Spending Money in the USA: The Ultimate Guide

From shopping in New York and skiing in Denver, to surfing the Big Sur and sailing the Mississippi - you are able to experience almost anything in the United States of America.

But whilst the endless list of possibilities makes for exciting reading, the disparity in costs from state to state, city to city, or coast to coast, makes budgeting a nightmare

So we've done our research, and looked at data from our own travellers, to put together this US spending guide which covers nationwide trends like ATM charges, tipping and hotel etiquette.

We've also created tailored spending guides for New York City and Orlando based on how real travellers spend there.

Will UK cards be accepted?

Firstly, and happily, the short answer is yes. Card providers like Mastercard, Maestro and Visa are supported almost everywhere across the 50 states.

But checking what your bank charges for overseas use is important. So we've done the hard work and crunched the costs and fees for some of the UK's biggest debit cards banks. A bad choice here could end up costing you an extra 10%. That £100 shaved off a £1000 budget.

Selecting a prepaid travel card, debit card, credit card or cash is a personal choice that is worth careful consideration. There are merits to credit cards, debit cards and travel cash.

Getting Cash? Make sure to do it in advance

If you prefer having your foreign currency in hard cash - the old fashioned way - then you should get it sorted pre-trip. You will always get a better deal if you change money in the UK. If you take one thing and one thing only from this guide - don't exchange your money at the airport. You'll pay up to 11% for the privilege.

Waiting until you've crossed the pond could also prove costly. The FX market is much less established in the US compared to here, meaning there is simply less competition driving down rates. Once you’re in the US you are basically a captive customer - what choices do you have other than to accept a poor rate.

How much does it cost to withdraw from ATMs in the US?

American ATM charges are complicated, even for the locals. Even American nationals have to pay to withdraw if the logo on their card doesn’t match that on the ATM - an equivalent here would be Barclays charging NatWest users to use the Barclays hole in the wall - the same rule applies to foreigners.

The fee is usually between $2 - $3 so it’s not going to ruin your holiday, but we’d suggest withdrawing larger sums of say $300 or so. This should keep you ticking over for a few days.

When withdrawing from an ATM, you won't always see a ‘debit' or 'prepaid' card option. Don’t panic, just press on credit card, it will make absolutely no difference whatsoever to the charges.

Over-the-counter payments

Forget developments such as Apple pay and contactless; they're not widespread in the US. In fact, you will do well to find chip and pin in the States.

When paying at restaurants, bars, shops etc, the merchant will swipe your card and you'll have to sign for it.

And don’t forget to fill in the receipt/cheque/bill with your exact tip and the total amount before signing the dotted line

How much should I tip?

Tipping is not really optional; only withhold in cases of unbelievably bad service. You’ll soon get the hang of it when you’re there, but here’s a handy cut out and keep guide for reference.


How much spending money do I need to budget for my US trip?

There are 50 states in the USA and budget/costs will obviously differ from place to place. But as a general rule of thumb, the following is a good place to start.

Hotels – budget around $120 per night for mid-range, $70 for a motel  

According to Statista.com, the average daily rate for a double room across the country is $121.37. But remember that exclusive hotels have skewed the average rate (especially in NYC) so shop around.

Also, cities like San Francisco are some of the most forward-thinking in the world, so peer-to-peer alternatives such as Airbnb and Love-home-swap and are rife and usually very high quality.

As with anywhere, if you’re brave enough then book late. Hotels do not want empty rooms it’s as simple as that.

Food – $5-$7 for quick lunch, $12 - $15 for an average meal out for one, $25-$50 per person for higher range

Again, let’s take a national average, this time from website thesimpledollar.com. In 2014, the average meal out cost around $12.75, which translates to a very tempting £8.38 (on 13.11.16).

Generally speaking, supermarkets are not significantly cheaper than eating out. The catering industry is vast and hugely competitive, prices reflect that.

It is also true that portions are large. Often splitting a sandwich and fries at lunchtime will be enough.


US brands are cheaper in the US, European brands you will find to be slightly less but not by a lot.

Retail outlets are popular with natives and tourists alike; track down an outlet mall and bargains will be found.

Like everything else, the price of shopping will even vary from city to city and state to state. A pair of jeans in LA will cost you more than a pair of jeans will in Dallas.

How does tax work?

The US is fairly opaque with VAT tax. Crucially, it does not fall under federal jurisdiction and can differ from state to state.

Most items you purchase will be subject to this sales tax which can range from as little as 3% on a snowboarding trip to Colorado, to 8% if you’re surfing in San Diego.

This tax is non-returnable so whilst keeping you receipts is always recommended. You’re not going to be able to claim this money back when you’re home.

Don't forget your visa...

Finally, make sure you apply for your visa or ESTA before finalising all of these details. Whilst most people will be granted access to the US some won't. Get it done early to avoid dissapointment. Read more: uk.usembassy.gov/visas/visa-waiver-program/


Words by WeSwap, the clever new way to get travel money that’s up to 10 times cheaper than banks, bureaux or airports. Get five friends signed up, get free currency exchange for life.

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