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Three Money Issues

| June 21, 2004

1. The Euro

Back in mid-2001, buying 100 euros would cost you just $85. By the fall of 2002, the exchange rate was about even, or 1-to-1. Today, it's a sad state of affairs: That same 100 euros now costs you $121 in U.S. currency—or almost 50 percent more than just three years ago. That's quite a reversal of fortune, and one that is making travel to the European nations that use the euro considerably more expensive than it was a few years ago.

That's why this year more than ever before, taking a European cruise is an enormously solid way of getting the most for your dollar. The bulk of your expenses are set in dollars, pre-paid and not subject to fluctuation. Your shore-side expenses, which you'll usually pay in euros, are a relatively small portion of your overall vacation cost.

How can you save when you do go ashore? Here are some things that will cut down on your currency costs.

Avoid currency exchange booths at hotels, airports and tourist attractions. They charge more than banks or even American Express offices. Check to see what the exchange rates are and purchase an amount of money that minimizes your change fee. Many outlets charge a flat fee whether you exchange $100 or $300. If that's the case, change the most you're likely to need so you won't get hit again.

But don't go running all over hill and dale to save a couple of bucks. It's your time and it's your vacation. Saving a few extra dollars on exchange rates isn't worth the hassle of looking all over town for the best rate.

If the cruise line will exchange dollars for euros, you'll usually get a good deal and there's no extra fee; it's just factored into the amount.

The best strategy used to be to automatically pay all expenses with a credit card. This is still a good idea, but many cards now charge an exchange fee (sort of hidden) for making a purchase in euros. Thus the differential isn't as great as it used to be. Capital One is one card that doesn't do this. Check with your main credit card companies to see what their policies are, then act accordingly.

ATMs also have been a great way to exchange currency. But, again, fees have been added that make them less of a bargain. Check with the ones you use and see what the rates are; they may still be the best bet."

At the end of your trip, hold on to the unused euros. You'll probably get back to Europe and you'll save the reverse exchange fee.

The euro system is actually a good deal if you're going to be visiting multiple countries. In the "old" days, you could actually wipe out a lot of money just going from dollars to multiple currencies and then back to dollars.

2. Alaska Shore Excursions

Some friends of mine going on an Alaska cruise this summer asked me for help in selecting which shore excursions to take. When I looked at the options, I was impressed by the range and quantity of excursions being offered today. They are so much more varied and advanced than they were just a few years ago. I was also shocked by how much more expensive they are compared to a few years ago. Boy, have the costs skyrocketed! And my friends and I aren't the only ones who think so. CruiseMates has gotten lots of emails commenting on this.

There are reasons why this has happened. All costs are up. And cruise lines see shore excursions as a more important source of revenue than they used to be -- especially as they try and hold down the basic cruise cost.

The reality is, shore excursions are going to cost you. But an Alaska cruise is not a time for passengers to nickel-and-dime themselves. Alaska is best seen from the water and the air. It's hard to imagine going on an Alaska cruise without taking at least one flight-seeing adventure. Float planes that land on mountain/glacier lakes and helicopters that soar over glaciers and actually land on some are absolutely a must-do! As for the rest, pick the ones that appeal to you the most and take them. If you think about Alaska as a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, it won't seem like such a huge expense.

Also, if you're doing an open-jaw cruise (as opposed to a round-trip from Vancouver or Seattle), it would be shame not to begin or end the trip with a land package that goes through the Denali National Park area. Again, these add-ons are not cheap but they are incredibly wonderful.

3. Problems at Sea

It's an unfortunate fact, but things can and do go wrong on a cruise. It could be weather or a mechanical problem forcing a change in the itinerary, or an outbreak of some communicable disease on board – but there are times when guests feel they deserve something back for the change in plans or the inconvenience. Cruise lines have to deal with a variety or problems like this, and when they happen, they usually try to do the right thing.

Whether it's for one person or for a larger number, even the entire ship, there's a person or department charged with figuring out how to compensate passengers for the problem at hand. The more limited or minor the problem, the more quickly they can settle it. Future cruise credits are the most common way the cruise line will try to make up for inconveniences. That makes sense -- Why would they want to give cash back? Sometimes they will give you an option of a certain amount of cash credit vs. a greater amount of future cruise credit. Do they want to give back as little as possible? Absolutely. But they also recognize that current cruisers are their best future customers. So it's a delicate balancing act.

From a guest's standpoint, if there's an individual problem, report it immediately on board the ship. Make sure your complaint gets to the purser or hotel director and isn't just left at the front desk. Try to get a resolution as quickly as you can -- being polite at all times, of course -- and certainly before you get off the ship. If you feel you are getting any sort of runaround, put your complaint in writing on board. If there's no solution during the cruise, call and/or write as soon as you get home. Your travel agent might also help you at that point. Different cruise lines have various ways of dealing with these matters, and you have to play by their rules. If you don't like a first response, ask again – politely, of course.

When you're part of a group, make sure the ship or home office knows of your involvement, and make your case clearly. In the case of a group, the cruise line knows it has to do something, and it will. It doesn't always happen on board; it may have to wait until you're home. However, if you feel you have been overcharged for something on board, do not get off the ship without resolving it first. It's much more difficult to get a charge dropped from your bill once you're home.

Cruise lines really do want your repeat business; thus they will almost always try to make things right. If they don't, there are lots of other lines for you to consider for future cruises

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