Pesky Fees Down Under
The trouble with writing about personal finance is that you’re never on vacation—especially when you’re on vacation. Readers may recall that when I wrote about our “pesky fees” cover story, I noted that Qantas had charged my husband and me $20 each to choose seats for our upcoming trip to Australia to visit our son. The annoyances didn’t end there. We had been told that on international flights we could each check two bags free. But when we checked in at United Airlines for the first leg of our trip, from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, we learned that the airline had recently changed its policy and would allow only one free checked bag each. Under United’s new policy, it would have cost us a whopping $70 to check a third small suitcase. We carried the bag on and checked it free in L.A. with Qantas—which also redeemed itself by not charging us for pillows.
We had gone to the trouble of getting a credit card that didn’t tack on a currency-conversion fee. But we hadn’t been in Australia for 24 hours when we encountered yet another unexpected charge. When we booked a city tour of Sydney, the agent charged a 3% credit card fee and gave us a choice of paying $133 in Australian dollars or $145 in U.S. dollars—“so you’ll know exactly what you’re being charged,” she said. Chalk it up to jet lag, inattention or a reluctance to play the currency market, but we chose the U.S. dollar option—and instantly regretted it. At the time, the exchange rate was about $1.04 U.S. to $1 Australian, and it got better as our trip went on. So it would have paid to take our chances with Aussie dollars. My husband calls the extra few bucks we paid “tuition” because we learned from our mistake.
One thing that came as a financial shock was the high price of food: as much as $4.50 for a Coke, $21.50 for a hamburger at the small restaurant in our hotel, $15.50 for a club sandwich at a beach café. It was tough to find anything on a lunch menu for less than $15—$13.80 for fish and chips was a real bargain—or a dinner entrée for less than $20. No worries, as the Aussies are fond of saying. We instantly fell into our son’s habit of scouting out daily bar-food specials: $10 pasta night, $12.50 steak night and, our favorite, $5 happy-hour drinks at a café on the Sydney Harbour quay. Our best deal: a $3.95 meatball sub at Subway.
Tipping was another sticky wicket. According to our guidebook, tips weren’t expected or required, and that made sense when we were ordering at the bar. But on those occasions when we had table service, American habits (and guilt) died hard, and we sometimes left a tip of about 10%. When we took a guided tour outside the city, we were the only ones who slipped the driver some cash. The French exchange student who served us at a café was pleasantly surprised when we left him the change.
I couldn’t help smiling one day when I overheard a young American woman on a ferry telling her visiting family that all of her ATM charges were rebated by her bank (as were ours with Charles Schwab Bank). Smart girl, I thought, and I hoped she had read about it in Kiplinger’s.
Best of Kip
In this issue we bring you three special reports that are uniquely Kiplinger:
-- our annual listing of mutual fund winners, plus performance stats on 353 funds;
-- our cover story, in which we offer solutions to financial problems that drive you crazy;
-- and our choices for the best cities for every age. Not just pretty postcards, these cities offer job opportunities and a reasonable cost of living. Lunch for less than $15? No worries.
This article first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. For more help with your personal finances and investments, please subscribe to the magazine. It might be the best investment you ever make.