Money & costs
An economical US trip is possible, but it is very, very easy to spend much more than you bargained for, no matter what your travel style. Mode of transportation is a big factor, as is destination: US cities don’t chip away at budgets, they jackhammer them into pieces.
Only the extremely thrifty will spend less than $100 a day. A comfortable midrange budget typically ranges from $175 to $225 a day; this usually gets you a car, gas, two meals, a good hotel and a museum admission or two. Spending over $300 a day isn’t hard: just splash out a few times, drive a lot, and stay, eat and whoop it up in New York, Chicago, San Francisco etc.
We define a ‘midrange’ hotel very broadly (as $80 to $200) : in rural areas, $100 buys a princely night’s sleep, but in some cities, clean places start at $200. The same math holds for meals.
To travel on the cheap, plan on camping or hosteling ($15 to $25 a night), cooking some of your own meals, and touring by bus. It’s not hard, but it limits your flexibility and it’s slower (which isn’t so bad). Be wary of budget motel come-ons; the sign might flash $39, but it’s probably for a single and won’t include tax.
Traveling by car is often a necessity. A rental is a minimum of $40 a day (type of car, tax and level of insurance can push it higher), plus gas. Planning the great American road trip? Petrol could cost more than the car itself (say, another $20 to $40 per day).
Mainly, don’t forget the second part of that travel chestnut: after you halve your clothes, double your estimated budget, and it’ll work out fine.
Tipping is standard practice across America. In city restaurants, tipping 15% of the bill is expected; less is OK in an informal diner, while top-end restaurants expect 20%. Bartenders expect $1 per drink. Taxi drivers and hairdressers expect 10% to 15%. Skycaps at airports and porters at nice hotels expect $1 a bag or so. It’s polite to leave a few dollars for the hotel maid, especially if you spend several nights.
The stable US dollar – aka greenback, simoleon or buck – is the only currency generally accepted in the country, though a few places near the Canadian border also accept Canadian dollars.
The US dollar is divided into 100 cents (¢). Coins come in denominations of 1¢ (penny), 5¢ (nickel), 10¢ (dime), 25¢ (quarter), the seldom-seen 50¢ (half-dollar) and the $1 coin. Quarters are most commonly used in vending machines and parking meters. Bills come in $1, $2 (rare), $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 denominations.
ATMs are available 24/7 at most banks, and in shopping centers, airports, grocery stores and casinos. Withdrawing cash from an ATM using a credit card usually incurs a fee ($1 to $3), but if your home bank account is affiliated with one of the main worldwide ATM networks (Plus, Cirrus, Exchange, Accel), you can sometimes avoid the fee by using your bank card. The exchange rate on ATM transactions is usually as good as you’ll get anywhere.
Check with your bank or credit card company for exact information about using its cards in stateside ATMs. If you will be relying on ATMs (not a bad strategy), bring more than one card and carry them separately.
Major credit cards are almost universally accepted. In fact, it’s almost impossible to rent a car or make phone reservations without one (though some airlines require your credit card billing address to be in the USA – a hassle if you’re booking domestic flights once here). It’s highly recommended that you carry at least one credit card; Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted.
Carry copies of your credit card numbers separately. If your credit cards are lost or stolen, contact the company immediately:
American Express (800-528-4800; www.americanexpress.com)
Diners Club (800-234-6377; www.dinersclub.com)
Discover (800-347-2683; www.discovercard.com)
MasterCard (800-622-7747; www.mastercard.com)
Visa (800-847-2911; www.visa.com)
Sales tax varies by state and county; check out state sales taxes at Sales Tax Clearinghouse (thestc.com/STRates.stm). Hotel taxes vary by city.
Because of ATMs, traveler’s checks are becoming obsolete except as a trustworthy backup. If you carry them, buy them in US dollars; local businesses may not cash ones in a foreign currency. Keep a separate record of their numbers in case they are lost or stolen. American Express traveler’s checks are the most widely accepted.