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Road trip USA for Aussie noob
April 17, 2009 6:09 PM   Subscribe

International Travel novice: What do I need to know that I don't know that I don't know?

I'm Australian (from warm Queensland), meeting a friend from the Netherlands in the USA (Florida) in February 2010 for a two month road trip that will go through Canada (via Texas, California, Washington and many other places - itinerary mostly not set in stone yet) with the aim to concentrate on mutual internet friends, natural beauty and historical places. Tourist attractions (like Disneyland), not so much.

I know that I need airline tickets (but when do I book?) and a passport (what about visas?). What else do I need to know? Tips on packing (buy my winter stuff there?), on flight luggage, changing currency, paying for things over there (travellers cheques? Will my debit card work? What about my Mastercard? Will I have to pay fees for exchange of currency?). How much will it cost? How much would you set aside per day for living expenses if you were doing it cheap? What about powering my battery charger for my camera - should I be the converter here or there? Storage for my photos?

What should I have asked in this question that I didn't think to ask? Books and websites much appreciated as well as personal anecdotes.
posted by b33j to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
If you're traveling 'cheap', check out hostels as a less expensive sleeping option.

For all the 'little' things like power adapters, I recommend collecting those while in Australia and keeping them in a particular place. For storing photos... you could bring a laptop and download to the laptop or you could rent time at a cybercafe and download to a site such as Flicker.

Another decent site for travel ideas is Boots'n'All.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 6:24 PM on April 17, 2009


Australia (other than the water draining in the opposite direction) is very much like USA/Canada.
Your MasterCard will work fine basically everywhere. It is linked to the Cirrus Network which available all over. You might consider getting a VISA or bank account linked to The PLUS network to cover your bases. Take your current bank card and flip it over, if you see either of these logos your are good to go (and by this I mean take out cash at a bank machine). I'd suggest looking up which USA and Canada banks belong to which program and have that info with you when you travel.

The "fee" that you will pay for this is whatever your bank charges you for using an international machine plus the exchange rate. In my experience, I have never received any fees from using my or my husband's VISA all over the world other than the exchange rate.

As for travellers checks, they seem soooo last century to me. Mr. SaraDarlin travels internationally frequently since 2003 and there has NEVER been a reason to get the travellers checks.

I'd suggest bring a few hundred US dollars with you (for small things) then put everything else on your VISA/MASTERCARD.

What else, bring the adaptor with you. You will not want to bother running around electronic stores here when you first arrive. Depending on how long you will stay in the southern states, I'd buy my cold weather gear here (maybe at a thrift shop then leave it behind before going home).

This trip sounds like a lot of fun!!!!

Make sure to visit the Pacific North West (Oregon coast and British Columbia, specifically).
posted by saradarlin at 6:29 PM on April 17, 2009


Definitely buy the converter in Australia, you may find it harder to get one that goes the correct way in the US, at least here, they're everywhere.

Australia is party to the Visa Waiver Program for the US, but you still need to do an Electronic Travel Authorisation online. In any case, when you go to a travel agent (or book online), they will explain all this anyway.
posted by ryanbryan at 6:47 PM on April 17, 2009


We drive on the right.

Seriously, though:
posted by oaf at 7:48 PM on April 17, 2009


Are you renting a car or buying one when you get here? At two months plus milage, I'd bet you could get a decent used car that you could hopefully resell at the end of the trip.

If you buy, I'd definitely get a AAA membership (at least I think you can get one as a foreigner). If you break down, run out of gas, or just outright get lost, you can call them and they'll help you out. They also give you free maps and things, though it may also be well worth dropping $200 on a GPS system when you get here and reselling that too.

For two people doing it cheap, I'd say you're looking at $10-15 for gas per day depending on how much you drive, $5-10 on food if you're smart about it, $25-40 per night in a motel, and we'll say $5-10 daily average in random expenses. So, $45 per day on the low end, $75 on the high end, all after basic start up costs (car, airfare, clothes, converters, whatever). At least that's how I'd do it for cheap -- $1350-$2250 for a month in the US with lodging, travel and food actually seems pretty reasonable to me.

You could do it for less than $45/day for sure, particularity if you're spending a large portion of time in the US in the South and West and avoiding long stretches of time in major cities -- probably as low as $15-20 if you didn't move around every day, cooked for yourself, and slept in a van/pickup/SUV/stranger's living room. I'd make sure you have at least $1000 per month though.

That's the cheap version. I think the moderate version may be closer to $100/day average, if you figure a restaurant meal of some type each day, the occasional $20 admission cost to whatever, hotel each night, spending some time in cities, beer, whatever. Though I feel like I may be criticized for these numbers being a little high, I think they're close.
posted by joshmcconaha at 7:50 PM on April 17, 2009


Definitely NOT traveller's checks. Everyone except a bank will treat you like a leper. You'll be 100% fine with your credit/debit cards as long as they have the Visa/MC logo. You'll just want to be sure to have cash with you on long stretches through the middle of the country, and you'll want to get your cash at banks or major-bank-affiliated ATMs. Random ATMs in gas stations, etc, will rape you with extra fees.

I think you'll have more fun shopping for clothing here, and of course you'll have a better idea of the temperature and what you'll feel like wearing once you're on the trip.

Buy your converter in Australia. The only thing you'll be able to find here is a converter for Americans bringing their electronics abroad, not for your vice versa. There's also a difference between an adaptor (to change the shape of the plug) and a converter (to change the voltage). Many appliances, like your laptop, things that have a big black square as part of their cord, work with both electrical currents and only need an adaptor to go from one shape plug to the other. Small things like blow dryers can be bought really cheaply here.

What kind of camera do you have? You might be able to just buy a charger cord here. Maybe call the camera manufacturer and ask; that'd save you a lot of trouble, I think.

I think a lot of things can be bought here cheaply and conveniently; we are the land of the big-box store, if I'm not mistaken. You'll be passing Best Buys (electronics), Targets (clothing), and Wal-Marts (everything) until you're nauseous. Since you're a travel novice, you won't really know things that you'll want/need until you know more about what you need to be comfortable on the road.
posted by thebazilist at 8:13 PM on April 17, 2009


The Electronic Travel Authorisation that ryanbryan mentions can be completed through the Homeland Security website's online process. There are dodgy operators out there who will charge you a fee for completing this process, so make sure you go through the US government's own site -- it is, after all, a free process.
posted by impluvium at 8:15 PM on April 17, 2009


Oh, and get travel insurance. It is a must for any international travel, but even more so for the US. Huge medical bills and all that.
posted by ryanbryan at 8:21 PM on April 17, 2009


I don't recommend travellers cheques, they are more trouble than they're worth, and credit/debit cards work just fine.

I don't recommend buying a car, because aside from having to get AAA coverage in case you break down, you will need insurance, and that will cost an insane amount since you aren't a resident and don't have a US license. Even if you got a license immediately upon arrival, with no US driving history, it would be hilariously expensive.

If you want to do some of your travel on the cheap and have some fun, you could camp - especially nice in some of the national parks, in which case, buy your tent here, at a walmart or something.

Consider the weather in February. While Florida, the south and Southern California will be fine, as you travel north things will change fast. For example Yosemite National Park (which isn't really very far north in the big scheme of things) will be partially closed, as will most mountain passes. So once you get to the route-planning stage, be sure to check estimated weather conditions and road closures for that time of year.

Seconding oaf on being tolerant of well-meaning (but bizarre) questions about your accent, nationality and lifestyle. Many Americans find that British/Australian/Kiwi/South African all sound exactly the same to their ears.
posted by Joh at 8:37 PM on April 17, 2009


Try to order the right converter from the manufacturer. I've seen a lot of electronics burned up by cheap converters.
I always travel light and buy clothes at Walmart for the local weather. Sometimes I watch the weather for tomorrow and buy them one day at a time. The good news is, winter clothing has gone on clearance, and most parts of the country aren't that cold by now anyway. (70's in Chicago lately, which is in the middle of the country.)
posted by unrepentanthippie at 9:01 PM on April 17, 2009


For clothing, I recommend you pack to dress in comfortable layers (t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, sweater, and a hooded wind/waterproof jacket that fits over all of that... possibly thermal underwear for under your pants too) - that way, when you get to Canada you will be prepared for the colder weather with ease. If you're not warm enough, put on another sweater -- you don't need a giant parka. Even if you get here in March, it will probably still be cold.

Make sure you have mittens/gloves, a scarf, and a knitted cap (we call them toques ("tukes")!)... but you can probably pick these up last-minute for cheap at a walmart if you don't want to pack them at the outset. These also do a great job of keeping you warm and comfortable.
posted by lizbunny at 10:07 PM on April 17, 2009


buy my winter stuff there?

On this point, I'd argue for bringing a little of what you as a Queenslander think of as "winter stuff" - a windproof jacket, a hat, a sweater or two - which'll get you through the southern US portion of your trip, and then purchasing increasingly thick and insulated clothing as needed throughout the northern US and Canada. The range of options will be far beyond anything you can find in Australia and the cost will be significantly less.

My bet is that few stores outside of mountaineering/skiing outfitters in Qld even sell real winter clothes, whereas every deep-discounting department store in Canada sells cheap long underwear and mitts and toques. And having spent June of '08 in Melbourne, which as I gather amounts to something at the harsh end of Aussie winters, I can tell you that there's basically nowhere in Australia even vaguely analogous to Canada in Feb/March. A bitter-cold Melbourne winter day, for example, is what we think of as a glorious spring afternoon.

Oh, and should you be so inclined, you'll find an incredibly vibrant underground labour market in every ski town in Canada populated almost exclusively by fellow Aussies. If you want to spend a couple weeks making a little money at a Canadian ski resort like Banff or Whistler or Fernie, I bet you'd have no problem making that happen.
posted by gompa at 10:30 PM on April 17, 2009


(Oops. Except not Whistler in February 2010. It'll be an Olympian zoo.)
posted by gompa at 10:33 PM on April 17, 2009


Forgive me if you already know this, but you Aussies invented the Lonely Planet guidebooks, the best thing that has happened to budget travelers since . . . well, ever. The "Directory" section at the back of each book has country-specific information on logistical stuff -- visas, immunizations (which you won't need for North America), public transport, typical store hours, common scams perpetrated against tourists, how to get an international driver's license, etc. etc. etc. The books are also useful for cheap restaurants and accommodations (including hostels and campgrounds), though inevitably you will find that getting listed in the Lonely Planet magically causes prices to go up a bit. I'm absurdly passionate about these books -- my very first solo trip was with a Lonely Planet in my backpack, and I feel like a learned everything I know about traveling from them. I travel a lot now, and that row of marked-up guide books on my shelf is like a trophy and souvenir rolled into one. (/end commercial. Seriously, I love those books. Get one and you will see.)
posted by TheLittlestRobot at 10:55 PM on April 17, 2009


Maybe save Canada for the next trip (in spring or fall)?

If you've never even seen snow, the risk of February driving conditions in Canada shouldn't be taken lightly. The snow storms or even just snow blowing from fields can cause visibility to drop to nothing or the road can have patches of dangerous black ice. Also, driving for long distances on unfamiliar roads in harsh conditions doesn't sound like my idea of fun.

If you do end up driving up here, remember to sip liquids because the heater in the car can quickly parch your throat and give you a bad cold. Also put cream on your hands to keep the skin around your fingernails from cracking.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:28 PM on April 17, 2009


Not a fan of the Lonely Planet books. They're overpriced and full of innacurate information, for SE Asia and China, at least.

YMMV etc
posted by the cuban at 2:16 AM on April 18, 2009


If you want, you can mail your winter clothes to yourself. If you don't know what address you will be at, but know where you want to pick up your clothes within a 30-day range, have a friend mail your things to the US Post Office via General Delivery. This means, it is mailed to the Post Office, and they will hold it for you there, for 30 days. You just go to the Post Office to pick up your mail.
posted by Houstonian at 4:28 AM on April 18, 2009


Seconding oaf on being tolerant of well-meaning (but bizarre) questions about your accent, nationality and lifestyle. Many Americans find that British/Australian/Kiwi/South African all sound exactly the same to their ears.


I'm from NZ and I've visited the US several times and never really experienced this. Though I did once get mistaken for a homeless person and was being shooed away till the guy heard my accent, asked if I was Aussie, and, when I corrected him, started talking to me about LoTR.

The advice about cards above is good. Do change some money at the airport in Australia; every time I go to the US I waste time trying to find a cash machine at the airport (yes, they are there, but they're hardish to find). So get a couple of hundred bucks to get you through your first day.

Make sure your flight doesn't go via Auckland; you really don't want an extra three or four hours on top of the flight from LA.

Be prepared at security: belt off, pockets emptied, shoes ready to take off. Don't hold people up.

Take earplugs, an eye mask. Consider valerian root (or maybe melatonin) to help you get to sleep on the flight. Don't drink much alcohol or caffeine. I try to get onto destination time as soon as possible - so I might stay up really late in order to wake up at the "right" time at my destination. I like flying in flipflops because my feet get really hot; YMMV.

You will need to have your return ticket with you in order to exit Australia.

You will need to have a place to stay in the USA. You will need to declare this when you apply for travel authorisation, and when you get to immigration. (It only has to be for your first night; a hotel is fine, you'll need its name and address - so book in advance).
posted by Infinite Jest at 4:31 AM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


- Depending on your intinerary if it is beautiful mountain scenery you're after you'll find that most of it is not very accessible in Feb-April in northern areas - so really do your homework in terms of where to go and weather conditions during that time to avoid disappointments

- Be polite to all airline/immigration/airport security staff everywhere - not the time to crack jokes/be flippant no matter how stupid the questions they ask seem to be as they can and will stop you travelling

- As somebody said you'll have a stop somewhere after a very long first leg, you'll be going through immigrations, recheck your luggage and then may have to wait a few hrs for your connecting flight which will also be a few hours - you will be VERY tired by the time you get to Florida - make sure you have somewhere to stay very close to the airport and don't contemplate picking up a car until you have slept.

- negotiate for the best rental deal - this will include you calling the companies not just doing it online - the prices quoted online are not considering people using a vehicle for two months.

- You only want to change minimal cash before you travel - all airports will take cards and it is normally cheaper to withdraw cash abroad even if there is a small charge as the exchange rate is normally better

- Be sure to store your various cards in different places - at least if you lose your debit card you've still got your credit card and vice versus and have the numbers to call to cancel any written down somewhere

- If you are going to be driving the whole trip sat nav is brilliant - consider bringing a portable one with us maps/buying one when you get there as the extra cost this adds to car rental for two months would probably make it worth buying one - nothing like being on lane four of 8 lanes of motorway to find you really need to be in lane one or 8 because the road is about to split in three...

- But buy a cheap road atlas when you get there as sat nav is brilliant if you know exactly where you're going and to tell you points of interest including petrol stations, supermarkets and motels near you but will not help you when you want to change your route and work out where you want to go instead...

- in terms of budgeting for your trip have a vague idea of places you want to stay for a few days and your options for accommodation there - having to find somewhere to stay the night at short notice can add a lot of unexpected cost and in the northern areas during winter/spring sleeping in your car is not an option

- also do an estimate of miles you'll drive and then add a 25% to that and use that to budget cost of fuel - due to the distances it soon adds up

- if you are looking for inspiration for routes I'd also consider looking on some tour operators sites - their intineraries do normally cover the key beauty spots and are organised moderately efficiently in terms of not zig zagging back and forth - you'll rack up enough miles as it is.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:47 AM on April 18, 2009


If you're from Queensland, I'm not sure you've ever experienced winter the way one can experience it as Artic wind barrels down the Canadian plains or that the other posters have emphasized it enough.

Even if you only head north toward the end of your two months, toward the end of March you could still give Spring a miss. For instance, today it's supposed to hit 70 degrees (Farenheit) in Boston. This is going to be the warmest day of the year here so far, and it's supposed to go back to 40's (F) and rainy tomorrow.

Down South, Texas and the like, the Daffodils will start to come up in mid-February and the temperature will generally start to moderate. This doesn't mean that a majority of the country couldn't suddenly be enveloped in snowstorm that strikes half the continental USA and Canada as late as the beginning of March. This especially holds at higher elevations.

Nthing recommendation for bank card/atm, AAA, electric converter.

Also, I'd have to think that if you hit a snag on your travels a local MeFite would probably be willing to help you out. We seem pretty generous in that regard. Don't be afraid to MeMail me at least if you hit trouble in my vicinity. Public Libraries often have free computer/internet access.
posted by MasonDixon at 7:17 AM on April 18, 2009


For the flight, strongly recommend an inflatable neck pillow. Lost mine a couple trips ago and I regret not replacing it. It makes the difference between actual dozing vs nodding off and jerking awake every 30 seconds.

A couple travellers checks will not go amiss (if your bank issues them for free). Saved my butt when VISA arbitrarily put a block on my debit card during a bank holiday. To avoid this, notify your cardholder that you will be travelling outside the country.

International Drivers License if you plan on driving.

Backpackers for accommodation in cities, like in Oz. Cheapest motel chains are near highway interchanges.

Clothing is cheap here at the Targets and the WalMarts but you will need a car to get to them. Better to buy second hand at Goodwill or Salvation Army in nearly every town. Flip flops (jandals!) for showers.

Misc: small padlocks for your bags if you're hostelling/backpacking; a calculator to sort out exchange rate for prices; folding umbrella; a small compass to get yourself oriented to your map; small calendar to keep track of the days; liquid soap is less messy than a bar of soap.

Yeah, it's overwhelming at first, and all the guidebooks are confusing, but it will sort itself out once you get here and people will be glad to help you. If you get stuck, look for someone who most closely resembles you in age/appearance/attitude and ask them what they'd recommend.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 10:11 AM on April 18, 2009


I just want to say that travellers cheques are very handy if your wallet with your cards in is lost/stolen.
posted by djgh at 2:23 PM on April 18, 2009


Thanks heaps! Yeah, I marked everything as best answer because everyone gave me useful information, lots of stuff that had never occurred to me. Luckily, I won't be driving (my Dutch friend who has experience in these conditions will) and our accommodations costs are way down because our route is kinda dictated by visiting every one of our Internet friends. I'm normally very polite with bureaucrats (I was one, a long time ago, and remember how rude people got fucked over for being rude) but it's a very handy reminder. Unfortunately the period of our travel is non-negotiable, I will be without obligation for a short time, and my friend has her holidays then. It's also likely to be the only time I visit the US and Canada, so even if it's snowing, I'm damn well going to look at it. We're both mature women (40+ so we shouldn't get into too much trouble).

Thank you!
posted by b33j at 2:31 PM on April 18, 2009


Airline tickets - sale deals for that period probably aren't available yet, but it should be reasonable because it is after school holidays and winter in the US. I would wait a few more months before buying them as I haven't seen any specials for that period yet. I find the Best Flights newsletter alerts me to good deals.

For long haul flights, I now try and book the most direct route. Sometimes it costs a little more, but I know that the reduction in time and exhaustion is worth it to me. A short (one hour) stopover is fine, as it is a leg stretch. Anything else is tedious. You will have to stop in LA or perhaps San Francisco. As someone suggested, if you are going straight through to Florida from there, work out your accommodation and how you will get to it ahead of time as you will be buggered.

Passport - only takes about 10 working days once you have put in the forms, but I suggest doing it now so that it is not a source of stress in the lead up to your trip. If you do get caught short, you can pay a fee to expedite it and get it done within one week.

You may have reciprocal access to AAA if you are already an RACQ member - contact them to ask, and while you are at it, you can get an international driving permit through them too. It may not be necessary for the US, but it may be useful.

Banking - typically you will be charged exchange fees if you use your credit card, and you will be charged a fee plus exchange fees (or a single larger fee) if you use your debit card. Your usual Australian debit card will work at most ATMs in the US.

Definitely get travel insurance.

For the adaptor, I recommend looking for one that does most countries. I have one that will take any sort of plug and allow you to plug into almost anything by pulling out the set of pins you need. If you are going to start travelling more often, it is great to have just one that will see you through all countries.

For photo storage, most digital storage media is so cheap these days that you may as well just buy additional cards.

Clothes are much cheaper in the US than Australia - so I would buy there.

Your mobile phone may not work in the US - check to see if it is a triband or quadband phone. If you intend to only use it for emergencies or VERY brief calls, check on the roaming arrangements your phone provider has for the US/Canada. Calls on international roaming can be VERY VERY expensive - check the rates before you leave, if you intend to use it.

If your phone is not locked (or can be unlocked) and is tri/quadband, you may like to buy a prepaid mobile card once you get there. It is handy to be able to call ahead to accommodation etc and see if they have a vacancy, rather than drive around.

Luggage - personally I prefer a soft bag with wheels. I don't overload it so I can still carry it up stairs if necessary. Large hard suitcases are difficult to get into taxi boots and get in the way if you are staying at someone's house. I used to use a backpack, but I just get tired of having to carry it through airports etc. Packing purists will suggest just using a small soft bag and not packing too much (as the wheels are extra weight in themselves and perhaps prompt you to pack more than you could otherwise carry), but as I travel for work and have to carry large piles of documents in hard copy, this doesn't work for me.

Learn about tipping in the US. I don't understand it properly, so I can't give advice!
posted by AnnaRat at 5:01 PM on April 18, 2009


I should have said that your stopover at LA or San Francisco will NEED to be longer than one hour to allow you to clear immigration and customs, and reclear into security. However, if you book this as a single ticket, the airline will make sure you have enough time (or it will make it easier to rebook your connecting flight if you do miss it).

You may get the best flight price and flexibility by having a return ticket to LAX, and then booking the other flights (LAX -> Florida, Canada->LAX) separately. However, if you would prefer to have them all in the one booking, this is a time to use a travel agent and not the internet, as they have more experience at booking open jaw tickets (arrive in one place, depart from another).
posted by AnnaRat at 5:05 PM on April 18, 2009


In terms of bags think about ease of packing and unpacking the bag as well as having to lift into/out of car frequently - you will be living out of your bags and less is definitely more. You may also want to give the content and design of your toilettry bag some thought for the same reason - you'll use it twice/day every single day.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:12 PM on April 19, 2009


I recommend calling your bank and telling them that you'll be out of the country, so they can expect overseas charges on your card. Give them the dates and the countries you'll be in, including any stopovers. You might like to also ask them what banks you can use to withdraw cash in the US and Canada without attracting extra fees. When I first went to the UK, my bank told me to use Barclays to avoid fees.

Travel insurance - I get mine through the YHA. You don't need to be a member and the price is cheaper than if you got it direct from QBE. I have never claimed anything, so I don't know how good they are from that perspective, but I strongly recommend getting it - especially considering the cost of medical care in the US.

Get some US cash before you go and get it in a mixture of denominations so you have small bills for a bottle of water at the airport or something like that. And keep a close eye on what you're handing over, because all their bills are the same colour and it's easy to hand over a larger bill than you meant :)

If you're going on the cheap, I find the Rough Guides better than the Lonely Planets.
posted by andraste at 6:08 PM on April 19, 2009


Just saw this question and realize you may have already planned a great deal, but I think I ought to tell you about this: The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass. Eighty dollars, and you can get into every nationally-administered recreation area we have here in the U.S.A.--and that covers a lot of ground, most of which is very interesting. For my money, I'd say that this is the best deal in America. You only need to visit a very few parks to make it pay off, and many of those are on your route. Not sure if they offer a similar deal in Canada, but I imagine they do.

I've never been to Queensland, but from what I understand of it, our winters here are of a completely different breed from what you get there. (I live in San Francico but grew up in Minnesota.) I strongly suggest buying your northern-winter gear locally, and that you seek locally-experienced advice north of the 35th parallel. I expect you'll have this, but feel free to contact me if you require it. (Sneak preview: Layering? Yeah, you know, like was popular back in the 80s? Guess what! That is your new best friend!)

Good luck! It's a great country. Huge, difficult, and inhospitable in places, but we have some lovely places in the States, and for my part, I'm always happy to show a visitor around. If your travels bring you to San Francisco, let me know, and we'll have a pint.
posted by tellumo at 11:29 PM on October 12, 2009


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