With so much to see and do, the US can be a real land of plenty for agents. But the possibilities for profit mean many new to the industry can be daunted by the sheer scale of knowledge required to sell the country properly.
That said, your clients are often in the same boat, and overwhelmed by the holiday potential that a trip Stateside presents. A great starting point is being able to take all the hassle away from the booking process by offer customers sound advice from the off. Here’s our top ‘Know before you go’ checklist to help secure those bookings.
Be visa wise
The US has a Visa Waiver Program (VWP) that allows visitors from many countries, including the UK, to enter for up to 90 days without getting a visa. Instead, clients simply go online to obtain an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). It’s quick and simple – answer some questions, pay the $21 fee, and ping – the ESTA arrives in your inbox pretty quickly. Each traveller in the party needs an ESTA and it’s easy to apply as a family. Once you’ve got an ESTA they are valid for two years (you must apply again if you change your passport or name in that time). Many US specialist agents will obtain ESTAs for clients as part of the service.
Note, however, that not everyone is eligible for an ESTA. If your client has a past criminal conviction they will likely need a traditional visa. These can be obtained via appointment at the US Embassy in London or Consular Office in Belfast. If they’ve a Cuba passport stamp or lots of stamps from Middle Eastern countries from past travels, it’s worth making a call to the Embassy before they apply for an ESTA.
To keep things simple, always insist UK citizens heading to the US have a passport valid for at least 90 days beyond their return date. This isn’t an official requirement of US Customs, but it can certainly help elsewhere – for example, making it easier to hire a car. Another must-do is ensuring clients have comprehensive insurance in place. The US has no NHS system and, if medical treatment is required, you need decent cover to avoid eye-watering hospital bills.
The US is huge and that means that flying is a way of life. If you are booking travel for clients always try to allow a decent amount of time between connecting flights (say two hours), since transfers and processing at many airports can be slow. If you do have to organise domestic flights, make sure you book these separate from the international legs as this is often the cheaper option.
Did we say the US is huge? Many first-time visitors make the mistake of being far too ambitious when it comes to their holiday planning, leaving them with exhausting, rushed and ultimate unhappy vacation experiences. Help clients by keeping them focused on one or two states and planning realistic itineraries – they can always go back another time to explore and that means more business for you! A good idea is to make a checklist – consider free things to do in each city or town, National Parks of interest, best hikes, bike trails, walks (if you’re into that), city or day tours of interest, attractions, and restaurants you fancy, then work out how you can fit these into your timeframe.
Be age appropriate
Like the UK, the majority of the US says the base age that minors become adults is 18. But that means pretty much nothing. Laws differ wildly across the 50 states, and weirdly you still very often have to be 21 to legally do ‘adult’ things. This can apply to drinking, hiring a car or even being the lead name on a hotel booking.
Consider a road trip
Driving is in America’s DNA, so if clients have time and the inclination a road trip is a great recommendation. Many US cities are far apart, but in between, there are a lot of stunning places and weird roadside attractions you can explore and enjoy. It’s a great way to discover quirky towns and sights, as well as exploring one or more of the great National Parks that the US has to offer. For overland alternatives, rail services such as Amtrak (it has a USA Railpass offering multiple day travel) or bus with the likes of Greyhound (beware, their vehicles do have hard seats!) are a convenient way to get around.
Just an extra word about car hire. Agents can score big by arranging this in advance, since the majority of cities have pretty poor public transport (New York, Chicago and San Francisco are rare exceptions). Hire deals should include insurance cover, good GPS systems and if possible, have an extra named driver to share the burden behind the wheel. Look out for extra fees for dropping off cars in different cities and unexpected charges like road tolls. Note, most US cars are automatic.
In the UK shopping is easy – you pay the price on the ticket. Not so in many US states, where different levels of sale tax are often added on to goods at the till. In rare cases they may even be extra city tax too. Prices are typically higher by between 4-7% and this can be an unexpected shock for tourists. Oh, and tell clients to always carry cash – the US is way behind Europe when it comes to digital payment, especially in rural areas.
Speaking of paying extra, be sure that clients know about tipping etiquette if they are heading across the Atlantic. Unlike at home, tips are expected across the service industry in the US, so you should factor that into things like restaurant and bar bills. Failure to tip can cause real offence as service staff often rely on the extra cash to cover very poor minimum wages.
As mentioned before, laws across the US vary wildly. Things that might seem strange in the UK – carrying firearms or cannabis possession, for example – are legal in many states, while relatively minor ‘crimes’ such as jaywalking, topless sunbathing and drinking at 18 can all land you in serious hot water. Visitors should always stay respectful and avoid trouble .Oh, and while the vast majority of Americans love meeting British folk, it’s a good idea to also keep chat light – avoid politics at all costs since views right now tend to be quite polarised.