Travel in Europe Is Expensive, No Matter the Rate of Exchange

Travel in Europe is still very expensive -- though it has little to do with the rate of exchange. The dollar has strengthened against the euro in recent months, but money-exchange costs, credit-card fees, and the American urge to shop often wipe out any financial gain.

I've just returned from Europe and noticed some things that might be helpful if you are planning a trip there.

The first is an attitude. A traveler has to be philosophical about the surprising cost of changing money, or you will spend too much time and emotional energy chasing around town for a few basis points in the rate of exchange. Even if you mainly use credit cards, it helps to realize that you are going to be routinely stiffed and that this pound of flesh is just a cost of travel. So change your money, eat the charges as inevitable and otherwise enjoy yourself.

The next point worth visiting is that although the Euro has tumbled about 25% recently against the dollar thanks to our Greek friends and others, it is still expensive. The last time I was there, when the exchange rate was $1.70 for 1 Euro, I told a friend that it was cheaper to blow your nose with dollar bills than to buy Kleenex. Now, at $1.24 per Euro, I at least think about buying Kleenex.

Not only is travel in Europe expensive, but globalization has made finding that unique souvenir or handicraft increasingly an exercise in futility. I mean you can find a cuckoo clock anywhere now. And that begs the question: What you are going to do with the thing when you get it home. Funny how many cute "must-haves" over there don't look so good over here. Oh well, Goodwill has to get their new donations from somewhere.

I'm sure that you, dear reader, have noticed on your travels how easy it is to spend those funny looking coins and bills. It’s like Monopoly money chasing Connecticut Avenue. There’s almost no emotional restraint in shoveling them out, compared to the learned habit since childhood of husbanding those precious greenbacks. Now that's real money.

Of course, credit cards don't help. You never actually see "money," you just flip the card, scribble the prescription, er, receipt and off you go. The transactions are immediately forgotten -- until a month later when, safely back home, you open your credit-card bill and are confronted by the cumulative evidence of your spin through vacationland. (Salted generously with outrageous fees, of course.)

At least we have those lovely memories to ease the pain. With a deep sigh, and a quiet resolve to be more careful next time, you go back to comparing toothpaste prices at the pharmacy. If you are careful enough with cheap commodities, over the course of a year you might save enough to pay for one meal at a trattoria or brasserie on your next trip. It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish, says I.

I also learned on this trip never to ask those around you on the airplane how much they paid for their tickets. A brief, non-scientific survey of the willing in my vicinity brought some gloating and a lot of chagrin. You may not be surprised to learn that not two of us paid the same fare. Even those of us traveling on frequent-flier miles now have had to cough up sometimes hundreds in "fees." (That is, if we booked many months in advance and got lucky enough to find an available seat.) What with reduced flights and billions of miles accumulated by the public, it seems that the whole system is not far from collapsing under its own weight. Once upon a time "free travel" had a lovely sound to it, but the shine is off the apple now.

Those of you of a certain age will remember when flying was actually fun. You dressed for the occasion, and were decorously and individually shown to your seats. No lines, no suspicion, no hurry and no cranky, overworked and underpaid flight attendants. But the mass market and security concerns have taken the glamour out of flying, it seems. We used to like to complain about the food back when too, but, then again, we took hot meals for granted and in retrospect they weren't so bad -- especially considering our current in-air mealtime fare.

The last observation I want to share with you doesn't directly bear on personal finance, but with our nation's screwy budget. I had the privilege of attending briefings in two American embassies. The first impression you get as you approach our embassies is that they’ve become fortresses in this modern world. Unfortunately it is not easy, even for U.S. citizens, to get inside.

Upon entering the embassies, I was very impressed with the ability and dedication of our Foreign Service Officers. They are one of the great hidden assets that we, the public, should know more about. Foreign Service Officers get precious little coverage and appreciation. I was surprised to learn that we only have 7,200 sworn Foreign Service Officers around the world -- a tiny amount, considering of that we ask of them: negotiation, fact-finding, issuing visas and passports, helping U.S. citizens, performing cultural exchange and constantly promoting American businesses abroad.

Amazingly, the U.S. Foreign Service is facing a 30% budget cut this fall. Did you know that there are more Americans performing in military bands than there are individuals in the Foreign Service? Now I love a good military band, but doesn’t it make sense to redirect some of our tax dollars to the Foreign Service, where we’re getting more than our money's worth?

Next time you plan to go abroad, it could be fun and instructive to attend one of these briefings. Write well in advance to the particular embassy for an invitation, emphasizing your specific interest. (You can find embassy contact information here.) If successful, you'll have the highlight of your trip and at no cost.

Bon voyage!