Put your Kiwi DIY skills to use building your own itinerary for a self-guided holiday in the USA. See what you want, when you want, within your budget — just keep some simple tips in mind, writes Adele Thurlow.

On the ground

Travelling independently means you're likely to be using your phone browser a lot. Buy a local SIM on a visitor's plan or a prepaid monthly plan, with generous or unlimited data.

Arrive at the airport at least 90 minutes prior to a domestic flight to allow for lengthy queues at check-in and security screening.


Prices in the US are almost always quoted excluding tax. The tax percentages differ between cities/states and types of product.

The guesswork has been taken out of tipping by businesses, which add "a suggested gratuity" of 15, 18, 20 per cent or even as much as 22 per cent to a bill. But also keep a stash of small notes on hand for tipping too.

Standards of chain hotels and motels are surprisingly high. You don't need to avoid them for fear of bed bugs and used syringes.

Be aware that some hotels, particularly in popular holiday areas, add a "resort fee" to the advertised price to cover phone, Wi-Fi and pool use.

BYO shower gel. Hotel bathrooms may provide everything from a shower cap to a dental kit but, oddly, you're unlikely to find shower gel.

Be prepared to witness wastage: Many US states aren't nearly as concerned with waste minimisation as Kiwis have been accustomed to for decades. In fact, it's rare to find a recycling bin in some states.

Driving in America is easy when you know how. Photo / Adele Thurlow
Driving in America is easy when you know how. Photo / Adele Thurlow

On the net

Research your options beforehand and compare between sites to find the best prices.


Read online reviews before booking accommodation. For example, if you want a grand view of the iconic Bellagio Fountain in Las Vegas, online reviews say you need to stay at The Cosmopolitan, not the Bellagio.

Follow local bloggers and Instagram

accounts for tips on the best places to visit, eat and shop. Search for local hashtags (e.g. #DiscoverLA, #visitDenver) to fine-tune your search.

Google is your concierge. Fancy a mid-afternoon respite from the summer heat in the City of Angels? Google "Best milkshake LA" and you'll be deliberating between a Milkie Way Malt and a Citrus Vanilla Float before you can say Beverly Boulevard.

Take note

While New Zealand citizens do not require a visa to travel to the USA for visits of up to 90 days, you will need an approved ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). Apply online for a small fee, at least three days prior to departure. The official site is:


Most of the major airline carriers charge a fee for checked baggage on domestic flights. In many cases, the fees are higher for additional bags. (For this reason, you'll find almost every passenger takes a large cabin bag onboard, which often adds to delays as overhead compartments become filled and remaining cabin bags are then moved to the cargo hold.)

Travel insurance is an absolute must. Medical treatment in the USA is expensive, domestic flight delays and cancellations aren't uncommon and you'll need liability insurance to hire a rental car.

Ensure you have sufficient access to funds should you need to access them at short notice to rebook flights, or gain entry to a hospital for urgent care.

On the road

An in-dash navigation system is a necessity, either connected via a fee to the car hire company, or by projecting your smartphone maps using Bluetooth or USB. Not only will it guide you through the vastness that is America, but it can help you avoid routes with traffic congestion, give you the speed limit for your current location, and even advise you of the correct lane to be in as you approach intersections.

Most gas stations have pay-at-pump facilities but it's possible the machine may request a zip-code when paying by credit card, in which case you'll need to pre-pay inside instead.

You'll be hard-pushed to find a roundabout or give-way sign in the US. Instead, many intersections are a four-way stop (all directions have a stop sign). Proceed in the order at which you arrived at the intersection. If you arrive at the same time as another driver, the car on the left yields to the vehicle on the right.

At intersections controlled by traffic lights, it's generally okay to turn right on a red light, providing it's safe to do so and unless signs state otherwise. (This rule does not apply in New York City.)

Don't be startled by a flashing yellow light at an intersection — it merely means "proceed with caution".