Planning a trip to the United States can be a very exciting experience. It is an incredible country with so much to offer the leisure traveller. From its cosmopolitan cities and magnificent National Parks to the boho lifestyle in California, the music & history of the Deep South and the beautiful Autumn foliage in New England, there is something to appeal to everyone.

For the first time traveller, however, it can be a little overwhelming. The sheer size of the country, the travel formalities, the cultural differences – where do you start when planning a trip to the United States? In this article, I set out my seven ‘top tips’ for the first time traveller.


Not merely a nation, but a nation of nations

lyndon B Johnson

1. TAKE CARE OF YOUR VISA AND PASSPORT REQUIREMENTS FIRST

There are (currently) 39 countries whose citizens are eligible to enter the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program. This is a kind of ‘visa-light’ which you apply for online using the Electronic System for Travel Authorization or ESTA. The process is quick and costs just $14.00 per application. Once approved an ESTA is valid for two years and allows the holder to stay in the United States for up to 90 days on each visit. Applying for an ESTA is generally straightforward, but here are some things you need to be aware of when planning a trip to the United States:

Start early & make sure you are eligible. If you are a citizen of the UK, Ireland, Australia or New Zealand then you are currently eligible to travel on an ESTA. Most – but not all – E.U. countries qualify too. Check the up to date list of countries on the Homeland Security website https://www.dhs.gov/visa-waiver-program-requirements.

Approval for your ESTAs will generally arrive within 72 hours & often much quicker. If the authorities require additional information, however, the process may take longer. Start the task early to get the formalities out of the way. Then you can concentrate on the more fun aspects of planning your trip to the United States! 

Make sure you have a suitable Passport. To travel under the Visa Waiver Program, you must have an e-passport. You can identify these by the symbol on the front cover. You should check that your passport has a digital photograph printed onto the information page as opposed to a glued or laminated photo. Also, check the expiry date of your passport is after your intended departure date!

Make sure you apply using the official website. There are many unofficial websites that will process your ESTA application for you, and often these appear high in the search engine listings. At best they will charge additional fees that aren’t worth it. At worst they may be scam sites looking to collect personal & passport information. Don’t fall into the trap – make sure you apply on the official Department of Homeland Security website https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/

2. THINK ABOUT YOUR LUGGAGE

If you use a padlock to secure your cases, make sure it is marked as ‘TSA approved’. The Transport Security Administration – TSA – are responsible for screening luggage & have the right to break open locks, should they deem it necessary. If your lock is TSA approved, then they will have a master key allowing access without the need for damage. Most cases that have built-in locks are TSA compliant.

One question clients frequently ask me is what type of luggage I would recommend for travel. I prefer a hard shell, spinner (4 wheel) case. The hard shell provides added protection and the spinner wheels (if they are good quality) make pushing your case a breeze. I have tried many brands over the years, but for some time, my preference has been for luggage made by Away Travel. Their suitcases are durable & sturdy but light, made from quality components & they come with a lifetime guarantee.

Deciding what size cases and how much luggage to take can be hard. One thing to bear in mind when planning a trip to the United States is that many hotels have guest a guest laundry with washers & dryers available. Of course, washing clothes is not going to be top of your list while on holiday and rightly so! A couple of hours in the guest laundry, however, means you’ll need far fewer clothes. Check the hotels you will be staying in to see if they offer this facility.

3. KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU LAND

After disembarking the aircraft in the United States, the first formality you will encounter is immigration & customs clearance. Be prepared for queues and be patient! If you have a connecting flight in the States, then allow at least 3 hours to clear immigration when planning a trip. You may have to enter some information at a kiosk before seeing the Immigration Officer. Your photograph & fingerprints will be taken either at the kiosk or by the officer. There will be staff there to direct you and provide assistance, so listen to what they are saying and ask if you need any help.

4. AIRPORT TRANSFERS

If you are anything like me, you’re going to be tired after a long flight & having navigated your way through Immigration & Customs. Now you need to make your way to your hotel. There will inevitably be numerous ‘ground transportation’ options available – train, charter bus, hotel shuttles, taxi etc. 

For convenience, when planning a trip to the United States I always book my transfer from the airport before I leave home. That way, I know it is done & I don’t have to stress about it on arrival. I can get from the airport to my hotel quickly, reliably and with minimum bother. I use a service called Jayride to compare & book the best transfers.

5. PREPARE YOURSELF FOR TIPPING & SALES TAX

When planning a trip to the United States, you should realise that tipping is a part of the culture. It is a kind of unwritten rule. The tipping etiquette can be a shock if it is not common in your country. So why is it the norm in the States? Quite simply, people who work in the service sector earn a meagre minimum wage – far below the rates seen in Europe. They rely on tips to make up a basic living wage. In addition, the IRS (tax authority) assumes that staff earn tips of at least 8% on every sale. They will pay tax on this amount regardless of whether the gratuity was received or not. As a result, you generally receive excellent service in the States, so be prepared to show your appreciation. Here are the rules of thumb I use for tipping:

Waiters – 15% to 20% of the bill.

Bar staff – 1 or 2 dollars per drink

Housekeepers – 3 dollars per night

Porters – 2 dollars per case

Taxi / shuttle drivers (including Uber) – 15%

Before you leave a tip in a bar or restaurant, check whether they have already included a service charge. If not, the bill often shows what 18% or 20% equals, so you don’t have to do the maths!

Paying by card can be a little confusing at first. Often your card will be taken away (this is still common, don’t worry) & provisionally charged with the bill total. Your card is returned with a receipt on which you need to write the tip amount and sign. The establishment will add your tip to the provisional total later before they finalise the transaction. They don’t need to see your card again. Increasingly restaurants have handheld terminals they can bring to the table. These streamline the process by allowing you simply to select a tip amount before entering your PIN.

The other cost you need to be aware of is sales tax. Prices displayed in shops & on menus generally EXCLUDE sales tax. The tax rate varies in each State, but assume you will pay 10% more than shown to be safe.

Make sure you budget for these additional costs when planning a trip to the United States.

6 – FOOD FOR THOUGHT

I love food! One of the great joys of travel for me is trying new dishes & cuisine. Americans love their food as well, and you should prepare yourself for monster portions! My advice is to order less than you think you will need. You can always ask for more later – but you will probably never need to! Consider sharing one main course (or entrée as they’re known Stateside) – this is quite acceptable. If you find that you just have too much food, then ask for a takeaway box. Again, this is quite normal, and most hotels have facilities to reheat food later.

In the States, you won’t see too many vegetables served in restaurants. Unless, of course, you count mac ‘n cheese, which many establishments consider to be one of your five a day! You could order a side salad with your meal, but this will likely be huge & covered with various types of cheese and calorific sauce.

Whenever possible, I will schedule a stop in a supermarket or convenience store. Stocking up with some fruit can be very helpful for times when you crave something fresh & healthy to eat.

7 – MONEY MONEY MONEY

I never change more than 50 dollars worth of cash before travelling to the States. I don’t like carrying cash & only want enough to cover tips when I first arrive. Almost every purchase I make is by card, even if it’s just a couple of dollars for a coffee.

When planning a trip to the United States it is a good idea to check whether your bank will charge for foreign transactions & cash withdrawals. Many do, and these charges quickly mount up. For the past three years, I have used an account with Revolut while travelling. Using my Revolut Mastercard, I can withdraw up to €200 or £200 from ATMs with no fees. Anything over £200 attracts a modest fee of 2%, but I never exceed this as most spending goes straight on the card. Revolut process card payments using the interbank exchange rate, which is brilliant. A message arrives on my phone immediately to confirm all of the payment details. When the account is running low, I simply top up directly from my Euro or Sterling bank account.

I think Revolut is a fantastic option for travellers. Opening an account is free & only takes a couple of minutes. If you would like to find out more you can do so here.

QUICK TIPS

  • Check your travel health insurance before you leave. Medical charges in the U.S. are incredibly high.
  • Switch off data roaming on your phone before your flight takes off unless you have a contract that includes overseas use.
  • Keep a wad of dollar bills handy for giving tips.
  • Take a U.S. mains adapter with multiple USB ports for charging devices. Here is the one I use.
  • Sometimes it’s nice to have an evening in the hotel to recharge your batteries. Subscribe to a VPN service so you can watch your Netflix account, BBC iPlayer etc. when in the States.
  • To avoid making costly mistakes and to get the most from your trip, consider working with a personal travel planner. You can read my article on why you might want to do this here. You can also check out the services I offer on this page.

Please follow and like us:
Follow by Email
Twitter
Visit Us
Follow Me
Instagram