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.