USA Travel Check List: Are You Ready for the US?

If you have just booked your holiday to the USA then you’re in for an amazing time. The USA is one of our favourite destinations, and it’s becoming easier and more affordable to visit from the UK every year. We have put together this 10 step USA travel check list to help you get ready for your US adventure.

Jackson, Wyoming

If it’s your first time visiting the USA you probably have a few questions on what you need to get in order before you leave home. Our USA travel check list will make sure you have everything you need before you set off for the airport.

1. Get an ESTA

The first thing you need to arrange for your holiday to the USA is an ESTA. This is your permit to enter the USA by air or sea.

An ESTA is not a Visa. There are a number of countries including the UK, Germany, Australia and New Zealand whose citizens are eligible for the United States visa wavier programme.

If you are a citizen of one of the countries eligible for the visa wavier programme you need just an ESTA to travel to the USA for up to 90 days at a time for two years.

The ESTA is an electronic document that you apply for online at the Customs and Border Protection site. Only apply through the official website, it will cost $14. Other websites claim to take applications for ESTA however they will charge you more than the official price – and keeping a profit for themselves.

2. Exchange some currency

You will need dollars to spend while you’re in the USA.

Until recently there would be little benefit in buying your currency too far in advance. Sometimes better to even wait until you arrived in the USA. However with the volatile political landscapes at the moment it could pay to get your foreign currency, dollars included, in advance.

Whether you choose to exchange cash or get a pre-paid card each should offer a similar exchange rate.

Pay close attention in the months leading up to your holiday what is going on in politics, in your own country and the USA as this has an effect on the exchange rates. Any uncertainty politically will cause the value of the currency values to drop and if it is your currency that’s dropped you will get less dollars for your money. However if it is the dollar that has dropped then buy some.

If you need a lot of dollars it may be worth your while buying half your dollars months away from your departure date and the rest nearer the time. This should give you the best chance at getting a reasonable exchange rate.

3. Finalise your accommodation

Smoky Mountain Cabin, Sevierville, Tennessee

Book accommodation as soon as you can – as long as you can get a free cancellation deal. Large cities such as New York, Seattle and San Francisco generally have the best accommodation prices over 6 months in advance. If you book in advance with a free cancellation you loose nothing if you find a better deal nearer the time. Get the better deal booked and cancel your original reservation free of charge. Websites such as Booking.com offer a range of accommodation options including apartments with free cancellation.

In the smaller cities outside of peak seasons you will have greater flexibility on when you need to firm up your plans. Unfortunately the time of arriving at your destination and finding a good deal on a place to stay for that night are pretty much over. You will probably be able to find a bed for the night but it won’t be at the best price and you will find that had you booked earlier you would have secured better accommodation.

4. Plan your US airport transfer

Inside stretch limo with glass of champagne

There are many options to get you from the airport to your accommodation. To find the best price you need to do a bit of research before you depart.

Each city will have numerous transport options and at each one the best method to choose won’t be the same.

Start by looking at public transport. Train or metro is great for getting into Seattle. Shuttle buses tend to be best for Los Angeles and JFK in New York.

If you prefer your own space UBER is widely available across the USA and offers taxi-like service at a reduced rate.

Best is always subjective, for some best may not be cheapest. For example we visited New York on our honeymoon and wanted to splash out – so we got a limo from JFK to Manhattan.

The options of airport transport methods really are endless.

5. Book major attraction tickets

Alcatraz, San Francisco

You will be wanting to see some of the iconic sights the USA has to offer while you’re visiting. Something to bear in mind is that these iconic sights are very popular. Alcatraz and the Statue of Liberty are just two of such attractions where tickets go on sale a couple of months in advance, and can sell out even a month before the date of the scheduled tour.

As part of your USA Travel Check List choose which attractions are do not miss experiences for you and get these booked well in advance to avoid disappointment.

Statue of Liberty at Sunset from the water
Statue of Liberty, New York City

6. Familiarise yourself with State Taxes

An unusual practice in the USA, especially to anyone visiting from Europe, is that taxes are added on top of listed prices.

If you plan on visiting multiple States you also need to be aware that taxes vary from State to State.

Expect to see taxes added to food bills, at grocery stores and restaurants, and also to hotel bookings unless specified that they are included if you have booked through a website such as booking.com.

7. Decide on your method of transport – and book it

We find that the best way to get around in the USA is by car. If you have a full driving licence you can rent pretty much any type of car you can imagine and the process is straight forward. See more about the option of driving in step 8.

How to plan a US road trip - consider an iconic American vehicle
Our Jeep Rental Car in Oregon

You don’t have to drive to get around in the USA, large cities have reasonable public transport and there is UBER where public transport doesn’t reach. You won’t need your own transport, such as a car, within cities.

There are options other than driving to get between cities so you can put together your own method of getting around using a mix of transport.

There is a reasonable train network run by Amtrak across the USA, you can check if your destinations are linked by train by using the Amtrak website.

You can also get internal flights which are similarly priced to flying a budget airline within Europe or Australia. The bonus in the USA compared to Europe in particular is that it’s not just the budget airlines which have reasonable prices for internal flights. You can pick up a Virgin Airlines or similar flight for an affordable price – it could be the same price as the train.

If you want to see more than a plane offers but Amtrak doesn’t cover the route you want to travel then your next option is to check buses. There are a few bus networks across the USA so there will definitely be one that covers the route you need.

To check a variety of transport methods between two places at once our favourite website is Rome2Rio. It will even give you an idea of prices before you click through to the transport providers website.

8. Driving? Read up on US driving etiquette

If you’re considering a road trip through the USA make sure you check out our detailed post on how to plan a US road trip. If you are nervous or unsure where to start when planning a road trip in the US our guide will give you all the information you need to get on the road with confidence.

How to plan a US road trip from the UK
Driving an RV through the northern States

9. Check the weather forecast for each area you will be visiting

The USA covers a huge area and with it being so easy to get from one area to another, quickly too if you’re flying, you can find yourself in multiple climates during one trip.

In our recent spring trip crossing the USA from the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest we found ourselves in more than 30 degrees celsius heat and soon after we were hiking where there was still snow on the ground.

It’s important point on our USA travel check list is to check the weather in all of the locations you will be visiting so you can pack for a range of weather conditions if you need to.

10. Buy your travel insurance

Arguably the most important point on our USA travel check list.

The USA is well known for high healthcare costs. This will be even more obvious when you’re shopping for travel insurance as cover for holidays in the USA tend to cost more than holidays outside of the USA.

You will want to make sure you’re fully covered for visiting the USA along with being covered for any activities you’re planning to do – and there are plenty to choose from. White water rafting, kayaking and back country hiking are accessible activities for visitors to the USA, if you choose to do any of these activities even with a guide you need to check your insurance covers you.

Aside from cover for activities and healthcare it’s worth checking what you are covered for in terms of trip cancellation, whether your fault, the providers or weather conditions.

I’ve claimed twice on travel insurance, the first time was getting stuck in Australia when an Icelandic ash cloud covered Europe closing the airspace so I couldn’t get my flight home. Another time was when our flight to Prague was cancelled due to bad weather in the UK and another flight out couldn’t be arranged before our return flight would have already come back. In both of these instances my Boots travel insurance paid out. Richard had insurance with Virgin for our first attempt to visit Prague and his insurance wouldn’t pay. We lost half of the money we spent on the trip, even though we had travel insurance – and both policies cost about the same price.

Sailing towards Manhattan on the Shearwater Classic Schooner
New York City Skyline

Enjoy your holiday to the USA! If you have any questions just ask by leaving a comment below.

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