Like the laws of thermodynamics, like the codes of DNA, there are immutable rules of travel that work for any vacation, wherever you go. Here are 10 of my current favorites:
1. Never change your dollars into foreign currency at a commercial money-changing kiosk or storefront, even at an airport. If you must change money at an airport, change the smallest amount your courage will allow. Increasingly, and all over the world, commercial money-changers take commissions ranging upward of 10%. (Some tiny storefront money-changers near Piccadilly Circus in London headline a 2% rate for buying British pounds, but conceal in tiny type their 9.5% rate for selling pounds.)
Look instead for a bank, the biggest you can find, and change your money there; you'll get the best available rate and pay the lowest fee. Better yet, search for a bank ATM machine that honors your card--they are increasingly found all over the world--and you'll get an even better rate and terms.
2. As a tourist, eat one meal a day picnic-style, from cold ingredients. No one can properly digest two multi-course hot meals a day; yet we all tend to visit restaurants twice a day when we travel, spending unnecessarily large sums. Do, instead, as you would at home (where lunch is often a light sandwich meal): Pick up bread, pa^te, cheese and wine from the foreign equivalent of a delicatessen or food section of a department store and consume them picnic-style on a park bench or alongside a river (or in your hotel room).
You'll save money, avoid discomfort and eat healthfully at the same time.
3. On your visit to any large city, haunt the university bulletin boards. In all the major cities of the U.S., and in capitals of English-speaking (or largely English-speaking) countries overseas (London, Sydney and New Delhi are examples), there are universities dotted with bulletin boards, a treasure trove of listings for free and almost nightly lectures, concerts, workshops and social gatherings in which the lingua franca is English. The students and other adult local residents attending these functions are among the area's most dynamic people, and your conversations or encounters with them will be a highlight.
4. Always remember that auto drive-away agencies still exist, supplying you with free use of a car. Auto drive-away agencies receive a hefty fee from people or businesses who want to have their cars driven to another city, such as in the winter to Florida. Naturally, they're always looking for drivers. One company, Auto Driveaway Co. of Chicago, has a network of agencies in 75 other U.S. and Canadian cities; telephone (800) 346-2277. Another, National Auto Transporter Inc., of California, has numerous offices nationwide; tel. (800) 423-3266. Look in the Yellow Pages for more.
5. Bear in mind that residential-style, all-suites hotels can bring important savings to families. First, they come with fully equipped kitchens, enabling their guests to eat in and avoid restaurant charges; second, they're large enough for a family of four or five. The rapidly expanding chains of such hotels should always be contacted in advance of a family trip. AmeriSuites, tel. (800) 833-1516, will have 70 new hotels by the end of 1998. Doubletree Guest Suites, tel. (800) 222-TREE, are now found in every major city in Florida and across the country. The 60-property Homewood Suites chain, tel. (800) CALL HOME, will add 30 more hotels in 1998, and another 100 over the next three years. At most such hotels, rates start at $89 a night for a one-bedroom suite capable of housing four, and rarely go higher than $119.
6. Caution: Before you buy, you can rent a recreational vehicle for a trial trip. The experience of vacationing via recreational vehicle is so very unusual that it should be tested before you make any sort of commitment to the mode. Most people need to learn how they react to driving such a large vehicle and to living with their spouse or companion in such cramped quarters. Rentals can be pursued first via your own phone directory; look under "Recreational Vehicles--Renting and Leasing." Or call Cruise America, a major rental company that has a nationwide toll-free number, tel. (800) 327-7778;, or Altman's Winnebago, tel. (818) 997-6622.
7. When eating at restaurants abroad, split, share and divide. The size of portions in most touristic restaurants overseas is enough to feed a family. When two of you dine, order one appetizer, one main course, and then split those dishes between you; you'll still send uneaten food back to the kitchen, and you'll save 50%.
8. Never make a phone call, change money or send out laundry from your hotel. Hotels regard these activities as profit centers, and some of them mark up the cost of the transaction to an unconscionable extent. Change your money at a bank; go to a phone center or public booth for your calls; take your clothes to a commercial laundry or Laundromat.
9. Never forget that people who pack light save money. Travelers who don't become heavy-spending beasts of burden, dependent on expensive porters and taxis, unable to shop around among several hotels, condemned to collapsing in sweat at the first lodging they see. Limit yourself to one medium-size suitcase per person.
10. When visiting any large city, move around like a local and sample the neighborhoods. Use the subways, trams and buses of the city you're visiting--they're an important part of the local culture. Ask instructions at your hotel, be courageous and climb aboard the public transportation system. You'll not only save money, you'll learn how people there live. And you'll gain an entirely different perspective of their city--a more realistic one--than the one you would get on a sightseeing bus.
On at least one occasion, take public transport to visit a real-life community, one that's away from the central tourist areas.