So, the first time I visited the US, I had a fabulous time but came home complaining about the terrible food, and most especially, the weird orange cheese. To help you avoid this experience, here are my tips!
1. Don’t drink soft drink! There is no sugar in soft drink in the US. Yes! No sugar. The sweetener is high fructose corn syrup which tastes weird (to me), makes me feel a little ill, and is decried by many as being very very bad for you!
2. Tipping. Tipping is so tricky when you come from Australia as we just don’t do it. When you live in the US, the only times you tip are when you are eating at a sit-down restaurant/cafe (20% on the pre-tax amount, remember this is largely paying your waiter’s wage), and in taxis. Generally, if you’re sitting down in a venue, you should tip when you leave. You don’t tip a take-away coffee at Starbucks. You don’t tip a ticket for anything. At hotels you need to tip bell boys etc, which is why I generally take my bags myself. Oh and if you’re travelling as a fairly large party, check your bill carefully as sometimes with groups of 6 or more they add gratuity (the tip!) to the bill and it would be very very easy to tip on top of the tip.
3. Restaurants have a funny hierarchy here. Often you will get sat at your table by one person, offered drinks by another, and you order with another person again. If you ask the drinks person for a menu item they will usually tell you they will send your server over to you. Just go with it.
4. At fancy restaurants, there is often a bathroom-attendant. Pop a dollar note in your pocket when you use the loo so you don’t feel like a jerk when the attendant hands you a towel to dry your hands after washing!
5. While on loo’s, American’s never call the room you visit the “toilet”. They think that’s kinda gross because to them it is just the thing you sit on to do your business. It’s the bathroom, restroom or washroom! And they don’t say loo. But they think it’s funny.
6. Americans LOVE Australians and Australia. They will share with you where they went and when. Be gracious, when someone tells you they visited a couple of years ago and drove from Cairns to Melbourne, it’s best not to say that Australia is pretty much the same size as continental USA as they will think you are an asshole who is implying they are ignorant. I know this because it happened to me today. Oops.
7. Need a doctor? Firstly, if you don’t travel to the US with travel insurance you’re a bloody idiot. If you’ve got a minor ailment, look for “Immediate Care” in your vicinity, these are walk-in clinics. Really minor things can often be dealt with at chemist chains such as Walgreens/Duane Reade and CVS. You can buy antibiotic cream (Neosporin is a brand) off the shelf at chemists in the US. It’s also worth noting that paracetamol is called Acetaminophen if you need to find it!
8. There are lots and lots of healthy food options in the USA. Chains like Native Foods (vegan), Freshii, Protein Bar, Pret-A-Manger (all over the world) are everywhere. To help you find good options, it’s a great idea to download Yelp when you visit the US and search for restaurants/food near you. Michelin has guides for many US cities too if you are serious about your food (you might need to book before you leave home). Whole Foods is also amazing, it’s a supermarket that sells awesome organic fruit and veggies. It also has takeaway food and often good coffee.
9. Coffee. So the problem for us is that Americans generally drink drip-style coffee which we don’t understand or appreciate since we’re in the Italian-style coffee fan club. For me, I find it hard to find a good coffee unless I’m in NYC. In Chicago, Intelligentsia is pretty good. Generally you’re best asking for a latte.
10. Bread. Unfortunately most places put sugar in their bread in the USA (yuck!). Sourdoughs or “Italian style” bread tend to be your best bet if you’re buying a loaf to take back to your hotel room.
11. Bad food is so so good in the US. So while you’re in the US, you have to eat some barbecue (ribs etc), oh and Mexican food which is generally so woeful in Australia is, unsurprisingly, totally amazing in the US.
12. Starbucks and McDonalds have free wi-fi. Buy a cuppa and figure out where you are, upload those photos to Facebook!
13. When are you shopping in the US, the price on the tag is not the price you pay. I’ve been here for a year and a half and I still get tripped up. The sales tax you pay depends on where you live but can be up to 10% on top of the ticketed price.
14. Americans seem to think that toilet stalls should have huge gaps on each side of the door so you have zero privacy. It’s weird.
15. Most American clothing chains have great sales online so sign up for their emails before you leave and see if you can get deliveries to a place you’re staying just before you get there! My kids like brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch and you can get prices online that never seem to happen in the stores.
16. If you can’t shop before you arrive, visit the Outlet Mall in the city you’re visiting. In my experience they are really great.
17. If you can’t get to an Outlet Mall and want to bargain shop, find a Nordstrom Rack (outlet stores for the department store Nordstrom), TJ Maxx or Marshalls. All sell great quality brands at bargain prices, they’re often located in the city too which makes it easy when you’re travelling.
18. If you are of the female variety, I highly recommend visiting Anthropologie stores. Not cheap but beautiful clothes and homewares. I love love love this store.
19. Uber is huge in the US and gives you a cheap way to get around. Get the app! Although taxis are much cheaper here anyway.
20. This may be my Chicago experience talking, but research the neighbourhoods in the cities you’re visiting. There’s likely to be great areas with really interesting boutique shopping, eating and cultural experiences – see a bit of the real city.
21. Despite all the press about the security getting into America, it’s pretty straightforward. Customs officials generally barely gaze at the ESTA visa (get an ESTA visa before you go, it takes two seconds online!), and if they ask what you’re doing in the US, I generally find they’re interested in a chat rather than anything ominous! Getting through customs at Dallas or LA can take an age though if they’re busy, just deal with it, you’ll get there eventually…
22. If you have frequent flyer points, use them on domestic US flights because the taxes are just so little you won’t believe it. Our family of five flew on points from Chicago to New York and back, and the taxes for all our flights totalled $40!
23. Go and see a big sporting event in the US. The NBA, NFL, NHL, whatever your flavour, Americans love their sport like nothing else and often the half-time entertainment is worth it alone! Living in Chicago, you simply cannot help but become involved with their sports teams (Go the Cubs! Blackhawks! Bulls! Bears!). For any Chicagoans who stumble upon this, I live down the road from the Cubs so it was never going to be the White Sox.
24. Check what concerts are on in the cities you’re visiting while you’ll be there. You may be in for a treat. Websites such as Time Out in each city are helpful. While you are in town, check Hottix, Halftix or whatever it’s called in the city you’re visiting (Google it!) to get discounted tickets for the days you are there.
Oh and the orange cheese is called American cheese. Ask for swiss, cheddar, anything else!