In magazine articles and in the Usenet News groups, we often read detailed directions for what American tourists should do in exchanging money in Europe. By using these directions, the careful tourist can sometimes gain a dollar or so for every one hundred dollars exchanged. They can also lose several hours from their week of sightseeing going out of their way to find particular banks or exchange sites. Our advise is this: the most valuable thing most people have on their European vacation is time. Use whatever exchange is most convenient and then put the saved time toward seeing more. The place to save real money on the vacation is on the airfare. Plan ahead, shop around, and pick the best airfare you can find. Save hundreds of dollars there and forget the minor savings you can get on the exchange rate.
We have used all the following methods for spending money in Europe: (1) using Visa and Mastercard to pay for goods or services; (2) using our ATM cards to withdraw local currency at the machines; (3) using Visa or Mastercard for cash advances at ATM machines; (4) exchanging US currency at banks or exchanges; (5) exchanging traveler's checks at banks or exchanges. In general we have found this to be the preferred order. The best rates by far can be had by using credit cards for all purchases. The worst rates come from exchanging cash or travelers' checks. Finally, one other method can be used. Occasionally a hotel or restaurant will take U.S. cash or traveler's checks. Most of the time the traveler will get atrocious rates. But every now and then, on extremely rare occasions, the hotel or restaurant has been slow to change the rates, and the alert traveler can get better rates than even the currency trader who deals in millions of dollars.
During a visit to Paris in November 1995, the following effective rates (considering commissions, bank charges, interest, etc.---based on exchanges and purchases of about $100) were realized:
- Official Exchange Rate----4.82 to 4.86
- Credit Card Purchases-----4.81 to 4.83
- ATM Transactions-----4.78 to 4.80
- Credit Card Cash Advances-----4.65 to 4.75
- Cash and Travelers' Checks at Banks and Exchanges----4.20 to 4.55
Choosing a Place to Stay
- The first three rules for choosing a hotel or pension during a vacation are the same as the first three rules for buying a home: (1) Location, (2) Location, (3) Location. In reading the travel newsgroups, I'm always amazed at the number of people who advise visitors to Venice to stay in Mestre in order to save $15 or $20 a night! How can that small amount of cash possibly be worth the time, the incovenience, and most of all the loss of the experience. To see the great cities (Paris, Venice, Munich, etc.), stay in the heart of the city.
- Don't avoid the touristy places just because they are touristy. After all, the people are there for a reason. Take Rothenburg ob der Tauber, for example. This town can be one of the most crowded places on earth between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. during the summer. But at night, when the day trippers and tour buses are gone, it can be delightful. Wonderful small hotels exist within the city walls, and a city walk on a foggy evening in the spring or fall can magically transport the visitor back in time. So, stay overnight and see some of the sights at their best. This advice is also great for places like Carcassone, the Cinque Terre, Gruyeres, and the dozens of other small towns that have made it on the itineraries of the bus tours. Don't forget rule Number One, though:
Location. Stay inside the walls in these old towns. Don't try to save a few bucks by going for the recommendation that begins, "Save a few dollars by staying only five blocks from the old city itself......"
- General Rules for the Room: Quite a bit of money can be saved by taking a room that doesn't have a bath or a toilet, but sometimes that decision can cost a lot in convenience. Our general rule (and one that we don't mind freely breaking because we know there are dozens of exceptions to it) is the following: If the place we have selected is a small, family-owned place, we'll take the room without a bath or toilet. On many occasions, we have been the only guests there. This is especially true for places in small towns or the countryside. In the cities, the closer the hotel is to the Central Station, the more we inisist on a private bath.
- Pay extra to be as near as possible to the airport on the night before departure. The day of the flight home is horribly long and can be filled with unexpected problems. The more relaxed you can be for flying home, the more you'll enjoy the memories of the trip for years to come. Example: When we are flying home from Frankfurt, we always spend our final night at the Frankfurt Sheraton. It's not just close to the airport---it's connected to it! (Even though it is extremely expensive, the late arriver can almost always negotiate for a lower rate when it's not full.) From the Sheraton, we can leisurely pack our bags, making certain that everything is where it's supposed to be and relax as much as possible for the flight home. Some travelers might try to cram as much as possible into that last night. But for us, we mentally end our vacation at the time we check into the airport hotel. Although we might look haggard when we arrive home late the next afternoon, we're not nearly as exhausted as our fellow travelers who spent the final night having one last fling.