A Washington traveler returned recently from Europe disappointed that she couldn't spot any stores with signs indicating they would accept the only international charge card she was carrying. What she didn't realize is that a favorite charge card may go by different names abroad.
With Americans traveling to Europe in record numbers this summer, many of them in search of shopping bargains, it's helpful to know what cards to take and when to use them to your best advantage.
To use the card, however, you must first be aware of who accepts it.
MasterCard, the one held by the Washington traveler, is known as Eurocard in most of Europe and as Access in Great Britain. In Japan, it may be called Union, Diamond or Million.
But how are you to know?
Whatever the name, look for the MasterCard logo -- the red and ocher intersecting circles -- advises MasterCard International. The company says its cards are accepted in 753,000 shops, hotels and restaurants in Europe and 4.3 million worldwide.
MasterCard is one of five major charge cards accepted internationally. The others are Visa, Diners Club, Carte Blanche and American Express.
Visa, which also claims 4.3 million outlets internationally, similarly may carry the name of whatever financial institution issues the cards in a particular nation. In Britain, it may be called the Barclay Card; in France, the Carte Bleue.
Look for Visa's familiar blue, white and gold logo, says Visa International. Whatever the name, all merchants displaying that insignia accept the Visa card. A specific figure for the number of Visa's European outlets was not available, but in Europe, the Middle East and Africa combined there are about 1 million.
Both the Carte Blanche and Diners Club card operations are owned by the Citicorp organization, so any place accepting one will take the other, according to Citicorp. That's about 800,000 outlets worldwide. No breakdown was available for the number of outlets in Europe.
American Express is known by that name everywhere. Worldwide, American Express is accepted at 1.2 million service establishments; in Europe, it's about 400,000, the same number as in the United States.
Why take any of these five cards abroad? For many of the same reasons that you carry them while traveling or shopping in the United States:
-- The cards are widely accepted in Western Europe; and, in fact, you are often able to use them even in supermarkets. The cards are also accepted in Eastern Europe, but to a lesser extent.
-- Charge cards are a handy way to avoid carrying a wad of travelers checks or cash, especially if you plan to do a lot of shopping. And your money remains at home earning interest until the bills come due, which can be as much as a month or two after your return.
-- As "travel and entertainment" cards, American Express, Diners Club and Carte Blanche require that payment be made in full when received, but they don't set a limit on how much you can charge. If you want to splurge, you can yield immediately to the temptation. On the other hand, Visa and MasterCard, as bank cards, permit you to extend credit payments over several months, but you generally can charge only up to a pre-established limit.
-- All of the cards are a form of security to pay for hotel rooms, meals and any emergencies that might occur if you miscalculated your budget and begin to run low on cash or checks.
-- Charge cards may be a convenient way to avoid standing in what are expected to be massive lines of Americans at currency exchange offices in Europe this summer.
-- At least two card firms, Visa and American Express, maintain that their card users get a more favorable rate of exchange than users of travelers checks, which both firms also sell. When you exchange a travelers check, it's usually at a retail rate that can be 2 to 3 percent costlier than the inter-bank or wholesale rate granted to large currency dealers. Visa says its card exchange rate is one-quarter of 1 percent more than the wholesale rate. For American Express, the rate is 1 percent more than the wholesale rate.
-- In some European countries (England and France among them), it is quicker and easier to get a refund for sales taxes -- the value-added tax -- on any purchase you carry home if you buy it with a credit card. The paperwork required differs for each country. But with a charge-card purchase, the refund is credited to your charge-card account, usually fairly quickly. If you pay with travelers checks or cash, there may be a delay in getting the tax refund (as much as two months), and it will come in the inconvenient form of a foreign currency check. Your bank or a foreign currency exchange may charge a fee to convert the check to U.S. dollars.
When should you use a credit card?
When the rate of exchange is stable or is fluctuating only slightly -- which has been the situation between the dollar and European currencies recently -- you should have no more hesitation charging purchases in Europe than you would in the United States.
If the rate of exchange is fluctuating widely, you are taking a gamble. The rate of exchange in effect when you charge a purchase may not be the same rate on the day when the charge-card company converts the foreign currency to dollars so it can bill you.
A merchant, for example, may hold the charge slip for several days. Then it must be processed by the charge-card company or a representative, which could take another day or two or more. During the delay, the dollar may become stronger (you're a winner) or grow weaker (you lose).
A rough rule of thumb is: Use your card if the dollar seems to be on a steady upward climb. The longer it takes the company to process the charge slip, the less you are ultimately going to pay for whatever you bought. Last year, a Washington woman bought a $400 gold necklace in Italy on the day the dollar was worth about 1,600 lire. On the day the charge slip was converted to U.S. currency, the dollar was worth about 1,900 lire. She was billed only $335.
The reverse of this is: Avoid using your card, for large purchases anyway, if the dollar seems on a decline. Each day your charge slip is not processed means your purchase is becoming more expensive.
ADVENTURES FOR WOMEN: On many tours, adventure travel requires the physical abilities of the "macho male," says tour organizer Sharon Saari, so she decided to put together a package of adventure trips aimed at the "fitness level of a desk-bound woman."
That means: "No backpacks and no freeze-dried food. We're soft, those of us who sit in offices," says Saari, a Washington environmental consultant who operates her travel firm out of her Middleburg, Va., home.
Saari is convinced there is a potentially large market of professional women who are looking for the fun and excitement of an adventure trip that is not overly strenuous, and who also would prefer to avoid "the pressure of singles cruises" and other singles-oriented tours.
She named her firm -- formed this year -- "Dare You!" because the emphasis is on off-beat travel. "We dare you to do something different," she tells inquiring customers.
So far, Saari has sent off one group to ride horses for a week in Ireland, and she has planned a 17-day safari in Kenya for July and a one-week horseback riding and white-water rafting trip in Utah for August.
In addition to being less physically demanding, her adventures provide such outdoor luxuries as places to shower and wash your hair. Those things are important to women, she says, and she personally scouts out each itinerary to make sure they are available.
While designed for women, the small-group trips (six to 15 participants) are nevertheless open to men -- "We don't discriminate." On the ride in Ireland earlier this month, the group of 13 included two married couples and nine single women. Ages ranged up to 72.
The Kenya safari departs July 12; the charge is $3,000 per person, which includes round-trip air fare to Nairobi and all land costs. The Utah riding and rafting adventure departs Aug. 11; the charge is $1,160, including air fare to Grand Junction, Colo. and all land costs.
For more information: Dare You!, P.O. Box 1018, Middleburg, Va. 22117, (703) 364-1622 (evenings).
ON LOCATION: The stunning red-rock mesas and canyons of Utah have been the backdrop for many classic movie westerns. For the third year, Western Leisure of Salt Lake City is offering eight-day guided bus trips to these locations, with a chance to see the movies filmed there.
For example, on the first day the tour visits Robert Redford's Sundance Resort in the mountains outside Salt Lake City. Before dinner, there's a showing of "Jeremiah Johnson," a movie about a rugged mountain man played by Redford that was filmed in the vicinity.
On the fourth day, the itinerary includes Monument Valley on Navajo Indian land, where "The Searchers," the John Wayne movie, was shot. Two days later, participants will tour Zion National Park and the ghost town of Grafton, location for the Redford and Paul Newman film, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
The cost from Salt Lake City is $849 per person (double occupancy), which includes eight nights lodging; four dinners, seven lunches and one breakfast; bus travel; guide; gratuities; and seven movies. Departures Sept. 14 and Oct. 5.
For more information: Western Leisure, P.O. Box 9427, Salt Lake City, Utah 84109, (800) 821-3997.