Are you planning your USA trip? You are in for an exciting time! But how familiar are you with the US? Find out here our list of travel tips for the USA and things to know before visiting America as first-time travelers.
Many of the points we list below came as a surprise for us, French citizens, when we first moved to the US. We have been living in California for over 15 years, traveled to many US states, and are now naturalized US citizens as well, calling America home sweet home. Some of these points below can also be subjective and are based on our experience. Others are a fine line between culture and stereotypes, but the same way French people can be associated with their love of cheese and fresh baguette, there are, in our minds, specific American things. Feel free to agree or disagree, and if you have been in the US and think we missed something, let us know in the comment section – we would love to hear from you.
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Welcome to the United States of America
50 States – 50 Different Rules
The plural used in “States” is a crucial element. We might think about the US States as one country, but it’s composed of 50 States. Each of them has its own rules and laws, sometimes totally different once you “cross-state.” Note that the points listed below are just simplified examples to show differences between states. Make sure to check each state you are traveling to for the exact scope of the laws and regulations.
- Carrying a gun is legal in Texas (provided the person has a Texas license to carry or a firearms license). Five states prohibit openly carrying of handguns in public places; and thirty-one states allow it without any license or permit, though restrictions apply in most cases.
- Speed limit also varies depending on where you drive and the type of road, for example, 65 mph on most highways in California or 85 mph in Texas.
- Death Penalty exists in 29 states, including California and Florida.
- Recreational marijuana is now legal for adults over the age of 21 in 11 states, including, in California, Oregon, Maine, among others, but is a forbidden substance under Federal laws, so arrests can still happen. Medical marijuana is legal in 33 states.
- Things to know about American culture: it’s has diverse as its number of States. From the Amish in Pennsylvania and Ohio, the conservative Bible Belt to the LGBT movement in California or New York, from the Cajun culture in Louisiana, Cowboys traditions in Montana and Texas to city dwellers in Boston. Of course, the concept of the Great American Melting Pot refers to different cultural elements melt together, creating a common culture.
- Americans are, in general, highly proud of the US Flag and National Anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Do not defile it and be respectful if you hear it play. If you never heard it, you will know when you see Americans standing with their right hand over their hearts. The same way the French Anthem “La Marseillaise” is dear to us, the US Anthem gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.
Big, Bigger, Biggest
The United States size is 3.8 million square miles (9.8 million km2), making the US the third-largest country by total area.
Not sure what it means? To think about how big is America: the country is spread over three times zone, requiring a 6-hour flight between the East and West coasts. Driving from LA to San Francisco takes about 8 hours, from Minneapolis to Laredo over 20 hours. For an easier reference, picture that the whole US is only slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe.
Everything takes on a superlative when you talk about the US of A. Cars are big (think 4WD more often than not). Streets and highways are big (think 6-lane freeway in Houston or LA). Soft drinks are available by the gallon (almost four liters!).
Travel Tips for the USA: Facts and Information
Here are a few Every-Day Facts about America:
Tipping in USA
While tipping is an appreciative gesture in many countries, tipping is the US takes on another dimension. Most staff working in the hospitality, food, or even service industry, from bartenders and waiters, food delivery, car washers, taxi drivers, are paid minimum wages. That minimum wage is currently 7.25 US$ per hour, though some states like California had increased it be over 10 US$. Most of these people don’t have health insurance or pension. Tipping makes a substantial part of their income and is part of the American culture.
As a rule, tipping 15% is standard, though 20% is not unheard of if the service provided went beyond expectations. Tipping is, of course, not compulsory, but an integrated custom in the US society.
While five US states (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon) don’t have a sales tax. However, purchases in other states will see an extra 5% to 10% sales tax added to any amount. So whatever cost you see when buying something, expect to pay more when going through with your purchase. With tipping, plan to add about 25% more of the costs in restaurants.
In most states, the minimum drinking age is 21. Bouncers or waiters will ask for your ID to verify your age, before entering a bar, a nightclub, or to buy at a supermarket. No open containers are allowed on the street, which means you have to consume inside the restaurants or bars. When walking outside the stores, bottles have to be carried in a bag or brown paper bag, same in the cars – no alcoholic beverage should be seen in a car. Some states are somewhat “dry states” where alcohol sale and consumption are restricted like Utah, where Mormons from the Church of Latter-day Saints have a strong influence.
Be prepared for some head-scratching moments. Forget meters, forget Celcius. The US works with the empiric system (inches, yards, miles, feet, hands, cups, pounds, ounces, gallons) and speaks Fahrenheit (ºF) instead of Celcius (ºC). So if it’s a hot day, you might head “100” today – you are not going to boil over, that would be around 38 ºC.
Here is a quick conversion guide, but make sure to have an application handy to convert on the stop.
- 1 mile = 1.61 km
- 1 in = 2.54 cm
- 1 foot = 12 inches = 0.33 yards = 30.48 cm
- 1 ounce = 28.35 g
- 1 pound = 16 ounces = 453.59 g
- 1 gallon = 3.79 l = 16 cups
- 50 F = 10 C
With such a vast country, it’s no surprise that the weather in the US covers a wide range of climates. The Northern part of the country will see deep snow in winter, but comfortable temperatures in the Summer. On the other end, the Southern states will have scorching temperatures in summer where you might want to stay under the cool air of an A/C, but comfortable in December. For example, Texas can see days in July -August reach over 105° Fahrenheit (over 40° Celsius), where Minnesota and North Dakota might see -4°F or colder (-20°C).
Note that the high plateaux of New Mexico will have freezing temperatures and snow in winter.
Watch for Hurricanes season (June to October), Tornado Season (April through June), Blizzard Season (October to March), as these weather conditions will put a hold on your trip.
Like anything else in the US, laws vary significantly from one state to the other. However, many states have some restrictions. California and now Alaska has a statewide smoking ban. Outdoor smoking might be banned, too, including outside patios in bars and restaurants, recreation and park areas, public places like bus stops, etc. Vaping is being reviewed as well and might even be banned in some areas. Be sure to check local laws before lighting.
USA Visa Application: ESTA
An American visa or authorization is required for anyone planning to travel to the US. In the context of going for leisure for stays of up to 90 days, you might be familiar with the “ESTA visa”, or at least what some think as the “American tourist visa” or “American visitor visa,” though ESTA is not an actual visa, rather an authorization to travel to the U.S. Individuals traveling on valid visas are not required to apply for ESTA.
ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) is an automated system that will determine whether a visitor is eligible to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). All eligible nationals or citizens of these 38 ESTA countries for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program can submit an ESTA application. Applying for ESTA online is also needed for visits to U.S. territories that are Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Other ESTA Requirements are that all children, accompanied and unaccompanied and regardless of their age (meaning babies included), need their own independent ESTA approval. Even eligible travelers merely transiting through the U.S. need an ESTA, as a Transit Visa.
Make sure to fill the ESTA form (“U.S. Visa Form”) for “U.S. Visa” online and pay the ESTA cost at least 72 hours before travel. An approved ESTA status does not constitute a guarantee of entry in the U.S. Indeed, U.S. immigration officers have the final say in allowing or refusing entry, which applies to all types of visas as well as ESTA authorization.
We know of some eligible VWP travelers who were denied boarding in Europe to their destination in Latin America because they did not have their ESTA approval for their transit through Miami. Admission into the U.S. can also be refused at the U.S. port of entry.
Arriving in the USA
Unless you drive from Canada or Mexico, you will most likely fly into the US. New York City is amongst the more popular airport, and you might find some interesting deals. Next, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Detroit, Salt Lake City, Orlando, Washington DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are the main hubs for air transportation.
Your luggage will be checked by the U.S Customs, so buy a TSA-approved lock (TSA – Transportation Security Administration) before flying. Otherwise, your lock will be broken, and luggage probably not secured back. Note that organic material such as meat-based or plants (fruits or vegetables) are more often than not prohibited to protect the local agriculture. Luggage will be checked at the airport – if you see an agent walking with a dog, the dog will flag your bag.
Traveling in the USA
Americans drive almost anywhere and everywhere. And the infrastructure is built around that. Large highways, drive-through to order food, ample parking spaces, and massive turnpikes that are sometimes called mazes – and for good reasons. Except in large cities, public transportation is usually somewhat limited. And sometimes, it’s almost impossible to cross as pedestrians.
Independently with your Vehicle
Road tripping is a popular way of traveling in the USA, given the extensive road system. Gas is usually cheap (currently at an average US$2.65 / gallon, so about US$0.70 per liter!), at least less expensive than in most Western countries.
Rent a car, or even better, rent an RV. If you want to travel beyond the main city, it’s the best way to explore. The cost of renting a small car can be around US$20 per day, renting an RV would be around US$50 per day where you save on accommodation and can stay in remote places where there might be no lodging. Though the driver’s license of your own country might be even, do remember to get and bring an international driver’s license in case a rental company decides to ask for it. Drivers under 25 years might encounter some difficulties renting or have to pay additional fees.
If you are driving, here are some tips:
- In some states, you can turn right at a traffic light, even without any flashing sign
- In case traffic lights are down, the right of way applies. It’s quite a sight to see four-lane cars all crossing in at their turn like a perfectly synchronized dance.
- Some states don’t allow you to fill your tank so staff at gas stations will do it for you
- Make sure to read what we wrote about Safety and Police Officers in the USA Travel Safety Tips
- In many states, you can also overtake a car from the right side when driving on the highway
- As you guessed it by now, rules vary per state, so make sure to check what you can and can’t do in the state you are traveling
By Public Transportation
If you are going to a US city, you might skip the car, and check for a local city pass that will let you take buses, subways, and whatever else the city is offering. Some sightseeing passes include hop-on-hop-off buses that might be a great alternative to explore at the same time. Parking space will be hard to find and expensive. Uber and Lyft are popular sharing apps.
For traveling long distances between cities, you might want to check the bus company Greyhound and the train system Amtrak.
You can find everything for youth hostels to luxury accommodations, boutique hotels to eco-resorts.
Each city has at least a motel, and it’s common to find several of the leading hotel chains on the skirt of the bigger cities. These chains can be handy if you are arriving late or use that city as a stop on your itinerary.
Airbnb can offer some options in people’s homes for more intimate settings and might be something to look into in bigger cities like New York City or San Francisco. You can also find great deals and cozy rooms at affordable rates on Booking.com.
If you have your mean of transport and like the outdoors, campgrounds and RV parks are readily available across the US. It is also usually allowed to camp in National Forests, though some restrictions might apply during the hot summer months due to fire risk. Some Forests might require getting a permit before heading into the forests, especially in wilderness areas. Check with the local Forest Agency.
American Culture Facts
Americans love their country. Americans are proud of the Flag, the Anthem, law enforcement, and embolden the do-good and be-good attitude. Granted, centuries of slavery and segregation, of Native American conflicts, of Hispanic’s prejudices, of economic burdens in the light of blazing fortune and richness, and other tense situations with minorities are still visible today and should not be forgotten or belittled. Not everything is perfect in America, nor what America has done through history is right. But no country is.
Some bend the knee when begins the Anthem as a form of protest. That’s Free Speech for you, part of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the foundation of the USA, and an essential element that its citizens are proud of.
The Constitution was signed in 1787, which can be considered a young country in comparison to most. But the history of Native Americans goes back thousands of years on the same grounds. A strong concept in the US is that it’s a melting pot, that fusion of nationalities, cultures, and ethnicities mentioned earlier. A land of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy, as well as China, Canada, Latin America, and Africa.
But as a country, and beyond the divisive politics, Americans are welcoming. They are not afraid to stand for what is right; their positive attitude in the face of the impossible is more often than not a powerful force. As a French person coming from a culture where change is hard (France is notorious for its strikes), where “ça ne se fait pas” (“can’t be done”) is something you hear often, the American can-do is a refreshing and compelling frame of mind. Americans value independence, work ethic, informality, efficiency, challenges, which can be summarized to the American dream – work hard for the opportunity for a better life.
That kindness of strangers is something you see or hear about regularly. A stranger paying for the groceries of a starving homeless. A fisherman bringing his boat to rescue people in the aftermath of a hurricane. Neighbors welcoming you with a plate of cookies when you first move in. Hundreds of people turning for the funeral of a U.S. Army Veteran without family.
What does this all mean for travelers? Be ready for neverending enthusiasm, flags in front of many houses, a richness of traditions and culture. There is no one facet of the US of A, but complex multi-layers.
Sometimes called Indians, or American Indians, Native Americans as they preferred to be referred to, have been living in what is today the US for at least 15,000 years. The Europeans first arrived with Columbus in 1492 into the “New World”. “New World” is usually referred to as opposed to the “Old World” of the European continent, and is considered to cover the Americas and nearby Caribbean islands like Cuba, Hispaniola (split today as Haïti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, etc. The European expeditions brought smallpox and measles with them throughout the Americas and nearby islands, diseases that killed the native tribes, and wiped populations out. As a result in what is today the USA, Native American tribal nations slowly lost their way of life, as herds of bison were decimated and territories shrunk under pressure by the Spanish and then the colons from other European countries.
Today, there are over 570 federally-recognized tribal governments, half of them associated with Indian reservations. Among the tribal groupings, Cherokee, then Navajo, Choctaw, Sioux, and Chippewa have the most significant populations.
Learn about the Ancestral Puebloan culture in the Four Corners region of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado in UNESCO World Heritage Sites like Mesa Verde National Park, where superb examples of stone dwellings can be admired. View the conical mounds of the Adena culture in West Virginia. Navajo traditions are strong in places like Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, where it’s possible to stay for a night in a traditional hogan house.
Pow Wows, Native American gatherings, are the best way to experience and admire the ancient traditions still very much alive today. Dancing and singing, participants, as well as visitors, wear superb colorful outfits, testaments to the rich heritage.
Well, there is no American food per se, though Hamburger is what probably comes close as a national icon. However, each State will have a recognizable meal. Jambalaya is Louisiana. Think Clam Chowder, and that New England for you. Pastrami sandwich or bagel? New York, here we come.
Of course, you can find a wide array of Fast Foods – America is where there were born after all. From McDonald’s, In and Out Burger, Wendy’s, Starbucks, etc. – the choice is yours. While these make for an easy grab, try heading to the city center for more local flavors. Watch for the All-You-Can-Eat buffets – they are usually at an affordable price, but most of the time, people tend to stuff themselves to ensure making it worth it. While it’s a budget option that will keep you full for the whole day, we found that these buffets were not the best come choice to eat on the healthy eating side. And if you feel hungry at 3 am, you will still find a place open somewhere in any major city. Or find one of the supermarkets that are open 24/7.
Wine tasting is very popular too, and give French wine a fair competition. California Napa and Sonoma Valleys, Oregon, are examples of wineries worth visiting.
When it comes to ordering, a simple sandwich might not be a straightforward BLT (Bacon Lettuce Tomatoes). This is America, the land of the choices. Here, options usually include several types of bread (rye, white, wholegrain), cheese (American, Swiss, Cheddar), ham (cooked, smoked, etc.), spread, dressing, etc. Be ready for an onslaught of questions!
Plates are usually like everything else in the US – large. It’s common to ask for a “box to go” if you can’t finish. A great way to save on money for your next meal! This practice is finally starting to arrive in France, something I was asking for before but was not common.
Walk in any place, and you will be greeted by a loud “hi there, how are you?”
Americans are known for their cheery behavior, and smiley greetings are more common than most. But they are also known to value their privacy, and none of these questions are meant to be answered factually. Just reply, “Good, thank you. And you?” and move on to your business. Remember to throw a few “Have a Nice Day” here and there for good measure.
When you are in a restaurant, it’s standard for the waiter to come to check on you very often. What might be intrusive in Europe is part of a dedicated service in America. Be ready to see your glass of water refilled every sip you take, and your waiter to ask if everything is fine every 15 minutes. Remember, they depend on your tips to make a living. They want to make sure they can be as helpful as possible.
As in many countries, smaller towns tend to be friendlier as people are less rush. Regardless of where you are, you will find people who will love to talk to you and be curious as to where you are originating. One thing that might surprise you in the sentence “born and raised.” Were you born and raised in the same city? The US is so big, and Americans travel for studies or work. So many can be born in a town or even state, grow up in another one and live in yet another.
Yes, that’s a thing. After chatting with a new friend for a while, that person might surprise you with an American hug. No kiss on the cheeks like French would do, or a handshake that might be better suited for a business setting, but taking you between two arms in an informal and friendly way.
Not everyone is a hugger, though, so I would not recommend initiating it. See how the person goes about it if she or comes with open arms instead of stretching a hand. Circumstances vary too with age, gender, context. So don’t go hugging strangers, but don’t be surprised if someone you have been talking for a while gives you one as a way to say good-bye. Just don’t go full-body snuggle either; a quick, gentle embrace is enough.
If you don’t want any hug at all, extend your hand fast, or wave off. No one will be offended.
Religion and Politics
People usually stay away from these two topics. Politics show a country pretty much divided between Democrats and the Republicans since a 2-party system governs the country. Since the last elections in 2016, politics has taken an even more divisive impact. With the upcoming elections in 2020, one might expect even more tension.
Americans are deeply religious, and it’s not uncommon to see churches of different denominations even in the tiniest city.
USA Travel Safety Tips
Security in the USA
Security is a big deal in the US. Do NOT make a joke about terrorist attacks, as you will most likely be arrested for questioning. Police are well respected in America. They are here to enforce the law and protect the people. Should you be stopped while driving your car, do not exit your vehicle, leave your hands on the wheel so that police officers can see them, and do exactly as directed by the officer. No quick movements, no reaching into your bag or glove compartment without letting the policeman know. Otherwise, the police officer might think you are reaching for a gun, and you might be shot at.
On the other end, police can be helpful if you get lost or have concerns. That happened to my parents-in-law, who were lost in a small town in California, asked police officers who then escorted them to their destinations given the limited English understanding of my in-laws. Do not hesitate to approach them for help, but be mindful and pay close attention to what they say, should they approach you first.
Dangerous US Cities
Some US cities are among the most dangerous in the world. However, in most cases, not the whole town is. In places like Oakland or Chicago, stay away from some districts and neighborhoods, but others like NYC Lower East Side has overcome its previous reputation and is now a much safer place. Indeed, we call Oakland home, and while some areas are critical, others are fine. So as with everything, caution is a must, but stories are usually not white and black, but with plenty grey of various shades.
The recent travel ban means that citizens of some countries are denied entry, even if they had a visa. Check the current status for more details
At the same time, travel documents can be checked by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers within the 100-mile zone (161 km) from the international border. Some reports would suggest racial profiling, based on look, language, whether you are a tourist, American, or anything in-between. Make sure to always carry your passport, visa or ESTA, and other US travel documents with you.
The USA is home to some unique wildlife, some on the endangered species list. But they are no pets – they are, well, wild. Keep your distance with bison, bears, moose, deer, etc. Admire from afar, better than a selfie.
Also, do not give them any food as they will get used to human food and will try to get more, leading in many occasions to aggressive behaviors on their part that will lead to their removal – physically, and sometimes, permanently as they will be put to death. Similarly, be careful swimming in rivers or the oceans as they are potentially home to crocodiles or sharks (Great White Sharks are regularly spotted along the Pacific Coast of California).
Best Things to Do in USA
What to do in the US depends on what you like and expect from your trip. But a few things are quintessential America, so make sure you add them in any itinerary. But America is so big and so diverse that the suggestions are only a fraction of what America is. And many people are American, feel American, and have probably neither done any of these things nor are planning to do so.
American Things To Do
- Eat a burger – a real, juicy burger, or try some BBQ tri-tips. I am not talking MacDo’s but the homemade kind. That will change your mind about burgers!
- Attend one of the thousands of festivals
- Feel you are like in a movie when you hear the sirens of a police car or see a yellow school bus
- Be stuck in LA traffic – for fun
- Pack on fruits and sweets for Halloween, and be ready for Treat or Trick
- Stuff yourself on Thanksgiving with turkey with all the stuffing, green beans with gravy and cranberry sauce, and of course pumpkin pie
- Rent a Harley and a Mustang Convertible or ride along the Route 66
- Watch a 4th of July Parade, the perfect occasion to hear the National Anthem and see American all around you be proud of their country – yours truly included
- Try a few steps of square dance in Texas. Way harder than it seems!
- Stop by one of the local rodeos where you will see cowboys showing up their riding skills
- Feel the Holiday spirit walking down 5th Avenue in New York City during the Christmas season. Even if you are not into shopping like me, it’s still quite a sight
- Feel the Cowboy life in a Montana ranch
- See the traditions of the Hamish
- Watch a Baseball or American Football game (Note: What European call Football is Soccer in the US). We have yet to understand all the rules about Baseball, but the length of the game will make any ticket worth the day
- Listen to Sunday Gospel. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the dedication and eagerness of the singers.
- Travel in a Yellow Cab
- Get moving along a session of Cajun Zydeco music in Louisiana
- Watch a Broadway Show in New York City – Book early though, tickets tend to sell way in advance
- Gamble a few pennies in Las Vegas
- Visit a National Park. Stunning landscape, historical monuments, and unique wildlife await
Best Places to Visit in USA
When planning the rest of your trip, try to narrow down what you want to see. The country is so massive that you might want to and focus on one region or city at a time. Moreover, you might want to plan for a lot, but you will most likely feel rush as you zoom through places to go from one to the other. Again, it’s hard to list everything about what the USA can offer, but our point is to think about what you are looking for and focus on that point.
- Big cities experiences: New York City, Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans, Seattle, Miami
- Outdoor adventures: Montana, California, Colorado, and pretty much the whole of the US since National Forests and Parks, State Parks are in every state.
- National Parks Aficionados: Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Everglade, Grand Tetons, Glacier
- Unique cultural experiences: Amish, Cajun, Native American, Cowboy traditions, Mexican heritage. These last three can be found throughout the Southwest, especially New Mexico and Arizona.
- Skiing and snow trips: Vermont, Colorado, California, Alaska
- Scuba-diving: Florida, California, Hawaii
- Kiteboarding: California, Oregon, Texas, Hawaii, North Carolina
- Wildlife: Alaska brown bears, Utah, Montana, Florida, California
- Hiking and trekking: Pacific Coast Trail from Canada to Mexico, Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, or heading to one of the numerous trails in the Rocky Mountains from Montana to Colorado.
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Any other American travel tips to add? Please comment below!
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