It feels like it’s on everyone’s checklist – but no matter how familiar we think we are with American culture (hey, we’ve watched Friends, we know these people right?), there are a few things which often seem to trip people up on their first visit.
So I asked my eldest to jot down his top tips to help you out. Why did I ask him? Well… he’s been dating an American girl for three years, and between work (hurrah for jobs which include travel!) and personal travel he quite literally spends half his life there.
Obviously you’ll already have travel insurance (you DO have travel insurance, right?), but make sure you double check your policy – most standard policies do not cover America, it’s an extra option. If you usually stick to Europe, then you’ll probably need to increase your cover.
Don’t forget to do this.
Don’t travel to America without travel insurance.
No.1 spent New Year in the US with a large group of friends, as always. They were driving from Chicago to Colorado, and the group of 21yr olds decided to hit the local trampoline park*.
Genius fun – until my kid (why’s it always MY kid?) jumped high and landed very badly indeed.
He knew instantly there was something very wrong with his ankle – he was assisted one-footed back to the car, checked his travel insurance… and realised it had run out a month prior to his trip.
Consequently he spent his much-anticipated NYE trip in the snow of Colorado in enormous pain, hobbling and hopping and worrying about being a drain on his friends. Just to have the local Emergency Dept look at his foot would have cost him $700. An X-Ray would have cost him over $1000.
The day he arrived home we got him straight to our local A&E where we found he had been hobbling for 10 days with ruptured ligaments and cracked bones.
God bless the NHS.
So yes – make sure your travel insurance covers you for America.
(* he actually wouldn’t have been covered anyway for an accident caused by trampolining. It’s deemed by insurance companies as an extreme sport, and requires special insurance to be covered. Make sure you get the right cover if you’re planning on skiing/kayaking etc too)
Get your ESTA
What is ESTA?
ESTA is an automated system that determines the eligibility of visitors to travel to the United States
Everyone from the UK entering the USA (even if you’re just passing through) must have a valid ESTA visa, having filled out the ‘Electronic System for Travel Authorisation’ (ESTA) form in advance.
It’s not a complicated thing, and it’s not costly – the ESTA is basically a cheaper substitute for the full US visa, and is super-fast (verification is often the same day). It takes literally 5 minutes to apply for too, so don’t fret about long complicated forms.
Just don’t forget to do it, or they really won’t let you in! Once you’ve done it, make sure you keep a note of your reference number somewhere safe. Better still, print the authorisation page.
Have you told your bank and/or any credit cards you plan to use that you’ll be away? No one needs to have the card frozen when they’re on holiday (and yes, it does happen – it did to me and we found ourselves locked inside Futuroscope’s car park as we left around midnight…). It literaly atkes two seconds – most credit cards have the option within the online banking system to do it with a few clicks.
Rest assured that everywhere in America takes card – but they don’t use contactless, so don’t expect to swipe and walk! Be aware of any transaction fees for your card, and as always look for a fee-free card you can use (Visa/mastercard/amex are widely accepted).
But it’s a good idea to take some dollars too – or withdraw some while you’re there if you prefer. Because you will be tipping everywhere you go…
You don’t have to do anything on this one, other than make yourself aware. The culture around tipping is entirely different in the US – the service staff receive their tips in lieu of wages; my son’s girlfriend has a part time job in a bar whilst she’s at college. He salary? $2 an hour.
TWO DOLLARS AN HOUR!
But… she gets to keep all her tips – and that’s why she does it. So don’t ever forget to tip – it’s not a gracious thank you, the way it is in Europe, it’s literally the part of your bill which goes to that person working their arse off to bring you your food and drink – and whilst you can pay the extra 15% with your card, it gets more complicated for you, and runs through their tax system before your server will see it. So keep some dollars, and tip in cash. Much better.
Make sure you’ve got the right travel adaptors – for USB charging we highly recommend the Universal Adaptors for £12 on Amazon, which will work wherever you are. But for plain old plugs, they’re on a two-pin system, and the pins are flat. Some new adaptors you can buy will have third rounded pin, which the US is slowly switching to, but not all places will have that. A two-pin plug will work everywhere.
The price on the shelf…
…is not what you’ll pay. Just one last small point – in the US, tax is added at the checkout – so your $19 pair of jeans will actually cost you maybe $21.47. No, I don’t really understand why they do it this way either. But hey – they’d probably be £49 in the UK, so don’t quibble!