As a foreigner who has been travelling in the US for the past 15 months, I’m often astounded or dumbfounded by things I come across here. I know US culture from TVs & movies and you’d think it’s not all that dis-similar to New Zealand being another English-speaking, Western country and all. It’s the little things that add up to create a cultural experience that is not like being at home.
Some of these are challenges. Some are just observational oddities. Based on my experiences here are 10 weird things about travelling in America.
10 Weird Things About Travelling in America
1. Sometimes you can’t pay for things with a foreign credit card.
It’s like the rest of the world doesn’t exist. Or maybe American businesses just assume we’re primitive people without plastic money. Recently, I was trying to book a parking garage for our car while we took a week-long cruise in Tampa. There were two options for country on the billing information – USA or Canada. This meant I couldn’t use my foreign card because the billing address wouldn’t match up. The same often happens when I can’t put my four digit, New Zealand zip code. Luckily, I have a friend who let’s me put things on her US credit card and then transfer money over to her.
2. Americans often don’t know where New Zealand is.
Is geography taught in schools in the US? Why don’t Americans know where New Zealand is? I’m not asking them to locate it on a map. (But really, it’s not THAT hard!) It’s just nice to know that you know roughly where I’m coming from. And no, New Zealand is not in Europe. Also, I love watching people’s minds blow when I tell them that the seasons are at opposite times of the year down under. Summer in January? Madness!
3. People camp at Walmart.
Seriously. Walmart camping is a thing. Google it! If you’re travelling by car or RV, you can camp overnight in Walmart parking lots.
4. Gas is SO cheap!
Ridiculously cheap. In Mississippi, where we just travelled through, it was $1.75 per gallon… that’s 46 cents per litre!!! I’m just going to pause a minute while the rest of the world takes that in.
When I tell Americans that gas costs $8 per gallon in New Zealand they can not believe it. No wonder it’s not uncommon to see cars from states on the opposite side of the continent driving past you. It’s such a cheap country to drive around. Road tripping is definitely the best way to travel the USA.
5. Portion control is out of control.
Once I ordered pasta at The Cheesecake Factory. I’m not joking when I say that what I was served looked more like a family-style meal for four than an individual portion. In most restaurants is the US, you could easily just order an appetiser and consider it a satisfying meal.
6. And while we’re talking about appetisers…
In other English speaking countries appetisers are little nibbly bits you’d pass along at a party on a tray or share on a table with friends. And entrees are the small plate of food served before the main course of a meal. In America, the main course of a meal is called the entree and the small plate of food you have first is an appetiser. Weird.
7. People are SO friendly.
This is not at all a complaint. I love how friendly, open and overt Americans are. It makes for a nice change from New Zealand where you can walk into a grocery store, go about your business, pay for your items and no one will speak to you at all, not even the cashier.
I like that Americans greet each other semi-formally, make pleasant small talk and generally treat each other with respect. I’ve even been called “ma’am” a few times! I like the way I’m treated here.
8. It’s OK to complain.
Complaining is par for the course in the USA. In New Zealand, if your beverage wasn’t prepared correctly at Starbucks, you’d just accept it and drink it down begrudgingly. In the US, if something isn’t up to your high standards you complain and they make it right. There’s a culture of service in the US that you don’t find in other countries.
9. Americans don’t like the word “toilet”.
I don’t know what it is about the word “toilet” that is so objectionable to Americans. You get the slight sense they feel it’s uncouth. Restroom or even bathroom are a much more palatable word to use. I’m accustomed to asking “Where is the restroom?” now but occasionally the T-word slips out of my mouth and I feel like I’ve ever so slightly embarrassed both myself and the person I’m asking for directions.
10. One final word about restrooms.
Why on earth is there a gap between the door and the wall of the stall in American bathrooms!? When I’m in the stall, I can clearly see through that gap so I’m sure you can see me while I’m in there. Everywhere else in the world, the door of the stall lines up perfectly so there’s no peek-a-boo gap. Why do you have it? What’s the purpose!? It’s just weird. I do love your paper seat covers though.
What cultural differences have you noticed when travelling in the USA or other countries? Leave me a comment and let me know!
This is so funny to read as an American. I lived in Australia for a year and the toilet-lingo is a real struggle. I would tell my host mum I needed to go to the bathroom and she was like, “you need a bath, what?!?!” And yes, gas is so cheap, but considering what the average wage is here I think it’s fairly considerable….
Last but not least, I would also like to know about the gap in the bathroom stall. I was in the airport today and thought, “people can watch me pee. This is weird.”
Love your content! My husband and I just had a fun conversation after I read this… this is the greatest fun of traveling, getting into these type of discussions. 🙂
Wow, has it been 15 months already?
Nice to know that you feel you’ve been treated nicely in the U.S. People here really are generally respectful and friendly toward others (generally, not always!). About the toilet question…I think that because we don’t ask where the “toilet” is, it’s puzzling to the other person when they hear you ask that. Because “toilet” here doesn’t refer to bathroom, if you ask where the toilet is, it means literally the toilet, not the bathroom/restroom. Their first reaction might be to answer, “In the restroom…?” but then they probably realize that you want to know where the restroom is. 🙂
Nice comment Janna. Now I will never use toilet again when asking..LOL It is hard when you get used to of using the word but you catch my attention right there 🙂
I literally just wrote this post on Friday night haha. You beat me to it! But you have some I didn’t for sure. Toilet in Canada is a no no too – I noticed that!
Too funny. I’ve never thought of Americans as friendly people in general. Some states are better than others. In Cali you can have a discussion in line for coffee with a rando but in NYC don’t even try it.
I’ve lived in NZ for a long time but I still keep an American credit card and I have had problems here in NZ with it. I was even trying to buy a computer, which is a big purchase in my eyes, once and couldn’t get it to work. Who knows! I’m definitely going to check out this gap in the toilet doors you are talking about the next time I visit. I can’t remember that but I think I know what you mean.
Bethany, I had a bit of a laugh reading your article. I am from Australia and I definitely have similar issues whenever I visit the USA! The credit card thing is interesting – so far I have not had any issues, but we recently visited Japan and were surprised at how few places there were that we could draw cash…
And the fuel prices are also amazing compared to Australia. We are currently paying around $A1.20 per liter here in Sydney, which works out to be around $US3.40 per gallon. So not as bad as NZ, but still more than twice the price that they are paying in the USA. Crazy! Which is also why people look at fuel economy when buying a car, so there are a lot fewer big vehicles on the road here…
Corn syrup in everything! WHYYYYY?!
In the USA corn syrup is overused due to a political issue with subsidizing corn farmers. It really makes food taste sickly sweet.
As an American living in Europe, this is so funny to read, because those are things I think of as normal. I often complain that people in Europe are so unfriendly because they don’t even smile and say hello in the grocery store. And the lack of customer service here drives me batty!
I’m an American living in Europe and I couldn’t agree more,mi love it here no question but the seemingly unfriendly people and lack of real customer surface I used to is a real bummer! Cheers from Berlin!
I’m visiting the US for the first time in March (on a trip to Hawaii), so thanks for the tips! I’ve already heard plenty about the portion sizes and the use of entree for a main course – which I’ll need especially as I’ve heard so much about the Pancake Factory restaurant. It’s funny about not being able to use a foreign credit card, I’d hope that tourist type places don’t usually have an issue.
Shandos … when visiting Hawaii, know that “island time” is a very real thing. No one is in a hurry there, ever. If you make an appointment to go parasailing, for example, and they show up 15-20 minutes late, that’s normal. As a person who is always on time, it drives me crazy and gets some getting used to!!
It was so interesting reading your perspective! I appreciate that even though there are things that confuse/perhaps frustrate you (I’m with you about the bathroom gap and the word toilet – French made me get used to using the word so often haha!) you still wrote it without it coming off as a put down.
I thought our gas was so expensive before being introduced to the liter system in Europe! It can be so much worse! I also love #8, good customer service makes life so much more pleasant and I really miss it when I travel!
I enjoyed reading this one and makes me laugh. Gives me two ideas at the same time…US and NZ. No wonder people in the US choose road trip all the time. I envy how cheap their gas, I couldn’t believe it. And with regards to the walmart, you make me google it. LOL!
Love this list but the most intriguing thing to me is the Walmart camping thing, how bizarre! (Yet somehow a great idea!)
This article was so funny, i have just got back from US and can totally relate to everything. I also was peeing watching people and thinking they could see me too, i wonder if its to disencourage cocain snorting or sex in a cubicle or something (please note that i wouldnt even do this in a enclosed cubicle)
So many of these are accurate. I’d also add personal space as something I’ve noticed. Having grown up in Europe, people will regularly brush past you even if it’s not particularly crowded, or stand so close to you that you can feel their breath while they’re talking. It’s just the cultural norm. And yet in America, if someone walks past me in an otherwise empty grocery aisle they’ll apologize. It’s like personal space is a four foot zone in every direction, and I don’t realize until later that squeezing past someone was probably rude.
So glad you feel Americans are friendly! I live in San Diego, California but I’ve traveled all over the US & have found the same thing (even in New York City, which I see another comment said they’re not friendly).
I’m shocked to learn that people do not know where New Zealand is located! I’m terrible at geography but still I know! (Probably because it’s a place id love to visit one day)
Lastly I love your “toilet” comment. I lived in Canada for 5 years & they called the restroom/bathroom the “washroom” & it took me years to stop saying that after I moved back to the US:)
Love your list!!!
The primary purpose of the stall gap here in the States is to discourage drug use and sex in the stalls. Also if someone is unconscious in there, someone will notice. I’ve never been a fan of it, but compared to many countries I’ve been in that have no stalls at all, at least it’s something. I do admit that the term “restroom” and “bathroom” is odd as we don’t usually rest or bathe in those rooms publicly. I’m still always puzzled by the term “water closet” (or “WC” as its usually abbreviated). It’s always seemed to me that “toilet” is more universal and more precise as it applies to me immediate need.
So interesting to get a different perspective! I’d like to propose that in the case of #2 and #3, as an American, I absolutely would NEVER camp at a Walmart, and I absolutely DO know where New Zealand is. Hopefully I’m not alone, fellow Americans? As for the rest, spot on. I don’t know why there’s a gap, by the way!
New Zealand isn’t in Europe? Cool, another non-Schengen country to visit.
Something else that’s different in America is unlimited free ketchup and mustard at fast food places. In other countries we’ve had to pay for that.
I love this list!! And reading through the comments left by your readers, I’m excited that I’ve now learned why there’s a gab in the restroom stalls – though it’s quite sad, really.
We had an exchange student from France stay with us over the summer and she was absolutely blown away by the fact that we Americans use “doggie bags” to take home the leftovers from our meals out at restaurants as it’s not permitted in Paris.
I love your assessment! I need to answer the Walmart thing – yes, Walmart will let you park your camper in the parking lot to spend an overnight, but it’s it not REAL camping- it’s a safe-ish place to park for the night and sleep. You’re not hooked up, nor is their sewer services. Some people call it boondoggling. Its not as if people pitch tents in the Walmart parking lot and just spend a week there – Hey, Susie! Today we’re going to explore housewares! lol
I know where NZ is, I hope to visit one day.
Loved this! I was giggling hysterically! 😉 You got us so right. LOL
Ha! This is a great post… and I had no idea a lot of places don’t accept foreign credit cards. The biggest I’ve had traveling oversees is the places not accepting credit cards at all… cash only! What’s up with that?
Jennifer @ The Jenny Evolution
Aside from your blog, I got a fun time reading on comments. I enjoyed how your reader really shared their thoughts. Now I learn not only about US, but so as the other countries as well. At least now when I get a chance to visit NZ, I know not to expect much on conversing with people.
Hahaha I love this! I’m heading back to Chicago for Christmas and can’t wait to hit up the Cheesecake Factory, although I usually end up with both half a main and half a piece of cheesecake for the next day! So true about the toilet thing, I never say it anymore but I remember when I was first there I would get slightly disgusted looks.
In fact we do NOT take geography class in the US! Well, I can’t speak for all of us, but there were no geography classes at my school. Kind of embarrassing when you’re out traveling! I always end up apologizing for my fellow American’s lack of knowledge of the rest of the world! Fortunately for me I’ve done my own research and I can proudly say I know where New Zealand is ?
Terrific Article! I appreciate your prospective.
An interesting observation I noticed about this article, and not at all a criticism. In this article USA is referred to as America, and those that reside in USA as America.
I take note of this because while traveling in South America, and spending time with Europeans, I was commonly criticized for using America and Americans in this manner.
By the way – I was a Geography Major in college! There are some classes after all! Haha
I clicked over from Pinterest for the Jekyll Island pictures (it’s near home and I’m not). But yeah, a few of these are quite southern. I experience the opposite of the “toilet” thing when we moved to Canada. I kept saying bathroom, like a good southerner, and they say toilet or washroom.
As a Philippine citizen living in Qatar, I was shocked to see the toilet stall gap hahaha!
As an Australian, I would add two things to the list.
1. Every shower in every hotel room I stayed in has a different kind of tap/way of turning on the water. I’ve had to call down to the front desk and get someone to come up and show me how to use it!! How do they have so many types of fittings?
2. Every toilet has a different way of being flushed. I have stood in a stall for ages looking at the cistern, walls, any kind of sign of a button or lever. It has happened on multiple journeys!