Thursday, October 21, 2010

The best credit card to take overseas

On a farm in Italy, I was served lake fish, roasted potatoes and sauteed greens.
If you travel overseas, most credit cards will charge you an extra 2% or 3% as a foreign-currency conversion fee. That may not sound like much, unless you spend $2,500 on restaurants, hotels, transportation and gifts, as I did in Italy last month.

The one card that doesn't charge such a fee is Capitol One's Visa, which I carried along with an American Express card that charges a conversion fee. The Capitol One card also rebates 1% of everything you charge on it. 

And when both cards were stolen by a pickpocket in the Milan subway, I found Capitol One's customer service far superior to that of American Express. 

The former sent a new credit card to my hotel by overnight mail, while the latter made me make two long visits to an American Express travel office. When I finally got the new card, I couldn't buy American Express traveler's checks with it or get a cash advance.

Interest rates don't concern me, because I always pay off my balance in full each month and collect hundreds of dollars in rebates every year. I received my Capitol One statement recently and got a better idea of how much I spent in Italy for specific meals and other expenses.

The weak dollar was a thorn in my side during my trip to Milan, Venice and Gallarate. When I left the U.S., a dollar was worth only 78 cents in euros. Then, the dollar fell further, to only 70 cents in euros.

The Capitol One card used a conversion rate ranging from 76.2 to 77.7.

All the meals I ate in Italy seemed expensive, though tax, tip, wine, mineral water and bread were included. Portion size varied, so I sometimes over-ate and over-spent. My priciest meal was at Noblesse Oblige, a seafood restaurant in Milan, where two courses were 35.5 euros or $45.65

I spent about  $91 on diesel fuel for the Alfa Romeo 159 sedan I drove from Milan to Venice and back, and that didn't even fill the tank completely. I spent about $50 on highway tolls, too, but public transportation was relatively inexpensive.

So the best strategy is to avoid staying in the big cities, and use the train or ferry for day trips. 

My hotel room in Milan was half the size and twice the price of the one I had in Gallarate, where the food was just as good but cheaper. 

In Venice, I stayed in a new hotel on Lido island for about $125 a night, with a full breakfast and a panoramic view of the enchanted city, and took the small passenger ferries three or four times a day to reach the Jewish Quarter and other attractions. 

From Gallarate, it was easy to make a day trip to Lake Maggiore, where I had a bountiful lunch on a farm.

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