Categories
Money

Where to Get the Best Exchange Rate When You Need a Foreign Currency

When traveling to a country with an unfavorable exchange rate, many people are guilty of mentally converting prices into U.S. dollars and cringing at the price increase. A disadvantaged exchange rate alone can be enough to make you worry you’ve blown your budget. And that’s before even taking into account extra fees that come with city or airport currency-exchange counters—which is why you should never use them.

Now that cash is no longer king, most travel experts recommend that you rely primarily on plastic while traveling: specifically, credit cards for big-ticket items, and debit/ATM cards for cash on arrival. That’s right: You shouldn’t be using a cash-exchange counter to exchange currency. The best place to exchange currency is an ATM, which will typically offer better rates and lower fees (depending on your bank and destination).

The longstanding issue with that practice has always been foreign transaction fees—but you might be surprised to hear that this pesky type of fee is becoming less and less relevant.

Some cards do have foreign transaction fees of about three percent, but most big banks have done away with such charges, which makes ATMs the best way to exchange currency. (And, of course, never use a credit card to withdraw from an ATM—it’ll cost you a lot in banking fees/interest.)

[st_related]How to Avoid Foreign Transaction Fees[/st_related]

There are exceptions to this practice, however: If you’re traveling somewhere like Cuba, for example, which requires that you order cash before arrival since you can’t withdraw Cuban money from ATMs with a U.S. bank card. (Furthermore, nowhere in Cuba will accept U.S. dollars, so even an airport currency exchange upon landing isn’t an option.)

With that in mind, here are your options for those times when you need to exchange some U.S. dollars.

Before You Do Anything, Research the Exchange Rate

The only way to know if you are getting the best exchange rate is to know what the current rate is. Before you leave for your trip, check XE.com for an up-to-date look at the exchange rate. If you’re taking an extended trip, check the rate periodically to stay abreast of any major changes by downloading the XE app (iOS | Android).

The Best Places to Exchange Currency or Buy Money

When all else fails, remember a few golden rules:

  • Banks in your respective destination are likely to have the lowest currency exchange fees.
  • Airport currency exchange counters typically offer better rates than city-center equivalents.
  • “Buying” cash ahead of your trip, when it’s absolutely necessary, is best done with friends so you can split the fee, and through a membership service like AAA that charges nominal or no fees for members.

AAA members can order over 90 types of foreign currency. The currency must be ordered in person, and purchases are shipped to the branch location in about three business days. Plus, orders over $200 are shipped free.

You’ll usually get the best exchange rates at banks, post offices, and American Express offices. Hotels are also worth a try. Avoid the change bureaus you see everywhere in airports, train stations, and touristy areas, which usually have the worst rates.

Wherever you go, take the time to shop around. Read the posted exchange rates carefully, and ask for the net rate after any commissions: Some commissions are charged on a per-item basis on each transaction, others on a percentage basis.

Finally, look out for fake currency exchanges, which can be a source of scams or counterfeit currency. You shouldn’t run into this problem at reputable banks, hotels, or government-run post offices.

[st_related]12 AAA Travel Benefits You Probably Never Considered[/st_related]

Tip: If you’ll be carrying a lot of cash, consider this inexpensive, hyper-organized wallet that keeps everything safe and secure in a compact place.

Know When Not to Exchange

Have you checked if U.S. dollars are accepted as readily as the local currency in your destination? For instance, the currencies in BelizeBarbados, the Bahamas, and other Caribbean nations are pegged to the U.S. dollar at fixed rates, making it easy to pay for your purchases in either American money or the local currency.

However, it’s not always a good idea to pay in U.S. dollars, even if the option is open to you. In countries where the exchange rate is variable, the price that is listed in U.S. dollars may not be a great deal; often the merchant will charge you a little extra for the convenience of paying in your own currency. Use the calculator on your smartphone to figure out whether you’re getting a fair price.

And lastly: Traveler’s checks? Not if you’re living in the 21st century. You’ll have a lot of trouble finding a bank that will exchange these checks, if you still have them. A lot has changed in travel banking in the past couple of decades—for the better.

More from SmarterTravel:

[amazon_native_ad search=”wallet”]

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Ed Perkins, Mark Rowlands, Shannon McMahon, and Sarah Schlichter contributed to this story.

Categories
Arts & Culture Booking Strategy Business Travel Entertainment Experiential Travel Food & Drink Luxury Travel Romantic Travel

14 Things a Hotel Concierge Can Do for You (And 6 Things They Can’t)

Few travelers think to contact the hotel concierge for much more than directions or restaurant recommendations—but if you don’t, you’re missing out on a wealth of local expertise. A good hotel concierge has impressive powers and can assist with almost any travel problem you might face, so you shouldn’t be afraid to take advantage.[st_content_ad]

That said, a concierge is not a magician. Below are 14 things your hotel concierge can do for you, six more they can’t, and four tips for maximizing your moments at the hotel lobby.

What a Hotel Concierge Can Do for You

Save You Money

The concierge can tell you how to get to the airport for less, where to find nearby happy hours, what the best free sights and activities are, and how much is a fair price for a taxi.

Recommend Fitness Facilities

If your hotel doesn’t have a gym or lacks the equipment you want, the concierge can usually point you to an affiliated hotel with better facilities, recommend a good running trail, or give you a list of nearby fitness centers that offer daily or weekly passes.

Get You a Ride When There Seems to Be None Available

If it is rush hour, raining, or really late, finding a taxi or Uber ride can be tough. The concierge can make this happen with a phone call in many cases. This can even work if you’re not staying at the hotel in question. I once saw a friend walk into the lobby of a New York hotel and offer the concierge a tip; within seconds, we had a ride.

Get Tickets for You

Many concierges are careful to say they can’t get tickets for sold-out shows, but the truth is they sometimes can. They may have relationships with brokers, or know season ticket holders who may not be using their seats, or even have tickets themselves; Michael Fazio, author of Concierge Confidential, started to purchase tickets to certain shows that he would then sell to guests, usually at a markup that matched the secondary market.

Keep You Safe

A concierge can offer advice on whether a neighborhood, park, or activity is safe to visit, and what you can do instead if your idea is iffy.

[st_related]How to Find Bedbugs[/st_related]

Help You Celebrate

Are you proposing to your partner or celebrating a landmark birthday? Your hotel concierge can help with anything from filling your hotel room with flowers and balloons to organizing a rooftop proposal, complete with a photographer to document the occasion.

Help You Do Your Job

A concierge can assist with all kinds of work-related tasks, such as getting materials to a printer, setting up a courier service, mailing packages, and setting up a meeting space.

Help You Look Good

A concierge can get you an appointment with a barber or hairdresser, get clothes pressed, and more.

Fix Sticky Travel Problems

A concierge can help you find an expeditor or make an embassy appointment if your passport is stolen, or facilitate repairs if your smartphone goes on the fritz. They can also accept overnight mail or late-arriving luggage.

Get You a Table

Restaurants will often find a way to fit in customers who are recommended by their preferred concierge contacts. If the restaurant is truly full, the concierge can often get you to the front of a waiting list.

Recommend Local Service Folks

Need a babysitter, an auto repair shop, or a dog walker? Your concierge can help.

Create a Custom Itinerary

If you have a bunch of stuff you definitely want to do but are uncertain how to make it all fit together, the concierge can take your list of attractions and put together a coherent and achievable plan. He or she can also help you avoid pitfalls such as road construction or closed subway stations.

Help with Special Needs

If you are disabled, aren’t feeling well, or have other special needs, a hotel concierge can offer considerable assistance—like calling wheelchair-accessible taxis, finding English-speaking doctors, and recommending restaurants that can accommodate certain food allergies.

Provide Assistance Before You Arrive

The concierge can be a resource not just once you’re at the hotel but beforehand as well. For instance, he or she could help you plan out your first day, including a restaurant reservation for dinner.

[st_related]The Most Bizarre Hotel Requests from Guests[/st_related]

What Your Hotel Concierge Can’t Do for You

Gossip

Discretion is an integral part of a concierge’s job, so they tend not to talk about other guests, including which celebrities might be staying in the hotel.

Illegal or Immoral Activities

You shouldn’t expose a concierge to risk by asking him or her to help with illegal—or dubiously legal—activities such as obtaining drugs, forging signatures, finding “companions,” or the like.

Babysit

A concierge can help you find someone else to look after your child, but he or she can’t actually do the babysitting while on duty.

Float You a Loan

They’ll help you with money concerns, but concierges are not banks; don’t ask them to dig into their pockets for you.

Sell Stuff for You

Concierges are also not your personal eBay or Craigslist; they can’t sell tickets you no longer need or items you don’t want to take home. However, he or she may be able to recommend a place where you can do the sale yourself.

Book Tickets to Sold-Out Shows

Truly sold-out shows tend to be just that; however, you can ask if the concierge has any ideas or contacts to help get you tickets, and he or she might have a strategy for you. If there is truly no way to get certain tickets, the concierge will tell you so.

[st_related]15 Things Your Hotel Won’t Tell You[/st_related]

Tips for Using a Hotel Concierge

Don’t Be Shy

You might feel as though the concierge is only there for the folks in the penthouse suite, but this isn’t the case; he or she is there to help all guests, so feel free to ask.

Give Them Some Time

Concierges can often pull off difficult tasks, but to do so on very short notice is tricky, and it distracts them from helping other guests. Give the concierge some notice if you need something beyond simple advice.

Present the Concierge’s Card

When a concierge sends you to a restaurant or other establishment, it is often his or her name, not yours, that is the attraction for the proprietor. So if a concierge asks you to show his or her card, do it; these relationships are what makes concierges able to help you now and in the future.

Not All Concierges Are the Same

Concierges at the very best (and most expensive) hotels are notorious for pulling off near-miracles; those at less prestigious establishments typically don’t have the same pull.

Traveling? Get a Carry-On That Does More

The Bigger Carry-On from Away

3 words: lightweight, durable, & multi-functional. The Carry-On from Away makes traveling that much easier, especially with its removable, TSA-approved battery for your electronics.

More from SmarterTravel:

[st_deals_search search_type=hotel]

Ed Hewitt is a seasoned globetrotter who brings you a biweekly glimpse into the latest travel news, views, and trends—and how they could affect your travel plans.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated with the latest information.

Categories
Money Travel Technology

How to Avoid Foreign Transaction Fees

Travel experts (myself included) will always recommend that you rely primarily on plastic while traveling: specifically, credit cards for big-ticket items and debit ATM cards for cash on arrival. The longstanding issue with that practice has always been foreign transaction fees—but you might be surprised to hear that this pesky type of fee is becoming less and less relevant.

In many cases you can now avoid foreign transaction fees entirely, while in others you’ll pay them, but will ultimately lose less money than any other cash-acquirement option. For foreign travel, especially, you can’t beat plastic: In fact, you may actually need credit cards in more and more places as they opt out of cash all together. Cashless retail outlets are becoming widespread, especially in Sweden and across China, with some places refusing to accept any paper currency at all.

[st_related]How to Choose the Best Travel Credit Card[/st_related]

Beating Foreign Transaction Fees on Credit Cards

Credit cards have improved dramatically in recent years for overseas purchases. About a decade ago, most banks had a three percent surcharge on foreign credit card purchases—even purchases in U.S. dollars. But now, most big issuers—including Chase, Bank of America, Capital One, and American Express—offer multiple credit cards with no foreign transaction fees. For the most part, cards that target travelers typically no longer have foreign surcharges. To see a list of cards without foreign transaction fees, see Airfarewatchdog (SmarterTravel’s sister site).

And although you can use a credit card to withdraw cash, that’s not a good idea: With all banks, cash withdrawal on a credit card comes with interest charges, plus fees, as well. The biggest trap for use of credit cards outside the U.S. is now the attempt by some merchants to bill you in dollars rather than local currency. The trap? They convert your bill at a lousy exchange rate. If a transaction ever prompts you to choose between dollars or the local currency, always choose the local currency. Also keep in mind that, even if your card charges a small fee, it’s likely less than the fee any currency exchange counter will take from you.

The best ways to deal with credit card purchases to avoid foreign transaction fees are:

  • Use whatever no-surcharge credit card serves you best.
  • Don’t let anyone try to bill you in dollars rather than the local currency.
  • Don’t use a credit card to acquire cash.
  • If your current card adds a surcharge—and you don’t want to apply for a different card—a loss of three percent is still a lot less than your loss converting currency at any exchange counter.

[st_related]How to Get the Best Exchange Rate[/st_related]

Beating Foreign Transaction Fees on Debit Cards

The foreign transaction fees situation is not as good with debit cards, but still improving.

In most of the world, you can use an ATM card issued by a U.S. bank at an ATM in a foreign country to withdraw local currency. The actual exchange is carried out by the international American Express, MasterCard, or Visa networks, and the exchange fee is typically one percent or less. But most U.S. banks add a surcharge of $3 to $5 per withdrawal from any ATM other than its own ATMs, including virtually all ATMs outside the United States. Many add an exchange surcharge on top of that, as well. And the local ATM operator may add a fee.

For a while, the Global ATM Alliance offered no-fee withdrawals on Bank of America debit cards when used at another member bank’s ATM, but Bank of America later imposed a three-percent exchange surcharge. The main exceptions are many small banks—most notably savings banks, online banks, and credit unions—that waive debit card transaction fees and cover other fees on foreign withdrawals.

And a new debit card problem has emerged in recent years: Many big international hub airports have kicked out ATMs operated by local banks and substituted ATMs operated by exchange bureaus, such as Travelex. The signs on these ATMs say “no fees,” which is somewhat true: Your money is exchanged at the same retail rate you get at the exchange counter, and that rate is typically around 10 to 15 percent worse than the official bank rate. And then there’s your own bank’s fees.

Ways to withdraw local currency from a local ATM without piling on the foreign transaction fees are:

  • If your usual ATM card is from a big bank with stiff withdrawal fees, consider opening a no-fee checking account at one of the many small banks that waive or cover foreign ATM charges.
  • If you don’t have any local currency when you arrive in a foreign country, avoid airport ATMs operated by exchange bureaus if you can. If you can’t, get only as much as you need to get to your hotel.

And finally: Traveler’s checks? Not if you’re living in the 21st century. You’ll have a lot of trouble finding a bank that will exchange these checks, if you still have them. A lot has changed in travel banking in the past couple of decades—for the better.

More from SmarterTravel:

[st_deals_search search_type=air]

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2012. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Booking Strategy Budget Travel Food & Drink Money

Top 25 Ways to Save on Europe Travel

Europe is one of the world’s most expensive travel destinations. Hotel rates are sky-high in major capitals like London and Paris, and the hefty cost of living (particularly in Scandinavian countries) makes everyday purchases such as meals and public transportation tickets a pricey proposition for travelers.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t see Europe on a budget. We’ve gathered 25 tips to help you travel Europe for cheap.

Europe Trip Planning on a Budget

1. Be flexible with your dates and airports.

One of the best ways to save money on airfare to Europe is to be flexible about when you travel. The high season for travel to most of Europe is June through August, so you can often save money on both airfare and lodging by traveling at other times of year. (That said, you’ll want to avoid major holidays such as Christmas and Easter.) Also, consider flying to and from alternate airports—for example, London Gatwick instead of Heathrow—as a potential way to land cheaper fares. To start your search, see The 10 Best Flight Search Sites for Booking Cheap Airfare.

2. Book at the right time.

Not sure whether the airfare you’re seeing is a good one? There are sites and apps that can help. When you search for a fare on Kayak.com, the results page typically features a little box with a fare prediction that advises whether you should wait or buy now. The Hopper app (iOS | Android) offers similar predictive advice. You can set fare alerts on SmarterTravel’s sister site, Airfarewatchdog, and the site will notify you when the price drops on your route.

3. Find your focus.

When planning your European itinerary, consider exploring one region or country in depth rather than bouncing around from place to place. For example, spend a week sightseeing in Florence and taking day trips to nearby towns in Tuscany rather than trying to squeeze Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome into seven or eight days. You’ll not only spare yourself hours of sitting in transit, but you’ll also save big on transportation expenses such as airfare or pricey train tickets. Learn more about slow travel.

[st_related]The 5 Best Trip Planner Apps for Travelers[/st_related]

4. Save on museum entrance fees and entertainment.

Many museums offer free admission on certain days or nights of the week or at certain times of the month. For example, the Louvre in Paris is free on the first Saturday of each month, as well as on Bastille Day (July 14). Check ahead of time for free admission at the museums you’re interested in, and schedule your visit accordingly.

Similarly, keep an eye out for free concerts or performances going on in local parks, churches, and other public venues. The best place to find these is in the local newspapers or online entertainment listings, by asking at your hotel—or simply by stumbling upon them.

5. Purchase a pass.

Most major cities offer special cards that include discounts or free admission for museums, attractions, tours, and public transportation. Examples include the London Pass, the Amsterdam Pass, and the Barcelona Pass.  These can be a great value if the card covers many of the attractions you were already planning to visit, but be sure to evaluate whether it’s really worth it. If the card costs $100 and you’re only going to use it at one or two museums, it may be better to pay a la carte.

[st_related]Planning a Trip to Europe: Your 10-Step Guide[/st_related]

How to Save on Europe Lodging

6. Consider a rental.

Choosing a vacation rental instead of a standard hotel has several cost advantages. Renting an apartment or house often gives you more space for less money (so it’s a particularly economical option if you’re traveling with a group or family), and having kitchen facilities means you can cook for yourself rather than spending a lot on overpriced restaurant meals. You can find rentals on sites such as Booking.com, TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company), Airbnb, and HomeAway.

7. Don’t count out hostels.

Many travelers steer clear of hostels, thinking that they’re just for 20-something backpackers who don’t mind sleeping 10 to a room. However, you may not know that many hostels also offer private rooms, some with ensuite bathrooms as well. They may not be luxurious, but if you’re looking for a clean, basic room at a low price, it’s worth checking out the hostel scene. HostelWorld is one good place to find them.

[st_related]10 Truly Awesome Hostels You’ll Never Want to Leave[/st_related]

8. Choose a less convenient location.

To get a lower hotel rate, consider staying outside the city center. As long as you’re located somewhere near a public transit line, it will still be pretty convenient—and you could save big bucks.

9. Get creative.

Discover other affordable possibilities—from B&Bs to farmstays—in Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay.

[st_related]The 10 Best Hotel Booking Sites[/st_related]

Money Management in Europe

10. Get cash from ATMs—at a bank.

An ATM is your best option for a combination of a fair exchange rate and low surcharges and fees. At an ATM, you’ll likely pay a transaction fee from your bank (typically 1 – 2 percent or a few dollars), but you’ll also get the favorable interbank exchange rate rather than the higher rates you’ll find at typical exchange bureaus. To avoid excessive fees, take out large amounts of cash at a time and store the excess in a money belt or hotel safe. For more advice, see Money Safety Tips for Travelers.

It’s best to avoid stand-alone, off-brand ATMs of the kind you often find in the back of convenience stores. These typically have the highest transaction fees; use an ATM from a reputable bank instead. If possible, use your own bank to avoid fees from other institutions. Check your bank’s website for ATM and branch locations.

[st_related]7 Ways to Protect Your Valuables While Traveling[/st_related]

11. Use your credit card.

Many of the benefits of using an ATM card also apply to your credit card, particularly the strong exchange rates. However, keep in mind that many credit card companies charge fees for purchases made in foreign currencies, usually 1 – 3 percent. Choose the right card and you can avoid these fees. Capital One, for example, is a major credit card company that levies no surcharges on foreign transactions for its U.S. card holders. Check with your credit card companies to figure out which of your cards has the lowest fees for foreign purchases, and then use that one for your overseas purchases. SmarterTravel’s sister site, Airfarewatchdog, offers a list of credit cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees.

Once on the road, check the fine print to make sure that your hotel, restaurant, or other outfit does not tack on a percentage fee on credit card transactions to cover authorization fees.

12. Choose your counter wisely.

If you absolutely must use a currency exchange counter, skip the airport or train station kiosks where you are almost guaranteed to get the worst rate available. Instead, choose a bank if you can find one. Wherever you are, exchange only enough money to get the job of the moment done (whether it be a cab ride, emergency rations, or the purchase of a souvenir), and then get to an ATM as soon as you can.

13. Fly cash (and coin) light.

Wait until you reach your destination before exchanging currency, and spend the bulk of your foreign currency at your destination before you go home. This way, you won’t have to pick up and then dump a lot of money at an exchange booth while taking losses both coming and going.

This is especially applicable to the piles of rattling coins you accumulate while traveling. Good luck finding a place back home that accepts a bucket of euro tin and Queen Elizabeth heads in your neighborhood. Spend all your change on the way out, or at least stop at a bank and convert it to bills; you might actually get your money back someday if you do. For more tips, see Foreign Currency.

14. Don’t be afraid to haggle.

While this isn’t recommended at Harrods or other department stores, there are still plenty of places in Europe where bargaining is acceptable. Outdoor markets and street vendor stalls offer prime opportunities to try your haggling skills. To learn more, see Shopping Abroad: A Traveler’s Guide.

[st_related]The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas[/st_related]

Save Money on Europe Transportation

15. Cut out the car…

Most travelers know that a rental car isn’t really necessary (and in fact can be a hindrance) when visiting a major city. But many European nations have such comprehensive networks of trains and local buses that you might not even need a car to visit the countryside. Public transportation is available to many small towns and rural tourist attractions, which will save you not only the price of your rental but also the cost of gas (Europeans pay significantly more than Americans do). If you truly are headed out into the middle of nowhere for a day or two, plan to keep your rental for only as long as you need it rather than for your entire stay.

16. …and the cab.

Most European airports are served by trains, buses, shuttles, and ridesharing services that will take you downtown and back for a fraction of the cost of a cab. (Make it easier on yourself by packing light since you may have to schlep your own luggage.) Similarly, it’s much cheaper to get around town via public transportation, Uber/Lyft, or, better yet, by walking from place to place. If you think you’ll be relying heavily on a subway or bus system, a single- or multi-day pass could be a good buy.

[st_related]How to Use Uber and Lyft When You Travel[/st_related]

17. Consider a rail pass.

Whether you’re concentrating on a single country or traveling all over the Continent, there may be a Eurail pass that will save you money. Before purchasing a pass, carefully plan out how many train trips you will take and calculate the total cost of point-to-point tickets at RailEurope.com. Keep in mind that short trips are relatively inexpensive—so if you’re going to be sticking to a very small area, a pass may not be worth the cost.

18. Overnight it.

If you’re planning a lengthy train journey, consider traveling on an overnight train. This way you won’t waste valuable daylight hours in transit, and you’ll save on the cost of a night’s lodging as well. Or take a quick flight with one of Europe’s many low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and easyJet. Learn more about international discount airlines.

[st_related]10 Speedy Train Routes in Europe That Are Faster Than Flying[/st_related]

How to Save on Meals in Europe

19. Go grocery shopping.

Stock up on bottled water, fruit, and snacks at grocery stores rather than tourist shops. You’ll pay what the locals pay and often get a wider selection, too.

20. Learn to love lunch.

Instead of eating a pricey multi-course dinner, make lunch your big meal of the day. Often you can enjoy similar dishes for half the price.

21. Don’t overtip.

Americans are used to tipping 18 – 20 percent in restaurants, but in most European nations, 10 percent is the norm unless the service was truly extraordinary. Check first to see whether a service charge has already been added to your bill; if so, you usually don’t need to leave anything additional. For country-specific tipping information, refer to a good guidebook, do a Google search, or ask at the local tourist office. For more information, see Tipping in Europe: The Europe Tipping Guide.

22. Save on breakfast.

If breakfast is included in your hotel’s nightly rate, then be sure to take advantage of it. But if it’s not, skip the overpriced room service. You can almost certainly find a much cheaper croissant and cup of coffee at the cafe down the street. Ask your hotel’s concierge or front desk about what’s nearby.

[st_related]9 Ways to Find Cheap Eats Anywhere You Travel[/st_related]

23. Be wise about wine.

If you’re dining out, order the house wine; you’ll save money, and in places like France and Italy, you may be surprised at how good it is. Want a drink out on your hotel balcony? Pick up a bottle at the local liquor store and bring it back to your room for an affordable taste of luxury.

24. Seek out local eateries.

To find authentic and affordable food, skip the restaurants with the tourist-friendly English-language menus out front and seek out places where you see plenty of locals. (The Google Translate app, available for iOS and Android, can help you make sense of the menu.) Don’t hesitate to ask your hotel concierge to recommend affordable restaurants in the area.

25. Follow the locals’ lead for cheap eats.

Eat the plentiful pizza in Italy, grab a quick baguette sandwich in France, or nosh on takeaway curry in London.

What tricks do you use to travel Europe for cheap? Post them in the comments below.

More from SmarterTravel:

[st_deals_search search_type=vacation]

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Sarah Schlichter and Ed Hewitt contributed to this article.

Categories
Adventure Travel Booking Strategy Budget Travel Cities Experiential Travel Family Travel Group Travel Island Luxury Travel Money Outdoors Romantic Travel Senior Travel Solo Travel Student Travel Sustainable Travel Travel Trends

9 Countries Where the U.S. Dollar Is Strongest in 2019

Choosing a destination can be a difficult decision when you’re looking to maximize your travel budget. By choosing a destination with a favorable exchange rate and strong U.S. dollar, you can make the most of every penny spent in 2019.

Travelers looking to stretch the U.S. dollar this year should consider Latin America and parts of Africa and Asia. Projected prices for Latin America and Africa are expected to decrease by two percent for air travel and about 1.4 percent for hotel costs in 2019, according to the Global Travel Forecast.

[st_related]Top Travel Destinations for 2019[/st_related]

Whether you’re on a tight budget or looking for luxury without the high price tag, these undervalued currencies and decreasing foreign exchange rates should be on your radar. Check out the destinations where the dollar is strongest in 2019.

Editor’s note: For the latest version of this story, see 9 Places Where the Dollar Goes Furthest in 2020.

Argentina

sunset in la boca, buenos aires, argentina

Whether you want colonial cities, glaciers, mountains, waterfalls, wine country or wildlife, the greenback will take you far in Argentina. The dollar is so strong this year in Argentina that the Economist’s 2019 Big Mac Index undervalues the Argentine peso by a 64.1 percent, a huge drop compared to last year’s also-favorable 25 percent. The exchange rate, which is likely to continue trending in favor of U.S. travelers, is forecast to decrease by 10.7 percent this year.

If you go: Wine lovers can take advantage of the favorable exchange rate in 2019 by shipping home bottles (or cases) of the Argentine wines you discover on your travels.

Where to Stay: For poolside Andes Mountain views in Mendoza wine country, stay at El Carmelo Mountain Lodge.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:15290193″ /]

Egypt

Shoppers browsing at khan el khalili market in cairo, egypt

With the exchange rate forecasted to drop 2.5 percent and a new museum set to debut, 2019 is a perfect time for travelers to visit Egypt.  This year, Egypt’s currency is undervalued by a whopping 60 percent, according to the Big Mac Index. The new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) will partially open in 2019. The 117-acre museum, situated about one mile from the Giza pyramids, will be the largest archaeological museum in the world, and will have a passage straight from the museum to the pyramids.

If you go: Take a dinner boat cruise down the Nile River to get an entirely different Egyptian experience on the water.

Where to Stay: Stay at Cairo Pyramids Hotel for luxury accommodations, two swimming pools, and a location 10 minutes by car from the pyramids.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:562280″ /]

 

Mexico

hammock and chairs under a palm tree in tulum, mexico

Your dollar goes far when it becomes pesos in Mexico. The Mexican peso is undervalued by 54.5 percent, according to the Big Mac Index, and the exchange rate is predicted to fall 1.3 percent in 2019, according to Global Travel Forecast. There are affordable flights and consistent flight deals from the United States to Mexico, specifically Cancun, plus an abundance of hotel accommodations for a variety of budgets.

If you go: In Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, visit the gorgeous beaches and cenotes in Playa del Carmen and Tulum, or save on car rentals on the car-free island of Holbox.

Where to Stay: Paradisus Playa del Carmen includes two all-inclusive resorts in one expansive property with mirrored amenities on both the adults-only and family-friendly sides.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:2064902″ /]

[st_related]The Mexico You Don’t Know (But Should)[/st_related]

Vietnam

aerial view of halong bay, vietnam

The 2019 Backpacker Index lists Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam as the top two most affordable cities to travel to in 2019. Hoi An, Vietnam, also makes the top 10. For less than $20 per day, travelers to Vietnam can pay for budget accommodations (hostels), meals, some entertainment, and public transportation. Mid-range accommodations also tend to be affordable. While the exchange rate is predicted to increase slightly in Vietnam this year, the Big Mac Index undervalues it by 49.8 percent, suggesting the dollar will remain very strong in Vietnam in 2019.

If you go: The Da Nang International Fireworks Festival, in Da Nang near Hoi An, is Asia’s biggest fireworks festival. The 2019 theme is “Legends of Bridges” and teams from around the world will light up the sky in the pyrotechnic competition.

Where to Stay: Be close to the fireworks festival, My Khe Beach, and Da Nang train station when you stay at Danang Riverside Hotel.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:1198755″ /]

[st_related]How to Cross the Street in Saigon Traffic[/st_related]

Peru

Street market in cusco, peru

Peru beckons with award-winning cuisine, world-famous archeological sites, and, this year, a favorable exchange rate. The exchange rate is forecasted to increase slightly in Peru for 2019; however, the country’s currency is still vastly undervalued at 43.8 percent, making this a good time to get more for the U.S. dollar. Cusco and Lima are both included in the 2019 Backpacker Index’s world’s cheapest cities list. On the budget end, travelers can expect to spend as little as $30 a day on hostel accommodations, meals, and entertainment in Cusco or Lima.

If you go: Lima continues to be home to some of the best restaurants in the world, as recognized by several media outlets in recent years. It offers a mild climate, awesome surfing conditions and cool city vibes. And Cusco, often just an addition to a bucket list Machu Picchu trip, easily stands on its own with its colonial plazas and wide variety of restaurants and bars.

Where to Stay: The JW Marriott El Convento Cusco is a great base camp before or after embarking on a journey to Machu Picchu. The luxury hotel is in the heart of everything Cusco has to offer, and has its own indoor pool and on-site spa.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:2418099″ /]

Costa Rica

Person descending stairs to waterfall in costa rica

Whether you’re in search of rainforests, beaches, volcanos, cloud forests, or mountains, your dollar will get you far in Costa Rica. Let 2019 be your year of the sloth: The Big Mac Index flags the Costa Rican colón as undervalued by 32.4 percent, and, according to the Global Travel Forecast, the exchange rate is predicted to fall 5.2 percent in 2019. Even getting there is affordable: Airfare to Costa Rica tends to hover under the $400 mark round-trip from most U.S. cities, according to SmarterTravel’s sister site Airfarewatchdog.

If you go: Manual Antonio National Park, along the Pacific Coast, offers one of the best white sand beaches in the world, plus a vibrant rainforest with monkeys, 100-plus other species of mammals, and more than 180 species of birds.

Where to Stay: Be closest to Manuel Antonio National Park and stay at Hotel San Bada, situated steps away from the wildlife.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:1517530″ /]

[st_related]7 Bucket-List-Worthy Ways to Experience Ecotourism in Costa Rica[/st_related]

Canada

Ocean and land in tofino on vancouver island

Canada’s dollar is currently undervalued at 8.9 percent, according to the Big Mac Index. But the exchange rate is forecasted to increase by 2.6 percent, so early 2019 is the time to get the most out of the U.S. dollar in Canada. Airfare to Canada is usually season-dependent, but if you stay on the same coast (Los Angeles to Vancouver or New York to Toronto), flights can go for as low as $200 round-trip, according to Airfarewatchdog.com experts.

If you go: Visit the beaches of Vancouver Island’s town of Tofino during the fall through mid-winter storm season. Tofino is a surfing paradise all year round. But from October through February, those who would never consider entering the cold, roaring Pacific Ocean love to visit Tofino and watch the waves crash over rocks and the gray skies turn pink at sunset.

Where to Stay: For a front-row seat to storm season, stay at the cozy beachfront Long Beach Lodge Resort.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:254778″ /]

[st_related]Canada Forever: The Ultimate Canada Holiday for Every Month[/st_related]

Puerto Rico

sunset on a street in san juan, puerto rico

Puerto Rico is on the upswing after recovering from the 2017 hurricane season. The U.S. dollar, which is the currency used in Puerto Rico, is expected to be strong here in 2019. Flights from the U.S. mainland East Coast to Puerto Rico are consistently on sale and many are direct routes, making it desirable even though hotel rates can be higher in Puerto Rico than in Mexico. Rates in San Juan, Puerto Rico, are estimated to run less than $1,500 per person for round-trip airfare from New York and seven nights at a three-star hotel, according to the 2019 Backpacker Index.

If you go: Puerto Rico has the longest Christmas season in the world. It begins immediately following Thanksgiving and doesn’t end on December 25—the grand Christmas season finale is celebrated with parades and parties on Three Kings Day and also at the Octavas and Octavitas celebrations, which run through mid-January.

Where to Stay: For beachfront views, plenty of pools, and a waterslide, stay at Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:148598″ /]

[st_related]10 Best Puerto Rico Beaches[/st_related]

Dominican Republic

cafe street scene in santo domingo, dominican republic

While the Caribbean is historically considered pricey, the Dominican Republic offers some of the best all-inclusive deals in the region. There’s a wide range of resorts in the Dominican Republic, and travelers can find good value in the Dominican peso whether they’re on a budget or looking for luxury. The 2019 Backpacker Index ranks Puerto Plata, Samana, and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic (along with Playa del Carmen, Mexico) as the top four cheapest Caribbean destinations for 2019. Rates in the DR are estimated to run around $1,100 per person for both round-trip airfare from New York and seven nights at a three-star hotel.

If you go: Scuba dive and snorkel in the clear, blue water of the Dominican Republic; or relax on the white sand beaches at a luxury all-inclusive resort.

Where to Stay: For a kids’ club, teen club, spa and a casino, check out Dreams Punta Cana Resort and Spa.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:508162″ /]

For more ideas, see Top Travel Destinations for 2019.

More from SmarterTravel:

[st_deals_search search_type=air]

Categories
Money

10 Travel Money Mistakes to Avoid

When budgeting for a trip, we often list the big-ticket items—airfare, hotel, lodging, car rental, attraction tickets—add them all together, and call it the final price. But the trickle of funds to other costs starts almost as soon as we start moving: Gas to and from the airport, tolls, airport parking, overpriced bottles of water in the airport, and more.

That trickle doesn’t stop when you arrive at your destination; think cell phone charges, bank fees, hotel Wi-Fi, and housekeeping tips, to name a few. To avoid spending more than you have to, check out these 10 travel money mistakes to avoid.

1. Don’t forget to let your bank know you’ll be traveling.

Forgetting to call your bank before traveling abroad is a common error that even frequent international travelers make; it slips your mind until the plane touches down, and by then it’s often too late. These days banks have almost zero lag time in noticing a debit or credit card being used abroad, so you will get shut down on pretty much your first swipe in a foreign country.

As banks have gotten more sophisticated about tracking card use locations, this can even be important for domestic travel, and most banks recommend that you let them know about those closer-to-home trips as well. Fraud detectors can be tripped if you’re suddenly using your card across the country, making more or different purchases than you usually do, or charging unexpectedly large amounts (such as a weeklong hotel stay).

Note that this applies to debit cards as well as credit cards, and you sometimes need to talk to more than one department even inside the same bank to get them all approved for travel.

2. Don’t overlook bank and ATM fees.

While traveling internationally, each time you go get cash you will likely incur a fee of some kind. These can vary a lot depending on whether the ATM is run by a large bank or not, if the bank is on your card’s network, and more. Keep in mind that fees can change from year to year, so it’s worth checking before every trip.

[st_related]The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas[/st_related]

3. Don’t fail to make a plan for getting to your hotel from the airport.

That first taxi ride from the airport may be your most financially vulnerable moment of any trip—the time when you have no idea how far it is, what a fair price is for the ride, whether you have lower-cost alternatives such as a train or bus, or even whether your hotel has a free shuttle. It’s best to figure all of this out before your trip; when you arrive you are tired, often without much cash and carrying a ton of luggage. You don’t want to be fumbling around trying to figure all this out on the airport curb.

4. Don’t forget to add an international roaming plan for your phone.

How much could a few texts, a bit of mapping, a few email checks and a batch of social media updates cost per day? Plenty, it turns out—so be sure to purchase an international roaming plan that will cover you while you’re away. For more information, see The Best International Phone Plans for Travelers.

5. Don’t forget to research the local exchange rate.

Especially in the first several hours at your destination, having done a little research on the local exchange rate against your home currency can make a huge difference. Often it takes a couple of days really to get a handle on how much things cost, but this can take even longer if you are traveling in an area where prices may not be so fixed as they are at home. Knowing the exchange rate cold so you can do the math quickly in your head will help considerably. See How to Get the Best Exchange Rate for more info.

6. Don’t bring traveler’s checks.

Barely anyone accepts them anymore, they’re not cheap, you have to invest a fair amount of time in obtaining and purchasing them, and credit cards give you a far better rate of exchange in most parts of the world. Skip ’em.

7. Don’t assume you know how much to tip.

Tipping customs vary immensely from place to place, and not having knowledge of these can be both awkward and expensive.

Tipping practices can also vary from industry to industry as well; in Brazil, for example, a 10 percent tip is customary in a restaurant, but it might already be included, so you will want to check the bill. On a taxi ride you just round up to the nearest one (or five if you are feeling generous) for most rides (so for a 13 reais taxi ride, you give 14 or 15 reais).

One note on U.S. travel: As the movement to pay restaurant workers higher wages gains steam, some restaurants are telling customers that they no longer need to tip. I saw this at two restaurants in Seattle last month (where a new $15 minimum wage law went into effect recently); check your bill to make sure.

[st_related]Tips for Tipping Abroad[/st_related]

8. Don’t tip your housekeeper only at the end of your stay.

Many travelers will leave it until the end of a trip to tip the housekeepers (usually by leaving some cash on top of the bed); this can backfire. On any given stay, you might have a different housekeeper from one day to the next, and to be the fairest and to get the best treatment, it’s best to leave something each day. Many housekeepers live on subsistence wages, and this is both the right thing to do and also arguably a bit of blood money—most of our readers have seen the hidden camera videos of crossed housekeepers, and a small tip each day can keep you on their good side. To learn more, see How Much to Tip Hotel Housekeeping.

9. Don’t leave your valuables unsecured.

Shoving your wallet in your back pocket or your purse over your shoulder is such a natural and almost automatic action that almost all of us will do this at some point in our travels. It’s also the easiest way to get pickpocketed or ripped off, as these spots are both obvious to thieves and difficult to protect.

This doesn’t apply only to your wallet; you will want to secure anything that someone could grab quickly. On a recent trip to Rio, we got on a train to the legendary Maracana stadium for a game featuring the local futbol favorite Flamengo. It was rush hour, and the train was insanely packed; despite living for more than a decade in New York City and having taken countless trips around the world, I have never experienced anything like it. If there was ever an environment ripe for pickpocketing and unseen thefts, this was it. I had a backpack with sweatshirts and a camera inside,  so I looked around at how the locals were dealing with it and noticed that everyone had their backpacks and bags in front of them.

A button on your back pocket or an across-the-body bag instead of an over-the-shoulder purse can also help here; adding just a little bit of difficulty is often enough to inspire thieves to look for other victims.

[st_related]7 Genius Ways to Hide Valuables While Traveling[/st_related]

10. Don’t use public Wi-Fi for financial transactions.

You’ll want to avoid checking bank balances, making online payments or entering financially sensitive passwords of any kind while using public internet or Wi-Fi networks. Occasionally it’s unavoidable, and the number of hotel Wi-Fi systems with keystroke loggers installed by sophisticated hackers is extremely low—but it’s always a risk.

Note also that a hack doesn’t have to be an inside job—that is, a hotel employee or system installer—but can also be a fellow lodger who has hacked into the minimally protected (if at all) hotel Wi-Fi network.

[st_related]11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling[/st_related]

Hopefully, by keeping your money on your mind just a little, these tips will help you keep your money in your bank account as well.

You Tell Us: Which travel money mistakes have you made?

More from SmarterTravel:

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

[st_newsletter]

Categories
Airport Money Passenger Rights Travel Scams

How to Avoid the Airport Currency-Exchange Gouge

Does getting 19 percent less than the bank rate on foreign currency exchange sound like a good value proposition to you? Probably not. But that’s what happens to British travelers who exchange pounds for euros at some British airports—and something similar could happen to you, too.

Bad Exchange Rates at Airports

[st_content_ad]The Moneycorp exchange desk at Southampton airport recently exchanged 500 pounds for just 439 euros, when 500 pounds should have yielded 542.5 euros at the bank rate and no less than 537 euros at a no-fee ATM.

A recent report from TravelWireNews notes that Moneycorp did a little better at Stansted, but those locations still valued the pound below a one-to-one exchange when the actual rate was 1.085 euros to the pound. The report also notes that other exchange desks did the same.

[st_related]New ATM ‘Scam’ Targets Travelers [/st_related]

Although the TravelWireNews release didn’t address the issue, I’ve found that airport ATMs operated by exchange outfits tend to give the same lousy rates as the exchange desks.

An exchange rate as low as 19 percent is probably a bit worse than the average loss. But not by much. I regularly see rates in the range of 15 percent below bank rate.

[st_related]The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas[/st_related]

How to Avoid the Airport Exchange Gouge

No wonder why I, along with just about any other unbiased source, keep saying, “Don’t exchange cash, and particularly don’t exchange cash at an airport.” Even the 3 percent foreign-charge “gouge” on some credit card charges pales by comparison to the typical airport gouge.

Of course, it’s easy to avoid this gouge by not putting yourself in the position to exchange currency at the airport. Even if you have no local currency on arrival, use a credit card to get into town or find an ATM operated by a legitimate bank.

More from SmarterTravel:

[st_deals_search search_type=air]

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

Categories
Money

Foreign Currency

As soon as your plane touches down in a foreign country, chances are you’ll need some money in the local currency — for a cab, public transportation or even a meal. The growing proliferation of ATMs around the world means that the local currency is usually as close as the nearest cash machine, especially if you’re flying into a major international airport. (For more information, see ATMs Abroad.)

But this is not always the case. If you’re traveling to a developing country or you’re not sure if an ATM will be available, it’s a good idea to have some local currency on hand even before you leave home. Read on to learn more about foreign currency exchange before your next trip.

Bring Your Own Currency?

Purchasing foreign currency from a bank or exchange bureau before you go overseas is generally not the most cost-effective option of exchanging money; you’ll be charged a commission, and you won’t get the interbank rate that you would if you used an ATM or credit card. (For more information, see The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas.) That’s why, if you’re headed to a major international airport or train station, your best bet is probably to seek out an ATM as soon as you arrive and withdraw some cash in the local currency.

However, there are certain circumstances where it still may be worthwhile to have some local currency on hand before arriving in a foreign country. First, some small airports may only have a single ATM — and there’s no guarantee that it will be functioning, or that your particular ATM card will be compatible with it.

Take one example from IndependentTraveler.com reader hafa: “Don’t count on being able to use an ATM in Japan. For some reason they don’t seem to be connected to foreign ATMs. I have used my ATM card in countries all over the world but it wouldn’t work in Japan. I ended up having to get a cash advance on my credit card.”

Likewise, certain countries may also have spotty ATM service; one IndependentTraveler.com editor was nearly stranded without cash on a small Caribbean island when the only cash machine in town was out of service. (Fortunately it was a weekday, and she was able to go into the bank for a cash advance.)

[st_related]Get the Best Exchange Rate[/st_related]

Smaller airports and train stations, particularly in less developed countries, may not have ATMs at all. (Airport websites typically include information on ATM locations, change bureaus and other services; check ahead to see what’s available.)

In these cases, it’s a good idea to have some cash on hand before you arrive — we suggest about $100 – $150 in the local currency, depending on the cost of transportation and how soon you think you’ll be able to reach an ATM. You can either bring U.S. dollars to use at the airport’s exchange bureau, or change your money before you leave home. The latter is a nice option simply for the convenience factor; writes Host Bonjour, “The last thing I feel like doing when I arrive is to have to find the ATM in a foreign airport after a long flight. I just want to FIND my LUGGAGE, FIND my way to my HOTEL and then figure it out from there. So long as I have currency, I don’t have to worry about a thing.”

Where to Get Foreign Currency at Home

There are several companies that will sell you small quantities of foreign currency in the United States for use on your trip. Two of our favorites are Wells Fargo Foreign Exchange and Travelex. Note that you will not get the interbank rate on these exchanges as you would if you used your ATM or credit card. Both companies will also buy back leftover currency, though they only accept notes, not coins.

International airports and large banks have exchange bureaus where you can change a small amount of money before you leave. Your own local bank may also be able to order certain foreign currencies for you with a few days’ notice. For useful tips on buying currency in advance, check out Buying Foreign Currency: Get More Bang for Your Buck.

It’s also a good idea to keep some small U.S. bills with you when you’re traveling overseas. These will come in handy in case you ever need to change just a small amount of money, and in some countries, particularly those in need of “hard currency” or with huge inflation rates, you may get better exchange rates with U.S. dollar bills. We’ve even given U.S. dollars as tips when we only had large bills in the local currency — though this isn’t something that’s accepted everywhere.

Leftover Currency

Most banks charge a hefty fee when you make an ATM withdrawal in a foreign country; likewise, you’ll lose money each time you exchange currencies at an exchange counter because of commissions and rate spreads. The trick is to withdraw or exchange only as much money as you are going to need on your trip.

Try as you might, however, you will inevitably end up with some small change left over when you leave a country. Some travelers save exactly what they will need for transportation out of the country, then apply their remaining foreign currency to their last hotel bill, charging the balance due. Others run around the train station or airport on their way out, wildly spending the rest of their remaining cash. And some travelers like to hang onto foreign coins and notes as souvenirs.

One option you might not have considered is to donate your leftover currency to those in need (chances are, you won’t be using the coins for anything more than novelty when you return anyway). The United States Fund for UNICEF has made it easy to turn your remaining currency into charity with its Change for Good program, which has raised millions of dollars for needy children around the world.

You May Also Like

Do You Need Travel Insurance?
11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling

Categories
Group Travel

Ports of Call: Northern Europe and the Baltics

Author: dfreeman
Date of Trip: May 2006

Just getting back to normal after nice cruise to the Baltic and Northern Europe. Fourteen days on Celebrity Constellation can be a bit grueling at times, but the Ports of Call were very interesting. Bottom line is the US dollar is hurting and prices abroad are out of sight. Plus, the people in this part of the world gave us a nice reception wherever we went. Meeting nice people was the norm in each place and these are probably the things we will remember the most. It is just not difficult to be nice.

The Constellation crew was great and it was worth the upgrade to Conceierge level to get breakfast in bed. I give the Constellation team 5 stars! Don’t miss Ocean Liners retaurant and opt for the wine tasting menu.

Oslo, Norway

The Fjords of Norway are a sight to behold. Entering the Oslo Harbor is an unforgettable experience. Oslo welcomed us with constant rain so we did not get a chance to really enjoy the city, reported to be the most expensive city in Europe.

Stockholm, Sweden

Sweden has over 24,000 islands and Stockholm was located where it is to prevent hostile neighbors from finding the city. The islands are everywhere as you cruise into Stockholm. Everywhere you look in the city is a postcard. Enjoyed one of the best hot dogs at the Nordiska Kompaniet (NK) store located in center of the city. Why can’t we have a better dog in the USA? Hebrew National just doesn’t do it! Visited the Absolut Ice Bar in the Nordic Sea Hotel and had a couple vodka drinks at minus 5 degrees Centigrade for only $20 bucks apiece. The first glasses are made from pure clear ice from the Torne River in Northern Sweden. Now a factory makes millions of glasses each year. WARNING: Reservations (+46 8 50563124) required! The first Ice Bar was at the Icehotel located in Northern Sweden, which was first built in the autumn of 1989. Each year the Icehotel melts, and a new (bigger and better) one is constructed in the fall. Ended the day with a nice stroll through Gamla Stan (Old Town). Stockholm is a place that warrants more time.

Helsinki, Finland

We arrived on May 24th, Ascension Day, a holiday in Finland. The stores were closed, but the city was alive with people. We enjoyed a nice meal at Kappeli on Etelaesplandi in the city center. Had one of the best meals ever of rare, fork-tender Reindeer with potatoes and of course some Akvavit.

St. Petersburg, Russia

What a change from Scandinavia, your first impression of what used to be Leningrad is of a bleak, poor and uncolorful city with all the potential in the world but starved from a badly needed makeover and injection of funding from Moscow. Hard to believe that Putin’s birthplace is being ignored by the “Family” and oligarchs of Moscow. Spent two days touring with our very accomplished guide Katrina from Red October Tours. There is a lot to see in this historic city and she made it very interesting to us as we took in the city sights. The Hermitage was impressive but in need of structural repairs, St Isaacs Cathedral was a high point as we witnessed a special service attended by the Archbishop and other Bishops from all parts of Russia, Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood was marvelous, and Catherine’s Summer Palace was worth the trip to visit outside of the city. In spite of the magnificence of the Hermitage and the Roman Orthodox Cathedrals, St. Petersburg feels just like Dostoevsky describes it (before it became Leningrad) in “Crime and Punishment” (1917)– impoverished, dirty and crowded–it’s amazing that a novel written in 1917 seems to paint the a picture of what we felt currently–when we were not enclosed in the grandeur of the Museums, Churches or Palaces. I would think that a return trip to St. Petersburg is not in my future, however I would like to see Moscow and other parts of Russia some day. We had a very nice lunch at Mamep cafe. Insist that your tour guide takes you to this place instead of any restaurant catering to tours. This place is large and can accomodate big crowds. A special treat. We had Beef Stroganoff on mashed potatoes with warmup of hot Borsch.

Tallinn, Estonia

Spent the day in old town just walking and shopping. Tallinn is a city of music, cobblestones, artisan’s, craftsmen and courtyards. Strolling though old town feels like the Middle Ages. The people are very handsome, pretty and nice. Enjoyed a nice meal of Elk and Wild Boar at Medieval Restaurant Olde Hansa. This was an unexpected pleasure for all of us as Tallinn is a nice place to visit.

Helsingborg, Sweden

Wonderful and delightful port city with one of the oldest shopping streets in Europe. The people of this city believe that there is nothing better than to be from Helsingborg. Plus you cannot beat the freshness and taste of Swedish food. Visited the Dunker’s Cultural House on the way to the port and were totally impressed by the QUALITY of the installations here. Truly a state-of-the-art experience utilizing the best dsigners, workmanship and technology in the exhibitions.

Berlin, Germany

Nice side trip through the former East Germany to Berlin. Visited the Berlin Wall and toured the entire city. Had a great lunch at KaDeWe Department Store at the Winter Gardens on the top floor- perfect stop for lunch! Berlin is quite a city and would love to return. Curry-Wurst and other hot dogs are also a special treat in Berlin.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Visited restaurant called “Groften” in Tivoli. One of the best eating and drinking experiences we had on our trip. We had a very popular traditional Danish dish called “Skipperlabskovs”. The dish was not pretty to look at and consisted of diced potatoes mixed with veal bits and spices, served with pickled beets, butter and rye bread. It was really shockingly tasty and was all-you-can-eat for DKK 115. Ran up a $200 tab on Akvavit – as we consumed the top-of-the-line (Aalborg Extra Akvavit) and it was worth the price! Groften also gets highest marks for their WC’s. The Men’s room has a complete Golf Museum featuring European Pro Golfers and the Women’s WC has a full length wall Aquarium. Nice touch! Best to use both facilities on your visit! By far and away the Best Toilets in Europe!

London, England

Change $100 and get anywhere from 43-50 pounds! (Ugh) What have we done to our dollar! This place was expensive as well and you just had to put you head in the sand and ignore the gaffing. Highlights were certainly the shows, which we would give “Billy Elliot” the one not to miss! For nice DIM-SUM restaurant go to Royal China located at 13 Queensway. Tube stop Queensway or Bayswater.

Final Tips

This was our first cruise and aside from the down-time cruising at sea, it was a nice trip. While in port, go with what the locals eat! European food is incredibly interest and good. From hot dogs to pastry – all good stuff! I noticed that many cruisers were too cheap to eat on shore and just waited until they got back to the Boat. What a shame – to miss the good food of each country we visited. It is part of the experience!

Nothing does it like European hot dogs – first stop in port, go to the dog stand. Ask someone which hot dog stand is the best! You will be pleasantly surprised.

St. Petersburg: Use Red October Tours instead of the crusie line tours. Less people and more flexibility. No Visa required. Our guide was outstanding, insist on Katya Chystiakova (Katerina). Very knowledgeable, flexible and good looking!

In St. Petersburg go to Mamep Cafe for lunch – great place and for the young people! Katerina introduced us to this nice place! We went to the Folklore Show that evening and it was a real disappointment – try to see an Opera instead or go to Mamep Cafe for a Jazz Show and dinner!

In Copenhagen, don’t miss “Groften” at Tivoli. Order: Start with Herring and Fish Roe assortment (tell them half and half). Then main dish Skipperlabskovs and of course Aalborg Extra Akvavit. This is top-of-the-line Akvavit- nice bubbly feel on palate as you swallow! You can feel the difference.

Helsinki: Go to Kappeli for lunch in the fancy upscale sit down part of their restaurant and order Reindeer! Unexpected treat!

London: Go see “Billy Elliot”. Skip “We will Rock You”.

Oslo: Take the Cruiseline tour as it is best way to see Oslo.

In most ports they have “Stop and Ride” independent tour buses that take you around the City. Usually they are waiting outside as your depart from the boat. Also very cost effective.

Copenhagen: Just take a seat in a coffee shop on the main shopping street, enjoy coffee and watch the most beautiful and fashionable men and women walk by. Great people watching. Don’t miss the Ice Cream and a Hot Dog! Also, take a Canal Boat Cruise – don’t miss it!

For more, visit my blog http://pccollecting.blogspot.com/.

Categories
Beach Booking Strategy Island Money

Top 25 Ways to Save on a Caribbean Vacation

If your perfect vacation includes hiking through a rainforest, sunbathing on the beach, or snorkeling along a coral reef teeming with multi-hued fish, then the Caribbean is calling your name. But paradise does have its price. The cost of living may be relatively low on most Caribbean islands, but by the time you add up your expenses for activities, lodging, meals, transportation, and (of course!) a few fruity drinks, a Caribbean vacation could cost more than you might expect.

[st_content_ad]On a tight budget? Don’t put away your beach bag just yet. We’ve brainstormed 25 ways to save money on Caribbean travel, covering every aspect of your trip from choosing an island to diving and dining.

Caribbean Vacation Planning

1. Choose your island wisely. Airfare is one of the key expenses of any Caribbean trip, and some islands are much easier — and cheaper — to get to than others. For the lowest fares from the U.S., look for destinations served by low-cost carriers such as JetBlue (Nassau, Montego Bay, Barbados) and Spirit (Aruba, San Juan). Keep in mind that more competition usually leads to lower fares; you’ll pay less to fly to Jamaica, which is served by dozens of airlines, than you will to fly to an island like Dominica, which only has a handful of connecting flights on a few airlines.

2. Check the cost of living. Don’t just look at the cost of airfare; dig deeper to see which islands are less expensive once you’re there. The Dominican Republic has some of the region’s lowest hotel and resort rates, while a place like St. Barth’s, known for upscale tourism, will be harder on your wallet. Keep in mind that some less developed islands that are a little harder to get to may make up for the higher airfare with lower costs for lodging and food.

3. Evaluate the exchange rate. The exchange rate can also play a role in how much you pay for your Caribbean vacation. For U.S. travelers, choosing an island where the local currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar at a fixed rate (rather than an island that uses a variable currency such as the euro) can help you better estimate your costs and avoid being penalized when the U.S. dollar weakens against other world currencies.

[st_related]How to Get the Best Exchange Rate[/st_related]

4. Consider a cruise. If you’re interested in visiting more than one island, a cruise can offer excellent bang for your buck by bundling accommodations, transportation, and meals into one affordable rate. These days you can find Caribbean cruise fares for less than $100 per person, per night. If you live on the East Coast, you may even be able to drive to a nearby homeport, such as Baltimore, New York, Miami, or Charleston, and cruise all the way down to the Caribbean without even having to fly. Visit SmarterTravel’s sister site, Cruise Critic, for a list of cruise deals and discounts.

Note: Keep in mind that most cruises are not all-inclusive. Things like shore excursions, specialty restaurant fees, gratuities, drinks, and other extras are generally not accounted for in your base rate.

5. Look for package deals. You can often save by booking your airfare and hotel together at sites like CheapCaribbean.com or Funjet.com. It’s also worth going directly to the airlines — nearly any carrier that flies to the Caribbean will offer hotel-inclusive packages.

6. Look for freebies. One of the most common promotions among Caribbean resorts is a free night with a required minimum stay — such as “stay six nights and get the seventh night free.” Keep an eye out for these sales when booking your trip.

7. Choose the right time of year. The busiest and most expensive times to travel to the Caribbean are the winter (particularly over the holidays) and the spring break season. You’ll generally get better deals by traveling over the summer or fall — if you’re willing to live with a little risk. (Hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30.) Hotel rates are almost always lower during this wetter time of year. If you’re worried about hurricanes, consider staying on one of the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao), which are outside the main hurricane belt. You might also want to purchase travel insurance in case a storm does disrupt your trip.

[st_related]How to Avoid Caribbean Hurricane Season[/st_related]

Money Management

8. Haggle. In many parts of the Caribbean, bargaining for a better deal is an essential part of everyday life. While you may not be able to negotiate much in a big duty-free store or a supermarket, where prices are generally fixed, there are plenty of open-air markets where you can try your haggling skills — and often pick up a great souvenir for a song. (See Shopping Abroad: A Traveler’s Guide for haggling tips.)

9. Bring plenty of U.S. dollars. In many Caribbean countries, U.S. dollars are accepted as readily as local currency, and the exchange rate is fixed at a set amount. For example, in Barbados, roughly $2 Barbadian dollars are always equal to $1 US; the East Caribbean dollar, which is used in a number of countries including St. Kitts, Antigua, and Grenada, is fixed at $2.70 EC = $1 US. The more U.S. dollars you bring from home, the less money you’ll have to take out of local ATMs (and the more you’ll save in pesky international ATM fees). Of course, you shouldn’t bring more money than you feel comfortable carrying at one time, and you’ll want to keep it in a money belt under your clothing (or another secure place) for safety. See Money Safety for more tips.

10. Skip the exchange counter. When you do need local currency, get your money from an ATM rather than using traveler’s checks or changing money at an exchange counter. When you get money at an ATM, you’re taking advantage of the interbank exchange rate, which is more favorable than the rates you’ll get when changing traveler’s checks or using an exchange counter. Similarly, credit card purchases are also subject to the interbank exchange rate. But keep in mind that fees will apply for most ATM withdrawals and credit card purchases; see The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas for more information.

11. Don’t overtip. In some restaurants, a service charge will automatically be added to your bill; if so, you don’t need to leave an additional tip (unless you wish to further reward an exemplary waiter or waitress). Some resorts and hotels also add a service charge onto your bill to cover tips for various members of the staff. Call ahead to find out before you leave money in your room for your housekeeper or other service people. Finally, check a guidebook to see what tips are expected on the island you’re visiting; while Americans are used to tipping 15 – 20 percent, on some islands a smaller tip of 10 percent is customary for cab drivers, restaurant staff and other service people. (See Tips for Tipping Abroad.)

[st_related]The Rules for Tipping Across the Globe, in One Map[/st_related]

Transportation

12. Use public transportation. Many Caribbean islands have local public bus systems — usually small, colorful vans that serve the major routes and towns across the island. Fares on these vans tend to be extremely inexpensive. Because they’re predominantly used by locals, they’re most useful if you’re traveling between towns or villages; they may not serve off-the-beaten-path attractions visited only by tourists. A few islands with particularly strong local bus systems include Aruba, Puerto Rico, and Curacao.

Keep in mind that there may be no fixed schedule — many buses simply leave when they’re full. Service may be limited or unavailable on Sundays or in the evenings. And don’t expect climate control; many buses have open windows, not air conditioning.

13. Share the expenses. One common way to see a Caribbean island is to hire a local cab driver to give you a tour. The price of the tour is often charged per car, not per person — so if you can find other travelers from your hotel or cruise ship who want a tour too, you can split the expense. (Be sure to confirm the total price before you get in the cab.) The same goes for rental cars, particularly if you’re only using the car for a single day or afternoon.

14. Check the local rental companies. When renting a car, don’t restrict your search to the big providers like Hertz, Avis, and Budget. You can often get a better deal from local rental car companies based on the island you’re visiting. These smaller operators may not always have easy online booking, but a quick call or email could save you money on your rental.

15. Watch your inter-island expenses. If you’re traveling between islands, a local ferry may be a cheaper option than flying — check the rates on both.

Meals

16. Evaluate your meal plan. Many Caribbean resorts and hotels offer a choice of meal plans. Common offerings include the European Plan, or EP, which includes no meals; the Continental Plan (CP), which includes only breakfast; the American Plan (AP), which includes all three meals; and the Modified American Plan (MAP), which includes breakfast and dinner. When choosing a meal plan, consider how you plan to structure your trip. If you’re going to spend most days sightseeing around the island away from your hotel, the AP will likely be a waste of money. Travelers looking to sample local restaurants for lunch and dinner may find that the CP is all they need.

17. Eat where the locals do. You’ll almost always find cheaper, more genuine local meals away from the hotels and touristy restaurants. Look for fish fry-ups on the beach or little roadside snackettes. If you’re concerned about food safety, ask your hotel front desk or cab driver to point you in the direction of the more popular and reputable places.

18. Go to the grocery store. There are little markets and grocery stores across the Caribbean where you can stock up on bread, fruit, crackers, and other provisions — perfect for an inexpensive breakfast, snack or picnic lunch.

19. Be water-wise. While you’re at the grocery store, pick up a gallon-size or larger jug of water and use that to refill your smaller bottles — it’s a lot more cost-efficient (and eco-friendly) than paying two bucks for a new bottle a couple of times a day.

[st_related]9 Ways to Find Cheap Eats Anywhere You Travel[/st_related]

Lodging

20. Know what’s included. Despite the name, rates at all-inclusive resorts rarely include every single expense you’ll have to pay. Check before booking to see what might cost you extra — it may be more than you think. Spa treatments, watersports, island tours, airport transfers, tips, and resort fees are just a few items that you may have to shell out a little more money for. That said, all-inclusives can save you money if the activities you’re looking to do match up well with the offerings at the resort.

21. Skip the resort. If you don’t need a lot of amenities and are looking to explore the island rather than sit on the beach, an all-inclusive resort probably isn’t your best bet. Look instead for smaller locally owned hotels and guesthouses — these properties tend to be more intimate and less expensive than the big resorts.

[st_related]10 Cheap Caribbean Hotels for Under $100 per Night[/st_related]

22. Try a vacation rental. Renting a house or villa can provide excellent value for groups, families, or travelers looking to save money by cooking for themselves during a Caribbean vacation. Renting a villa with two or more bedrooms and splitting the cost between several couples is an excellent way to get away with friends and keep costs low. See Finding a Vacation Rental for more information.

23. Be flexible with your location. Choose a hotel or resort that’s near but not right on the beach — the price difference can be substantial. Alternatively, if you are staying at a beachfront property, choose a room on the opposite side of the hotel; forgoing the sea view will save you a few bucks, and how much time will you really be spending in your room anyway?

24. Choose a specialty resort. If your trip is centered on a special interest, such as scuba diving or golf, you can often save money by staying at a resort dedicated to that activity. Dive resorts typically have their own boats and gear, and offer packages that include accommodations, meals, and a set number of dives. Golf resorts have courses right on the premises, saving you time and transportation costs, and hotel guests often pay lower fees to play than outsiders. Another good option for divers is “liveaboards” — boats that offer lodging, meals and daily dives, often at very reasonable cost.

25. Go camping. While this isn’t an option everywhere in the Caribbean, certain islands — such as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands — offer wonderful opportunities for camping. We particularly like the Virgin Islands Campground on Water Island.

[st_product products=”190567,190568,213851″]

More from SmarterTravel:

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Solo Travel

2 Weeks in Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto and More)

Author: GregW
Date of Trip: June 2006

The following is a summary of my two week trip to Japan. I flew into Narita Airport outside of Tokyo, and then spent 6 days in Tokyo, 4 days in Kyoto, a day each in Nagoya, Osaka and Hiroshima.

I’ll offer some specific impressions and advice on each city, and then some general comments on travelling in Japan. But first a quick note, that I use the incorrect but easy to remember currency exchange rate of ¥100 being equal to $US 1. It’s actually more like ¥120 being equal to $US 1, but math is much easier when you use round numbers.

Tokyo

In Tokyo, I mostly just wandered around and saw the city. It’s an amazingly large place and always crowded, but it can be a lot of fun. I was staying in Ginza, which is a high-end shopping district to the south-east of Tokyo train station, but I don’t think it really matters where you stay as all areas are pretty accessible by Tokyo metro.

In a big city, it’s always a good idea to get yourself up high to get a view of the place. The Tokyo Tower (Eiffel tower look-a-like) or Tokyo City View, both close to the Akasaka / Roppongi area both offer views, but both cost money. Instead, head to the Municipal Building to the west of Shinjuku station, where you can get up high and get a view of Tokyo for no cost. If you’re lucky, you might be able to see Mount Fuji, though I never did due to either overcast skies or hazy smog.

Also to the west of Shinjuku is the Shinjuku NS building with its amazing 30 story atrium and the Park Hyatt hotel, which is a good place to go for some expensive drinks with a great view. It’s the same hotel featured in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. To the east of Shinjuku is some great discount shopping, as well as the red light district and the area called the Golden Gai. The Golden Gai is a number of really small alleys filled with bars that many Japanese hit after work. However, a number of places are private clubs or don’t allow foreigners inside. Those that do allow foreigners usually charge a cover charge and pricey drinks. It’s interesting to see, but may not be a great place to drink every night.

Kyoto

Kyoto’s main attraction for tourists is the large number of temples, shrines and castles that are there. There are over 2,000 sites, and many of them are UNESCO heritage sites. The crowds can be pretty thick, though. The best bet is to arrive at places right at the opening hour, and get ahead of the bus tourists.

Two of my favorites are Nijo Castle and Shoren-In temple.

I arrive right at the 9am opening of Nijo Castle, and am able to walk quickly past the tour groups on the squeaking nightingale floors (ancient alarm system- all the floors in the castle squeak to alert everyone of intruders) and soon am ahead of them and have the place to myself. It has a beautiful large garden with old stone walls, and is very peaceful.

I arrive at Shoren-in right at 9am, it’s opening time. I think this is the secret, arrive early. I walk in, and I have the place to myself. I kneel on the tatami mat floor and contemplate the waterfall and beautiful gardens outside. Shoren-in might not be the most beautiful of all the temples in Kyoto, but it is only as I am alone, with no sounds but the sounds call of the birds, the splash of the waterfall and the rustle of the wind through the bamboo that one gets a true appreciation of the peace of mind that meditating at these temples can bring.

Of course, by posting this on the internet, I may have destroyed that peace for future generations of tourists.

Most temples charge an admission, usually between ¥500 and ¥1000.

I enjoyed the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum. Umekoji is an old station house that has been turned into a museum of steam powered rail. They have a bunch of old engines that you can look in, some interactive exhibits on how steam engines worked, and a few model train sets. But the big attraction is the chance to ride for 1 km on a steam train (500 m down a spur line and then 500 m back). Afterwards, they pull the engine onto the working turntable, turn it around and fuel it up, then again onto the turntable to put it into the roundhouse for the night. Entrance was ¥400, and the ride on the steam engine was another ¥200.

I also will point out that I watched the World Cup final in Kyoto at 3 in the morning at a bar called The Hub near the area called Pontocho. Besides for mentioning this because the Pontocho is a good place to find food and drinks, I wanted to say that I won my world cup pool. I know futbol!

Nagoya

I spent one day in Nagoya, and during the day had one task in mind – the Nagoya Basho Sumo Tournament at the Aichi Prefecture Gymnasium. This sumo tourney takes place for 3 weeks in July (first Sunday to the third Sunday). Tickets are ¥2700 ($US 27), and can be bought at the door. If you go during the week in the first couple weeks of the tourney, you should be able to get tickets without any issues. The last week and the weekends are pretty busy. The 2700 Yen tickets allow you general admission, which means you can sit anywhere someone isn’t sitting. This allows you to get right up close and see the action, plus get some great pictures.

The stadium was a pretty typical stadium, with rows of seats around a center area. But for the sumo, most of the seats had been folded down, and boards with purple pillows were laid on top of the seats, allowing the fans to sit cross legged on the floor while watching the action. The ring itself is a square raised a few feet off the floor. On the ring is a dirt covering with a circular field created using a rope. It is in this circular part that the wrestlers do their thing. Outside the ring, on the floor, sit 5 judges in black robes. Two wrestlers sit on either side of two of the 5 judges (the next two bouts).

First, a guy comes out, opens a small fan, and sings to both the wrestlers, turning from one side to the other side half way through his short song. The wrestlers then stand and enter the ring, where they proceed to slap themselves and raise and lower their legs. The wrestlers than stand in the middle of the ring, where they face each other. The guy who was singing picks up a broom and starts sweeping around the edge of the ring, removing dirt from the rope. A referee addresses both the wrestlers by yelling at them. Then the match starts. I think it starts when both wrestlers place their hands on the floor, getting into a 3 point stance, but I’m not certain on that point. The wrestling consists of two large men slapping each other, occasionally pulling the hair of the other guy and attempting to grab their opponent by his underwear. At some point, one guy manages to throw the other guy down or push him out of the ring. At that point both wrestlers return to the ring, stand facing each other, and then the referee yells at one of them, declaring him the winner. The whole thing takes maybe 5 minutes from start to finish, with the bout itself taking maybe 1 minute total. It starts all over again then.

I watched the sumo for about 3 hours, but never really “got” it. I think, much like ice hockey to a person from Mississippi, unless you’ve grown up with it, you probably won’t understand it.

Osaka

Went to Osaka for the baseball game! I watched the Hanshin Tigers of Osaka take on the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Koshien Stadium. Koshien Stadium is the oldest baseball park in Japan, built in 1924 to be host for the high school baseball championships, it has been home to the Tigers since 1936. The stadium has a very old time feel, with ivy climbing the walls outside and a real grass field inside (most ball parks in Japan have astro-turf). It seats 53,000 people, and the field itself is circular, giving a huge foul area. It was interesting to see the game, because while the action on the field is as American and baseball and apple pie, the fans are not. They are much more European soccer fan like, in that they have chants and songs and flags and are pretty much active the entire game.

Outfield tickets to Koshien Stadium cost me ¥1700 (US$ 17). To get to the stadium, take the Hanshin line from Umeda station and exit at Koshien Station. Return tickets for the train cost around $US 5.

Tickets for baseball games are hard to get overseas, but shouldn’t be a problem to get once in Japan. I would recommend going and getting tickets a few days before the game to ensure you get a seat. The two biggest teams are the Osaka Hanshin Tigers and the team from Tokyo, the Yomiuri Giants, who play in the Tokyo Dome. Tickets can be purchased for a the games from a ticket vendor, ask at the TIC (Tourist Information Center (see below)) where the nearest ticket vendor is. They’ll probably be one close to the major train stations.

I stayed at the hotel booked on the travellers point site for ¥2100 ($US 21) a night, which was about the best accommodation deal I got. However, the area was full of hotels similarly priced, so you should be able to just show up and find a place if you want (the only place I found in Japan where I would suggest that, by the way – see more in accommodation below). The area was a bit out, but still right by the subway, and there were a number of hotels in the area. Rooms were small, but comfortable and clean. The area is right by Dobutsu Enmae station on both the Mido Suji line and the Sakai Suji lines. Heading to the north-east there are a number of places in a quiet area from around ¥2100. To the south-east, there were a number of places from between ¥1300 to ¥1900, but the area was a touch shadier.

Hiroshima

I just popped into Hiroshima for the day after seeing the Hiroshima Toyo Carp fans at the baseball game the day before. Obviously the A-bomb Dome and associated attractions are the big draw in the area, but Hiroshima was interesting for me to see because of the rest of the city that had built up around the A-bomb site. I knew little about Hiroshima before arriving, and must admit that I was shocked to find such a vibrant city built up around the site of the first atomic bomb explosion. Hiroshima reminded me a lot of the other cities in Japan like Nagoya or Osaka, and that’s what was amazing about it, that it’s history was not it’s present.

Interestingly, also, is that Hiroshima was the place I saw the most white people my entire trip. I wonder if it’s morbid fascination with destruction, or nuclear guilt?

General Traveller’s Impressions

I really enjoyed Japan, and could have done a lot more travel there. It’s a great location to see especially if you are a fan of big cities, as Tokyo is the biggest.

In general, I was surprised by both how easy and how difficult Japan was to travel in.

For the easy part, the trains all run on time and have English announcements (even the subways, trams and buses), and are frequent and clean. There is no haggling and most every place has a cash register so you can easily see what you owe. There’s no tipping or additional tax, so prices you see are prices you pay (some places, mostly upper crust places or tourist sites charged a service charge, but it was usually pretty minimal). And many places either had English menus or picture menus, making it easy to order.

In other respects, though, I found it hard to travel around. In fact, someone asked me how I compared travelling in Japan to travel in China or South America, and I said that I felt Japan was harder than either of those places. There were very few people that spoke English, and I often felt myself really struggling to communicate or understand what was going on. In China or South America, I often felt that I understood what was happening, even if I couldn’t understand what was being said. They were, in a sense, simple, in that a meal was a meal and meeting someone was meeting someone. In Japan, though, I often felt like what was occurring before my eyes was part of an elaborate ritual that I didn’t understand at all. Even though Japan is an Asian country with few English speakers, I was really surprised by this.

I chalk this up to two things. The first is that Japan is a G8 country with a long history of ties to North America, and so I expected that it would be easy to travel in. This is further backed up by the fact that many of the things you see in Japan are very familiar to the North American or European – it’s got a large middle class and the infrastructure of the country is very similar to us. The roads are in good shape, and you see many of the same cars as home. People have similar technology and dress the same, and there is a large middle class. There’s even baseball on the TV! But if you dig a little deeper, there are differences in those small things. This can be confusing, because you expect when you see something that is familiar, it’ll be a certain way, but then you find it to be different.

As an example, you see ATMs everywhere, and Japanese people using their ATM and credit cards to pay for things. However, most of these systems aren’t hooked up to the international networks, and so the ATM and credit cards from home won’t work in most places.

So the first point is really that I expected it to be easy, but when I encountered small unexpected problems, they seemed more distressing then if travelling in South America or China, where you would expect things not to work (like your ATM card).

Secondly, though, I think there is some truth to it really being harder in some respects, because in a lot of ways Japan doesn’t need internal tourists as much as China or South America does. In those places, the US dollars you are spending are a big part of the economy, so there is a certain amount of infrastructure that is built up to support the international tourist. This even filters down to the backpacker spending level.

In Japan, however, they have a robust economy that doesn’t rely heavily on the North American tourist dollar, and so there isn’t the same infrastructure readily available to support the North American backpacker.

Tourist Information Centers

The above being said about lack of infrastructure, there is one key thing that every city had that was a godsend for the tourist, and that is the Tourist Information Center (TIC). In most every train station of some size, there will be a Tourist Information Center. Here you will find English speaking staff that can assist you in planning your travels, including booking accommodation. The TICs are hooked into the Welcome Inn Reservation Center, which allows booking of a number of properties across Japan. They can provide directions, and assist me in figuring out how to purchase baseball tickets.

If for no other reason, upon arrival in a new city you should pop in the TIC to pick up the free tourist map of the city. If you can’t find the TIC (sometimes they are hard to find unless you know what you are looking for), go to the nearest international hotel and get a tourist map from the concierge.

Language

As stated above, English is not widely spoken. It is, however, very widely used on signs throughout the country, and many menus and restaurants will have English / Japanese menus (where you can point at what you want, and the waiter can read the Japanese translation).

The TICs will have English speakers, and can help with translations if needed. Also, some of the hotels I stayed at had free access to an English translation service via phone.

Money

The Japanese use the Yen (¥). Currently, $US 1 will buy about ¥120, though I always just used the easy conversion rate of $US 1 = ¥100.

There are both notes and coins. Most likely, you’ll see 1000, 5000 and 10000 yen notes. ATMs (see below), mostly give out 10000 yen notes. Coins come in denominations of 500, 100, 50, 10, 5 and 1. All notes and coins are marked with the denomination of the bill or coin with the exception of the 5 Yen coin, which is bronze with a hole in the middle.

ATMs are plentiful, but most are not hooked up to the International networks, meaning that you can’t get money. For international travellers, the best choice is to find an international bank. Citibank was the most common. Also, the postal service has ATMs that are hooked into the international network, though those are only open during the postal office hours. Look for ATMs with English instructions, or ask at the TIC or your hotel where the nearest international ATM is.

Credit cards are not widely used, and even most hotels expect cash payments.

Getting Around

The best deal in Japanese travel is the JR Rail pass. The JR Rail pass allows unlimited travel on any Japan Rail service for a period of time (either 7, 14 or 21 day). It is only available to international travellers on a tourist visa, and must be purchased overseas. You will be given an exchange order, and upon arrival in Japan, the exchange order can be exchanged for a JR pass (once they see your passport and visa type).

The 7 day pass is ¥28300 (US$ 280). Even if you are just planning on travelling between Tokyo and Kyoto (the two most popular destinations in Japan), the pass will almost be paid off. Any additional side trips and the pass is paid for.

There are a number of JR rail services. Of most use to the first time, short term visitor to Japan will be the Tokaido Shinkansen service, which runs between Tokyo and Osaka (including stops at Kyoto). The trains are fast and comfortable, and run very frequently. I never bothered with advanced reservations, and the longest I had to wait was 20 minutes for a departure.

Once in town, most of the cities I went to had subways, except Hiroshima that had a tram system. For subways, the price of your ride depends on how far you are going. There will be a map indicating the cost from the current station to all the stations in the system. Carry your city map with you, as it includes an English subway map and could come in handy if the station’s map isn’t in English. When you enter the subway, you put your ticket in the gate and retrieve it. When you exit the subway at your destination, the gate will accept your ticket and keep it. Don’t worry if you didn’t put enough on your ticket. All subway exits will have a place to add additional value to your ticket so you can exit.

There are day passes and stored value cards that could be of value if you are travelling a lot on the subways.

I took the bus in Kyoto and the tram in Hiroshima, and they had a similar system. You purchase a ticket and get on the bus or tram. Upon exiting, you present your ticket at a machine by the driver and exit.

Accommodation

This is most likely the highest cost of travelling in Japan. In Tokyo, I mostly stayed at the Marriott Renaissance Ginza Tobu Hotel using my Marriott Rewards points for a “free stay.” My free stay, however, included a ¥2500 a day “service charge”, meaning that I was still spending $US 25 a night for the hotel. But that was a pretty good deal considering how much the hotel usually charges for a night (around $US 400 and more). For that price, however, I wouldn’t stay there. But that’s the average prices for international hotels in Tokyo.

Accommodation doesn’t have to be so bad, however. You do need, though, to put some thought into it and think ahead. Just showing up in a place and walking up to a hotel isn’t a great approach. Firstly, not all places accept foreigners. Secondly, it’s hard to know what the rates for hotels will be judging by their looks. I just showed up at a hotel in Tokyo, and ended up spending ¥18000 (US$ 180) a night.

To avoid that, book ahead. You don’t need to book to far in advance (even day before or day of), but it’ll help. Use multiple sources to book ahead. The TIC can book places using the Welcome Inn Reservation Center, and got me a great deal on a place in Kyoto for ¥4000 (US$ 40) that usually charges ¥7000 a night. Also, I found a place on the travellerspoint site for ¥2100 ($US 21) a night. And, of course, there’s always the fall back of the capsule hotel, which run around ¥2500 – ¥4000 depending on the location (not an option for the female backpackers, though, as women are not allowed).

In Kyoto, I stayed at a Ryokan called the Hotel Nishiyama (¥4000 (US$ 40)) that included a private washroom and bath. A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese style inn, where you will find mat floors with a futon and sliding paper doors (though the door to the external hall is a thick metal secure door), and will include a public bath.

In Nagoya, I tried the capsule hotel. There are a number of capsule hotels throughout Japan, and basically have the same structure. The capsule is about 2 meters deep and 1 meter by 1 meter high and wide, just enough to get into and roll around comfortably. The capsule contains a small TV, a radio, an alarm clock and a lamp, all built into the surrounding walls and coated in plastic, making it feel like it could all just be hosed down for cleaning. Basically, the capsule hotel is like a hostel dorm, but for business men in Japan. You share a public bath and will get a small locker, but they will hold a large bag behind the desk. The capsule provides all toiletries needed, including toothbrush and paste, shaver and shaving cream and towels and PJs (actually, most of the hotels provided all these things). As I said above, though, no women are allowed at the majority of capsule hotels.

In Osaka, I stayed at the Hotel Mikado, near the Dobutsu En Mae station for ¥2100 (US$21). There are a number of hotels in the area with similar prices. You get a small room with a TV, and access to the public bath and shower. Women are allowed, and there are separate men’s and women’s hours on the public bath. The shower is open 24 hours a day, with a limit of one person per time in the shower.

Food

Food in Japan is great, and needn’t be expensive. Though you can easily run up tabs of ¥10000 (US$ 100) per person in the nicer restaurants, it’s possible to eat really well for a decent price. I found many places offering really good meals with lots of variety for ¥500 and ¥1000 ($US 5 – $US 10) a meal. In fact, many of these meals were large enough that you could get away with only two meals a day.

English isn’t widely spoken, so look for places with English menus or picture menus. Failing that, you can always point.

The fish market is a great place to get a cheap breakfast. In most towns there will be a fish market, and as the workers are winding up their day as you’re getting started, there’s a ton of great sushi and soba noodle places to eat at.

For lunch, I’d often just grab something from a variety store. Most of them will have a large selection of prepared meals, from sandwiches (egg salad, tuna, ham and cheese and vegetable are usually all available) to meat skewers and cold noodle dishes.

At dinner, there are lots of great places around the train stations. You need to try eating at least one night at a yakitori restaurant, where you pull up to a counter and order small dishes and big beers.

For the single traveller, eating in Japan is great, because almost all places have a counter for the single dinner to sit, avoiding the usual embarrassment of taking up a whole table for one person.

Also, there is a strong possibility that as you are sitting at the counter, you’ll get invited to join in the conversation, meal and drinks of other parties. Don’t be surprised if they end up paying for your meal, it’s Japanese tradition.

Drink

Like accommodation and unlike food, finding cheap drinks in Japan is tough! There are places that charge as little as ¥300 for a drink, but many places you’ll be spending ¥600 – ¥1000 for a pint of beer. I found I really had to look around to find places that were both cheap to drink and open to foreigners.

The best thing I can suggest is to fall back on that traditional college trick of “priming” before going out. Go to the convenience store, but a couple 500ml cans of Sapporo Draft One and drink before going out. This will get you primed up for a night out, but easily save you at least ¥1000.

On the plus side, when presented with the dilemma of “should I have just one more drink,” the prices tend you towards the “no.”

If you are in Japan in the summer, for an interesting experience, you need to check out the “beer gardens” that department stores set up on their roof tops. (An English language paper I was reading was making fun of the beer garden in Japan by questioning why putting a keg on a cement surface constituted a garden). They often have “all you can drink and eat” specials (timed for 60 or 90 minutes), and provide you with good beer and a do it yourself grill to cook your food.

Events

I’ve already mentioned the sumo and baseball. In addition, I would suggest going to see one of the “amusement centers” that are very prevalent in every city. These are a combination of video arcade, bowling alley, bar, restaurant and casino. They offer everything from video games to slot machines to Pachinko machines.

Pachinko is a form of Japanese gambling where you turn a little silver knob, and that shoots BBs out of the top of the machine. If you turn the knob too far to the right, the BBs run all the way down and out the one side. If you don’t turn far enough, the BBs don’t make it to the center of the machine, and fall down the other. If you hold the knob just right, though, the BBs will bounce off some nails, and if you are lucky, fall into a small slot where you will win 5 more BBs. If you win, you take your BBs and exchange them for money outside of the Pachinko hall (due to gambling restrictions).

The other experience is the onsen, or public bath. Most of the hotels have these, or you can head up into the central part of the country where mountain hot springs provide a natural version of this. One enters the onsen, gets naked and then squats on a stool. They soap up and rinse off using a bucket of water and a washcloth, and then, now clean, they enter the bath itself, of really hot water. It is a relaxing and liberating experience, and apparently one of the few places in Japanese society where you are free of rules, as long, of course, as you follow a set of rules in expressing your liberation. It’s basically a unisex public hot tub.

Categories
Money

Buying Foreign Currency: 9 Ways to Get More Bang for Your Buck

When it comes to international travel, getting the most for your money is a big deal. While we usually recommend withdrawing local currency from an ATM as soon as you arrive, there are certain times when it makes sense to buy foreign currency in advance.

Mark Rowlands, the sales director at currency provider Covent Garden FX, explains that buying foreign currency in advance allows travelers to shop around for the best rate and hedge against exchange rate fluctuations that might affect their buying power. Buying foreign currency in advance can also give you peace of mind if you’re traveling to a place where ATMs might not be prevalent, or if you’re concerned about your card being declined.

Below are Rowlands’ tips for getting the best deal when buying foreign currency.

Shop Online for Foreign Currency

This might sound obvious, but it’s amazing how many people assume that their friendly travel agent or supermarket will look after them. Think about it: They are in business to make money, and you are a captive audience. Politely decline and go and surf the net for foreign currency. You can cover the whole marketplace, and get the best exchange rates, from the comfort of your home.

Plan Ahead

Don’t leave buying foreign currency until the last minute. When buying currency online, you need to allow enough time for your payment to go through, for your identity to be confirmed, and for your currency to be delivered.

[st_related]How to Get the Best Exchange Rate[/st_related]

Beware of ‘Free Delivery’ Offers for Foreign Currency

What really matters is how much currency arrives on your doorstep. What’s the point saving five bucks on delivery if it costs you $15 worth of currency? Look out for extra hidden charges, and try to find out how much you are paying in total and exactly how much currency you will receive. The benefits of a great exchange rate can be totally negated by commissions and handling fees.

Avoid Saturday Delivery

There is often an extra charge to get foreign currency delivered on weekends. Some companies will deliver to your work address during the week, but if you’re opting for that method, make sure you’ll have a secure place to keep your travel money safe.

Get Together with Friends

When buying foreign currency in bulk, you have greater power. Even online bureaus are happy to negotiate better exchange rates, and lower fees, for larger amounts of currency. Get an interested group together, then call or email to ask for their best deal.

[st_related]How to Avoid the Airport Currency-Exchange Gouge[/st_related]

Ask for a Price Match

If you’ve found a better deal on foreign currency elsewhere, ask a company to match it.

Check the Money Market

Compare the deal you are offered to the market rate. Visit XE.com and look at how much profit margin has been added. You can’t buy from a wholesaler, but knowledge is power. If your supplier is adding 5 percent—which is not unusual—walk away.

Beware of the Credit/Debit Card Trap

The bureau will probably inform you it applies a small charge for debit cards. This is quite reasonable with such tight margins on buying foreign currency. But very often, that’s not the end of the story. Most credit cards and many debit card providers will treat your transaction as a cash advance. Check the small print or call your provider. If someone tells you there is no additional charge, get that person’s name. You might want to pay using a bank transfer to avoid hidden charges. The last thing you want is a 3 percent charge, plus interest on your statement, when you return from your vacation.

[st_related]The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas[/st_related]

Don’t Be Fooled by Buy-Back ‘Guarantees’

Read the fine print: Is what you are getting really worth paying for? You might be better off shopping around for the best deal for unwanted foreign currency when you get back home. Never assume that you have to take your unwanted currency back to where you got it from. Take it home, cash it in, and shop around for the best currency exchange rates available.

More from SmarterTravel:

[st_newsletter]

—written by Mark Rowlands and Sarah Schlichter

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Arts & Culture Budget Travel Business Travel Entertainment Money Travel Etiquette

Tipping in Europe: The Europe Tipping Guide

Tipping in Europe varies by country, but it isn’t obligatory and should be done at your own discretion. This Europe tipping guide will help you figure how much to tip for great service.

[viator_tour destination=”67″]

Tipping in Europe

Tipping in Europe isn’t as common as it is in the U.S., and some countries even consider it excessive and unnecessary. In general, though, a good rule of thumb is to err on the side of a modest tip (5 to 10 percent) as people in service already earn a decent wage. Service is included in the final bill in several countries, and is something to factor in before tipping extra. If you are happy with the service, it’s nice to leave €1 to €2 for each person in your party.

How much to tip varies by country, but a show of gratitude is appreciated wherever you may travel. This Europe tipping guide will help you navigate when/where you can leave a little extra for great service.

[st_related]Tipping: How Much to Tip Tour Guides, Taxis, Hotel Maids, and More?[/st_related]

[st_content_ad]Europe Tipping Guide

Cafe Server: Tipping isn’t necessary when ordering food from a counter in most countries.

Restaurant Server: There is no obligation to leave a tip, but when doing so try not to exceed 10 percent of the final bill as more than that is considered excessive. It’s also acceptable to round the bill up to the nearest €5 or €10 when tipping in Europe, if that’s easier. Be aware, however, that service may already be included (service in French, servizio in Italian, servicio in Spanish), so you will want to factor that in before leaving anything extra. Servers may not receive tips when left on a credit card, so always try to tip in cash whenever possible.

Bartender: A tip isn’t expected when ordering drinks, but €1 or €2 for exceptional service is always welcome.

Taxis: For a smooth and courteous ride, a good rule of thumb is to round up to the nearest €5 for short trips and €10 for longer drives.

Airport Shuttle: It is not necessary to tip your driver, but feel free to give €1 per bag if they help with your luggage.

Doorman: A simple thank you for great service is sufficient, but feel free to tip €1 or €2 if you’d like.

Bellhop: It is acceptable to tip €1 or €2 per bag, depending on size, but no more than €5.

Housecleaning: It’s considerate to leave a small tip (€2) for a well-maintained room during your stay.

Concierge: It is not common to tip the concierge, but €1 or €2 is appreciated if the service exceeds expectations.

Stylist: It’s thoughtful to tip 10 percent of the final bill if you’re happy with your new hairdo.

Spa Service Provider: Tip up to 10 percent for exceptional service is appreciated.

More from SmarterTravel:

[viator_tour destination=”57″]

[st_deals_search search_type=vacation]

Categories
Arts & Culture Budget Travel Entertainment Food & Drink Money Travel Etiquette

Tipping in Ireland: The Ireland Tipping Guide

There is no set standard for tipping in Ireland. You may find that a service charge is already included in the bill, and anything beyond that is considered a bonus. This Ireland tipping guide will help you navigate when/where you can leave a little extra for great service.

[viator_tour destination=”56″]

Tipping in Ireland

Tipping in Ireland may not be standard practice, but there are certain places when it’s acceptable, if not expected, to leave a few coins. A good rule of thumb is to leave 10 to 15 percent when service exceeds expectations. Be aware, however, that some restaurants include service, or a Service Charge, in the final bill, so keep an eye out for that language at the bottom of the receipt before tipping extra. It is common for servers not to receive tips included on a credit card, so try to leave cash whenever possible.

As for tipping other services, there are a few quirky rules to keep in mind. This Ireland tipping guide will help you navigate when/where you can leave a little extra for great service.

[st_related]Tipping: How Much to Tip Tour Guides, Taxis, Hotel Maids, and More?[/st_related]

[st_content_ad]Ireland Tipping Guide

Cafe Server: If there is a tip jar by the cash register, it’s a nice gesture to leave a couple of coins. For exceptional table service, round up to the nearest €5.

Restaurant Server: The tip is sometimes included in the final bill (Service Charge), but not always. Check the bill first for these inclusions before deciding what to tip. If the service isn’t included, a tip of 10 to 15 percent is encouraged. Servers sometimes don’t receive tips included on a credit card, so always try to tip in cash whenever possible.

Bartender: It’s rare to tip a bartender, as most do not expect it and some may even refuse it. Table service, however, is considered to be separate, and it is considerate to leave a €1 to €2 for great service.

Taxis: A tip isn’t expected, but is appreciated. A good rule of thumb is to round up to the nearest euro for a short trip and to the nearest 10 euro for a longer ride.

Airport Shuttle: It is not necessary to tip your driver, but feel free to give €1 per bag if they help with your luggage.

Doorman: Gratitude is always welcome when a doorman assists with luggage or hailing transportation. A simple thank you is appreciated, but feel free to offer €1 for exceptional service.

Bellhop: It is customary to tip €1 to €2 per bag, depending on size, but no more than €5.

Housecleaning: Everything is typically included in the hotel bill, but feel free to leave €1 to €2 per night for a spotless stay.

Concierge: If the concierge goes above and beyond with helping you book reservations, giving you directions, and providing insider recommendations, it’s considerate to tip €1 to €2.

Stylist: It’s considerate to tip 10 percent of the final bill if you’re satisfied with the results.

Spa Service Provider: A tip isn’t expected, but you can leave up to 10 percent for anything that goes above and beyond your expectations.

More from SmarterTravel:

[viator_tour destination=”56″]

[st_deals_search search_type=vacation destination_airport_code=dub]

Categories
Arts & Culture Budget Travel Business Travel Cities Entertainment Food & Drink Money Travel Etiquette

Tipping in the United States: The United States Tipping Guide

Tipping in the United States is not mandatory, but it is expected in most places. This United States tipping guide will help you know how much to tip for great service.

[viator_tour destination=”645″]

Tipping in the United States

Tipping in the United States may be standard practice, but it is by no means mandatory. Remember a tip should reflect the service given, so it is acceptable to leave a tip of 10 percent or no tip at all for a terrible experience. It is worth noting that servers are paid below the minimum wage to account for the tips they may earn, so a tip of any kind is always appreciated. It is common for servers not to receive tips included on a credit card, so try to leave cash whenever possible.

Tipping the United States may vary slightly by location, but this United States tipping guide will help you navigate when/where you can leave a little extra for great service anywhere in the country. If ever in doubt, simply ask a local patron what is acceptable to tip.

[st_related]Tipping: How Much to Tip Tour Guides, Taxis, Hotel Maids, and More?[/st_related]

[st_content_ad]United States Tipping Guide

Cafe Server: If there is a tip jar by the cash register, it’s a nice gesture to leave a couple of coins or to round up to the nearest dollar.

Restaurant Server: It is considerate to leave 15 to 20 percent, depending on the service and the restaurant. Remember that some restaurants in the bigger cities, like New York City, may enforce a no-tipping policy, so be sure to check the bill for such language before tipping. Servers sometimes don’t receive tips included on a credit card, so always try to tip in cash whenever possible.

Bartender: Though it’s not expected in most places, it is considerate to leave $1 per drink.

Taxis: A tip isn’t expected, but is always appreciated, especially when navigating traffic in the bigger cities. A good rule of thumb is to tip 15 to 20 percent of the final bill for a smooth and courteous ride. You can also let the driver “keep the change,” if that’s easier.

Airport Shuttle: It’s not necessary to tip your driver, but feel free to give $1 per bag if they help with your luggage.

Doorman: Depending on the location, it’s not always necessary to tip the doorman. If, however, the doorman hails a cab, it is a nice gesture to tip $1 for the service.

Bellhop: It is considerate to tip $1 per bag, depending on size.

Housecleaning: Leave $1 to $5 per day for a well-maintained room during your stay.

Concierge: Tip whatever you feel is fair if you feel the service exceeds expectations and deserves monetary recognition.

Stylist: Don’t hesitate to tip 20 percent of the final bill if you’re happy with your new look.

Spa Service Provider: A tip of up to 20 percent for exceptional service is appreciated.

More from SmarterTravel:

[viator_tour destination=”687″]

[st_deals_search search_type=vacation]