Not everyone will be vacationing close to home this summer. A lot of Americans will be grabbing their passports and heading across the Atlantic.
They’ve been hit with wanderlust. Their first major overseas trip since Sept. 11 can’t come fast enough.
As tempting as it may be to hop a flight and just go, savvy travelers know better. To make your European holiday as relaxing and affordable as possible, you’ll need to do a good bit of research ahead of time. Trust me, it’s not going to be that bad.
Let’s start with landing a bargain on your air fare. It may be harder than you think. Even though fewer Americans are heading abroad this summer, few airlines are slashing prices on international fares.
On some flights, you may end up paying more than you did last summer.
“It’s not as if there are fire sales going on,” says Bill McGee, editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. “As the demand has lessened so has the supply. But there are still some deals to be had.”
The travel bargains this summer are centered in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Mediterranean destinations such as Italy, Greece and Turkey.
Landing the best travel deal
To get the best deal on your air fare, it’s important to shop around. The Internet makes it easy. Check for online specials from individual airlines and then visit sites such as Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz, Bestfares.com and Smarterliving.com.
You might also want to check out deals from consolidators such as Hotwire.com, Onetravel.com and Lowestfare.com.
Consolidators offer some of the lowest fares around, but shop carefully.
“There’s a great many more restrictions, and you have to be very careful with travel dates,” McGee says. “In many cases, it’s nonrefundable.”
When planning your trip, it’s best to be as flexible as possible. Folks who are flexible about travel dates and destinations tend to scoop up the best bargains.
“The more choices you allow yourself, the more opportunities you have to find lower fares,” says Charles McCool, author of Winning the air fare game.
Those with a fixed travel schedule and a fixed destination may have a tougher time landing a good deal.
To get the best deal possible, you need to shop around. Check prices on flights from two or more airports in your area.
“Education is a lot of it. You just need to keep your eyes open,” says Bob Harrell of Harrell Associates in New York. “Be flexible in terms of carrier, time of day and airport departure.”
Don’t overlook package deals. A package deal might give you airline tickets, hotel accommodations and a rental car for your dream destination at an unbelievable price. Or it might not. Be sure to compare package deals with prices you could get on your own.
Snapping up a package deal may be a good strategy for last-minute travelers.
“You can buy them the day before and it’s all taken care of,” McCool says.
If you plan to pay for a big chunk of your overseas vacation in advance, you may want to sign up for travel insurance.
Looking to flop in Europe on the cheap for a couple of weeks? Amsterdam is the place for you. A recent survey from Consumer Reports Travel Letter dubbed Amsterdam the most affordable european vacation spot for American travelers.
The chic Italian cities of Milan and Rome are the most expensive destinations. This chart lists popular European vacation spots by price.
Things to know before you go
And let’s not forget about safety. Being a safe and savvy traveler is more important than ever. A few quick precautions can help safeguard your vacation for you and your family.
Before your trip, check out the consular information sheet for the country or countries you plan to visit on the U.S. Department of State’s website.
These sheets give you the lowdown on a country’s entry requirements, currency regulations, unusual health conditions, crime and security situation, political disturbances, areas of instability and special information about driving and road conditions. They also provide addresses and emergency telephone numbers for U.S. embassies and consulates.
Make copies of your passport identification page, airline tickets, driver’s license and the credit cards that you plan to bring with you. Give copies to a friend or relative and bring the rest with you.
“Leave copies of your most important documents with someone at home. Put a copy in your luggage and have a copy on your person,” says Don George, a travel editor at Lonely Planet Publications.
“It’s a whole lot easier if you lose a passport to have a copy of the title page.”
Pack as lightly as possible. Pay particular attention to electronic devices.
Do you really need a Walkman, a laptop and three kinds of cameras for a two-week vacation? The more electronics you bring, the more time you’ll spend at airport security checkpoints.
“The less you pack the better,” McGee says. “Anything with electronics is going to be looked at very closely.”
Keep prohibited objects out of your carry-on bag. The wait in the security line is going to feel long enough without a guard confiscating a “dangerous” item and then searching every inch of your bag. It’s not the way you want to start off your vacation.
Knives of any size are not permitted. But thanks to new security guidelines from the Transportation Security Administration, you now can pack tweezers and nail files in your carry-on bag. This chart lists the new security guidelines in detail.
Protect your film. You’ll want to place film in an X-ray safe travel bag, available at any travel store, or hand the film to the security folks at the airport. You don’t want it to go through an X-ray machine unprotected because it may be damaged.
And now for money matters. Let’s start off with the good news: the euro.
The euro is now legal tender in Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.
You’ll get euros when you withdraw cash at an ATM. You’ll get euros when you exchange your U.S. dollars at a bank. You’ll pay the taxi driver, the hotel steward and the waiter at the café in euros. And you won’t have to worry about changing money every time you cross a border.
The euro also makes it a whole lot easier to compare prices while traveling from country to country. Comparing the cost of a swanky hotel in Italy vs. a cozy inn in Austria is a breeze. They both charge euros.
Estimating the cost in U.S. dollars of anything priced in euros is a snap as well. One euro is roughly 90 cents. An item that costs 10 euros would cost about $9.
Don’t let your cards get the best of you
And now for the not-so-good news: overseas card fees.
Use your credit card, debit card or ATM card while traveling overseas and there’s a good chance you’ll be zapped with a hefty fee.
Many banks charge 2-percent fees on credit and debit card purchases made outside the United States on top of the 1-percent currency-exchange fees levied by Visa and MasterCard. Many banks also charge a $1.50 to $3 fee every time a customer grabs cash at an overseas ATM.
This chart lists the overseas fee policies of some of the nation’s largest banks and credit card companies.
How can you tell if your bank is taking a cut on every credit card or debit card purchase you make overseas? Call and ask.
Pulling out an old credit card bill from your trip to Paris last summer won’t help. The fees won’t be listed anywhere on the bill. So pick up that phone and call your bank or card issuer.
Keen to avoid these fees? Do your banking with a credit union or community bank. None of the nation’s credit unions charge foreign currency conversion fees. Most community banks don’t either.
Once you’ve tracked down the fee policies for all the different kinds of plastic in your wallet, you’ll be able to decide which cards to take with you and which ones to leave at home.
You’ll definitely want to bring a card or two on your overseas vacation. Despite these fees, debit and credit cards are still a great way to pay while traveling.
The exchange rates secured by Visa and MasterCard for debit card and credit card customers are based on wholesale rates offered to large banks and corporations rather than the retail rate offered to consumers. So you’re guaranteed an excellent exchange rate each time you pay with plastic overseas.
You’ll also want to use your debit card to withdraw cash at overseas ATMs. It’s easier and cheaper than exchanging U.S. dollars at an overseas bank or exchange counter.
And while Visa and MasterCard charges a 1-percent fee for its service, a bank or exchange counter is likely to charge fees of 5 percent to 8 percent. Those are some pretty serious fees. The $1.50 ATM fee from your bank doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?
So walk right past the money exchange counter at an overseas airport and head for an ATM instead. Most major airports have ATMs.
To scope out overseas ATM locations before your trip, visit the Web sites of Visa and MasterCard. They list ATM locations in countries around the world.
To limit ATM fees while traveling, try to make one or two large withdrawals as opposed to five or six smaller ones. Most banks limit ATM withdrawals to $200 or $300. You may want to ask your bank to raise this limit before you head abroad.
And now one last tip: Have fun.
You’ve done the prep work and planning. Once away on your trip, be sure to kick back and relax.
“Just enjoy the moment,” Stallings says. “You don’t get that many vacations.”
Editors’ note: Please also see our newest story on the topic of currency conversion.