America: it’s a lot like the rest of the English-speaking world. Except when it’s not. The good thing, if you’re travelling there for the first time, is that you’ll probably have watched a fair amount of US TV. So you won’t giggle too much when you hear the words 'fanny pack' or if a man introduces himself to you and says “Hi, I’m Randy”. (OK, that last one isn’t true: you know you’re going to chortle. Just a bit. But try and be discreet.)
But, language aside, here are my top ten tips for a non-American travelling in the States.
If you’re on a Grand American Adventures holiday, someone else will be doing the driving, but before or afterwards you might find yourself behind the wheel. Driving in the States is pretty straightforward as all rental cars are automatic. One slightly strange rule, to us anyway, is that you can turn right on a red stop light in most states. But it can be quite unnerving to go perfectly legally through a light and have pedestrians crossing the road in front of you – they have right of way and you must stop.
Talking of stopping, if you see a yellow school bus dropping off or picking up, if it stops and flashes its lights to let kids on and off, you have to halt too - even if you’re on the other side of the road.
How come that 99-cent burger ends up costing $1.09? Because tax is different in each state, and it’s added on at the point of sale. But you’re in luck in New Hampshire and Oregon where there's no sales tax on goods. So a great place to buy that new laptop or camera?
Speaking of shopping...who doesn't love a bargain? Prices, especially on clothes, are usually always lower than in Britain. But you can make even more savings by signing up to email alerts from companies like Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy. Yes, you'll be bombarded by emails for a while but just unsubscribe when you're home. The point is that among those emails you'll get one that says something like "present the code below this Tuesday only for 40 per cent off regular prices". So it's a bargain on top of a bargain!
You want travel insurance for when you go to the States. There is no NHS. If you end up in hospital it is going to be a very, very, very expensive experience. You may think £100 to cover your trip is a lot of money, but that won’t even buy you a sponge bath in Ward Ten. Seriously, don’t think “it’ll never happen to me”. Buy travel insurance.
In Britain we’re used to 12.5% per cent service charge being added to restaurant bills. If a tour guide does a good job, we generally assume they have been paid well already and that’s their job so you probably wouldn’t add anything more. In a taxi you might round up to the nearest pound. Well, that’s not how things operate on the other side of the Atlantic.
As a service-oriented country, America expects you to tip accordingly. In restaurants, waiting staff are usually not paid minimum wage and it’s expected that tips take things up to a 'normal' liveable salary. That gratuity amount is generally 18 to 20 per cent of the bill. In a bar, if you don’t tip at least a dollar a drink don’t expect to get a second round. Everyone from hotel doormen to Uber drivers expects a little something extra. Just factor it into your budget. Yes, even your lovely Grand American Adventures guide.
Don’t worry about forgetting shampoo or toothpaste at Heathrow, because in most American towns and cities you’re literally never more than a block away from either Walgreens or CVS, America’s equivalents of Boots and Superdrug. Or so it seems. And there’s something weirdly exotic about coming back with a bag full of foreign lotions and potions.
DOGGY BAGS (AND TEA)
Portion sizes in America are much bigger than in Britain. If you've had enough and want to take some food away there is zero shame in asking for a doggy bag.
And Americans just don’t make tea like the Brits and Irish. You might get some mildly hot (not boiling) water and a tea bag with all the strength of your Gran trying to arm-wrestle a toddler. Try coffee. Or, when it’s hot outside, get used to iced tea. I think it's really refreshing, although I realise I am in a small minority of English people who like it: in the south of the US it automatically comes sugared unless y’all ask for it not to be.
Here's some good news. In general the Americans really love us Brits, and it’s true that just saying the word “water” will have them thinking you got a double first at Oxford.
But they do sometimes cling onto a few interesting idea: London is always foggy, we live next door to the Queen, you probably dated One Direction, and Ireland is linked to England by bridge. (OK, I’m exaggerating…but only a bit).
Talking of pronunciation if you want to fit in, say Los Angel-less (not Los Angel-ese), New Or’luns (not New Or-lee-ans) and even Americans get a bit eye-rolly when we say Mary-land rather then their truncated habit of Merry-lund.
Petrol comes in gallons, ice cream comes in pints, weight loss commercials come in pounds, breakfast TV weather comes in Fahrenheit and baking ingredients come in cups. No, I don’t understand either, but there you go. They use miles like we do, though. Phew!
America is a glass half full country. The answer to any question such as “how are you?” or “how was that dessert” is “awesome!” In fact the answer to any question really is just “awesome!” Don’t be British and say “well I’m sort of alright but I think I have a bit of a cold coming on” or they’ll just think you’re weird. You’re awesome!
Will Hide is a London-based travel writer who spent 12 years on the travel desk of the Times before turning freelance. He still writes regularly for the Times as well as the FT, Telegraph and numerous magazines. You can follow his travels at Been There, Done It.