Important things to know when planning travel to the USA!

Planning travel to the USA? Give yourself plenty of time in Chicago
Photo by CC user 21532476@N00 on Flickr

America is one of the world’s most sought after tourist destinations, but it is also one of the more challenging places to visit in the developed world.

There are a variety of factors that may catch the unaware traveler by surprise, which can add unnecessary stress or even ruin a trip before it has had a chance to begin.

In this article, we will discuss some important things to know when planning travel to the USA.

1) Apply for ESTA authorization prior to departure

The United States of America is one of the more difficult countries in the world to enter as a foreigner. As one of the world’s leading super powers, America pays a great deal of attention to securing its borders. As a result, you must have a valid ESTA authorization in your possession before you will be allowed to board your flight to America.

Applicable to all countries under the visa waiver program (except Canada, which is exempt from this requirement), those intending to visit for either business or pleasure will have to fill in a short form online, pay a nominal fee for processing, and then submit it to the Department of Homeland Security.

After a short period, you will receive your authorization, officially clearing you to enter the United States. Those that fail to follow this process will be denied boarding at the airport; as such, it is imperative that you do not neglect to satisfy this requirement for travel to America.

2) Get some TSA locks for your bag

If you’re like us, you probably lock your luggage before checking it in at the airline counter. If you haven’t traveled to the USA before, you will want to get a lock that is approved by the TSA before your trip.

If you end up using your normal lock, there is a good chance you’ll find it broken when you go to claim your baggage in America. The TSA reserves the right to cut all locks in order to inspect baggage, and they often do.

A TSA lock comes with a keyhole that can be accessed by a master key that all TSA agents hold. They will use it to open your lock so they can inspect your baggage. Afterward, they will re-secure your bag, thereby ensuring its security from that point onward.

3) Be aware of American tip culture before having your first meal in the USA

Servers in America often make a paltry hourly wage (typically $3/hour or less). They are expected to make up the bulk of their income from tips, which in the view of restaurant owners, ensures high levels of service.

While they are topped up on quiet days to the federal minimum wage, know that the tips that you give out at home will not be sufficient in the USA. The minimum percentage for tips in restaurants is considered to be 15% for adequate service, and 20% for exemplary service.

4) The USA is a massive country

If you hail from a country like the United Kingdom or France, it is easy to discount the distances between places in America. For example, it is not possible to go on a day trip to Chicago from New York City by car, as it is 12 hours each way.

Even flying makes a day trip from one city to the other difficult, as it takes over two hours by air to fly between New York and Chicago. This will leave you precious little time to enjoy everything that the Windy City has to offer, so we don’t recommend that you do this.

Our advice: Give yourself plenty of time (several days per city) in your itinerary if you plan on visiting multiple cities in America. If possible, confine yourself to a single geographic region to minimize the amount of time spent in transit.