I live in Europe and I'm not American... but I do like to travel to the USA every now and then (usually two times per year). Mostly business mixed with leisure. When my friends want to go to the USA they ask me for tips and tricks. So I thought I'd write a blog post hoping, that my American friends (as well as my other European friends who also travel to the USA) who read this blog will add their tips in the comments. Please do. I'm by no means an expert.
Prices in America
Well, American currency is US Dollar and you're expected to use this "green" currency. What you will not expect when you come here for the first time is that pricing in the USA is "different". In Europe the prices you see are the final prices. If something costs 10 EUR, that's what you pay. Our VAT ("value added tax") is included in the price. In the USA the prices don't include the "sales tax" which varies in different states (or even counties) so if something costs $10, it usually costs $10 + ~ 8-10% sales tax which means it costs you almost $11 dollars. And the tricky part is that some shops do display final prices. But only some. Most don't. You'll find out what you'll have to pay only at the cashier.
Prices in the restaurants get even trickier. If you're ordering $10 burger, it will cost you that, plus sales tax plus a tip (aka. "service fee") of around 15%. Meaning a $10 burger will cost you at least $13 bucks. And it's not like in Europe where you give a 5-10% tip "if you like the service" - they expect you to pay 15% every time. If you want to pay the full price for your meal without sales tax and tip, get a $2 hot-dog from a hot-dog stand in Manhattan, NYC :-)
Other than that, prices in America for most goods are lower than in Europe, so once you've understood how the system works and don't feel ripped off by the taxes and tips, you'll enjoy better prices than on the old continent in the Euro-zone.
Renting a car
Distances in America are seriously huge so unless you're going to NYC-Manhattan with great metro-public-transport system, go get a car. Now this part gets tricky as there are many sites advertising great prices but many fail to mention the insurance. The car-rental companies make it even more difficult with various insurance options and it's easy to get lost. My basic health insurance for travels doesn't include car insurance in the USA and chances are your doesn't too, so make sure to purchase CDW (Collision Damage Waiver) with your car rental - it basically means you're not responsible for the car "at all" and it costs from $15-40 per day and many price-comparision web sites failed to mention it.
I've had many strange experiences with renting a car where I'd rent quite cheaply and then see I'd have to pay around $30 a day for insurance. That's why I recommend companies like Alamo where they put the insurance in the price right there. I've also had a car from Enterprise, Budget (where I overpaid for insurance) and others but I keep coming back to Alamo. Whatever company you choose, make sure it's pretty close to the Airport terminal and rent a car for the whole stay. It's very convenient to get from the plane to the car and later drive back and go straight to the terminal. And one more thing - get a big car - usually the price difference between compact and mid-sized or even full-sized cars is minor ($10-$20 for the whole stay) and it's really comfortable to travel in a bigger car.
When driving, mind the signs on the roads, especially when it comes to parking. They have "street cleaning" and some parts of the streets are parking only at certain hours. I learned this the hard way when they towed away my car - this lesson cost me $250. It's cheaper to spend $20 for overnight parking in a big city.
As America is a car-friendly country, you can find a motel almost anywhere. Cheap motels (around $50 per night) can be really good at times, most are fully equipped and are relatively clean. If you're not on a budget, I recommend hotels around the $100-$150 price range which are really good. These "Inns" offer breakfast (more on that later) and very big rooms, mostly with flat-screen TVs and big bathrooms (and very often have swimming pools). If you choose "Hyatt Place", "Hampton Inn" or "Holiday Inn Express" you can't go wrong with either of them.
In big cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York City... double or even triple (in case of NYC) these prices. It's a whole different world out there.
The motels and inns usually offer "continental" or "american" breakfast which basically means no veggies, but coffee, waffles, scrumbled eggs, bacon and yoghourts. Your most important skill will be to learn how to do waffles - I love it :-) Even though the breakfast is by no means complete, it's great to be able to wake up, go to the breakfast room and have some coffee and something to eat without dressing up and all of this.
You might not consider traveling to the USA for shopping purposes but think again. This is a shopper's paradise. The electronic gear is cheaper (laptops, cams, Apple products) - just remember that there will always sales tax added to the price. Clothing is a lot cheaper than in Europe. As I'm trying to live a lot more minimalistic life now, I've basically given away my old clothes and buy only a little of each type of clothing... and I buy them in the States and I buy them from the best brands (quality-wise, I'm not a show-off :-) in the huge Outlet stores in the USA. Now I really enjoy my jeans, my polo-shirts, my pants, everything. Just find an Outlet Mall on your way.
To compare the prices let me give you an example: An original Polo Shirt from Ralph Lauren costs in Europe 100 EUR. In the States it's about $75 in Macy's, in the RL official outlet store it's $45 and in Marshall's Store (where they have many brands) it can cost $35 (~25 EUR). It's still quite expensive for just a shirt, but I have only a few of these and I love wearing them. Again, becoming a minimalist teaches you to buy yourself good things, but few of them and only the ones you truly enjoy wearing.
If you go to Macy's - you can find great prices there. First off, get yourself an "international traveller's card" - just ask any cashier - it's 10% off on almost everything you buy (after all the discounts) and shop around first in their online store. When you go to their store and see something that costs more than in their online store, they have to match this price. My wife does it all the time. And she loves purses from Macy's :-)
Cosmetics from companies like Clinique or Estee Lauder is half the price (compared to Europe) so if you use them, buy them in the States. I use after-shave from Clinique and it lasts me for half a year (and I shave daily) so I bought two for an entire year worth of shaving :-)
As for electronics gear, this is a paradise for me - they have more gadgets than anywhere else, especially if I need a certain type of thingy for my iPhone or iPad, I'll surely find it here. And I do. Usually Best Buy and Apple Stores are my travel points :-)
Most hotels offer some kind of Wi-fi connection, but it's usually crappy. But it works. Starbucks and McDonalds offer free Wi-fi and more and more coffee shops do that, too. Apple Stores have the best Wi-fi - I'm writing this post at an Apple Store in Los Angeles (in the Grove).
Do you have more tips for me?
That's it for now, in my next posts I'll focus on West and East Coast as I've travelled some here. If you've also traveled to the USA, please share your tips below in the comments! I hope my American friends will also contribute with their tips as they actually live here.