Tips for stretching dollars on your travels

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

What's the catch to using debit and credit cards in foreign countries?

Credit cards usually pencil out several percentage points better than trading cash or travelers' checks. But keep in mind that when you use your card abroad -- either credit or debit -- you may get stuck with a 3% currency-conversion or "foreign-transaction fee" on your statement -- 1% charged by Visa or MasterCard and 2% by your credit-card issuer. (With an American Express card, that fee is 2%.) And when you withdraw from an ATM, you're likely to face a fee of up to $5, or 1% to 3% of the withdrawal or both.

The devil is in the details, which vary by bank. At Bank of America, for instance, you avoid flat or percentage fees if you use a machine in its Global ATM Alliance (which includes major foreign banks such as Barclays and Deutsche Bank). But if you use a non-alliance machine, you'll pay not only a $5 fee but also a 1% foreign-transaction fee.

For a comparison, try /brm/news/cc/20050624b1.asp.

The dollar is weak against the euro and the pound. Where can Americans get a foreign-exchange break?

Try Latin America. Mexico's exchange rate hasn't changed much in the last three years -- it still hovers around 11 pesos per dollar. As you look farther south, Costa Rica and Argentina are also worth a thought.

What are some of the deals you can find?

Julie Casey of Los Angeles, who returned Jan. 1 from a 12-day Costa Rica trip with her husband and two daughters, paid about $160 a night for a room in a locally owned beachfront hotel in the northwestern beach area of Playa Hermosa. (In non-holiday weeks, Casey added, the same room goes for about half as much.) The family paid $40 per person for a four-hour boat-trip for snorkeling.

In Argentina, the American dollar has been strong for the last three years, even though internal inflation has eroded some values for travelers since last year. Elizabeth Cate, a San Diego-based portfolio manager for a real estate investment company, returned on New Year's Day from a 25-day stay in that country. In Buenos Aires and other popular tourist spots, Cate said, her restaurant meals cost about what they would have in the U.S. But in smaller towns such as Cafayate in the northwestern corner of the country, Cate said she found great meals, with soup, salad and entree, for as little as $5. She paid about $100 nightly for an apartment with a kitchenette in one of Buenos Aires' best neighborhoods.

When thinking about prices, we should be thinking about more than just foreign-exchange rates, right?

Right. In a March 2007 survey aimed at summing up the prices of 143 major cities around the world, Mercer Consulting found plenty of places cheaper than Los Angeles. In fact, 101 cities came out cheaper than L.A. (Moscow was the most expensive, for the second consecutive year.) Among the major cities more affordable than Los Angeles: Asunción, Paraguay; Luxembourg; Brussels; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Berlin and Düsseldorf, Germany; Taipei, Taiwan; Prague, Czech Republic; Algiers; Sofia, Bulgaria; Vancouver, Canada; Toronto; Rio de Janeiro; Wellington and Auckland, New Zealand; Melbourne and Adelaide, Australia; and Karachi, Pakistan. (More details:

We'll probably just eat fast food on the road, so how much does a burger cost in Reykjavik, Iceland?

The Economist magazine's July Big Mac Index -- constructed to show how prices on the street vary from straight exchange-rate economics -- found that a burger priced at $3.41 in the U.S. was going for as little as the equivalent of $1.45 in China, $1.68 in Egypt and $1.84 in Ukraine.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, that burger was fetching $4.01 in Britain, $4.17 in the euro-using countries, $5.20 in Switzerland and $7.61 in Iceland (where Reykjavik is the capital).

I've won a lottery. What's the fastest way to elegantly rid myself of all this money?

Well, you could throw it out in the street. Or you could stay at an Amanresorts hotel. That ultraluxe 20-hotel chain just won top ranking from a new Zagat guide, but good luck getting into one of its properties, whether in Wyoming or Sri Lanka, for less than $500 a night.

Still have money left? OK. Be sure to take all three meals every day in restaurants. Especially hotel restaurants. Especially if you're traveling with children. Especially if they want burgers and you're in Reykjavik (see previous question).

Every family is different, but if you can reduce your restaurant exposure to one meal a day -- maybe by booking a room with a kitchenette, maybe by buying picnic fixings at a nearby grocery store, maybe by descending around mealtime upon relatives you barely know -- you might save $10 per person per day, maybe more.

Let's say I go to Europe despite all this wailing about the euro. Is anything free?

A stroll in the park. Europe's major cities house some of the world's greatest parks: In Paris, the Tuileries gardens, whose neighbors are the Louvre and the Seine, date to the 17th century and have their own Métro stop.

In London, there's 350-acre Hyde Park with the Serpentine lake and Speakers Corner, and Hampstead Heath (which, at 791 acres, is nearly the size of New York's Central Park), to throw out just two.

In Rome, there's the Villa Borghese, the city's biggest park, with its artificial lake, fountains, ruins, zoo, botanical garden and two of the country's foremost art museums, the Borghese Gallery and the Etruscan Museum (which are not free, but so it goes).

How do I know whether a company selling travel is legitimate?

There's no perfect way, but you can see whether it is licensed to sell travel in California And you can make sure it gives street and Web addresses.

You could call and try to speak with a human, and be honest about your hesitation. You could make the booking through a travel agent (most of whom belong to American Society of Travel Agents), who will probably charge you a fee but ought to be able to steer you away from shady deals.

You could check for an entry in ASTA's buyers' guide at Also, if this mysterious new merchant won't take payment by credit card, you probably should walk away.

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