“money, money, money, money…” (from Cabaret)

What with the less than optimal exchange rate between the dollar and the euro we are already at a disadvantage when it comes to getting the ‘most bang for your buck’ while in Europe.

Traveler’s Checks

AmEx Traveler’s Checks are not used much anymore. You have to find some place to cash them (not all places take them) and that place will charge a fee unless it is and American Express office.

Cards -Credit or Debit?

What most people do these days is use an atm machine and their debit card or a credit card. So, lets look at the fees involved in using ‘cards’.
PLEASE note that many banks in Europe, just as in the US, will charge you a fee if you are not a customer of theirs.

AND According to Money Central at MSN. Visa and Mastercard corporation are going to add 1% onto whatever amount you withdraw as a currency conversion fee. Then the bank may charge as much as 2% more on top of that for doing absolutely nothing for a whopping 3% total. Here is the article:


Credit Union credit card, Commercial Bank debit, Credit Union debit

I looked into the charges associated with three 3 cards: my Kern Schools Federal Credit Union (KSFCU) Visa credit card, my Union Bank debit card, and my KSFCU Visa debit card.

Credit Card
I called my KSFCU Visa provider to see what they charge. The woman I spoke with said that they charge what every other company charges: 3%! And on top of that the interest rate for a cash withdraw on the credit card is 24.24%!!! So, you do not want to use any credit card to get cash. Save the credit card only for making purchases.

Commercial Bank Debit Card
Next I called a commercial bank. I have an account at Union Bank and was thinking of using the debit card linked to that account. They charge a $5.00 fee every time you use the atm in a foreign country whether it is to transfer funds, check your balance, or withdraw cash. So if you are going to withdraw funds from an atm take out as much as you possibly can at a time to minimize the amount you pay for it. If I were to make a purchase using the debit card my account would be charged a 2% foreign purchase fee.

Credit Union debit card
Finally, I called KSFCU to find out the fees associated with using my debit card. They charge 1%. So this is probably a good way to go.
This is very cool:
According to Independent Traveler:
“… if you have a Capital One card, you won’t pay any fees at all — Capital One is the only major U.S. issuer that doesn’t charge its own currency conversion fee or pass the one from Visa and MasterCard on to the consumer.”
“We recommend calling before each trip, as these policies may change without notice.”

Another option

If you don’t want to get another credit card there is another option. EF has a Travel Prepaid Visa Card. This is a debit card. You have already deposited funds to your account and can use it until the funds are gone. It looks to me like the Visa company does charge a percentage for currency conversion and it looks like another 1% is also added to that.

Movies – Italy

In case you didn’t hear last week’s Travels with Rick Steves where he and two Roman tour guides talk about must-sees in Rome, you can listen to the podcast on itunes. Here is the link (I hope).


well rats!! that doesn’t work. Maybe you can copy and paste it into your web browser. If that doesn’t work go to itunes and type in ‘travel with rick steves’. The most recent podcast is the Rome City Guide.

I am happy to report that we will see virtually everything the guides mentioned as important to see (maybe not The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa).

The reason this ‘movie’ post is so long in coming is because I figure everybody has favorite movies that feature Italy, and who am I to tell you what movies to see. With books it is different, you are less likely to have read about Italy. Unless you have read Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons which, of course, I forgot to mention last time.

Then I thought, well maybe I should just mention my 3 favorite Italian/Italy related movies and find out what your favorite movies are. But there was a time (when I was totally infatuated with all things Italian) when the only movies in my Netflix queue were Italian, old, new, bad, good….

So, the only one I can definitely say is among my top 3 is Nani Moretti’s Caro Diario. It is only available in vhs format or through the instant play on Netflix. You can rent Moretti’s A Son’s Room as a dvd but his approach in that is very standard. In Caro Diario he talks directly to you and well, in addition to being very cute and charming, you get a quirky picture of contemporary Italians.

How about you all? Do you have a favorite movie or 3? Did movies have anything to do with wanting to venture to Italy?

Remember the February 20 deadline is coming up.

Important date coming up

Hello, Fellow Travelers (thanks, Sonja),

An important date related to our trip is coming up: February 20, 2010. BY THEN:

+All participants must be signed up.

+VERY IMPORTANT: They must have your name as it appears on your passport ASAP. The name on your tickets must match the name on your passport.(Name changes after that will incur a $100.00 fee)

+EF must be informed of any special travel plans  such as -go ahead and -stay behind plans.

+If you have any special dietary needs (I am vegetarian so I need to let them know about that)

+If you are not on the automatic payment plan you must be all paid up by February 20.

If you are staying behind DO NOT make any flight or train reservations yet. Our dates have not been finalized yet. We should have that taken care of by the 3rd week of March.

Have a good weekend!

Reading about Italy

To have a richer experience of Italy during our trip you might want to read a bit about the place before we go. Here are some recommendations.

Pick up most any travel magazine and you will find an article about Italy.

I like to go to the library and browse through the magazines for sale ($1.00 each). National Geographic Traveler and Condé Nast Traveler both frequently feature Italian locations prominently. They have beautiful photos, too.

For more in depth historical information I highly recommend Ross King’s books. They are well researched, easy, and entertaining to read. Plus, these two relate to places we will be seeing.

Michaelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling where in you will find out that MA was grumpy, died with his boots on, and rarely bathed. You will also learn that MA’s painting and composition improved once he looked at what Raphael was doing and he was able to get back (really really far back) and evaluate what he had already finished.

Brunelleschi’s Dome you will find that the Dark Ages were not really so dark, and if you adopt one of your apprentices you’d better be sure he’s not going to rob you blind. Il Duomo (the house) is the tallest most imposing building in Florence. We will definitely enter it. Also, this is where the famous Baptistry doors are that heralded the start of the Renaissance.


I am thinking about getting his book about Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power. Machiavelli and Michaelanglo are both buried in (I think it is ) Santo Spirito church in Florence. We will probably tour that church. I think Dante might be buried there, too but I am not sure since he was banished from Florence for writing The Divine Comedy.

If you are interested in how Italy became unified (19th century) and how come the Pope got squeezed into the small city state of Vatican you might want to read David Kertzer’s The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara


It looks like Kertzer has written a number of books about Italy that might be interesting.

And, finally, if you are interested in contemporary Italy there is an EXCELLENT book by Tobias Jones. It is very very entertaining! David (and maybe Sharon) is reading it now. Any comments David?

The Dark Heart of Italy


Next week: movies

coffee in Italy

While we are in Italy you may want to order coffee from a (coffee) bar since Italian coffee is soooo very good.

Italians will drink capuchino (yum)  in the morning. But not in the afternoon. Café macchiato is different than Starbuck’s drink of the same name. Café macchiato is spotted coffee, just a splash of milk in the coffee. Also, Italians stand at the bar and have a quick pick-me-up of espresso in a thimble sized glass, chased with a glass of water –  again – quick.

From my experience you can order coffee from the bar  OR you can sit at a table and be waited on. If you go to the bar you the coffee may be less expensive than if you sit at a table to order. BUT you cannot order coffee at the bar and then look for a seat.

The protocol at one bar we went into was go to the cashier, order the coffee, pay the cashier, get a ticket, hand the ticket to the barista,  stand at the bar and drink your coffee – quickly.

So, be sure to watch the locals.

Get in Shape

START WALKING: We are 6 months away from our trip and it is time to get into shape. A tour in Italy requires a whole lot of walking. If you start to get into shape NOW then in June climbing the 7 hills of Rome will be a cake-walk. Actually we will not climb all 7 of the hills of Rome but you take my meaning.

preliminary packing advice for our trip

#1 packing


I was going to compile a packing list and give some packing tips for our trip this summer but then I checked Rick Steves’s site.It is all there for you so why reinvent the packing list?

I will say is that I have used compression bags bought from Target: Embark brand. I find that they work well.
Also, silk underwear is a bit too hot for the summer in Italy.
I would get a bag that can be unzipped for more room. You will be bringing back souvenirs and will need the space. I think I would also bring a lightweight totally collapsible bag (nylon?). That way, if you check your bag on the return you will have this bag to use as a carry-on for important stuff.

I usually only pack a carry-on bag and the size limits seem to be shrinking. As RS says the size limitations will vary from airline to airline and airport to airport. Just this December a carry-on bag that was acceptable with British Air had to be checked with Ryan Air. AND since I had not paid for a checked bag when I made the reservation I had to pay twice the fee at the gate – going and returning. Once we know what our airline is (March) we can check the sizes for sure.


Rick recommends wearing a money belt (he sells his own design).
I carry an Ameribag (can be bought at the luggage store on Stockdale or at Guarantee Shoes downtown.) It is worn crosswise and the bag is infront of your body. The strap is well coordinated with the bag that is almost impossible for someone to cut. You keep your important stuff in a zippered pocket that is next to your body. It has lots of dedicated pockets inside as well as a pocket for your water bottle. This bag leaves you hands free and worry free since everything is right there in front of you. I don’t know if they come for left handers.
Strangely enough on the web site the images show the bag worn over the shoulder and on the back….


I don’t know about you but I am excited!