The United States is one of the busiest countries in the world when it comes to airline travel. When you land at an international airport in the US, this fact will become known to you very quickly.
Although there are hundreds of airports sprinkled all over the country, when flying into the US internationally, there are certain airports that travelers will likely arrive into because they are designated “hubs” for both arriving or departing the country. For reference, the top 10 major US airport hubs currently are:
- Los Angeles, California (LAX)
- New York City, New York (JFK)
- Atlanta, Georgia (Hartsfield-Jackson)
- Chicago, Illinois (O’Hare)
- Dallas, Texas (Fort-Worth)
- Denver, Colorado (DEN)
- San Francisco, California (SFO)
- Las Vegas, Nevada (McCarran)
- Seattle, Washington (Sea-Tac)
- Charlotte, North Carolina (CLT)
These airports just scratch the surface for how intrinsic airline travel is within the USA – which doesn’t even take into account all of the airports from Miami to Philadelphia to Phoenix (and everything in between) which make up the top 20 busiest airport hubs in the country.
So the questions are:
- How do you navigate traveling in the USA?
- How do you get to and from a US airport?
- How do you check in for a flight and then clear security in the US?
- How do you connect from an international flight to a domestic flight at an airport like LAX?
All of these questions will be answered right here so you know exactly what you’re doing when you arrive and travel within the US.
This may seem like an unnecessary topic for me to write about really. But coming from Australia, where our airports and airline travel are nothing like those found in the USA – all of these are questions I constantly receive from people who are about to embark on their first trip over. This guide is meant to make travelers feel confident, understand how it all works and have a stress-free vacation in my favourite country to travel.
You’ve Landed In The USA…What Now?
When you land in the US, especially if you travel from Australia, LAX will likely be the airport you fly into to enter the country, (or Fort Worth, Texas if you fly Qantas, Honolulu if flying into Hawaii). There are plans for airlines to fly direct to New York, so this looks likely to begin very soon now that we have direct flights to London from Australia. Before leaving, you will already have your ESTA (visa-waiver) printed out or a valid visa; (read my “what to know before you go guide” here) so all you need to do is clear customs and collect your bag once you land – and then your holiday can truly begin!
Sounds easy enough right?
When the plane lands:
- Depart the plane with all of your carry on baggage – check overhead bins, the front pocket of the seat and under the seat, it’s easy to leave things behind!
- In your hand you need to have your passport and a filled out passenger landing card (which your flight crew will give you to fill out on the plane – keep your passport, information about your first night in the US and a pen within arm’s reach during the flight.
- Give these items to the TSA agent at passport control. If they ask to see your ESTA, give them the print out of that too, but ultimately they have that information already in their system.
Clearing Customs In The USA
In all international airports in the US, when you enter the passport control area, there are 2 lines:
- one for Americans (American citizens and permanent residents and
- one for foreigners (or other passports)
As a foreigner with an Australian passport, join the other passports line and prepare to wait.
At LAX, two things can happen for you when clearing customs. Sometimes passport control is automated, sometimes it is not – though usually it is becoming more automated to help speed up the process and clear the lines – so you should expect this to occur. Automation requires people to scan the photo page of their passport through a reader on a kiosk, and enter some basic information. Your picture is taken, and then you’ll join the line again, this time to see the TSA agent who will decide if they will allow you into the country.
Whether you use this kiosk or not, you will still have to line up to speak to an actual TSA agent as they are the only person that can authorise you entry into the United States. It can take over an hour just to get to a TSA agent, sometimes longer. It really depends on the length of the line, the time of day, which airport you have landed at, if you have a tourist visa or just a visa waiver (ESTA), and if any other flight has landed around the time your flight has.
The TSA Agent
When you reach a TSA agent at passport control, you need to present your passport, the landing card and the print out you received when you scanned your passport at the kiosk. They will ask you why are you visiting, who you are traveling with (if you’re with your family, you will all go up to the same agent as a group with one landing card between you); you’ll have your photo taken again, plus be fingerprinted on a digital scanner. If the agent is happy with your answers and you have a valid ESTA or visa, then you will be able to enter the USA. To see an example of a landing card, click here.
Some officers will GRILL you. I’ve been traveling for 10 years there, and it gets worse every time I travel through. But just be honest and you shouldn’t encounter issues if you have all of the required documentation to allow you through.
Once You Clear Customs In The US
Collecting Your Checked Baggage
Once you’re through passport control, you will collect your checked baggage next. How to find what carousel your bags came off while you’re at passport control can be tricky – but there are screens to tell you where they came off. So look for your flight number, airline and even departure city on the screens so it can direct you to your carousel.
As the line for customs is long, bags will usually have been taken off the carousel and will be placed off to the side of that carousel. So as long as you know what your bag looks like, it will be easy enough to find – attach bright ribbons if you have a bag that is hard to identify and ensure your name, phone number and email is on the bag tag just in case.
Once you have your bags, you need your landing card (which the TSA agent will give you back after reviewing it), as you will have to give this to the next agent you see before you exit the secure area. This is where you need to declare any food items that you may be traveling with.
Compared to Australia who are extremely strict on raw food items (fruit, seeds, animal products) and wood based items in particular; the US don’t really seem to worry as much and I have never really been questioned about my food when exiting here – even when traveling with herbal tea that contains fruit in it. Each time I have just handed my form to the agent and walked straight out to the exit of the terminal. But, depending on what you have selected on your landing card, it may be different when you pass through here and you may be directed for further screening.
Leaving The Airport
Gone are the days when hailing a cab is the only way to get from A to B once you land in any city. There are so many options out there for when you arrive in the United States, especially in an international hub like LAX.
However, as you won’t have a SIM card for the US and will rely solely on wifi until you manage to buy a SIM card there are a few things to know. The good news is that most US airports have free wifi, so you can at least check in on Facebook so people know you’ve landed or can access information or maps to get you somewhere. You will be limited on what you can do once you leave the airport doors though – as most wifi won’t work even when you’re standing on the sidewalk right outside.
So what are your options in getting out of the airport and to your accommodation?
Traveling From The Airport
If You Have An Active SIM Card
You can book an Uber or Lyft – car service apps which allow you to connect and book a journey from everyday people who drive their own cars. These days, more and more airports have designated pickup areas that these services can use to pick up passengers, which does make it easier for your driver to locate you within the busy airport.
Prices are pretty good in comparison to most other services if you use these – plus there is no expectation to tip. But if it is a peak time of day or a busy city where a major event is taking place, they will fluctuate and usually be higher than normal. You will need wifi to book a trip, and nine times out of ten, the wifi doesn’t work once you step outside of the airport; so Ubers and Lyfts don’t necessarily work for foreigners unless they already have wifi or an active SIM. Whilst you can book a trip from an Uber or Lyft inside the airport; without an internet connection, drivers will not be able to locate you on their map – or be able to contact you via a phone call, so there are limitations to it.
If you want to purchase a SIM card, I recommend AT&T with even their $45 monthly plan exceptional value for traveling.
If You Don’t Have An Active SIM Card
There are a ton of shared ride vans or private car services in most major US cities that can get you from A to B.
The major companies here are Supershuttle and Go Airport Shuttle, which operate private cars and ride sharing vans that can take up to 10 people. You can book online before you arrive or just approach a representative that will be outside arrivals at a designated stand – but only if Supershuttle or Go Airport run services at that particular airport. They accept cash or card for payment, but aim to have exact change and enough for a tip if paying cash.
The private cars they also offer are good if you’re in a group and can split the bill between 4 people (as these services are usually a little more expensive, starting at $50 USD or more for most journeys.) If you’re a solo traveler or just traveling with a partner or friend then ride share vans are more preferable because they will get you where you need to be for around $16-25 USD per person. (The fare will cost more if you’re travelling a further distance than the city itself.) Do be aware that you may be the last stop in the van for your area…which can mean it takes you almost an hour longer than an uber or taxi to reach your accommodation if the van is at full capacity.
Don’t forget that you do need to tip your driver on top of this fare as you’re paying for a service. My rule of thumb is $2-$3 USD as I travel with a large and a small suitcase. But if the driver is talkative and makes the ride a little more interesting and enjoyable then I give at least $5 when I arrive at my destination. You can pre pay a tip if you book your trip online or just tip them once you’ve arrived.
Some hotels do offer free shuttles or discounted rates – especially if you are staying near an airport. Always check the website of the hotel you’re staying in to see how close you are and if they offer anything for guests. Don’t forget to tip the driver a couple of dollars if you use a hotel service – even a free one.
You can take a taxi if none of these ride options work for you. With all the competition that is around, some fares to and from the airport are now locked in so you won’t pay more than that amount no matter how long your journey takes which still keeps taxi’s in the mix. You will still need to tip on top of this fare – I usually tip around $5-10 depending on how much the fare is.
Taxi’s are never my first option though and it will vary from city to city on whether it’s the cheapest option or your only one.
Many airports do have direct trains, buses or shuttles that run to the airport which are also really helpful. Cities like New York (JFK Airport), Philadelphia, Chicago (O’Hare & Midway), and many more have direct routes that link you right to the airport terminals. Other major hubs like LAX don’t offer this yet so Supershuttle share vans and Ubers seem to be the best bets right now. But, things do change quite quickly in the US, so by the time this publishes, there may be something new to add! To know if your designated city does have a train line, google map or research ahead on the airport’s website to see what the public transport options are.
Sometimes another mode of transport will save you an hour of train or bus travel – and if you travel heavy like I often do…carrying 2 suitcases and a backpack can make it hard to change trains or even get to a station, especially if they don’t have elevators! So public transport isn’t always something I can actually take advantage of which is a shame.
Hiring A Car
One option that I love doing is hiring a car. Depending on my plans will determine if this is the most value for money option. I usually hire from Hertz or Avis and haven’t encountered too many issues with them.
As a foreigner, make sure you have travel insurance to cover hiring a car, but also make sure you take out any additional insurance options to protect yourself. Whatever you do please ensure you have the usually complementary included “loss damage waiver” included within your booking, which means that if you damage the car in any way – you don’t have to pay anything. In my 10 years of driving, I have had a few nicks (done by other cars), and 2 windscreens been hit by stones which resulted in a decent crack at the bottom of the windscreen. I never paid a cent.
Always get a GPS too. It’s so easy to get lost! A lot of companies also offer an internet hot spot should that be of value to you and you don’t buy a SIM card.
Returning To The Airport
When returning to an airport from your accommodation, you can use almost all of the options listed above. My rule of thumb is to arrive at least 2 hours before your flight, to ensure you can check in, clear security and find your gate with enough time to eat at a cafe, restaurant or bar or just buy snacks.
- Ubers and Lyfts are easy to book as you can wait inside the hotel entrance until your ride arrives – especially if you don’t have a wifi connection. Allow yourself an extra 30 minutes to ensure traffic doesn’t affect your flight.
- Shared ride services or private car hires are easy to book. You can call and book from your hotel (usually hotels allow for free local calls); or you can book online which is really easy. Be sure to screenshot your confirmation in case you need your booking number. Book a shared van ride for at least 3 hours before your flight – most of these services will pick you up around 3.5 hours before – or even earlier depending on the city and how long it will take to get to the airport/how many stops they need to make to pick passengers up.
- Taxis or airport shuttles. These, hotels can call for you, or the doorman can assist you with. You won’t have to head out too early to make it to the airport on time. But leave at least 30 minutes before you should in case traffic is likely to be heavy.
- If you’re near a train station or bus stop, you can use those to get to the airport if they run a service. Always leave at least 1 hour before you need to. Some services can be delayed or not show up at all.
Connecting To Another Airline
Domestic Airlines In The USA
Once you have landed in the country, it’s not hard to connect to another airline. It can be time consuming though – so it’s always good to allow yourself more time than not enough.
When traveling internationally, you will need at least 3 hours if not more to connect to another flight domestically without issue. Personally, I would leave at least 5 hours between landing and departing on another flight, because not only do you need to clear customs, you also need to check in for your flight with the next airline and clear security again to re-enter the airport. If your international flight is delayed in arriving, this will also impact your connection time at the airport – and possibly make it even harder to make your next flight.
Most flights will land within the International terminal of your airport. If it’s LAX, once you clear customs you will likely exit the international ‘Tom Bradley’ terminal, and after clearing customs will end up on the sidewalk outside. So where do you go from there?
- Head to the Departures level with your luggage. Departures are usually located on the upper level of an airport.
- Find the Terminal you need based on the airline you are traveling with. (I suggest having a map of LAX on your phone saved, or write down the terminal that your airline will fly out of.)
- Eg; if you are flying Southwest, you need to walk from Tom Bradley (Terminal B) to Terminal 1 (which is the current terminal for all Southwest flights.) It will be a less than 10 minute walk away. Here you will check in for your flight.
- Some American airlines require you to check in at domestic terminals and then head to Tom Bradley Terminal if you’re flying out internationally. So always read the check in information of your airline. If you’re flying Virgin Australia, you’ll first check in at Terminal 2 not Tom Bradley.
How To Check In For A Domestic Flight In The US
Once you find your terminal, you need to find your airline.
When you find your arline, you’ll usually see a bank of kiosks that have touch screens. Before you do anything, you need to check in for your flight (if your flight is open) on this kiosk. If there is more than one airline listed on the kiosk just touch the symbol for your airline to start.
- Scan your passport in the passport reader
- Review your flight information (it should advise you if you have any delays)
- Authorise that you aren’t traveling with prohibited items
- You can change your seat if you aren’t happy with your allocation
- Purchase or select the bags you are checking in if you’re allowed free checked bags (credit card only)
- Print your boarding pass
- Print your bag tags (if this is an option)
Once you have finished at the kiosk, you will join the queue and provide your ID and boarding pass to the agent. They will tag your bags and give you the confirmation stickers in case your bag gets delayed or lost. Then follow the signs to security and wait in line there.
How To Clear Security In The US
Once you’re at security, you will have a slight wait in a queue unless it’s not busy. When you reach the front of the line, you need to show your ID and boarding pass to the agent who will then allow you to enter the secure screening area. Only ticketed passengers are allowed to enter this area.
Placing Items On the Conveyor Belt
Once you enter the screening area, you will join a line and are expected to place your items on the conveyor belt rather quickly to not hold the line up even more. Under the current rules you must:
- Remove any laptop from your bag and place it in its own tray. (Some airports will tell you if you don’t need to – this is happening more often these days.)
- Take off any jackets or large/bulky clothing, hats, belts, sunglasses and shoes. You cannot have anything in your pockets. Place all of these items in the same tray. I usually unzip my boots so when i reach the top of the line, they can come right off. If you have a belt, take it off as soon as you enter the secure area.
- Do not remove jewellery. This is allowed to stay on your body when entering.
- Ensure you have placed food items in your bag where they are accessible (i’ve noticed people having their bags opened and searched at security because TSA agents were checking food items during the past year. It happened to me twice!)
- Separate any liquids into a small and clear bag. All liquids/gels/creams must be 100ml or less or it won’t be allowed through. If you have a drink bottle it must be empty.
- Place your phone, boarding pass and passport inside your bag. Don’t place them in a tray as they can be stolen by other passengers or be misplaced when moving along the conveyor belt.
For more information on what you can and can’t do, please refer to the TSA website for updated information.
Body Scanning At US Airports
As your items are screened, you will have your body screened by TSA agents.
- You will first walk through a metal detector
- You then have to stand with your arms above your head, bent at the elbows inside a full body scanner.
This scanner can see through your clothing, but not in a way that makes you appear actually naked. The image is kept private and away from the eyes of the public and there are no identifying characteristics shown should you have any worries. The scan shows agents whether you are carrying non-metal objects.
If you do not wish to enter this scanner, you will have to have a pat down search. If you are elderly, a child, or have a disability or special needs, you generally will be exempt from having to undertake this scan.
If anything shows up on the detectors, you may also need to have a pat down search so agents are satisfied that you’re not concealing anything on your body.
Once you’re through security, put your shoes back on and ensure you have all of your belongings. Head to the gate your flight is departing from and settle in for either some downtime on your computer or phone, a meal or find yourself a magazine and some snacks to get ready for the flight.
Hopefully this guide has cleared up any questions or worries you may have. The USA is a great country to travel in and once you learn their processes you will understand and remember the rules the more airports you fly in and out of.
Have a great time!