The USA is huge with a diverse melting pot of cultures, so it’s not easy to pin down any set of rules or tips that apply to all 50 states. But there are a few things you’ll want to know to make more informed travel plans and avoid any mishaps. From the all-American embrace of the automobile to its tipping customs, here are a few useful things to be aware of before booking that flight to the USA.


    Portion sizes are huge

    Go big or go home

    Gluttons rejoice, you’ve arrived at the land of plenty with its “all you can eat” buffets, sky-high burgers and supersize meals. America’s relatively cheap food production gives restaurants an easy way to lure in more customers by serving up ever-bigger dishes plus generous-sized appetisers and desserts. 

    It’s not uncommon to see plate-hogging 12 oz steaks being served, though in Texas that might be considered stingy. You’re also guaranteed not to go thirsty here, with free soda refills being pretty much the norm at many US dining spots. 


    Tips are expected

    Keep small bills on hand for easier payment

    There’s no requirement to give tips to service staff in the US but you’ll look like a real Scrooge if you don’t. Service workers, like waiters, housekeepers and taxi drivers, count on tips to boost their income, so any extra you could throw their way will be appreciated. 

    Unless you’ve had truly dreadful service, be prepared to pay 15 to 20% on top of the dining bill as a tip, and you could add an extra dollar or two for the bartender when paying for a drink.


    Tax is not included in prices

    Tax rates vary from state to state

    If you think you’ve got just enough money to buy that cute souvenir or T-shirt, you might be in for a surprise when the cashier rings up the bill. At many places where goods or services are sold, the prices displayed on the tag or sign don’t include taxes, which could add 7% or more to your bill. 

    Most states have sales taxes and there might be local government taxes levied as well, so make sure you factor that into your shopping budget.


    People are extremely talkative

    Get ready for some friendly chit-chat

    In America, being open and outgoing are celebrated traits and as such you might have all sorts of people striking up a conversation with you. It's especially noticeable if you're out dining or shopping, where you'll be asked "How are you?" by the waiter or shop attendant, and possibly more questions about where you're from, what you’re up to, or how your day is going. 

    Such exchanges are usually light-hearted and limited to small talk – strong political views or other thoughts that might cause offence are usually kept under wraps. 


    Don’t be afraid to visit lesser-known places

    It’s easy to avoid the tourist crowds

    With so many iconic sights like the Statue of Liberty, Las Vegas Strip and Disneyland, it would be easy to do a USA trip that ticks off all the bucket-list places you hope to see in your lifetime. But with a bit of research, you can find alternative places that are well off the tourist trail but no less spectacular. 

    Instead of Niagara Falls, try visiting Ruby Falls, a 45-metre-tall underground waterfall in Tennessee, or skip the Grand Canyon in favour of the lesser-visited Zion Canyon in Utah. Stray off the beaten track and see what you’ll discover.


    The country is SUPER sized

    More than 9 million sq km to cover

    The US is such a huge place that even many Americans won’t get to see more than a fraction of their own country. Sure, you’d like to explore both San Francisco and New York City, but be aware that the flight between them of nearly 6 hours will eat up a lot of your valuable holiday time. 

    Since it’s impossible to see it all, a good strategy might be to limit your US travels to just a few “must-see” places or focus on a region to explore in depth like the Pacific Northwest or New England.


    The metric system doesn’t exist

    Find yourself a conversion chart or app to avoid confusion

    Why measure things in units of 10 when you could use some seemingly random numbers instead? This is the way things are done in America, which still uses pounds, gallons and yards in favour of metric measurements like grams, litres and metres. You’ll also have to get familiar with Fahrenheit since few Americans will be able to tell you the temperature in Celsius. 

    Just remember that 100 degrees F is a really hot day and water freezes at 32 degrees. Oh, and if it's 40-below in Celsius, it's the same in Fahrenheit – good to know if you're planning a visit to chilly Minnesota or Alaska in the winter.


    The country is mad about sports

    Just not the same sports as the rest of the world

    From its small-town Little Leagues to professional teams with celebrity players, America is a country with a deep and broad love for sports. Unlike other countries where international sports like World Cup football are cheered by millions, the most popular sports in the US are home-grown and uniquely American. American football – not soccer! – has a massive following from college “bowl” tournaments to the star-studded NFL professional leagues. 

    You could easily book a stadium seat to watch the pros at an NBA basketball or Major League Baseball game or catch the excitement of the crowds cheering for up-and-comers at a local minor-league event.   


    Get your travel insurance sorted

    Avoid getting a heart-attack-inducing hospital bill

    There’s nothing worse than having an accident or sudden illness during your travels. That is unless you’re travelling without insurance, in which case your health woes could be compounded by a monstrous medical bill. Health care is excellent throughout the US but it doesn’t come cheap, especially if you’re in need of surgery, a lengthy stay in hospital or an emergency flight back home. There are many travel insurance choices available, so shop around to see what best suits your needs and buy it before you go. 


    You NEED your own transport

    Get your International Driving Permit before you go

    Driving down an open road is an enduring symbol of freedom in the US, and, for the most part, the car is still king here when it comes to transport. Unless you’re in one of America’s more transit-friendly cities like New York or Boston, it can be a real hassle to travel around without your own set of wheels. With limited bus or train travel choices, you might want to rent a car or make use of the local taxi services to help you get around. 

    Lana Willocks | Contributing Writer

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