Nothing is more dismaying to a traveler than the sneaking feeling that he's being ripped off. Correspondents in European capitals report- with personally burned fingers-on ways to avoid that feeling:
-Taxis. Avoid, evade and shin airport-to-city taxis unless you like throwing money away.
A cab from Zaventem airport into downtown Brussels costs $20; a train costs $1.73 first-class. Nearly everywhere, airport cab fares are 10 times those of public transportation-which is often faster. In geneva, special bus lanes mean a bus at $2.30 takes up to 45 minutes.
Generally speaking, taxis in Europe are expensive but honest. There are exceptions.
Italian cabbies always ask more than the meter shows. Some extras are legitimate, others aren't. Ask for a written explanation; marvelous how the bill can melt.
In Rome, run rather than walk from the "gypsy" cab driver who approaches suitcase-laden travelers at train stations, loads them into a cab not painted yellow and charges three times normal fare. Rome Bureau Manager Peggy Polk asked one such driver if his cab was yellow: he replied, "No, it's rained a lot and the color got washed away." Nice try.
Cabs prohibitively Expensive
In Switzerland, says Geneva Bureau Manager John Callcott, don't take cabs at all. "They are prohibitively expensive and often slower than the highly efficient Swiss public transport system." Buses in all large Swiss towns take you anywhere for 60 cents and run every 10 minutes in all directions. Taxis have $2.80 on the meter before they even move.
But public transport is not a universal bargain. The Paris transport authority sells a "tourist pass." Forget it. For half the price, stick a passport photo on a carte orange at any subway station an buy the ticket hebdomodaire, a weekly pass but cheaper even for only a few days.
-Hotels. Beware of hotel laundry charges and of telephoning from your room.
French hotels impose enormous surcharges on long-distance calls. Swiss hotels do the same. And it's much cheaper to call Switzerland from the United States than vice versa. If you must phone place a quick call and have your party call back.
Be cautious of hotel-room refrigerator bars. Some Italian hotels automatically charge for every thing the bar stocks unless you protest. Check room-bar prices everywhere.
Watch French hotels coupling Cheap room rates with sky-high breakfast charges. You don't have to have a hotel breakfast-a cafe or tabac across the street will sell you coffee and a croissant for $1.
-Shopping. Be cautious at open-air markets like London's Portobello Road. There are bargains, but you need real expertise to find them, and elementary bargaining to get the right price. At most "flea markets," like Rome's Porta Portese, not even that will save you from being ripped off.
What Do Prices Include?
Always check what restaurant and bar prices include. In France, bills by law include 15% service: anybody tipping on top of that is a mug. Check whether "tourist menu" or menu du jour prices include wine and service. In Paris, with 12,000 restaurants, there's amazing price variation within a block's walk.
Tourists in Italy have a right to demand an Itemized Receipt, a ricevuta fiscale, for every purchase, and smart ones often do. They also check restaurant bills item by item. A friend queried one item and the waiter, deducting it, remarked: "That's what we call 'If it goes, it goes.' This time it didn't go."
Buy fake Gucci, Fendi and Vuiton bags in Italian streets if you must-they're often good value-but don't imagine that the bargain is the real thing.
Don't buy Swiss Watches in Switzerland. Markups can be 300%, and the same watch is often cheaper at home.
-Touring. One Vienna tourist company offers a bus tour along the Danube to Krems and the baroque monastery at Melk for $38. A train-boat ticket from Vienna's Westbanhof train station goes to Krems and Sails the Danube to the monastery at Melk for $12.
Similar examples are legion. It is almost always cheaper to make independent tour arrangements. That includes "Paris by Night" bus tours to bare-flesh shows at the likes of the Moulin Rouge and Lido.
-Miscellany. Take care at airport duty-free shops. Prices are sometimes, though not always, lower in town-or at your next destination.
Do not buy paperback books in Switzerland: They are three to four times the home price.