Check out these useful informations and travel tips on visiting the USA.
The first and most important to get for a journey to the USA is the ESTA. With the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization), you are authorized to stay in the USA for 90 days without a visa. Without this, the airlines will refuse your boarding to the departing flight. It’s worth to claim the ESTA online right after the purchase of the plain ticket, it costs 14 dollars. You will need to fill an electronic questionnaire with mainly personal data and answer a few questions. Assessment time varies between a few minutes and 72 hours. You will be notified about the ESTA assessment status by e-mail. Afterwards, you have nothing more to do, as the travel authorization will be automatically attached to your passport (so it’s important to claim with the passport number you’re going to use for your travel). Your passport must be valid until the end of your journey, as Hungary is involved in Six Months Club, meaning it’s not necessary for the passport to be valid for six months.
In North-America, you are a one-armed giant without a bank card. It’s not only recommended, but mandatory to bring a debit card and/or credit card. Though we’ve taken some cash, we paid 80% of our fees with bank card. If you travel outside Europe, it’s highly recommended to have an embossed card. Important! Inform your bank in advance about the dates and countries you are planning to use your card at, so you can avoid possibly being garnished for “doubtful card usage”. We’ve often been asked in stores and by other service providers, whether we’re paying by debit or credit card, as they are not always distinguishable with unaided eye.
Of course, it depends on which part of the US you are visiting. The weather of the big cities of the East shore is similar to ours (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington), while the Florida peninsula on the Southern part of the East shore is a good choice the whole year, though it’s worth to calculate with the hurricane season from July to November. The West shore lies on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, the areas North of California are ruled by the ocean’s climate meaning that winters are not too cold, and summers are not too hot either, and rains are frequent; this is typical in the Northern part of California state, San Francisco’s surroundings, while Los Angeles can be a good destination any time of the year. It’s true to the country in general that the most ideal time to travel is from early spring to late autumn.
Beside Airbnb (where you can find great offers), typical and recommended accommodations of the USA are the so-called Inns, which are actually roadside motels. there are plenty of these throughout the country from less good quality to premium category, so it’s worth checking the ratings carefully, or even take a look at photos taken from previous guests on Tripadvisor, so you won’t be surprised. We always try to choose the option of “FREE cancellation – No need to pay in advance” when booking through Booking.com, so the program can be altered even a few days in advance to arrival. In most cases, you can use a different card when paying on the spot, than the one you used when booking, but the original card will always be asked for. In a lot of cases, accommodations also block a certain amount on the bank card, so even if there’s cash payment, you’ll need a bank card anyway. We were warned every time someone blocked an amount – if they do not mention, it’s worth asking so you won’t be surprised later if your account holds less than you expect. Because of frequent blockings, it’s worth taking a credit cards as well, and use it in cases like these, so there won’t be any problem if they do not dissolve the block in time.
Car rental in the United States is almost mandatory. Because of the enormous distances (even within cities) and the numerous sights at distributed locations, it’s best to travel the country in road trips. Car rental works similarly than elsewhere, probably the only difference is that you can rent cars with automatic gear-box mainly, and, as against Europe where mostly smaller, more economical cars are for rent, here they have much less of these.
Where to rent a car? Yes, this is always a fundamental question, it’s worth to take a good look around before each travel. We booked a car through Auto Europe agency, as they provided the best and most attractive prices for us, which already contained full insurance and the price of one-way rental. Contrary to their name, you can pick up/put down the vehicle in around 20.000 places throughout the world and cancel your booking for free anytime until 48 hours before the rental. Auto Europe selects from the offers of smaller local and world-known car rental chains too, so you’re sure to find the best for you.
IMPORTANT! Check previously if there’s kilometer limitation among rental conditions. If you know you’re going to travel a lot by car, it’s worth to choose rental type with unlimited mileage, as because of big distances, it’s easy to gather a few thousand kilometers.
In most cases, you can pay the rental fee and deposit with credit card only (a few places accept embossed debit cards too, if the required coverage is available). When picking the car up, you need to pay with a card on the name of the driver (a few places may depart from this, but the card holder needs to be present anyway at the pickup). The amount of the deposit is blocked on the card. This is why it’s better to pay with credit card, as in that case only part of our credit line is blocked, while in case of debit cards, it’s our own money that gets blocked, which may cause a lot of inconveniences. IMPORTANT! After taking the car back, don’t forget to check if the blocking has been resolved.
An international driving license is not necessary for car rentals (but it’s worth asking the rental company previously), though it’s recommended to have one for road checks, we weren’t asked for it; the police officer was satisfied with the Hungarian license and passport.
It’s important to know in advance, that receiving driving licenses in America works totally differently than in Europe. There are no driving schools, learner-driver licenses can be claimed from the age of 15-16 (varying in the different states) after the successful highway code exam, meaning that you can drive under the supervision of a person having their driving license for at least five years, and under smaller restrictions. Once you feel like you can drive, you can take part in the traffic exam with your own car.
The speed limit in the cities is usually 30-50 km/hours, while on the highway you can drive with 80-110 km/hours. In the crossings of coequal roads, they do not use priority to the right but stop signs and passing happens due to the order of arrival. You can usually turn right in a short curve at the red lights, if a supplementary sign doesn’t prohibit it. Overtaking is allowed from the right as well. Driving culture is totally different from the European standards; they drive much more calmly, they are not flashing lights on each other on the highway, they don’t blow horns and they are clear-cut.
Though the price of petrol has increased a lot in the past few years in America too, it’s still much cheaper than here. Because of the big distances, you’ll often see signs warning you to check your fuel tank, as there’s no petrol station in the next X kilometers. This can cause problems mainly at drear, desert areas. It’s worth to refuel in bigger cities with several petrol stations, as for example in the desert, prices are much higher.
How the automated fuel station works?
First you install your bank card in the card reader, then choose the amount you wish to refuel for. The machine then checks if the amount is available on your card. If it is, it blocks the chosen amount and you can start refueling. At the end of refueling, only the effectively refilled amount will be distracted, and the blocked amount will be dissolved. Still, try to choose the amount you wish to refill for, as the price difference between a scooter’s and a truck’s full tank is really big. Always ask for a receipt, keep it and check your account to see if only the correct amount was distracted.
The whole country is characterized by time-limit parking zones, which usually can be used for a time interval between 15 minutes and 5 hours, for free or for a toll (pay attention on street cleanings, it’s always signed when parking is prohibited). If there’s no parking meter, so parking is free, the time limit is traditionally checked by the parking attendant marking the car’s wheels with a chalk, and a car with a camera on it roams the cities. In bigger parking lots you’ll mostly find a parking machine, or you have to pay at the entrance when driving in or out, and when parking on the street, you have to use parking meters connected to the given location. Always pay attention on the red marks painted on the pavement, where parking is forbidden, these are mostly the surroundings of fire hydrants.
Naturally, there are restaurants everywhere, but on a few weeks of road trip, it’s almost impossible to evade fast food restaurants, of which the USA has plenty. We also “fell victim” of them, let’s see what’s worth to try: In-N-Out Burger is a cultic Californian fast food restaurant chain, which is so posh that they even serve the Oscar party with hamburgers, so you should expect some queue. Since their opening in 1948 they changed almost nothing, it has a retro ambience and the assortment isn’t big either; you can choose from 3 types of burgers (hamburger, cheeseburger and double cheeseburger), and home-made French fries, shake and soft drinks. The other chain we tried for burgers is Jack in the box, which is not bad at all. If you like Mexican kitchen, taco, burrito and their friends, you should try Chipotle, or if you crave for some Chinese, Panda Express is your place. By the highways you can see a lot of Golden Corals with an all-you-can-eat scheme, so if you get hungry on the go, it’s not a bad choice.
Most of the people working in hospitality overseas receives a minimal hourly rate, so tips make the bigger part of their salary. They usually expect 15-20 % of the final fee. If you pay by card, you can either write the amount of your tip on the receipt, or in case of some terminals you can choose from options offered.
We can’t tell enough times how important it is. Outside Europe, where you cannot use your EU health insurance card, you have to be even more careful about insurances, as an unexpected health – or other similar – expense can make your journey more expensive, or even a nightmare. Banks usually provide free or discounted travel insurance for premium debit/credit cards, so it’s worth to gain information about it in advance.