Top 10 things to know for a USA trip

00:59, Aug 05 2013

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.

Here are the 10 key issues we advise looking out for.

 10. You'll pay more than the listed price

Despite our proximity to China, many items are still cheaper stateside (clothes being one obvious example), making shopping sprees very tempting.

Have at it by all means, but remember one crucial point: unlike at home, 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.


9. Don't make jokes to airport security

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".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.

8. Stock up on dollar bills for tipping

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.

7. International transit is not a thing

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.

6. Know your body scanner rules

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.

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

Our 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.

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.

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

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.

2. Be sparing when using your phone

The US is no exception to the rule that mobile phone roaming rates will bleed you dry. 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.

1. Make sure you apply for an ETSA

Most of us 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 US$14, 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.