Planning a trip to the United States? You’ll have a much better time and eliminate travel hassles if you remember to adjust to some of the peculiar American quirks. Here are the 10 key issues we advise looking out for.
Las Vegas strip picture from Shutterstock (Andrew Zarivny)
The United States is one of the most popular travel destinations for Australians: more than 863,000 trips were made there in 2012, ranking it as our third-most popular destination (after New Zealand and Indonesia). US culture often seems familiar to us after a lifetime of imported TV, music, movies and games, but there are some peculiar quirks of travelling to the States which aren’t always so apparent.
I’ve been thinking about these issues in the run-up to our World Of Servers visit to TechEd North America — these are problems that our winning bloggers are going to have to bear in mind. However, they’re equally applicable to anyone travelling to the US. We ran a more basic version of this list back in 2010, but given the many changes since then an update seemed wise.
10. You’ll pay more than the listed price
Despite Australia’s proximity to China, many items are still cheaper stateside (clothes being one obvious example). The ongoing near-parity between the Australian and US dollar also makes shopping sprees very tempting. Have at it by all means, but remember one crucial point: unlike Australia, the price tags you see won’t include sales tax. That will vary from state to state, with the typical rate hovering between 4 and 6 per cent. I usually assume a 10 per cent markup — that’s almost always an exaggeration, but it’s an easy mental calculation and makes it simple to assess if a bargain is still a bargain post-tax. Picture: Douglas Muth
9. Don’t make jokes to airport security
Yes, this rule applies in any airport, but the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) can be particularly humourless. The process is annoying (you always have to remove your belt and shoes), but we have some sympathy here. People make “jokes” on an astonishingly regular basis about “having bombs”, something we highlighted by putting all the reported comments on a map. Having to deal with people carrying loaded firearms in hand luggage is also a daily occurrence. Tamp down your inner comedian and put up with life in the queue; it will be easier for everyone in the long run.
8. Stock up on dollar bills for tipping
I’m not a fan of having to give dollar bills to shuttle bus drivers and add 15 per cent to every restaurant bill, but tipping is an inescapable fact of life in the US. Many minimum-wage jobs presume that tips will form a large proportion of overall income. In theory, that should lead to better service; in practice, that varies widely. But tipping is expected, and stocking up on dollar bills (the US has dollar coins as well but they’re much rarer) is the easiest way to handle tipping the doorman who gets you a taxi. Note: some restaurants will automatically add a gratuity to your bill to make sure you pay it. Check that before adding anything extra yourself. Dollar bills picture from Shutterstock
7. International transit is not a thing
The US sometimes pops up as a transit stop en route to other countries (particularly Canada and South America). The bad news: if this happens, you will still have to clear US customs, even if you’re immediately heading to another flight and your baggage is already tagged to your final destination. It’s a nuisance and something that happens almost nowhere else in the world, but US airport design means it’s never going to change. If you do book a trip with transit via the US, allow yourself an absolute minimum of two hours between flights, and make sure your bookings are connected, so that the airlines involved will be looking out for you. Departures picture from Shutterstock
6. Know your body scanner rules
Both Australia and the US now use body scanners to check passengers for banned items, but there are some key differences. In Australia, the scanners are currently only used for international flights and aren’t used on every passenger, but you can’t opt out; refusing to be scanned will see you kicked out of the airport for 24 hours.
In the US, scanners are used for domestic and international flights, and everyone passing through the airport is subjected to them. However, you do have the option of asking for a pat-down scan instead. Personally I wouldn’t bother — the body scan is much quicker — but the choice is there if you have health or privacy concerns. Picture: Getty
5. You won’t hear airport-wide flight announcements
Australian airports are small enough that airport-wide boarding calls are usually made for every flight. That isn’t the case at US airports: the only announcements that are made are at the gate itself, so you won’t hear them if you’re lurking in the shops or at a bar. Take note of the boarding time on your card and make sure you’re at the gate on time. US flights are often overbooked, so you risk getting booted if you don’t show up, especially if you don’t have checked baggage.
Again, this isn’t unique to the US, but it’s worth noting. If you have access to an airport lounge, note that they typically don’t make flight announcements for domestic flights either; international flights are often called, and some lounges will highlight boarding flights on a separate screen (as in the picture), but this depends on the airport and airline.
4. Your accent may be a problem
Americans are friendly folks, but many of them haven’t travelled, and their only routine exposure to other accents is via South America. I might have an exaggerated view of this because I speak far too quickly at the best of times, but I’ve often found it easier when ordering coffee or a meal to simply drop into an American accent rather than being repeatedly questioned. The mere process of having to remember to do the accent slows me down.
3. If you must lock your bag, use TSA locks
As well as scanning your body on the way in, the TSA also often inspects luggage after it has been checked in. If this happens, you’ll find a note in your bag to that effect. However, if you have locked your bag, you’ll know well before that, because the lock will have been broken open.
The only way to work around the lock ban is to use one of the TSA-approved locks, which can be opened with a master key. That means baggage screeners can inspect your baggage if it does set off security processes, but it will remain impervious to other outsiders. I’m cynical about the usefulness of this — there must be a lot of master keys around — but if you like locking your luggage, it’s the only way to do it.
2. Be sparing when using your phone
The US is no exception to the rule that mobile phone roaming rates will bleed you dry. Check out our top 10 tips to avoid roaming rorts for specific advice on how to minimise this problem. Free Wi-Fi is definitely your friend; it’s increasingly common in US hotels, but check carefully as some hotels will charge a “resort fee” to cover it. If you want to acquire a pay-as-you-go mobile hotspot for data access in the States, we’ve rounded up some of the better options. Hotspot picture from Shutterstock
1. Make sure you apply for an ESTA
Most Australians don’t need a specific visa to travel to the US for holiday or business trips lasting less than 90 days. However, you do need to apply online via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization for electronic approval prior to your trip.
The process is relatively speedy and can be done entirely online, but it isn’t free; you have to pay $US14, and payment via credit card is the only option. This may seem fiddly, but there is one advantage: if you have an ESTA, you only have to fill in customs paperwork on board your flight, rather than separate customs and immigration forms.
Apply for an ESTA well in advance of your trip; if you arrive at the airport and don’t have an ESTA (or a visa), you won’t be able to board your flight. An ESTA remains valid for two years. The official minimum time period is 72 hours.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman often feels he knows Las Vegas better than Brisbane, which is a worry. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears regularly on Lifehacker.