With 50 states and one federal district, there are pockets all over the country just waiting to be explored; each unique in its landscape, identity and cultural offerings. To make the most of your time there, take note of these travel tips when planning your next USA getaway.
Consider a stopover in Hawaii
Keep an eye out for discounts
Don't pay for excess baggage
Tip your hat
One of the most common faux pas in the USA is tipping incorrectly. Australians are notoriously bad tippers; however, you can avoid falling into the ignorant tipper category by following a simple policy to always tip your waiter a base of 15 per cent when eating out, or pretty much any occurrence where service is provided.
At bars, a dollar bill is customary with each drink order and will also help guarantee prompt service. Bigger tips can often mean a stronger second round of cocktails. Lots of restaurants will add up the service charge for you in the bill and give you options for scale of tipping. If in doubt, pull out your calculator or smart phone and there are plenty of apps for this very purpose.
While you might not agree that tipping is necessary, by ‘bucking the system’ so to speak you’re marginalising workers on the frontline of the service industry and these are the people who are going to make or break your USA stay.
When you arrive in the country, get your hands on a stack of dollar bills and hold onto them - you’ll need them! Here’s a breakdown of recommended tipping for various situations:
- If a porter helps you with bags: $1-2 per bag.
- Taxi-rides: 15-20 per cent or a few extra dollars if paying cash.
- If you hire a car and use valet: $3-5 upon pickup depending how fancy the establishment is.
- Housekeeping in hotels: for excellent service for the duration of your stay, $2-5 on your pillow and a thank you note each morning will go a long way.
- Coffee: pop a dollar in the tip jar if you feel inclined or you got an exceptional coffee, maybe one with crema art on it. Beware of suggested tips when paying with card.
- Hairdressers or massage therapists: 10-20 per cent.
- Tour guide: 15-20 per cent.
Take a ride on the fun side
Hire a Mustang and take a drive
Once you get out of the cities, the highways are wide and well signposted. Hire a Mustang (they are so much cheaper to rent in the USA when compared to Australia), then choose a route and do that dream drive. If the budget doesn’t permit for a sports car, go for something a little more economical.
Seeing America your own way is a great opportunity to explore the rural parts of the country. Independence still costs though – rental rates and gas prices can soon eat away at your budget. Look into ‘drive-away cars’ where you could land a gig driving a vehicle from A to B for only the price of the gas, timing and availability pending.
To drive in the USA you must be at least 23 years old with a valid driver’s license (Australia licences are permitted). However, most rental companies require that you have a major credit card for security deposits, and that you are at least 25 years old.
Let someone else do the driving
If you’re looking to save money, bus travel in the USA can be a great way to travel, particularly in-between major towns and cities. The major bus lines operator is Greyhound and competitor Trailways offer regional services but are less useful for long haul trips. Greyhound will take you cross country from New York to San Francisco in three days for around $185.
Amtrak runs an extensive rail system all over the country, with several long distance lines passing through the nation from east to west, and even more from north to south, effectively connecting all of America’s biggest cities and most of its smaller ones too.
High-speed trains run between some major cities, offering fast and frequent services. Generally the earlier you book, the cheaper your fare will be. If you are planning on doing a lot of train travel you’d be in good stead to obtain an Amtrak rail pass.
Q. I'm visiting LA on a work trip and only have two days to see the city. Any suggestions on what I should do?
A. Start day one with a filling breakfast from IHOP and get the main tourist sites like Hollywood Boulevard and the Hollywood sign out of the way early before heading to Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive.
Do some people watching and see some of the sites from your favourite movies. Check out the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall and Chinatown in Downtown LA where most tourists never visit, then try to see a baseball or hockey game, depending on the season. Afterwards head out to The Viper Room or Whiskey a Go Go for some classic LA nightlife.
On your second day, head to the beach. Hire a bicycle and ride from Santa Monica to Venice Beach and back, soaking up some California sunshine. Spend the afternoon in Santa Monica checking out the shops and cafes and head to the Santa Monica Pier for sunset and some souvenir shopping to finish a great two days in LA.
- Alex Comte, Manager, Flight Centre Galleria, VIC
Q. I don’t understand tipping in the States. Do I need to tip everyone?
A. As I have a US-born and raised hubby I can definitely share my insider knowledge on tipping with you. Some people think it's un-Australian to tip. But my honest opinion is that it's un-Australian NOT to.
Keep in mind that most servers in the USA have a base pay of anywhere from $9 to as low as $2 an hour. Your tips are paying their bills. Therefore, tipping is an essential part of every American trip and something you should and must budget for.
The general rule of thumb is to tip 15-20 per cent. If you're no maths whizz, various apps are available to help you calculate, but most receipts also provide a suggested amount.
Keep in mind this is what's expected, meaning phenomenal service generally merits a higher tip (how much higher is entirely up to you). Conversely, if you receive service you deem lacking, rude or just plain terrible, you are by no means obliged to pay anything. However, in this instance you should ask to speak to a manager to explain why not.
If you're not sure who to tip then keep in mind it's generally those providing you with a service. This means wait staff, concierges, porters, drivers and guides etc.
- Ariel Riley, Travel Consultant, Flight Centre Warragul, VIC
Q. My husband and I are celebrating our anniversary in New York over New Year's Eve. What are some exciting things you'd suggest we do?
A. New York City is one of the most romantic places in the world, so what a great place to spend an anniversary, and especially over the exciting New Year’s Eve period!
Your options in NYC are limitless but the only place to be on NYE is in Time Square to watch the famous ball drop.
I'd also definitely recommend you go ice skating at Central Park or the Rockefeller Center and spend some time exploring Central Park. You can enjoy a romantic horse and carriage ride and dine at the famous Loeb Boathouse restaurant.
- Tabatha Knowles, General Manager, Flight Centre Blacktown, NSW
Q. I'm travelling to the States with some girlfriends on a wine-tasting holiday. Do you have any tips to make the most of our Napa Valley visit?
A. When going to Napa Valley, make sure you have a mud bath! The mud baths in Calistoga have a long history – hundreds of years ago the native Wappo Indians used this area as a place of healing. The various spas use local spring water and mud to create a unique and fun experience, making it the perfect for pit stop after a girls wine-tasting holiday!
- Collette Watson, Consultant, Flight Centre Chapel Hill, QLD
Q. We're taking the kids on a two-week holiday in the States to visit the Grand Canyon. Is a road trip the best way to see it? What other child-friendly places could we visit along the way?
A. A road trip with the kids is definitely a great way to see the Grand Canyon and many more of the USA's highlights. We took our three kids on a similar holiday and also visited Hoover Dam, Death Valley National Park and Yosemite National Park along the way.
We then moved on to San Francisco where we hired bikes and rode around the waterfront, ate hot dogs and took a cable car to the top of the city and back again. The wharf area and markets were a great hit with the kids, as were all the sea lions just off shore. There were lots of buskers to keep us all entertained too.
The drive back was along Highway 1, through Carmel, Monterey and Santa Barbara ... it so beautiful. We hopped out of the car often to look at the beautiful views.
- Jennie Kennedy, International Travel Consultant, Flight Centre Baulkham Hills, NSW
Q. I've always wanted to go to Philadelphia but am not sure where to start in planning a holiday. Any tips?
A. Dripping with American history, Philly has enough landmarks and tourist spots to satisfy the knowledge-thirsty traveller, a bustling sports scene for those that way inclined and plenty of nightlife for those looking for some late-night fun.
As far as variety of things to do, Philly is hard to beat, which makes it perfect for travellers of any age. If you have a penchant for art, you can’t go wrong with the Rodin Museum (home of The Thinker sculpture) and you should at least visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art to do your best Rocky impression.
To get those historical goosebumps, the Liberty Bell is a sight to behold, and afterwards you can do your best It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia impersonation and hit Mac’s Tavern (one of the oldest in America).
- Ben Lawton, Consultant, Flight Centre Queen Street, QLD