The United States is home to countless natural wonders and cosmopolitan cities that attract travelers from all over the world.
From lush Caribbean jungles and beaches to vast deserts and snowcapped mountains, the country has some of the most picturesque and diverse landscapes on earth – and let’s not forget the concrete jungles it is famous for.
It is a thrill seeing all of these famous attractions, but before you book your trip, here are 12 things you should know about planning a trip to the US that will help you plan your dream vacation.
1. You Need a Tourist Visa or ESTA to Enter the USA
As of today, the US’ Visa Waiver Program, also known as Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) allows citizens of these 39 countries to enter the US for up to 90 days without a visa.
Most of these countries are from the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and a few others.
Know that your 90 days start counting the moment you step on US soil, including Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and other US territories.
Those 90 days in the United States also include the time spent in Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, or the islands in the Caribbean if the arrival was through the United States.
The ESTA application is only required if arriving by air or cruise ship. It is not required if entering overland or on local ferries such as between Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada and Washington State.
The validity of the ESTA is for up to two years. You’re allowed to make an unlimited number of trips to the US as long as each stay has a maximum of 90 days.
The ESTA is far less expensive than the traditional tourist visa, and it only takes about 20 minutes to fill in a simple application form. While you can apply for your ETSA at any time before boarding your flight, it is advised to do it at least 72 hours before departure.
At the time of departure, have your ESTA and approval number handy as it’ll be requested during check-in.
Now, should you wish to stay in the USA for longer than 90 days, or if you don’t fall under the ESTA program, then you’ll need a visa.
Getting Other US Visas
If you want to stay longer in the United States, or if your citizenship is not included in the ESTA program, you will have to look at other US tourist visas – mainly the B-2 Visa (tourist visa).
These visas are usually much more expensive than the ESTA (around $160-$180 for many countries), but unlike with the ESTA program, the process is a bit more complicated, and there is no single list of requirements as they vary depending on your citizenship.
To get the most accurate information, I recommend checking the requirements on your country’s US embassy website or by visiting such embassy or consulate. (For example, if you’re Moroccan, the US embassy in Rabat, Morocco)
2. Check Your Passport’s Validity
To enter the USA, your passport must have at least six months of validity left at the time of travel. This means, if your passport expires in less than six months, you will not be allowed to travel to the US.
Additionally, you should make sure that your passport is valid for the entire duration of your trip.
3. Understand the US’ Tipping Culture
In the United States, you’re expected to tip all forms of services, like cab drivers, deliveries, valet, porters, room service, and most notably, waiters and bartenders. (Most of them earn under the federal minimum wage, which is already way too low!)
The typical tipping practice is between 15% to 20%.
Know that while it is expected, you’re not obliged to tip. As a general rule, if the service was ok (nothing outstanding), I give 15%. If it was exceptional, I offer 20%. On the other hand, if the service was terrible, I give 10% or less, depending on how bad the service was.
Other common tip suggestions in the hospitality industry include:
- Concierge: dependent on the difficulty of your request
- Bartenders: $1-2 per drink
- Housekeepers: $1-5 per night
- Valets: $1-5 each time the valet brings your car
- Hotel porters: $1-2 per bag
- Doormen: a few dollars if they help you get a cab
- Taxi drivers: 10-15%
- Shared shuttle drivers: $2-3 per person
- Food delivery: $1-$4 depending on the distance from the restaurant to your accommodation
Lastly, always check your restaurant bill before tipping, as some restaurants already include the tip in your bill’s total. Equally, some other services already include a “service charge,” which is considered a tip.
4. The United States is Much Bigger than You Think
As the third-largest country in the world, with an area of 9.83 million square kilometers (including territories), the US has a wide variety of landscapes and a rich, diverse culture that almost feels like each of the 50 states is practically a country by itself.
Not to mention the different geography and cultures presented by Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and other territories.
In fact, when compared, many states are bigger than some European countries. Two North-South features split the country into three distinct areas.
West of the Rocky Mountains, we have the Pacific states, which are known for long expanses of beach along the California coast, the stunning deserts including the Grand Canyon, and year-round temperate weather.
Sandwiched between the Rockies and the Mississippi River, we have the vast plains stretching from Mexico to Canada, giving the US one of the world’s most fertile growing regions.
And last but not least, Lastly, we have the east of the Mississippi, which is the industrial and economic hub of the USA. Several major cities like New York, Boston, Washington DC, Chicago, Miami, and more.
Here you also find the Appalachian mountains, which are not only one of the most diverse ecological regions in the country, but also played a vital role in US history, from its settlement to its westward expansion.
The US’ most visited national park, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is located in the Appalachians.
Which brings me to…
5. Don’t Miss Visiting at Least One National Park
Even though the United States is well known for its buzzing cities, the country also offers a healthy balance of nature and outstanding landscapes with its National Parks.
In fact, the USA has the first National Park in the world. In 1872, Yellowstone was established by Theodore Roosevelt, starting a natural conservation practice that would spread all around the world.
With 62 protected areas, the USA has amassed an impressive range of national parks, including all kinds of landscapes, flora, fauna, and outdoor experiences.
Escape the city and get lost in nature, camp in that dense forest, marvel at those sky-scraping snowcapped mountains, wander in the hidden red desert canyons, and hike past those lush valleys and pristine lakes.
When you plan your trip, check which national parks are in or close to the states you’re visiting. I guarantee you; they are worth visiting! You can check the full list of national parks here.
Among the most popular National Parks are:
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- The Grand Canyon National Park
- Mammoth Cave National Park
- Yellowstone National Park
- Yosemite National Park
- Zion National Park
- And others.
6. Plan Your USA Itinerary Accordingly
As already mentioned, the USA is enormous, so you should plan your trip accordingly. How much time do you have available? A few days, weeks, months?
If your trip is short, you’ll probably want to focus on just one city or a few cities nearby, like New York, Washington DC, and Boston.
If you have a few weeks, you could expand your trip and fly to the other coast (like flying from New York to Los Angeles) or do a road trip crossing several states.
If you have up to 12 weeks (roughly three months), you could make a road trip crossing several states, across the entire continental US, or concentrate on exploring in-depth one region.
Also, do you have a focus for your trip? What would you like to experience?
It could be anything like visiting several national parks, seeing some of the most famous cities in the country, and visiting several theme parks.
You could also go road-tripping off-the-beaten-path, camping in the wild, participate in festivals and major events, or discovering the US’s historical trails, among many others.
The options are endless, but be aware that given the size of the country, getting from one point to another could take a lot of time if you’re driving, or a lot of money if flying.
While planning your trip, make a list of:
- Free things to do in each city or town
- National Parks of interest
- Best hikes, bike trails, walks (if you’re into that)
- City tour or Day tours of interest
- Attractions of interest
- Restaurants of interest
Now, try to accommodate all of them within your trip’s timeframe to see how they all fit. This will help you know if your trip planning is too ambitious or if you have time to see more destinations or attractions.
Always include your estimated transportation time from place to place. Using Google Maps Directions is excellent for this.
As a general rule, I always like to leave some time off to have some wiggle room in my itinerary.
7. Consider Doing a Road Trip or Overland Adventure
Many cities in the USA are far from each other, but in between, there are a lot of stunning places and quirky roadside attractions you can explore and enjoy. This one of the reasons why road trips or overland trips are so popular in the US.
When it comes to buses, the earlier you book, the better deals you’ll find, including $1 bus fares! The same applies to Amtrak, and they even offer a USA Rail Pass for 15, 30, or 45 days.
On the other hand, if you’d like more freedom to move as you want, then renting a car or an RV is the recommended option for road tripping the US.
A personal recommendation is that unless you’re visiting a city like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco, you should rent a car while you’re in the USA.
Unfortunately, most of the country was not developed with urban centers and public transportation the same way Europe did. A car is needed, or at least recommended, to move around even in major cities like Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, Orlando, and so on.
When renting a car in the USA, I recommend checking the following:
- Check the total price of the car rental. Usually, the amount mentioned during a search does not include taxes nor insurance.
- Often car rental companies will push to get premium insurance coverage above the minimum required one. You will have to consider whether to add it or not based on your situation.
- The current fuel/gas price in the states you’ll be visiting. Estimate the potential cost of gas you’ll consume based on the distance you expect to travel, and the car’s gas consumption rate (you can find that online by searching the car model and its miles per gallon rate).
- Will it include GPS? If so, how much does it cost? These days you can get a local sim card with data and use your phone and Google Maps or Waze as your GPS.
- How much per additional driver? Add all drivers on the rental agreement to play it safe in case of an accident.
- How much will it be to drop off the car in a different city (if you’re traveling just one way)?
- Are there tolls on your route? Check them online. Toll fees can add up quickly!
- When picking up the car, document and photograph all visible defects on the car before leaving the car rental lot. Also, take a photo of the dashboard to record the fuel level and mileage.
When doing a road trip in more remote regions, like in the mid-west, make sure you’re aware of the distance between gas stations as some of them can be far apart. Make sure your gas tank is full to last between those empty expanses.
Lastly, if you have an RV, know that the Walmart chain allows RVs to use their parking lots for one night, free of charge. There are also several free or cheap campgrounds all over the country.
Note that overnight RV parking is prohibited at roadside rest stops in many states, so check how that applies to your trip.
8. Book Your Domestic Flights Separate From Your International Flights
If you’re short on time and would like to travel between distant cities, flying will be your best option. What I recommend, though, is to buy your domestic flights separate from your international flights.
Often, airlines and flight aggregators add a premium to domestic flights when purchased together with the international leg. On the other hand, if you book them separately, you’ll have more options across all airline alliances.
Many popular routes in the US, which are the ones typically traveled by foreigners, are incredibly competitive among US airlines, so you’ll have better chances of getting a good deal when searching for them independently.
For more tips on how to always find the cheapest airfare, you can read this post too.
9. Expect to Pay More Than What’s Displayed
Contrary to most countries, the prices displayed at the supermarket, store, restaurant, hotels, and any other business does not include the sales tax. Every state has its own state sales tax, and they all vary from 7% to 11% or so.
Resorts are notorious for charging a hefty “resort fee” that is often not mentioned when booking.
This could vary from $10+ to $100+, depending on the resort. Always read the small print or the “not included” section of the advertised price to see these extra taxes and fees.
10. Do NOT Travel Without Travel Insurance
I’m sure you’ve read horror stories about the inefficient and expensive medical system in the US. Well, they are all true.
I’m sure you won’t want to go back home and receive a $1200 bill just for getting ibuprofen prescribed by a doctor. This sounds exaggerated, but it isn’t far from the truth here.
Having a travel insurance with medical coverage is essential for any trip, but even more so in the US.
11. Don’t Forget to Visit the Islands!
Both Hawaii and Puerto Rico have several islands that are stunning and feel like you’re in a different country, worlds apart from the typical US image.
Coming from Puerto Rico, and having grown up there, I can attest to that – as a local!
12. Always Carry Cash with You
As advanced as the US likes to say it is, it is still pretty far behind many European and South American countries when it comes to digital payment options.
The US is always playing catch up, so even to this day, don’t be surprised if many rural businesses only accept cash.
Also, in many places, the tip is left in cash, unless you can add it to your credit card.
In most major cities, you’ll be able to pay almost everything with credit cards and contactless payments. But still, you’ll find several businesses that are cash only (for tax purposes).
Before departing from your home country, alert your bank that you’ll be using your debit and credit card in the US, so they don’t block it thinking it is a suspicious charge.
A Few Extra Quick Tips:
- 911 is the emergency number in the US.
- The US is one of only three countries in the world that uses the Imperial system. Measurements are in inches and feet, distances in miles, weight in pounds, and the temperature in Fahrenheit.
- You drive on the right side of the street.
- The US spans six time zones. Make sure you know which time zone your destination is in, especially when booking flights and airport transfers.