A software techie’s guide to visiting, staying, and traveling in the United States

Its now been quite a while since I got back from the US. I was there in the months of June and July 2004. I am based in India which is almost on the other side of the globe from the US. The shortest route between the two nations might just be through the centre of
the earth.

As most would be aware, India has become a major IT hub and traveling to the US and other nations is quite common amongst IT professionals here. So when I was planning to travel, I was hoping to find many Indian accounts on the web about things that they found different in the US and what to expect and what not to. I found some info on travel sites but strangely did not find any first person accounts of US travel by IT professionals.

So I had decided back then that when I get back I will write all that I have learnt. It has taken me many months to get started but finally I have. I was in the US for only 20 days so I am sure I have seen and experienced only a small fraction of life and society in the US. So all things that I say are essentially IMveryHO. Readers of this piece who disagree or feel they can
add to what I have written, please use the comments section at the bottom of
this article.

The cities where I stayed:

  1. Scottsdale, near
    Phoenix, Arizona
  2. San Francisco, California
  3. Ypsilanti, near Detroit, Michigan

The reason for my trip:

  1. I had to meet some business acquaintances as well as some members of my family and friends.
  2. I was a speaker at the ODTUG conference at Scottsdale Arizona
  3. A speaker at JavaOne, San Francisco and also had a book signing there. I
    have written a few books on Java technology:
    Harshad Oak Bio.

My story begins with:

Getting a US visa

The US visa procedure is quite stringent. You have to submit a lot of documents, provide detailed info on why you are traveling, state if you have any close relatives in the US and also state where you would be staying, You also have to pay a significant amount as fees.

For business visas, you also have to show that we are being invited to the US, so I had to get invitations from my book publisher, the conference organizers and others whom I was meeting, saying that I was invited to the US.

The visa procedure includes an interview for which one has to take an appointment well in advance and travel to the US visa centers in select few cities in India. The current wait time at Mumbai for a visitor visa is 72 days! I had to take an appointment for the day after my wedding as not only is getting dates difficult but I was on vacation for many days after that and I couldn’t postpone my interview that much. I had to travel to the US consulate in Mumbai (Bombay) for my interview. After providing the visa office with so much info about me, I could not see why the interview was required or at least why it could not be telephonic.

I stay about 3 hours away from Mumbai and so the visa thing took up an entire day. However this one Mumbai center serves people from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh and so you find many people there who have come to the consulate after traveling for 12 hours or more.

The visa process is particularly painful for students who have to do strange things to show that they are in good financially state and can sponsor their US trip. Students have to invest a lot of time and effort in preparing for GRE / GMAT, applying to US colleges, preparing for the visa. And even after they do all this, there’s still a good chance of their visa being rejected.

US visa complexities have meant that many people in India are making tons of money just by providing US visa counseling. I haven’t gone through this process but I do wonder why one would go through all this trouble when education in India is almost as good as anywhere else on the globe. Uncle Sam’s land still fascinates most in the developing world, so I guess that is an important contributing factor. If you are a student, it does make sense to be very well prepared for the interview. If you are traveling for business or as a tourist and your documents are in order, you should get the US visa.

The visa I had applied for was a (business + tourist) B1 B2 visa and so the process was relatively simple. The interview lasted for about 45 seconds. I don’t know if the reason for my brief interview were the books that I showed the lady or if the visa office had already done some background study. Perhaps I should thank the couple before me, as they had bored the interviewer a fair bit by boasting about their current position, saying that they were related to some minister… Very amusing, but they took up a lot of time. So maybe just to cover some time, I was given my visa in less than a minute.

A question that I was asked was “How can I be sure that you will come back to India and not want to settle down in the US”. I answered saying that I was married yesterday, have a great life in India and so have no reason to stay in the US. The lady seemed shocked that I had turned up for my interview the day after my wedding. She was nice and polite and congratulated me on my wedding and approved my visa. With visa out of the way, the next step was booking air tickets

Air ticket booking

If your travel is company sponsored / arranged you would never realize how tedious the entire process of finalizing travel plans  and then booking tickets is. While travel bookings within the US can be handled online, for international travel you still need to visit your local travel agent. The online rates for international travel were very high as compared to the travel agent.

The trouble in this mode of booking is that every travel operator quotes a different figure and the figures can vary drastically. Operators hide things like fuel surcharge or some taxes so as to make their quote seem lower.

International Air Travel

My first destination was Phoenix, Arizona. So I had to decide if I wished to fly over the Pacific or the Atlantic. I chose the bigger ocean for obvious reasons. It’s cheaper to fly over the Pacific as you fly through either Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul or Tokyo
depending on which airline you opt for. Over the Atlantic means flying over Europe. So it costs more.

Air booking recommendations / tips:

  1. Get quotes from at least 3 travel agents.
  2. From an Indian travel agent, buy only your flight tickets to either the
    east/west coast of the US. Do not ask the travel agent to book your US
    domestic flights. You will save a lot if you do
    this online as US domestic deals are not available if you book through an Indian
    agent. These deals are available online and you can buy an e-ticket.
  3. If possible, keep your dates and airline choices flexible. The costs can come down significantly if you travel on a low volume day/time.
  4. Explicitly ask if a quote includes “ALL” costs
  5. Book return journey. It costs less.
  6. Check all timings thoroughly. The schedules generally state the local time at the place where the halt is. So time calculations can easily go wrong.
  7. Break journeys cost a lot less. In some cases you could actually stay in Hong Kong, Tokyo… at the airlines expense.
  8. Stick to one airline. If your first flight gets delayed, the airline tries to get you on the next flight or at least arranges for an alternative passage.
  9. Don’t hesitate to bargain with the travel agent. The rates can come down
    by another 5% or so..

Based on these rules, I planned my travel.

My plan was:

  1. Mumbai (Bombay) – Hong Kong (via Bangkok) (Cathay Pacific)
  2. Changed flight at HK. Hong Kong – San Francisco. The delay between the two
    flights was about 1 hr 30 min. (Cathay Pacific)

As I had booked only a Mumbai – SFO return journey, I still had to book my
travel within the US.

US Domestic travel

Within the US, I had to travel:

  1. San Francisco- Phoenix
  2. Phoenix – Detroit
  3. Detroit – San Francisco

Online booking is the way to book tickets in the US.
Orbitz.com and
Expedia.com and
Travelocity.com are some of the top sites. Orbitz is a particularly powerful travel search engine and provides a lot of airline options.

Again, be flexible. Changing dates and timings can lead to surprisingly lower costs. Also the sooner you book, the better. The more time you take to decide, the more it’s going to cost. I unfortunately did just that and ended up paying a hundred dollars more than my first quote on Orbitz.

I will recommend that you do not switch airlines in case you book a stop journey, especially if it is your first time in the US. You might have to spend a little more but you earn by not having to worry too much about missed connections / delayed flights and get a relatively tension free journey.

I decided on America West as my airline for all US travels. The timings, dates and costs were most convenient.

You could do all your airline searches on Orbitz.com but hey you don’t actually need to book there. I suggest that you go to the site of the airline operator. There’s this concept “Best Rate Guaranteed” that is popular in the US. So the AmericaWest site had that and I saved some dollars by booking on the America West site instead of booking at Orbitz. Also booking on the airline’s site instead of booking on a third party’s site, I thought was a more secure option. I could be sure that the ticket was actually booked. I just took a print of the e-ticket and my US domestic travel bookings were done.

Thus I was “All Set” to head for the US. “All Set” is a strangely common usage in the US. You check in at your hotel, the front desk lady tells you that you are “All Set”. You check in luggage and you are “All Set”. Your security check is complete, you are told that you are “All Set” and so on.

Insurance

If you are traveling for company business, your company will take a health insure for you in most cases. However if you are traveling on your own, you better travel well insured. Treatment in the US is very expensive. So if you fall ill or have an accident and are not insured, you or your host is in big trouble.

The journey

I went over to Mumbai a few hours before the scheduled time for the flight. Most US flights leave India at night. The procedure at the airport was quite straightforward.

  • Check in luggage: You need to ensure that your baggage weight is below the specified limit. I have heard that if you check in early, the airline people generally let you in even if your weight is a little above specified. Not sure. The important thing to do at check in is to specify the food you wish to have onboard. Being a vegetarian and having heard tales of how veggies have a horrid time on international flights and while in the US, I ensured that I got Asian Veg food onboard. Food is an important factor considering that you have to spend so many hours onboard and have to eat so many meals on the flight. Despite whatever bad press you might have read about Air India, I have heard that they have the best food. The food aboard Cathay Pacific was also pretty good.
  • Immigration check: If you have committed any crimes in India, this is where it will matter. I fortunately have a clean record so far and so after a small chat about IT in India, the officer let me through.

No other officer bothered me and I was soon on the flight. Actually, throughout my journey not one official in India, US or elsewhere questioned or bothered me for no reason. I don’t know if I was lucky or if customs and airport staff unnecessarily have a bad name.

My first flight from Mumbai – Hong Kong (via Bangkok) got delayed and so I had to race after a Cathay Pacific official to the next flight. Hong Kong is a humongous airport and I used a train, carts, walkways and all such stuff to get to the next flight. On the Hong Kong to San Francisco flight, the pilot however did not accept that an earlier Cathay flight delay was the cause of the next flight being held back. He instead lied that the delay was because they had to round up some passengers who were not traceable on the airport. So I did get some unpleasant stares from the passengers already on the flight.

Hong Kong to SFO was a long and boring journey. Watching TV and eating were the only things I did, and I consciously did not look at my watch. Occasional announcements about air turbulence made the flight a little interesting and scary. I don’t know if it was just coincidence but the kind of turbulence experienced while over the Pacific hasn’t been matched by any other I have
experienced. The plane rocked violently at times and it was a little scary. All those Hollywood movies about planes crashing in the ocean also make it easier for your mind to play tricks on you.

Once in SFO, I had to stand in queue for quite some time at an immigration counter. The lady asked a few questions about when I would be leaving, where I would be staying and stuff and then stamped the date till which I could stay in the US. The date was a few days after the date of my return flight.

I had booked my San Francisco (SFO) to Phoenix flight about 8 hours after my Hong Kong SFO flight arrival time. I wasted a few hours slugging my baggage all over San Francisco airport. It later dawned on me that I could request the airline to put me on an earlier flight. I did that and I managed to get the last ticket on a flight a few hours before the one I had booked.

By this time, all notions that I had that being good with English would mean that I would have no trouble communicating in the US, had disappeared.

English Language

Indians learn English from very early days in school and most well educated Indians will like to think that they are good at the English language. However on interacting with Americans, I realized that the problem wasn’t the language but the accent. I was not sure of every fifth word I heard and the person I was speaking to was experiencing something similar. The vocabulary and the words being used were almost the same but the way Americans pronounce them is very different from the Indian pronunciations. You might have watched 100’s of Hollywood movies but that won’t prepare you for having American accent coming at you from all sides.

There is no right or wrong way to pronunciation. So while some in India do say that American usage and pronunciation is incorrect and what we learn and speak in India is the right way. I think that is unfair. What is used and accepted in a
certain country is the right way for that country.

Only when I started speaking very slowly and emphasizing every sound and word, did communication get simplified. America is such a diverse country that the English spoken by an Asian American is different from that spoken by an African American and so on. So while your flight attendants might understand what you say quite easily, your baggage handler or taxi driver might not.

Communication (Phones)

On landing at SFO, I checked if the cell phone I was carrying was working. I had bought a prepaid card in India such that I could
at least receive calls and send SMSes from the US.   The charges for receiving calls were very high but at least I was within reach.

I was hoping that once I get to the US, I will buy a prepaid card there and use it throughout my journey but I soon was told that there is no such concept as prepaid cards in the US. So the phone I had carried was of no use to me.

Calling cards:

Calling cards are very useful and so if you are traveling, ensure that you have a calling card even before you land in the US.
Caling using a calling card costs less than the coin operated phones present at public places. Also you don’t have to keep carrying change for making calls. A friend of mine offered me usage of her Bigzoo.com card and I later bought another bigzoo.com card. I checked Bigzoo.com today and they seemed to have closed down on 31st Jan 2005. So you need to find a different provider.

Hotels

With so many Indians in the US, you would generally find some acquaintance in any US city. I stayed with friends and family for most of the time but did stay a few days at a hotel in Scottsdale. I used Yahoo Maps and MSN Maps to check where exactly a hotel was located and how far it was from the places I had to visit. Google Maps wasn’t available back then. I compared costs using sites like  Travelocity.com and Expedia.com and finally booked at Extended Stay America.

The hotel was a budget hotel and had all that I needed. A microwave, refrigerator, hot plates and of course all the other facilities expected. I did not actually cook anything as I am too lazy for that, but I liked that I had the option. I used the microwave a fair bit, to heat and eat things I bought at a super market nearby.

Travel within the city

This depends on where you are located. In Phoenix, cars were the only way to get around while in San Francisco the local transport network is very good. There’s the MUNI and BART that you can use and you can easily check which to take, where to change and such stuff on the respective sites.

Cabs as very expensive. Perhaps flying in the US is cheaper that using taxis. Also you don’t just yell “Auto!!” or “Taxi!!” to stop a cab but you have to call a number and the cab will pick you up. This however is not the case in the big and crowded areas. The usage of the word “crowded” here, is relative to American standards as by Indian standards, nothing in America would seem crowded.

America runs on cars. If you had wondered why oil in the Middle East is regarded as so important for America, the answer will come to you very quickly after you get there. I don’t know what the exact figure is but I dread to think that Americans might have more than 2 cars per person in the nation. Not very eco friendly but that’s the way it is. In the big cities I did see more than 1 person in a car but otherwise 1 human 1 car is the rule.

Measurements

Talking of super markets, the funny thing with America is that they still are not on the metric system and so weights are in pounds, milk is in gallons and distances in miles.
The United States, Liberia, and Burma (or Myanmar) are the
only countries that have not adopted the metric system. Refer to The Metric System in the United States

India works on kilos, liters [litres is how it is spelt in India. My spell checker is American :-)] and kilometers. The conversion is:

  • 1 US gallon = 3.7854118 liters
  • 1 mile = 1.609344 kilometers
  • 1 pound = 0.45359237 kilogram

Did you know you can use Google for conversions? Try the Google Calculator: Search for the phrase “1 pound in kilo“.

As you can’t carry Google with you, buying anything first involves some calculations. I did mess up a bit and bought a gallon of milk too much. I could not
possibly have drank that much milk but I could not figure it out at the store.

Food

Food is a big issue, especially if you are a vegetarian like me. I mostly survived by drinking lots of milk, heating and eating
microwave ready dishes, juice and breakfast cereal. However as I was in the US for such a short time, the reason for me not getting good veg food might just be that I did not know of the restaurants to visit.

Even Indians who eat non vegetarian food generally don’t eat beef, and beef seems to be the most common meat all over America. So if the menu states veg sandwich, do not presume that there’s no beef in it. Beef is so common that it is taken for granted and not even stated at some restaurants.

Another problem that comes with food, is that of table manners. In India, you just wash your hands properly and use your hands to eat. Things aren’t so simple elsewhere. The table is full of knives, forks, glasses and what not. I had read and studied about the various procedures and usages and had even undergone a training a few years earlier that had a session about table manners. But I sure wasn’t well prepared. The informal meals that had burgers, fruits, chips, etc. were the ones where I actually ate. The knives and forks meals were more of a ritual for me and and not an actual meal.

As I was the only Indian at most places I visited, I also felt this burden of representing India and not cutting a sorry figure. If you are an American and are reading this, the next time you see an Indian
struggling with his knives and forks, please excuse him, as it really is a very difficult skill to master.

Update 1 (22nd Apr 2005): The MUNI Incident

I wonder how I forgot to write about this earlier. Anyway, this happened on a nice beautiful morning when I had boarded a MUNI to get to the station from where I used to walk to the JavaOne event at the Moscone Center. I boarded at SF State University, I am not sure where I got down. I think it was Powell.

A shabby, bearded man in torn jeans and completely messed up hair, boarded the MUNI and decided to sit beside me. I thought ignoring him would be the best way to go. He initially was busy muttering something that I could not comprehend but this muttering was laced with some unmentionable abuses. It was still ok. However as the MUNI started filling up, naturally nobody wanted to sit beside him and some even opted to stand instead of sitting beside him. This blew his fuse and he started yelling “Why can’t u sit beside me? U think I am mad….”
He continued to shout curses for some time after that.

I was terrified. The next few min were some of my scariest in America. The first thought that crossed my mind was that as this person was obviously unemployed, I hope he doesn’t see that I was an Indian and start yelling at me for taking his job or something. I had heard of such encounters from a few friends.

Fortunately, he didn’t pay attention to me. A few stops later, he got off the MUNI but then seemed to have second thoughts and looked to board again. I was praying for the doors to shut and fortunately they did before he could come back in. I was relieved. A gentleman in a business suit was sitting on my other side and he also seemed to share that feeling and we shared a smile of relief.

Update 2 (26th Apr 2005): Race + Greetings

Race

A very sensitive yet important question is  “How do you refer to the various kinds of people in the US?” In India hardly anybody is aware that the word Negro is considered racist and insulting. We almost use it like we use the words European or Asian. However note that Negro is not acceptable. Black seems to be more acceptable but even that it seems has been replaced by ‘African American’.

Similarly, the native americans and not supposed to be referred to as “Red Indians”. The acceptable usage is “Native American”.

I would appreciate it if somebody can add a comment that clarifies this further.

Greetings

In India if someone says “Thank you”, u generally just smile and acknowledge. In the US you have to say “You are welcome”. Also to thank someone, you don’t just say “Thank You”, you generally say “Thank you, I appreciate it.” It takes a conscious effort to remember and do these things. There are many such nuances of social interactions that one has to keep in mind. I hope to write more later.

Work In Progress

I hope to keep this article a Work in Progress and keep adding and updating it as new info is shared by friends and family. Maybe even I will go back to the US someday. Not sure though as it is just so far away and most things today can be done through email.

That reminds me: Another important American feature is that they have well and truly adopted email and I think are way ahead of other countries in terms of email usage. I don’t remember even one instance where an American was not comfortable discussing and finalizing matters over email. If you are interacting with an Indian, Englishman or any other non American for that matter, in all probability they will want to discuss over the phone or meet up before they take a final decision.

I am sure many readers will have something to add. So please use the comments section below.

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  • GUEST

    vcc gvlhh

  • ‘Guest’

    Nice to read your experiences.I had experience of working in Canada when i was onsite for 6 months.The office manners there are completely different than ours, i mean the IT work culture and alike.I will write on this some other day.Anyways nice to read your stuff.

    Regards,
    Ranjan Khot.

  • Harshad Oak

    I travelled twice to the US after that and all my experiences were positive and enriching.

  • -Bill

    As an American it was very illuminating for me to read your well written blog on your experences in America. Your observations on the use of ‘all set’ and ‘Thank you, I appreciate it’, as well as, all our various accents were ‘on the mark’. As I think about it, the term ‘All Set’ is very strange indeed!

    It is hoped your trip and experiances we all positive, and the experiance with the man on the bus was an abnormality. Thanks again for posting your feel of the US. As I travel the world I too work to respect each culture and continue to see that there may be differences, but we are all more alike than we realize.

  • mskadu

    You’ve inspired me to write one on living in UK 🙂 Will be posting it on my blog (http://mskadu.blogspot.com) soon.

    – Mayuresh

  • Guest

    Good 🙂

  • Guest

    Thanks! I am having a business acquaintance and his wife visit in a month. They are Indians living in Indonesia. This helps my understanding about what they will experience/feel while in the USA.

  • Guest

    >A friend of mine offered me usage of her Bigzoo.com card and I later bought another bigzoo.com card. I checked Bigzoo.com today and they seemed to have closed down on 31st Jan 2005. So you need to find a different provider.

    That is true – BigZoo did shut down with no explanation at the end of January 2004 and many people lost the money that was on their accounts. To find a good replacement, check out [URL=http://www.easycall.net/bigzoo]EasyCall Communications[/URL] They offer two services that work very similar to BigZoo.