Traveling to the USA? Here are some tips.

Last month, I traveled with a group of college students to Chicago for an annual “History on the Move” class. My colleague and I (both history professors) teach students about the past by exploring the buildings, art, and historical sites of a particular city. This time was a little different, as we had my colleague’s German exchange student with us. When I returned home, I contemplated a lot of his questions and observations. As a native-born American I would like to offer some tips about US travel, as well as some of my thoughts about our culture. Traveling to a foreign country (or even within your own) can be fraught with excitement and nervousness. Which hotel? How do I get there? What should I see? Traveling is an amazing, rewarding experience, but sometimes fear of the unknown can keep us from venturing out. Here are a few travel tips about US travel that will help you find a good US hotel, get around, eat well, and communicate effectively.

Accommodations

  • In the United States, there are many different types of hotels that are further subdivided by their price-range and level of service. For this article, I’m going to focus on chain hotels (Hilton, Holiday Inn, etc.), boutique hotels, and bed and breakfast facilities. Each type of hotel has its own perks—chain hotels usually provide consistency in service and amenities, boutique hotels are generally more distinctive, while bed and breakfasts are often quite intimate. In Europe, I’ve found it quite normal to be offered a breakfast as part of my hotel fee or as an additional charge. In the States, breakfast is standard only at bed and breakfast inns. Some hotels may offer a continental breakfast (pastries, juice, coffee) for no additional charge, but breakfast is often served through room service for a fee. Larger-size hotels in the States often offer health clubs, Wi-Fi, room service, laundry service, and other amenities, but there may be a surcharge for these services. It is good to check the website of the accommodation so that you can see what amenities are offered and pick a hotel that matches your tastes, budget, and needs. I also use TripAdvisor to get an idea about the quality of rooms, location of hotel, and overall features of the facility from the reviews of former guests.
  • Prices for lodging differ based on availability and season/time of week. To get the best price, I compare the rate offered through a booking website (Hotels.com, etc.) with the amount stated on the hotel’s direct site. Don’t be afraid to ask if the price offered to you is the best available. I’ve saved a good deal of money by asking for a discount, and have also been able to negotiate a room upgrade.
  • A hotel chain may have multiple locations for each city with varying rates. To make sure that rate savings are not negated by transportation costs, I check to see how far the nearest metro stop is from my location and how long it will take to get to the city center.
  • It is customary to tip hotel workers the following: $2-5 per night for the housekeepers, $1-2 per bag for the porter, $1-2 for the doorman if he/she gets you a taxi, and $5-10 for the concierge if he/she provides an extra service like getting you tickets to a show.

Getting Around

  • Taxis—in the States, we do not have as many taxi stands as big European cities do. We generally hail a taxi by standing near the edge of the street, looking at the cab driver that we wish to engage for service, and raising our arm/hand. If you feel uncomfortable hailing a taxi, you can have a hotel or restaurant call one for you. In case no taxi is available when you are leaving a destination, I recommend having a taxi company’s telephone number in your phone. Taxi cab drivers are generally tipped 10-18% of the total fare.
  • Mass transportation—Our larger cities generally have a mass transportation system that may be more affordable than taxi cab rides. The value of using mass transportation depends on how many people are sharing a taxi, as well as the convenience of having direct, personal transportation. If you think that you may wish to use mass transportation frequently, I would research multiple-ride passes.

Eating Well

  • The United States is a melting pot of cultures and our cuisine highlights our diversity. Around the late 19th/early 20th century, immigrants came to America’s borders by the millions. They brought with them their cuisine, but had to adapt it to their new surroundings and food availabilities. For instance, traditional dishes were altered for the diverse tastes of the neighborhood. Customary dishes were modified to substitute easily available food for rarer ingredients. Many dishes were adjusted for America’s fast-paced lifestyle, such as a meat patty becoming sandwiched between two buns to make it easier to eat “on the go.” Consequently, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Greek, and other types of cuisine generally have a different taste than they do in the country where they originated. However, I encourage you to embrace them for what they are—an American perspective of the tastes and flavors of nations around the world. To find a good restaurant in an American city, I look for a privately-owned eatery (not part of a chain) that is filled with local people. I then look at the feedback for the restaurant on a crowd-sourced review website.
  • A growing dining experience in big cities around the States is that of the food truck. Meals are prepared inside the vehicle and dished out through a window in the side of the truck. Parked on the sides of streets, they lack seating, but generally provide a less-costly (yet tasty) dining experience. Probably the best way to spot a good one is to look for a long line. If you’re considering buying an alcoholic beverage to enjoy while dining in public with your food truck purchases, make sure that you check the local ordinances about drinking alcohol in public. Americans have a long, contentious history with public drinking and it may be forbidden in the area that you are visiting.
  • In the United States, tipping the person who serves your food is expected. The tip is generally 15-20% of the total bill. As of January 1, 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that only a few states required employers to pay workers full state minimum wage before tips.

Speaking Without Words

  • I was participating in a Twitter chat session the other day where we were discussing cultural norms regarding non-verbal communication. I think that most Americans appreciate a smile when conducting business or engaging someone in a conversation. I’ve noticed that in some places I’ve visited (outside the States) that people tend to get very close to one another when in public spaces. I think that, in general, Americans tend to place importance on having a little distance between strangers. For instance, unless a space is crowded, we will avoid standing very close or sitting very near people we don’t know. If an American steps away from you slightly, please don’t take it as unfriendly gesture—it’s just our cultural norm.

It’s been quite challenging for me to write this piece. I had to view traveling in the USA through the lens of a non-American. However, I’ve found this challenge quite rewarding. I would like to learn more though! Please share with me any insights that you may have about traveling within the United States.

Bonus tip: Regardless of wherever in the world I am, I always save a copy of the city map to my phone so that I can get directions without looking like a tourist (more  than I already do).