USA Travel Tips: 31 Things That Surprise Visitors to the United States

Published on June 10, 2020 by

“Normal” American customs and habits that visitors from the rest of the world find unusual and a culture shock. 50 states, 328 million people, nine time zones and over 16,000 McDonald’s restaurants – welcome to the United States of America. Even though the US is large, and quite diverse, these are definitely some things you’ll encounter that are typically “American.” From super-size drinks, to smiling at strangers, I’ll give you a rundown of some typical American culture shocks.

Washington, D.C. is the capital of the USA, and New York City is the largest city in the country, with around 9 million residents. Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas and San Jose round off the top ten most populated cities in the USA.

1 – Overly Friendly
At a store or restaurant you might be greeted with a How are you? How’s it going? Serve as greetings… almost like hello. At the cash register you might get asked what you’re doing today, for the weekend… If there’s nobody in line behind you, you might be treated like you are their long lost friend. More in the small towns than the big cities… Particularly in Hawaii. It is the Aloha spirit after all. And yes.. In New York City you’re sure to meet the “rude” New Yorker stereotype as well.

2 – Except at your arrival at the airport
Unfortunately it seems like everybody is treated as a terrorist entering the USA. Expect the CBP agents to be quite the opposite of friendly. Visitors generally describe them as scowling, gruff and rude. It’s largely a post 9/11 thing. Its security theatre

3 – Smiling at Strangers
Very typical in the USA if you make eye contact that person may smile at you. Maybe even a head nod to go along with it. Even if you’re just passing someone on the sidewalk.

4 – American Pride
Flags flying on schools, on rooftops of houses…, red white and blue attire, and patriotic parades are all ways you will see American pride displayed.

5 – Fitness is a way of life
Wearing athletic clothing everywhere… gyms on every street corner. People running, jogging, biking everywhere. Even in teeny towns it won’t be hard to find a gym and a tanning salon. To fit in carry a bottle of water wherever you go.. Particularly in some fancy reusable bottle.

6 – The US is really big — attractions are far away
Las Vegas to grand canyon… pick another hotel. Makes for really good road trips.

7 – Prices without tax
Prices are almost always displayed without tax.. And no signs to tell you how much the tax is.. Until you get to the cashier. Tax rate changes depending upon city, state, and what you’re buying. Food, groceries, items.

8 – Tipping
We tip for everything it seems like. 15% for lunch.. 20% for dinner. $1 for coffee.. Want to know more.. Watch my video all about tipping.

9 – Resort Fees
A fee at hotels.. That supposedly cover “resort like” amenities like pools, gym, wifi… really just a hidden increase to the room rate. Can sometimes be in excess of the room rate itself. $45 resort fee on a $20/night room in Vegas is typical. Watch my video on Resort Fees for more.

10 – Not tourist friendly
Few Tourist Information Booths
Hard to find tourist maps

11 – Lots of Homeless in big cities
Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Hawaii

12 – Freeway Driving
Expect to do alot of driving on the freeway. We take the freeway for 10 minute trips. Sometimes its called the highway, interstate, or just “the 5.” In some parts of the USA there’s etiquette that the left most lane is the passing lane.. And only to be used when passing.

13 – Distracted Drivers
Driving in the USA is generally safe, and drivers are generally polite. But the levels of alertness are quite low. Most drivers are on internal autopilot… not paying attention to their surroundings. If you have to merge in, you might feel they aren’t letting you “in” — it’s likely they just aren’t paying attention. My rule of thumb is to pretend I’m invisible, and nobody else can see me.

14 – Valet Parking Only
In many big cities, restaurants and hotels may be 100% valet parking. You’ll often pay for the privilege… and spend 15 minutes waiting to get your car back.

15 – Zip Code for Credit Cards at Gas Station
Gas stations are popular places to use stolen credit cards, so many gas station pumps ask for the zipcode if using a credit card. Obviously this only worked for folks with US Cards.
Try “99999” if you have an international card.
Or add a “0” in front if you live someplace with a 4 digit post code like Canada or Australia.

Or your debit card with a PIN. Last resort… go inside and pay with your card.. Go back inside and get a refund for unspent amount.

16 – If you aren’t driving it might be hard to get somewhere
Many cities/neighborhoods are designed for driving only… and you’ll find as a pedestrian there might just not be a good way to get somewhere.

17 – Public Transportation
Barely functional in most US cities
NYC, Boston, DC, Chicago are the exceptions
Light rail is making a comeback

18 – Trains are lousy
For 99% of the US population, train travel isn’t a “thing”
With the exception of the North Eastern Corridor (DC to NYC)
And California (Pacific Surfliner)

19 – Confusing Currency
The bills all look the same… and the coins are impossible to tell the value by quickly looking at them. Why is the dime smaller than the penny? Why do we give them these weird names? The quarter makes sense.

20 – Asked for ID for alcohol
Even if you’re 70 years old. They aren’t singling you out… they ask everyone.

21 – Air Conditioning
We like our indoors spaces to be cool. That means lots of A/C. Particularly in Las Vegas. Need to go outside every hour to “thaw out.” If you’re not used to regular A/C… you might want to carry a light jacket with you.

22 – Public Restroom Toilet Door Gaps
On the bottom, and the sides. I don’t like this either.


23 – Global Cuisine but we love chains
As different cultures have settled in various parts of the US they’ve brought their cuisines. Miami has great Cuban and Haitian restaurants, Washington DC is superb for Salvadorian and Ethiopian. LA, SF, and NYC have pretty much everything. Middle of the country… might just be KFC, and Pizza hut.

24 – Huge Portions
Do not feel the need to finish what you have been served. Getting a “to go box” is quite standard and expected at many restaurants. Also called a doggy bag. Large size drinks at well (In-N-Out Korean Girl Story). FREE Refills.

25 – Disposable Everything
Paper plates, plastic cups and cutlery… ketchup packets, salsa cups.. We have lots of little tiny disposable things.

26 – Overattentive servers
Many diners might be used to ordering, and being left alone. But “good service” in the US means they check in with you regularly to see if you need something, like a refill on your drink or your water. Check how you’re enjoying the food. They generally aren’t actually rushing you.

27 – Ice
In everything. If you can drink it.. We put ice in it. Soda, tea, whiskey, water… best served with lots of ice. You can ask for “no ice”

28 – Sweet
Often visitors find “American” food to be too sweet. If you’re in the South, the iced tea is always sweetened. The drinks at fast food restaurants are usually all sweetened. Breakfast… everything tastes better with maple syrup!

29 – Milk
You’ll have 1,000 choices for milk… 2%, 1%, Skim, Soy, Almond, Oat… maybe even from other animals like goat milk. But ask for “whole” milk and you might not find it.

30 – Cheese is all the same
American, Swiss, Cheddar, Mozzarella, Provolone, Pepper Jack
But the one that surprises visitors the most is our squirtable cheese in a can.. Particularly popular on Philly Cheesesteaks. Want the liquid cheese? Ask for it “With Whizz”

31 – Huge stores
American supermarkets are a thing of beauty. Want bread? Stroll the bread aisle that’s like a mile long selection of bread. Want strawberry jam? There might be 10 or 20 different brands of strawberry jam.


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