What Every Traveler to the U.S. Should Know

Some practical info, useful tips and a couple of things just for fun. For travelers from London and the rest of the United Kingdom – or anywhere outside the U.S.

LISTEN: Rick Seaney has flown between the UK and US a zillion times (well, almost). He shares his insight.

Six Things to Know about the U.S.

If you see a highlighted city name, click it to find the best deal there from your city.

1. Brace yourself for a long line upon arrival.

If last summer is any guide, the lines at U.S. customs may be long (and a wait of an hour or more may not be unheard of). Last year, officials spend a lot of time talking about fixing this  problem but in case it hasn’t happened, well – hang in there. The line won’t last forever and you can speed things along by having all your documents in hand, ready to go.

2. Airport taxis aren’t your only option.

Taxis can be expensive and they are not your only option for getting to/from the city. Individual airport websites often list several other methods of transport. Couple of ideas:

  • Airport shuttles: This site has buses from more than 40 U.S. airports
  • NYC rides: This site offers options to and from JFK and LaGuardia with transfer service to Newark.
  • Hotel shuttles:  Many major chains offer free direct bus or shuttle  service to the hotel.
  • All-around ‘How to Get There’ site/app: Friends have been enthusiastically touting HopStop which tells you where to catch a bus, train, subway or more – from wherever you are – and also provides directions for walking to your destination. Even better, it tells you how long these various options will take. Good for many cities in the U.S., as well as the U.K. and other countries.
  • Rental cars: Your U.K. driver’s license is all you need. Popular car agencies include Hertz, Avis, Alamo and Dollar to name just a few.

Tip: If taking a taxi, be sure your ride drops you off where you need to go. If a cab driver approaches you (when you’re not in the taxi queue), it’s likely an unlicensed or gypsy cab which could be more trouble than the low price you’re quoted because you may find yourself dropped off blocks short of your destination. A legitimate taxi may take a while but you’ll get the service you expect.

3. Some cities are better for public transportation that others.

If you’re heading to New York City, your getting-around options are outstanding including buses and the subway. Los Angeles, however, lives up to its reputation as a places where cars are king (and the traffic is proof). There is a subway but it is limited and cannot take you to the beach. Look for rental car deals.

Tip: Advertisements may quote a very reasonable initial price for a rental car but that usually does not include all taxes and fees, so you may be in for a bit of a shock as you get toward the end of your online rental transaction.

4. Know your region’s weather.

This may sound pretty basic – and it is – but newcomers to the U.S. may be unaware of the wide range of temperatures in different parts of the U.S. True, Florida is hot year-round but while California’s Los Angeles has mostly pleasant weather any time of year, summer temperatures can exceed 38 C (100 F) while winter evenings can be downright brisk (and night time temperatures in northern California’s San Francisco average a chilly 7-10 C (46-50 F) from November through April).

Tip: If you’ll be spending time in the Rocky Mountains, chances are you’ll need a warm jacket even in summer; if traveling to Texas or other southern states, pack something light.

5. Good news for coffee lovers and fast food fans.

All major U.S. cities (and most smaller ones) offer coffee chains like the ubiquitous Starbucks which seem to appear on every block. Fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s are even more common (and don’t forget regional favorites like the West Coast’s popular In-N-Out Burgers). If you don’t see one, ask someone.

Tip: It is not necessary to tip anyone at a self-service coffee bar but you’ll sometimes notice a ‘tip jar’ at the checkout counter and if you’re so inclined, toss in a one dollar bill. Tipping is not expected at most fast food chains but is at sit-down dining establishments (a decent restaurant tip used to be 15% of the total bill but these days 18-20% is more common). You will never offend anyone by over-tipping.

6. Lost? Just ask.

Most Americans are friendly and happy to assist visitors (and despite its reputation as a town that doesn’t suffer fools gladly, we’ve personally seen multiple examples of New Yorkers going out of their way to help visitors). If you’re lost, just ask someone. Might be quicker than using that smartphone app.

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Published: May 19, 2014