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8 Things You Should Know Before Travelling To The USA

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Want an easy and hassle-free trip to America? To help you on your way, we’ve gathered some of our top tips for hitting the States, so that you can focus on enjoying your trip.

The United States of America is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world, even among Americans; the majority of the US population does not even own a passport, and LAX Airport (California), JFK Airport (New York), and MCO Airport (Florida) frequently top the list of the most popular airports for domestic travel. But, whether you’re an international or domestic traveller, there are a few rules Stateside that stump even the savviest of travellers. Have this checklist handy for before you travel. Get in the know before you travel with our top tips.

Before you fly

1. 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.

2. 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).

Requirements to travel under the VWP include possessing an e-passport, being a citizen of a member country, possessing the ESTA authorisation, visiting for business, pleasure or transit purposes, and staying in the US for no more than 90 days. You must have obtained approval to travel at least 72 hours before your flight (you won’t be able to board your flight otherwise), and after that, your ESTA is valid for two years.

To find out about member countries and for a full list of the ESTA requirements, see the US Customs and Border Protection ESTA website. ESTAs cost US$14 per application, which can be made and paid for online. It’s worth noting that you must use a credit card to pay. If you don’t qualify for the VWP – for reasons such as your trip being longer than 90 days, studying, being a citizen of a non-member country, for example – then you will be required to apply for a visa to visit the US.

 Tipping is a notorious minefield for travellers to the US, the old ‘do I, don’t I, is it already included?’

3. 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.

4. 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.

Even if you’re connecting to a domestic US flight, it’s important to remember that your first port of entry will be where you clear customs and immigration. With that in mind, you should allow at least two to three hours in layover between flights (whether transiting internationally or domestically) to allow for immigration, customs and rechecking of luggage. Try to book flights with one airline to make sure they’re aware you’re transiting.

In your destination

5. Book your airport transfer

Whether you’re a domestic or international traveller to the US, a transfer is a great way to get from the airport to your destination. When arriving in the US, it doesn’t take long to notice that this is a car-reliant country; 95 per cent of American households own a car. Public transport infrastructure is often limited, and the roads can be very busy, difficult to navigate, and fairly daunting to a visitor, meaning that the easiest way to get to where you need to be when you land in the US is by airport transfer. Let us help you with that part – compare and book your transfers here.

6. Turn off your mobile data

If you’re an international visitor, don’t make the common mistake of using your mobile phone data while in the US, unless you have a mobile plan that allows for it; as with travelling to any international destination, mobile phone roaming rates are eye-watering. Make the most of free WiFi wherever possible (check our US airport pages to see if free WiFi is available in the airports you’re travelling to or from), or check your mobile phone plan to see if you can purchase a bundle of data for international travel.

Stock up on dollar bills; you’ll find them useful for tipping

7. 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.

Tipping goes for your transfer or shuttle driver, too. Tipping 10-15% is pretty standard for a private transfer, unless a service charge is already included, while shared shuttle drivers will expect between $2-3 per person.

8. Be prepared to pay more than you think

What you see isn’t necessarily what you get when it comes to prices Stateside; most prices are listed excluding tax, so the price tags you see won’t include sales tax. Expect to head to the till and be asked for more money than you were expecting to pay. Different cities and states have different tax rates, so prices depend where you’re visiting. Assuming a 10 per cent addition would be a safe (if overly cautious) bet, and is easy to calculate. If you’re staying in a resort, it pays to be aware that you’ll usually be charged some form of resort fee to cover pools, tennis courts, internet and other ‘extras’, which are added costs to the advertised rate.

A note on US travel requirements during the pandemic

Vaccination and travel requirements for travelling to the US change regularly. It is important to stay up to date with the latest advice. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains a useful website to check the latest vaccination, testing and isolation requirements before you travel.

The general advice is:

  • Get a COVID-19 viral test (regardless of vaccination status or citizenship) no more than one day before you travel to the US and be ready to show your negative result to the airline before you board your flight. Testing and documentation requirements can be found here.
  • Be ready to show proof of your COVID-19 vaccination status. A questionnaire is available to determine if your vaccine status qualifies here
  • Wear a well fitted mask covering your nose and mouth while in indoor areas and stay six feet apart from others where possible. Policy updates and exemptions are explained here.

Quick tips:

  • 911 is the emergency number in the US.
  • Make sure you have health and travel insurance before your visit – health care costs are some of the highest in the world here.
  • The US is one of only a few countries to still use the Imperial system. So, think of height in feet, distance in miles, temperature in Fahrenheit, and weight in pounds.
  • Credit cards and bank cards are usually the preferred mode of payment. Ring your bank before travelling – even domestically – so they’re aware you’ll be using your bank card.
  • The US spans six time zones; make sure you know which time zone your destination is in for your flights and airport transfers.
  • Hot tip: make the most of the incredible National and State Parks in the US, they’re some of the best in the world.

Whether you’re a domestic or international traveller, make your trip to the States easy and hassle-free by booking your airport transfer before you fly – that’s one less thing to think about before your trip. Book on today.

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