19/04/2024

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19 Essential Things To Know Before You Visit The USA

7 min read
19 Essential Things To Know Before You Visit The USA

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As the fourth biggest country in the world, there’s a lot to consider when planning a USA trip to make sure you are safe, can budget correctly, and make the most of your experience.

There’s the logistics of flights, getting around, deciding which states and cities to visit, what attractions to see, where to find good food, and concerns of how much things will cost.

The USA is the land of cultural diversity and with each state you’ll find a unique culture and come across different personalities from the locals.

This is why we’ve prepared this guide on things to know before you visit the USA, so you can visit feeling prepared for this amazing adventure and have the best possible experience.

family posing on the Brooklyn Bridge
Us walking across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City

Things To Know Before You Go To The USA

Let’s get started on what to know before you visit America.

1. America is 50 United States of Diversity

Visit the USA map

This is a huge country and there are plenty of places to visit in USA that are not just the famous cities of New York City, Las Vegas, and LA.

Regional differences across the Unites States extend to food, drink, accents, state laws and politics. Plus, it has every kind of landscape and climate you can think of!

We highly recommend you trade the Disneyland bucket list dreams for deeper dives into the incredible experiences on hand from stunning National Parks, to rich historical stories, and fun festivals.

USA travel opportunities are endless, from the wild, untamed wilderness of Alaska to the tropical islands of Hawaii, there’s so much to see and explore.

2. The USA Does NOT Use the Metric System

cars on LA highway

I’ve missed turn offs because I have no concept of how much a 1/4 mile is and have ordered huge portions of food as I don’t know what 8 ounces are.

The base 10 metric system is so easy. I miss it! Convert. Convert. Convert.

Americans also use Fahrenheit instead of Celsius, which can be confusing if you’re not sure what the conversion is. 50 Fahrenheit sounds warm, until you realize that it’s 10 celsius.

They use kilometers per hour when driving, but distances are measured in miles (I know, confusing). They also use feet and inches instead of meters, and acres instead of hectares.

Google is incredibly useful for those quick conversions. I recommend you download a “metric converter” app on your phone beforehand.

3. You Can Supersize It All in the USA

woman looking at a plate of food
Eating ribs in Nashville, Tennessee

America has long had the reputation for unhealthy fast food of ginormous proportions. You’ve never seen a coffee size quite like a US large (24 ounces).

Be warned, if you don’t be careful, when traveling in the USA you may put weight on. Food portions tend to be bigger than what we are used to in Europe or Australia, but you can ask for a smaller portion or a “child’s size” if you’re worried about over eating.

In the US, you can upgrade and supersize anything, not just food either. Any kind of service will have some kind of upgrade option.

The good news is there is so much competition in the US, that you’re likely to find good deals that work in your favor for quality and budget.

Hot Tip: Choose a small size for your refillable sodas and coffees…because you can typically refill them. Less price for the same amount!

4. America Does Healthy, Delicious Food Fusion Well

superfood bowls on table

Healthy eaters rejoice. There are plenty of healthy and tasty dining options when you travel to the USA, and with smaller portions!

In fact, many of the current healthy food trends have been born in the US, most notably in California.

America does food fusion well and you can find some delicious, innovative dishes. Ask the locals, tourism boards, and do your research beforehand to find those great local food experiences.

People with allergies will be able to find suitable food most of the time. Always have back up supplies on hand which you can get from grocery stores (supermarkets) like Whole Foods or Trader Joes and most local grocery stores have an organic or gluten free section.

Some of the best places to travel in USA for food we have loved are New Orleans, Southern California, San Francisco, Seattle, and Jackson Mississippi.

5. Great Coffee Can Be Hard to Find

coffee on table
We found great coffee in Portland and Seattle and NYC

It’s getting better, but it can still be hard to find decent coffee. It’s not hard to find a Starbucks, but if you want better quality, search for local roasters to find good coffee.

Read plenty of reviews (with scepticism) and ask the locals. We have found with American coffee:

  • Lattes are best if you like flat whites.
  • Cappuccinos are usually full of air.
  • Brew coffee is pre-made and sits on the warmer.
  • Pour overs and cold nitro coffee are current trends in the US.

Almond, oat, soy, or coconut milk are almost everywhere now. If you’re worried you won’t get a good espresso coffee, save your money and go for a black brewed coffee.

Hemp and macadamia milk are my current favorites.

Seattle is my favorite city for coffee in the US. Portland has also great coffee, and NYC you can find a decent cup but be prepared to pay the price for it!

6. Craft Breweries are Flourishing

pints of beer on table

America is becoming known a the best country in the world for craft beer. It won’t be difficult for you to find a local brewery with a unique and tasty vibe. Many will offer food (or food trucks outside) and have local music playing.

Some will even have cool games like corn hole and giant jenga, making them a place for the entire family.

Some notable craft brew regions in the US are Portland, San Diego, Denver, Austin, Asheville, Bend, and our home in Raleigh NC. Brewery Bhavana in downtown Raleigh has been named one of the best breweries in the world. It’s incredible and the food there is delicious and the ambiance something special.

7. The Great American Dream is REAL

a white house with an american flag
You will see the American flag flying proudly everywhere, like we did in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachussetts

Americans are patriotic and entrepreneurial in spirit. They believe in the great American dream and the belief that anyone can make it happen.

It’s inspiring and motivating. It’s a whole new experience immersing yourself in a culture like that. It’s no coincidence this blog was birthed while we were living in the USA.

Americans are proud, patriotic and confident, which too often people wrongly mistake for arrogance.

us flag flying on Chimney Rock with views of lake lure behind
Chimney Rock hike in North Carolina

Once you learn the story of their nation and its evolution you’ll understand where this comes from and you may just get teary when you hear the Star Spangled Banner and listen to the story behind it.

I love learning about the history of the USA and where this spirit comes from. Some areas I recommend exploring when you road trip the USA to learn more. Some of the best places to learn about American history are the Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for the story of the Civil War. Check out this Revolutionary War road trip idea.

8. Americans Love the Outdoors

family hiking near delicate arch
Delicate Arch Hike Utah

Americans are passionate about working out and active outdoor pursuits. It means outdoor spaces, even in crowded metropolitan cities will abound with plenty of parks, walking and biking trails and amenities.

When you visit the USA there are endless outdoor adventures on offer from kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, hiking, biking, rock climbing, and canyoning.

The USA National Parks are truly spectacular. My favorites so far are Yosemite National Park, Great Smoky Mountains, Zion National Park (amazing hiking trails), Yellowstone National Park, and Arches National Park (incredible rock formations).

The State Parks and National Recreation are just as exquisite and less crowded. Check out Snow Canyon State Park, Sand Hollow State Park, Lake Mead Recreational Area, and the Valley of Fire State Park near Las Vegas.

9. Americans are Orderly, Efficient and Love Aesthetics

family walking up to MAgpies store in Downtown Franklin Tn
Downtown Franklin Tennessee

On your America trip you’ll soon discover an order and efficient process when you travel in the US. Despite the crowds and chaos, they operate quite smoothly.

They incorporate experiences while you wait, like films and special effects, so you’re not bored and irritated. Americans take time to make things look and feel beautiful.

I noticed this when I first taught elementary school in the US – the teacher’s spent far too much time (I thought) beautifying everything. Soon I realized this was a cultural trait and noticed it across all aspects of life and tourism experiences.

During our USA road trip with my parents from Australia they were amazed at how well Americans preserve their history and culture and how beautifully kept many of the towns and amenities are.

Even the highway rest stops are beautiful.

10. Your Accent and Words May Be Hard to Discern

quote "y'all not from round here, are ya

Aussies and Americans both speak English, however, you’ll be surprised by how often a blank stare will follow your words.

In Australia, we’re exposed to other cultures through TV and sports and a lot more global interaction, which helps us discern accents and understand what other English speaking people say.

Americans don’t have the same global exposure, though it’s getting better, so it’s not uncommon that they often can’t identify your accent as British, Kiwi or Australian.

Surprisingly, they won’t understand some of what you say because of your terminology.

I didn’t realise how different British English can be to American English until I lived here and received many bewildered looks. This won’t happen as often in cosmopolitan areas like NYC and LA, but it will in less touristy areas.

Come back and tell me how many times an American bartender had no idea what you wanted when you asked for a beer. Be sure to pronounce the “r” on the end of your words. In a restaurant in Bend, I was given a cider at the bar when I ordered a soda!

Even simple things like fortnight (two weeks), surname (last name) and cutlery (silverware) are not recognized.

I find it always lends to great and funny conversations, which is one reason we travel to experience that connection with someone different to us and find joy in learning new things through that connection.

11. The Health System is Complicated and Expensive

family Hiking in Torrey Pines State Reserve in San Diego
Torrey Pines State Park, San Diego

All I can say is keep yourself as healthy as you can before, and during, your visit to the USA!

The last thing you want to do in America is seek medical attention or visit the emergency room – healthcare costs are enormous! However, do not ignore it if you are seriously ill or injured just because you are frightened of the cost.

Easy solution; when planning a trip to America, get travel insurance!

It totally crossed my mind with a bee sting fright. “I can’t call 911, it will cost me a fortune”. And then I relaxed realising I had travel insurance to protect me in medical emergencies (no 911 call was necessary in the end).

Anything can happen on your travels and the last thing you want is your dream USA trip to turn into a bankruptcy nightmare.

For a small investment, you get a ton of security and peace of mind.

It won’t only protect you in medical emergencies, but with other travel challenges like unexpected trip cancellations, lost luggage, or excess car rental.

Be sure to include any extra adventurous activities you may be doing so you can ensure your coverage is adequate e.g. skiing.

And nominate any pre-existing conditions so you can include a waiver for them should you require help when traveling in the USA.

12. Bathrooms are a Cryptic Cultural Experience

From gaps in the toilet doors, to automatic soap, water and paper dispensers that need a degree to get to work, and a seriously confusing tap (faucet) systems in hotel showers, you’ll be puzzled each time you follow the call of nature or clean yourself after a hard day of exploring.

I thought it was just me – I was a serious bathroom idiot – until I put out an update on our Facebook fan page and many people had the same USA bathroom woes.

Even after months of travel in USA, I still encounter hotel showers that are a complete enigma and I have to phone reception to ask,

“Excuse me. How do you get the water to work in the shower?”

13. Crowds and Traffic are a Reality

Watching the Boston Red Sox play at Fenway Park
Watching a Boston Redsox Game at Fenway Park in Boston

Australians aren’t used to crowds. I can speak from traveling the country in-depth, you’ll often have entire beaches to yourself, and I don’t recall ever having any long waits anywhere, not even in Sydney.

Not so in the USA.

The population is much bigger and USA tourism numbers are huge, especially in summer months. Airports can be a crazy mess, especially LAX, and traffic will be hectic in many areas, especially big cities.

Tips for Managing Crowds in the USA

woman and two girls posing in front of universal orlando resort entrance
We got fast passes for Universal Orlando to skip waiting in the long lines
  • Get up early. I wouldn’t say Americans are an early rising culture, like Australians are. You’ll beat the lines and the crowds if you get to the attraction right on opening. This saved us hours of time visiting attractions in New York City. It’s also meant we had the trail hiking into the Grand Canyon all to ourselves. We were only joined by hundreds of people later as we climbed back out and finished at 10 am.
  • Get Fast Passes at theme parks. Get them whenever you can. What’s the point in paying a lot of money to visit a theme park, if you spend most of your time waiting on lines?
  • Get Sightseeing and City Passes. These passes can save you money on attractions, but also offer you fast pass access. It can be the cheapest way to travel in USA for sightseeing in cities. If you are traveling to multiple big attraction USA cities over a 30 day period I recommend you get a the USA Sightseeing Pass which will save you LOADS!! Also see the following passes thatt saved us money and time
  • Book tours and attractions in advance. Busy attractions, especially in peak season, will have timed entries, you can book ahead online. Sometimes lining up to get your timed entry ticket can take 40-minutes.
  • Travel Off Season. This can often be a challenge as America has a climate that makes many destinations seasonal. You can find those off-shoulder seasons. We visited Martha’s Vineyard one week before tourism swelled the population from 20,000 to 100,000.
  • Fly In and Out of Smaller Airports. I love our local Raleigh/Durham Airport in North Carolina. I’m often through check in and security in less than 15-minutes.

14. Americans are Well Mannered, Curious and Friendly

quote

The stereotypes of regional characters in the US are pretty accurate.

On your USA trip, talk to as many locals as you can as you move around to learn their stories, connect to their communities and enrich your USA travel experience.

Americans are some of the friendliest, most hospitable people in the world! They’re excited that you are visiting, will welcome you and wish you good travels. Some will even invite you to stay or visit for dinner.

They’ll ask a million questions to learn your story, culture and what you think of North America in general.

Americans are generally well mannered and considerate people, especially in the South.

It took me some time to get used to being called “Ma’am” and Craig being called “Sir”, but now I love it and regularly call people Sir and Ma’am.

It’s a sign of respect – similar to Namaste – and not really about making people higher than you, which our egalitarian Australian society hates to do.

Don’t make jokes or comments on race, gender, politics etc. You do not want to offend and remember it’s not a joke if it offends.

Australians and the Brits can have a unique sense of humour that sometimes goes over the top of many Americans’ heads, so they may not understand that most of the time you are joking or being sarcastic. I am speaking from experience with this one!

15. Security is No Joke in the USA

woman looking at World Trade Center Memorial, NYC
World Trade Center Memorial in NYC

Lots of people ask us whether it’s safe to travel to the USA, and with anywhere in the world, it largely depends on where you go.

Yes, we all know Americans have a slight gun ownership challenge, but, I’ve never experienced an issue in all my years of living here and many travel adventures within the US.

Security in the US is probably the tightest I have ever seen anywhere. I was stunned by the police presence in New York City during our Christmas visit.

It can be a total pain going through constant security checks, but at least you know you’re being looked after.

Prepare for security checks when visiting high tourist attractions, especially places like the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center (Freedom Tower) and 9/11 Memorial, theme parks like Universal Studios, concerts like the Grand Ole Opry, or a baseball game.

And anything government related.

family posing in front of Statue of Liberty
Visiting the State of Liberty in NYC

Be prepared, there’s a high chance you may have to take belts and hats off when going through the scanners.

And you’ll get through lines quicker if you don’t have any bags, as these will be scanned or checked.

NEVER EVER joke about terrorism, bombs, guns etc during your trip to the USA. Americans can be very literal and will take this extremely seriously, especially USA immigration!!!

16. Americans are Fun, Passionate and Festive!

family dressed up on streets getting beads at mardi gras
We loved Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Americans approach celebration with enthusiasm. If you experience Halloween in America, or even Christmas, you’ll see what I’m talking about. They go to extraordinary lengths with costumes, street and house decorations, and parties just to have a fun time.

It’s not just Halloween, but Mardi Gras, Valentine’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, July 4th, and so much more.

They even have election night parties! And they love it if you join in with them.

St Patrick's Day Green Chicago River (1)
St Patrick’s Day in Chicago

There is so much more cultural depth and richness to experience with the local people, especially in the warmer months.

In places like Austin and Nashville, you’ll have access to loads of free music and concerts from any musical style to any type of venue.

Watching sports is so much more than just watching skilful people do their thing on the field. There’s music and dancing and entertainment, and pre-game parties.

There is nothing like experiencing a College Football Game and the before and after game tailgating party. Or the Final Four College Basketball games from your local bar!

I can tell you this is an experience you’ll remember for life over any kind of ride you experienced at the theme parks, or free drink you nabbed in Vegas for pointing coins into the slot machines.

17. Credit Cards are More Commonly Used then Paper

people posing for a selfie on a bridge
Selfies at Blowing Rock. NC

Everywhere will pretty much take credit card in America, which is great for ease, security, and less fees (if you have the right card).

We recommend you still carry cash on you though for tips! ATMs often charge for withdrawals with foreign cards, so do bare this in mind.

The US currency is the dollar, and it’s represented by notes and coins.

The color of the notes is greenish grey and all US notes look virtually the same, so be very careful. You don’t want to hand over a $100 bill thinking it’s a $1.

Even though it costs more than the pennies are worth to produce them, they still persist in making pennies, so you’ll end up with a ton of small brown coins in your purse.

The 10 cent (dime) is smaller than the 5 cent (nickel) and then they only have a quarter (25 cents) which is the biggest coin.

18. The Great American Road Trip is a Thing to Embrace

A car parked on the side of a road in arches np
On the road in Utah through Arches National Park

Americans love nothing more than hitting the open road with the top down and the music blaring on scenic drives.

Embrace it. The classic USA road trip is by far our favorite way to experience the USA, and America is the best place for a road trip.

It’s full of epic scenery and quirky roadside attractions. Not to mention the wide, open roads make driving easily and painless.

You may be worried about driving on the right side of the road when you visit the USA if you’re from England or Australia, but don’t be, you’ll get the hang of it quickly.

The roads are generally clearly marked to help you stay on the right side. The only time you may struggle on your US road trip is in car parks (parking lots), or on local roads that don’t have a lot of traffic that you can follow.

Sunset Cliffs in San Diego.
San Diego, California

Roundabouts (traffic circles) are not common in the US. It will drive you insane when you are driving around quiet suburban roads and neighborhoods and have to stop at quiet intersections.

They have confusing “four-way” or “all-way” stop sign intersections. That means if there are two through roads intersecting each other, there is a stop sign on each of the four corners.

If two vehicles reach the intersection simultaneously, the vehicle on the left must yield the right-of-way to the vehicle on the right.

Don’t panic, someone will wave at you when it’s your time to go if you don’t know what to do at a four-way stop.

They do have right-turn-on-red, which is amazing and helps the traffic flow!

19. Tipping is Expected

Mom and daughters looking up at monument of Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC

It’s common knowledge that tipping in the USA is expected in most service establishments. It’s expected that you tip your server in a restaurant, an Uber driver or taxi drivers, valet, the delivery person for your take out, and even the housekeepers and hotel porters in your hotel.

You probably won’t like tipping, especially as servers get grumpy if you tip too little (the minimum wage is terrible, so do offer some sympathy), but it’s the way things are done and if you’re a visitor in another country, I think it’s best to follow their cultural way as best as you can!

15 – 20% is the norm for hospitality services, though in New York City, it’s usually expected that you pay the top end of this.

20. You Will Need A Visa For The USA

people standing on a dock
Lake Blackshear, Georgia

Most countries will need to get a VISA for America, or an ESTA, which is essentially a travel authorization.

The good news is you can get your visa or ESTA (a visa waiver program) pretty easily by going through the electronic system.

Make sure you check the visa requirements before you visit and allow plenty of time to get this approved. Allow at least a week to do your ESTA application and be sure that your passport has at least 6 months validity and two empty pages.

You can see how we got our non-immigrant O1 visa and green card for the USA

Final Thoughts

girls walking down boardwalk over marshlands
Beaufort South Carolina

By now you have an idea of what the people are like, what the food will be like, what it’s like to drive in America and what attractions you might want to add to your itinerary.

We hope this guide to essential things to know before you visit the USA has helped you to relax, feel safe and secure, and have a fun time!

If you’re looking for planning and preparation tips like getting a visa for the USA, the cost of travel to the USA, and getting around the USA, read this post on planning your US trip. 

More USA Travel Tips

Need more inspiration for your trip to the USA? Don’t miss these posts for more USA tips:

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What helpful tips or insights on American culture and travel to the United States do you have to share? Let us know in the comments.

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