Basically it goes like this: First, your purchase has to qualify. You need to spend at least the required minimum (175 euros in France) all in one day in one store or place. Then you have to ask for the VAT paperwork, usually any manager or shop owner can do this, in a big-box store you usually have to go to an office somewhere. You need your passport number, so bring it whenever you might be shopping.
When you’re leaving for home, bring your form(s), and your purchases to the refund desk / window / office at the departure airport. They’re afterthoughts, and not convenient — you may have to check in, then go to another level of the airport. Since you need both your boarding pass and your purchases, you can’t check all your luggage till after you go to the VAT. A hassle, but now we’re near the payoff: After the official does the official stamping of your forms, your refund’s a nearly done deal. If you are getting the refund in cash, you take your form to a nearby (hopefully) cashier and hold out your palm — I got $25 back from a $179 lens I bought in Paris. You can also get your refund on the credit card you used for your purchase. You stuff the form in the supplied envelope and drop it in the mailbox that is conveniently right there. Poof, your money appears in your account six weeks later.
One trick: If you’re making various $40 or $50 purchases in various little shops, you’re going to miss out. That’s when it makes sense to visit a big department store that features most of the brands you’re buying in one place. If you’re close but not at the minimum at a shop, buy a pair of socks, or toothpaste. You’ll use it, and you’ll actually be saving money, too.
GETTING AROUND COSTS: Taxis may seem like the most convenient and civilized way around town. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they’re expensive and annoying, and they’re subject to all the traffic everyone else is sitting in and besides, that Eau de Tree Freshener gives you a headache. Metro systems are efficient and traffic-proof. They can get you to most tourist destinations faster, and are actually easy to use — easier than figuring out the rules for hailing a cab in the same city.
From a European airport, especially, the magic word is “shuttle van.” Usually you need to book them in advance. Book a shared van, not a private one. Especially if you’re arriving or leaving at an off hour, you’ll be the only one in the van anyway — saving probably an extra 30 euros off the private ride, and 50 or 60 euros off a taxi ride from an airport.
SHOP LIKE A TOURIST: The one-of-a-kind crafts, artwork and other creative mementos I’ve brought back from trips are naturally some of the most meaningful, especially if I was able to meet and deal directly with the person who made them. But when I’m hunting for your basic souvenir — something that just serves to remind you of the destination — I don’t need the finest materials, the made-by-hand, the rarest or the status brand name. I need good — no, great — deals. That’s why I head for those tourist-targeted enclaves, the ones with the tacky T-shirt shops lined up one after another, the heaps of scarves and hats and espresso cups and yeah, even T-shirts bearing the name of the destination in every conceivable font and design. Selection? Absolutely. Inventory? They’re stuffed to the rafters. In other words, these guys are ready to make a deal. If they don’t make you a little happier, they know you’ll just amble over to the next shopkeeper (and maybe cousin). You’ll pay maybe half of what the same stuff goes for at a department store or an airport shop. And while you know this stuff is mass-manufactured, when you get it home, voila, it’s turned into one-of-a-kind — and a steal, to boot.
CANCEL THAT: Maybe when you were planning your trip, you were shopping around for accommodations and eventually found a hotel that looked good and was priced within (sort of) your price range. The booking site said, “Only one room left!” though, so you snagged the last room, filled in your information and credit card details, even checked that you can get your money back if you cancel by a certain date.