Visiting the United States can be a bewildering experience, the first time around. Thanks to movies and TV shows, we are all more than passingly familiar with stateside lifestyle, expressions and cities.
Except that things aren’t quite as you’d expect them. The superficial familiarity acquired from soap operas, action movies and biopics doesn’t quite match what you encounter. And so you sit there and wonder, stumped, why things don’t match up.
Fear not! With this guide, we’ll highlight the ways America really is different from Europe, and how to get the most out of your trip.
Get your cash ready.
The Euro has made things easier for European travelers, but you can still find change offices just about anywhere, especially in big cities, legacy of a past chequered by many a national currency.
America never had need for that infrastructure, so change offices are limited to airports and… airports. Likewise, while you can use your regular bank card just about anywhere in Europe thanks to the EC system, your bank card will only work in certain banks. On my last visit to San Jose, I had to leg it all the way to the local Bank of America in order to use my Maestro card.
If you don’t have a credit card, exchange your US Dollars early, and make sure you have enough to get by until you find out where your local, internationally inclined bank is.
That airport security thing? It’s serious over there.
Over here, the people I know grumble and scoff at some of the more extensive security measures that airports arbitrarily impose on travelers. We mostly all end up conforming, but do so with the cool reservation of those who know better.
The atmosphere is different over there.
Even for local flights, Americans will quietly, civilly line up to all take their shoes off routinely, without needing to be told. Arguing is out of the question, and security personnel watch travelers like hawks to take aside anyone that makes too much of a fuss. Adjust your mentality, and keep your observations for yourself, and for that drink with friends when you get back home.
That tipping thing? It’s not a quirk.
Tipping in Europe is commonplace, but in no way obligatory. Many of us will tip a friendly waiter for exceptional service, and even a couple of Euros are a welcome tip.
In the States, things are quite different. Waiters earn the lowest wage set by the state they live in, which typically sits around 7-8USD an hour. That’s not much, and waiters depend on tips.
Tipping is not legally enforced, but there is an understanding that even an unhappy customer will leave a 10% tip, and a happy one upwards of 20%.Whether you agree with this or not, your waiter or waitress will be working for that tip, and they often go above and beyond the call of duty to make sure they give good service, up to and including arguing with the kitchen to get you a different dish, or serving extra portions.
When you eat in a restaurant, calculate the tip on top of your expected meal costs, and no one’s going to be unhappy.
America is a non-smoking country.
Don’t underestimate this. If you’re Greek, it may well ruin your holiday. Here in Europe, we have many a regulation about where and how you can smoke, but eventually people get away with smoking just about anywhere.
The fact that you can buy cigarettes even in supermarkets highlights how smoking Europe is.
America is different. Littering is taken seriously, and police will stop you to ask to put your cigarette out if you’re outside a designated smoking area. It makes for preternaturally clean sidewalks, but it also makes for a bewildering lack of tobacco stores. The tobacco stores you do find have almost no selection either, so if you smoke a brand that’s not originally American, bring your own from home.
Most prices are tax-free.
There is a long standing myth that everything is cheaper in the States. This is only partially true. Certain electronic products are priced in US dollars, and their Euro equivalent is carried over without conversion.
A 500 USD phone may end up costing 500 or more Euros, which makes it cheaper in Dollars. However, you’re forgetting one thing: every price you see in the States does not have local VAT calculated in.
This applies to everything, from clothes and electronics to food. To make things more complicated, food has a lower tax than other goods, which means that if you’re not good at maths, you better bring a calculator along. A 4.99 meal may end up costing you anything between 5.30 and 5.70, depending on the state you’re in. Manufacturers set a price across the States, and then each state adds whichever tax they settled on.
As soon as you arrive, find out how much your VAT is going to be, and make sure you don’t end up overspending in taxes! If you plan on making expensive purchases, you can always request a tax back form if the state you’re in supports them. Guess what? Not all do.
America is big.
If you only visit a single city, this one may not really hit you. If you visit more than one location however, and especially some more suburban ones, be prepared for a long drive to get anywhere.
Europe is cozy, crammed in, and people get used to cars being an optional transportation method in all but the most suburban areas. American city designers had fewer space restrictions than their European counterparts, however, and this shows.
Driving over to the next town could mean a 50 kilometer excursion through the woods. Visiting the closest shopping mall typically involves a 5 to 10 kilometer drive within the same city. The place’s massive, folks, and calculate that in your plans. You’re not going to be able to walk everywhere, and you’ll have to rely on public transport or your own car far more than you would over here.
It’s a different culture.
America is a familiar place, and that will work against you. Because people dress, look and talk very much like everyone you know back home, you may be tempted to assume you share the same cultural baggage.
You don’t. Chances are that you cannot name the 50 States, and you cannot clearly describe what the FBI or CIA do. The cultural differences between the various sides may escape you, and everything you know about the United States of America you learned from movies and television, or whatever filters over international debates.
You should be aware of the fact that the people sitting across from you are the same. I was very irritated when, flying home from Seattle to Amsterdam, the check-in attendant called her supervisor to find out whether my British passport allowed me entry into the Netherlands, or whether I needed a Visa.
I seethed. After all, who doesn’t know the member list of European countries? Well, I don’t know the member list of American states, so I could not pretend that they know mine. Be patient, and enjoy the differences.