The United States of America (USA) can be an overwhelming destination to travel. – with 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions, covering some 9.8 million kilometres squared, it leaves a lot of room to explore.
First time visitor to the United States may find a few surprises in the way things are there, some are gloriously welcome, others less so.
Here are some top tips for travelling to and around the USA
Make sure your passport is valid
Most travellers heading to the USA will be required to have at least 6 months’ validity on their passport. However, citizens from certain countries only need a passport valid for the length of their stay. Check the government website for your country of residence to see what rules apply to you.
Know your visa situation
It’s important for travellers to the US to understand the requirements for entering the country. The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows nationals from certain countries to enter the US for tourism or visitor purposes for up to 90 days without a visa. If you can enter the country under the VWP, then you must apply for authorisation prior to travelling through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).
Buy a TSA-approved lock
It’s a great idea to lock your luggage while travelling – what better way to have peace of mind that your belongings are safe once you wave them off at check in? But when travelling Stateside, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) enforces strict baggage guidelines for safety and security. All checked bags are screened, and if the TSA inspectors deem that a bag needs to be physically inspected, they are permitted to break a lock and open a bag. A note will be placed inside your luggage to let you know this is what has happened. To avoid losing a lock, it’s best to use a TSA-approved one. These can be opened with a master key, meaning the TSA official doesn’t need to break yours.
Know the rules about transit
If you have an international flight that transits through the US (particularly common with flights to Canada or South America), you will need to clear US Customs; technically, there’s no ‘transit’ in America, as all passengers are required to disembark and proceed through immigration and customs. Remember, this means fulfilling the visa requirements for the States, even if you’re only staying for a couple of hours in between international flights and your luggage is checked through to your final destination.
Understand tipping etiquette
Tipping is a notorious minefield for travellers to the US, the old ‘do I, don’t I, is it already included?’ saga. Although technically discretionary, it’s an unwritten rule that 15-20% is expected in restaurants. The reason? Minimum wage is low in the States, so tips are an important part of income for many workers. Tips are also common in other service and hospitality industries too, such as for bartenders ($1-2 per drink), housekeepers ($1-5 per night), concierge (dependent on the difficulty of your request), valets ($1-5 each time the valet brings your car), hotel porters ($1-2 per bag), doormen (a few dollars if s/he helps you get a cab) and taxi drivers (10-15%), so it’s worthwhile stocking up on dollar bills to have them handy for tips. When in a restaurant, do double check your bill before tipping though, as some restaurants automatically include a gratuity. If you’re paying with a credit card, you’ll need to write the tip amount you’re leaving on the credit card receipt and add it to the total.