There is no doubt the United States is a vast land full of amazing destinations. Outdoor enthusiasts will love the dense forests of California and Oregon, the wetlands in Florida, the spectacular mountains in Alaska and Colorado, and the beautiful Hawaiian beaches. Then, there are also all the National Parks, monuments, forests, and of course, amazing cities like New York, San Francisco, Austin, and Portland. No doubt there is a US destination for all types of travelers!
If you’re planning a trip to the United States but wondering where to go, what to expect, and how to prepare, then check out our list of the most important things we think you should know prior to your trip. This guide will help ensure that you’ll be prepared for anything and everything!
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A Quick Overview of the USA
The United States of America is often shortened to the USA, the US, or simply America. It is comprised of 50 states, 48 of which are contiguous, plus Alaska to the west of Canada and Hawaii out in the Pacific Ocean. We also have Washington DC which is a federal district and 5 territories which include American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
The USA is 3.8 million square miles with a population of over 327 million people.
30 Tips for Traveling in the USA
1. You May Need an ESTA
Many countries are a part of the USA’s visa waiver program, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Chile, and pretty much all of Europe. You can check to see if your country is on the list on the website of the Department of Homeland Security.
Even if you’re from one of the 40 countries that do not require a visa to travel to the USA, chances are you’ll still need an ESTA. Now you’re probably wondering, “What is an ESTA?” It stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization and is basically a pre-approval to enter the USA without a visa. It’s actually very similar to the e-Visa programs that many other countries around the world have implemented.
Luckily, it’s quite easy to apply online for an ESTA visa through various travel agencies or directly through the website of the Department of Homeland Security. You’ll just need to upload a photo of your passport and fill out some basic information about your travel plans. And once you have been granted an ESTA, it is valid for two years (unless your passport expires before the two years).
Make sure you apply for your ESTA at least 72 hours before you’re scheduled to depart for the USA. The approval process is generally very quick, but if you don’t have your ESTA, you likely won’t be allowed to board your flight.
2. The USA is Really, Really Big
It is 3.8 million square miles to be exact. It’s so big, in fact, that it would take you about 40 hours to drive the 2,800 miles from Los Angeles to New York without stopping! And a good bit of that drive would be unbelievably boring. If you only have a short time to visit the US, flying is probably the way to go.
And if you want to do a cross-country road trip, just be sure you factor in how much driving you will be doing on a daily basis.
3. Luckily, There are plenty of Affordable Flights
Virgin America, Frontier, Spirit, Southwest, and Jetblue are all budget carriers that operate domestic flights in the US. Be sure to add luggage if you need it since it’s usually not included in the budget fare. And seats on Southwest aren’t assigned so you’ll need to check in early to get priority and arrive early to pick your seat.
We recommend Skyscanner.com for finding the best deals on flights in the USA.
4. And a Few Decent Trains and Buses
Depending on where you are in the US and where you are headed, there are some good options for long-distance transportation – both Amtrak and Bolt Bus are great affordable options for traveling around the USA.
Amtrak has 30 train routes to 500 destinations so you’d be surprised how far you can get with a ticket. When we take weekend trips from Portland to Seattle, we love taking Amtrak so we don’t have to deal with traffic.
Bolt Bus covers a more limited area – they are mainly on the West Coast and the Northeast – but the buses are super reliable, fast, and have really comfortable seats. They also have nice amenities like Wi-Fi and individual power outlets that make it possible to catch up on work during your bus ride or just binge-watch your favorite Netflix show.
5. Most of our Cities Have Poor Public Transportation Systems
It’s no secret that cities in the USA don’t typically offer a lot of public transportation options. So if you’re not planning on renting a car, you’ll likely wind up taking a lot of taxis or Uber to get around town.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Several major cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, and Portland have very efficient metro systems and lots of bus routes. But other places like Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami, and Las Vegas don’t offer much in terms of public transportation.
6. Uber and Lyft are Everywhere
Taxis are a thing of the past. Download the Uber and Lyft apps and you can get a reasonably priced ride in most of the larger cities in America. Uber drivers tend to have nicer cars and they often provide snacks and/or water. And Lyft tends to be a bit cheaper with more talkative drivers. Just depends on what you’re in the mood for.
7. Expect to Encounter a Lot of Diversity
When we travel, we often have people say “but you don’t LOOK like Americans”. To which we laugh and ask what Americans look like. Technically, we all immigrated to the US from somewhere.
Native Americans came first, thousands of years ago. The widely accepted theory is that they migrated from Asia across a land bridge that connected the continents at the point that is now the Bering Strait. Europeans descended in 1492 to colonize the Americas which led to an immense population decline in Native Americans due to disease, war, and slavery. Today, there are over 500 federally recognized Native American tribes still living in the US.
The rest of us have parents or grandparents that came from other parts of the world. My great grandfather on my mother’s side immigrated from Norway, and my great grandparents on my father’s side immigrated from Sweden. So technically I’m Swedish/Norwegian but I’ve never been to either place, don’t speak the language, and don’t know anything about the customs or traditions.
So America is a mixing pot of a variety of ethnicities, religions, cultures, languages, and backgrounds. English is the most widely spoken language, although not everyone who lives here speaks it and many people speak multiple languages. There’s not really one single thing that constitutes someone being “American”.
8. Still, We Often Live up to our Stereotypes
You’ve seen American movies and no doubt have developed some stereotypes. Yes, we have bleach-blonde surfer dudes in California. Hipsters in Portland… You bet! Cowboys in Texas? Check! Tanned-up muscley Jersey Shore dwellers – sure, you’ll encounter a few. And yes, “Southern hospitality” is a real thing. Not all American stereotypes are true, but some still are!
9. A Road Trip is a Great Way to See the USA
Rent a car, buy some camping gear, and hit the open road!
10. You Must be 25 Years Old to Rent a Car
Sorry, rental company rules, not mine.
11. If you Take a Road Trip, There are Plenty of Rest Stops
The US has incredibly long stretches of highways with very few amenities for many miles. But you’ll frequently see signs for rest stops in these remote areas. Rest stops have free, reasonably clean bathrooms and usually offer free coffee to help you stay awake while you’re driving. They are conveniently located just off of major highways and interstates so you don’t have to go far to find one.
Most rest stops will also allow you to park overnight for free so if you really need to get some sleep but don’t want to pay for a hotel room try to find a rest stop.
12. There is a lot of Public Land (and Free Camping!)
As we mentioned, the United States is really really big. And that means that there are a lot of public lands to go around. This land is meant to be used by the American people and is maintained by federal and state governments. We have national parks (although these generally have an entrance fee), national monuments, state parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, state forests, and wilderness areas to name a few.
Most of this state and federally managed land is available for recreational use. Generally, the national parks and monuments are very controlled while the forest and wilderness areas are a bit of a free-for-all. And most of this public land is in the western half of the US.
The national forests are managed by the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and it accounts for about 8% of the total land area in the United States. They have trails and roads of varying conditions and you can usually camp anywhere in these areas for free.
13. The Best Places to Visit Aren’t the Ones You Think
When people from across the world dream about visiting the United States, there are a few specific places that they usually have in mind – New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and Las Vegas. They think of impressive skylines, bright lights, and big cities.
But as we mentioned above, much of the public land in the US is in the Western half of the US. States that you normally wouldn’t give a second thought. Utah, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington (state, not DC) have spectacularly beautiful parks filled with waterfalls, lakes, rivers, wildlife, and lush greenery. Or interesting rock formations that will make you think you’re walking on Mars.
You can rent a car or a campervan and set off on the open road to explore the beauty that the western United States has to offer!
14. The Weather Varies Drastically
Again, the US is BIG. Meaning that it might be 120° F in Arizona and 2° F in Montana at the same time. Check the weather and the road conditions before planning your trip.
15. Remember, We’re Not on the Metric System
We use miles instead of kilometers to measure distance, feet to measure height, and Fahrenheit for temperature. Why can’t we align ourselves with the rest of the world, you ask? I wish I knew.
16. If you Need a Bathroom or Wi-fi, Head to Starbucks
Starbucks has always been a great place to go for free internet and mediocre coffee. But after a recent publicity fiasco where an African American man was accused of trespassing while he was waiting for friends at a Starbucks and hadn’t yet purchased anything, they have adopted a new, even more, lenient ordering policy. It states that “any customer is welcome to use Starbucks spaces, including our restrooms, cafes, and patios, regardless of whether they make a purchase.“
So if you need to use the toilet, need access to Wi-Fi, or just want a place to hang out for a bit, Starbucks is a great place to go. You don’t even have to be sneaky about not ordering anything!
17. You Have to be 21 to Consume Alcohol
You only have to be 18 to enlist in the military, smoke cigarettes, and vote, but you can’t consume alcohol until you’re 21 years old in the US. Sounds silly, we know.
18. You’ll Need to Show Proof of Age
There is also really strict alcohol enforcement in the states. You’ll need to show identification that proves your age in order to purchase alcohol at a store or drink it in a restaurant or bar.
And most bars won’t access non-US-resident driver’s licenses or ID cards. So, as crazy as it sounds, you’ll probably need to keep your passport on you if you’re heading out to the bars or nightclubs in the USA.
19. Food Portions are HUGE
Let’s be honest, America has a problem with obesity. It could be because we dine on “animal-style cheeseburgers”, giant cinnamon rolls slathered with frosting, and extra-large pepperoni pizzas that have a crust that is also stuffed with cheese and pepperoni.
Or it could be because the portion size in the US is absolutely massive. Everything is super-sized. And your big cut of sirloin steak probably comes with a side of macaroni and cheese and an entire baked potato. Look at the plate sizes around you before ordering and plan on splitting or taking a to-go box home with you.
20. Tipping at the End is Expected
The US has developed a tipping custom that has gotten a bit out of hand. Many states in the US have a minimum wage for servers that is far under the federal minimum wage – as low as $2.13/hour – because they expect that servers will be tipped handsomely.
A 20% tip on top of your total meal cost (not including sales tax) is commonly expected. Even at coffee shops, hair and nail salons, massage parlors, and restaurants where you get your own water and silverware. It’s an unfortunate extra cost to pass on to the consumer, and it’s also pretty unfair to the servers. Always consider that extra expense when dining out.
21. Sales Tax Isn’t Included in Prices
Each state has its own individual sales tax rate (although some, like Oregon, have no sales tax). If you buy a burger for $10 in San Francisco, when you go to pay, you’ll have an 8.5% sales tax added to that. Then add a ~20% tip and that $10 burger becomes ~$12.85. It may not seem like that big of a deal but it will if you go out for a fancy dinner. Or if you make any big retail purchases.
22. State Laws Differ
You can’t throw your excrement out of a moving vehicle in Oregon, but you can salvage and consume your roadkill. Each state in the USA has its own laws that you must abide by when you visit. You can walk around with an open container of alcohol in cities, such as Las Vegas or New Orleans, but not in most others.
You are required to wear a seatbelt in every state except New Hampshire. Some require all occupants to wear belts, and some require only those in the front seat to wear them. And state laws differ regarding the use of a cell phone while driving (best to go hands-free all the time, just in case). Laws regarding helmets differ by state as well.
Marijuana is legal to purchase in states like Washington, Oregon, and Colorado but you still can’t smoke it in public.
If you want to stay safe no matter where you are, wear your seatbelt, don’t consume alcoholic beverages on the street or in your vehicle, don’t do drugs, stay off your phone while driving, drive at or under the speed limit, don’t pee in public, keep those nipples covered ladies, and don’t eat your roadkill. Boring…
23. How to Dress in the USA
You can dress however you please in the US, as long as you’re not naked. In most states, it is illegal to expose your genitals and your nipples (but only if you’re a female). So ladies need to keep their tops on, even at the beach, unless the nudity is specifically allowed.
24. For Cheap Prices, Stock up at Walmart
A lot of people in the USA don’t approve of the Walmart Corporation because they moved into rural areas, offered everything you could ever want at super cheap prices, and put a lot of small businesses out of business.
If you choose to look past all of that, Walmart really is the place to go for anything and everything you need, at rock-bottom prices. From groceries to camping gear to clothing to electronics, and everything in between. Plus, they have a great return policy. AND you can camp in the Walmart parking lot! It’s not the most pleasant experience, but most Walmarts allow overnight parking in their lot just in case you find yourself on a road trip with no campground options around.
If you’re not into supporting Walmart, check out Target instead. They are like a more upscale Walmart and they have a better reputation.
25. Utilize Amazon Lockers
If Walmart doesn’t have it, or you just prefer Amazon, why not have it shipped to an Amazon Locker? There are lockers located all over the USA. They accept both deliveries and returns, are super easy to use, are totally free, and they are open early and late for your convenience.
26. Craigslist Also has Everything
And if you’d prefer to go the second-hand route, if you need to find rideshare to a new destination, or if you love the US so much that you want to find a job, or get tickets to a show, Craigslist.org has it all. It’s managed to stay simple and ad-free over the years so it’s easy to search and find exactly what you’re looking for.
But beware of scams! And take precautions if you actually need to meet a stranger in order to purchase something.
27. Americans LOVE Football
Not to be confused with futbol (aka soccer). Football is a sport where beefy men in spandex throw a pointy ball around while others jump into big cuddle piles and try to touch each other’s butts. Now that you understand the game perfectly, head to a local sports bar on any given day during football season. You’re bound to see a bunch of grown men guzzling beer and high-fiving each other as though they did anything remotely noteworthy other than consuming an entire plate of nachos.
28. And we Love Festivals
Americans love their festivals. They love to dress up like fair maidens for renaissance festivals, sample strange treats at garlic festivals, snap photos at tulip festivals, and have one too many drinks at seafood and wine festivals. Plus, we have popular music festivals like Coachella, Bonaroo, and Austin City Limits.
And we have the strangest festival of all – Burning Man – where rich people go into the desert to gyrate naked, covered in dust to EDM music while surviving off of peanut butter sandwiches and cocaine.
No doubt you can find a festival to attend no matter where or when you find yourself in the US!
29. A Hospital Visit will Cost You
The healthcare system in the US is incredibly confusing, complicated, and complex. We have lived there for most of our lives and don’t even understand how it works. If God forbid, you have to take a trip to the doctor or an emergency room during your trip to the US, you’ll leave with a big bill. Our medical care is not free for us, or for tourists. In fact, medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the US.
Luckily, there are some low-cost medical providers available for people who need them. Planned Parenthood is nationwide and there are other regional clinics as well. Hopefully, you’ll never need one!
If you’re planning on traveling to the USA, you may want to invest in travel health insurance like SafetyWing to make sure you don’t get stuck with a big medical bill during your trip.
30. The Country is Very Divided Politically
The political center of the US is in Washington DC. That’s our capital, it’s where our President resides, and all three branches of our federal government are centered there. It is also a city that tends to attract young, liberal-minded people. As do other large cities on the East Coast and on the West Coast. These tend to be Democratic-leaning (blue) areas of the country.
Then you’ve got the south. An area that is primarily dominated by Republicans. Not just in the south, but Republicans tend to favor rural areas of the country, while Democrats tend to flock to larger cities.
Democrats are considered to be more progressive. They support women’s rights and equality, LGBTQ+ rights (that stands for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, and more), universal healthcare for all, and generally see immigration in a favorable light. Republicans tend to be religious and anti-abortion, they generally don’t want equal rights for the LGBTQ+ population, and they see immigration as people “stealing their jobs”.
If you are visiting the USA and you could see yourself feeling uncomfortable being in an area that is dominated by one of these groups or another, best research the political leanings of your destination ahead of time. Or just don’t bring up politics while you’re there.
Enjoy your trip to the beautiful United States of America!
Planning a trip to the USA? Check out our favorite books and travel guides!