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TRAVEL Q&A

Travel Q&A : Tips for Buying Euros, Passing 9 Hours in Paris

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By K.C. Summers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 28, 2008

Q. I vacation in Europe frequently and lately have been appalled at the high cost of buying euros. Even the credit card companies are taking an extra cut. Do you have any tips on the best rates or methods for buying euros?

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Chris Walsh, Arlington

A. For starters, don't use a credit card to get your cash. Credit card companies treat currency purchases as cash advances and charge hefty fees for the privilege. Better to buy your currency from a bank before you leave, says Kelli B. Grant, senior consumer reporter at SmartMoney.com. "The rates are usually competitive," she said. "But don't wait till the last minute, because it will take one to three business days to get your cash."

Bank of America, for example, does not charge a fee for the purchase of foreign currency online. It does charge a delivery fee of $7.50 for orders under $1,000, though, so if you're part of a large group, consider combining your purchases. There's a $100 minimum for all orders. You don't have to be a Bank of America customer to buy currency there, but if you want to use your debit card -- and you do -- you must have a savings or checking account there that can be debited, or a Bank of America check card with a Visa logo.

But say you don't want to carry a lot of cash during your trip. (Smart thinking.) In that case, get a small amount of euros -- say, $100 worth -- before you leave to pay for taxis and incidentals when you arrive, then replenish your funds along the way from ATMs, which are ubiquitous abroad. Yes, you will be charged fees for using overseas ATMs, but you'll probably still end up better off than if you'd gone to a bank or currency-exchange counter, because credit card companies generally have better exchange rates.

One more tip: Shop around before your trip for the best credit card deals. Capital One is one of the few major credit card issuers that do not charge a foreign-exchange fee, Grant said. With other cards, you may end up paying as much as 4 percent on each foreign transaction. Checking credit card fees "is on my checklist of things to do anytime I go anywhere," Grant said. "It gets complicated, but in the end it's worth it."

I am flying through Paris in January en route to Mali and have a nine-hour layover in Charles de Gaulle airport starting at 6:30 a.m. Any suggestions?

Linda Rosendorf, Rockville

You're smart to avoid spending more time than you have to at Charles de Gaulle, possibly Europe's least enticing airport. And nine hours is plenty of time to take the express train into the city and have a look around. To be safe, allow about two hours' travel time round trip.

Buy a one-day Paris Visite pass for about $25 and take the RER B line to the St. Michel-Notre Dame station. Voila, gargoyles. See the cathedral, stroll along the Seine, do some shopping, have a meal. Lots of options here, but you can't go wrong wandering the St.-Germain-des-Pres or Marais neighborhoods (if you haven't done the Picasso museum, now's the time). You can also hop on the Metro with your Paris Visite card and see the Eiffel Tower and other farther-flung sights.

Your Turn

Several readers wrote in with additional coping tips for the Australia-bound reader (Travel Q&A, Dec. 21). Kirk Heselbarth of Manassas recommends breaking the trip into shorter legs. "My wife and I flew Dulles to San Francisco and spent the night in a motel before leaving for Sydney," he says. "Just make sure that your airline doesn't count the gap as an open, separate leg and charge you" an additional fare. He suggests a stopover in Fiji on the way back. And Jean Ratner of Bethesda says melatonin does wonders for jet lag. "I began taking it three days before my trip, the days of flying and the days after arriving," she says. "I was active when I arrived (except for one short nap on the day of arrival)." Ratner also broke up her trip, in San Francisco on the way over and in New Zealand on the return.

And for the reader looking for a quick getaway over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Linda Rosendorf of Rockville confirmed that January is a great time to visit the Miami area (Chat Plus, Dec. 21). "I would add Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden to your list, as well as a trip to Everglades National Park." She adds that a rental car is necessary to explore the area properly and suggests planning activities close to one another to avoid spending the day caught in traffic.

Send queries by e-mail (travelqa@washpost.com) or U.S. mail (Travel Q&A, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071). Please include your name and town.


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