The USA has a wide range of places to visit; from desert landscapes, to bustling cities, beautiful beaches and even snowy mountains. With well-developed infrastructure, almost all transport options are covered so you can access almost all of America’s beauty.
Key travel considerations for the USA
Arriving in the USA
Border security and immigration are notoriously strict in the USA and visitors are often subjected to rigorous security screening. Luckily for us, the United States have a visa waiver program which allows entry without a specific tourist visa for one-off visits. Unfortunately, recent reports have cited that this may be suspended in the near future, so check the status of this before you travel.
However, it’s important to check all requirements before booking flights as you may still need to apply for written proof of entry eligibility, or a visa for repeat visits. When planning your trip, allow plenty of extra time for security checks and always book connecting flights at least three hours apart in case of delays. After all, it’s far better to spend a bit of extra time at the airport than to add extra stress by cutting deadlines too fine.
Domestic flights are the most efficient way to get around this vast country. However, like international flights, security screening can be a long process, so always arrive well in advance of your scheduled departure to ensure you’re ready to go on time. It pays to check the fine print too, as many airlines offer cheap airfares that may be hand luggage only. If you’re travelling with a suitcase, extra baggage charges can be very expensive!
Once you’re through the airport, you’ll no doubt encounter a taxi or two. They’re ubiquitous in the larger cities and usually well-priced. Taxis are usually bright yellow in colour so they’re easy to spot and easy to hail. Look out for taxis with “on call” displayed on their roof light, as on call taxis are obliged to stop for you. In some cities, like New York, tariffs are often listed on the door, so you know exactly how much it’ll cost you - plus a tip, of course.
In smaller cities and more rural areas, taxis can be much harder to find and will have to be ordered by phone. Your accommodation provider may be able to recommend a local taxi company to use.
When it comes to taxis, there are still a few things to keep in mind:
- Keep your most valuable possessions on you when you are in a taxi, not in the boot (or the trunk, as Americans say).
- When you get in, take note of the taxi cab number. This will be displayed on the roof, the dashboard, the passenger door or behind the driver’s seat, and it’s the number you’ll need if you want to make a complaint or report.
- Have the driver put your luggage in the boot so that they can’t drive away with your stuff. Watch your luggage go in and make sure it is secure before you get in the vehicle.
- Always wear your seatbelt, even if you’re travelling a short distance.
- Make sure you exit the taxi after the driver and via the door furthest away from the street. When doing this, leave your door open, which prevents the driver from taking off before you unload all of your bags.
- Taxi drivers should receive a tip of around 15% of the fare.
Uber is also very common in the USA and is recognised as registered transport. If you prefer to use Uber, just take the same precautions as you would in a taxi.
In the larger cities, getting around is usually easier by taxi or subway, but buses are an inexpensive and popular way to get around. Companies like Greyhound and Amtrak are famous for their budget long haul routes and occasionally colourful characters. These can be a great way to see the country without having to drive, but be aware of the distance you’re travelling as the longer routes can be arduous.
As with any form of public transport, keep your valuables on you at all times. Don’t put valuables in the overhead compartments out of sight and if you have any complaints or concerns, speak to the driver.
While many larger cities like New York have subway networks and domestic train lines, they’re not common in all areas and aren’t used for interstate travel. If you’re travelling by subway in a large city, be aware of your surroundings and keep your valuables close and out of sight. Always buy tickets from the designated ticketing machines or staff only, as train ticket scams are common.
Driving rental cars
If you plan on renting a car, make sure:
- You’re familiar with and obey the local driving laws (that includes driving on the right hand side of the road!)
- You get an International Drivers Permit before you leave home
- You hire the vehicle from a licensed rental vehicle agency
- You comply with the terms of the rental vehicle agreement
- You drive on a formed or paved roadway or carpark
- You don’t drink and drive under any circumstances.
If you’re planning on driving, you will need to get an International Driving Permit (IDP) before you leave home. Remember to take your driver’s licence, as well as the IDP with you, and keep them both on you whenever you’re driving. It’s also worth familiarizing yourself with all the road rules before you depart. There are some that can catch international drivers out, like the free right turn.
It’s compulsory to have full insurance on your vehicle when driving in the states, but this is usually included in the total cost of the rental vehicle. Because of insurance, most rental companies also stipulate a minimum driver’s age of 25, so it pays to check this with the company before you book. The majority of cars in the USA are automatic transmission (or ‘standard’) so if you want a car with manual transmission (or ‘stick’) you’ll need to specify this.
Another age requirement that’s worth checking is children and car seats, as this can vary from state to state. The rental company will be able to advise you on whether you’re legally required to have a car seat if you’re travelling with kids.
Whether you’re a driver or passenger in any vehicle, wear your seatbelt. Some states don’t require people in vehicles to wear seatbelts, but even so, you must wear your seatbelt at all times. After all, your safety is the most important thing to look after.
Check for damage
Whenever you rent a vehicle, it’s always worth taking five minutes at the start to photograph and note any damage that it may already have. Make sure the rental company is aware of any damage you spot before you leave. This helps to prevent any misunderstandings when you return the vehicle and ensures you’re not liable for damage you haven’t caused.
If you plan to ride a moped or motorbike (as a driver or passenger) in the USA, you should know that some travel insurers do not cover you for being on one - or you may need to add optional cover. So check your policy, and terms and conditions before you rent one.
If riding a Harley Davidson across the USA is your dream, pay particular attention to the terms of cover, as some providers don’t offer cover on motorbikes over 200cc, so if you want to hire a bigger motorbike you may need to seek specialist insurance or consider other insurance policies.
Travelling by RV or campervan
The great US road trip by RV (Recreational Vehicle) is on many people’s travel to-do list. The main interstate highways are long, straight and easy to navigate and there are plenty of RV parks and stops throughout the USA. It’s worth checking your route beforehand, as well as the state rules and regulations around stops and costs, as they vary from state to state.
If you want to hire an RV, you won’t need a special licence or qualification, just an IDP and a valid drivers’ licence.
As with any rental vehicle, always wear your seatbelt when travelling and follow all local driving laws. Check the RV before you leave the rental company for any damage, and take photos for proof. Most rental companies will also have GPS units available, but if you’re unsure it pays to check before booking.
Download maps and apps
The United States of America is a huge country with many large, bustling cities. Finding your way around is much easier if you download maps of the areas you’re visiting, including public transport options. Make it a little easier to find your way around by looking online at the places you want to visit and the best way to get there, before you head out.
Download maps for the public transport and tourist spots before you leave, as the public transport can be complex and hard to navigate in large cities like New York or Los Angeles. We recommend Maps with Me, which works both offline and online. Google Maps also allows you to save maps to your device so you can access them offline to save on data roaming.
Lost or stolen property
We see a lot of claims for lost items that have been accidentally left behind in taxis or on public transport. A good way to avoid this is to always check your seat whenever you get out of your taxi, or off the bus or train. If you’re waiting at a terminal or station, it also pays to check your seat when you get up to leave, just to make sure you haven’t left anything behind.
Five minutes before you disembark, do a check for all your important items – keys, wallet, passport, phone – to make sure they’re all where they should be. Keeping your bag zipped up is also important!
Remember, it’s illegal to drive an uninsured vehicle in the USA, so you’ll need to take out full vehicle insurance with the car rental company. If you do need to make a claim, we can pay the excess. TravelCare provides up to $5,000 to cover vehicle insurance excess, so be careful if you’re renting an expensive or exotic car as the insurance excess on those can be very high.
For instance, a replacement windscreen for a Lamborghini costs $8,000 USD! It’s also important to remember that all drivers of the vehicle need to be named on the rental agreement and that you’re only covered for rental vehicles. That means we can’t cover the insurance excess if you have an accident in a car that belongs to a friend.
Delays are a common problem in the USA, particularly at very busy airports like LAX in Los Angeles and JFK in New York. It’s common for claims to come through for missed flights due to delays getting through customs or security. Remember, even for connecting flights you will have to go through security screening and often walk long distances to get to different parts of the terminal, so always allow plenty of extra time for this.
We’ve seen plenty of claims where weather has caused issues for travellers by delaying their travel. From Hurricanes grounding flights in New Orleans, to snow closing major airports around Chicago and New York in winter. It pays to keep an eye on weather warnings before you head away on your trip.
Smartraveller is a great source of information for all international travel warnings, including severe weather. If there is a warning about your destination, get in touch with us first to see what the best solution is.