ESTA has made travelling to the USA much easier and more affordable for many Brits, by bypassing the traditional process for applying for a US visa. And there’s no denying that having the internet in your pocket has made travelling a much smoother process on the whole too.
Whether going short or long distances, our smartphones can be filled with tools that make every step of the journey a little easier, from getting from A to B and finding a good breakfast, to booking a room and paying for it. Here we will look at some of the most useful apps when travelling to the USA with ESTA.
First things first, we should point out that you can quite easily carry out the entire online ESTA application form directly from your smartphone. There’s no app for this, but as long as you have an internet connection, that’s all you need! ESTA is an alternative to a visa, forming part of the US Visa Waiver Programme. If you’re travelling for business or as a tourist, and are from one of the 38 member states of the Visa Waiver Programme (including the UK), then you can apply today and travel to the USA for up to 90 days at a time. So let’s start with some apps for organising your trip…
There are several apps out there that compile all available flights so that you can compare the best dates, routes and prices. In particular, Skyscanner allows you to set very specific or very broad filters, so that you can tailor the results to your exact needs. You can choose to look for flights on specific dates, within a certain month, or any time of year. You can also choose to search between particular airports, cities or entire countries, specifying the time of day you prefer to travel, and more. For example, you can run a search from Manchester Airport to anywhere in the USA, anytime between June and September, and see a list in price order of all available flights. Kayak offers a similar service for flight comparison, along with rental cars and hotels too, and Kiwi gives you more creative options if you’re travelling a shoestring. For instance, to get the cheapest ticket, it might suggest you take a flight from London to Oslo, and from there to New York, instead of a direct flight.
In terms of accommodation, again there are plethora of options available. One that you will surely already know is AirBnB, whereby people offer up a spare room or an entire home that you can stay in during your travels. This has gained in popularity significantly over the last few years, offering up a more homely and often cheaper alternative to hotels. What’s more, AirBnB now also offer ‘experiences’, with locals offering unique experiences in their hometowns that you can enjoy when you’re in town. Meanwhile, Couchsurfing serves as a community, in which people can offer up their couch or spare bed for the night, free of charge. The philosophy behind Couchsurfing is to bring travellers together, meet people, and provide a unique insight into a new place. For those looking to stay in hotels, Trip Advisor is often the go to option, giving you an overview of rooms that are available during your dates, along with reviews, useful information and rates. A quirkier alternative is Hotel Tonight; originally, this only allowed you to book a room for ‘tonight’, giving you a significant discount on the usual rate. However, you are now able to book a week in advance and still get great discounts. LateRooms offers a similar service for finding more last-minute options, and Booking has a vast range of options, both for last-minute reservations and advance bookings, often giving you the option to pay upon arrival as opposed to online.
Once you’ve got your accommodation sorted out, you’ll probably want to fill your time with some activities and perhaps a meal or two! We mentioned Trip Advisor already for accommodation, however this is also a fantastic tool for searching for activities, restaurants and bars in your destination. It also offers a useful map tool, showing you exactly what’s around you within a certain radius. This is particularly handy if you find yourself peckish after a morning’s sightseeing, and want to find a good spot nearby. In the USA, Yelp is another service that works in a similar way to Trip Advisor, although it also offers information and reviews on other things too, such as hairdressers, shops, etc. Yelp has often been the most prevalent of the two apps in the USA, though this has changed quite a bit in recent years, and both offer plenty of useful advice. Another app that you can use to find things to do in the USA is UNESCO World Heritage, providing detailed information on the 23 World Heritage Sites in the country.
Have you noticed how you see fewer and fewer tourists walking around with city maps? Instead, they are simply following directions on their phones. Google Maps is obviously one of the most popular tools for navigating when you are abroad. It is great for walking around, and also provides a great navigation tool when driving, with spoken instructions. Waze is another great option for driving, with constant user-driven updates on best routes available. Of course, when you are using 3G or 4G abroad, it can often rack up your phone bill more than you’d like. However, many navigation apps let you download the maps in advance, so you can use them without spending extra on your internet usage. Your GPS will still work, and does not eat in to your mobile data. Google Maps offers this feature, as does another very handy app called CityMaps2Go.
If you don’t have a car when you’re in the USA, Rome2Rio is a great comparison tool for looking at all your longer-distance trips. The app compares busses, trains, flights and ferries, with price and timing information. Moovit offers similar information, with live timetable information. Amtrak also has its own app for train travel specifically, and likewise with Greyhound and Megabus for coach transportation. As for taxi services (or ‘cars with chauffeurs’), Uber is still a very fast and convenient option in the USA. It allows you to book a car from wherever you are, and pay for everything automatically through the app. In other words, you don’t need to carry cash with you to take a taxi. An alternative to Uber is Lyft, which is a very popular competitor in the USA.
When it comes to travelling around abroad, we often feel a bit reluctant to carry around too much cash or our cards, particularly when we don’t know the area too well. This is where Google Wallet and Apple Pay come in, allowing you to store your debit and credit card information in your phone, and pay using your device directly. The USA in particular is at the forefront of this technology, so you won’t have problems using it in most places. As for currency, XE is a fantastic application for getting exchange information. The pound and the dollar seem to fluctuate so much against each other, and we can often forget how much we’re really spending. XE is great at giving us the constantly updated exchange rate, right at our fingertips. On a side note, don’t forget that many prices in the USA appear without VAT, which is added at the till. When shopping, it’s useful to bear this in mind. Also, tipping is seen as somewhat compulsory in restaurants and bars, and anything less than 20% can be considered a little rude.
Hopefully all this will serve as a good start to make your trip to the USA even easier. Many of these services are heavily based on user reviews, so don’t forget to leave your own advice and feedback so that other travellers can get honest information about the places they visit, making it better for everybody!
And of course, if you don’t have your ESTA already, that’s the first thing to get sorted. As part of the Visa Waiver Program, British travellers can apply for ESTA online. If approved, they will be able to travel to the USA for periods of up to 90 days at a time, as tourists or on business. The online ESTA application process only takes around ten minutes, and you receive your approval status within 24 hours via email.
Now, once you’ve got your ESTA, start downloading those apps!
Travelling to the United States? Do you have your pre-planning checklist in order? Visit our ESTA Guide for more information about obtaining your travel permit. We'd love to hear from you. Send us your comments or questions for travel assistance.