You can find alternatives on vacation and save

You probably didn’t notice, but I was away for three weeks. On vacation. Yes, three whole weeks of being somewhere else and doing exactly what I wanted to do (museums, food, wine, start-up conversations with dogs in the street).

It was also three whole weeks of spending, and trying not to spend too much and considering each potential purchase’s bang for the euro. Sticking to budget, and blowing the budget, spending wisely and flushing money down the proverbial toilet.

And when the latter happened, trying not to let it ruin my whole day.

In three weeks, I was reminded over and over again how many ways there are to be scammed, fleeced, gouged, fee’d and taxed. I remembered that the kindness of strangers does not extend to them lowering their price just for you. I realized that prices are ridiculous because the market will bear them. You have to decide what’s important to you when you travel.

And try to get it for the most reasonable price out there.

I remembered how eager people are to take your money, and how easy it is to let them — especially when you’re the stranger and not familiar with either local customs or language.

Then again, I also was reminded — forced to remember, perhaps — that there are plenty of ways to save: There are cheaper alternatives or ways to get discounts for almost anything, from entrance fees to transportation. You can even get money back on that extravagant pair of boots or replacement lens you just had to buy.

I’m pretty good, by now, at finding alternatives and knowing where I can save. Then again, you can’t go three weeks (longer, if you count the planning stages for a trip) without getting your wallet walloped in some new or unfamiliar way.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore (can you say, “Exercise in futility?”); I have enough reasons to castigate myself without that.

I don’t say things like, “This year, I’ll be smarter about spending on vacations.” Someone’s already out there, poised to pull the pin on the vacation-budget hand grenade. But I figure by putting down some of the most widespread ways we travelers waste money, it’ll help me remember — and maybe a bell will go off for you next vacation, before you toss those bucks down the drain.

THE TIP-OFF: Americans are trained to tip. The etiquette, the percentage, those details vary, but when the waiter delivers our bill, we knee-jerk start figuring what to add on to the total for the server. When you’re out of the country, however, you should be looking a little more closely at your bill. To see if you even need to leave a tip at all.

Tipping customs vary wildly around the world — from Japan and South Korea, where it’s frowned upon, to China, where it’s usually considered insulting, to France, Switzerland, Finland and the Czech Republic (to name a few) all of which have laws requiring the tip / service charge be included in the final cost. Usually you can find a clue about the tipping question on the bill: “service compris” in France; “servizio incluso” in Italy; “Servicio no incluido” in Spain.

I was a waitress — I leave good tips. I didn’t realize how good 20 percent was in Paris on top of the 15 percent required by French law. Certainly, if you appreciated the service, it’s fine to kick in a bit extra. Also keep in mind the U.S. average for a tip is 18 percent, much higher than the average in most countries.

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 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.

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.

Then, maybe the next day, you decide to keep hotel shopping. Maybe find something a little cheaper, or better rated. After all, you can always cancel that first hotel room. Your search turns up another hotel with a better price and a better location and … you guessed it … “only one room left.” Book it. Get the cancelation rules. And the hunt may continue — for days, weeks, until you finally found the definitive best place for the best price. This place blew the others right out of the water. Except … those other rejected rooms may still have your name on them, if you forgot to cancel all of them.

Cancellation policies are getting as nutty as airfares, with variables galore about how far in advance you need to cancel to get a 100 percent refund. Or any refund, for that matter. Many hotels offer better rates, but you have signed your soul and your money away at the moment of your no-cancellation booking. Hoteliers aren’t as understanding as they once were when it comes to no-shows. Cancellation policies are enforced, you could say ruthlessly, a word not often applied to the hospitality industry.

You’ve been warned.

1 comment on this story

GET A BREAK: Ask for AAA, AARP, student (bring your ID), military, and family discounts. Most cities have a city-pass card that usually saves you money on attractions, public transportation, and shopping. Some passes — or museum/attraction passes — allow you to skip the lines and go right in.

The big discount? Free night at the museum. Most museums have one night a week that they don’t charge a thing. Yeah, it can be crowded. So go to a big museum.


Jill Schensul:


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