I've found myself giving lots of advice about travelling to the US to many people over the last few months, and I thought I should get around to writing down some of these. This post is a grab bag collection of tips for Australians looking to visit our neighbours across the Pacific. There's much to sort out when planning these trips, and I hope that this post helps cover some of the key issues.
Australians travelling to the US for business or for a holiday of less than 90 days are eligible for the Visa Waiver Program. What this means is that to enter the US, you need to apply through ESTA: Electronic System for Travel Authorization. This is an online application with a $14.00 fee that you need a credit card to pay for. You should apply for this at least a week or two before you leave just in case you fail the eligibility criteria (e.g. have you ever been rejected entry to the US? Or rejected for a US visa? You're not eligible for the waiver program) and need to go to the consulate for a proper visa. The turnaround time is usually less than a day if there's no problems, and your authorization lasts for two years at a time.
If you're going over to the US for longer than 90 days, you will need some other kind of visa - the H-1B working visa, the E-3 Australian working visa, the O- outstanding ability visa, or the J-1 or F-1 education/exchange visas. These visas almost certainly require you to fill out lengthy (online) applications, acquire a number of evidential documents, and provide proof of how you will support yourself in the US. They'll also require you to go to your nearest US consulate or embassy in person with your passport for an interview to complete the application. All up it can take weeks to complete the whole process (even getting an interview slot can take a while if your consulate is busy), so get started early. As a Fulbrighter, my J-1 visa application was smoothed by the Fulbright Commission and US State Department, and I still only received my visa about 10 days before I was due to fly out. It definitely pays to avoid that sort of stress.
I wrote a lengthy post about travel money a little while back recommending the Citibank Plus transaction account and the 28 Degrees Mastercard. These two are a great combination for getting money from Australia to your overseas destination with a minimum of fees and exchange rate gouging. Of course, any credit card or debit credit card that you possess should still work overseas, but you will get slugged with international withdrawal fees, currency conversion fees, and a pretty ordinary exchange rate. I don't recommend prepaid travel cards or traveller's cheques either for the same reasons.
It's a good idea to let your credit card company know if you think you might need to use your card overseas - if you don't, there's a good chance the bank will block your card for suspected fraud if you try and use it in an exotic location. And of course, always take out some amount of cash before you go and have it with just in case - US dollars in particular are accepted almost everywhere in the global transit network. Avoid doing this at the airport to avoid the worst exchange rates.
Several major airlines fly from Australia to the US. Of these, the only two really worth caring about are Virgin Australia and Qantas. They're substantially more comfortable than the US airlines - the extra expense is definitely worth it over a 14+ hour long flight. Plus, if you keep your eyes out for deals, you can often pick up flights very cheaply, e.g. well under $2000 return.
Entering the United States
Welcome to the United States! The first thing you'll do after disembarking is go through passport control at the airport, where Homeland Security forces will check if you're allowed in the country. If you're flying from Australia, chances are your US port of entry will be one of:
- Los Angeles, California (LAX)
- Dallas Fort-Wurth, Texas (DFW)
- Honolulu, Hawaii (HNL) Of these three, Honolulu is definitely the least crowded and chaotic. Both LAX and DFW are major US domestic and international hubs, and passport control can be a very slow, frustrating affair. On my first entry to the US at Dallas, I spent nearly two hours in the passport control hall - most of that waiting in a very slow moving queue. Our plane had arrived late, coinciding with other large incoming groups and giving everyone a bad day.
When you finally reach the front of the line, expect the security officers to ask you a few questions about why you're coming to the US. They'll check that you've successfully applied for an ESTA or have a valid visa, and if everything is OK they will take your picture and your fingerprints and welcome you to the country. Congratulations!
A side note on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) - the group charged with US border security. There are many horror stories of the TSA breaking locks on bags, rummaging through luggage, and so forth. Over the course of nearly 20 flights in and around the US, I never had a problem with this, and never noticed anything amiss with my luggage once I got it back. You can actually buy approved locks (they have a little red logo on them) which the TSA have master keys for, so they don't need to break your existing locks to check your bag. I'm not sure if it's a big scam or not, but they're not that much more expensive, so why not.
The United States is enormous. Most big cities are far apart from one another - far enough that you probably want to fly between them. That being said, the country features some of the most beautiful landscape in the world, and road trips (e.g. the Pacific Coast Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles) or long distance rail (on Amtrak) can be a great way to see some of these sights.
US domestic air travel is serviceable, but unspectacular. I've flown on most of the US domestic airlines, and pretty much all of them rate about the same. Domestic flights typically use smaller, single-aisle planes (Boeing 737s or Airbus A320s) with less headroom and legroom than you might expect if you're used to flying international. However, online web check-in, mobile check-in, and smartphone tickets are pretty widely implemented, meaning that you need less paper than you used to. Non-US passengers will need a US ID or their passport to fly.
Domestic US flights rarely include a checked baggage allowance, meaning you have to pay fees if your bag is too big for the cabin. The main exception is if you're flying a codeshare flight originating from overseas or flying to overseas; your larger allowance from the international leg is generally carried over to the domestic leg as well. You can bring two pieces of cabin baggage with you: up to a 7kg bag, and a "personal item" that seems to scale up to a backpack. I usually took a backpack and a duffel (the Ogio All-Terrain Duffel was my bag of choice), and never had a problem with allowance. Sometimes I even had my small camera bag in addition to these two, and that was also never a problem.
Some of the airlines stood out more from the others, for better or for worse:
- Alaska Airlines is pretty cheap and they seem broadly competent. My return flight from Seattle to Oakland with them was severely delayed by some contractor accidentally severing a fiber optic cable connecting the airport to the data centre, which I guess wasn't their fault. The staff handled the situation very well, and passengers generally understood.
- American Airlines are partners with Qantas, and I didn't like them very much. Nearly all of the AA flights I took were delayed, and not particularly comfortable. One positive thing was that on my way home to Australia, I had one severely overweight bag that I was expecting to pay a fortune for. However, they only charged me $50, which was a steal as the bag was nearly 10kg overweight.
- Delta Airlines isn't fantastic, and almost every Delta flight I took had some sort of issue, from forgotten refuelling to fuel leaks. Unfortunately, Delta is hard to avoid as they have a very extensive network, and are partners with Virgin Australia.
- Hawaiian Airlines is probably the nicest US carrier that I flew. They use roomy double-aisle A330s for their international leg, and relatively comfortable 767s on the domestic leg. They include some sort of free snack on their flights (a luxury!), and I enjoyed five free seats around me on my Sydney - Honolulu flight.
- JetBlue Airlines has a relatively small network, but they do give you one checked bag for free. They also seem to have fare sales all the time, judging from the constant email stream in my inbox. My one JetBlue flight was marred by malfunctioning toilets, which necessitated an unscheduled two hour stop in Salt Lake City on a flight from Boston to San Francisco. Public transport in the US sucks in general. There are a few places (mainly on the east coast) where public transport is amazing, affordable, and all you need. But in general, it's not great, particularly when many incredible sightseeing spots like the national parks are far from urban areas. The easiest way to get around by far is driving. If you haven't yet worked it out, Americans drive on the right hand side of the road (opposite to Australia and the UK), but adapting is not too challenging. There are plenty of places to hire cars at reasonable rates to hit the road and see the sights.
Tax and Tipping
Practically speaking, these are two of the most irritating issues for visitors to the US from Australia.
Almost all prices are advertised without sales tax. This is because sales tax is collected directly by each state, and is levied at a different rate and possibly on different goods and services in every state. What this means is that the price you see on the sticker on an item, or on a menu, or in advertising, or online, or anywhere is almost never the price you pay. So don't bother trying to pull out exact change before you're told how much it will actually be. Some states have 0% sales tax (e.g. Delaware or Oregon), while other states have nearly 10% (California), so a good general rule is to add 10% to any price you see. At best, you'll be pleasantly surprised; but you'll never be rudely surprised.
On top of this, there is the much derided practice of tipping. Lower minimum wages for "tipping" jobs are actually encoded in US labour law, and the practice is deeply entrenched. I think this makes tipping an institution, meaning that its traditional role as a reward for good service is severely undermined. You're still expected to tip almost in spite of the quality of service you receive - not doing so is a very big social no-no, and you can only get away with it in fairly extreme circumstances.
In any case, when in Rome, you do as the Romans do. You tip when you have been provided with some sort of human service. For example, if you go buy lunch, and pay for it at the counter right away (e.g. at a fast food place, or in a food court), you do not need to tip. In contrast, if you go to a restaurant and sit down to eat, you do need to tip as you have been provided with table service. Along similar lines, you need to tip when:
- getting a haircut
- getting a taxi ride
- someone carries your bags in a hotel
- buying drinks in a bar (usually $1 per drink; the more you tip, the stronger your drinks will be. I've experienced this personally) The standard amount to tip (apart from in a bar) is 15%. Tip more if you're particularly pleased with the service, and maybe a little bit less (but no lower than 10%) if you're unhappy. A good rule of thumb is to allow an extra 25% on the price for tax and tip, depending on where you are and whether you need to tip or not. Those cheap looking prices aren't looking quite as good, are they! I found that living in San Francisco was about as pricey as living in Sydney.
I hope I've covered a broad swathe of questions pertinent to US travel. May your next trip stateside be fun, safe, and devoid of stress.