USA for First Timers

Day 18 of the blog post a day in May and it is time to go transatlantic again

A pizza for one – person, not week

FOR all my love of overlanding to remote parts of the world, my more regular overseas travel involves boarding a plane and heading west.

Since first stepping on US soil in 2006, have notched up 40 states (determined to tick off the remaining 10, West Virginia having become the latest after managed to go round it on several road trips).

Have been quizzed a few times by people heading off on their first transatlantic trips on what to expect so, having reeled off a few tips for New York and Boston, time to run through a few things for the country in general.

Not places to see (let’s try to get another post or two out of that), but those little things you only discover by spending time there and wish somebody had told you beforehand.

Pre-Departure

Travelling to the USA is pretty simple (at least for the majority of Brits and many other nationalities), who can apply for an ESTA via the visa waiver scheme.

The online application costs $14 and is pretty simple – did it sat in a queue at Heathrow when realised had left my old passport containing my visa at home. That application went through in minutes, but suggest not leaving it that late. Just in case there’s a bit of a delay.

You will only get an email confirmation but all the info will pop up at immigration when they scan your passport.

If you need a visa because you are from a country not eligible for an ESTA, applying for a longer stay, a visit other than tourism or you have been to one of a few countries picked by Homeland Security (as with me, courtesy of Sudan), it involves an online application and a trip to the embassy.

Expect to be without your passport for at least a week.

Arrival

Immigration rules and procedures in the States change regularly, but for first-time visitors you will need to see an immigration officer before collecting your bags at the airport.

It’s nothing to worry about – just don’t expect them to be smiling (although landing in Boston and saying you are going to a Red Sox game usually lightens the mood). Don’t joke around, answer their questions, have your pictures and fingerprints taken and it is all pretty painless.

For repeat visitors, an increasing number of airports let you go through all that electronically. If you can get all your fingers flat on the scanner at once (easier for some than others, apparently).

Money

Check what you are handing over. All the notes look largely the same and new ones have a tendency to stick together.

Coins largely useless (although you will collect them, see below) bar your hotel’s vending machine.

Paying by card is likely to roll back the years of signing the receipt as chip and pin or cashless is pretty rare.

Check with your bank about using cashpoints, it may have a link with a US bank so you do not pay (or pay less) for using their machines. You may need to try a couple of times to work out the right combination of questions – checking or savings account, credit or debit card (despite what you think the answer is).

Shopping

You will get change of all types because of the way American prices are worked out.

Put simply, what you see is not always what you get.

Whatever the price tag says, you will need to add tax – state and local – so you will pay a bit more. It might say $1.50 but it will be some rather larger, less round figure by the time you come to pay.

Tipping

Guaranteed to confuse travellers the world over and very much of the American culture.

General consensus is 15-20%. It is voluntary and don’t be a slave to that if the service is rubbish, but chances are it won’t be so roll with it, you are in the States now.

In bars, it is pretty simple – leave $1 on the bar for each drink (don’t worry, they will give you dollar bills in your change). Stick around long enough and you may well reap the benefits and get a drink from the barman, especially if you are sat at the bar.

One barman in Greenwich Village went above and beyond, adding my last couple of beers to the bill of the group behind me who were not tipping but being loud and demanding.

Driving

It can be a bit daunting if you start in the middle of a big city but the States is, largely, a joy to drive in. There’s so much space, that translates to the roads.

There’s a few oddities you need to get used to – turning right on a red light for starters – but most of them are fairly obvious.

The interstates will eat up the miles pretty quickly (and such is the size, you need to do that at times) but can be a bit dull. Get off when you can and their version of A roads will take you through small town America, but around the edges can snarl you up by some less than attractive strip malls which sprawl out of pretty much every town.

Late night in Boston

Safety

Considering what you see on TV and hear about guns and violence, the USA feels no more dangerous than anywhere else.

Like all places, especially in the cities, there are places to be avoided wandering alone or at night but that’s pretty much common sense. Have felt more wary walking through London or even Gloucester at times than late at night through New York or other major cities.

Late night encounter in Greenwich Village – he tried telling us jokes on the street for cash. We settled for a picture instead.

Drinking

If you are under 21, forget it. You will be asked for ID, often before even getting near the bar – have been asked several times for proof of age despite 36 before stepping foot in the States, while friends in their mid-20s have been refused entry because they had no ID on them. You will not get a beer without ID at Fenway Park, Boston.

If the bar serves food, you will be allowed in underage before it gets too late but it will be soft drinks only – which should be refilled for no extra cost. And with loads of ice.

If you have a soft drink left and are leaving, ask for a takeout. Same goes for food (especially given the size of portions – took home a pizza in Indiana which was so large, had some for breakfast the next day and still left a fair bit for the hotel cleaners).

It’s part of the culture so don’t be shy, they will probably offer anyway.

If you want to be very British and have a cup of tea, ask for hot tea or you will get it iced. Just don’t expect the hot tea to be cool enough to drink for at least an hour.

May have left a few tips in here

TV

If you are missing your football fix, you will find it easy to find – as long as it is Premier League or an international tournament. Have watched a couple of World Cups over there.

Other sports from home? You’ll probably be struggling – have seen Gloucester rugby highlights in Botswana, not in the USA, but that is changing.

Coverage of other major sporting events will concentrate exclusively on Americans – there are other golfers than Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, you just may struggle to notice. Saw Ryder Cup highlights which showed two European shots.

Think have only been in one bar without at least one TV screen – most have many, large screens showing multiple games of various sports.

Spending hours in bars watching baseball, football (ours and theirs), even basketball and ice hockey – often at the same time – was understandable. Little League World Series baseball or Women’s college softball less so, until you’ve tried it and opted for another drink (or three) to catch the end of the game.

And having watched a US election result emerge in a bar on Bourbon Street, New Orleans, sports get a far stronger reaction.

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