What Americans seem to be doing is ignoring the euros and pounds strength and looking for more economical ways to have their cake and eat it too. Wise travelers might spend fewer days in expensive capitals and more time in the countryside where prices are lower.
For anyone going to Europe, here are 10 tips to provide some peace of mind and, perhaps, even save a few bucks in the process:
1. Prepay. Try to pay for as much of your trip as possible in dollars. Besides airfare, consider hotel packages, a cruise (which includes lodging and meals), rail passes and package tours. Many travelers research their trips on the Web, but a good travel agent can be extremely helpful in finding deals that not only will meet your travel goals, but also save you from the dreaded exchange rate.
2. City and transit passes. Virtually every city sells passes that cover museum and other attraction entry fees. Before you plunk down money for a pass, make certain that youll use it to the fullest to save money. The same goes for transit cards.
3. VAT. The value-added tax, an equivalent of a sales tax, is built into purchases in shops and department stores in most European countries. If you spend a required amount it varies from country to country, but stores or tourist offices can tell you you can fill out paperwork in stores that participate in a refund program to recoup the tax 17.5 percent in Britain, 19.6 percent in France and as high as 25 percent in Denmark. For the sake of convenience, have the refund charged back to your credit card. You must apply for the refund in the stores where you make your purchases, and then present the form at an airport customs VAT refund booth when you depart the country. At some airports you must not only present the forms, but also have all your purchases available for inspection. It can take a month or more to get a refund.
4. Trains versus car. Traveling Europe by train can be a joy. And with a Eurailpass, which must be purchased in the U.S. before you depart, you can cover many nooks and crannies on the Continent. Passes come in more flavors than Ben & Jerrys ever dreamed of. You can do one country, a combination of bordering countries or all 17 countries in the network. And you can do a combination train/drive pass. But as with city cards, make certain youll use the pass enough to make the purchase cost-effective. It takes some digging on www.raileurope.com to compare individual fares versus a pass, but the research will pay off. A car rental for an individual or a couple traveling long distances might not be a good deal although it provides great flexibility. Remember: Gasoline prices in Europe are more than $5 a gallon and parking in cities is a bear.
5. Credit cards, ATM cards and cash. For flexibility and for safety, its best to have your financial resources in the form of a credit card, an ATM card and travelers checks, but dont keep them all in one place. For quick access to foreign currency, you cant beat an ATM card for the best exchange rate. You must have a four-digit numeric PIN, which is standard for most European ATMs. U.S. banks normally charge for these cash withdrawals (mine adds $1.50 per ATM use). For shopping, use your credit card, but be aware that your card provider may add a 1 or 2 percent charge on overseas transactions. Advise both your ATM and credit card issuers that you will be traveling in Europe so they wont see your transactions as "abnormal use" and put a freeze on your card. Travelers checks are a safe, handy backup, but banks charge a fee to cash them.
6. Calling home. Most American cellular phones dont work in Europe because of different operating platforms and radio frequencies. Check with your cellular provider about usage charges in Europe. Look into prepaid phone cards sold at newsstands in European cities. The cards can provide inexpensive access to home via pay phones and save you from outrageous charges levied by European hotels.
7. Safeguarding valuables. Nothing can ruin a trip faster than having your money and passport ripped off. Do not flash money, and leave your fancy jewelry at home. "Carry the minimum amount of valuables necessary for your trip and plan a place or places to conceal them," advises the State Department. "Your passport, cash and credit cards are most secure when locked in a hotel safe. When you have to carry them on your person, conceal them in several places rather than putting them all in one wallet or pouch. Avoid handbags, fanny packs and outside pockets that are easy targets for thieves. Inside pockets and a sturdy shoulder bag with the strap worn across your chest are somewhat safer. One of the safest places to carry valuables is in a pouch or money belt worn under your clothing."
8. Trip planning. You can get information from guidebook Web sites (www.fodors.com, www.frommers.com, www.lonelyplanet.com, www.ricksteves.com). Invest in a guidebook to take along. Clip newspaper travel sections and magazines for current articles. Contact government tourist offices for free literature. And, by all means, arm yourself with good maps. You can find invaluable information on the 33-nation European Travel Commission Web site: visiteurope.com.
9. Art of the cafe. One of the joys of Europe is its cafés. It makes no difference whether you are in Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Stockholm or a small village. Life centers around cafes. Sit and enjoy the scene. Even if you have to pay $5 for coffee, you can sit as long as you like. Waiters wont hassle you to move on.
10. Airline bumping. Well, the idea is to not get bumped. Reconfirm your flight several days before youre due to depart. Check in for your flight as early as possible. European Union countries now have a policy that requires compensation for passengers bumped off an overbooked flight or left stranded because of a canceled flight.
© 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.