BEFORE WE LEFT
Although traveling is exciting and fun, there is still a lot of organisation and planning that goes into making sure you have a stress-free trip. Here a few little bits of handy information to consider before leaving for a trip, specifically throughout the United States.
Tourist Refund Scheme (for Australians)
Something I had never taken advantage of before was the Tourist Refund Scheme (TRS) that allows you to get 10% (GST) back on purchases over $300 (on a single item, on a receipt with the business' ABN and your name and address on it). The item must have been purchased within 90 days prior to leaving the country and you must have the item in your possession when you leave the country. Even as an Australian citizen, you are entitled to get the GST back on these purchases when you leave the country, although you are required to claim items that cost over $900 when you come back to Australia and pay the GST back (but are allowed $900 and under without claiming it back again when you re-enter Australia).
I took advantage of this rebate, as just before I left, I had purchased a new laptop that cost $1709.40 (I had already gotten a slight discount in the store). I downloaded the TRS app, filled out the form and got the QR code so that I could wait in the faster line at the airport. Because I was traveling with my boyfriend, we can combine our $900 limit ($900 for adults, $400 for children), therefore I don’t need to claim my laptop when I re-enter Australia (meaning I didn't have to pay the 10% rebate back). From claiming through the TRS, I will receive around $160 back into my account - how cool! Remember to leave yourself plenty of time at the airport if you plan on doing this though, as there can often be long lines and the TRS officers won’t process any refunds within 30 minutes of your scheduled flight time.
Australians are really lucky that we don’t need a visa to enter the United States, but we do need USA travel authorization (ESTA) pre-approval to be eligible for the 90-day tourist visa, which cost us about $115 AUD and is mandatory before entering the country.
When we entered Hawaii in Oahu, the immigration officer asked us what our plans were while we were visiting and I think he thought we were idiots when we said we were visiting Oahu, Big Island and Kauai. He said, “You realise that Big Island has a volcano erupting on it at the moment? And you realise that most of Kauai was just underwater because of the floods?”. When told him we knew about all of that, he just squinted at us and said “okay…” as he stamped our documents. We had arrived!
Handy apps to download
I decided not to buy a prepaid SIM card for this trip, as it was only 3 weeks and the SIM cards were too expensive to justify buying one. For that reason, I employed a few handy apps that I could use offline. These are my favourites:
This app is great for offline maps. You just have to download the map of the city/area/country (depending on how much space you have on your phone) you’re in while you’re in wifi, then you can search destinations and use the navigation tools at any time offline.
Not enough people utilise how great Google Maps is when offline as well. This just takes a bit of forward planning, as you have to download your route before you leave wifi. Once you have your route saved, it will accurately follow your location.
Trail wallet -
For someone like me that travels on a shoestring and likes to keep precise track of what I’m spending in order to stick to an overall budget, Trail Wallet is a great option. This app allows me to input my expenses each day in different currencies, break them up into categories (food, accommodation, activities, etc), then view them in a pie chart or histogram. In my opinion, the best feature is that you can input in as many different currencies as you like, so you don’t have to convert it to your familiar currency beforehand (for me it would be Australian dollars). The only downside is that you have to pay $7 to have unlimited entries into this app.
Travel Bank (from the USA App Store)-
I heard about this app from an American friend. This is very similar to Trail Wallet, except maybe better for business expenses and keeping track of things to the cent. You can take photos of receipts, update all of your spendings into the app and then export all of the finances from the trip as a PDF. This is so handy, it’s a shame it isn’t available in the Australian App Store.
TRS app (for Australians) -
If you’re planning on claiming anything via the Tourist Refund Scheme, then download the app, fill in the details and get the QR card before you get to the airport. This will allow you to wait in a shorter line and ultimately save you time.
The following apps can't be used offline, but are still really handy to have:
Trip advisor and/or Yelp -
Nowadays, online reviews are so important for a business and will often give a great snapshot of how your experience was with a particular business (although you can only believe so much - some people are just whinging). I would recommend downloading these apps, as when you’re in an unfamiliar place and don’t want to get ripped off on an unsatisfactory product.
Accommodation apps: Hostel World, Hostel Bookers, Air BnB, or Couchsurfing
Whether you’re booking accommodation on the go or pre-booking your rooms, all of these apps are great review based resources, so you can choose the best place to stay, based on location, price, availability, past guest’s reviews and ratings. From Couchsurfing on stranger’s couches for free, or spending a little bit extra and staying in an Air BnB or hotel, I’d definitely have these on your phone ready to go before you leave. (PS: If you’re interested in Couchsurfing, have a look in my Europe Planning section for some great info and tips!).
For my last few trips, I have used a Commonwealth Bank travel money card, which links to my usual Commonwealth bank app that my everyday accounts are with, and allowed me to transfer money from my usual accounts to the travel money account in different currencies. This transferred over instantly from my everyday accounts, and cost about $2.50 each time I withdrew cash from an ATM, as well as charging costing money for exchanging from AUD to other currencies. This worked fine, but didn’t have PayWave, Apple Pay, and added up to quite a lot of money in extra fees by the time my 4-month trip was finished.
This time I decided to go for an everyday savers ING account, which doesn’t charge exchange rates, rebates ATM withdrawal fees, works with Apple Pay and Pay Wave, and charges higher interest on money in the account. During our trip in Hawaii, we ended up saving nearly $100 AUD in ATM withdrawal fees, as they were refunded back to us. It can also be used for getting on and off trains and buses, which saves you having to buy specific travel cards in each city (we didn’t need this in Hawaii, but it is handy to know). Personally, I’ll be sticking with my ING card from now on while I’m at home and while traveling, but I did bring my Commonwealth travel money card too, just incase I lost my ING card or it stopped working (although I could always pay on my iPhone or Apple Watch through Apple Pay, so that’s pretty handy!).