United States

13 Thoughts a Foreigner May Have When Visiting the USA

November 6, 2017
thoughts visiting usa

First visit to the States in 2013 – Austin, TX.

Whenever you travel to a new country, you’re going to inevitably make comparisons – to your own home country, wherever it is you happen to now live or other places you’ve travelled to.

Personally, I love visiting the United States. I’ve been a bunch of times now, each trip has been enjoyable in its own way and I hope to have many more in the future. Yet, it’s one of those countries that really throws me. This is because it seems very familiar (thanks to pop-culture and the fact that most Western countries do share a lot in common), but there are still many subtle differences that spin me out.

These are all thoughts I’ve had at one point or another when visiting the USA. Have you had any similar?

thoughts visiting usa

Hands down favourite building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

1. “Tipping… I wish I understood it better.”

Coming from a country where tipping is not really a thing, this is a source of constant confusion.

What’s an acceptable amount to tip when eating out? How much should you tip when the service has been horrible? Where the hell is the calculator app on my phone?! These are all questions I’ve had to ask myself at restaurants and cafés across the United States.

The first time I visited the US I knew I’d have to tip at restaurants, but had no idea that tipping was required in other scenarios too – from taxis, to getting my nails done. Sometimes it’s blatantly obvious and comes up as an option at payment, other times not so.

Why is there so much food on my plate? - and other thoughts when visiting the USA. Click To Tweet

2. “Why is everyone being so nice to me?”

Some of the nicest people I’ve met whilst travelling have been American, but I’m also consistently blown away by the generosity I encounter within the United States.

Particularly in NYC, which I’ve always expected to be like other big cities, where no one talks to one another and it genuinely feels like a dog-eat-dog world. Yet, I’ve encountered acts of extreme goodwill in this city more than anywhere else in the world.

Take 2013, when I left my phone in a taxi and the driver not only came out the next day to return it, but refused money in return for doing so. Or my most recent trip to the city, where a lady gave me her Metrocard at the airport, which still had three days worth of travel on it, coincidently the amount of time I was spending in the city.

It’s random acts of kindness like this that make the world go round.

thoughts visiting usa

I can’t fit all this food into my stomach. SF, 2013.

3. “The US is like Europe… each individual state feels like a different country.”

If you were to pick one word to sum up travel in the United States, you might pick “diversity”. I’ve stepped foot in eleven states (twelve if you count stopping for petrol in Mississippi… no. I guess that’s cheating) and travelled through around five more and have been blown away by the difference in the vibe, accent, landscape and often general attitude of each one.

I can sort of understand why many Americans don’t travel outside of their own country… why would you when there’s so much to see on your own doorstop? I also realise that’s not the whole reason many within the States fail to leave their own backyard – this blog post is not the place for that discussion.

4. “I have been defeated by these portion sizes.”

You certainly get a lot of bang for your buck when ordering out in the USA. I don’t exactly have the appetite of a sparrow, yet I regularly fail to finish everything on my plate. The portion sizes are so big and it’s no wonder that 30-40 percent of the country’s food supply goes to waste.

The second time I visited the US, I thought I had the upper hand on how it worked. I was sat at LAX during a layover and hungry, so I went to a restaurant and ordered a “cup” of soup rather than a mug and an appetiser of nachos. “Ha ha,” I thought. “I am clever.”

Not really as it would turn out, when the cup was a regular bowl size and the plate of nachos as big as my head. I stuffed myself full and suffered from terrible indigestion the entire 15 hour flight back to Sydney.

thoughts visiting usa

To be fair, Hawaii is far away enough to justify this fact.

5. “I wish travelling between States was less upsetting.”

Speaking of flying, it’s pretty easy to be left traumatised every time you do this domestically within the States.

I know there is a very obvious reason for all this security… but it’s a lot to deal with. From the full-body scanners, to the effort of having to nearly strip yourself bare when passing through – there was even a new rule last time I flew, dictating that all food had to be pulled out of your bag for security.

This is particularly irritating when the person in front of you has seemingly bought up the entire confectionary section at the local Walmart.

6. “Why do the taxes get added on at the till?! I hate surprises.”

This is one thing I have never been able to wrap my head around. WHY DOES IT SAY ONE PRICE ON THE TICKET IN THE SHOP ONLY TO JUMP UP IN PRICE WHEN YOU GO TO PAY? WHY CAN’T THE FULL PRICE JUST BE PUT ON THE ORIGINAL TICKET, SO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE SIGNING UP FOR? WOULDN’T THAT MAKE MORE SENSE?!

I’m sorry, but I’ve been caught out by this so many times and it upsets me.

thoughts visiting usa

Touristing around Atlanta.

7. “Why is everything so much cheaper here? We get bloody swindled at home.”

It would be perfectly justifiable to travel to the USA just to shop. Everything is inexpensive compared to that at home… particularly the electronics. Want a comparison? The new filter I want for my camera lens is $210 in Australia and $50 in the States. This is why I cry into my pillow every night, particularly after looking at the state of my bank account.

My favourite trip ever was when I travelled over during the very short period when the Aussie dollar was stronger than the USD. Oh man, that was great fun. I arrived with one pretty much empty suitcase and returned home with two filled with tack from antique stores in Seattle and shoes from ALL THE SHOPS.

8. “This is such a pleasant place to be a tourist in.”

The USA is a great place to travel to, because there is just SO MUCH TO DO. There’s something quality to see in every city – art galleries, local sights, the most obscure and interesting museums. I find the National Parks to be very accessible. Every State you go to has a different experience on offer, which is something to be appreciated.

thoughts visiting usa

San Fran is pretty no matter what the time of the year.

9. “How is this country so gosh-darn beautiful?”

And it is an undeniably pretty country. The States have taken my breath away time and time again. Sprawling desert, gorgeous beaches, snow-capped mountains, urban jungles. And that’s just the mainland – Hawaii is so pretty it makes my heart sing and Alaska is at the top of my “desperately want to travel to” list.

10. “At least there is another country that’s kinda failing at public transport as badly as Australia.”

United we stand, right? Just like my home country of Australia, the USA is car-centric and it can be very difficult to get around certain parts of the country without one. Public transport is necessary in cities like New York (and seems to work moderately okay and there is Wi-Fi in the subway, a novelty I will never get over), but is largely abandoned in other cities, even if it is pretty half-decent. One example of such is the MARTA in Atlanta, which costs a ridiculously cheap $2.50 to travel on and seems to remain largely unused throughout the day.

thoughts visiting usa

Germs seem to be a big concern in Miami.

11. “Why are people so funny about germs?”

Just an observation as a grubby Australian, but the USA is definitely a lot more obsessed with cleanliness than other parts of the world. There are hand sanitisers everywhere and I’ve noticed people are funny when it comes to handling money (refusing to touch it, wearing gloves, etc) – particularly in Florida, oddly enough.

When paying in Australia and England, you just jam the change into each other’s hands, without batting an eyelid. I tried to do the same to a guy in Fort Lauderdale when going to the cinema there and the attendant actually backed away from me.

Money is covered in germs, so it makes sense, I guess!

12. “This country is very wheelchair accessible.”

An understated fact that doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves. This is an issue that affects someone who I love very, very much and as such, I find I’m always unconsciously sizing destinations up, to see if they meet the requirements for travel there. The USA often goes above and beyond to makes sites accessible, with wide pavements, wheelchair lifts and decent-sized hotel rooms.

thoughts visiting usa

It never gets old.

13. “SQUIRREL!!”

…Maybe that’s just me.

What thoughts have you had when travelling around the USA?

Pin me baby one more time.

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40 Comments

  • Reply Rosie November 6, 2017 at 10:23 pm

    I never did get my head around the tipping system in the US (or Canada, for that matter). I guess I’m just so used to only tipping if I have particularly good service over here that tipping for average service/’just doing your job’ seems a bit of a strange concept. I remember a friend who’d emigrated to the US telling me that if she was eating out in the evening, she’d fast all day as the portion sizes are too big otherwise. It didn’t quite make sense until I experienced the gigantic portions for myself…

    • Reply LC November 7, 2017 at 12:38 am

      Ha yeah I was surprised about Canada – never occurred to me that you’d have to tip there as well as I think of them being more like the UK or Aus in most regards. Although can’t stand the service charges that have appeared in cafes and restaurants across London – it really should stay as a choice rather than something which is mandated (I know you can ask to take it off, but realistically how many people are going to kick up a fuss about it?). Smart move on your friend’s part!

      • Reply Rosie November 9, 2017 at 8:23 pm

        Canada surprised me the most – I bought a drink in a cafe/bar the first day I was there, and the server just went “You know you’re supposed to tip”. Talk about awkward! In the UK, I’m pretty easy about being the one to ask for the optional service charge to be removed, especially if the service hasn’t been that great. I bet a lot of people don’t bother – though a good way of phrasing it is to ask if the service charge actually goes to the server, or whether it just goes into the company’s pockets 🙂

        • Reply LC November 12, 2017 at 10:12 am

          The exact same thing happened to me! I felt awful. Sorry Canada…

  • Reply Diane November 7, 2017 at 9:13 am

    So much truth! Sharing on FB. I’m looking forward to being a tourist in my own country starting next week when I fly home for Thanksgiving. Can’t wait to stock up on affordable makeup and other goodies. 😉 One question, though. Why are squirrels such a novelty? French people (my husband) seem to get tripped out at the sight of them in the US… but there are squirrels in France so I don’t get it! Please explain!

    • Reply LC November 7, 2017 at 8:15 pm

      Hope you have a great Thanksgiving and happy shopping! I guess it’s because they’re so heavily imbedded in American culture which we in turn are saturated with. I get excited seeing the grey ones in their natural habitat too, despite them being in London. I was like “damn you foreign invasive species!” whenever I saw them in the UK. Yet in the States it’s more along the lines of 😱 I guess it’s like people getting excited over roos – I’m like “um, I ate kangaroo for dinner last night” (true story).

  • Reply Simon November 7, 2017 at 2:48 pm

    Just so you know, the London underground had wifi the entire time you lived there, only on platforms/in stations though, do they have it in the train tunnels in NYC also?

    • Reply LC November 7, 2017 at 8:10 pm

      Yeah but that depended on who you were signed up with, didn’t it? In NYC I was freeballing on airplane mode.

      • Reply Simon November 7, 2017 at 9:39 pm

        I think you were fine with any UK provider because fuck tourists. Funny I always assumed you had to have a traceable UK number so people didn’t use the wifi to set off remote bombs anonymously, but if that’s the case the Americans would be all over that no?

        • Reply LC November 7, 2017 at 9:43 pm

          Apparently not!

  • Reply nat November 7, 2017 at 9:44 pm

    Yes to tipping and the squirrels. I agree, the cost of public transport is generally so cheap and fairly decent (well if you want to visit the main attractions). The other thing that I was amazed about was the fact that tap water + ice was always automatically given when you sat down at the table, with the straw and the piece of wrapper at the top!

    • Reply LC November 7, 2017 at 10:12 pm

      Yeah! I hate ice in my drink, so that is frustrating. All the places I ate it during the last trip were actually quite good – some put a wrapped straw down separately, but there were no straws in the cup + wrapper debacles, thank goodness.

  • Reply Alyse November 8, 2017 at 3:17 am

    So much YES for #6 and #7!!!! I ended up getting one of those virtual US mailbox addresses so I can buy and get stuff shipped to Australia for cheaper than what is to buy here. And don’t get me started on the added tax at the checkouts. Seriously, why not just add it on the ticket like everywhere else!!

    • Reply LC November 12, 2017 at 9:48 am

      That’s a really good idea… I might look into doing that (although I’m worried my spending would then get out of control!). Yeah, it seems like such a no-brainer… even if it does change from state to state!

  • Reply Megan November 8, 2017 at 6:01 am

    Hahhahaha I love reading things from other people’s point of views! It is so funny as someone who has grown up there but lived in various other places along the way!

    Oh portion sizes. I loved this personally because I had food for the next day, but I actually find portion sizes here in UK (where I’m at now) or in Germany to be equally as large, if not larger. Germany is just out of control with them, but the UK I didn’t really notice until I came here a month ago. I ordered a curry the other night and it was a curry for like 16 people. I was gutted to leave before finishing like 1/8 of it because I had to catch a bus and couldn’t take it with.

    I don’t mind the added tax, but I guess foreigners dont’ realize that every single city and state has different tax levels… so that is why it is added at the end. I actually like it because it offers transparency. In Europe, I find it frustrating when I pay an arm and a leg for something in the shop only to have no idea how much the markup is on the actual product vs. the taxes and whether I’m getting screwed over or not!

    Our public transport situation is shameful and embarrassing. No other way around it. And in some cities, it is FREE. And people don’t even know it exists.

    We are definitely germophobes. I used to not order a lemon atop my water for fear someone touched it w/ their hands hahhaha.

    The things that surprise me when I go home these days are definitely the friendliness, the lack of plastic usage on produce in stores (like WTF Europe!?… I’ve had nasty discussions w/ headquarters of like every shop in Germany and Norway and now being in the UK I just am astounded by it), and the fact that whatever you hear in the international media gives a sense we all hate each other whereas when you are there you realize how skewed it is and that we all pretty much get along! Something my boyfriend notices is that everyone owns a dog. Like, everyone. And they go everywhere with us. I never noticed it until he pointed it out.

    Such a fun post to read! Makes me miss home a bit, minus our horrific public transport situation hahahah.

    • Reply LC November 12, 2017 at 9:53 am

      Hey Megan, glad it gave you a few laughs!

      In Oz we have GST (Good and services tax) added to stuff, the percentage of which remains the same across the country and they possibly by law have to print the wholesale price along with the added tax on the receipt. The final number on the ticket is what you take to the till. I guess it’s what you’re used to, but I definitely prefer knowing what I need to pay before making the payment.

      That’s crazy about PT being free and people not using it! Would personally be all over that like a rash.

      Oh, don’t get me started on the plastic in European stores… Tescos and the like make me cry. And agree with the dog thing – pretty much everyone I know in the States has one, even more so than in Australia where we are also dog mad. I can get behind any pooch loving country! 🙂

  • Reply Roxanna November 8, 2017 at 10:03 pm

    Wow LC this actually made me a little teary eyed, as an Midwestern American. When we travel abroad we constantly worry about how others perceive us. We expect that they think we are loud, arrogant, fat, rude, and wouldn’t bother to learn a bit of the language. Then, because we assume people are looking at us that way, we can pick out other Americans in a second.
    Every time we sit down and have dinner or drinks with locals, we learn how they perceive our culture so differently than we do. They want to know more, they want me to explain the sheer size and openness, they want me to swear, (because it sounds so normal and fluent, haha. ) So I guess we stereotype ourselves, constantly. Thanks for writing this story. I will also be sharing on FB in a couple days!

    • Reply LC November 12, 2017 at 10:00 am

      Aw, no problem Roxanna! I need to get to the Midwest one of these days. I think Aussies and Americans have a lot in common and it’s a sentiment that doesn’t bother me one bit. We’re definitely getting a worse and worse reputation overseas, so I know what you mean about stereotypes. It’s not a fun brush to be tarnished with.

  • Reply Katie November 9, 2017 at 7:46 am

    For me, all the billboards, the massive highway systems, strip malls everywhere, so much fast food and the crazy drug ads on TV (may cause blindness or death) are all the bad things that I notice when I return there after being home in NZ for a while, but I love the openness and friendliness of the people, the National Parks and how cheap gas and food is. Oh, and Trader Joes! I always miss Colorado – my other home – and I can’t wait to get back there again early next year

    • Reply LC November 12, 2017 at 10:00 am

      The National Parks are amazing! Colorado looks so beautiful – what a great second home to have!

  • Reply Shibani November 11, 2017 at 10:40 am

    Ha ha…love reading through it. I actually never knew they serve too much on the platter 😀 I’m yet to visit USA, I’ll keep all these points in mind 🙂

    • Reply LC November 12, 2017 at 10:05 am

      Hope it helps for when you do make it out there!

  • Reply Exploring Curiously November 11, 2017 at 10:27 pm

    Being an American, this was amusing to read! As for tipping – it throws me off when I travel because lots of places you do tip, but lots you don’t. And I don’t want to be too stingy or generous. Wifi helps me a lot when I first get to a new country 🙂

    • Reply LC November 12, 2017 at 10:04 am

      Yeah, I’ve got it wrong so many times. Wi-fi is definitely great in that regard.

  • Reply Emily Hines November 11, 2017 at 11:15 pm

    Favorite observation… Squirrel!

    • Reply LC November 12, 2017 at 10:04 am

      I would go as far as saying it’s the most important point on the list. 🙂

  • Reply Katherine November 11, 2017 at 11:40 pm

    Hahaha, yes to all of the above! I had all of those moments, probably numerous times too. I still hate that tax gets added on at the check out. It’s so annoying.

    • Reply LC November 12, 2017 at 10:03 am

      I know, right? How is it that hard to put it on the damn ticket?!

  • Reply Brianna November 12, 2017 at 12:17 am

    As an American, I love reading these kinds of posts. And I totally agree with all of these! If you think NYC has friendly people, you need to visit the Mid-west. We are known for being almost annoyingly friendly and helpful 😛

    • Reply LC November 12, 2017 at 10:03 am

      Argh, I know, I need to go! I love annoyingly helpful people.

  • Reply Miranda Menelaws November 12, 2017 at 4:00 am

    As a Canadian now living in Australia, I definitely like the Aussie way of doing things compared to North America (for the most part). Now when I visit home I also have the same frustration with the surprise tax on everything you purchase and working out tipping again. So unnecessary!

    • Reply LC November 12, 2017 at 10:03 am

      Thanks Miranda! It’s heartwarming to hear that we do some things right.

  • Reply Emily November 12, 2017 at 6:35 am

    I love this omg. As an American, I also hate that tax isn’t added in and wish that people were just paid a living wage because tipping is confusing haha.

    • Reply LC November 12, 2017 at 10:02 am

      I agree with the living wage thing. I don’t know whether to be concerned or not by the fact that so many Americans find tipping as confusing as I do, haha.

  • Reply Cody Biggers November 12, 2017 at 9:38 am

    As an American living in Taiwan, we’ve definitely gotten used to the no tax added sales, not tipping, and smaller portions. Now we will just split something at a restaurant rather than try to eat the whole thing when we go back.

    • Reply LC November 12, 2017 at 10:02 am

      It can be economical when done correctly, for sure!

  • Reply Sarah November 12, 2017 at 5:16 pm

    SO interesting to read an international perspective about my country! You included a lot more positives than I expected 😉

    • Reply LC November 12, 2017 at 6:30 pm

      I like the place a lot!

  • Reply Agra George November 16, 2017 at 3:22 am

    Ha. Ha. Money is covered in germs! The article made me laugh at times.

    • Reply LC November 17, 2017 at 9:35 am

      Thanks! That’s always my intention, so hearing that warms my heart.

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