Ways to save while on vacation

By Jill Schensul

The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (MCT)

Published: Monday, Feb. 3 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Unfortunately, you may not find anything about tipping on your bill. There’s also the matter of obfuscation. I’ve been in hotels here and abroad where room service tabs will state that “Service is included,” but there’s still a line labeled “Tip.” This remains somewhat mysterious to me. Some use the words service and tip interchangeably. Others make a distinction: “Service” usually refers to a fee for catering a dinner or serving a large group; tip is what you give the waiter, personally (though some tips are shared, and some law-required tips never make their way to the servers at all).

STAND FOR FOOD: Get a crepe, a baguette sandwich, a slice of pizza or a falafel at a window-service eatery or food stand, food truck or kiosk. The locals do. This is best for lunch, when you’re in the midst of seeing and doing things while everything is open. It’s also best in places where you’re fairly certain you won’t get sick from whatever’s in the sandwich.

MAKE BREAKFASTS LAST: If you get breakfast with your hotel room, eat and eat and (can I say this?) grab some for later, too.

In some cases, it pays to upgrade to a better room. I paid an extra 30 euros a day for a room with a view at one hotel. With that, I got breakfast, all the coffee I could drink all day, and free Wi-Fi. Worth every penny, just for the view. And they treat you nicer.

DIAL DOWN DINING: Hit restaurants in less tony parts of town. In fact, eat where the universities and colleges are. I ordered vin chaud (hot mulled wine) whenever I ate out in Paris, and it always looked the same, but cost anywhere from 3 euros (about $4.05 at recent exchange rates) in a part of town with a lot of students to 7 euros on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré — where it was lousy, by the way, and the service was abysmal.

ATM NICKEL AND DIMING: Look at your credit card and bank bills when you get back home. Besides the purchases you make, look at the ATM withdrawals. For a while, I noticed a $1.50 here, and $2 there, all of them explained by “fee.” Sometimes after a trip, there’d be a couple of ATM withdrawals but two more pages bloated with lines for each of these “fees.”

They add up.

Today, banks are following the airlines’ lead (God help us!) as far as mergers and … alliances. Your bank is probably part of a group of banks, some of them in other countries. With my Bank of America debit card, I can now consider all the members of the Global ATM Alliance my buddy banks abroad. If I use my card at any cash machine owned by an alliance member (BNP in Paris), I save $5 per transaction — what Bank of America charges every single time you use a non-alliance ATM abroad. Yes, even just for your account balance. Most bank ATMs in Europe don’t charge a usage fee, but indies — run by companies like Travelex, Euronet or Forex and often found right beside the bank ATMs, do charge a couple of euros for each use.

Bank of America also waives the international transaction fee (aka foreign conversion fee) — 1 percent of the U.S. dollar amount for withdrawals processed in foreign currency — at member ATMs.

Many banks are similarly waiving the international fee. (Check out sites like nerdwallet.com/ blog/top-credit-cards/no-foreign-transaction-fee-credit-card for current card fees and comparisons).

You’ll still get hit with the 1 percent fee Visa and MasterCard charge on international transactions.

Another easy way to avoid ATM fees is by banking at a global institution like HSBC, which has branches in many countries.

VAT’S A VAT? If you’re traveling overseas, you’ll need to know what that VAT stands for: value added tax, a kind of a sales tax the locals pay. What it stands for — for nonlocals — is bucks back.

The dollar is taking enough of a beating. If things are expensive, ease the pain by thinking, “I could get around 20 percent of the cost back.” That’s how much a VAT can add up to in France, for example.

I have never had to wait more than two minutes on a line at the tax refund office at the airport — and I think it’s because few people actually take advantage of this one perk. It is a little byzantine — and varies by country, as well.