MAN OH MAN, I wish I had me 3 years ago. In reality- I wish I had just googled something like this because it would have saved me MOUNTAINS of stress and a handful of $$.
I present to you, all (if not almost all) of the things I WISH I knew before I first went to the United States. They’ve all been learnt firsthand, tried and tested by yours truly and piled together for your reading pleasure.
1. Booking your flight.
DO NOT rely on times, because international travel is ALWAYS tricky. I’ve been lucky and never missed a connection or a bus, however I’ve seen people be not so fortunate. International travel is stressful enough when you’re running ON time, so leave a good few hours before you need to be somewhere.
2. Leave as much time as possible for extra security measures.
Both in and out of the USA, security is tight. Leave extra time to take your shoes, coats and jewellery off, and make sure you LISTEN carefully to customs officers. US customs is not the time to be browsing Instagram and joking to your mum.
The same general rule applies for all liquids, creams and gels. A clear, quart sized bag can hold fluids UNDER 100ml. You’re only allowed one bag per person, so I recommend leaving all of your toiletries padded in your checked in bag, in between all of your clothes. In addition, you can no longer carry powerbanks in your CHECKED luggage. From personal experience, smaller (think one or two phone charges) powerbanks are fine in your carry on bag.
4. Pre-fill your International Departure Card.
Supposedly, we will be done with these buggers soon enough. But until then I recommend filling them out BEFORE you get to the departures gate. If you’re flying CHC-AKL, pick one up at check-in in Christchurch. This saves you plenty of time as there is usually a long wait (and a lot of broken pens) when you’re in need of the most extra minutes.
5. Carry a copy of everything- and send one to your mum, too.
Before I fly, I photocopy and photograph my passport, birth certificate, VISA, credit cards (only the front) and my luggage. This will help you immensely should an online system fail, the airline loses your luggage or you get into any foreign strife. You’ll also want the address that you are staying at in the USA (street address as well as the name of the hotel) handy for checkin and arrival documents so take a photo of that, too!
6. Credit cards.
You most likely will need one, but not for the reason you think. Almost all hotels/rentals/activities in the US require a temporary hold on your credit card should anything get damaged, lost or or go wrong. I signed up for one just before I went, and only got a small limit, but also made sure that I got one with Airpoints! As hard as you might be trying to avoid the credit card trap, there is nothing worse than being stuck in a foreign country with a faulty/stolen/empty card and not having back up.
7. MONEY- the biggie.
Personally, since getting my credit card (I have a Westpac Airpoints MasterCard) I’ve found overseas spending SO easy. It charges me minimal fees for using my card but they’re well and truly outweighed by the amount I earn in Airpoints dollars once I land. However, I also do take at least 3 forms of money for security reasons, so I’ve got a trusty Cash Passport that I got from my local House of Travel. You can load multiple currencies (handy for contikis!!) as well as re-load abroad. I simply budget my food money onto this card, and keep track of how much I’m eating (and drinking) all on one account! Then I can save the shopping for my credit card, and cash for… TIPS.
I used to hate this system. Frankly, I found it annoying, confusing and a waste of time. Then I spoke to a server at a local restaurant and the world made sense. The minimum wage in the US is just that.. minimum. You’ll notice that when you get there, the food is CHEAP. not only that, but you get a lot of it. This is then balanced out by their tipping system. You’re generally ‘expected’ to tip about 20% of your total food bill in large cities- that’s for service. For GOOD service, you’d be expected to tip more. Now.. DON’T try and cheat the system. Not tipping will come back to bite you in the ass, and it’s downright rude. You’ll notice the service is EXCEPTIONAL in America- these people work really hard for their money, and frankly, they deserve every cent they’re given. So be a decent human, pay them what they’re worth and save your moaning for later. I once tipped a server $30 USD on a $35 bill. She just about died, and I was so thankful because she made my entire night. Pay them what they’re worth or don’t bother visiting. In terms of the system itself, I find it easiest to tip with cash. So before I depart NZ, I take a handful of $$ out in small notes. Some $1, some $5 and maybe some $10 so I can bundle together a wad of paper at the end of my bill and jog on. It also helps me keep track of how much I’m spending on tips for next time I go! If you’re travelling alone, I’d rely on about $6 a meal- to be safe. Some nights you won’t eat out, some nights you’ll tip more, and if you run out- pay by card. Also, as a side note, be prepared to tip for random services too. If you’re staying at a hotel and someone offers to take your bags in for you, you would be expected to tip them too. Valet parking, bartenders, taxi/shuttle drivers, pretty much anyone that does a SERVICE for YOU.
9. Paying for your food.
How ridiculous is it to have a whole bullet point dedicated on how to PAY A BILL- LOL. Their system is WHACK, and will never make sense to me, so I’ll break it down a little for you (with convenient imagery). First off, eat. Second off, when you’re done eating/drinking/dessert-ing, ask for the cheque. STAY SEATED. Your server will bring over a board/wallet/folder that houses your bill for the evening. Double check everything that you ordered is on there, then place your card inside the provided slot, or on top of the folder and leave it on your table. Next, your server will come and collect the folder, swipe your card to pre-authorise your meal, and return the folder with 2 more receipts. 1) will be a ‘restaurant/merchant/server copy’- if you’re tipping by card, fill in your total food bill, your tip, and the two amounts added together, then sign. If you’re tipping with cash, leave that line blank. 2) will be a guest copy. Follow the EXACT same procedure as above. Then finally, return the merchant copy and the tip (if using cash) to the folder, take the guest copy and your credit card and you are FREE TO GO. Tired? Yes, same.
This was my BIGGEST stresser on my first trip to New York, in particular. I spent DAYS worried about this, and I really had little reason too. America is NOT terrifying. It’s weird, cops carry guns, that takes a little getting used to, but it’s not ‘fright-of-your-life’ scary. That being said, the saying is ‘better safe than sorry’ (and I do travel with a 6”4 human attached to my right hip). Particular precautions I took were very practical ones. I used a cross body handbag to prevent someone yanking it off me, I purchased credit card and passport protective sleeves to prevent fraudulent scanning, and if alone in unfamiliar places, I frequently send Matt my ETA via the Uber app. But it really shouldn’t be something you stress about- keep your wits about you and be aware of what’s going on. Don’t leave your stuff lying around, and take extra care at night time or if you are drunk. Easy? Easy.
BONUS: the quick fires. Dumb things you’ll piss yourself at, but they save you hassle and embarrassment in the U S of A.
⁃ We are not from en-zed. We are from en-zee. And apparently, nobody knows where that is.
⁃ Milk is NOT MILK. Hahaha who would even know, try both half n half and creamer and you tell me what’s best.
⁃ ‘Tea’ is ICED, and sweet as hell. You’ll want to specifically ask for a pot of hot tea, English Breakfast if you will.
⁃ You need your ID/license in multiple places to be able to use a credit card.
⁃ Walk on the right side of EVERYTHING.
⁃ Entrees are not entrees. They are MEALS. Giant sized, humongous meals. If you’d like something small, order an appetiser.
⁃ Pack a NZ multi bank to save $$ on adapters for all of your chargers.
⁃ The power current is different so your hair tools might be piss poor- power wise. My hair dryer becomes a soft whisper of air..
⁃ EAT ALL OF THE MEXICAN FOOD
And finally, upload everything. I recommend grabbing an AT&T or T-Mobile SIM with unlimited data- they usually set me back about $60.
HAVE THE BEST TIME EVER!
In Stars and Stripes,