Benny’s Big List of Tips for Europeans visiting New York/USA
After thirteen years of not living in a single place for more than a few months, I'm going to call New York City home for most of the next year!
I'll still do a bit of travelling, of course, but it will be great to have a base to come back to. And what a city to call my base! I won't be in want of opportunities for language practice here.
Not having to pack up and move my stuff so often will mean that I'll be able to catch up on my immense to-do list, almost infinite emails awaiting replies, way-overdue Skype/in-person spoken sessions for all my languages, and get back into making YouTube videos again! I can't wait 🙂
This weekend though, things are going to get interesting in the city, since the Polyglot Conference is in town. I'll get to hang out with friends Richard, Alex, Ellen, Tim, Brian, Judith, Kris and many many others again and see new faces like David J. Peterson (creator of the Dothraki language from Game of Thrones), Barry Farber – author of “How to Learn Any Language” which was a huge inspiration for my own book, as well as meet publishers behind the Teach Yourself, Colloquial, Assimil and Routledge books. What a crowd!
Unlike at most other Polyglot Conferences/Gatherings, where I'd arrive the day before with up to 12 hours jetlag, I've been here already a few weeks.
Tips for anyone coming to New York
Since I was here ahead of others, who may not know the city well, I wrote up this big list of pointers for all the polyglots closing into town to share on the event's Facebook page. A few people messaged me and said it would make a good blog post, so here it is!
I genuinely think knowing some of these points will help any visitor to the States (or New York in particular) coming from Europe. If that's you, or if you're just curious about making the most of a few days in New York City, enjoy!
- If you haven't already, fill out your ESTA application IMMEDIATELY. This is mandatory for all US visitors (including EU citizens) without an advance visa. They could turn you away without it. I almost wasn't allowed on my flight to the States once because of forgetting to fill this out before my flight.
- Bring a pen on your flight and fill out the customs form they give you BEFORE you land. The precious 1 minute it takes you to fill it out before joining the queue could cost you 20 minutes of being later while the rest of your plane goes ahead of you. The queue on arrival can be terribly long sometimes, so I always walk very fast once I get off the plane to get ahead of people. Have the address you are going to stay at ready before you get on the flight, since that has to go on the form.
- Be prepared that getting through immigration is frustrating. Don't joke around, and be clear that you don't have even the slightest intention to do anything work-related.
- Sign up for traveller's health insurance in advance, or see if your local health insurance options have travel plans. Getting sick or caught in an accident in the States could be the most expensive thing that ever happens to you without it.
What to Do When in NYC
- To get around New York, I've been enjoying using the app Citymapper on my smartphone. I click a pre-programmed “home” address to get instant live directions back home, or input the address when I'm going out. A cool feature is that I see when my next stop/transfer is on my smartwatch, and it vibrates just before it's time for me to get off the subway so I don't miss my stop!
- If coming from Newark airport install the NJ Transit app and buy your ticket now in advance (activate as you get off plane – it costs same price) to avoid queues at machines to get ticket on arrival. It's a basic app, but it worked well for me. The train drops you in Penn station in the middle of Manhattan. (I don't see a similar option for JKF, so just buy that on arrival).
- To get around while in New York, the subway is your best bet for price and speed. You can get a subway card at any station's kiosk. The price is $2.75 per ride when you have the card, so factor that in when buying it, based on how often you think you'll be using it. If you'll be using it a lot, then go for the unlimited 7 day card for $31.
- Otherwise, hail a yellow taxi, or install Uber, Lyft and Gett apps for a slightly cheaper option. Don't rent a car though; parking in New York City and driving across some of the bridges can be extremely expensive.
- Getting a SIM card for unlocked phones in the US can be costly with the main carriers, since pre-paid isn't very competitive here. SIM cards alone are usually $15 before you even activate them with expensive packages. One way around this if you want data is to use Ultra Me with a month of unlimited calling to the USA and 60 other countries and 1,000 minutes of calling to 15 more countries. Also, you get 1 GB of 4G LTE high-speed data (extra data: $5 for 500 MB or $10 for 1 GB). It needs to be mailed to you at your hotel or to a friend. Huge hat tip to Chuck Smith for this tip!
- Very luckily, free wifi is way more prominent in the States than in many European countries, so you can rely on that. You should be able to connect to wifi once you enter the terminal at the airport, and pretty much anywhere you get drinks/food at. Always ask what the password is as you order. Starbucks has free Google-sponsored wifi without needing to buy anything.
- Don't forget that a LOT of prices you will be quoted on this visit are pre-tax and can be misleading to the unfamiliar, even in unexpected places like some supermarkets. Expect to pay more than what you see a lot of the time. The reasoning for this is because different states have different tax laws, so it would be too much work to print different price labels when selling products nationally. The work of figuring it out is left to you, the lucky customer! In New York about 9% is added.
- Tipping is mandatory for most service based tasks unless someone is mean to you. Get a tipping app to help you figure it out if you aren't with an American when you sit down to eat/drink, get a haircut/taxi, order a pizza delivery etc. It's not about rewarding someone like back home – these people may only get $2 or so an hour and tips are their actual wages. I've found that it's better to think of an American “tip” as having a different definition to the European understanding, like biscuit, 1st floor.. or fanny/fag. Thinking of it as a reward for going beyond the call of duty is simply wrong. It's an understood extra charge for the server (since they aren't really paid by the restaurant). Feel free to argue how confusing this is with Americans, but do not punish your server for a system they have to work in being different, by not tipping or being stingy.
- Don't bother converting dollar prices to euro. With the above extra costs it all averages out. It's good to be budget minded and imagine them to be equivalent (even though euro is about 10% stronger at the moment).
- The best way to get cash from your foreign card is to go to an ATM (not currency exchanges). Google in advance what banks in the US have the least fees for your ATM card. Only go to that bank – if you want to be absolutely sure, download the bank's app and it will give you GPS coordinates of all of their nearby ATMs. Otherwise, try to pay by credit card, since that has best overall exchange rates. Notify your bank in advance, just in case they see the activity as suspicious and block it.
- Don't forget that you may have to deal with 5/6 hours or more of jetlag. To avoid a 6pm bed-time and missing out on all the evening fun, start staying up late NOW before you fly, so you arrive more adjusted. If that's not possible with your work/study life, make sure to get full nights' sleep the entire next week before going, as being well rested is your best cure. I've also found biphasic sleep helps me get over jetlag.
- Make sure to double check US vs UK/EU English charts for when chatting to locals. For example, I have to remember that “school” is used in the US to mean 3rd level education (to me it's only 1st and 2nd), so don't look surprised when meet a 20+ year old still “going to school”.
- Try to familiarize yourself with the ancient imperial measurement system, only still officially in full-use in Liberia, Myanmar and… here. Fahrenheit for temperatures, feet/miles for distances etc. Actually, never mind, it's way too ridiculous. Use an app or speak to your phone's Google search by saying “70 degrees Fahrenheit in Celsius” etc.
- If on a tight budget, eat at streetcars. Yes, there are apps for finding those too! Otherwise many places have $1 pizza slices. American “slices” are almost as big as a European medium sized pizza and could do you as an entire meal. NYC pizzas are delicious, and that's coming from someone who ate in Naples and lived in Italy!
- Don't forget to bring US plug converters! Buy them online or in your hometown in advance to avoid airport prices.
- Despite what I've seen on TV/movies, I actually find New Yorkers to be extremely friendly and helpful. Don't be afraid to ask for directions, but just remember that you do need to keep your guard up and make sure things don't get stolen or you get taken advantage of.