Five Ways to Avoid Theft on Vacation –

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“Once I was in the Middle East, and walking in a city with a colleague,” says Craig Bidois, principal consultant, Fear Free, a New Zealand-based security and safety management firm. “A car stopped beside us and a lady got out of the car and asked me if I could change a larger note for a smaller one. Being a helpful person, I went to get my wallet out. My friend—also a security expert—realized what was about to happen and replied that we could not help. Her car was ready to go with a driver; I suspect she would have taken my wallet and [driven] off.”

It’s not unusual for anyone, even security experts, to be caught off guard while traveling. Whether it’s a vacation or a business trip, it’s important to stay alert and know your surroundings to avoid petty theft. Read on for ways to safeguard your valuables while traveling.

What Not to Pack

Before you pack even one item, do a bit of research about the local area to see if any safety red flags come up. “Crime occurs in all countries, cities, and towns,” says Bidois. “Maybe you’re going on a local vacation or to a remote area in another part of the world—the risk remains the same. Do some research about the location you are going to to find out what the safety issues are there.”

Armed with this knowledge, you can pack accordingly. Depending on where you’re going, you may want to choose a body wallet over a purse, a backpack over a suitcase, or other similar tweaks to your usual attire.

The old adage of “when in doubt, leave it out” rings true for all types of trips, from domestic road trips to far-flung international vacations. Leave expensive jewelry, extra clothing, and other non-essentials at home, and forego anything flashy, brand-labeled, or attention-drawing. Not only will you know your valuables are safe at home, you’ll also enjoy the freedom of traveling light and in a manner that will hopefully allow you to blend in with the locals.

“A person should pack light so that they aren’t bogged down with having to carry a bunch of items with them,” says Beth Whitman, founder of Wanderlust and Lipstick, a guidebook series and website for women travelers. “If they can act confidently and aren’t fumbling around or looking lost, it’s less likely that a thief will target them.”

What to Bring

You may also want to invest in a few extra precautions for your bags. Whitman recommends a cable lock to tether your bag to something stationary, small zipper locks to prevent entry into your bag, and a bag with mesh or slash-proof panels to keep thieves from tearing it open and making off with what’s inside. Just remember that TSA security requirements mandate that your bags are unlocked in flight, so be sure to bring the locks along and attach them to your bags once on the ground.

Additionally, make copies of all your important documents (passport, itinerary, reservation confirmations, credit cards) and give them to trusted family and friends before you leave. You’ll also want to share copies of customer service phone numbers and emergency contacts. This way, in case your wallet and/or bags get stolen, you’ll have backup to continue with your trip, honor your reservations, and have a means to get home.

Consider purchasing travel insurance to give you additional peace of mind while on vacation. Be sure to read your policy’s coverage before you buy to verify that loss/theft protection is included.

Out Exploring

“You are responsible for the security of your possessions, no one else,” says Bidois. “Most of us save up our hard-earned money to take ourselves and our families away on a vacation. We deserve to have a stress-free and enjoyable time away, [but] sometimes we let our guard down.”

While you may feel the urge to relax and cut loose on vacation, staying alert and aware of your surroundings is your first and best line of defense. “Would you leave your house unlocked? Car unlocked? Money lying around your bedroom?” says Bidois. “You need to maintain basic everyday security measures.”

Start by deciding what to have on you while you’re out, and map out your route in advance. Your money, credit cards, and forms of ID should be in a secure place, such as a money belt that’s worn close to your body or an interior jacket pocket. Avoid crowds or other touristy areas known for petty theft, pickpockets, and the like. And by having a general sense of the area and your route, you won’t have to fumble with guidebooks and maps, which makes you stand out as a (potentially vulnerable) tourist.

“Be careful about people who approach you,” says Bidois. “Many are con artists or worse … Use your gut feeling. If you think something is not right, trust your instinct.”

It’s always a good idea to carry a dummy wallet on you, filled with loose change and a few small bills. A former colleague had a brilliant strategy of saving the fake cards that come with credit card solicitations and bringing those along in her decoy wallet. If you are held up and asked for your wallet, you can get rid of the dummy one, the thief will be none the wiser, and you’ll still have your valuables.

Finally, stay sober. If you’re intoxicated, you’re much more likely to end up in an unsafe situation. Keeping your wits about you is the key to safety.

In Your Hotel

At check-in, request a room that’s not near a stairway or elevator (to reduce foot traffic or strangers prowling around the easiest-to-access rooms), as well as one that’s not on the ground floor. If the clerk announces your room number for all to hear, ask to be reassigned to a different room. Ideally, the check-in attendant should write the room number on your key envelope and pass it to you across the counter. Discretion can prevent theft.

Once in your hotel room, take advantage of all the locks you have. “A rubber door stop will prevent someone from entering your room,” says Whitman. “Many hotel room doors in developing countries don’t have additional locks, such as chains, so this little item can come in handy.”

Sometimes, paying a little more per night can give you extra peace of mind for security’s sake. “If you are a backpacker or staying in a low-grade hotel, you get the security level you paid for,” says Bidois. “Generally, higher grade hotels have more protection measures in place … but you still need to remain alert. I never leave the ‘please make up my room’ sign out—this signals you are away. I do leave the TV/radio on as a gentle background so it appears I am still in the room.”

You may also want to use the hotel safe for your valuables, travel documents, and other pieces you’d like to safeguard. Check in with the front desk beforehand, though, to find out just how secure the safe is. How many people have keys to the safe? Who has access to the room? A few general inquiries can determine whether the safe is a viable option for you.

If You Do Get Robbed…
Unfortunately, even the most aware and alert traveler can experience a bit of bad luck. If you do get robbed, there are a few steps to take to make the best of a bad situation.

If you lose your passport or other identification documents, get in touch with the nearest embassy. Ideally, you will already have copies made that you can take along with you—this will expedite the replacement process.

“If it’s valuables, definitely report it to the police so that they have a record of it,” says Whitman. “If the police will issue a report, you might be able to get your insurance policy to reimburse you.” Be sure to get a copy of the police report for your insurance claim.

Finally, while the threat of theft may seem frightening, it shouldn’t be an all-consuming focus on your vacation. “Don’t let fear put you off traveling around the globe to visit some amazing sites and meeting interesting people,” says Bidois. “Just use common sense, appropriate humor, follow the local cultural customs, and be a little more alert than if you were at home.”

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How Do You Pack for Vacation? – In Transit Blog –

Now that nearly every airline is charging baggage fees, the best way to pack a bag seems to be an ongoing debate.

In today’s Business Travel special section, Christine Negroni reports on packing tips from the pros, including how to pack for a 10-day vacation in a carry-on.

The Practical Traveler also found that it’s possible to pack light with tips from road warriors who never check a bag, and the Frugal Traveler suggests using vacuum packing bags to make the most of a small carry-on.

Here at In Transit, we have a number of packing tips of our own. Share your tips below.

Allison Busacca: I once packed for a 21-day trip in one carry-on bag. I generally start with a packing list and lay everything out a few days in advance. Every day, take something away or find an item of clothing that you can wear a few times. I always make sure to pack layers, and I stick to one color scheme, with a lot of basics, so that everything is interchangeable.

Dan Saltzstein: I’m not a particularly good packer (though I have adopted the rolling technique mentioned in Ms. Negroni’s article). That said, I don’t think I’ve checked a bag over my last dozen or so flights — and that includes at least one two-week trip. How? I use a medium-size backpack with an attached day pack that zips off. The straps of the backpack can be zipped away, which I do just before boarding. Then the day pack comes off and goes under the seat; the remainder of the backpack goes in the overhead compartment. Works like a charm.

Denny Lee: I’m a firm believer in packing at the last moment, because the more you wait, the less you bring — and no one ever complains about underpacking. How do I remind myself to pack everything? As a check list, I point at my toes and go up from there, making sure all my body parts are covered. Trickier are all those cords and chargers for our gadgets. I keep a travel set in a Ziploc bag, so it’s always ready to go.

What are your packing secrets?

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Free and easy ways to stay connected from Europe by Rick Steeves

Tribune Media Services

If you take a computer when you travel to Europe, there are programs that let you call home for free -- even with two-way video.

If you take a computer when you travel to Europe, there are programs that let you call home for free — even with two-way video.
When I was a gawky teenager, my parents took me to Europe, broadened my horizon, and changed my life. After I graduated high school, I was ready to travel to Europe on my own, but my parents were nervous. To earn their blessing, I had to make two promises: I wouldn’t go to Turkey (because they were worried I’d be sold into the white slave trade) and I’d write home every other day. My dad figured that if the postcards stopped coming, at least he’d know where to begin looking.

Today, it’s a new world. When my kids travel to Europe, I can track them down instantly on their cellphones. What’s even more remarkable, if we both use a computer, I can see them while we talk — usually at no cost to either of us.

Over the last few years, there’s been a revolution in long-distance communication that makes it easier and cheaper than ever for travelers to stay in touch. Take your laptop or netbook to Europe, hook up to a fast Internet connection, and you can talk to people around the world — for free. This technology, called Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), can save you a lot of money on calls home from Europe.

At first, I was reluctant to try VoIP, but now I’m a believer. In fact, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to embrace technology more vigorously in the interest of using my time more smartly … and VoIP is not only smart, it’s free.

The company called Skype ( is the dominant provider of VoIP, but other companies (including Google Talk, work in much the same way. To get started, you visit the Web site to download the free application and to register. Once you’re signed up, you can talk online via your computer to a buddy with a computer running the same program. If both of you have Webcams, you can see each other while you chat. All of this is free.

Skype (which is a shortened form of “sky peer to peer”) also works for making calls from your computer to telephones worldwide. In this case it’s not free, but the rates are very reasonable (generally less than you’d pay with a long-distance telephone plan). I can sit at my computer at home, using Skype to call phone numbers all over Europe to reserve hotels for my whole trip, quickly and affordably. And when I’m in Europe, if I’m traveling with my Skype-enabled laptop, I can get online and make calls home — or call ahead to confirm tomorrow’s hotel — for pennies a minute.

With Skype, you can also buy a phone number in your home country that links to your computer wherever you are traveling. Your grandma makes a “local phone call” in Omaha, and you “pick up” on your laptop in Barcelona. While this all has to be set up online, it’s fairly user-friendly and can save you a bundle on a long trip.

Again, computer-to-computer calls are always free — no matter where in the world you are — and the sound quality is generally at least as good as a standard phone connection (although the video can be choppy). The program uses your computer’s built-in speakers, Webcam, and microphone, if it has them. If your computer lacks a microphone, or if you want to improve the voice and sound quality, you can buy an operator-type headset for around $20. A cheap Webcam also costs about $20.

You can use VoIP even if you’re traveling without a computer. Many European Internet cafes already have Skype, as well as microphones and Webcams, built into their machines — you just need to log on and chat away. But remember that the service works well only if both parties have a high-speed Internet connection.

What about those of us who carry a mobile phone to Europe instead of a computer? Increasingly, you can even use VoIP from certain Internet-enabled smartphones (such as the iPhone), bypassing the expensive rates mobile-phone companies charge for international calls. A Skype app is available for some smartphones, or you can use a third-party service such as, which works as a kind of Skype-to-mobile-phone gateway. Even the iPod Touch — which isn’t designed as a phone — can be used to make Skype calls to computers or phones, if you have an external microphone and a Wi-Fi connection.

Tech-savvy travelers should do some homework before their trip to fully understand these ever-evolving options.

Even if you’re not using VoIP, it’s worth knowing about because of its increasing popularity in Europe. If you travel like a local, it’s only a matter of time before a new European friend who wants to keep in touch will ask you, “Do you use Skype?” You’ll have broader horizons.

Edmonds-based Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio.
His column runs weekly at
E-mail him at

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Taxi tips for travelers – Europe –


Tribune Media Services
updated 2/1/2010 4:50:00
When people ask me about the scariest situation I’ve ever been in, I think back to a taxi ride I took to the Moscow airport in the early ’90s. A no-neck guy who looked like a classic Russian mafia thug picked me up in a beat-up old car and drove for an hour down puddle-filled alleys and past derelict apartments buildings. All I could think about were those movie scenes where the good guy is taken down to the riverbank to be shot. Instead, the no-neck pulled up to the airport, shook my hand, and said, “Have a good fly.”
Many Americans are wired to assume that taxi drivers in other countries are up to no good. And I’ve always said that if you’re going to get ripped off in Europe, it’ll probably be by a cabbie. But I’ve also found that most drivers are honest. Sure, scams happen. But with the right tips and a watchful eye, you’ll get where you want to go without being taken for a ride.

Dishonest cabbies often lurk at airports, train stations, and tourist sights ready to take advantage of tired travelers.

At Prague’s main train station, cabbies at the “official” stand are a gang of no-good thieves who charge arriving tourists five times the regular rate. If you don’t want to worry about getting conned the minute you arrive at a new destination, hop on public transportation. At Prague, opt for the Metro instead of a taxi. Recently, I took a speedy train from Rome’s airport to the train station downtown and then caught a bus to my hotel. It took me less than an hour to get from the airport to my hotel and cost 27 euros for the train fare and a handy week-long transit pass. A taxi alone would have cost 40 euros.

If you’re at a taxi stand or flagging down a cab, get into the car only if it has a prominent taxi-company logo and telephone number. Be aware that if a taxi is called for you (for example, by a hotelier or restaurant), the meter often starts running when the phone call is received. Note that there really are variable rates and extra fees. Trips on nights and weekends generally cost more, and there are often surcharges for luggage and airport trips.

In a cab, insist the cabbie use the meter, agree on a price up front, or know the going rate. If you have Internet access, the Web site can provide estimated taxi fares for larger cities. Or you can ask your hotelier when you book your room roughly how much the ride should cost from the airport.

Image: London taxi

Dominic Bonuccelli

London’s black cabs take you through a scenic urban landscape you’d miss if you relied on the underground Tube.

A common trick is for cabbies to select the pricier “night and weekend” rate on their meter — even if it’s a weekday. An explanation of the different rates should be posted somewhere in the cab, often in English. If you’re confused about the tariff, ask.

If you suspect a ripoff, make it obvious that you’re following the route on your map or conspicuously writing down the cabbie’s license information. Shame them into being honest. In many Western European cities, such as London, Paris, and Barcelona, meters are tamper-proof, so there’s generally nothing to worry about.

For small groups or families, taking taxis can be cheaper and faster than using public transit. A group of three or four people can often travel less expensively by taxi than by buying individual bus tickets. Taxis are especially reasonable in Mediterranean countries and Eastern Europe. You can go anywhere in downtown Lisbon, Prague, or Athens for about $10.

To show appreciation for good drivers, include a tip of 5 percent to 10 percent. If they haul your bags and hustle you to the airport to help you catch your flight, you could toss in a little more. But if you feel like you’re being driven in circles, skip the tip. If a driver owes you money, watch carefully as cash passes between hands, and count your change. (Cabbies can be expert at dropping a 50-euro note and picking up a 20.) Better yet, pay with small bills.

Despite their hassles, I love taxis. People often ask how I’m able to find the best beer or tastiest tapas in town. Many of my favorite backdoor tips and most interesting conversations have come from chatting up taxi drivers. In London — my favorite taxi town — drivers tend to know every nook and cranny, since they must pass a rigorous test on London geography to earn their license. Sure it may cost a little more than public transportation. But the nuggets, insights, and people make it worth the ride.

(Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)

© 2009 Rick Steves … Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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Expensive Cities on the Cheap

Strategies for navigating notoriously pricey cities like Honolulu, London, New York, and Tokyo, along with unique experiences in each that won’t cost you a penny.

By Tim Leffel, Monday, Oct 20, 2008, 2:18 PM 

Big Ben and the London skyline
Big Ben and the London skyline (Goodshoot/Corbis)

At about $5 for a pint and $8 for a single Tube ride, that London pub crawl is going to cost you. But London does have a better choice of hotels in all ranges than most other European capitals, and most of its
fantastic museums are always free.

The foot of Powell Street in San Francisco is a downtown transportation hub (Phil Coblentz/San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau)

To find other bargains, go to the Budget section of Visit London for an exhaustive rundown of free attractions and performances, cheap eats, and inexpensive hotels. If you’re only going to be in London a short time and plan on buying theater tickets, you can save a small fortune by booking a Theater Breaks package with tickets and a hotel stay. Be sure to get an Oyster card if you’ll be using the Tube regularly; it cuts the ticket price down to a more bearable level.

Freebie Join a BBC show audience by reserving tickets for a TV-show taping—perhaps trivia with Brain of Britain or comedy with Grown Ups. Choose from a schedule of upcoming sessions and come ready to laugh or clap.

You know you’re in trouble when half of the “affordable tips” section of Tokyo’s website is devoted to ways to get from the airport to the city for under $40.

To find an affordable meal, eat at noodle stalls for under $10, or explore the unique Japanese culinary stop: the department store basement. Seibu Department Store in the Ikebukuro area is a destination in itself, with two giant underground floors of food stalls extending several city blocks. The prim uniformed greeters bow as you enter.

Book a free walking tour of the Shinjuku commercial avenue through the tourist office and you’ll get the lay of the land from English-speaking volunteers.

Freebie Gape at the neon city below from the 45th-floor observatory of the Tokyo government skyscraper. For only-in-Tokyo views of another sort, stroll through the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market, otherwise known as the Tsukiji fish market. By either name it’s the world’s largest, with 1,400 stalls selling everything that moves in the ocean,as well as active auctions from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m.

New York City gets a bad rap mostly because of its sky-high hotel prices. But beyond hotel doors, NYC is teeming with cheap or free events and attractions all year long.

If you’re around in the summer, look for free outdoor concerts in Bryant Park or during Central Park’s SummerStage series. On Saturdays between 10 a.m. and noon and on Wednesdays, you don’t pay to enter The New York Botanical Garden. Every day is free at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Museum at the Hispanic Society, and the National Museum of the American Indian, the latter housed in the beautiful original Custom House building.

One silver lining in the recent economic meltdown is that prices are leveling off and even falling a bit at many New York hotels. If you don’t see a deal, try Hotwire and Priceline, where unbooked rooms go for a sizable discount. Also check BT’s recommendations: New York Hotels at a Price That’s Right.

Freebie Get a good look at the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline by taking a free cruise on the Staten Island Ferry. Join the commuters at dusk to watch the skyscrapers change as the sun goes down. There are also views of the Statue of Liberty from the Ikea Water Taxi, which makes the trip between Manhattan and Ikea’s new location in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Tip: On the way there, sit on the starboard/right side as you’re facing forward—and leave time to sample Ikea’s take on Swedish meatballs.

Expensive restaurants, pumped-up prices for foreigners at museums, and forgettable hotel rooms that can easily top $500 a night—what’s not to like?

Fortunately, parks and gardens cover almost a third of Moscow, and it’s easy to put together an interesting walking tour. Many guidebooks list routes that circle around the center, stop by all the historic churches, or explore the oldest section of the city, called Kitay gorod. If the weather isn’t ideal, go underground. Moscow’s metro stations are attractions of their own, impressive spaces alternately filled with mosaics, marble columns, and bronze statues. A one-way ride will cost you less than $1.

Avoid accommodations in the the pricey city center and instead find something near an outlying metro stop. You can reach the center within 30 minutes from almost any stop. If you’re staying for a few days to a week or traveling with a group, renting an apartment is an option. You’ll pay anywhere from $80 to $200 a night for a larger space with cooking facilities; browse

Freebie At Red Square, you’ll find Lenin’s Mausoleum, where His Waxiness has been embalmed since 1924. The line starts moving at 10 a.m.

France is so popular that restaurants and hotels don’t have to try very hard to stay full. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to save a euro besides sitting by the Seine eating baguettes and cheese.

The Vélib bike service launched in 2007. More than 20,000 bikes are kept in automated racks posted throughout the city, and the first half hour is free. Use your credit card if it has a smart chip; the chip is typically visible as a small gold or silver circuit board on the card. (some American Express cards, for example, will work.) Otherwise, you’ll need to buy a seven-day ticket for €5 to access the system. Pick up a free Paris a Vélo map for routes and bike paths. Find out about more European bike-sharing programs here

Freebie Hong Kong’s tourism board runs a wide variety of free culture classes in English. Learn the principles of feng shui one afternoon; then practice some moves with a tai chi master the next morning by the harbor.

There’s no getting around it: in L.A. you need a car and you’ll put a lot of mileage on it. You’re joining throngs of aspiring film and TV workers who are neither famous nor rich, so you can eat and have fun on the cheap if you know where to look.

Those in the know say L.A. has the best thrift shops in the U.S., and Hollywood estate sales turn up all kinds of goodies.

Cheap eats are plentiful: Try a double-double and a real milkshake from In-N-Out Burger, and stop by a taco stand for an authentic Mexican lunch.

For a quintessential L.A. experience, shell out $10 per person for a Sunday-night movie screening in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. You can bring a picnic dinner and a cooler of drinks—alcohol is permitted.

Freebie View the Hollywood sign and the city from the Griffith Observatory, or relive countless movie moments by admiring the sprawling city from nearby Mulholland Drive.
The beaches around L.A. are free and open to the public. Once you get north of Malibu to Zuma Beach and beyond, you can find free parking along the road.

Let’s see…take an isolated volcanic island chain in the Pacific and turn it into a tourist paradise full of golf courses and huge hotels. Only one problem: the costly long-distance shipping of everything but pineapples and poi.

Staying in a house or a condo with a kitchen helps. When stocking up on groceries, avoid the tourist centers and find a regular supermarket to save on your bill. Most restaurants in Waikiki are priced for tourists. To pay what the locals pay, head to Honolulu’s Chinatown, order Hawaiian-style fast food from one of 24 Zippy’s locations, or check out the Cheap Places to Eat in Oahu blog for ideas.

Freebie Learn to play the ukulele or dance the hula with free one-hour lessons at the Royal Hawaiian Center.

Get a free big-wave surf show between November and February by heading out of town and up to Oahu’s North Shore. Many of the world’s premier surfing competitions are held here, with waves that can swell to 30 feet.

There’s a lot to love about this city, but the dramatic hilltop vistas come with nosebleed prices for hotels and restaurants in prime areas.

The gap between expensive restaurants and cheap ethnic dives here is as wide as the San Francisco Bay. To eat great Chinese food on the cheap, avoid the spots decorated with pagodas and dragons, with waitresses in floor-length silk pajamas. Instead, find the alley spots away from tourist areas—the ones with Formica tables and a staff that barely speaks English. Z&Y Garden, Y. Ben House, and Hang Ah Tea Room are good places to start. Then next meal, hit one of the Mission District taquerias to stuff yourself as full as a burrito for $10 or so, drink included.

If you’re traveling with a bike or in-line skates, you can move freely through the eastern half of Golden Gate Park on carless Sundays. Hiking trails in the hills of Berkeley and Oakland offer panoramic views of the whole area. You can also get some exercise and some interesting photo ops by strolling 1.7 miles (each way) across the Golden Gate Bridge.

The new CultureBus is $7 for an all-day unlimited pass, and it allows you to get on and off at many of the top museums and parks. Read more about it on our blog.

Freebie The volunteer San Francisco City Guides organization has been running walking tours for 30 years. Each day presents a menu of choices, like a “Bawdy and Naughty” tour of Gold Rush-era brothels and dives downtown or a tour of the famous Haight-Ashbury district.

Hotels and attractions in this popular European capital are jammed with tourists—especially in the summer—and eating out can make you say “Mama Mia!” when the check arrives.

On the other hand, getting around Rome by bus and metro is downright cheap: €4 for a one-day pass or €11 for a three-day tourist ticket (the BTI). Or just hop on the #40 express and get a scenic tour from the Vatican to Termini Station by way of the Forum, Piazza Venezia, and the Tiber River.

The Europeans love their bottled water, but that doesn’t mean you have to shell out €2 or €3 for it every time you get thirsty. Buy yours at a supermarket instead, and refill it from one of the many public drinking fountains: the water’s perfectly drinkable.

To eat well without breaking the bank, visit a pizza-by-the-slice place or a tavola calda (hot table) cafeteria, where you pick from a selection of meats and vegetables. If you manage to hit a bakery at closing time, you might luck out with a bag full of extra goodies thrown in gratis.

Freebie There are more than 20,000 pieces on display at the Numismatic Museum of the Italian Mint, where you can learn about evolving money-making techniques. Show your ID to obtain the free entrance pass. A free daily puppet show (granted, in Italian) at Park Gianicolo on Janiculum Hill has panoramic city views for a backdrop.

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ATM’s Abroad

Whether you need euros, shekels, pesos or pounds, making a withdrawal from an ATM is generally the easiest and cheapest way to get cash abroad. The biggest advantage of exchanging money with your ATM card is that all cash withdrawals, regardless of size, are exchanged based on the wholesale exchange rate, which is usually reserved only for very large interbank exchanges.

This rate is often significantly better than what you can get from exchanging traveler’s checks at a local exchange counter. In addition, local banks or money change bureaus will add on transaction fees, which can easily eat up another 2 percent of your money.

That’s not to say there aren’t any fees associated with international ATM withdrawals — see below — but if you need cash, you will still almost always get the best exchange rate at the lowest possible cost by using your ATM card.

Get the Best Exchange Rate

Finding an ATM
If your ATM card is linked to the PLUS, Cirrus or Maestro networks, you have the option of using it to obtain cash virtually anywhere in the U.S. and in hundreds of countries worldwide. Each network has more than a million ATM’s. The PLUS network is associated with Visa, so your Visa card will usually work at those ATM’s. Likewise, the Cirrus and Maestro networks are associated with MasterCard, and so ATM’s marked with these logos usually accept MasterCard for cash advances.

Before you leave home with just your ATM card, however, make sure that the Cirrus, Maestro or PLUS networks are readily available where you’re going. While these networks are increasingly common overseas, they are still only available at a limited number of banks in selected countries. Each network has an online ATM locator:

  • MasterCard/Cirrus/Maestro ATM Locator
  • Visa/PLUS ATM Locator

    Check the back of your card to see which networks your card is linked to. If your card is not a part of either Cirrus or PLUS, you may find it difficult to find ATM’s to use abroad. Contact your bank for assistance.

    Using Your Card Abroad
    atm key pad keypad pin number codeIf you want to use your ATM card overseas, keep in mind that many ATM’s abroad, particularly in Europe, do not accept PIN’s longer than four digits. If your PIN is longer, contact your bank to have it changed. Also, if your PIN is based on letters rather than numbers, translate the letters into numbers before leaving the country. Many ATM’s only have numbers on the keypad. One more thing to keep in mind: Most ATM’s abroad will only let you access the primary account on your ATM card.

    Money Matters on the Road

    Sudden changes in your account activity, such as frequent withdrawals in a foreign country using your ATM card, can sometimes trigger a fraud alert and cause your bank to freeze your account. To prevent being stranded overseas without a functioning ATM card, be sure to call your bank before you leave to let them know where and when you will be traveling. During the same phone call, ask for a number that you can call from overseas in case your card is lost or stolen — often the 800 number listed on the back of your card will only work in the U.S. or Canada. Be sure to keep this number in a separate place from your card.

    It’s important to have a back-up plan in case your card is lost, stolen or eaten by an ATM machine; this could be in the form of a second ATM card (either your own or a travel companion’s), cash, credit cards or traveler’s checks.

    Don’t miss our tips for keeping your ATM card safe.

    Which Fees to Expect
    At the very least you will probably be charged the same transaction fee, if any, that your bank charges you when using another bank’s ATM. However, many banks charge higher fees for international ATM withdrawals — either a flat rate (typically $1 – $6) or a set percentage of your total withdrawal (usually 1 – 3 percent). Check with your bank before each trip abroad, as these fees can change often and without warning. To add insult to injury, you may also be charged a fee by the owner of the foreign ATM.

    Because these small fees can add up quickly, you will probably want to withdraw larger amounts than you might normally do at home — so be sure you have a safe, well-concealed place to keep your cash. (See Money Safety for more.) When deciding how much to withdraw, try to choose an uneven amount (90 euros rather than 100, for instance) so you don’t wind up with huge bills that you’ll have trouble breaking.

    What’s Your Money Strategy?

    Editor’s Note: If your bank is a member of the Global ATM Alliance (Bank of America, Scotiabank, BNP Paribas, Barclays, Deutsche Bank 24 and Westpac), you’ll be able to access ATM’s at other member banks overseas for free.

    –updated by Sarah Schlichter

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