By Teresa McUsic,
THE SAVVY CONSUMER
International travel is not for the faint of heart or purse, but there are many ways to stretch your dollars.
The good news is that despite this being the height of the summer season, international air fares are actually trending down, said Tom Parsons, chief executive of BestFares.com, a Dallas-based online travel agency.
“In the past, the earlier you bought a ticket the better, but that’s not true anymore,” he said. “There are some wild and crazy air fares out there right now through the rest of summer and into fall. My advice is to watch prices early and if necessary use two tickets to cut your costs.”
For example, I just returned from a two-week trip to Italy and paid $1,727 for a one-stop ticket from DFW to Rome that I bought last February in the hopes that I would save money on the fare. It didn’t happen. Today, that one-stop ticket could have cost me as little as $925, if I had bought one ticket to New York for around $250, and then a separate ticket from New York to Rome, for $675, Parsons said.
Other attractive fares to Europe right now include flights to Paris; Istanbul and Stuttgart, Germany, Parsons said.
Parsons recommends checking out one-stop flights, which are generally cheaper than non-stop and fares from nearby airports because trains and local flights abroad can be inexpensive and a fast way to get you where you want to go.
Here are some other ways to cut your international vacation cost:
Credit cards — While your cards might be fine at home in terms of fees and interest rate, they may cost you as much as 3 percent per transaction abroad. Look for a card that specifically offers no foreign transaction fees. After searching around the international travel blogs the consensus was to get the Capital One Visa. Turned out it did the job well, I had no extra fees and it was widely accepted with the security chip embedded that most European restaurants, ticket counters and lodging requires. Be sure to apply well in advance and if you’re going to be gone a long period, set up a minimum automatic monthly draft so you aren’t hit with late fees. Also be sure to tell your credit card issuer when you are going to be gone and where to avoid potential shut down of the card when they see international charges before they can reach you.
ATM card — Once again your home bank may charge you a fortune for ATM withdrawal abroad. But there are a few with limited or no foreign ATM fees. I chose to set up a Schwab Bank high-yield checking account, which promotes reimbursing ATM fees paid internationally. It worked well and I saw no extra ATM fees on my account, which also has no monthly service fee and can easily be set up online. My brother used his ATM from his teacher’s credit union and paid just 1 percent for ATM withdrawals. But other banks aren’t so generous. Chase, for example, charges $5 plus 3 percent per transaction. Also remember to tell your bank when you will be gone and where for security protection of your account.
Cell phone. Check with your cell phone company on their overseas charges for Internet, texting and calls. Many providers now work in Europe if you haven’t checked that out in recent years, but it will depend on the country you are visiting. Sprint, for example, had a particularly aggressive international promotion featuring unlimited text and data plans in selected countries at no additional cost. But you have to call and sign up for it, it’s not automatic. The talk fee was still high, however, at 20 cents a minute. But you can get around that with unlimited data plans or wi-fi then use Skype, which is free, or Google phone, which is one cent a minute.
Museum tickets, free stuff to do. My advice here is to search the Internet for your travel entertainment and buy whatever reserved tickets you can online, print your tickets from home and take them with you. We passed literally thousands of people waiting in line to see the Vatican museums with such a piece of paper in hand. The Economist recently reported a huge influx of tourists to museums abroad, with the Sistine Chapel seeing more than 25,000 visitors on its busiest days. The Vatican said it is going to curb this probably sometime next year by allowing only reserved ticket buyers inside, like the Borghese Gallery does, so check out your museum choices online to make sure of their policies before you go.
Also, seek out free things to do like visiting open-air fountains and lesser known churches (while the Sistine Chapel was cheek to jowl, you could walk easily into the Pantheon down the street). Free walking tours of most cities are also available. But do your research ahead; the Internet will likely be slower for you abroad.
Public transit versus cabs. It’s not always easy to lug your bags onto a train, subway or bus, but the cost differential is high when comparing to most cab fares. For examples the 16-mile trip from Sorrento to Naples, Italy, cost a little over $3 by train; a ferry was $27 and the cab fare $88. The same applies for travel within a city from say the airport to your lodging. So when possible, use public transit for big savings.
Lodging — Finally, consider convents, monasteries and hostels to cut your lodging costs. We booked several convents for our trip online for less than $100 a night that were clean, quiet and well located. But be sure to check for details when booking: some had curfews of 11 p.m. and others did not have air conditioning or did not accept credit cards. Decide before you go whether these issues will be inconvenient for you as you travel. .
Teresa McUsic’s column appears in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net