Differences between the USA and Europe that you’ll spot as a first-time traveller to the USA

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We all know there are some big differences between the USA and Europe. But when I visited the USA for the first time as a traveller from the UK, I experienced some really funny culture shocks and little details that no one had mentioned before, such as finding what big gaps there are under toilet doors in the US.

I thought it would be nice to put these differences together into this huge post for my blog readers to enjoy. It lists all the interesting, surprising and weird things about the USA that I found on my first ever trip there, plus of course a handful of more serious ones. I hope you find it entertaining and perhaps it’ll be useful for anyone planning their first-ever trip to the USA from anywhere in the UK or wider Europe.

So settle down with a cup of tea (brewed with an electric kettle) and have a read of some differences between the USA and Europe that you’ll spot as a traveller to the USA for the first time…

Funny and interesting differences between the USA and Europe | PACK THE SUITCASES

Differences between the USA and Europe: DISCLAIMER

I just want to do a bit of a disclaimer before I begin. Here it is:

  • These differences between the USA and Europe are based on my first ever trip to the USA. Of course, the USA is a whopping massive country that’s completely different from one state/area to the next. I’m very much aware that no one, two, three or even 10 cities can be representative of an entire country, especially one that ginormous. 
  • I had a ball in the USA and am already planning future trips so see more of it. So this is a highly positive/light-hearted post (for the most part). There are of course, some negative aspects to the US – like anywhere. I touch on a bit of that side too.

Disclaimer over. Let’s get stuck in.

Funny and interesting differences between the USA and Europe | PACK THE SUITCASES

Differences between the USA and Europe that you’ll spot as a traveller to the US for the first time

1. USA toilets are very full and very… gappy

There is SO much water in American toilets compared with any I’ve been to anywhere else in the world. WHY?

Also, the US seems to love having massive gaps between the door and the wall and the door and the floor. It’s quite unnerving when you’re trying to have a wee.

2. Americans are SO chatty and open

Everyone is so incredibly friendly and talkative. Sitting up on a stool at the bar is essentially an open invitation to discuss your entire life with the people next to you. And it’s brilliant and not weird at all once you’re there, even though it sounds horrifying as a concept.

People are so open and instantly pally. Sometimes, I’d be sat at a bar chatting away to two people who I’d assumed were a couple and then one would get up to go and say how it was nice to meet everyone… Yep. They didn’t even know the other person. But they’d just spent an hour talking to each other like they’d known them all their lives.

3. Buildings in the USA fly flags a lot – everywhere

This does happen a bit in some European countries although not to the extent it does in the US.

But in the UK, a flag is only really a thing for racists or the Spice Girls.

4. English teabags are available in the USA… 

Getting a cup of normal tea (that’s ‘English breakfast’ to non-UK people) wasn’t as hard as I’d expected in the USA. In fact, it was easier than it is in most of Europe.

But be warned. They don’t do kettles in hotel rooms (much like some European countries don’t, to be fair) so I’d recommend hiring an apartment if you’re going to the USA and like me, you 100% need a brew first thing in the morning to even be alive. Double-check that the apartment has an electric kettle. I’m specifying electric because (and brace yourself for this next one one…)

5. … but kettles might not be

Sometimes they think when you say ‘kettle’ that you mean an antique kettle like you’d put on the stove to boil water in Victorian times.

Electric kettles are not in every household there. I know, I know.

6. Brunch in the USA is iconic

If you like brunch (who doesn’t), you’re in the right place.

I have never experienced anything like the brunches in the US. Everything was amazing. And if you’re veggie or vegan, don’t worry about being faced with wall-to-wall bacon. There are eggs every which way you can think of and avocado toast and French toast and vegan pancakes and muffins and chia puddings and hash browns and cheesy waffles and all the fruit.

These are just a few of the reasons I came back home from the USA unable to do my jeans up.

7. Portion sizes in the USA can be wild

The old ‘American portion sizes are HUGE’ stereotype is, to some extent, true. But having said that, it really depends on where you are.

While a lot of places really do super-sized portions that no human could ever get through, it’s not always the case. In San Francisco, some of the places I went had completely normal portion sizes. And that leads me nicely onto my next point…

8. Doggy bags are totally normal in the US – another of the food-based differences between the USA and Europe

Even if somewhere serves ginormous portions, not everyone eats it all. Doggy bags for your leftovers are completely normal and many people expect to take half of it home to have the next day.

You can also order one thing to share between two, which has the added bonus of saving money. You don’t have to gorge yourself. Although, you’re on your hols so it would be rude not to overeat at some point. And yes, this is the kind of attitude that means my jeans now don’t fit.

9. Dollars are confusing and all the same size/shape

I’ve travelled all over the place and found American dollars one of the hardest currencies to get used to.

Cash in note form is surprisingly confusing. Why’s it all the same size and shape?! How are you meant to find a tenner after a few drinks? And the smaller coins are often quite useless.

10. It’s not true that the US doesn’t have any public transport… but it’s not great

Public transport does exist in some places, but it is hard going. I don’t drive so on my first trip to the US, I chose two cities with allegedly good public transport. Maybe it was good by US standards but it was dire compared with Europe or Japan (okay, being unfair with Japan there because who can compete with that?!).

The trains and buses are rudimentary, they’re all run by different private companies so it’s hard to find one transport map that lays every line over it so you can use it all in a joined-up way, and they don’t always run that late.

Also, trains are SLOW, even compared with the UK’s abysmal Northern Rail. And that’s saying something.

11. Everything to do with cars and driving in the US is much bigger than in Europe

Cars are huge. Roads are incredibly wide. There aren’t pavements (‘sidewalks’) everywhere.

I don’t drive, so the car-centric culture was probably the one aspect of the USA that really hit me hard. It’s just so, so different from anywhere else I’ve been over the years. 

12. Tipping is a massive deal in the USA – one of the hardest differences between the USA and Europe to get your head around

We’ve all heard about this, but it really does permeate everything. Just pay staff the living wage, honestly. Then if someone is exceptional, a tip will really mean something, rather than just be expected so that the poor employee actually gets what they should anyway. I really feel sorry for anyone relying on tips when they should just be paid a fair wage.

You also have to tip for random stuff like the hotel staff carrying your suitcase. In restaurants, they usually have these tablet-style screen things that you can sign and tip on.

13. The USA doesn’t include tax in prices

Mostly, advertised prices don’t include tax. Unless you know what the tax is and can do some speedy mental maths, you’ll never really know the price of anything until you come to pay for it. This can get awkward if you’re on the dregs of your change.

14. Chirpy waiters work in the USA like they never could in Europe

Waiters and other service staff are SO enthusiastic. No wonder, you might think, with their income relying on tips instead of a suitable wage. But a lot of them genuinely seem to be keen for you to have a good time. I was really surprised that I liked this, but I did.

This kind of chirpy service works really well in the US because it’s real. It fails miserably when people try to import it to Europe because it becomes fake and irritating.

15. The stereotype of greasy USA food isn’t true

Well, okay, I’m sure there are plenty of places that will live up to the Man Vs Food image we’re fed of American food here in Europe. But healthy food is also really easy to get and I don’t get the impression that everyone lives off fried food at all. In the cities I’ve been to in the US, it was easy to find incredible vegan options everywhere we went, as well as fresh seafood, innovative tasting menus, cuisine from absolutely every country and culture, and plenty of unusual dishes too.

I’m trying not to go on about food too much in this post because I’m currently starving and it’ll kill me thinking about all the delicious things I’ve eaten in the USA…

16. Adverts are completely different in the USA – one of the biggest differences between the USA and Europe

You know when you get a faux-cheesy retro advert on telly for double glazing or something? Lots of American adverts are actually like that in all seriousness. The person talks directly to the camera asking them to buy whatever it is.

They’re also on constantly. You seem to get more adverts than actual TV programme. No wonder everyone is turning to Netflix.

Also, you get lawyers and pharma companies advertising on TV. Imagine that ever washing in Europe. Surreal.

17. Contactless is far less widespread than in Europe

This really floored me. Contactless payments haven’t caught on in the USA the way they have elsewhere in Europe, Asia and further afield.

You still have to put your PIN in a lot and in some places, you don’t need your PIN but you can physically sign for it and the waiter wanders off with your card and you just have to trust them. I adored that trusting attitude (although contactless is much less hassle).

18. Everywhere is air-conditioned in the USA

I had heard this rumour, and totally understand why they have it in hot places in the USA. But I wasn’t expecting it to be on during cool weather – yet there it was, blasting out in every hotel, bar, restaurant and café I went in. It’s also standard in people’s homes, which is just unheard of in the UK and most of Europe.

While it must be nice in a heatwave, it really played havoc with my contact lenses being blasted dry. So take layers and eye drops.

19. Peanut butter is king in the USA

If you like peanut butter and peanut-butter-flavoured stuff, you are in for a TREAT. I knew PB was serious business there, but oh my. It’s everywhere and it’s glorious. As we have already established, my jeans don’t do up now.

20. Baseball is a thing in the USA and people love it

I’m afraid this was totally lost on me. I really hate every kind of sport apart from equestrian ones but this was especially unfathomable. Baseball is like rounders and equally dull. I went to see a game of it to see what it was all about but I still didn’t really get it.

Having said that, I’m sure most people were there just to eat, drink and have a good old shout. Now that I can get behind.

21. There are some very cute differences between the USA and Europe in how we pronounce everyday words

Americans say com-POST-ing instead of composting. I’d never heard this on TV before!

It was my favourite thing immediately and I will now pronounce it like that 5ever, even if people look at me funny.

22. Cafés and bars can be more dog-friendly in the US than in mainland Europe

I don’t know if it was just the places I’ve been (which goes for this entire list, I guess – disclaimers and all that) but everywhere is a lot more dog-friendly than I’m used to in Europe. I live in the UK, which tends to be more dog-friendly in pubs than the rest of Europe, but I always pick up on being around dog and I loved how often I found myself next to a dog in a bar in the US.

There are doggies fluffing about in most cafés, bars and breweries as well as parading around the streets. I spent about 60% of our time there spotting cute dogs, petting cute dogs and talking to dogs’ owners about how cute they were. The dogs, that is. Not the owners.

23. Roaming data in the US is essential

It would be proper hard to get by without roaming data on your phone over in the USA. You should probably plan for this before you go.

I’m really used to having it all over Europe and not having to rely on WiFi in cafés, to be honest. I don’t think either of our phones got on well with WiFi in the US either – it was painfully slow when we connected in cafés and bars, even in hotels.

I found a lifesaver of a SIM to use there, with £10 worth of data on it. This meant I could navigate more easily and get Ubers. Top tip!

24. One slightly negative difference between the USA and Europe – a more individualistic society

You do get the sense that you’re really on your own in the US. People are SO kind and will help each other, but there’s no social safety net to look out for you. 

Without the NHS and much public transport, not to mention having spoke to lots of American travel bloggers about healthcare and insurance issues in the US, I of course did know this before going so it wasn’t exactly a shock. But you actually notice it when you’re there.

One tiny example would be if you can’t get an Uber, there’s no cheap and safe night bus to fall back on after going for drinks.

25. We may have American craft beer in Europe but it’s so good going to its birthplace

Super-hoppy craft beer is a big deal all across Europe and has been for a long time. We all know it’s taking the rest of the world by storm too. But it’s usually served in hipster bars mainly, which can be off-putting for some.

Well in the US it’s just normal, so you don’t need any facial hair to enjoy a craft beer bar (although in some areas of SF, if might help). Breweries and taprooms are prolific and cities are very proud of their local beers. It’s a dream for anyone into American-style IPAs.

26. Guns in the USA are of course an issue but it depends where you go how widespread it is

As already mentioned, a lot of the American stereotypes are not true across the board. That definitely goes for guns. In the news – certainly in the UK – all you hear about the US involves the horror of guns and how prolific they are. There are plenty of horror stories of people being able to buy them casually in supermarkets and walking around with them. I’m sure that does happen in some places, but it isn’t everywhere. I know that sounds really obvious but this was something at the back of my mind before I visited to be honest.

In the places I went, I didn’t see any shops selling guns or anyone casually walking around with a gun. Everyone I chatted to (and given how chatty Americans are, that’s a lot!) tended to ask what the UK impression of the US was. They were all 100% abhorred by guns.

Of course, like the stereotypes of huge portions/religious nutcases/Trump supporters and every other negative thing you hear about America, this’ll be area-specific. The police do carry guns though, which is weird to see.

27. Menu labelling in the US can get you more food than you bargained for

‘Entree’ means main course, not starter, in the US. Despite sounding like it should mean that…

I don’t know how I didn’t know this given how many episodes of Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares USA I’ve binge-watched. Be warned!

28. Homelessness is heart-wrenching

Particularly in San Francisco, the scale of homelessness is shocking. Many of the homeless people have mental health issues and are clearly suffering. I work in Manchester in the UK, a city that has a huge homelessness problem too. But the situation in SF still shocked me. It was much less in other places, but still upsetting.

The (presumably) untreated mental health problems among the homeless community also mean that you have to be careful in certain areas, unfortunately. But people are kind, and I saw a lot of locals giving out food and money or just stopping to chat.

29. British vs American English isn’t too much of an issue

People absolutely understand most British English vs. American English differences, i.e. they know what you mean if you say lift instead of elevator.

Food terminology might be more confusing but I did okay. Scones, biscuits, jam, jelly, shrimps – it all means different stuff but you can usually work it out.

30. Whole Foods needs to come to Europe (specifically Manchester in the UK please)

There’s a glorious supermarket called Whole Foods in the US that sells everything you didn’t know you needed to eat and more. Shopping there is a serene and wondrous joy. They sell SO much delicious vegan stuff.

It is an actual crime that we don’t have Whole Foods in the UK (other than a few clustered together in stupid London). It’s clearly my spiritual home.

Bring it to the North West PLEASE.

31. Some noises are amusingly different between the USA and Europe

Fire engines in the US make a really disturbing noise that sounds like the end of the world is nigh. Fun!

32. Substance over style rules in the US

This is a hard one to explain, but a lot of everyday stuff in the US is very functional with a capital F. Things that you sort of barely think about like traffic lights, bins, toilet doors, trains, fences – they’re often noticeably perfunctory. 

With trains, it’s like someone shoved some metal together and went ‘There you go. It runs, doesn’t it? What more do you want?’, whereas in most other places across Europe and Asia that I’ve been there’s some element of style to it.

It’s especially stark when these rudimentary designs are sat next to beautiful architecture, too.

33. Sports and universities get their branding on everything in the US

In the US, there’s a huge amount of identity based in a) supporting a sport team and b) having been to a university.

You can get branded clothing for either, to wear from head to toe. I kind of get the love for your uni, but the sport thing is beyond me (as already mentioned, I despise most sports).

I suppose people are really obsessed with football (or should I say soccer!) in Europe, but I’m sure the % of fans who own team-branded socks/belts/underwear (?!) will be double in the USA.

34. This may be obvious, but the scale of the USA is almost incomprehensible 

The scale of the USA is ridiculous really. I mean, we’ve all seen the USA on a map so you know that bad boy is a whopper. But when you’re there, popping down a road is never popping. It’s a full-on marathon.

Everything is really spread out and massive – even in less car-centric cities where people do walk a lot.

Crack those blister plasters in your bag because you’re going to be walking off all the brunches and desserts sharpish.

35. Another cute difference in pronunciation: ‘herbs’

American say ‘erbs’ for ‘herbs’. Yes, the H becomes silent. Where did it go? And why? No idea. But it’s magnificent.

I did actually know this beforehand, because as already admitted, I have watched an unhealthy amount of Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares USA, but hearing it IRL was still great.

36. Drinking measures are one of the novelty differences between the USA and Europe

Drinks come in fluid ounces rather than ml or pints. I knew the US still hadn’t converted to the usual metric measuring system, but beer coming in anything but a pint was still a novelty.

Make sure you have a rough idea of what’s what, or you could end up with about two litres of a 10% IPA. Good luck with that…

37. Pharmacies/drug stores are one of the big differences between the USA and Europe

And I mean this in terms of what’s seen as ok and what’s not.

In the USA, you can’t get some good old Ibuprofen gel for a sore leg (from all the walking!) without a prescription, but you can casually pick up some insanely strong sleeping pills that are illegal in the UK. Right.

38. Annual leave is mean in the USA

Americans really don’t get much annual leave. So don’t rub it in too much that you’re there for two weeks. Do mention it though, because they’re so friendly that they’ll whip out a notepad and start scribbling down an entire itinerary for you featuring all their favourite places. Several people did this for us!

And I think that’s a heart-warming note to end on.

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  1. Ahaha this is so accurate and as ever your writing cracked me up.

    Never go to Florida, portions are ridiculous and the wasted food made my blood boil. Another area you’d like similar to San francisco/boston vibe is Portland and Seattle, you could go up to Vancouver with them too as a bigger holiday.


    1. Cheers Louise! Yeah, there are certain places that just don’t appeal to me. Chris went to Portland and Seattle for his stag do and LOVED it! But I’d love to do Seattle/Vancouver (Portland seems to be 99% about beer) next time x

  2. Regarding #41 actually not everyone has washing machines at home! Especially if you rent an apartment, they are never furnished so you have to buy your own furniture and… well if you want a washing machine you gotta buy one? That’s what my friends told me at least when they were complaining about having to go wash their clothes at a laundromat!

    And I can’t believe you guys don’t have whole foods up in the north, there are so many of them in London!

    1. There are none in the south outside London or the Midlands either, just bloody London! I hope they’re going to expand because omg I need all their products in my life/fridge!

  3. Talking about big, in America bigger is always better. Big roads, big cars, big meals. Hahaha gaps between the door was one of the first things I noticed too. 🙂

  4. Girl this post has identified you as my spirit animal 😂💙 I’ve never met anyone else who calls baseball rounders but I have been referring to it as manly rounders for as long as I can remember

    1. Ahaha I love this comment. Baseball IS rounders. Only without the bit where you can be a ‘fielder’ and just go as far away as possible and do nothing. That was my general plan every time we had to play it at school.

  5. Hahaha what a fantastic post concept! And I recently spent 2 months in the US and can relate to so much of this! I thought food portions were big, and then I visited Texas where they were GIANT SIZED! Pretty insane, but like you said, most people take the leftovers home and make atleast 1-2 more meals of them.

  6. Lol I love your writing style!

    I agree with most of these, although I’ve only been to one corner of the States too. Have you been up to Canada? It is a strange mix of all your comments on the US, plus some very European-like things too. It’s a strange blend of feeling like home, and ….culture shock!

      1. Yay! Give me a shout if you need ideas for Vancouver. We’ve been here for a year and I LOVE all the hikes!!

  7. Great list! Very entertaining to read. The one thing I have to say is that the nickname we have for Whole Foods is whole paycheck because it is so expensive. I prefer Trader Joes.

  8. Caroline this is just wonderful! I hope you can visit the south sometime we do things really different here. The funny thing is also so few Americans travel internationally that they don’t even know how weird we are! Please let us know if you ever visit New Orleans, we’ll show you around! ~M

  9. I feel you on so many levels – moved to the US 10 years ago and some sh!t still freaks me out, haahahha. Like the gaps, getting strong a$$ medicine, and so on. Shopping is for sure an experience there. I don’t have to shop in other countries, but there,… UGH hahahah.

    1. Haha. Where did you move from? The medication was a shocker! Like how is something as harmless as Ibruprofen gel on prescription while all these crazy sleeping pills are just casually available. What’s the issue with shopping? We only briefly shopped – to be honest you get most of the same big stores in the UK so I was only interested in little independent shops. Got a few nice clothes but didn’t go too wild!

  10. I love to hear first impressions of the USA and this one in particular had me giggling nonstop. I’m currently in Australia and my favorite accent difference has been “compost”. Each morning is the same routine with my husband: “Darling, have you seen the compUST bin?” I’m so happy to hear it goes both ways.

  11. Such a great post <3 Hope that one day I could have a chance to visit America. I love this country because of its various culture and delicious food. I also have some American friends, they are very nice and friendly. I`m sure that my experience there will be one of the most memorable moments in my life. Thank you

  12. Had a good chuckle reading this. We travelled around New England from Boston and around ending in the Big Apple. Loved every minute of it.

  13. That’s a very entertaining list, thank you! I’ve been to Boston and this has brought back memories, especially about food portion sizes, the amount of flags (sooo many) and the friendliness that is wonderful on paper but a definite change of pace for me (also British). Now I’m looking forward to going back 🙂

  14. I loved this, and your witty approach. I landed here as a click-through from your San Francisco post on your mention of the amount of water in toilets. I was curious to say the least. Your observations are spot on. My first ball game in the US had me wandering around observing people who weren’t even watching the game but as you say, drinking that expensive beer. I can see where the game was confusing … but have you ever tried to explain cricket to someone from the US? I grew up in Australia and settled in Canada with no success explaining the rules to Canadians. Thanks for the delightful read.

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