Five Traps To Avoid When Travelling To The USA

Recent changes to security regulations for US-bound flights highlight the fact that travelling to the US can involve unexpected experiences, even for frequent travellers. Here's five things to remember if you're planning a trip to the USA.

I've routinely travelled to the States once or twice a year for work for the past decade or so, but it was only when our night editor Elly complained on Twitter about having her locks broken in transit that I realised some of the stuff I take for granted isn't always obvious to other travellers. While many of the principles that apply to travelling to the US are the same as anywhere else, there are a few quirks which you might not realise.

5. Take plenty of one-dollar bills

The US is a tip-centric culture, so you'll be handing out dollar bills to everyone from your hotel room cleaner to your airport shuttle driver, as well as adding a tip to the bills even when the service is entirely unremarkable or even sullen. While there's certainly an argument to be had that this is a ridiculous way to run a service economy, there's no excuse for saying "I wouldn't tip in Australia, so I won't tip here." Wages in the US for those kinds of jobs are normally calculated to include a tipping percentage, so tipping is pretty much compulsory unless you want to be possessed by the spirit of Margaret Thatcher. As such, when you're changing your money in Australia, ask for a healthy quantity of small notes.

4. There's no such thing as transit

Unlike pretty much everywhere else in the first world, there's no way to fly through the US en route to somewhere else without actually clearing US customs. Even if you're continuing on immediately to Canada or South America or Europe and your luggage is already tagged to your final destination, you have to clear customs and pick up your bags. (The same applies to luggage if your bag is tagged to another destination in the US.) It's a nuisance, but US airport design means it's never going to change. If you're booking your own international flights and are transiting through the US, make sure you allow plenty of time for this process (I'd suggest an absolute minimum of two hours, and I'd be more comfortable with six, if I'm honest.)

3. Don't lock your luggage

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which controls airline security within the US, frequently inspects luggage in transit (that is, once it's been checked in). As such, if you put a padlock on your bag or use a built-in locking system, it's liable to get summarily (and permanently) removed, especially on flights within the States. (If the TSA does open your luggage, it will leave a note in it telling you this has happened.)

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 which means flight screeners can check your baggage if it does set off security checking processes. I'm personally a bit sceptical about this — if you're worried about criminals accessing your baggage, why wouldn't you assume they could also get access to a dodgily-sourced master key? But if you do want to lock your luggage, a TSA-approved lock is the only way to go.

2. Flight announcements aren't a given

Australian domestic and international airports always have flight announcements for boarding, but every US airport I've encountered is silent — no airport-wide boarding announcements are made and you're expected to be at the correct gate at the right time without prompting. The US isn't unique in this respect (the same rule applies at many busy airports) but it's worth bearing in mind if you don't travel often.

Even within airline lounges, announcements aren't normally made for US domestic flights. However, lounges for international flights will generally make announcements for those flights. For all that, I'd be keeping a close eye on the clock.

1. Make sure you register through ESTA

The vast majority of Australians don't need a specific visa to travel to the states for holiday or business trips lasting less than 90 days (as a journalist, I'm one of the few exceptions). However, you do need to apply online via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization for electronic approval prior to your trip. While this process happens virtually automatically in most cases, US authorities recommend doing so no later than 72 hours prior to your trip. If you haven't applied, you're likely to get told at the airport that you can't board. Once you have been approved by ESTA, it remains valid for subsequent trips for a two-year period.

Got your own Stateside travel tips or time savers? Let's hear them in the comments. I'm off to the US myself this week for CES, so I'll offer some thoughts on the current security situation in a later post.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman still sometimes fakes an American accent to make it easier to order coffee. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


    Another ripper collection of travel advice, Angus. You seem to be on a roll. Now although probably isn't the right place for it, you can't tell me that behind all of these travel tips you don't also have plenty of good yarns to tell! Guess we'll never know. Still, thanks for all the travel tips about the all too rapidly changing business of getting around this world.

    It's probably worth reminding about the different luggage allowances between airlines. Some charge for the extra check-in piece of luggage, others don't. If you book internal flights separate to your international flights it's worth checking the airlines' rules for luggage (both carry on and checked.)

    Sales Tax,
    Unlike australia many of the states have different sales taxing ranging from non existent to 18% also the sales tax is not included on the sticker price of the item, for example in Washington state if you order something from wendys off the dollar menu it will cost you more.

    as for the dollar bills you will accumulate these during your stay as well, I paid and tipped for a meal once in all singles, it was over $25.00

      This is true. The price tag on the product is not the final price you pay.

    In regards to tipping, check the bill when you get it. If it has a 'Service Charge' then the tip has already been added.

    In regard to transitting, those with an Official or Diplomatic passport should be aware that if they do a visit for work purposes within the US, then exit to some third country, then transit home, they will need two visas (one for the original visit and the other for the transit). I am not kidding !!

    With laptops or anything else valuable, make sure the scanner is vacant before putting your stuff into the xray machine. Should you get held up, and your valuables don't, its likely to get nicked. I read that 100 laptops a day go missing through airport security checks !!

    Tie your checked luggage zippers closed with string instead.

    Tie them with a loop big enough that the clumsiest official will be able to get a pair of scissors in and cut them off without a risk of stabbing your luggage in case they want to inspect it, and small enough that nobody will be able to take things out (or put them in, Schapelle) without you knowing about it.

    A tip about the ESTA. This is a FREE service, but if you search for "US electronic visa" or something of the sort in Google, you will get sent (even through ads) to non government websites that charge $50 or so to pass through your details to the government website (i.e. it is a scam).

    So bookmark that link up there if you plan to travel to US soon, rather than search for it later.

    Zip ties are about as secure as anything else and a whole lot cheaper than padlocks when they are cut by the TSA. Travel providers even sell them with unique serial numbers, so they can't just be switched without you knowing.

      That's a good idea. I did not know about rule #3 when I went to the States recently, and the TSA broke my padlock. I was pissed off and felt violated. I did not want a Schapelle Corby happening to me!

    I am very curious to know what happens if you order coffee in your own accent?

      Me: "Is there a shop nearby where I can buy some cigarettes?"
      Nightclub bouncer in Greenwich Village, New York: "You wanna go to a SHOP? To buy some cig-a-RETTES? You don't call it a SHOP here! You call it a STORE or a BODEGA! There ain't no SHOPS!"

      Short answer: people don't understand me and I have to repeat it. That might have as much to do with my tendency to speak too quickly as my accent, but speaking in an American accent also forces me to slow down, so it solves the problem either way.

    ProTIP: Don't be from Cuba, Sudan, Syria and Iran, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia or Yemen when going to the U.S. You'll be subjected to "enhanced screening". *Cough* discrimination *cough*

    Get rid of your pennies (1c coins) before you get to the currency exchange booth - they don't accept pennies so I came home with a handful.

    Davo, I'm just about the whitest man on the planet -- and an american citizen to boot -- and yet I *always* get stopped for the 'enhanced screening'. They must be discriminating on me for my incredible good looks. Yeah, that's it.

    6. If your packing some MAJOR WEDDING TACKLE..Duct tape it to your leg !

      suggest you google "bondage tape" like Duct tape but much less painful to remove.

    Point #2 is simply not true. I've lived in the US for almost 18 years and have travelled around the country for work for 12 of those years (2-3wks/mth on the road). I have taken approx. 500-600 domestic flights and I have never encountered a gate that does not give a boarding announcement.

    A couple of additional tips...

    1. Stay close to your gate. Domestic flights will board roughly 25 mins before take-off. Again, they will announce this. Use this time to negotiate with the check-in staff to get a better seat.

    2. Check-in online, even if you can't print your boarding pass. Save it as a PDF to your desktop and have your laptop in sleep mode to show the PDF if asked.

    3. Check-in at the curb. Many airlines will let you do this (yes, even post-9/11). Ask the guys with your airline if you can do this and be sure to tip them (otherwise you may just find you're luggage just doesn't make your flight). Dozens of times doing this has saved my butt, since you can sail straight through to your gate (after going through security). Beware of baggage scams in some Northeastern cities though (Chicago and Detroit specifically). Handlers will sometimes tell you your luggage is over weight (and it may very well be) and then push for a big tip (expecting the equivalent of your baggage excess saving). 1 or 2 dollars per bag is what you tip.

      Shayne, you've misunderstood -- there's a big difference between boarding announcements you can hear at the gate (which do indeed happen at US airports) and boarding announcements that can be heard throughout the entire airport (which don't happen in the US, but are standard at all Australian airports, and mean people often don't bother to be at the gate until they hear the announcement).

        My mistake Angus. Airport-wide announcements are usually only given in small airports (e.g. Perth airport and smaller) where it's feasible to do so because of low traffic volume. That said, if you have checked-in at the gate and wandered off, you'll often hear an area-wide announcement calling you by name (again, it seems to depend on the airport). If you hear such an announcement, run. Better still, don't be a dumb-ass and stay by your gate for the last 30mins before departure. I've made the mistake of doing this only to find I've missed a gate change announcement and had to sprint (with carry-on bags) across 20+ gates or even to a different wing.

    As far as tipping is concerned, as an American I have always hated it. With that in mind however keep in mind the average wait person is making between $2 and $4 dollars. Dining out in the US is also much cheaper than here in Australia (at least in Melbourne and Sydney). Living in Australia for the past 7 years and traveling back to the US 2-3 times a year I have learned that dining out here with no tip costs about the same as dining out in the US and giving a tip (many times it's even cheaper in the US).

      It's absolutely cheaper to dine out in the states than in NSW. NYC might be the sole exception, and that's because its an absurd place all around. (And even so, its heaps cheaper than London or Moscow)

      But the real difference is in the quality of service. Yanks just make really good waiters and shop attendants. Service is always, always always better when tips are expected -- and doubly so when you have a genuinely nice server. Many Australians think its "faked," for the most part, its the real thing. Even the non-comissioned bookstore clerks are 10x more helpful and friendly.

    BTW, if you expect to find some semblance of clear reason behind who gets tipped and who doesn't, forget it. I've had the conversation with American friends/family dozens of times in an attempt to understand and employ the practice correctly with some consistency and the system just doesn't make sense. The "those kinds of jobs are normally calculated to include a tipping percentage" is quite a point. After 18 yrs, it still baffles me.

    I read an article on the SMH website that stated if you don't get good service you don't have to tip (unless you want to). In fact it said that you should even go as far as telling them the reason why you are not tipping.

    The author also stated that she got such bad service when dining out once, it was at a place where the tip go added automatically. That she asked them to take the tip off before she would pay.

    She also stated that low pay with tips is no excuse for bad service and if your an aussie and going to the US expect to tip. It sounds all very confusing, I must admit.

    PS Louis Rodriguez "incredible good looks" LOL.

    I absolutely hate travelling through the US in transit to anywhere else. In Chicago there are 6-10 lines for people carrying american passports who are travelling to other destinations and 1 (one) line for all foreigners. When all the americans have been cleared, the controllers for those lines do not come to help with the bottleneck, it's time for their break. If you're just passing through the US give yourself 5 or more hours to do so. Don't be surprised if you're photographed and fingerprinted. Paranoia is rampant.

    Tipping is not compulsory or mandatory.
    You tip based on service.
    If the service sucks, you don't tip.
    It's a matter of respect really.

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