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How to Make the Most of Your Foreign Travel

Get the most out of any trip to a foreign country. Excerpt from book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist.

A good vacation is good for the soul. But not always for the pocketbook.

Nonetheless, it is possible to have satisfying travel experiences time and time again--without robbing Fort Knox. True, you may have to be somewhat flexible in your itinerary, and willing to have a different, more meaningful experience than you would on a first-class tourist trip. But when you look back on your pictures and read your diary, you'll be really glad you did.

We'll look first at some general travel issues, then at how to get to your destination cheaply, and how to keep the cost of hospitality down. Then we'll look at a bunch of different ways to actually get paid for travel.

Do you have a student or military ID card, AAA, AARP, or professional/union membership, proof of being under 25 or over 55? Many discounts on lodging, admissions, car rental, mass transit, and restaurants are available with one of these qualifications, if you just ask. So ask, at every opportunity. Some places will even allow multiple discounts, but this is rare.

AAA will also provide members with maps, itineraries, travel services, and no-fee American Express travelers' checks.

In any price negotiation, make sure you're dealing with someone in authority: the branch manager at a rental car office or hotel chain, for example. Otherwise, you're wasting your breath and you won't get the best rates. And always write down the name of the person authorizing the deal, the exact terms, and the date of your inquiry. Then, when you're done comparing and are ready to commit, send or fax your own confirming letter outlining the agreement as you understand it--and stating that non-response constitutes confirmation by the company. It's even better if you can get them to send a confirmation out to you, but sometimes they'll use a standard form that doesn't spell out the information. Bring a copy of your correspondence when you show up, and be sure to keep track of your reservation number.

If you choose accommodations at a chain hotel or motel, call the central 800 number, but also call the individual location. They may be able to do significantly better for you, especially if they've had cancellations or a slow season.

Also take advantage of bargains aimed at your destination's residents. For instance, you might not think about a local transit pass, but if you stay in a city--or region--for even a couple of days and take a lot of buses, you could save money. Some transit systems offer discounts for as few as five or ten fares, and if you're traveling with others, that number is even easier to reach. More rapid transit systems are converting to computerized farecards, which may allow discounts for off-peak travel or within a certain zone. Investigate with a call to the local transit authority before you go, and also ask to be sent a system map.

Contact the Chamber of Commerce and ask for a visitor's packet as well as any discount coupons they may offer. And consider buying an entertainment/dining coupon book, if it's a good value for the length of your stay (or if you expect to make several return trips). One vendor serving many cities is Entertainment Publications, 2125 Butterfield Road, Troy, MI 48084. The Chamber should be able to steer you toward others. Try to look it over before you buy, to make sure it really will save money on the kind of trip you've planned.

Discount Travel Clubs:
Consider joining a discount travel club, which can provide a variety of savings on travel, lodging, and entertainment. You pay an annual membership and then get access to the discounts--including some spur-of-the-moment deals not otherwise available. But before you pay money, you should be sure you'll make back at least that much in discounts you'll actually use. Always price around on your own first, and remember to ask about other discounts for which you already qualify.

Choose Your Season and Days of the Week:
Most tourist destinations have a "high season," when prices are inflated 30%-60%, the streets, beaches and attractions are mobbed, and it can be hard to find decent accommodations. Be smart--skip the busy times and go a little before or a little after, when prices are lower, people are friendlier, and the weather hasn't yet turned sour. This isn't just a flying tip, either; we've had wonderful driving vacations in New England's summer towns--in May, June, September, and October.

Similarly, you can save a lot depending on the days of the week you travel. If you're going to a resort destination, you can almost always get a better rate for Tuesday through Thursday than for Friday through Sunday--because the rooms are in far greater demand on the weekends. You'll benefit too, if you're going to a place known for cultural events, in that there's more likely to be free or cheap entertainment on a Wednesday or Thursday night than on a Friday or Saturday, when people are out anyway and ready to spend money. On the other hand, if you're going to a business-oriented city with minimal nightlife and little tourist appeal, you might do better on weekends. Or, if the weekend rate is lower and you're coming midweek, ask if you can have the room at the weekend rate. It never hurts to ask!

Travel goes more smoothly if you have very little of it. Nonetheless, do take what you really need. Consider an internal-frame backpack that can either ride on your back, sling over your shoulder, or look like "real people's luggage" with an attached handle. Also carry a day pack. When you get to your destination city, stow your big pack at the bus or train station while you go and look for a place to stay. (Airport checking isn't a great idea, because then you have to come back out to the airport to get it again.)

Keep a list on your person of the contents and approximate value of both checked and carry-on baggage, as well as a list of your travelers' check numbers and denominations, along with a photocopy of your passport, visas, and tickets. (If you have to evacuate the plane for some reason, your carry-on baggage stays behind.) Don't put the travelers' check list in the same place as the checks themselves. Also, leave a duplicate of that list, along with another copy of your passport and ticket, and all your credit card numbers if you haven't registered them--or the phone number of the registration service if you have--with a friend at home (a VERY trustworthy friend), so that if your documents are stolen, you can get all the cards stopped with one phone call. (Gold credit cards sometimes offer a free credit card registry; use it!).

Pack a small amount of clothing, but make sure the various pieces work well together. For a month, I could get by on three pairs of pants, one pair of shorts (or three shorts and one pants if I'm heading for the tropics), a bathing suit, a week's worth of underwear and socks, a mixture of T-shirts, turtlenecks, and drip-dry button-downs, one spare pair of shoes or sandals. The big space hog is layers for various degrees of cold and wet, but even then, a thin wool sweater, gloves, rain poncho, long-sleeved overshirt, and down vest can all compress easily--I can get all that into my backpack with room to spare. Figure on doing laundry once a week.

Cut down even more if you plan to buy clothes in your travels.

NEVER check through baggage anything you can't replace. Your money, ID, return tickets, prescription medicines, only copy of your journal, spent film (in a lead pouch if it's faster than 400 ISO, otherwise in a zippered pocket), and so forth should always be on your person (an under-the-clothes money pouch is a good investment). Demand hand-inspection of cameras, portable computers, and other fragile items.

The less you carry, the faster you'll move through. No checked baggage means no waiting endlessly at the carousel, a much shorter customs inspection, no need to tip a porter. But obviously, if you're going to have access to a car or a fixed base of operations, you may want to carry more than if you're going do be vagabonding all over the place via public transit.

Do bring a small, unobtrusive camera, a journal, something to read (there will be long bouts of down time at airports and train stations), perhaps a phrase book, relevant excerpts from guidebooks, healthy but portable snacks (but only enough to get you through the initial trip), cough drops, sucking candy or gum to ease the pressure in your ears during landing.

If you're traveling with children, make sure to have activities and snacks for them. Still using a stroller? Bring the umbrella style that can wheel right up to the gate and stow in an overhead rack; the last thing you want to do is drag a baby all over the airport because you checked your stroller as baggage. Ditto with portable luggage carts.

It is possible to rent car safety seats for rental vehicles if you plan ahead, but here I advise bringing your own. It's worth checking a piece of baggage to save $10 per day or more for the rental, and your child will feel more secure in his or her own familiar seat.

Travel Services and Guides
On an ordinary trip involving scheduled airlines, travel agents are worth dealing with--they're faster, better informed, and just as cheap as making your own reservations. Find a good one who will work hard to save you money. In general, though, you'll do better on accommodations without their help. They generally work from a small list of upscale hotels, and especially in the Fax Age, it's easy to contact hotels even overseas. Unless you expect difficulty finding a room, reserve only for the first night of your stay before you leave--or else make sure there's no penalty for shortening the stay once you arrive. Then if you find something better or cheaper while you're exploring, you aren't stuck.

In my experience, the best sources of adequate no-frills lodging are the Frommer guidebooks. Make sure the rooms have heat and air conditioning; these are considered luxuries in some parts of the world. The Let's Go series has lower prices, but they're a little too unfussy; you might stay in a dungeon--or a dormitory full of noisy teenagers. As for what to do, the Fielding guides are excellent. But they're also big and bulky, so you may want to read up ahead of time and take notes, or photocopy the pages you really need.

Money Changing
Converting currency is an art in itself. You want to get as much as you need, but at the same time, if the currency is decreasing in value against your own, you might get a lot more pesos for your dollar a few days later. Still, this has to be balanced against the high commissions for each money changing transaction (no matter how much you change at once) as well as how much of your precious travel time you want to spend waiting in line.

Where you change money can also be a factor. Discount rates range widely, but typically are cheapest at a bank in the foreign country, reasonable but not great at the airport, and quite expensive at a hotel. Sometimes you may be able to legitimately buy foreign currency before you leave home, or at the country you're visiting immediately prior to the country whose money you're changing--but stay away from the black market! Jail time is not worth the money you save.

If you get American Express travelers' checks (no fee if you're an AAA member), you can change money for zero commission at any American Express office in your destination country. You can also receive mail there and take advantage of other travel services they offer.

In developing countries where the economy is in tough shape, keep to small denominations. Even a $20 travelers' check or the equivalent in local currency can be hard to change in a cheap restaurant or hotel away from the tourist itineraries.

Credit card charges in foreign currency are converted on the day they are processed--which may be several days after you make the transaction. This means that if your purchase was made in a country whose currency is decreasing against the dollar, you will pay less than you bargained for--but if it's rising compared to the dollar, you could get burned. However, even abroad, many stores have switched to instant electronic processing, so that won't be a factor. Credit cards also usually avoid outrageous currency conversion charges and commissions (but check with your issuing bank for their policies, before you depart).

Remember that many countries suffer under some sort of Value Added Tax, which adds significantly to the price and may or may not be already figured in. But keep track of all the VAT you pay, because some countries will refund it if you can prove the purchases were for your own personal export. Ask at the country's nearest American consulate before you go.

A solar-powered pocket calculator can help a lot when figuring out the price of something in your home currency.

Foreign telephones can be confusing and intimidating, especially if you don't speak the country's language. Dial tones and other signals may sound different, and you might not even be sure if a phone is ringing or you're getting a busy signal. The best advice is to ask locals for help, which they will almost invariably be eager to provide. Also inquire about prepaid farecards which can save the hassles of trying to identify strange coins and feed them into the phone before you're disconnected.

Remember to watch where you're calling from: Hotel room phones are often heavily surcharged; even a payphone is cheaper. If possible, use a calling card for long-distance calls while traveling. It's cheaper and more convenient than throwing a stream of money into the slot. Private phones are cheaper still, but ask the operator ahead of time what the rate will be for the call you're making. Then you can reimburse your host.

Operator-assisted calls are almost always substantially more expensive than direct-dialed, and calls may be cheaper in off-peak hours. Toll-free numbers may be available in foreign countries, but they may start with a prefix you're not used to. U.S. toll-free numbers are generally not set up to handle overseas calls, though some companies might accept calls from Canada, Mexico, and/or the Caribbean.

Cultural Mores
Even within different parts of a large country, acceptable customs vary widely. Behavior that wouldn't raise an eyebrow in New York City might ostracize you for life in a small Georgia town. And respecting social mores is much more important when traveling abroad. After all, you don't want to perpetuate the stereotype of the Ugly American. Moreover, if you're seen as friendly and respectful of other cultures, many doors will open to you and your travel experience will be far richer and more memorable.

Learn a bit of the language, even a few simple words and phrases. I know how to say "thank you" in Spanish, French, German, Yiddish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew, and Hindi. I find that even saying "thank you" in Hindi to an Indian storekeeper or restaurateur in New York City brings a warm smile. Other useful expressions include "I don't understand," "Where is the bathroom?" "Do you accept credit cards?" "I am a vegetarian," and "How do I get to...?" If you actually speak a language--not necessarily fluently, but well enough to have a meaningful conversation--you'll get fascinating glimpses into the real lives and views of the people you meet. I've had the experience of discussing the United States' Central America policy in my clumsy Spanish while waiting on bank lines in Mexico--and of translating for desperate Americans who couldn't make themselves understood at all.

Read guidebooks before you go. Pay attention, among countless other issues, to:

  • Modesty (particularly for women)
  • Sexual harassment (often a problem for women traveling alone)
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Littering (in Singapore, that could send you to jail!)
  • Who pays in a restaurant?
  • What kind of gifts you should bring to a host (or will bringing any gift be taken as an insult)?
  • Typical foods, and when and how to eat them (Breakfast in Israel includes tomatoes; in Spain, greasy dough sticks dipped in chocolate pudding)
  • How to admire an object without forcing the host to give it to you
  • Protocols on public transit (Do you need advance tickets? Are the schedules accurate?)
  • Cost and reliability of mailing packages (often a better option than dragging them home on the plane, although potentially a real time-consumer)
  • Public bathroom customs
  • What languages are preferred or despised?
  • What is typically too early or late to call? Do stores close at certain times? What hours are meals served? (In the U.K., if you try to have lunch after 2, you'll probably have to wait two hours for a snack at tea-time)
  • What days are museums and tourist attractions closed? Will you run into unforeseen holidays?

You may choose to deliberately violate the customs, but at least you'll know what you're doing. For instance, though we're Jewish and the buses are generally segregated, we rode a Palestinian bus in Israel (and I'll always remember the ancient man in traditional dress who insisted we take his seat). And in Spain we cheerfully endured the mockery of local cafe owners in order to savor the wonderful fresh-squeezed orange juice at breakfast.

This report was taken from The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook--280 pages of great advice to save you money and increase your enjoyment of the fun things in life: travel, fine dining, live entertainment, and much more. To get your copy of this wonderful resource at the ridiculously low price of $20 (including shipping to the U.S. or Canada), visit Ordering Made Easy/Talk to Us.

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