Teresa McUsic

How to save money on that next trip to Europe

Travelers can save time by buying tickets ahead online for attractions such as the Vatican Museum, which features “The School of Athens,” a fresco painted in 1510 by Raphael for Pope Julius II’s apartments.
Travelers can save time by buying tickets ahead online for attractions such as the Vatican Museum, which features “The School of Athens,” a fresco painted in 1510 by Raphael for Pope Julius II’s apartments. TNS

International travel is not for the faint of heart (or purse), but there are many ways to stretch your dollars.

The good news is that even though this is the height of the summer travel season, international airfares are trending down, said Tom Parsons, CEO of BestFares.com, a Dallas-based online travel agency.

“In the past, the earlier you bought a ticket, the better. But that’s not true anymore,” he said. “There are some wild and crazy airfares out there right now through the rest of summer and into fall. My advice is to watch prices early and if necessary use two tickets to cut your costs.”

I just returned from a two-week trip to Italy and paid $1,727 for a one-stop ticket from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to Rome that I bought last February, hoping to save money. But today, that one-stop ticket could have cost me $925 if I had bought one ticket to New York for around $250 and a separate ticket from New York to Rome for $675, Parsons said.

Other attractive fares to Europe include flights to Paris and to Stuttgart, Germany, Parsons said.

Parsons recommends checking out one-stop flights, which are generally cheaper than nonstop, and fares to nearby airports. Taking trains or catching a local flight abroad can be a cheaper way to get where you want to go.

Other ways to cut your international vacation costs:

Credit cards. While your fees and interest rates might be fine at home, credit cards may cost you up to 3 percent per transaction abroad. Look for a card with no foreign transaction fees.

After searching international travel blogs, I got the Capital One Visa, and it did the job. I had no extra fees, and it was widely accepted because of the embedded security chip required by most European restaurants, ticket counters and hotels. Be sure to apply well in advance. And if you’ll be gone a long time, set up a minimum automatic monthly draft so you aren’t hit with late fees.

And be sure to tell your credit card issuer when you’ll be gone so the company won’t shut off the card when it sees international charges and deems them suspicious.

ATM card. Once again, your home bank may charge you a fortune for ATM withdrawals abroad. But a few have limited or no foreign fees. I set up a Schwab Bank high-yield checking account, which promotes reimbursing ATM fees paid internationally. It worked well and I saw no extra ATM fees on my account, which also has no monthly service fee and can easily be set up online.

My brother used a card from his teachers credit union and paid just 1 percent for ATM withdrawals.

Other banks aren’t so generous. Chase, for example, charges $5, plus 3 percent per transaction. And for security protection of your account, tell your bank when you’ll be gone and where you’re going.

Cellphone. Check with your cellphone provider about overseas charges for Internet, texting and calls. Many services now work in Europe, but it depends on the country.

Sprint had a particularly aggressive international promotion featuring unlimited text and data plans in select countries at no additional cost. But you have to call and sign up; it’s not automatic. The talk fee was still high — 20 cents a minute. But you can get around that with unlimited data plans or Wi-Fi and the use of Skype, which is free, or Google phone, which is 1 cent a minute.

Tickets for attractions. My advice is to search the Internet to plan your tours and entertainment and then buy whatever tickets you can online, print them at home and take them. We passed thousands of people waiting in line to see the Vatican museums with such a piece of paper in hand.

The Economist recently reported a huge influx of tourists to museums abroad, with the Sistine Chapel seeing more than 25,000 visitors on its busiest days. The Vatican said it will probably begin allowing only reserved-ticket buyers inside sometime next year, the way the Borghese Gallery does. Check museum policies online before you go.

Check out free things to do, like visiting open-air fountains and lesser-known churches. (While the Sistine Chapel was cheek to jowl, you could walk easily into the Pantheon down the street.) Free walking tours of most cities are available. But do your research beforehand. The Internet will likely be slower abroad.

Public transit vs. cabs. It’s not always easy to lug your bags onto a train, subway or bus, but all are significantly cheaper than cabs. The 16-mile trip from Sorrento to Naples cost a little over $3 by train. A ferry was $27, and a cab was $88.

The same applies to travel within a city, from the airport to your lodging. So when possible, use public transit for big savings.

Lodging. Finally, consider convents, monasteries and hostels to cut your lodging costs. We booked several convents for our trip online for less than $100 a night that were clean, quiet and well-located. Be sure to check the details when booking: Some had curfews of 11 p.m., and others had no air conditioning and did not accept credit cards.

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net