How to Plan a Trip to the USA

Embark on a journey with me as I share invaluable insights gained from years of extensive travel and living experiences in the United States. Having explored the diverse landscapes, vibrant cities, and rich cultural tapestry of the country, I bring a unique perspective to guide you in planning an unforgettable trip. 

For many, a visit to the US is the trip of a lifetime. The country will impress you with its sights and sounds, friendly people, entertainment, shopping, and much more.

The continental US is huge! There is a wide range of experiences and activities that you can experience. Plan accordingly.

To make the most out of your visit to the US, you need to plan well. You won’t be able to see everything the country has to offer. Therefore, this Pxley story will provide you with an overview to make the most out of your visit to the US.

Note: I don’t receive kickbacks from any of the businesses mentioned in this story.

Viewpoint in Texas

How to Get There

You may decide to visit the US by booking a package tour or you might plan the visit on your own. Both the options are fine because one or the other should work best for you. For example, the tour operator may take care of all your travel arrangements including hotel reservations. On the other hand, planning the visit yourself gives you the flexibility of managing your itinerary and what you wish to see.

Most tour packages will have a person at the destination airport or provide you with detailed information on how to get to the hotel from the airport. They include a briefing session at the hotel where you will be staying. These hotels are usually away from the main tourist attractions and you will be bussed to different venues. If it takes time for you to get on and off the bus, it is polite to let others get on and get off first.

If you are visiting the US from India and booked your tour package through a company in India, your chances of getting Indian meals are high. While this is a favorable option for many, it leaves others with limited opportunities to explore local cuisine. At most restaurants, water is served with ice in a glass. If you are not used to drinking iced water, politely let the server know beforehand that you prefer water without ice. Hot water is usually served only when you order tea.

If you plan to visit the US multiple times I recommend you explore one region in depth at a time. This allows you to have a richer and wholesome experience.

Get some sleep on your flight to the US. Don't stay up watching movies. The rest will be useful and help with addressing your jet lag.

Signage in a State Park, USA

What to Expect

Immigration clearance at the airport will take a long time. Be prepared to stand in line for 1-2 hours. Airport baggage carts are not free. You have to pay to use a cart.

Americans are polite, outgoing, and friendly. But best not to ask them personal questions right away. 

Be respectful of people’s space. Do not touch anyone and this includes pets. Try to stay out of politics as Americans feel strongly about their political parties and elected officials.

Everything is big in the US—serving plates, meal portions, houses, supermarkets, cars, roads, etc.

Tipping is usually essential. At restaurants, a 15% tip is expected. At fast food places tipping is not expected. You tip for hotel housekeeping, bartender, bellman, taxi driver, etc. When you budget for your visit to the US, remember to add Tipping as an expense.

Try something different when it comes to food. There isn’t anything specific I can recommend in terms of “American food.” Maybe a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, biscuits and gravy, apple pie, tater tots, buffalo chicken wings, etc. You can’t go wrong with burgers and fries. Impossible Meat is a great alternative to a meat burger. Refills for Coke and Pepsi beverages are usually free.

Familiarize yourself with the Imperial as opposed to the Metric system. You may not be looking at the weather or talking about it as most Americans do but it will come in handy with regard to planning your days. Americans write dates in MM/DD/YYYY format rather than DD/MM/YYYY.

One thing that never changes in the US is its road and highway signage. It has a style guide, and I think that's brilliant!

Be aware of different time zones in the US. This will be useful for your flights, layovers or transfers, check-ins and check-outs, etc.

Don't be late.

Wind turbines within corn fields

When to Visit

The months of May through August are the tourist season in the US. Hotels can be expensive. Availability of rooms for your preferred days will have to be booked well in advance. Lines at venues will be longer, which means if you happen to be in New York City you can cover only two major attractions in a day. 

If you are visiting the US during off-season, you’re in luck. Major attractions are less crowded, which means fewer wait times resulting in more opportunities to explore. However, you might need to prepare for colder weather depending on the month of your visit. 

A factor to take into consideration is temperature. Summers are hot in the US—dry or humid—depending on which part of the country you are visiting. Unlike many parts of the world, air conditioning is common in the US, which means many stores, restaurants, hotels, museums, etc., are air-cooled. Winter temperatures can range from freezing to pleasant and this depends on where you are during the winter months. 

Semi transporting vehicles

What to Pack

Do not overpack. You can always buy clothes during your travels around the US. The What To Buy section has a few suggestions on where to buy clothes, shoes, and so on.

If you are visiting during the summer months, shorts and t-shirts are acceptable attire for most places. Pack jeans, polos, shirts, and comfortable shoes. Bring a hat or cap as protection from the sun or buy one from a souvenir shop in New York City or Chicago or Dallas or San Francisco. You’ll need a universal adapter.

For winter, layering is important. Pack woolen sweaters, gloves, scarf [muffler], etc.

If you can purchase a TSA-approved lock, buy one. This will allow the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] to unlock your checked-in bag, if needed, and they won’t have to cut your lock.

View of a State Highway

How to Travel

I recommend flights to save time for your destinations. If time isn’t a factor, you can travel by train that connects major cities with stops in a few towns. You can purchase travel passes online from Amtrak and some airlines, before your arrival in the US.

If you have an international driver's license, you can rent a car. You will need to be 25 years or older to rent a car. A few rental companies might charge extra if you are below 25. Check in advance what your travel and driver’s insurance covers. 

A road trip is the best way to discover the US.

Americans drive on the right side of the road. Leave enough space between vehicles when driving. Honking is frowned upon. Metered parking is expensive in the big cities. Remember that foot traffic has right of way. You’re not in Delhi or Rome anymore.

For travel within a city like Boston, Chicago, New York City, or Portland, I recommend public transportation. You can purchase subway or bus passes for a day or week and these are valid for transfers from a train to a bus within a stipulated time. You can also use services like Lyft and Uber for city travel.

View of a State Monument

Where to Stay

Staying close to tourist attractions would be expensive, nevertheless you would save on time and travel expenses. Moving a few blocks away from major attractions would make room rates competitive. Another option is to find a hotel close to public transportation.

If you are visiting Los Angeles, the major tourist attractions are quite a distance apart. Therefore, plan on what you wish to cover most and find a hotel in that location.

Motels are a cheaper alternative but they aren’t always located near major attractions. Use a reliable motel brand like Microtel. 

Hotel and motel rooms are air conditioned or heated. There are no ceiling fans. Some have a small fridge, microwave, and television. Soap, shampoo, and towels are provided. Some hotels serve breakfast and the food gets over quickly during the tourist season.

Tower viewer looking out into the waters

What to See

Include a visit to a small town if your schedule and finances permit. This is the America I recommend you experience at least once. Similarly, include a visit to a baseball or basketball game if your schedule and finances permit.

Visit a college or university campus. Access to certain resources at higher educational institutions can be free. For example, a public university provides you access to their library with guest web access to check your email or recharge your phone. In addition, certain lectures, performances, and art galleries are free and open to the public. A student or staff member can offer good tips to explore the town or city.

I highly recommend a visit to a National Park. They are spectacular! Some of the well-known national parks will be crowded during the tourist season. Try a national park close to where you are or depending on the activity you wish to undertake at the park.

If you appreciate architecture, add Chicago to your itinerary. Visit the Chicago Architecture Foundation website to learn more about their tours. Columbus in Indiana is a hidden architectural gem.

Nobody does showbiz like Las Vegas. There are about 25-30 live shows each day to choose from. Casinos galore. So are buffets. Wear comfortable shoes.

You can use a service like Viator “to find and book something you'll love to do.” Read the tour or activity details carefully—what it includes and doesn’t include, timings, etc. Check reviews. Some tours will have a hotel pick-up and drop-off option.

Inscriptions on stone

What and Where to Buy

Sales tax isn’t included in prices. If a price tag reads $9.97, you will need to add taxes to calculate the total cost. Plan your purchases accordingly. Tax rates differ from state to state. 

Don’t convert each purchase to your home currency. You might end up not buying anything. 

If you plan to bring back chocolates to give to your family and friends, I recommend the assorted packets at Walmart, Target, or another similar store. These are bite-sized chocolate, individually wrapped, and have a good assortment in a single bag. You can also buy clothing at Walmart and Target! 

In addition, check out stores like TJ Maxx and Ross for clothes. You can find brand names at a discounted price. Kohl’s and JCPenney have sales at different times of the year. If money isn’t a factor, visit the brand stores—from Coach to Oscar de la Renta to Tiffany.

For sandals and shoes, try Shoe Carnival or DSW or Famous Footwear.

You can visit an outlet mall that sells brand-name products at affordable prices. These malls aren’t in close proximity to tourist attractions. Therefore, check online and find one nearest to you.

If you want to buy an American souvenir that is made in America and labeled “Made in USA,” this can be difficult. You need to visit a local store that carries arts and crafts from local artists.

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