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May 16, 2008

Where Does Your Dollar Stretch Farthest Right Now?

The U.S. dollar has gained 37 percent against Costa Rica's currency over the past five years. Oceanview rooms at Costa Rica's Arenas del Mar Beach & Nature Resort, a property on Conde Nast Traveler's Hot List, start at $200.
Photo: Arenas del Mar

by Wendy Perrin

Sorry I've been incommunicado the past few days. Between compiling my annual list of the Top Travel Specialists for Conde Nast Traveler's upcoming August issue, working on our (also now annual) August-issue cruise booklet, and creating a (hopefully not annual) major online contest with multiple cool giveaways that will happen here on this blog starting mid-June (stay tuned), I have not had one single second even to write a Perrin Report for the July, August, or September issues, much less post tips here daily. All of you who've posted "Ask Wendy" questions here within the past week, please be patient as I try to carve out five minutes to answer them. Meanwhile . . .

Where on earth can you go this summer that won't break the bank?!  That was the topic yesterday on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC Radio--our beloved NPR station here in the New York area--where I'm the guest every Thursday morning in May as part of its month-long series on travel. I'm gonna assume you don't have time to listen to the show, so here's a short list of countries where the exchange rate is currently relatively decent:

The Americas: Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama, Argentina, Mexico, Canada, and any Caribbean countries that use the U.S. dollar (British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos) or the East Caribbean dollar (Anguilla, Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts, Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, etc).
Europe: Eastern European countries that do not use the euro (especially Romania), countries such as Croatia and Turkey that will be adopting the euro within the next few years (go NOW, before they become unaffordable!!), Switzerland (where your dollar equals 1.05 Swiss francs), Leichtenstein (which also uses the Swiss franc), Portugal (because it's relatively cheap, despite the euro). And any of you Conde Nast Traveler subscribers who've already received our June issue know how cheap my recent villa rental in Spain was (again, despite the euro).
Asia: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos.
The Middle East: Egypt, Jordan, Syria.

Obviously this list isn't exhaustive, but at least it should provide a few affordable vacation ideas. If you've recently traveled in a country that you found to be a bargain, whatever the exchange rate, please click on "Comments" below and tell us, so that others can benefit from learning where you went and how you made it affordable. And if you haven't read Conde Nast Traveler's February 2008 article "Dollar Power," be sure to do so before choosing your summer vacation destination.

May 01, 2008

What's the Best Way to Get Cash and Make Purchases Overseas?

20pounds by Wendy Perrin

I was asked that question this morning on WNYC Radio (New York's public radio station, where I'm talking travel on The Brian Lehrer Show every Thursday this month).  And a related question recently came in from Perrin Post reader BarbaraammJohnson:  "I will be in Northern Ireland, England, and South Africa for 30 days. In the fall, I'm in Poland. What common currency could I take?  My first choice is travelers' checks in euros. Second thought would be travelers' checks in British pounds. I don't use ATMs or credit cards."

50randBarbara's question is a tough one, so I hope other global travelers will weigh in with their opinions (by clicking on "Comments" below). I have to preface my answer by saying that I always use a combo of ATMs and credit cards. Since that's what most travelers do, let me begin with a warning to them:

Zloty Find out before leaving home how much your bank will charge you for international ATM withrawals (my bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, charges a whopping $3 per withdrawal plus 3 percent of the amount withdrawn) and also how much your credit card charges for foreign purchases (I prefer to use American Express because it charges 2 percent rather than the 3 percent my MasterCard charges). If you're looking for a bank that does not charge extra for overseas cash withdrawals, Commerce Bank doesn't (at least, it didn't last time I checked, which was about a year ago). If you're looking for a credit card that doesn't charge extra for foreign transactions, Capital One doesn't (again, last time I checked, about a year ago).

Now, on to travelers' checks and Barbara's question:

Continue reading "What's the Best Way to Get Cash and Make Purchases Overseas?" »

May 22, 2007

Do You Need Travelers' Checks?

In Italy, at certain ATMs, the most you can withdraw per transaction is 250 euros. Read below to avoid hefty withdrawal fees. Above, the Duomo in Florence. Photo: 1Apix, Alamy

by Wendy Perrin

Question from reader Fischec:

"I will be traveling to Europe soon and was wondering if it is at all worth it to bring travelers' checks?  Also, because my bank charges high ATM fees outside the U.S., on average how much cash do you recommend having on hand per day?"

First, the travelers' checks:  You don't need them.

Second, how much cash: It depends on where you'll be. Some countries (e.g., England) are far more expensive than others (e.g., Croatia).  Since it would be stupid to bring a boatload of cash with you from the U.S., I can only assume you're asking me how much money you should withdraw each time you use an ATM?  Two things to remember:

Continue reading "Do You Need Travelers' Checks?" »

March 20, 2007

How To Get The Best Exchange Rate

ATM illustrationBy Wendy Perrin
Question from Joe_Kayaker:

"How do you get the best exchange rates when you need cash in foreign countries?  The answer used to be to go to an ATM at your destination.  On a recent trip to Paris that's just what I did.  Today when I checked my bank statement I found I got hit with a 3% "foreign transaction fee" and a $10 ATM fee!  For my 100 euros of pocket change, I paid more than $1.46 per euro. Needless to say, I have a new bank, but where is one to go for the best exchange rates?"

First of all, Joe, we've missed you!  Where ya been (besides Paris)?!  Second, you make my life easy because I've already answered your question.  Take a look at Getting The Best Exchange Rate Abroad, then read Cheapest Way To Pay Overseas.  Third, I'm curious: What bank did you switch to, and what are its overseas ATM fees?

January 07, 2007

Cheapest Way To Pay Overseas

By Wendy Perrin

Question from reader stevam:

"When making purchases in Europe, is it more economical to use a U.S. ATM card to withdraw Euros and pay in cash, or to charge in the store using a U.S.-based AmEx or Visa card?"

Excellent question. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. It depends on which bank issued your ATM card and which issued your Visa card. If you're a Conde Nast Traveler subscriber, please look back at your February '06 issue (p. 60), where I covered this topic in depth in the Perrin Report and laid out each bank's different charges in a nice user-friendly chart. Not a subscriber? Click here for info about what certain banks charge for ATM withdrawals, and click here to read the aforementioned Perrin Report (but the chart is not online).

Three things I can tell you off the bat:

1. When paying with a credit card overseas, it's generally better to use AmEx than Visa.
AmEx charges a 2 percent currency conversion fee, whereas most Visa cards charge 3 percent to most customers.

2. You can get an ATM card that charges no fee for overseas cash withdrawals.
That's more economical than using either AmEx or Visa.

3. You can get a credit card that charges no fee for foreign transactions.
Capital One, Amalgamated Bank, BMW Bank, and Tompkins Trust Company offer these.

November 02, 2006

"Test Your Travel Smarts" Quiz

061102_suitcase_1 By Wendy Perrin

Huge thanks to the conscientious reader who brought to my attention an unfortunate error in the answer box of my Perrin Report quiz in Conde Nast Traveler's November issue. Reader worldtraveler wrote:

"In your quiz you said that the assumption that 'a midship cabin on a cruise is best to avoid seasickness' is not true. Where is the best cabin/location on a cruise ship to avoid being seasick?  Thanks for your answer and for a VERY INFORMATIVE column."

I was stunned to read this because the statement that "a midship cabin on a cruise is best to avoid seasickness" is absolutely true and is the correct answer to quiz question #27.  It turns out that, for some unexplained reason, the answers to questions 26 and 27 were reversed during the magazine's production process.  The answer to question 26 should be D (not C), and the answer to question 27 should be C (not D).

For those of you who have not seen the quiz and have no earthly idea what I'm talking about, here's question 27:

Which of the following assumptions about booking a cruise-ship cabin is true?

a. A forward cabin has better views.

b. An aft cabin has a larger balcony.

c. A midship cabin is best to avoid seasickness.

d. A balconied cabin means greater privacy.

Correct answer: C

And here's question 26:

If an establishment in a foreign country offers to charge your credit card in U.S. dollars, you should . . .

a. Say yes because it prevents your credit card from hitting you with a foreign-transaction fee.

b. Say yes because the merchant will be using the Interbank exchange rate.

c. Say no because the exchange rate used is always worse than your credit card's.

d. Ask which exchange rate the merchant is using: if it is better than your credit card's, say yes only if your credit card does not impose a foreign-transaction fee for overseas purchases charged in U.S. dollars.

Correct answer: D

The first 30 questions of my quiz are only in Conde Nast Traveler's November issue, but an additional 15 questions are online at Click here to take the online quiz and test your travel smarts.

September 02, 2006

Getting The Best Exchange Rate Abroad

By Wendy Perrin

I was just reading the New York Times travel section and saw a column about exchange rates that states, "You can get cash in local currency at an ATM at the official rate minus about 1 percent, depending on your bank." 

Alas, not at most banks I know of!  J.P. Morgan Chase charges $3 for each overseas ATM withdrawal plus 3.5 percent of the amount withdrawn.  MBNA charges 3 percent of the amount.  Wells Fargo charges $5 per withdrawal, as does Bank of America at all but six overseas banks.  Citibank and HSBC charge 1 percent, but if you withdraw from a non-Citi or non-HSBC bank, there's a $1.50 fee.

Fortunately, small local banks tend not to levy the hefty ATM fees that the big banks impose. Commerce Bank (which serves the mid-Atlantic region), for instance, waives all ATM surcharges worldwide. So, if you travel abroad frequently, get an ATM card from a bank that charges nothing for overseas withdrawals.  Alternatively, ask your regular bank if you can avoid ATM surcharges by switching to a premier or business account.

If you think paying by credit card is the answer, read this.