Thursday 29 September 2016

The ultimate J1 travel guide!

American Dreams

Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Plan ahead to make the most of your J1 roadtrip. Photo: Getty Images.
Roisín Nestor
Deep-dish pizza in Chicago - paloumalnatis.com
San Francisco's Goldengate bridge
New York City
San Francisco

Heading to the US this summer? Thomas Breathnach reports on how to make the most of your American adventure!

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Touching down for a J1 summer is an epic event - from those initial, aerial glimpses of iconic city skylines to the nervy, finger-print banter with US Customs and Border Protection officials and the unforgettable bolt of a Fahrenheit summer.

Yup, Uncle Sam knows how to put on a welcome. The J1 experience ranks as one of life's great travel opportunities - but some basic planning and preparation are essential to make sure the summer clicks. Here are our top tips...

Road trip!

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And so the adventure begins! Most students have their visa and flights sorted at this stage, but the travel doesn't end on touchdown... far from it.

If transferring onwards from your gateway city, most journeys will be via Amtrak's train service (amtrak.com) or the more bargain bus options. Whopper discounts (even $1 fares) exist with the latter, but they are elusive, so aim to book well in advance with Megabus (us.megabus.com), Boltbus (boltbus.com) and/or Greyhound (greyhound.com). Also, to cut accommodation costs, consider catching an overnight transit to your final base.

A tip for rookies? Always double-check your destinations: you don't want to board a bus to Ocean City, Maryland, when your boss is expecting you the next day in Ocean City, New Jersey. It happens!

Where to stay

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Most employers with a seasoned J1 pedigree have long established housing contacts, but for those still on the housing hunt, Craig's List (craigslist.org) remains the top rental go-to... keep your antennae tuned for scams, however.

Note that most properties in the US are let unfurnished - so it's worth exploring short-term sublets offered by American students vacating their rooms come summer (sublet.com; airbnb.com/sublets). When visiting apartments, bring along a second opinion and always sign a lease: the only time you'll want to see Judge Judy this summer is on CBS Reality.

Get Connected

Step 1: Switch off the data on your Irish phone ASAP. No, seriously.

Step 2: Pick up your own US mobile (sorry, cell phone). It's a smart move to take care of this in your gateway city, as bargain tech options can dwindle if you're moving on to a smaller town. Mega chain stores like Best Buy (bestbuy.com) will hook you up with a decent, no-contract smartphone for less than $50 with top-up available in most drug/convenience stores. Credit also usually comes with a modest internet allowance - ideal for WhatsApping with folks back home.

Get to work

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Seasonal staff can be a revolving door for US employers, so conscientious J1ers, complete with Irish brogue, are always manna from hiring heaven. Be up front with your boss from the get-go about your preferred working terms, be it a grá for downtime or overtime.

With many J1 students working in the service industry, note that tipping is increasingly trending towards 25pc Stateside, so going the extra yard in customer service could bump your pay packet nicely. You've got the option to switch, or take on a second job, too - just make sure you clear it with your host visa sponsor, such as CIEE (ciee.org/wat) or InterExchange (interexchange.org), first.

Money Matters

You'll need to prove a set-up bounty of at least $800 to get into the US. While you wait to get hooked up with a US bank account, avoid using your Irish card (or worse still your credit card) at ATMs, as banking charges will knock your account seriously off-balance.

A cheap and easy way to manage your funds is by picking up a PostFx currency card from An Post (postfix.ie), which you can load up with dollars at home or online and use for 0pc commission anywhere you see the MasterCard symbol Stateside. It pays to prep.

Remember that you'll need to cover a deposit and rent up front, and bear in mind that it can take several weeks to get a Social Security Number.

Safety Checklist

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After going to such lengths to plan your US summer, don’t leave your smarts at the airport. The Department of Foreign Affairs (dfa.ie) has a J1 guide outlining its advice for Irish students — it’s a useful checklist for those obvious, but easily overlooked, travel tips. Here are the highlights:

1) Keep your passport safe (lost and stolen documents are a big problem for J1 students — bring a photocopyof your ID page just in case)

2) Bring alternative photo ID (eg driver’s licence or passport card)

3) Do NOT falsify your passport (this is a serious federal offence)

4) Know the local laws (public order offences, such as public drunkenness, can be severely punishable in the US)

5) Make sure you have health insurance (healthcare in the States can be horribly expensive)

Social Networking

Whether you're travelling to the States alone or with your BFFs, don't forget to embrace the frat and sorority spirit of your hosts.

Americans are one of the most welcoming nationalities on the map and you'll be amazed how open they are to friendships right off-the-bat.

Some integration tips? Well, who needs Lonely Planet when you've got Tinder? Nothing says 'I've arrived!' like dating some verified natives - so why not swipe left Stateside and see what unfolds?

Beyond the bae area, explore the social scenes on portals like meetup.com, which vary from beach workouts in San Diego to dance twerk-outs in NYC.

Get your tax back!

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What could be better than banking some dollars this summer? Getting your tax back, next spring. All tax-abiding J1 participants are eligible for the windfall. You can file for a refund yourself (ask your employer to mail on your W-2 form when you leave) or organisations like taxback.com can process your case for around $60. The average return runs at $800, so it's worth the paperwork.

Hasta la Proxima!

With a J1 experience strumming so many emotions, it's not unusual to leave your heart in San Francisco (or even New Jersey). The good news is that students are eligible to apply for as many J1 visas as their college term allows. So whether your J1 is a one-off summer crush or a longer love affair - make the most of it.

Top 3 Gateways

1. New York City

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Eat: Try Chinatown in Queens for serious value and follow @nycfoodtruck for Manhattan's best street food! Stay: The Bowery House in Lolita for its retro railway style cabins ($50pps; theboweryhouse.com). Play: Hit the Cloud Social's rooftop bar for its panoramic happy hour (cloudsocialnyc.com). Instagram it: Head west on 34th Street for epic sunsets over the Empire State Building.

2. Chicago

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Eat: It's gotta be deep dish pizza in this town. Our bargain tip? Local fave, Lou Malnati's (loumalnatis.com), has pepperoni deep dishes from $8.75. Stay: The on-point Freehand has fresh designer dorms from $40pps (thefreehand.com). Play: Get into the beach volleyball scene on Oak Street beach - chased by a cool sundowner. Instagram it: North Avenue beach pier for the ultimate Chicago skyline shot.

3. San Francisco

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Eat: Looking for a $10 lunch? Try the legendary lamb and eggplant sandwiches at The Sentinal (thesentinalsf.com) Stay: At $28 a night, the funky Adelaide Hostel makes a bargain bunkdown (adelaidehostel.com). Play: For live music, catch a gig at The Chapel (thechapelsf.com) or live Castro drag show. Instagram it: Wander Chrissy Fields park for the best capture of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Tip jar

Americans tend to be much more 911 dial-happy than Irish folk, so if you're going to throw that 4th of July party, try keeping the bass down. Better still, invite the neighbours.

Expert tip

"Irish students have a tradition of going to spots like San Francisco, NYC and Myrtle Beach - but make sure you use this summer to explore some more wild and undiscovered US destinations too."

- Mark Snider, J1 Visa Chief, US Embassy

7 ways to rock your summer!

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1. Work hard, party hard

After exhausting all the happy hour and party options in your adopted J1 hometown, feed your weekend wanderlust with the hottest party hubs for summer 2016. Some tips? Montauk, NY for its preppy Ralph-Lauren-goes-wild scene; Austin, Texas for its edgy music scene and Panama City, Florida for its hedonistic club scene. Love a great Pride? Check out the LGBT carnival in Provincetown, Cape Cod (ptown.org).

2. Go in Studio

Why not spend a Friday night with Jimmy Fallon? Being an audience member for a US TV show taping will have you winning Facebook - with The Tonight Show, filmed at the Rockefeller Center in New York, one of the hottest tickets in town (tonightshowtix.com).

There's a red carpet programme for every time zone, from Good Morning America in NYC to The Late Show with James Corden in Los Angeles. Tickets are free and you may even bag some one-for-everybody-in-the-audience freebies (Try Ellen for that). For more, visit 1iota.com.

3. Get outdoors

We love Downtown as much as Macklemore, but sometimes you just need a star-lit fix of campfires and marshmallows. US National Parks celebrate their centenary this year, so keep tabs on their #findyourpark campaign. Promo weekends will run throughout the summer where you can avail of waived entrance fees to all National Parks. Yep, that even includes iconic reserves ranging from Yellowstone to the Everglades (nationalparks.org).

4. Cheer on Team USA

Aside from a Donald Trump rally, what could provide more pumped-up, only-in-America action than cheering on a live sporting event? Blockbuster events include the US PGA taking place in New Jersey, the US Open tennis in NYC and the US Surfing Open in Huntington Beach, California. Missing the GAA? Check out northamericangaa.com to find a Gaelic games team in your neck of the States.

5. Head front row

There's no need to pack your festival wellies. This season's event headliner remains Burning Man (burningman.org; August 28-September 5), which transforms the Nevada Desert into a Mecca for the alternative. Based mid-Atlantic? Check out Firefly (fireflyfestival.com) in Delaware. In the mid-West? Head for Lollapalooza (lollapalooza.com) in Chicago. If concerts are more your bag, Kesha, Bieber and Pearl Jam are just some of the artists on their North American legs this summer.

6. Meet the Neighbours

Why not consider adding a Canadian stamp to your passport? Niagara Falls, Vancouver and Montreal are the best options for northbound travellers - check out wanderu.com for top bus fares. Heading south? The Mexican peninsula of Baja California remains a honey pot for cultura hispanica - just take note of current travel advisories to the region. Note too, that J1 programme rules prohibit participants "under any circumstances" from travel to Tijuana.

PS: Give your Irish bank the heads up if you're hopping borders: you don't want to hit an ATM in Mexico with a cancelled MasterCard.

7. Hit the road

Nothing gets your J1 on like an epic US road trip. From getting stuck behind a horse and buggy in Amish Country to chasing the sunset in Cape Cod, America's roadways are a Snapchat story waiting to be told. When planning your getaway, bear in mind that most US rental companies don't rent to under-21s; vroomvroomvroom.com is a great search engine for car hire.

My J1 Tips: Róisín Nestor

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Where should I go?

San Francisco, Santa Barbara, San Diego, New York, Boston, Ocean City and Chicago are all popular J1 spots, but there's nothing to stop you going somewhere different. There are 50 states, including Hawaii! I'd advise talking to people who've been on J1s before you go. Research what places have busy tourism industries, and what the minimum wage is.

Any tips on finding work?

I worked as a chef for a kids' soccer camp. It sounds easy, but all meals were cooked from scratch and sourced organically, so it was hard work.

This year, changes to the J1 mean participants have to organise their jobs before travel. Companies like USIT (j1online.ie), SAYIT (sayit.ie) and Go4Less (go4less.ie) are worth checking in advance - for jobs advice, as well as accommodation tips. It's also worth reaching out to relatives or friends in the US.

Websites such as craigslist.org, Localwisejobs.com and Snagajob.com are all useful for summer jobs. Last year, I went on Google Maps and found businesses near where I would be living. I then got emails and applied for jobs in restaurants and shops. Remember that American résumés are a different format to our CVs - you can find templates online.

Where should I stay?

I lived in big frat house, sharing a room with three other girls. They're a good source of cheap accommodation for summer months; you can find most through their websites or on Facebook. Sublet.com and campusrent.com are also worth a look.

Apartments and rooms are listed on Craigslist, but be careful of scams. We met people who went to view a house on Craiglist and their "landlord" ended up robbing their money and passports. Ask whether the house is furnished, whether bills are included and whether you have to pay a deposit or rent in advance. You need to understand your lease before you sign.

What about going out?

The legal drinking age in America is 21, so although some nightclubs will let you in, you won't be able to buy alcoholic drinks. There's usually plenty of house parties - just remember to stay safe, watch out for your friends, and beware of (US alcoholic drink) Four Loko!

Any other advice?

Join J1 Facebook groups specific to your area to get advice, find other people to live with before you go, and check the Irish Pastoral Centres in your area - they can be a wealth of information.

Keep everything together in a folder. You'll have to fill out many forms, so make life easy by getting organised - take it from someone who nearly missed the flight because a form couldn't be found.

Finally, plan your end of J1 trips as early as possible. They work out much cheaper and you'll be able to budget enough money to enjoy them. Bring your driver's licence, and bear in mind that certain car rental companies require credit cards.

The USI's J1 guide is online here.

Follow Róisín on Twitter at @roisinnestor

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