Thursday, November 10, 2011

USA Ya'll – traveller's tips

Well, we're back here in Sydney and the long and amazing eight-week holiday is over – already! We started off as novice travellers but we did pick up a few tips along the way to share with anyone thinking of setting off on a trip to the USA, especially a road trip like ours.

So here, in no particular order, are some random notes aimed mostly at my fellow Australians, but which might be handy for any 'foreigners' visiting this wonderful country. (Warning: it's not a short posting this time, and there are no photos, either!)

Apply online: instead of all the hassle of obtaining a visa, Aussies merely need to get an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) certificate, which is like a visa, and all of which can be done online, and printed out on your own printer at home. Here's the link to the ESTA home page. The only time we had to quote our ESTA number was when checking in online for our flights from Sydney to the USA. At the US end, they never asked for them.

2. Immigration/customs/flying
Relax! We entered the US via Hawaii, and it was quick and easy getting through customs/immigration (having the immigration/customs officer at the desk in Honolulu greet you with "Aloha" did put me at ease). Everyone knows security is tight with air travel, so my main tip is to bear with it, and wear slip-on shoes, as you always have to take them off at each security checkpoint.
The other main thing to remember with flying inside the USA is to get there 3 hours before take-off, to give yourself enough time to get through check-in, security, immigration, etc. Cut it too fine and you might not be allowed onto the flight. That 3-hour limit was emphasised to us a few times, so take it seriously.

3. Hotel/motel tips
Making coffee: Aussies accustomed to finding hotel or motel rooms equipped with electric kettles, instant coffee and teabags are in for a disappointment in the US. We stayed at more than 20 hotels/motels, and all had the same set-up of a little drip-filter coffee maker, with 2 single-serve normal coffee sachets, and 2 decaf sachets provided. No fresh milk, just milk powder (called 'creamer') and a mix of artificial and real sugar sachets.

Ice: every room has an ice bucket and somewhere down the corridor will be a machine dispensing as many ice-cubes as you need. We got into the habit of getting our ice, and in the warm weather we experienced the ice certainly cooled down a glass of water or soft drink very quickly.

Showers: Pammy and I had several mini-committee meetings in bathrooms soon after arriving at our hotels, trying to figure out how each shower worked. Almost no two shower faucet systems were the same in our 20 hotel/motels, but they all had one thing in common: you cannot adjust the pressure of the water, you can only adjust the temperature. In the end they all worked fine, but good luck!

Check in/check out hours: they're different in the US. Check-in time is usually 3pm, sometimes 4pm, and check-out time is usually either 11am or noon.

Electricity/lamps: you probably already know that US power points are different from Aussie ones, and you'll need a special adaptor if you bring Aussie electrical gear (like camera or laptop battery rechargers) with you.
In hotel/motel rooms, the lamps can take getting used to. The switches on 80% of the lamps we encountered are little black knobs near the light globe itself which you twiddle around. Just keep twiddling in the same direction and they go from off, to on, to brighter, to brightest, to off again. Most power points don't have 'on-off' switches. If you plug it in, it's on.

3. IT on the road

Mobile phones (ie, cell phones): I can't quote figures, but using your Aussie mobile phone in the US can become very expensive very quickly and most people advise against it. So, for our long holiday we bought two cheap $19.95 mobiles from AT&T (you can also get them from Walmart) and loaded each up with $25 of calls, which was more than enough for our needs. My only reason for choosing AT&T (instead of the Virgin mobiles and others sold at Walmart) was that AT&T had the better signal coverage in the southern states where we were travelling. Check out the signal maps for each of the mobile carriers you are considering. Virgin, for instance, was great for the east and west coasts (where the big populations are, and most tourists go) but for our lonely little travels down south we chose AT&T. When looking at phone costs in the US, remember that you get charged to both make a call, and receive a call, which is a big difference from Australian mobile phone plans.

WiFi: most hotels offered WiFi, some free of charge, some for a fee. It was free in our two Hawaiian hotels, and that included all the uploads I needed to do my blogs. On the mainland it was more common to be charged for it, and it wasn't cheap ($14.95 per day, about $60 a week was typical). I had my own WiFi modem (through AT&T, casual use plan $50 for 1GB for a month) for my laptop and I used that more often than not. You can also access free WiFi at Maccas and Starbucks, in some hotel foyers and other places, so if you're not blogging and just emailing some howdy-doodies to friends back home, you might be able to cross the country without paying for your WiFi.

Skype: this is definitely the way to go for phoning home. Tip: if you're a Skype newbie like we were, download it (it's free, just Google 'Skype') and install it before you leave, and do a few practice runs to get the hang of using it. Using it online to call other computers is free, but you'll need to pay a fee ($16 minimum) to set up an account for calling home phones from your Skype-equipped laptop.
We loaded up Skype with the $16 and used it quite a bit to phone people back home on their phone lines, and we still have about $12 of credit left after all those calls. It's super cheap. As for Skyping home for a video call to another person's computer, it's great in theory and worked fine for us sometimes, but we found the images, delays, dropouts and other techie problems made the experience only OK, not great. (However, as we were away for a long time, Pammy loved being able to see her mum and sister Laura, who isn't well right now, so Skype was priceless for those reasons.) I noticed that some people got 'stage fright' talking on screen with the video running, and when we just used Skype as a cheap telephone service, the conversations flowed a lot more smoothly. However, whatever you do, use it.

4. Restaurants/ordering/tipping
Terminology: everyone knows the food serves are big in America, so that isn't anything new to tell you. However, the names of courses are different in the USA. What Aussies call 'entrees' or 'starters' are 'Appetisers' on most American menus. And what Aussies know as 'main courses' are called 'entrees' in the US. Desserts are desserts, but watch out for 'cordials' with the dessert menus, these are liqueurs such as Baileys, Frangelico, etc.

Tips/extras: wages for US wait-staff are low, so the tips you give them are more important than they are in Australia – the staff live off the tips, so don't be stingy! The standard tip is 15%. In New York, many restaurant 'checks' (ie, the bill) included a handy reckoner printed out on the bill showing what a 15% tip would be, a 20% tip, and so on. However, also factor in that the bill will be larger due to state taxes. These vary from one state to the next, can be as low as 5% or as high as 12%. So those cheap prices on the menu, when you add in the state taxes and tips, will often turn out to be not as cheap as they first seemed.

Restaurant bookings: you might find that restaurants often will only take bookings for larger groups (five or more) but won't take phone bookings for just two people.
However, one great website we used several times for making bookings in the US was Open Table. We found this initially via a restaurant website, which had a 'book a table online now' button. Open Table seems to be the market leader, as we used it in Santa Fe, Austin, New Orleans, Savannah, New York and San Francisco, in some cities more than once, and it never let us down. You can nominate the time you want to book your table, it's confirmed online and via an email back to you, and every time we showed up the system worked just fine. After we made our first booking (in Santa Fe) Open Table had our details, and so with each subsequent booking I didn't have to type in my contact details again. Quick and easy each time. And in New York one night we were running late, and online I was able to put our booking back 45 minutes, almost at the last moment, without any problems. Finally, Open Table emails you a day or so after each meal asking for your restaurant review, if you want to give feedback. I enjoyed doing that!

5. Breakfasts
Continental breakfasts: Americans love their cooked breakfasts, but almost all the time healthy alternatives such as cereals and fruit are offered as well. Their cereals are quite sweet (Froot Loops are popular, God forbid), and muesli isn't available (the closest they get to muesli is granola, and it ain't muesli!). The good news for porridge-lovers is that oatmeal is offered everywhere (either the slow-cooked stuff or the instant variety) and oatmeal aficionado Pammy says it's pretty good.
Toast is always available, coffee plentiful, juice also. The usual butter provided for toast is a strange, whipped white concoction that I don't think really is butter. There's usually a selection of very sweet muffins and other pastries as well.
Cooked breakfasts are a bit regional in nature, so what we were offered in New Mexico was different in Louisiana, and different again in Georgia, etc. However, eggs are always on the plate, so too potatoes (cooked in a variety of ways, and never as the crappy little 'hash brown' brickettes foisted on Aussies in Australia). Sausages are common, too, but they're often skinless, and they like their bacon plentiful and super-crisp almost everywhere. Omelettes are worth considering, as they are usually cooked to order and come out warm and fresh. And there are always pancakes, which are both sweet and savoury, often served with a sweet sauce plus something like bacon or sausages on the side.

6. Lunches
Try sandwiches: the Americans love sandwiches and do them well. If you're in a strange town and spot a Safeways supermarket, check it out as it probably has a deli which makes sandwiches to order, and as long as you avoid the extra-cheesy ones with special sauce (ie, creamy gunk), there usually are a couple of healthy-enough sanger choices on offer.
Burgers and fries: we never ate at any major fast food chain stores, so I can't say anything about them, but in the little diners and other lunch spots on the highways the burgers and fries are pretty good. The fries in the smaller diners are almost always hand-cut and the potatoes usually aren't peeled, so every fourth or fifth fry has a bit of skin on it. The burger quality varies with each establishment, as it does here in Oz, but if you see the words 'Green Chili Cheeseburger' and you're standing in a place called 'The Romero Street Grill' in Albuquerque, New Mexico, you would be certifiably insane if you didn't try one. Best burger in the US, possibly the world.

7. Wine/beer
Talk about plentiful and cheap! I love New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, and almost everywhere I could buy NZ Sauv Blanc in the US (Australian wines are nowhere near as plentiful). And it was fairly cheap, too: in restaurants it was usually around the $22-$30 mark, which is cheaper than most Sydney restaurants. I'm not a fan of the Californian whites (a bit bland) but many of their reds are just fine; however, the quite plentiful Chilean reds and whites in the US were always a good choice at a good price.
I can't remember going to a restaurant or even a cafe that didn't have a wine list, so you don't need to BYO (bring your own). Should you want to buy some wine or beer for your hotel/motel room, it's readily available as well. Pharmacies sell it (must be for medicinal purposes?), so too virtually every supermarket.

8. Toilets/restrooms
Plentiful and clean: as well as being freely available at roadside places like McDonalds and other fast food chains, restrooms are also found in shopping malls and in supermarket chains such as Safeways. Not all gas stations have them, though (try the bigger ones, especially those selling food as well). Almost everywhere we went, the restrooms were fabulously clean and civilised. The only trouble you might have is in the crowded tourist trap areas, such as the French Quarter in New Orleans, where a restroom can be hard to find (same goes for New York, come to think of it). In that case your best bet is to slow down for a half-hour, find a nice cafe somewhere, sit down, order a coffee or Coke or juice, enjoy that, and visit the restroom before you leave.

9. On the road
Driver's licences: I went to the trouble of getting an International Driver's Licence and I didn't use it once. My Australian driver's licence was fine for all rental car companies, and with its photo ID it also came in handy when checking in to hotels and as ID for using my credit card in shops.

Left-hand-drive cars: it took me ages to get used to driving on the 'other' side of the road. My natural instincts after driving on my side of the road for 40 years were very hard to shake off, so my advice is to drive slowly and carefully and treat each intersection with the greatest of respect. Busy roads are the easiest, as there are cars aplenty showing you where to go. Lonely quiet roads are the places where you might absent-mindedly head off in the morning down the wrong side of the road.

Gas stations: in most US gas stations we visited they want you to pay in advance (or at least by swiping your credit card before filling up). The trouble for me was that my Mastercard wasn't recognised by their machines (they wanted a 5-digit pin number, and mine only has 4) and so I had to pop into the cashier and either leave a cash deposit before pumping gas or at least have the cashier say 'no problem' and OK it for me to start refilling. It was never a major hassle, and as soon as they heard my Aussie accent they were friendly with me every time.
Don't be fooled by US octane ratings for gas, either, as the US numbers are different from Australian numbers. I used octane 89 all the time for my Mazda 6, and it was fine. Apparently US 89 octane is about the same as Australian 92 octane.

Interstate highways: my advice is to avoid them wherever possible, as the views of the countryside from most interstates were somewhere between limited and non-existent. You see very little from a US interstate.
The quality of backroads is high, and passing through all the countryside and the towns is well worth the extra time spent driving a bit further, and slower. I only travelled on interstates a few times in the southern states, but I found them dangerous due to the high traffic loads travelling at high speeds. Apart from short stretches leading into and out of cities, where the interstates could be up to four or six lanes wide in each direction, they soon got back to being two lanes in each direction, separated by a very wide median grass strip (sometimes up to 100 yards wide). What that means is the slow lane of a two-lane interstate is full of slower trucks, and the fast lane is full of faster trucks overtaking slower trucks, plus a few even faster cars trying to get by unscathed.

Speed limits/police: I saw highway patrol cops everywhere, and they're especially vigilant coming into or leaving towns. The solution is simple, though: stick to the speed limit. My car had cruise control, and so whatever was the speed limit was my setting for the cruise control. However, when traffic is busy or roads are winding, cruise control is not a safe option, so just stick to the speed limit then. In the quiet backroads the limit is often 55mph; on the better backroads 60-65 is the norm; on the interstates 70-75mph is the usual top speed (it varies from one state to the next).

Road rules: it's your job to find out what they are, but commonsense rules in the US, just as it does in Australia. One thing to remember is that at a set of traffic lights, if you are sitting at a red light, it is OK to make a right-hand turn if the way is clear. Early on I didn't know this and wondered why people behind me were honking.
Their 'Yield' signs are our 'Give Way' signs. However, the simple rule is not to be an aggressive driver. Generally, I found US drivers all through the South to be forgiving and unaggressive (well, when compared with manic Sydney drivers) so if you take it easy you should get through just fine. In the bigger cities (Las Vegas and Atlanta, for instance) they were more rude, aggressive and willing to honk their horn in displeasure, just like Sydney drivers.

Navigating: unlike most modern people, who rely on a GPS thingy, we used maps (I also do organic gardening, and make my own soup stocks, so I am old-fashioned sometimes). Pammy was the navigator, and she did a great job doing it the old-fashioned way – reading maps. However, we did use the Internet to help us sometimes, even if Pammy handled 99% of all the navigating the paper-based way.

Google maps directions: what really came in handy was the 'Google Maps Directions' feature (on the left hand side of the Google Maps window. It was particularly useful for either getting into cities and finding our hotel, or for finding the best way out of a city, back out onto our chosen highway. All you need to do is type in your starting point address (if leaving town) or hotel address (if arriving) and Google Maps then tells you the right exits and streets to get you your next objective. Very, very often the Google directions proved to be right, and not what we would have chosen just by staring at the map. It was a Godsend helping us find our hotel in the high-speed, multi-lane, dodgem car madhouse of Atlanta, Georgia!

Highway exit numbers: you probably already know all about how US cities and towns are often logically ordered into street and avenue numbers, for easy navigating. Well, the highways are similar, and what we found most useful out on the highways was the system of Exit Numbers. Each exit off a major highway (and interstates) is numbered, and so knowing that we had to take 'Exit 67' to find XYZ town really helped, and driving along, counting down the exits, helped us not miss our exits, too. Good system!

10. Money
Travel Money Cards: before leaving Australia we organised to have two 'Travel Money' cards through our bank, then we bought a few thousand dollars in US currency. Once in the US, we could use these cards in any ATM machine to withdraw cash, in pre-paid US dollars. They worked without a hitch everywhere, as our bank's cards were Mastercards. However, they aren't a credit card. They're a cash card, and at the ATM machine we withdrew our money by choosing the 'Savings' account option, after entering the PIN. We miscalculated how much money we would need (ie, we ran out) so I was able to get onto my online bank and transfer more money to my Travel Money Card. It took a couple of days for the transaction to go through, so remember that delay if you're running low.

Credit cards: this proved to be a shock when we got home. We used our credit cards to book accommodation as we drove around, and each and every time the banks whacked a hefty 'International Transaction Fee' onto our card. All I can suggest is that you find out what competing banks' International Transaction Fees are, and go with the best deal. I didn't know about the extent of the rip-off beforehand, and am a few hundred dollars worse off as a result.

American cash: get used to having bulging wallets or purses. The US dollar is still a paper note, so 15 single dollars isn't worth all that much but it takes up a fair bit of space. Be wary of having large denomination bills (ie, $50 or $100) as some shops will simply refuse to handle them, forcing you to use your credit card instead.
Also, if you are likely to be tipping porters at hotels, etc, try to remember to keep a stash of $1 notes handy for tips. While the $1 notes are a bit of a pain to live with, at the same time they are handy in the area of tipping.

Expedia: we used to book ahead for accommodation sometimes on our road journey, but it has its pros and cons. One positive is that the room rates are cheaper. One negative is that you pay in advance, so changing your mind might be expensive.

11. The people
I love 'em! Finally, let me put in several good words for the ordinary American people you're likely to meet in your travels. I really liked them all. I have a big soft spot for Texans (hi, y'all!), but everywhere we went people were welcoming and helpful (even the busy New Yorkers were friendly – time and again they helped us out with the Subway maps).
All the Americans we met loved the fact that we were from Australia, so maybe Aussies get a particularly warm welcome? In some small towns they were just astonished that Australians were even visiting – "what on Earth brings you here?"
I noticed that time and again, not just when I was dealing with people, but when I watched others interact, that politeness is a very important thing, and it's how people in America like to talk to each other, at least for starters. So that's my only tip: be polite, be friendly and there's every chance the lovely Americans you meet will be polite and friendly back!


kashgar216 said...

That was comprehensive! Thanks for sharing your journey. You've been to more places than 95% of us Yanks!

Anonymous said...

Wifi is also free in almost every public library (in virtually every city in the U.S.) and McDonald's restaurant (on virtually every street corner in the U.S.!).

italy tours said...

Thanks for sharing the tips. It was helpful in so many ways. I am planning on traveling next year and I know this will help.

Michelle said...

What a great overview about traveling to/in the US! You are spot on about everything, right on down to Americans loving Aussies (I think it's your lovely accent and the fact that you all seem so friendly). I have the same beef about the showers, every one is different - why we can't have a standardized setup is beyone me. And the coffee setup in hotels, bleah, I usually go out and find a Peet's or Starbucks or local coffee roaster (my ipad is so handy for locating one of those). And Starbucks is good for free potty stops, I've never been bothered about using the facilities without purchasing a beverage - very handy in NYC. Oh, and about California wine, the good stuff doesn't seem to get out of the state. I was drinking a lot of New Zealand, French, and Italian wines when I was travelling in Vermont and NYC a few weeks ago because I couldn't find any good CA wines at a reasonable price. So, when traveling in California do try the local wines, we do make lots of great stuff, we just tend to keep it to ourselves. :)

Hanna at Orchid Care said...

Your traveller's tips are absolute treasures. I will be sure to use them next time I decide to take a trip somewhere. I'm hoping it will be Brazil in the Spring but I can't be sure yet.

Anyway, thanks for this valuable post.

Alexa said...

Nice overview. Yep politeness with strangers is very important in America, whereas I've noticed Aussies are more laid-back and irreverent even with people they don't know.

Oh and I don't think they really have BYO restaurants in the States. At least, I'd never heard of it before moving to Aus.

Sue O said...

I had the same problem with credit cards when we came to Australia. I knew my Amex charged 2.75% on each transaction and assumed the Mastercard did the same, as that had been the case on our last trip. Imagine my surprise, when we arrived home, to find that the MC charged a minimum of $3 per transaction. Meaning that all those small charges of less than $10 were paying a fee amounting to 30 to 50%. Ouch. And that is why I always use Amex whenever possible when we're abroad.

Lani at Edible Urban Garden said...

That's great timing thanks Jamie. We are off to Hawaii + California in January and you have saved me a whole lot of time and hassle.

Jamie said...

Thanks everyone for your comments, and Lani, I remembered that you mentioned you were off to Hawaii, and that gave me the idea of writing something like this post, with you in mind.

Have fun there. I loved Hawaii (especially Hilo) and California feels a bit like being in Australia. You'll see gum trees everywhere!

alexander said...

Your traveller's tips are priceless. I will be sure to use them on my future trips. I'm hoping it will be Europe in the Spring but I can't say that for sure yet. Thanks for sharing this.

Shivangni said...

Thoroughly enjoyed your travel blogs even this pictureless one maybe because the words painted the pictures.

My heartfelt gratitude for taking the trouble of sharing this with us

Lani at Edible Urban Garden said...

Thanks Jamie. Very kind indeed. And it has already been incredibly useful!

Beth said...

These are the kinds of tips that are so helpful for travelers. What a great use of your newly acquired travel information. When we visited Australia, we needed a tour guide like you to give us a few tips. And, by the way, Australians are some of the friendliest people I've ever encountered.

Carports said...

Wow, I've never been to the US and these tips are awesome. It should help people wanting to go there save a fortune..

Chartreuse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chartreuse said...

I've just realised I haven't seen any posts from you in months. Hope all's well with you and your family, that you're just too busy, and that you don't have some bad reason for not blogging in all this time.

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