QFor a trip to Paris, I charged my first night's lodging and two tickets for the Paris Opera on my Bank One Visa. My billing statement from Bank One included an "exchange rate adj" for the charges. A customer-service agent informed me that the bank charges 2 percent and Visa charges 1 percent on foreign currency exchanges. Do all Visa cards charge these fees?
AVisa and MasterCard both charge a 1 percent currency conversion fee, so that's always going to be a minimum fee for all purchases made in a foreign country. But additional fees charged by the issuers of those cards vary considerably. American Express and Diners Club, which issue their own cards, charge a flat 2 percent.
Consumer Action (415-777-9635, www.consumer-action.org), a nonprofit consumer watchdog group, conducted a survey in May of 140 charge cards from 45 issuers and found that 26 added their own currency conversion fees, up from 17 the previous year. The average fee was 1.56 percent. The study said Capital One, Fleet Bank and MBNA were among the larger issuers that do not assess an additional fee for currency conversions. Check with your card issuer before traveling.
Also, when you use an ATM in a foreign country for a cash advance, you may also be hit with a fee from the owner of that ATM. But credit card fees are still often cheaper than the fees banks charge to exchange U.S. cash into foreign currency.
Can you recommend any great cooking schools in Italy?
Italian cooking schools are very popular, with scores of choices. Most are held in the spring and fall. ShawGuides (212-799-6464, www.shawguides.com) is a good resource for finding the right school. Several that get consistently good reviews include:
* Diane Seed's Roman Kitchen (011-39-0667-97103, www.italiangourmet.com), which offers several courses in Rome, Puglia and the Amalfi Coast. A six-day course with lodging in Puglia starts at $2,800 per person double.
* Italian Cookery Course at Casa Ombuto in Tuscany (011-31-35-5310030, www.italiancookerycourse.com). Prices start at $2,135 double for eight days with lodging.
* Cooking With Giuliano Hazan (941-923-1333, www.giulianohazan.com), held at the Renaissance Villa Giona near Verona. Prices start at $3,700 per person double for a six-day session.
You can also consult a tour company specializing in Italian cooking vacations. Choices include Cook Italy (011-39-349-007-8298, www.cookitaly.com), the International Kitchen (800-945-8606, www.theinternationalkitchen.com) and Culinary Vacations (888-636-2073, www.culinaryvacationsinc.com).
My son, a Marine returning from Iraq, and I are driving home from Miramar Air Station in San Diego in early winter. Any suggestions on what route to take?
Indian Head, Md.
Maybe you should start with a couple of days of R&R in San Diego. You can get reasonable lodging in Mission Valley, near downtown and the beach. Info: San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau (619-236-1212, www.sandiego.org). From there, take a southern route to avoid the bad weather. Figuring that you'll spend six to eight hours driving each day, it should take between six and seven days to cover the trip.
I'd take Interstate 8 from San Diego, through the desert in Arizona and onto I-10. You could probably make it to Tucson the first day; the Saguaro National Monument outside Tucson may make a nice stop. Contact the Tucson Visitors Center (800-638-8350, www.visittucson.org) for more choices.
You'll go through El Paso on I-10 and can stop somewhere near there for the second night. Info: El Paso Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-351-6024, www.elpasocvb.com.
You can then choose between continuing on the more southerly I-10, which goes through San Antonio, Houston and New Orleans, or I-20, which travels through Abilene, Tex., and Dallas. While the southern route holds more appeal for tourists, I-20 is faster. At Dallas, cut over on I-30 through Little Rock, then onto I-40 clear across Arkansas and Tennessee before it hooks up with I-81, which will eventually bring you to I-66, the Beltway and home.
Stay overnight near Abilene, Little Rock, Nashville and Roanoke. Interesting sights include the 12th Armored Division Memorial Museum in Abilene (800-727-7704, www.tabilene.com/visitors), shopping in West Little Rock (800-844-4781, www.littlerock.com), the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville (800-657-6910, www.nashvillecvb.com) and the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke (540-342-2028. www.downtownroanoke.org).
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