As I have traveled to the United States for 9 times, I feel obliged to share some things that would make your trip much easier and exciting. This blog post will come in especially handy if you are visiting the US for the first time. But it also might be interesting for experienced travelers as I will also tell you about the resources I use, when I search for flights and hotels and which car rental companies I trust.

If you also have some good tips and advice for travelers to the US just leave them in the comments below. I’m sure they will come in handy for fellow travelers, including myself ;)

Booking International Flight Tickets

I use several resources to book the airline tickets. I usually check the flight tickets on Orbitz or Letasaviobiletes, but there are also many other aggregators out there that you could use. What I especially like about those two, is that they both have their own booking system and they do not redirect to other websites for the final purchase. This gives them more credibility and trustworthiness.

The latter website is really great, as I once bought Riga-San Francisco ticket for 350 EUR with SAS, while on the SAS website it was priced around 1200 EUR. Letasaviobiletes stands for “cheap tickets” in Latvian and is actually an international website, which is able to look up flights from any destination with all the major airlines. I have booked a lot of my flights with them and never had any problems.

There are also a number of websites such as Flynous which aggregate the cheapest deals from Europe to different destinations. Those deals are usually a result of a flaw in the booking systems of airline companies and don’t last long, so watch out and grab them fast! However, keep in mind that lot of deals are inflexible on the dates. Some dates are much more expensive than the others.

I have flown several airlines, but I must say that Delta and Lufthansa are my absolute favourite so far. Food, drinks and entertainment during their flights are amazing. But it is not easy to catch the cheapest deals with those airlines, so catch them if you can.

Inside a Delta flight, by Eric Salard / CC2.0

Inside a Delta flight, by Eric Salard / CC2.0

I live in Riga, which is not a major hub for traveling, and I usually try a lot of options for finding cheap and convenient tickets. If you are traveling both coasts my advice would be to try to fly to one coast and return from the other coast (e.g. Riga-Copenhagen-Miami with Norwegian Air and Las Vegas-Frankfurt-Riga with Condor). Alternatively you could fly a return flight from your home country and check domestic US flights to get from one coast to another. But do keep in mind that most transatlantic flights include a free baggage, while most domestic US airlines do not include the free checked-in baggage which will cost an additional $25 each way.

When checking cheap tickets you should also consider Norwegian and Condor airlines which sometimes are not shown in the aggregator search. Do keep in mind that Norwegian charges additional fee for baggage and meals on board. Lately I have noted that Aeroflot Russian Airlines offer quite cheap tickets from Europe. They have new fleet and I’ve heard that in-flight service is also quite good.

US Domestic Flight Tickets

The cheapest airlines within the US are Southwest and Spirit Airlines. Southwest is usually not shown in the aggregators search, so visit their website for reservation. Southwest has 2 pieces of check-in baggage included in the price. Spirit, on the other hand, charges for both hand luggage and checked in baggage, so be aware that their cheapest ticket might be more expensive due to the baggage charges at the end of the day.

To my experience, the best place to search for domestic flights is Orbitz. They have the lowest price and usually show all of the major domestic airlines (except for Southwest). They also have a list of airlines and baggage fees so be sure to check that in advance here.

What I also learned recently is that you should first research Orbitz for tickets and then go directly to your chosen airline booking page to check for other options. I have been able to grab a Main Cabin Select ticket on Virgin America website which was only $7 more expensive than the regular Main Cabin ticket. Main Cabin Select offered free baggage (while on the regular I would have to pay $25 for baggage), free on board entertainment, food (which was for purchase on the regular ticket), more leg room and priority boarding.

Virgin America's A320 at the gate, by SWF Photography / CC2.0

Virgin America’s A320 at the gate, by SWF Photography / CC2.0

Tip: I know that money matters and it is important to find cheap flights, but sometimes not being very flexible on the dates, I choose a flight that is 50 EUR more expensive comparing to cheapest alternatives, which saves me half a day in the US giving the opportunity to spend more time exploring the country. Also keep in mind that too many connection flight and waiting in the airports can be very tiring. You don’t want to spend all your trip in the airports, so try to find a balance between a price and convenience.

Tip: I have recently discovered that most insurance companies do not cover your lost luggage if your stopover in an airport was less than “recommended minimal” layover. For each airport this time is different, so check your airport website for more information. My general advice would be to allow for at least 2 hours layover since you never know whether your first flight might get delayed, or you might get stuck in security check lines, transfers between terminals, border control lines, etc.

Not every flight you travel  will be on time. By Aaron Escobar / 2.0

Not every flight you travel will be on time. By Aaron Escobar / 2.0

Hotels

I usually book hotels on Booking.com or Orbitz. The latter offers a great bonus rewards system as well as gives constant promotion codes so that you can save money on your stays. Booking.com also offers promotions and features a great choice of hotels. I usually book my stays in advance as I visit the US in high seasons. I would also advise you to book before the trip as you can explore different opportunities, read reviews and check the prices. I have done a couple of reservations on the spot, when I was on the road trip and, in my experience, the prices were higher and I was more stressed than if I had done the reservations beforehand.

Please keep in mind that all purchases in the US including hotels are taxed and sometimes prices are shown without the taxes during your booking process. For example, Orbitz includes all taxes in their final price, while Booking.com states explicitly that their offered rates exclude tax, which will be charged on the spot. Don’t fall into a trap of booking at a third party website, which offers low rates, however does not explicitly state whether the taxes and fees are included. Prices might appear lower, but you will be surprised on the spot that you have to pay additional taxes (which vary from state to state and from city to city).

I have also tried to compare hotel and AirBnb prices, however I found that the hotel prices are usually as low as AirBnb’s prices and in some cases are even lower. But with hotels I feel safer, thus my choice most definitely goes to booking hotels through either Booking.com or Orbitz.

A typical basic hotel room in the US. Image by Mr.TinDC / CC2.0

A typical basic hotel room in the US. Image by Mr.TinDC / CC2.0

Finally, you might consider spending a couple of nights in a tent on a special campsite especially if you are visiting national parks. I have done that and it is a great experience and adventure on your trip. You can buy a tent, a mattress and sleeping bags in large Wal-mart stores (costs around $100) and you don’t have to bring all this stuff with you on your long-haul flight. If you spend several nights on a campsite (which costs $5-15 per night) and buy camping equipment, it is usually cheaper than to stay in the hotels. Most campsites offer bathrooms, showers, power outlets, grills and other amenities. By the end of my trip I have donated all the camping stuff to charity.

A campsite in Colorado, by Srikanth Jandhyala / CC2.0

A campsite in Colorado, by Srikanth Jandhyala / CC2.0

Car Rentals

Here’s my advice: choose Avis. My main concern when booking a rental car is always the price. I have tried several car rental companies like Budget, Dollar, Thrifty, etc etc etc, but every time I went to pick up my rental car at the counter I ended up paying more than I expected. E.g. if you don’t buy excess insurance at the counter, you will have to deposit around 1000 USD on your credit card for about a month and you will be liable for any damage small or large to the car. So I usually ended up paying at the counter more than I expected beforehand.

I usually try to purchase the zero excess insurance (or also called: no deductible insurance). Once I had a flat tyre and did not have the spare one in the trunk of my rental car, so I had to call for help. Luckily, I had the full insurance (with zero excess) and roadside assistance, which means, that I didn’t have to pay anything for towing the car to the service shop and for the new tyre. Avis usually provides the option of the full insurance with no excess and the roadside assistance right on their booking website, so that on the counter you don’t have to pay anything.

If you go with Avis you will be sure that you can plan your car expenses in advance and will not have any unpleasant surprises at the counter.

The Chevy Camaro we rented for a road trip to the Grand Canyon

The Chevy Camaro we rented for a road trip to the Grand Canyon

Driving in the United States

The vast majority of the roads in the US are in a perfect condition. If you do a road trip, you will most definitely enjoy the great roads and the excellent roadside service. It is highly unlikely that you will have to spend half an hour to find a gas station or a fast food restaurant. There are usually plenty of restaurants, shopping malls, hotels, motels and many other services by the road which all constitute the perfect conditions for a road trip.

Driving rules and regulations are very similar to the European regulations and, probably, to the rest of the world, however I have noticed several differences.

Almost all of the road signs are written in words. If it’s a one-way road then the sign will say “ONE WAY”. If the right lane must turn right, then the sign will say “RIGHT LANE MUST TURN RIGHT”. The wording on the signs is always very clear and makes it very easy to get around by car.

When stopped before the “STOP” sign, you have to count to 3 before you can start moving. If two cars approached the “STOP” sign at approximately the same time, then the first car that stopped at the “STOP” sign should start moving first (even if it makes a left turn and has to cross the way for the car on the opposite lane that stopped just few seconds afterwards).

In the US you can make a right turn on the red signal unless it is forbidden by the special sign that says “NO TURN ON RED”.

Entry Documents

US visa, image by Air Force One / CC2.0

US visa, image by Air Force One / CC2.0

The citizens of the countries on this list can enjoy trips to the US without a visa. The only thing you have to do is to fill the application one the ESTA website at least three days prior to your arrival to the US. The application costs $14 and is valid for two years.

If your country is not on the list, you have to visit your nearest US embassy to get a visa. My advice would be to check your embassy website to get all the necessary information in advance, print out all possible applications and fill them in advance. This will save you some time.

Whether you need the visa or not, you will still be required to fill out a form during your flight (it is mandatory to do it). The forms will be handled by flight attendants, so be prepared to have a pen, your flight number and the name and the address of your first hotel stay somewhere close to you. It is absolutely mandatory to fill out this form and is highly advisable to do it on the plane rather than at the border control itself.

Border Control

When arriving at your destination at the US you will have to go through the border control before you can pick your luggage. Border control could take 15 minutes to 1.5 hours depending on the arrival airport and the time of the day. You will be asked questions about your purpose for visiting the United States, your visit duration, the amount of currency you bring in the US, etc. Try not to be nervous and just be honest in your answers. This is a standard procedure and if you have done nothing wrong you don’t have to be worried about it :) Before you can proceed to picking up your luggage you will also have to leave your fingerprints and take the photo for the border control.

Prices and Taxes in the US

All prices shown in the restaurants, shops or anywhere do not include city and sales tax. Taxes are different in different states and cities, however in general they are around 6-9%. So you should always expect that the price you pay at the counter is higher by the tax rate, than you saw in a menu or a price tag (unless it is clearly stated that the tax is included).

If you have options, shop for clothes in New York. Only in New York all clothing items below $110 are sold without additional sales tax. So what you see on a price tag is what you pay (unless it’s more expensive than $110).

Tipping

You always tip in the US. In the restaurants and bars it’s common to tip around 17-18% in case you liked the service and the food, which happens in 99% of times. If you don’t leave a tip, the waiter will catch you up. So not to spoil your experience, just plan that you will have to add a tax and a tip to the price listed on the menu. The same goes for all other services (e.g. taxi, tour guides, etc).

Insurance

Always buy health insurance before you go. I have once been in a hospital and got a cheque of $800 for placing back my dislocated shoulder. My $30 insurance paid off in full. Don’t risk. I usually prefer to have the health insurance, connection flights insurance and lost baggage insurance. Keep in mind that some credit cards have the travel insurance included. Check with your bank if this is the case. My MasterCard Gold covers travel insurance for free.

Saving on Roaming

Buy a local prepaid sim card. I usually buy the T-Mobile Prepaid for $3 per day (plus tax + plus $10 for a new sim card). You can use 3G internet, which would allow you to have an online map, acces to Yelp, which comes very handy in restaurant search, and you can make unlimited local calls. This is handy when you have to call for a reservation or to call for an emergency or any other unforeseen obstacles, keeping in mind that roaming charges are outrageous.

If you also have to call your homeland or receive calls, I would also suggest using Roamer app (for Android and iOS). You have to switch it on before leaving your home country, insert a local sim in the US and use Roamer for calls home. It saves you around 90% of the roaming charges.

Credit Cards

Some banks block their credit cards for purchases in the US because it might be in their group of risk. That’s what happened to me once when I was buying the US domestic airline tickets. So before heading to the US make sure that your bank will not block your credit card once you are there.

National Parks Pass

If you are planning to visit several National Parks during your visit, you might consider buying an annual pass for $80. Most national parks charge $10-25 fee for a single vehicle entering the park, so if you plan to visit 3-4 parks, the annual pass might come handy. You can buy the pass on the spot in the following National Parks.

Hiking in the US national parks is about as good as it gets anywhere in the world. Image by Grand Canyon National Park / CC2.0

Hiking in the US national parks is about as good as it gets anywhere in the world. Image by Grand Canyon National Park / CC2.0

Health Tips During the Hot Months

Always stay hydrated if you are traveling during the hot months. Drink a lot of water (at least 2-3 liters per day). Also consider drinking sports drinks as they contain the necessary electrolytes to keep your body going. It is very important because if you get dehydrated, you will feel tired, dizzy and you will have headaches. You don’t want that during your long-awaited trip so watch out for yourself. This has to be taken into account especially if you are planning a long hike. Think about water supplies in advance.

It’s also nice to have some water in the trunk of your car if you do a roadtrip. If your car gets broken in the middle of the desert with 47C degrees outside and you will have to wait for help for an hour or two, you will definitely need to drink plenty of water.

I hope that my tips were useful for you and I believe that now your are ready to go to the States! :)

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