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Keeping currency costs and other expenses in check

February 08, 2009|Jane Engle

Round-trip Los Angeles-London flights for less than $400. Mediterranean cruises for $100 a day. Six-day air-hotel packages to Hong Kong and Singapore for less than $1,500 per person.

With jaw-dropping prices like these, penny pinchers can't go wrong. Or can they?

Amid an avalanche of travel bargains, vacationers who venture abroad can still get stung by surprising fees, unnecessary expenses, unfavorable exchange rates and more. It has to do with how you manage your money.

With that in mind, here are five mistakes that can drain your wallet on a foreign trip -- and how to avoid them:

Ignoring foreign-exchange rates: These are volatile but important. Between the time you book your trip and, say, months later when you take it, your costs on the ground could easily increase or decrease by 15% or more, depending on how much the U.S. dollar is worth in other countries' currencies.

During the last five months, the euro, generally used in Western Europe, has roller coastered between about $1.25 and $1.50. In the same time, Britain's pound has steadily plummeted, from nearly $2 to about $1.40, as has Mexico's peso, from about 9 cents to 7 cents, and Canada's dollar, from nearly 90 cents to 80 cents.

A dollar here, a few cents there, and you're spending hundreds more or less than you budgeted.

Less, of course, usually isn't a problem, but if you hate surprises, consider a cruise, a tour or an air-hotel package that includes major expenses such as lodging and meals. Because you pay upfront in U.S. dollars, these costs should remain constant.

If you're willing to take some risk, you may benefit by booking just your flights and first night's hotel, then paying as you go. Over the last few months, as the dollar generally got stronger worldwide, you would have come out ahead. This year? Who knows?

To follow the dollar's daily adventures in foreign-exchange markets, visit websites such as

Looking only at exchange rates: Of course, just because the British pound is getting pummeled by the dollar doesn't mean that Britain is suddenly cheaper for Americans to visit than, say, Thailand or Argentina. That's partly because living costs vary.

For quick estimates, check out the U.S. government's per diem allowances for employees dispatched to hundreds of foreign cities. The State Department posts these on its website (Click on "Travel," then choose "Foreign Per Diem Rates" from the drop-down menu.)

The "maximum per diem rate" for each city includes lodging, meals and incidental expenses. Of course, a prudent traveler will spend less, but the rates make useful comparisons.

As of Monday, the per diem for London was $385, compared with Paris ($454), Bangkok, Thailand ($218), Buenos Aires ($299) and Vancouver, Canada ($250 to $275, depending on the season).

Nearly anywhere in the world, you'll save by spending time outside a country's capital, financial hubs and major resort areas, while meeting more locals and having more authentic cultural experiences. For instance, the U.S. government's per diem for Cardiff, Wales, was $283, about $100 less than for London. In Mexico, the per diem was $300 for Mexico City but only $179 for San Miguel de Allende.

Any short list of cheap or newly cheaper destinations these days -- and there are many -- would include Iceland, which suffered a currency collapse last year; Mexico and Argentina, almost always good values; Hungary; Canada; Thailand; Cambodia; and South Africa.

Dining richly: At home, you surely don't eat every meal out. So why do that when traveling?

Just like here, you'll save a bundle by grabbing food-to-go at groceries and produce markets abroad. Stroll over to a park, and you have a picnic. Eat foods that locals eat. They're nearly always cheaper than Western-style dishes.

If you're big on breakfast, which can easily cost $20 or more at hotels in London, Paris or Singapore, shop for a room rate that includes it. Or explore nearby cafes, where you'll often pay half what the hotel charges and get faster service too.

Taking private transportation: Cabbing is convenient but, alas, usually the costliest way to go. Unless you're too jet-lagged or luggage-laden to cope with alternatives, take public transit or at least shared-ride services, where available, to and from the airport.

The savings can be staggering: about $6 by Tube from Heathrow Airport to central London versus more than $80, plus tip, by taxi. It really pays to study the local transit system before you leave home. Once in the city, take buses and subways. With a little research, you can put together your own bus tour of local highlights for a fraction of the cost of a private one.

Changing money at the airport: You'll nearly always get better rates and pay lower service fees in town. Even more convenient, just shove your debit card into a local ATM machine and get local currency.

But here too, watch out for fees. Just like in the U.S., you'll probably pay $2 or $3 or more for each ATM withdrawal. And believe it or not, many ATM and credit-card issuers charge "foreign transaction" fees of 1% or more just to change one currency into another. Check out Capital One's charge cards, which generally don't assess this fee.

As for how to carry cash: In most major destinations, your ATM card should work fine. It can be smart, however, to buy $100 or $200 worth of local currency before you leave home, despite the poorer exchange rate, to cover incidental or unexpected expenses until you can get to an ATM at your destination. And travelers checks can be worth carrying too, as a backup.


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