Can one of the most expensive cities in the world be visited on a budget? YES. Here are my tips for saving money when travelling to New York City.
Coming from Romania, travelling to Western countries can be challenging, from a budget point of view. And sometimes it requires a lot of preparations and applications.
As much as Romania is thriving in the IT industry and jobs are better paid than ever, not all Romanians work in a developing industry and the financial gap between the local economical market and other more famous one remains.
The process of travelling abroad has significantly improved since Romania joined the EU in 2007, but Romanians still need visas for some countries. The US is such a country.
Getting the Visa for the United States
Some countries ask for a visa just as a formality, and there is no way to not get. Except for some situations when you didn’t fill the form with the correct information.
However, this is not the case for the US visa. The process is the most complicated visa process I ever been through and it caused me some stress.
A Romanian needs to fill his/her entire life details in their online forms, save it, remember (save) the number of the application, upload the correct photo. Take notice that everything comes with extremely strict guidelines and at some point, I became paranoid that I wrote something wrong and did the entire process again, from the beginning. Even if you have every piece of information on hand, it can easily take 1 hour.
Recently, I read a news that social media accounts need to be linked in the application. It was not the case some months ago, but this is just even more stressful. Imagine someone staring at your pics, and stalking you on the internet.
Once the form is submitted, it cannot be modified or checked. Of course, you can always start from the beginning. Fortunately, there are dozens of blogs and websites explaining how this should be done.
The next step is to set up an account on another website, for scheduling the interview at the embassy. This can only be done, after linking the details of the application to your account and paying the visa fee.
The fee was $160 when I applied. For Romanians, this is no change. The minimum salary in Romania is 446,02 EUR before taxes. That leaves you with 267 Euros. Unbelievable, considering that this is the average price for a hotel per night in New York. Hence, my post trying to explain how can this work.
Back to the Visa. The interview was set in 2 weeks from the moment I did everything online. At least you can choose the day, starting from the first available day, Yes, it is complicated and expensive and still, crowded.
The days before the interview I was more nervous than ever.
The numerous stories I’ve heard about getting and not getting the visa and the theories of what could disqualify me were all running through my head on an endless loop.
At some point, I was terrified that my middle name was not on the second website where I scheduled my interview. I was upset before knowing what was about to happen. I confess, I tend to overthink and this can have devastating effects on my mental health. I advise you to not do the same. If you can.
The day of the interview
I got to the Embassy 1 hour before my interview. To my surprise, everyone was waiting on the other side of the embassy, as you are not allowed to wait in front of it. It was also a considerable crowd of 30-40 people, too.
After observing the crowd, I realized there was a coordinator of the whole things, asking people who have interviews from a certain hour, to cross the street to wait in front of the entrance. They scheduled groups every 15 minutes for 2 hours. I realized I was in the last possible group.
Once I was waiting in a queue in front of the embassy, the same guy was asking everyone their names, to double-check it on a list, and was arranging people in the queue. It was necessary, too. I think I was sweating at this point. And I don’t usually sweat.
I get invited inside. Inside was a small security room, just like in the airport. No lighters were allowed. I think the lady there asked about other stuff too, like my car keys, scarf, but I was too stressed to concentrate.
I got out and redirected towards the next building. Here, I was asked for my printed confirmation of the application. The guy at the reception scanned it and was asked again for my passport and the type of visa I was applying for. He gave me a printed ticket with a number.
Then I saw this rather narrow and long hall, with counters on the left side and waiting seats on the other. Every couple of seconds, a number was called in the speakers.
I was first called at the first counter, where a Romanian man double-checked my personal details (name, phone number, check my passport). He then sent me back to wait.
A couple of minutes later, they called my number again, and it was the 3rd counter, where this lovely American lady asked for my passport and took my fingerprints. Everything was very specific. Then she asked me to take a seat and wait for my number again.
I was confused with the process since I had no idea where and when was the actual interview.
Then I hear my number again, I go to the respective counter. The title of the guy sitting on the other side of the glass was consul. He was around 40. He said Hello in Romanian and I replied in English. He asked me in English in which language do I prefer to communicate. I said I could do both. We spoke in English.
Finally, all the stories I’ve heard were about to be shattered.
The consul asked me my name, and what do I work. Then, he asked me where do I want to go and I answered New York, and briefly explained I have a cousin there and how a wonderful opportunity would this be for my blog. He asked the name of my blog and then laughed when he heard “JuliaSomething”. He asked where my cousin works and what does she do there. He asked when was I planning on going and for how long. It is worth mentioning that I had all of these details in my application form. Basically, he was double-checking everything, while studying me.
Then he said the magic words: “Your visa application has been granted.” I was beyond surprised and all I could do was a thank you sign like the one you do in yoga when you say namaste and say thank you 3 times like a crazy kid. He mentioned that it will probably take at least until tomorrow to get my passport back. I said thank you once more and fled that place like I was afraid he would change his mind. I was out of the embassy in less than 2 minutes.
As I got out, I couldn’t control my smile and realized I was by myself there and there was nobody waiting for me. But it was so unusual to feel this release after all those days of stress. It was like passing a reputable hard exam. I have to mention that everyone I’ve seen that day exiting the embassy was happy that their visa was granted as well.
I don’t know why I am so negative some days.
The next day I bought my plane ticket for New York. I bought it before getting my passport back.
Looking back, I realize it wasn’t hard to get the visa for the US, but there is a myth around it that it is hard to get it and that can bring on a lot of stress.
Also, I felt that everything is written as a precaution measure, so you can’t complain if you did something wrong. But the amount of information is enormous and at times I felt like it was meant to overload you and perhaps discourage you.
Romanian Visa for the USA
Was it stressful? Yes, but I tend to overthink everything so it might have been for me, but not so much for others.
I don’t think it is difficult getting the visa now, but the one filling out the form should be extra careful with everything required and double-check with the all-mighty Google if there is any confusing question.
Get ready to be told what to do and where to sit. Even when you arrive in the US, it takes a while to double-check everything once more, as they take a lot of security measures with everything.
Actually, they have a thing called SSSS which is like a code they print on your boarding pass, if you get really lucky like I am.
What does “SSSS” printed on boarding pass mean?
Check-in online wasn’t available, and I initially thought there is something wrong with the system. At the airport, I had no problem. I figured they need to check your visa at the airport, before printing your boarding pass. Since I had 1 layover on my way to New York City, I got both my boarding passes at the airport.
The one for New York had a strange print on it. The “SSSS” print.
You know something is wrong when you get literally marked by the system.
So, I used my good old friend Google, to understand what SSSS meant. Apparently SSSS is an abbreviation for Secondary Security Screening Selection and “it appears on a passenger’s boarding pass when they’ve been selected by TSA’s Secure Flight system for enhanced security screening,”
This means, that before boarding the plane for the US, you will have to be thoroughly checked.
And that’s exactly what happened to me and why I couldn’t check-in online in the first place. Special me, like always.
When I arrived in Frankfurt, I followed the signs for transit. But at the first checkpoint, the officer stopped me and asked me to follow him.
He took me to another big hall, which looked exactly the same as other airport security areas.
But this time, a lady came to ask me specific stuff about my luggage and asked me to remove all the usual stuff, liquids and electronic devices, but also shoes, clothes, to take my shoes off. I had to take my make-up out as well because powder can be dangerous.
Basically, all my stuff was unpacked and ready to be scanned. After the scan, two officers checked my clothes and shoes for forbidden substances. I was barefoot at the moment, and I waiting for them to finish.
Once this was over, I could put my stuff back in the backpack. The few others around were used to the procedure, as apparently some people get this every time and others never. Like my cousin. She never got the SSSS.
And that was the moment I realized why the layover needs to be longer than a couple of hours. Because you go through countless checkpoints, machines or humans check you every time you take a turn.
It was extremely tiring to get to the terminal. Once I got there, I was shocked to see another security checkpoint. And a small area for the SSSS boardings, who haven’t been checked. What a way to travel.
At this point, I was tired, sleepy and had no place to sleep. The waiting area was getting full. Frankfurt has a huge airport, and the fact that they make you walk from one side to the other thought all those checkpoints is crazy.
But the interesting part was when I saw a huge aeroplane outside, and I was shocked to realized that was the plane from my gate. It was an Airbus a380-800.
I was going to board on the largest passenger plane at the moment. I was going to New York City.