Find out how to save money and enjoy travelling around the vast USA with ease.
My personal list of handy USA travel tips. All first hand knowledge - written during all my travels in USA.
All the tips have been categorised into sections. Just click on each tab to fully open and start reading.
BANKING AND CURRENCY
- Exchange rates are better and fees lower in city centres compared to the airport. For example, I arrived at Miami airport on 1 Sept 2017 and wanted to change AUD to USD. At airport the exchange rate was 0.67 + USD8.95 fee. Whereas at the Lincoln Miami Beach the exchange rate was 0.74 + USD5.00 (under $500).
- The main currency exchange companies I came across were CXI (Currency Exchange International) and Travelex. I found that CXI always had better rates.
- Alternatively, you can withdraw cash from any ATM. Check with your bank if they are affiliated with any international banks to save you money on ATM fees. For example, I was able to withdraw from any Bank of America ATM without being charged a fee.
TRAVEL BY AIR
- Read the fine print of any domestic flight bookings you make within the US. I booked a regular scheduled flight with American Airlines but the booking process was similar to a low cost airline. I had to pay USD25 at the airport to check in my luggage and had to buy meals on board.
- Hawaiian Airlines also charge extra for each bag checked in on the inter-island flights. However, if you join up on Hawaiian Airlines rewards program, you get a discount, USD15 instead of USD25.
USA travel tips - cities
- LAX Flyaway is the bus company that provides a transfer service between LAX airport (all terminals) and the Bus Plaza at Union Station in downtown LA. It's a 30 minute ride for USD9.75 (based in 2017). It's quicker than taking Metro Rail, which involves two metro changes before reaching Bus Plaza. They also have services to Hollywood, Long Beach, Van Nuys (San Fernando Valley) and Westwood. More information can be found on https://www.flylax.com/en/flyaway
- Big Blue Bus is the cheapest way to travel from LAX to Santa Monica or Venice Beach for USD1.25. However, it doesn't do hotel drop offs, just the standard street bus stops, Then you will either need to walk or take a taxi direct to your accommodation. Check the Route 3 or Rapid 3 maps on their website for bus stop locations. https://www.bigbluebus.com . In addition, at the airport you have to take LAX Shuttle C bus from the terminal to the nearby City Bus Center in order to catch the Big Blue Bus.
- LAX Shared airport shuttle vans: If catching the above buses sounds like too much messing around, then book a shared airport shuttle van. The two authorised companies are SuperShuttle and Prime Time Shuttle. Or order a Uber. However, compare the prices first. If there are two or more people travelling together, sharing a taxi might be the cheaper option!
- If you're into finding bargains at Outlet Shopping, read the following blog for detailed information on each shopping outlet complex in L.A. - The best outlet shopping in L.A.
- T-Mobile sell a tourist prepaid SIM card for international travellers without being locked into a contract. 3 weeks of talk/text/data for USD30. They don't seem to have a shop at LAX airport but they do have several stores around the city. You can compare prices with AT&T too.
- There are many railway systems in place and can be difficult to locate where to find the information. There a are basically two systems in place.
1. Metro Rail - it's like LA's subway to get around from downtown city to areas like Santa Monica (Expo Line) and Long Beach (Blue Line). Some parts are underground, some above ground. Cost is USD1.75 per 2 hour ride. You have to purchase a TAP card (USD1.00) at the ticket machine and pre-load the card with credit. As there is no refund on unused credit, it is simpler to load with money for each journey you do. This card includes travel on Busway too.
2. Regional Rail - for travel outside of LA city.
a) Amtrak - for destinations all over the state and beyond.
b) Metrolink - an upmarket tram system (nice trains!) also to destinations outside of LA downtown. It is slightly cheaper than Amtrak with more frequent departure times. For example, I went from LA to Fullerton for USD8.50 with Metrolink or USD12.75 with Amtrak. Note - Amtrak offers free WiFi on their trains but Metrolink doesnt.
- The best supermarkets for fresh foods, organic, vegan and gluten free stuff are Wholefoods, Sprouts and Trader Joes.
- Don’t want to shop in a large shopping mall? If you prefer the outdoors, then stroll down Melrose Ave, in particular between La Cienega Blvd and N La Brea Ave for a shopping, dining and entertainment experience. TG Tip: if you’re visiting on a Sunday, do check out the outdoor flea market at Melrose Trading Post.
- If you’re ‘donating’ money at one of the many casinos, head to Circus Circus for one of the cheapest buffet meals on the strip. All you can eat at Circus Buffet for USD19 for brunch (breakfast and lunch) and USD21 for dinner.
- Run out of money! You can be entertained for free by the evening outdoor shows such as dancing fountains at Bellagio or erupting volcano at the Mirage.
- Travelling from L.A. to San Diego by car can be horrendous. Our 1.5 hour journey became 3.5 hours with the Friday afternoon traffic. Alternatively take a comfortable, stress free, scenic Surfliner train ride instead. It's 2.5 hours but great way to see the coastline.
- Staying in the Gaslamp district in downtown San Diego can be noisy at nights because it is the active nightlife area of the city. Lots of bars to choose from such as Shout House for live pianists playing and singing your requests, Whisky Girl for loud dance music and Double Deuce to ride a mechanical bull! Fifth and Forth Avenues seem to have most of the bars.
- The best supermarket for fresh juices, fresh food, organic, vegan and gluten free stuff is Jimbo’s Supermarket, located lower floor in Horton Plaza Shopping Centre.
- It is easy to do a day visit across the border to Mexico. Just take the Blue line trolley to the last stop (US$2.50). Next, change some money into peso’s at the US border as it has slightly better rates than the other side. Go through customs to get your free 7 day visa, then you’re in Tijuana! However, the Mexican side is not organised for independent travellers. I recommend paying for a local guide to show you the sights as there is no tourist information or signs to show you how to get around or which bus to catch. We were so glad we had the excellent Martha as a guide – Tijuana Walking Tours.
- Highly recommend taking the ferry across to Coronado Island and view the beautiful San Diego skyline. There are a few shops and cafes at the ferry landing but take bus #904 to make your way to Hotel Del Coronado on the other side of the island. It is a beautiful Victorian styled white and red hotel on the beach. There cocktails are US$18 but the view and beach was worth it.
- For history buffs, go to Balboa Park. In the San Diego History Centre you can watch a movie on the history of the area plus there are exhibits and artwork in other buildings. Nice gardens to relax in too.
- If staying in Pacific Beach area and you like shopping, the only decent place for artisan knick-knacks, clothing & jewellery is at Pangea. Located on Garnet street, it contains 70 small stalls, so a lot of variety to choose from.
- Pacific Beach is the place to be if you prefer a long 8 mile white sandy beach rather than a city centre. I highly recommend the World Famous restaurant overlooking the beach. Then walk off your lunch by strolling or biking along the long beach promenade, the Boardwalk.
- Ocean Beach is closer to downtown and is much quieter and laid back than Pacific Beach. Try some local brew at Culture Brewery. They even have gluten free beers.
- Use this website to find the cheapest or quickest way from SFO airport to downtown: https://www.flysfo.com/to-from/ground-transportation
- Where is the best place to stay in San Fran? Anywhere! I chose a hotel that was close to public transport, walking distance to Lombard Street and fairly close to Fishermans Wharf as I love seafood. So the Russian Hill or North Beach area suited me.
- Want free car rental? Then consider a drive-away service to see America on the cheap. Drive-away means you transport (drive yourself) someone else’s car to a cross-country destination. Once you arrive, you drop of the keys and car to the owner and continue with your holiday. Saves an airfare and you see the countryside. Research Drive-away companies and check their terms and conditions. For example https://autodriveaway.com/about-us/drivers/
- Columbus Ave is the street to go to for authentic Italian cuisine. This area used to be Little Italy but has diversified over the years but still houses some of the best Italian restaurants. The Stinking Rose is for garlic lovers as every dish contains garlic!
- To visit Alcatraz Island, you need to plan ahead and pre-purchase the tickets in advance to avoid missing out. Alcatraz Cruises is the official source for ferry tickets to Alcatraz Island, including entry fee and audio tour. It was an eerie feeling inside but well worth the tour.
- Basically the city is divided into two by Canal Street. American district to the west (warehouse district and apartment development) and the much nicer French Quarter to the east (full of souvenier shops, antique shops, bars and restaurants in French/Spanish style). Stick to the French Quarter.
- For the shopaholics, try the following: Riverwalk (a mall located by the river and port, full of small shops with souvenirs, arts and crafts), any street in the French Quarter (in particular Decatuer St, Magazine St, Royal St) and the French Market (5 blocks of shops along Decatuer St from Jackson Square to the Flea Market at the end of Esplanade Avenue). I found the souvenirs at the Flea Market the cheapest in town.
- Must visit Café du Monde for a café ole and their special donuts called Beignets.
- See the city by streetcars as 3 lines still remaining. There is a short line along the Riverfront, from the Port to the French Quarter. But I recommend taking the Charles Ave line where you travel through the warehouse and garden district. Lovely to see those grand mansions on streets lined with huge oak trees.
- If you want to feel like you’re in the Gone With The Wind setting, book yourself onto the Oak Alley Plantation tour.
- The cheapest way to get from Miami airport to South Beach Miami is to take the Airport Flyer bus which runs direct every 30 minutes for $2.65 each way. The buses are equipped with luggage racks.
- The Miami Beach Trolley is a FREE trolley service to explore from North to South Miami beach. There are four different loops and they have an App too.
- Esponola Way is worth a visit. In 2017 it was revamped and made into a pedestrian only street so you can exxplore the cafes and shops is an old bohemian district.
- For shopaholics wanting all the stores under one roof, take the Metrorail to Dadeland North and shop until you drop at Dadeland Mall.
- To get out of downtown Miami, head south to Coconut Grove. It has a cosmopolitan culture with colourful bars and boutiques. Nice to stroll around on a lazy afternoon. Definitely the place to be seen.
- Did you know that tours of the Pentagon are free! It’s a 1 hour tour, in strict military fashion and must be pre-booked online from 14-90 days in advance. That means you can’t show up on the day and hope for cancellations. Did you know that the Pentagon has its own shopping mall!
- Majority of Washingtons attractions and museums are FREE , such as Smithsonian museums, Smithsonian National Zoo, National Gallery of Art and the monuments along the National Mall.
- Do visit the federation styled, cobblestone streets of Georgetown. Known for its fashion/design shops, upmarket restaurants, and a lively nightlife.
- For the theatre buffs, you can save money by purchasing discounted tickets on the day at TKTS Discount Booths. There’s one booth at Times Square. You can save up to 50%. However, quite often there are no or very limited tickets to fairly new productions, popular productions and weekends are crazy busy. So if there is a particular show you want to see, then pre-purchase it. Otherwise, be pleasantly surprised with whats on offer. Another option is to put your name down on a lottery list at the relevant theatre itself. They draw out names before the show starts.
- If you’re staying in New York for a week, consider purchasing a 7 day MetroCard and explore different parts of New York by subway.
- The Canadian side has more action than the US side, with different types of tours, a restaurant/café strip and other attractions. However, the walk behind and under the falls (Hurricane Walk) was better from the US than the Canadian side. Both sides easily accessible by walking across the Rainbow Bridge for 50c per person.
- The only other attraction in Niagara Falls NY is factory outlet shopping called Fashion Outlets Niagara.
- To really appreciate this city, you need to spend at least 3 days here. One day to tour around the city to see the sights (trolley or hop on/hop off bus tours), one day to go into some of the many interesting museums/attractions and one day to explore the community neighbourhoods outside the Loo[. for example Chinatown, Polish Village, Little Vietnam, Ukrainian Village, Greektown, Little Italy, Pilsen etc.
- Although Willis Tower (the old Sears Towers) is the tallest building in Chicago with magnificent panoramic views, another option is to view the city skyline from 360 Chicago Observation Deck. If you’re game, try out their Tilt feature!
- The time of year plays a huge impact as to how much water you see flowing over the waterfalls. Early to mid summer is best, just as the winter snow is melting. One year in August, the Bridalveil Falls was just a trickle. The next year in the beginning of July, the Bridalveil Falls was flowing to capacity but it also meant we weren’t able to climb up the rocks like we did the previous year.
- If you plan to camp in Yosemite during the summer months, you need to book in advance. When we rocked up in July, they were fully booked until September, so we found a campground outside the park.
- Save your money doing a city sightseeing tour as I did find it a little boring. Instead spend your time wandering the downtown area with its lovely big bricked and stone buildings. And fit in some shopping at the Pike Place Markets and the Waterfront. I loved all the independent boutique stores selling locally made wares. Each store has its own specialty.
- Don’t trust the online weather forecasts for all the islands of Hawaii. They change their forecasts every hour you look at it. For example, the forecast for the following day for Lahaina was showers and thunderstorms but I woke up to blue skies with little cloud. So I was able to go and explore nearby island Lanai. Plus the weather can be completely different on each side of the island. So I recommend go with the flow by waking up and checking the sky and clouds yourself. Unless you know of a really good weather app or website.
- Free Wi-Fi does not exist at any Hawaiian airport, on any of the islands. Except for Honolulu international airport in the departures area (after clearing immigration) but it was available in one spot only and I didn't have success in connecting even thoughI tried for 10 minutes. Travelgroove Tip - stand outside the Prada shop and use their free guest Wi-Fi.
BANKING AND CURRENCY
- All Hawaiian bank ATMs charge a fee to withdraw cash, this is in addition to your own bank fees. It ranged from US $2.00 to US3.50 per transaction. On mainland USA there were no ATM fees for withdrawals from Bank of America. But it seems only Hawaiian banks exist on the Hawaiian Islands.
ISLAND - MAUI
- I highly recommend the book 'Maui Revealed' if you are traveling to Maui. It can save you time and money. The author gives his most candid opinions on everything, ranging from tour companies, restaurants and bars. And he gives lots of tips on what is good and what is not. For example, he takes every zip line tour on the island and measures the length and speed and tells you which has the best views. What a life! He updates it regularly.
- Walking along Front Street, the main street of Lahaina, you will see lots of tour booths advertising amazingly low prices for tours. Be aware, there is a catch. You have to go to a 2 hour Time Share/Hotel presentation. I was never tempted so I can't tell what sort of tour you eventually get booked on. I paid normal prices for my tours so I got on tours/boats of my liking.
ISLAND - OAHU
- On the island of Oahu, renting a car is cheaper from the airport than from their downtown Waikiki office locations. Don’t know why but that’s how they roll. Each car rental company have two different prices, for airport and downtown. So if you decided during your stay that you want to rent a car, it might be worth taking a taxi or bus back to the airport to pick up your rental.
ISLAND - KAUAI
- If you like hiking, you will find it difficult to get to the trails by public bus as they simply don’t go there. You’ll either have to rent a car, take an expensive tour or – and here is a great tip – join up to a local hiking Meetup group. I signed up on Meetup.com, searched for ‘hiking groups in kauai’, found ‘Kauai Adventure Group’ and joined up on their advertised hike to Waimea Canyon. The advantages are that I had company while I hiked, met local people and they were able to give me a ride as they lived close by to my hostel. I got see the islands natural beauty and make new friends along the way. I was even invited to a local yacht race later in the week.
- You can only rent cars from the airport. No local town offices anywhere that I could see.