As an American traveller, I can tell you that almost everyone has an opinion of the Free Land, and there are lots of rumours – true or not – about this very uniform but also very huge country. People ask me what to expect when they come to the USA for the first time. So, as an American, what advice do I have for foreign visitors?
Below is a list I made based off my experience and what foreign visitors have told me.
Yes, you need to tip. One big thing foreigners may not understand is the American tipping system, and I know from my waiter friends that this still needs to be drilled into peoples’ minds: you need to tip!! Waiters make about $3/hour (depending on local laws) and then tips. Essentially, if you don’t tip, they won’t get paid. A lot of times, they may actually have money taken away from them if you don’t tip. Don’t like it? Neither do a lot of Americans! But that’s the way it is. To avoid tipping, you can get carry-out, but never go to a sit-down restaurant and skip the tip.
If you’re dining out, tipping is 15-20% of the total bill. There is always a place for you to write your tip amount on a credit card receipt, or you can leave cash. For drinking at a bar, tipping is usually $1 per drink or roughly 15-20% of the bill.
The public transit is generally not great. Travelling within the US is generally a nightmare if you don’t have a car. We have a lot of buses that go between cities, like Megabus and Greyhound, but that’s pretty much it. The train system is slow and expensive. A lot of larger cities do have a public transportation system but it’s usually very slow and limited in where it goes. Definitely plan accordingly and consider driving if you can.
Driving is an adventure. If you do decide to drive through the Land of the Free, it can be very exciting but also very different. We drive fast and far in America so be sure to look up how driving laws differ from those of your home country. Also, if you get pulled over, do not get out of the car! That part of our culture is so ingrained in us that the idea of leaving a car that’s been pulled over by a cop gives me shivers.
Smoking is frowned upon. There are a lot of places where you can’t smoke, and smoking is usually done in specific or even designated areas. It may not be illegal to smoke in front of a store but the people there may find it rude. Rule of thumb is to wait to see someone else smoking in an area before doing it yourself. Also be sure that your rental car and hotel room doesn’t smell like smoke after you use it as this could land you hefty fines. (You should never smoke in a rental car or hotel room, but sometimes the smell carries over.)
Prices don’t include tax. Again, something a lot of Americans don’t like, but something that still exists. Tax percentages depend on what state you’re in and what type of thing you’re purchasing (food, toy, etc). In Maryland, sales taxes are 6%, so a purchase of $10 would amount to a total of $10.60. Taxes generally don’t exceed 10%.
Also note that this includes dining, as well. So, if you get $30 worth in food, the bill is going to come to about $31.80 (6%). You would then tip $4.50 (15%) to $6 (20%). I generally tip after tax but I believe you’re only expected to tip on the pre-tax bill. So your total would be about $36.80 (food + tax + tip).
Don’t criticise us. You are more than welcome to bash America all you want online or with other non-Americans, but Americans take that type of criticism to heart. If you are visiting our country, please be respectful of us and avoid any negative talk. You would not want someone going to your country only to talk about its negative sides, would you?
Avoid political topics. In certain cultures, it’s completely acceptable to talk about politics (the president, abortion, gun control, religion, etc) but in America, for whatever reason, talking to someone about politics when you barely know them is a sign you want to fight. And if you’re with the wrong person, they could want a physical fight. People also take political topics personally, so it’s best to just avoid these subjects together. Of course, you’re more than welcome to discuss these things once you break a relationship in.
Underage drinking is extremely illegal. Underage drinking in certain countries? Not that big a deal. In America? Big deal! Definitely don’t do so in public, and don’t try to buy alcohol if you can’t present a valid ID saying you’re 21+.
Don’t cut in line. This one drives me crazy! It is incredibly rude in American culture to cut in line – incredibly! This includes “reserving spots,” i.e. standing in line alone until you get to the front, when others will join you. Wait your turn.
Check if your insurance is accepted. If you’ve gotten health insurance for your trip, great! Be sure to ask the office you’re going to if they can take your insurance. A lot of hospitals and offices don’t even take certain American insurances, and fines can be very hefty.
Cash and card both work. Neither one is king in this country. Generally, you don’t want to use large bills for small transactions (i.e. $100 for a $3 drink); also, some places may have a card minimum of $5-10. Festivals and fairs are usually cash-only. It’s generally a good idea to have a card with about $20-40 in cash, but you can generally go with your preferred payment method on this one.
Respect everyone. Not every country treats all people equal, and even though America still has a ways to go, make sure you treat everyone the same. This means no language specifically for men or women, no language specifically for people of a certain race or look, etc.
Make sure you enjoy this vast country. There are so many different places to see in the US; I mean, it’s twice the size of the European continent! Make sure you take the time to see what interests you most; meet some new people; try some delicious (or maybe even atrocious) food; and get out of your comfort zone a little bit. Make some cultural mistakes and learn from it. That’s what travel is all about!
Whether you love it or hate it, America is usually a destination on peoples’ lists and if anything, it’s an experience of a lifetime. If you make it to my home country, I hope you have a great time and enjoy your stay.
Have you ever been to America? What were some cultural differences you noticed?