We recently travelled across the US from Miami to Los Angeles. We thought we’d share some of the insights we gained with you…
1. Make sure you have your visa or ESTA
Before you board your flight to the US you will need to apply for either a US Visa or ESTA Visa Waiver. The ESTA visa waiver is for business or tourist visitors to the US who are staying for less than 90 days. An ESTA costs $14USD and lasts for two years. You can go in and out of the US multiple times within that two year period. I generally apply for my ESTA visa waiver about two weeks out from the travel date but no less than 72 hours before.
If you are traveling for work in America or planning to stay longer than 90 days (or you aren’t eligible for an ESTA) then you will need to apply for a visa. You’ll need to allow a lot more time for a visa application. I have travelled to the US on an E3 work visa. The E3 typically takes a couple of weeks to apply for (allow 1-3 weeks for approval after your visa interview). There are more details on applying for an E3 visa available here.
If you are on a visa, make sure you keep all of the documents to satisfy your visa with you. There are checkpoints within the US and you may need to present them whenever you enter.
2. In America The Price Is Not The Price
When you are purchasing anything in the US, remember that the ticketed price on pretty much anything is not the actual price. Because every state has different laws in sales tax, they don’t include tax in the price. For travel they also may not include fees in the ticket price. We booked a cruise advertised at $99 per person which ended up being closer to $300 per person when adding fees, taxes and gratuities. This can also be tough if you go shopping and are trying to work to a budget. It helps If you always allow a buffer.
Speaking of hidden costs, tipping is another challenge for people visiting the US. If it’s your first time it can be tough to figure out who you are meant to tip and how much. These days it can vary a lot depending on the state as the minimum wage is constantly changing. In my opinion you generally want to tip about 20% for a good waiter in a sit down restaurant, and maybe closer to 10% for mediocre service. You might tip around 10-15% for a taxi. You’ll also want to tip for other service jobs like a hairdresser for instance.
I don’t tip for fast food including pizza with the exception of delivery drivers. You may also want to tip when they make up your room at a hotel. I usually just leave a couple of dollar notes on the bed, but I don’t do this at every hotel.
4. Go beyond the West Coast
If you are an Aussie visiting the US then your typical itinerary probably includes LA, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York, New Orleans and maybe San Diego. At PacificTrek we want to encourage you to go beyond the norm. Visiting just these locations is like an American coming to Australia, visiting Sydney and maybe Cairns then flying home. It’s not going to give you a true taste of America. Try to include states like Texas, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Idaho or Tennessee in your itinerary. It’s not always possible on your first trip but I definitely recommend it!
5. It Can Be Cheaper Driving Than Flying
Depending on when you are traveling and where in the US you are going to, it may work out cheaper to drive rather than fly. With the exception of California, fuel is actually pretty cheap compared to Australia. Unless you have a credit card with a US zip code, you will likely have to prepay for your fuel inside the petrol station. If you have the time and are comfortable driving on the opposite side of the road, then driving can be a great way to save money and experience more of the country. Click here for more tips on driving in the USA.
Just be aware that parking in some cities can be expensive. One night hotel parking in New Orleans cost us nearly $50 but that was the only place we had to pay to park our vehicle.
6. Shop Around For Car Rentals
If you decide to drive you are going to need a vehicle. We saved a bunch of money by shopping around between rental car providers, and between their different locations for pick up and drop off so be prepared to have a bunch of browser tabs open. For more details on how we scored a sweet deal with our rental car, check out this post.
7. Don’t waste time with Disneyland, go to Disney World
To be honest, I haven’t been to Disneyland, Just Walt Disney World. Don’t get me wrong. I totally get the idea of “the original and the best,” but, let’s face it, you don’t visit America every day so you might as well go all out. Walt Disney World is so much bigger. With access to Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Epcot plus a bunch of resorts, Disney Springs and everything else that Orlando has to offer you can’t go wrong. On top of that, Walt Disney World is set to hit their 50th anniversary in 2021. They are launching all new rides and exhibits at the moment. You’re sure to have a great time that will easily exceed the expense of traveling to Orlando over Anaheim. Check out some of our recommendations for Walt Disney World here.
8. Be aware of traffic
Traffic in America is nothing like traffic in Australia – especially within the larger cities. In LA for example, traffic is simply crazy. Normally 12 miles might take 19-20 minutes, but in LA traffic it took an hour. Drivers can also be very aggressive, or even crazy, especially in Florida around Miami. They don’t use indicators and have never heard about “safe driving distance.”
Traffic isn’t just confirmed to the bigger cities. The freeways across America tend to jam up around the holidays, like July 4, and especially the Sunday after Thanksgiving. We were trying to drive from New Orleans to Austin, Texas last year just after Thanksgiving. The traffic was so bad that we had to stop over for the night in Houston. It took us 5 hours to travel what would normally take 2 hours. You will also find similar experiences during a natural disaster like a hurricane.
9. Airlines Charge for Luggage
Most domestic airlines within the US will charge you for luggage – usually from $20-$50 per item. This is not only expensive, it’s also frustrating on the flight when passengers try to take way too much carry on luggage. Rather than doing the smart thing and waiving the checked luggage fee to encourage more people to check their bags, some airlines are now charging for carry on items as well. It helps to check an airlines baggage policies prior to booking with them.
Also try to book your domestic flights with your international flight bookings, as this can prevent you from needing to pay for luggage internally. Some airlines will also waive the luggage fee depending on if you have a rewards credit card or hold a special flyer status with the airline.
At time of writing the only airline in the US that doesn’t charge for checked bags is SouthWest Airlines.
10. Chances Are You Won’t Fly Direct
Most of the time in Australia your flight will be direct and you won’t have to stop off at another airport to switch planes. This is a rarity in America because there are so many different airports. It’s not out of the ordinary to have at least one change over. To reduce stress it helps to give yourself plenty of time between flights at a changeover. I generally aim for an hour for domestic connections or 3 hours for international connections, though I have had much tighter times. It’s good to familiarise yourself with the airport where you change over so you know your way around.
What are your travel tips for visiting the USA?