Revisiting America after 31 years: Tips to save and live large in a supersized country

4 minute read

UNITED STATES – Of the more than 60 nations I have visited, the three most similar to my home country Australia are England, Ireland and the United States.

There are three reasons: England settled Australia. I have Irish ancestry and can relate to the Irish people who were among the first residents of English colonies. And American entertainment has long shaped Australian pop culture.

When I first visited the US as a 10-year-old, I could barely believe I was in the land of Disney, the National Basketball Association, Hollywood and the World Wrestling Federation. The entire family holiday was a waking dream.


In September 2023, I finally returned, 31 years later. Despite considering myself familiar with the US, four things still surprised me as a traveller. They also made me consider how best to maximise a trip to this big country.

Here are four tips.

1. With cars, bigger is not better

The first thing I noticed when I exited Los Angeles International Airport was the massive size of the vehicles. Every second driver sat in something closer to a truck than a car.


Then, my brother arrived to pick me up in a huge GMC Acadia. 

Compared with my nifty Honda Civic in Australia, this beast was nearly twice as heavy and had an engine more than double the size. And that cost us.

We spent a fortune on petrol while driving around Los Angeles, and then north through Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco.

My Ireland-based brother had booked a much smaller car for our trip, but was offered the hulking GMC as an upgrade when he arrived at the car-rental company.


That happened again when we landed in Atlanta from San Francisco to begin our second driving journey. This time, we declined the upgrade. Instead, we picked a Chevrolet Equinox, a much lighter vehicle with an engine half the size. 

Our daily petrol bill was immediately halved. So, do not get seduced by the enormous sport utility vehicles that many car-rental companies will offer, often at no additional cost. You will not need their extra space and you will quickly become frustrated by their running costs.

My brother and I are both big guys, and even we did not require the excess of interior room provided by the giant GMC.


Be prepared to fork out for petrol if you drive big vehicles such as the GMC. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

2. With hotels, bigger is better

The fixation with making everything supersized extends to American hotels.

As I mentioned, my brother and I are both large. We are not built to sleep in single beds.

On our previous trips in Europe and Asia, it was difficult to find twin rooms with beds that were both double or larger in size.

There is no such problem in the US. When we checked into our first hotel, in the Koreatown area of Los Angeles, I celebrated when the receptionist told us we had two queen beds in our room.

“That’s pretty standard in the US,” he responded, filling me with hope about our subsequent nights.

He was right. Each of the 10 hotels we stayed in during our US trip had two queen beds. What was more, all but two of our rooms were also spacious, with plenty of room for a couch, an armchair and a desk.

3. Food is expensive, so have brunches instead

When I picked up the menu, I was astonished. For breakfast, we chose a modest diner in a working-class neighbourhood of Los Angeles, expecting it to be fairly cheap. 

Instead, the prices were double of what we would pay in an equivalent venue in Australia or Ireland. Once we included tax and tip, it was almost $100 for our meal, although each of us ordered just a cup of coffee and a plate of sausage, bacon, hash brown and egg.

Food in the United States can be expensive, so consider brunches to stretch the dollar. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

This trend continued across our trip, even at fast-food places like McDonald’s. My overall food expenses were almost double of what I budgeted for.

To get around this, we searched for hotels in our price range that included a buffet breakfast.

Many hotels let us add breakfast to our booking for about half of what we would pay for that meal in a restaurant. Then, we ate late and heartily each morning. 

By filling up on breakfast, at about 10am near the end of the buffet service, we could skip lunch. We would not be properly hungry again until the evening, needing only a protein bar in the mid-afternoon.

My rough calculations found that this approach saved us at least $60 a day, which added up to about $1,000 over our trip.

4. Expect huge differences in culture within the US

I was certainly naive in this respect. I had read and heard many times about the differences in culture and atmosphere in different parts of the US, but to experience these social chasms was another thing.

While Australia is similar in land area to the US, I have never noticed much of a difference between the way people behave and think in Perth versus in Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane.

In the US, however, the contrasts we felt in a matter of days were jarring.

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, where the vibes and culture are progressive and liberal. PHOTO: RONAN O’CONNELL

In famously progressive San Francisco, a naked man wearing only sneakers and a hat strolled past us in broad daylight in the Castro neighbourhood. No one paid him any mind. He was just being free and easy.

While this was an odd experience, I adored the inclusive culture of San Francisco.

A few days later, I was taken back in time to the bad old days in the heavily right-wing state of Tennessee. At a petrol station, I overheard two middle-aged men openly having a bigoted conversation.

I do not intend to generalise about any locations I visited, but suffice to say, there were some which had uncomfortable vibes that I do not wish to experience again.

North Carolina’s Asheville is small but friendly. PHOTO: RONAN O’CONNELL

I must say, though, that across the entire US trip, people were consistently polite and friendly to me. While this vast country clearly has myriad social problems, it deserves its reputation as a warm, hospitable destination.

But be prepared to see starkly different sides of American society.

  • The writer is an Australian journalist and photographer who grew up on US sitcoms, sports and music, and just completed a dream trip driving across this nation with his brother.

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