Earlier this year, I wrote a post on 12 Things Every American NEEDS to Know About Europe. It was really popular, and a handful of people suggested I write a companion post the other way around. Well, here it is! After living in the US for nearly 24 years, over 1 year living in Europe (England) permanently, and extensive travel across the whole continent, here are the top 12 things Europeans NEED to know about America!
1) Gun violence/police brutality is real
I know this sounds pretty harsh starting off number one, but there’s a reason bad stories always make international news: it’s because there aren’t really these types of cultures around guns, violence, and police brutality in Europe. Following one particular incident of an unarmed black man being shot and killed by the police, the Bahamas actually issued a travel warning to the US, on the basis that foreigners who aren’t white may become a victim of police brutality and violence. It is important that travelers try to understand this.
Gun violence is also a very real thing. The US has the most mass shootings out of any developed nation in the world (this article has some really good charts on the US and guns and mass shootings). While I don’t think terrorism/mass shootings should stop you from traveling, it is important to remember that it does happen in America, all the time. You can’t prepare for it and you probably can’t avoid it.
These are very real issues and can impact the safety and well-being of European travelers to America.
2) Patriotism and the American flag everywhere
Americans tend to wear their heart on their sleeve—if they love their country, they will tell you. TRUST ME. No one loves America more than Americans (also true because everyone else in the world hates America—HA). It isn’t uncommon for regular people to have a flag flying from their house or their lawn. When they play the national anthem at sports games, you stand up and take your hat off. So many Americans truly and genuinely love their country, are proud to be American, and will tell anyone and everyone about it. I’ve encountered my fair share of Europeans who are intensely proud of their country. But America takes it to another level. Europeans may be a bit taken aback!
3) The country is HUGE
Geographically, the United States is the third largest country in the world (behind Canada and Russia). The country has 5 time zones (if you count Hawaii) and about 3.8 million square miles. New York City to Los Angeles is a 42-hour drive and nearly 3000 miles. Because of this, the US has an incredible amount of diversity in everything you can imagine: climate, landscape, attractions, accents, food, people, etc. There are literally so many cities to visit and so many things to do and see simply because it is so BIG.
The entire population of the UK (66 million) lives in an area of 93,628 square miles, which is roughly the size of the state of Michigan (96,713 square miles). Michigan has a population of less than 10 million (9.928 million). Just think about that! There is so much SPACE in the United States. Houses are bigger, front and back yards exist are bigger, it takes longer to drive places, and especially if you spend time in the Midwest, you might see a whole lot of “empty” space and farmland.
In Europe, you can drive for 8 hours and go through 3 different countries. In the US, you could drive for 8 hours and not even leave the state. The sheer scale of America is something Europeans frequently struggle to grasp.
The country is fucking huge.
4) People get around by car and drive EVERYWHERE
Quite possibly because of #3, Americans drive everywhere. Unless you visit one of the coasts or in a big city like Chicago, chances are you won’t take public transportation between cities—because it just doesn’t exist. The preferred mode of transit is car. Outside of major cities and metropolitan hubs, public transportation sometimes just doesn’t exist.
And Americans drive everywhere, all the time, so much that they have drive-thrus not just at nearly all fast food places, but at coffee shops, banks, post offices, pharmacies, you name it—America will have invented a drive-thru for it. There is a very real car culture, and doing things without a car can be seriously difficult.
5) Portion sizes are massive
Everything about America is big—and that includes portion sizes as well. Main courses fill the plate. Burgers are big. A side of fries could be larger than your face. Simply put, the portions are bigger in the US. So Europeans, I hope you are up to the challenge!
6) There is a lot of water in the toilet bowl
I don’t know why this is. But toilet bowls in America are generally about half-full of water, whereas in Europe they only have a bit of water in them at the bottom. It just is the way it is.
7) The drinking age is 21, and no, there is no point in going before then
Unlike most places in Europe (besides Iceland—20, wtf?!), the drinking age in America is 21. And unless you have a really good fake ID, you have basically no chance of drinking alcohol before then. Sure, you can always find the sketchy bar where they’ll turn a blind eye to underage drinking. But your chances of buying booze from a store are next to none (and you’d need your passport in the first place unless you have an American driver’s license/ID!).
To be honest, I wouldn’t bother going to America until you’re 21 (unless you’re a kid, obviously). I think you’d just be disappointed and feel constantly limited.
8) You NEED travel insurance because if you get sick you’ll go bankrupt/die
A lot has been said about the US healthcare system. Regardless of whether you think it’s good or not (it’s not), you absolutely must buy travel insurance before visiting. If you don’t have travel insurance valid in the US and end up in an accident or needing to visit a doctor, you could very easily wind up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. I honestly can’t imagine a worse scenario than going on a fun holiday without travel insurance, and end up with so many hospital bills you no longer have a life. Don’t do it. Spend the money, buy good travel insurance, and enjoy your trip.
9) Hostels aren’t really a thing
After extensive travel throughout Europe, where I stay almost exclusively in hostels, it has been a bit of a shock to find that hostels aren’t really a thing in the US. While big cities and popular tourist destinations (New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco etc.) are beginning to see hostels cropping up, they’re just not really a thing in most of the country. And since a bed in a 10-bed dorm room in NYC would have cost me $60/night, the hostels that do exist don’t come cheap. A lot of Americans don’t even know what hostels are. Because of this, it is much more difficult to travel cheaply, on a backpacker’s budget, especially if you’re going solo and don’t have anyone to split the costs with.
10) YOU MUST TIP
A huge chunk of my travels that I’ve shared on this blog were financed by tips from my job as a server. There isn’t a huge tipping culture in Europe, but in America THERE IS A HUGE TIPPING CULTURE. And you MUST. TIP. Even if you don’t agree with it, it just is the way it is. Most people in the service industry make far belong minimum wage, and rely solely on tips for their income. Depending on how their employers tax their tips, some people can get actual paychecks for $0.00. Do I think this is how it should be? No. Do I still tip? Yes. Every. Single. Time.
For food and meals out, 15% is the bare minimum you should tip. If you really enjoyed your food and service was good, 20% would definitely be appreciated. In bars, you should tip at least $1 per drink. More if it’s an expensive/complicated drink, like a fancy cocktail. Tip your cab driver, tip your delivery guy, tip the lady who cuts your hair. Not tipping is just not an option in America. If you can’t afford to tip when you go out, you can’t afford to go out. And if you don’t want to tip, don’t go to America in the first place.
Do not be that foreigner that normal Americans despise because they don’t understand the tipping culture. Just because you don’t agree with a certain aspect of a country’s culture, doesn’t mean you don’t have to abide by it when you’re there. You do.
11) Giant superstores and malls exist
One of the things I miss most about living in Europe is the convenience of America. And nowhere is this better exemplified than in the giant superstores and huge malls that exist throughout the country. In many places in Europe, you still need to go to individual separate shops/businesses to get what you need: a butcher’s for meat, a pharmacy for medications, a hardware store for household essentials, a clothing store for clothes. In America, you can go into a Target or a Wal-Mart and buy literally everything you could ever need. You can go into a mall and walk past 100 stores, each one selling something different. While there are big superstores and malls in Europe (especially in big cities), shopping is just not on the same level as in America.
12) Tax isn’t included in the price (and the tax will change from state to state)
One of the nastiest surprises you may find in the US of A is when you go to check out, and your total is a few dollars more than the prices of the items listed on the shelves. This is because sales tax isn’t included in prices in America—it’s added at the end. So no need to count out your pennies until you get up to the register! And just to make things more confusing, the amount of tax you pay will change from state to state, and may vary by item. For example, in Minnesota there’s no sales tax on clothing. But there’s sales tax on everything else. And the amount that alcohol is taxed is different from regular sales tax. And every state will have different taxes for different things too. Be sure you’ll have enough to purchase everything with a bit extra for tax!
Have you ever been to the United States? What differences did you notice? Americans reading this, did you know any these things were unusual outside of the US?!