visit neighboring countries Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean during your trip.  Any time spent in these countries will count as part of your 90 days so be careful.

We’re serious about filling out that ESTA form 72 hours before you go, by the way.  If you rock up to the airport without one, they won’t let you board your flight.

Make sure you visit the Smartraveler website to clue yourself in on your requirements before you go.

#3: Planning an epic USA road trip

Planning an epic USA road trip?

You’ll clearly need a car.

Hiring a car is the recommended way to go.  Buying and registering a car in the USA is difficult, and not really worth the hassle unless you’re planning to be on the road for more than six months.  For starters, you need to register the car and secondly, you need to insure it, both of which require you to have a USA home address.

We recommend you hire a car and most of all that you book it here from an Australian website rather than internally in the USA.  Oh sure, that quote from the USA car hire company looks like a way better deal, but it’s probably not.  The quoted price from that US site does not include taxes or insurance, which can almost double the quoted price of the rental.  Eek!

And don’t forget to check the road rules of the state you’ll be driving in!  The most important difference to note is that in the USA they drive on the other (right) side of the road, and this can take some getting used to.  We were catching public transport and cabs for about three days before we hired out a car.  Even in a cab, we’d hold our breath as the cars went the wrong way around roundabouts.  It seemed so terrifying at first because we just weren’t used to it!

Although international driver’s licenses aren’t generally mandatory in the USA, we recommend getting one.  We did, just in case.  For insurance reasons, be sure to double check with the rental car company for its policies on international drivers before you set off.

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#4: Pack light

By and large, things are cheap in America.  Like, really cheap.  Food, booze, cigarettes, clothes, shoes, toiletries and electronics can be bought for just a fraction of what you’d pay in Australia.  It pays to pack as light as you can in Australia, and buy things while you’re over there at a far more reasonable price, including toiletries and climate appropriate clothing.

In many cases, for things like camping gear or children’s car seats, it often works out cheaper to just outright buy an item than to hire it.  You can always sell or donate it once you’re finished if you don’t want to take it home with you.

#5: Look twice at that price tag, though

As per point #4 above, most things are very inexpensive in the USA.  If this inspires you to rock up with an empty suitcase and buy up big whilst you’re over there, far be it from me to try and stop a good ole fashioned bargain hunt.  However, buyer beware: what you see on the price tag isn’t actually what you will pay at the checkout.

Unlike in Australia, price tags do not include sales tax.  The amount that you’ll pay will vary between states, however, the ballpark figure is usually between 4-6%.  We recommend that you err on the side of caution and factor in 10% mark up when trying to calculate the price.  This will almost always be too high, but it’s a good estimate to determine whether you’re really getting such a good bargain.

#6: Watch your waistline

Because I didn’t.  And in five days, I promptly gained back the 10 kg I’d worked my butt off for eight months to shed for our wedding.

Huge portion sizes, free food, low-cost food, lots of sugar and deep fried galore.  In other words, when I visited the USA I felt like I’d died and gone to food heaven.  However, all that amazing foodness comes with a cost.  A caloric cost.

Just because your hotel serves powdered cruller donuts, Frosted Flakes, and chocolate croissants at the free breakfast buffet doesn’t mean you need to load your plate high with a side helping of dinner plate sized pancakes every single morning.  Which is totally what I did.

And just because you’re eating breakfast at the gigantic all you can eat buffet at MGM Grand, doesn’t mean you actually have to eat all you can eat.  Every single morning.  Which is also totally what I did.

Now, if you don’t give a shit about your waistline and you’re just here to have a good time like I was, then have at it and just scroll to the next point.  Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures and I’m not here to stop you, judge you or lecture you on making healthy choices because I am totally down with living for the moment.

However.

If staying on track with your health and fitness goals is a priority to you and you are worried about healthy eating options, read on.

Many places in the US have healthy eating options.  If staying trim during your visit is important to you, try the following:

  • Look for high protein, low carb options (like the protein style burger at In N Out).

  • Avoid deep fried, battered or crumbed food wherever possible.

  • Reduce portion sizes by sharing them with your travel partner, or only have two main meals a day and swap out the third for a light snack, instead of having three square meals a day.

  • If you have a hotel with a self-contained kitchen, call in to a Trader Joes or Whole Foods for healthy snacks and meal options.

  • Remember: sugar is NOT a breakfast food. (I tried Frosted Flakes for the first time in the USA.  There was so much sugar on them I coughed it out my nose.)

#7: You get free food at restaurants

The poor waitress at Mariscos El Perihuete must have been so confused when she brought out the free tortillas and our faces registered panic.  “We didn’t order these, I think they’re for someone else!” we tried to tell her.  “Oh, no,” she explained.  “These are complimentary.”

It happened again a few nights later while we were eating out somewhere else.

Free… bread?

And again when we went to iHop and our waitress just kept re-filling our coffee.

Free… coffee?

As you probably already know, there is no such thing as free carbs or free caffeine in Australia.  The closest we come to free coffee is the $1 special at 7-11.  But over in the USA, you typically get free refills if you buy a coffee at a restaurant, and a free bread basket.  Don’t panic!  Don’t do what we did and try to send it back.  Embrace it, my friends.

Some quid pro quos:

  • Availing yourself of bottomless free coffee refills before you do a four hour nonstop drive through the desert is probably a terrible idea. Trust me on this.  I know.

  • If you have any concerns about your waistline at all, I recommend seeing point 6 above and letting your husband have the bread basket to himself.

#8: We need to have a bit of a talk about tipping

Yes, it’s true.  You have to tip in the USA.  Remain calm!  It just takes a little bit of preparation and prior knowledge.  It took us pretty much the whole time we were there to get our heads around tipping – who to tip, what to tip and when to tip.  I really feel like we should have prepared ourselves before we came.  The consequences of our unpreparedness ranged from awkwardly handling over $10 to our valet because we had no idea, to both having a mild panic attack in the car park over perhaps not tipping our attentive concierge properly.

In America, service and hospitality staff only make minimum wage and in some cases, below that.  The federal minimum wage in the USA is $7.25 and in occupations where tipping is routine, companies can legally pay wages as low as $2.13 an hour.  Imagine that!  People in the service/hospitality industry rely on tips to make up the majority of their wage.  The service you will receive in America is second to none because their customer service with a smile is literally their livelihood.  They will go above and beyond to show you a good time.

It is not a legal requirement to tip but it is customary and considered polite.  In fact, it is considered very rude not to tip at all.  Technically speaking, tips are only given to staff who are helpful but in actual practice, tips are the expected norm, even if the service is subpar.  To not tip someone at all is considered as outright rude as flipping them the bird.

This deserves a blog post all on its own, but a crash course prepared from my own subsequent research:

  • Carry a fuck tonne of $1 notes with you to making tipping easier

  • Any staff member who renders a personalized service is eligible for tipping. This includes tour guides, bartenders, housekeepers, waiters, porters, and concierge staff

  • At a restaurant: tip 15-20% of the pre-tax bill

  • Give a porter who assists you with your luggage between $1 and $2 a bag

  • Give your housekeeper $2 to $5 a night (leave it on the pillow each morning)

  • Tip your bartender $1 per drink

  • Tip your taxi driver 10-15% of your fare

  • Give your valet attendant $1 to $5 each time he brings the car around

  • You don’t have to tip at McDonald’s or other similar fast food outlets

#9: You need travel insurance

Even and especially if you think you don’t, cos that Murphy’s Law is a biatch.

Things go wrong when you travel.  Wallets and passports go missing, flights get canceled, luggage is lost by the airline, things get stolen and people get sick.  This is unpleasant enough in your home country but when it happens and you’re miles away from your safety net, it’s downright horrendous.  Don’t think you don’t need it because you’re in a Western, English speaking country.

Travel insurance is especially important in case you become ill or injured whilst over in the USA.  Whilst the standard of health care in America is comparable to that of Australia, the cost is… well… not.

Whilst here in Australia you can rock up to any emergency department bleeding out all over the floor and they will save your life for free, that’s not the case in the USA.  The affordability of healthcare is kind of a crisis for its residents, let alone for you.  Medical costs are astronomical.  Even if you get a minor ailment and need to see a doctor, that one tiny visit can set you back several hundred dollars, and that’s not even including any scans or tests you may need.  It’s easy to rack up thousands of dollars of medical bills in the blink of an eye.  And, without health insurance, you’re typically expected to pay those bills upfront.

This alone is why travel insurance is a MUST.  We never travel anywhere without covering our asses first!  We ourselves use Tick Travel Insurance for comprehensive peace of mind while traveling.

#10: The legal minimum drinking age is 21… and other laws you should know

Remember, you are traveling to a foreign country and the laws there and their enforcement are different to Australia’s.  It’s sensible to read up on the laws of the country and state you’re visiting before you go.  We found that in many ways, the USA’s laws were a lot laxer than in Australia, but on the flipside, there were many laws that were very harsh by Australian standards.

Some big ones to know straight up:

  • The minimum legal age for purchasing and drinking alcohol in the USA is 21.

  • Some medications that are over the counter in Australia may be prescription only in the USA. You can be arrested for being in possession of these medications without a valid prescription, so if in doubt, get a prescription for any medications from your doctor before you travel.  See the United States Customs and Border Protection site for more information about what is and isn’t allowed.

  • Speaking of which, the USA has very strict, often zero-tolerance anti-drug laws and penalties for offenses can be severe, with mandatory minimum sentences.

  • The USA gets a bit funny about guests who overstay their welcome. If you’ve overstayed your visa or ESTA, you could be arrested, detained for 90+ days, deported and even banned from ever re-entering the USA again.  Pays to sort your visas and cover your bases before you head off.

Do your due diligence – you don’t have to become a law scholar before you go, but doing a bit of research first can save you from accidentally committing an offense and ending up in jail.  This is true not only of visiting the USA but really anywhere.  If you land in hot water, the Australian Government is limited in how it can help you.  They will, of course, do what they can but they cannot intervene with a get out of jail free card.

It’s not anything you need to be walking around quivering in your boots about.  Don’t do in the USA what you wouldn’t do here, do a bit of homework and you’ll be just fine.

#11: US Plugs and Adaptors

The type of electrical socket used in the USA is type A and B.  In Australia, we used type I.  This means our electrical devices won’t plug into a USA socket without an adaptor.  If you’re taking electrical equipment with you, like laptops, chargers, or hair appliances, you’ll definitely need one.  We did not prepare for this and it required an emergency trip to a supermarket in search.

#12: Many Americans are native Spanish speakers

Especially where we stayed in California, a high percentage of the people we encountered spoke Spanish as their native language.  Approximately 41 million Americans speak native Espanol – more than the entire country of Spain – and comprise the second highest Spanish speaking population in the world behind Mexico.  California has one of the highest rates of Spanish speakers of all the states, at 38% of the population.

Whilst knowing Spanish isn’t necessary, we feel like it’s good to know a few different phrases and words before you go.

Some good phrases to know

Hola – Hello
¿Cómo estás? – How are you?
Buenos dias – Good morning
Buenos tardes  – Good afternoon/good evening
Buenos noches – Good night
Por favor – Please
Gracias – Thank you
De nada – You’re welcome
Perdón – Excuse me/I beg your pardon
Mucho gusto – Pleased to meet you
¿Habla inglés? – Do you speak English?

#13: The people are as beautiful as the country itself

We were blown away by how generous, helpful and friendly people in the USA were.  They could not do enough for us.  If they saw us looking a bit lost, they were quick to help us find our way, or make local recommendations.  They were all proud to show us their country and showed genuine interest in ours.  Everywhere we went, we found them to be polite, helpful and genuine.  The people we met, the strangers we took up conversations with, and the helpful and smiling faces we met along the way instantly became a highlight of an already memorable trip.

#14: Familiarise yourself with USA currency before you go

Otherwise, you’ll just end up pouring your coins all over the counter every time you try to pay for something and spend forever trying to work it out.  Luckily, the shop attendants were always helpful and patient and gave us some helpful tips for quickly recognizing which is what.  However, you can save a lot of time and heartache, for yourself and for the poor sales assistant, by not doing what we did and instead working it all out before you go.

Like us, the USA trades in dollars and cents.  However, they have a few nicknames for their coins that may seem unfamiliar.

  • Penny: Worth 1 c. It’s a copper-plated coin with Abraham Lincoln (you should recognize him) on one side and the Lincoln Memorial on the flip side.  The label helpfully reads “one cent”.

  • Nickel: Worth 5 c. It’s silver in color, made from nickel and copper and larger than a penny.  It has Thomas Jefferson on the front.  It is also helpfully labeled “five cents”.

  • Dime: Worth 10 c. It is also silver in color and made from nickel and copper.  It is smaller than a penny and a nickel and has Franklin D Roosevelt on one side and a torch on the back.  The label reads “one dime”, which is a little trickier to make out.  Remember, a dime is equivalent to 10 c.

  • Quarter: Worth 25 c – literally a quarter dollar, so this is easy to remember. It is silver in color and made of cupronickel.  It is larger than a nickel.  George Washington features on the front and it will either have the United States emblem on it or a design of one of the 50 US states.  This one is easy to remember as being worth 25 c, as the label reads “quarter dollar”.

  • Half Dollar: Worth 50 c. This one is less common in circulation and is the largest of the US coins, made of silver and copper.  It has John F Kennedy on the front and the presidential coat of arms on the back.  This one is also easy to work out, as it will read “half dollar” on the back.

  • Golden Dollar: Easy – this is a $1 coin. These are also less common (the USA has $1 paper bills) but they do exist.  It will have Native American Sacagawea on the front and an American Bald Eagle on the back.

American bills are simple to work with and come in denominations of $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100.  Basically, it’s the same as ours, except they also have $1 and $2.  Each note is the same size and color, but the dollar value is very clearly labeled, so it’s easy to work out.  Just make sure to pay close attention to the dollar amount when you’re counting out money – you don’t want to accidentally give someone a $20 instead of a $2.

 

We absolutely loved the USA and talk about our trip every day.  It was a definite highlight in both our lives and we absolutely think everyone should do it at least once.  It’s such a beautiful country to visit and you’re guaranteed to have a good time.  And with the tips above, planning your dream trip to the USA should be a breeze!

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