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Money Matters

Regardless of what you've determined your vacation budget to be, there's no reason to spend more money than you have to. The following are a few tips to make your dollar (or Yen, Euro, Pound, etc.) go its farthest, especially now that the U.S. dollar isn't worth what it used to be against most foreign currencies.

Skip the currency conversion desks at the airport or the bank, and go easy on the travelers cheques. You'll get the best rates with your credit or ATM cards once you arrive at your destination. Unless you're flying into a really small airport, or arriving by ferry or train, there will be an ATM machine you can use before you leave the airport where you can make a withdrawl in the local currency. But if you are going to rely on the ATM, make sure to do a little research; machines may not be as prevalent in your destination country as you're used to at home.

If you don't already have a four digit PIN code, you may want to change to one before you leave; a lot of non-US machines won't accept a PIN that's not four digits. And if you remember your PIN alphabetically, you need to memorize those numbers; non-US machines frequently don't have the corresponding letters printed with the numbers on the keypad.

Now most credit card companies charge a fee for each transaction in a foreign currency, though even with the fee, plastic still comes out ahead of your other currency coversion options. I haven't heard of an ATM withdrawal having a similar fee, but if you're worried about it, ask at your bank. Foreign ATM machines I've used haven't charged a withdrawal fee.

I highly recommend contacting your credit card company to let them know when and where you'll be traveling. I know it shouldn't be any of their business, but it may save you from having a fraud hold put on your card while you're away. Few things can put a damper on a vacation like suddenly not being able to use your credit card, especially if you're counting on using it. You should be able to straighten out any confusion with a phone call if it does happen, but it's a whole lot easier to avoid it completely with a quick e-mail or phone call before you even leave.

While credit cards make things easy for the traveler, keep in mind that they may not be accepted everywhere. Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted cards. American Express cards may be accpeted in larger stores, restaurants, or hotels, but probably won't be in smaller ones. I don't think I've ever encountered a merchant overseas accpeting Discover.

A quick note about travelers cheques. While they can be replaced if they're lost or stolen, you do pay for that insurance. You pay a fee (in most cases) when you get the cheques. You pay a fee when you get where you're going to convert the cheques into the local currency when you arrive at your destination. Some places even charge a fee to accept a travelers cheque. And again, you often don't get a good conversion rate, particularly if you convert the cheques at a hotel. You just have to decide how much the safety of the cheques is worth to you. If you just have to have the cheques for your own peace of mind, research your options. Depending on your financial instutition and account type, you may be able to get free or discounted travelers cheques from your bank. If you have an American Express card, you may get discounted or free cheques, and you can exchange your US Amex cheques for local currency at an American Express office in your destination country without an additional fee. AAA members can get free travelers cheques from AAA offices. So it's worth doing your homework.

Depending on your destination, there may be attraction discounts to be found. Some time spent on research before you leave can save you some time and money during your trip. If you'll be visiting a lot of historic sites, see if there's some sort of membership card available from the local historic preservation service. For example, if you were going to be visiting a lot of properties run by English Heritage in the UK, you can purchase a card that will allow you access into any number of their sites for a flat fee. Often, such cards pay for themselves within three or four sites. Check to see if there are coupon offers for your destination country; the country's tourism office can probably point you in the right direction if they don't have coupons available themselves. You can also check with the airline you're flying into the country, especially if you're flying the country's national carrier (i.e. Air France, Quantas, etc.).

For attractions you know you'll be visiting, check to see if tickets are available for purchase online in advance. Not only might you get discounted online pricing, you'll save some precious vacation time by not having to wait in a long ticket line. There may also be combination offers available for similar attractions nearby.

If you plan on shopping while out of the country (and why on earth wouldn't you?), check to see if your destination country offers any form of tax-back or tax-free shopping. Unlike the US, many countries have their "sales tax" (often known as either GST or VAT) already factored into the price you pay at the cash register. Foreign visitors can sometimes get part of this tax refunded on purchases they are taking out of the country. Again, it's worth doing your research in advance, since only certain stores will offer this service, and you have to have paperwork filled out from the store at the time of purchase and your original cash register receipt in order to get your refund. Sadly, the refund is only on the tax you pay on goods you take with you when you leave, but not tax you paid on hotels, rental cars, or food. Still, if you do enough shopping, the refund can be a decent amount.

I know I said it before, but do your research before you leave if you can. The only thing worse than wasting money while on vacation is wasting precious vacation time. Checking into various discount offers or specials before you get on a plane can help you maximize both during your trip.

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