Top 10 Things To Remember When Travelling To The USA

Top 10 Things To Remember When Travelling To The USA

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[clear]

9. Don’t make jokes to airport security

Top 10 Things To Remember When Travelling To The USA

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. [clear]

8. Stock up on dollar bills for tipping

Top 10 Things To Remember When Travelling To The USA

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 [clear]

7. International transit is not a thing

Top 10 Things To Remember When Travelling To The USA

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 [clear]

6. Know your body scanner rules

Top 10 Things To Remember When Travelling To The USA

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 [clear]

5. You won’t hear airport-wide flight announcements

Top 10 Things To Remember When Travelling To The USA

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. [clear]

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. [clear]

3. If you must lock your bag, use TSA locks

Top 10 Things To Remember When Travelling To The USA

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. [clear]

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 [clear]

1. Make sure you apply for an ESTA

Top 10 Things To Remember When Travelling To The USA

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. [clear]

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.


  • ESTA is only required if you arrive by sea or air and not needed for land crossings.
    It’s not a lot of money really but I liked it when it was free. I renewed mine just before they started charging for it.

    Also the Visa Waiver Program is only applicable if you have a newer machine readable passport, not sure if anyone these days would have one that is not.

    • Not to nitpick, but most Lifehacker Australia readers would be arriving to the US of A by air. ESTA is only $14, anyway.

      • It is still important to remember that ESTA does not cover land crossings for those who wish to visit Mexico or Canada. There are many more who would think to take advantage of this on their trips than you would think.

      • For some Australians, people who may have criminal convictions only option is to spend some time in mexico before they travel on through to the states. Very valid point made about the ESTA only need for sea and air arrival

  • A few things from my previous trips to the US (2007 and again in 2008)

    1. When at McDonalds or other fast food places, order by numbers (“I’ll have a number 3 with a large coke”). Also saves that accent from being an issue

    2. On the topic of accents, use their word and pronounciation for stuff. I used to ask my parents-in-law (who are from Ohio) for a soft drink, and found they were confused, but if I asked for a pop, they’d understand. Words like Tomayto / Tomahto are also problematic (my wife has to say tomahto at Subway, otherwise they think she’s asking for potato on her sub). Minor things, but saves both parties headaches

    3. 15% tipping is not set in stone. I tipped more if the service was good, less if it was bad (one person almost threw our meal onto the table, so they got a note on the back of the bill saying why we only tipped 5%. Bad days are bad days, but don’t throw our food).

    • With accent I never had an issue, if you don’t have the “strine” so much they just think you’re English and seem to do OK.
      I have more trouble understanding garbled Ocka than Americans have with me.

  • Re: #4…..geography much? Presumably you’re referring to Mexico which is in North America. As an ex-pat, I can assure there is no “routine exposure” to South American accents. The largest South American country, Brazil, speaks Portuguese which is not dissimilar to Spanish but carries a far different accent.

  • You don’t necessarily have to adopt an accent (I didn’t when I lived there), but if you have to spell anything with an R in it, especially on the phone, it’s recommended to say the R the American way (like an understated version of the pirate “arrrr”). If you pronounce it “ah”, as most do in Australia, you’ll be misunderstood or asked to repeat yourself.

    • Unless you’re travelling to Boston, where we all ‘pahk ouwa cahs in hahvahd yahd’. Then you’ll fit right in.

  • One thing I picked up was if you do go shopping, then remember that similar to tipping for hospitality staff, many retail staff work rely on commission, and can get angry if you talk to them about a product, go away and think about it then come back, and go to buy it from a different staff member.

    Very angry.

  • About the TSA locks for your bags: ALWAYS carry spares. Enough to lock up all the zips on your bags all over again. On a family holiday in the States, our locks were broken almost every time we flew, and we all had TSA approved locks. Make sure nothing valuable sits on top of your stuff either, because some of my sister’s things went “missing” after her lock was broken. Make sure they’re the metal types too, the TSA locks with the plastic bodies are rubbish.

    The TSA is awful though, and if you’re using hand luggage, don’t get a bag with the lock built in. My dad almost had his hand luggage wrenched open by a TSA agent. Good thing he saw it happening and promptly opened it for him.

    As for the accents, I can’t say I’ve had that happen to me, although I don’t have a full Aussie accent; more a mix between two/three countries.

  • I went to the US last Nov for 3 weeks. On day 1 I went into Target and bought a Virgin Mobile Samsung flipphone for $5. Bought one for my other half too (they were so cheap). We topped up $20 each and had a fantastic walkie-talkie which we used constantly. Also useful for booking hotels/talking to US based buddies etc.

    Another tip – buy shoes over there, particularly recreational shoes (trainers etc). So cheap.

  • I agree with most of those tips. I did get a funny look when I tried to order a “choo-na” sandwich rather than a “two-na” sandwich. Lemonade is another quirky one. The US lemonade is lemon squash (non-fizzy). If you want lemonade, ask for Sprite or 7up. Tipping is quite an art, but tip the bartender big on the first round. They don’t tend to measure spirits and will free-pour you a huge drink if you tip well.

    Edit: Another weird thing I just thought of. If you want ice-cream with dessert, you order it “a-la mode”.

    • but if you tip the bartender, aren’t you kinda paying the extra shot anyway?
      Only the bartender and not the establishment gets the money

      • True, but if you’re drinking there for a while, it pays for itself as you don’t tip as much as the night goes on. You also get priority service when you go back to the bar.

  • “Your accent may be a problem” – with words that you don’t expect, like “water”!

    Another thing to remember is that in most restaurants, their mains (“entrees”) will be enough to feed two 😉

  • Wow, sounds like a big list of awful pain in the ass. Why on earth would I voluntarily put myself those all that airport hassle?

    When I see a list of things to remember when travelling to a country, I don’t expect 60% of the list to be just navigating the airport.

  • Regarding $1 note tip, it’s a good tip. Keep the $1 in a separate compartment from the $5, $10, $20 etc in your wallet or purse. The money looks exactly the same to a foreigner and you don’t want to coincidently tip the door guy a $20 when you meant to give him $1 or $2 etc. It also looks dicky when you are tipping someone and taking a good long look at the denominations on your notes!

    Regarding drinks at restaurants, most places are $2 or so bottomless soft drink. The cup is large so it’s mostly enough for two people, but don’t be tempted to buy just 1 drink between two. Take it as a “per person” charge, otherwise you get weird looks like you’re a tight arse even though my wife only wanted a sip!

    Try buffalo wings, OMG they’re so good 😛

  • Was there in September last year and bought a T mobile sim which worked in my Telstra SGS2, was good and cheap.

    And yes I had many problems with staff not understanding me when I asked for water or serviettes where I soon learned to pronounce water as they do and ask for napkins.

    Definitely try starters as a main meal rather than their entree/main, I had many a steak that was a starter but was more than enough as a full meal. ALWAYS tip bartenders and get used to table service at many bars.

    Oh and you can get just about anything as a “sandwich”, anything with bread can be called a sandwich including McDonald’s.

    • On the sim thing, because of the AT&T monopoly on iPhones in the US, Verizon often won’t touch them. I’m not sure how the iPhones work in the US (I think they must activate the handset, rather than the sim), but the guy in the store didn’t want to have a bar of it when I told him I wanted to buy a pre-paid sim for my iPhone. He was convinced it wouldn’t work.

      • That’s because it wouldn’t – Verizon uses CDMA, which won’t work with GSM phones (aka the iPhones we have in Aus).

      • Just buy minutes, unless your iphone is tied or its still under contract at your own country no way they will sell you a sim card which you cant use it either

    • Yup. T-Mobile is great. A month of unlimited calls including international and unlimited data cost us $70.

  • Tipping in America is really quite easy. Just double tax and you have the tip amount. It’s not that much money on top of the bill. Restaurants are really cheap over there if you stay away from the big chains. Especially in New York the there are so many very nice restaurants to eat dinner that would cost twice as much in Australia.

    • That is certainly a quick way to come up with the tip if you are unfamiliar. However, tipping is a way of communicating to the wait-staff about your meal. You can certainly not tip enough even though they may have bent over backwards to please you. Likewise, you can tip too much when you really shouldn’t have. The difference of a few dollars can mean the difference between “that was good” and “that was great”.
      There’s also the base level of expectation in the US. Things like great service and ordering something not on the menu are foreign concepts here in Oz, but that is quite normal in the US. There’s quite a number of subtleties to the whole process, but not something tourists have to worry about.

      • “Things like great service and ordering something not on the menu are foreign concepts here in Oz,”

        Not true at all.

        • I agree I get great service everywhere I go in Australia and won’t go back to a place that is rude. With the exception being PC parts but MSY and UMart are so cheap I put up with their blatant rudeness.

  • As an American now living in Australia, let me ask: is it REALLY worth it?

    America and Australia, being young, geographically large, Anglo-derived countries, are remarkble more than anything for their similarity…

    With the main difference being that America, in ways both good and bad, is batshit crazy.

    If you’re gonna go, at least make it to Burning Man.

    • Sounds like QLD compared to the rest of Australia…except, I guess, the Burning Man.

          • I must be hanging out in the wrong places, I’ve moved back to Brisbane after 7 years in melbourne and have to say its so chilled by comparison, I would have said Melbourne was a lot more “batshit crazy” but as I said I must be hanging out in the wrong places lol

          • I guess, I should have been more specific. “crazy” does not exclude “relaxed” for me, and I agree, that Brisbane feels that way to me too. I currently live in Central QLD, and the “crazy”-part applies for me to the attitude of people around here, their view of the world etc, which is…shall we say…very “regional”, reflecting QLDs overall character – so yeah: crazier than a bag of snakes. I am originally German, so tend to have a very different view on things here generally compared to people around me.

            Moving to Brisbane a year from now, very much looking forward to it.

          • okay I’m with you now, I think you’ll find as you travel around Australia (which I have done extensively) that most regional areas share very similar traits to what you are calling Queenslands overall character

          • Have travelled in Australia for two years. 😉 I have found it to be a bit more diverse, based a lot on where people are coming from originally and how long they have been living there. Say, places like the south of WA, around Margaret and Frankland River. Also even in QLD its a bit more complex than I have put it. Places like Rainbow or Mission have a very different vibe. Then again, some other places like the WA area around Geraldton are probably a lot closer to the tone here in CQ (have only spent a few days there).

            Havent spent time in NT or TAS, not too much time in regional NSW either.

            PS: I actually liked Melbourne a lot. Probably my favorite city in Australia, though the weather sucks.

    • Are you serious? I’ll give you just a few: The Going to the Sun road across Glacier National Park The Beartooth Highway, Yellowstone NP, Grand Teton NP, Rocky Mountains NP, Berthoud Pass, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Arches NP, Capitol Reef NP, Grand Staircase Escalante, Monument Valley, Vermillion Cliffs, Glen Canyon, Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Painted Desert, Petrified Forest, Death Valley, and Sedona AZ. You don’t know you’re alive until you have experienced the energy at the Sedona Vortexes, and I’ll also say: You can’t stand at the headwaters of the Rio Grande 2 miles high in Australia – we don’t get anywhere near that high. Don’t get me wrong, I consider myself blessed to live in the best country in the world, and I will always call Australia home, but there is some awesome beauty (including many animals we never see outside a zoo) in this world that we just don’t have in Australia.

      • I agree (Apart from the Sedona Vortexes). Mesa Verde is also an amazing experience. It’s like a native american Petra.

      • I’m sorry, you make a good point, and those truly are

        America IS worth going to for the nature. And a couple great cities.

        I grew up on the banks of the Rio Grande, have been to many of the places you list (which is not even an exhaustive list). The nature in America is indeed truly breathtaking and rivals anywhere else on Earth.

        Just don’t travel on the interstates, and remember that the food will suck.

  • – If you want regular meal portions, order the entree
    – english is appalling and you will have just as hard a time understanding them as they will understanding you
    – taxis will not always accept fairs when paid by credit card (very cash based society)
    – if you do go out to a bar, the cars drive on the other side of the road. So take your time and look a couple of times before crossing
    – you will collect a shite load of coins if you stay for more than a week, be sure to donate them 🙂

    • If you want just an entree, order an appetiser/starter. In the US, the word “entree” is used for mains.

      • maybe he was ordering entrees and thinking “this is huge, good thing I didnt order the main” lol

  • @anguskidman, This is great, but could you also do a Top 10 Things for Europe. Unless it has already been done…

    • I think that would take considerably more space, seeing as Europe is a rather diverse place. Sure, there are certain legal commonalities, such as entry into the EU, but beyond that you could write a book about “things to remember” there.

      • Yeah. In Brisbane it takes two hours to drive to the nearest city. Depending on where you are in Europe, you could’ve passed through multiple countries in that time.

  • Haven’t seen the bane of our trip to the West Coast last year – coffee. Americans don’t do coffee the way we do. Latte/flat white etc don’t mean anything. If going to St#%{^{cks, and you want a flat white, ask for an “Americano with room”. Then ask for the milk (‘half and half’ – don’t ask) to be added on top. We found in Seattle there’s a coffee place called Tully’s that knows how to do coffee (avoid St#%{^{cks and Seattle’s Best Coffee).

    Lots of the cafes appear like Australian ones, but the coffee is drip filtered or made earlier and stored and served from a thermos. Uurgghh.

    • Too true. Only place I had good coffee was Zotz in New Orleans where my friend worked.

    • Yeah, Australian coffee terms…a thing for themselves and I found them hilarious, when I arrived on these shores (no I didnt come by boat). Though “Americano with room” easily beats that, how do you keep a straight face while asking for that?!

      On somewhat related terms, Australian coffee ranks very highly in global comparison…both for me and friends and family visiting us.

  • Tipping makes the US hideously expensive for a tourist since a tourist is constantly using taxis, eating at restaurants, drinking at bars, staying in hotels — all things that require you to tip. On top of that only a few US cities have adequate public transportation, good grocery stores are difficult to find, and a cheap lunch or dinner means disgusting fast food (if you want healthy you’re limited to Subway yuck), and budget accommodation is limited to chain motels in the boonies.

    Most people woefully underestimate just how expensive the US will be.

    • I found it pretty cheap for a 6 week stay. But then I was traveling when the AUD was better than the USD. But yeah tipping can drive you insane.

  • Nifty trick i found was to use cheap coloured cable ties(form most dollar stores) instead of the locks, i got friends who in customs and baggage handling and they say those locks are useless and normally mean they get broken open as keys don’t work like they advertise for em. Cable ties u can tell if your bags been opened or not straight away and can b cut with a simple knife with no hassles.

      • They do also sell the travel specific plastic ‘locks’ which do the same job and don’t require a knife to cut, most of them twist off. I use them in countries where you would suspect people might go through your bags and either take stuff out or put stuff in…

  • Figure out a plan for all the coins you’ll be accumulating during your trip too. Drove me nuts trying to find ways to offload them.

    • Just go through the automatic checkout at Walmart, Target etc and put them all down the chute then pay the extra.

      Stocking up on clothes as I can’t ever find the size XLT in Australia (xtra large tall).

  • Number 1 thing to do when travelling to the US: Don’t ever use T-Mobile as your mobile phone provider! I had a data account for my iPad and an phone account for calls / sms and data with them for less than 2 months. I specifically called them to close both accounts and said I was leaving the country and they now are trying to get me to pay a bill for usage which I didn’t accumulate! They have 2 debt collection companies after me and are hopeless with customer service to help me close the matter when I refuse to pay. I am disgusted with T-Mobile and would never recommend them to anyone! Avoid the hassle and go with someone else who won’t mess you around. It’s like a nightmare to try to resolve from back home in Australia.

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