My job usually takes me to Western Europe once or twice a year. In the last ten years, I have probably crossed the Atlantic about 20 times. In my younger days, I used to enjoy this very much. However, the illusions of grandeur are no more.
Traveling abroad is very expensive. The dollar is weak and we unsuspecting travelers often end up in overpriced tourist traps. If your job or a vacation takes over the pond, here are a few things that can save some money or a little time:
Local currency – Not having an adequate amount of local currency is always a concern. Many people will use the foreign currency exchange counters at the airport. From my experience, these are very expensive to use. They probably charge about 10 -15 percent of the total amount of dollars converted. Instead of using the foreign exchange counter, just wait until you arrive in country and use an automated teller machine (ATM). NYCE and CIRRUS are accepted worldwide. I use a local bank (the Bank of Canton) and can access my cash throughout the world without any headaches or concern. Furthermore, they do not charge me any fees. The exchange rate used for a cash withdrawal with an ATM card is the inter-bank rate, which is much more favorable than the rates provided at the foreign exchange counters.
Credit cards – Using credit cards is also very convenient and the conversion rate used by the credit card company will also be very competitive. However, many credit card companies are now charging fees for purchases in foreign currencies. The last time I was in Europe, I spent $241 on my Citibank Mastercard and they charged me a foreign currency fee of $9.78 (or 4%). Alternatively, my American Express does not charge any fees (although it is less accepted in Europe). So I use the AMEX or cash as much as possible. Check to see if your credit card company charges a fee for transactions in a foreign currency. With the exception of AMEX, I believe most are now charging some kind of fee.
Duty free stores – As George Costanza said “Duty free is the biggest scam in retail.” For the most part, these stores are no cheaper than most local stores. The weak US dollar probably makes them more expensive. Duty free stores are only useful for unloading those last Euros or British pounds in your pocket while you are still at the airport on a Cuban cigar or two.
Jet lag – Six plus hours on a plane (for most of us spent in coach) and losing six hours on the clock is a recipe for substantial jet lag. A few ways to help overcome jet lag, hydrate (with water not beer), stretch your legs every hour if possible (aisle seats are better for this) and get some sleep while on board (bring ear plugs and a face mask to help facilitate). Most flights from Boston to Europe a red eye flights, departing Boston at night and arriving in Europe in the morning. For those of you needing to go to work, flying over on a Sunday night and going straight to work on Monday will save you a full day (compared to flying over on Saturday and arriving on Sunday morning). It may not be that enjoyable, but a good night sleep on Monday and you will be back to normal. For those of you on vacation, do not waste your first day in country sleeping in the hotel room. Get out and see the sites. Once you are walking around you will feel fine.
Tipping – Tipping food servers and taxi drivers is not customary in much of mainland Europe. It seems that tipping is more prevalent in the United Kingodom, but to a lesser degree than we do in the United States. You may decide to tip a few dollars, but certainly not the 15 percent that we feel is customary in the United States. This is a complete waste of money. Do not feel guilty of this as wait staff receive much higher salaries in these countries than they do in the United States.
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