Arthur Frommer: Beware of credit card conversion charges

02/06/2011 12:00 AM

02/06/2011 12:24 AM

In the ever-evolving world of travel, two recent news events deserve to be studied:

Conversion charges on credit cards

Throughout the coming weeks, you're going to be reading claims by Chase Bank (www. chase. com), Citibank (www. citibank. com) and American Express (www.americanexpress.com) that they have begun to waive the customary 2 percent or 3 percent currency conversion charge for using their credit cards abroad. Each of these institutions is starting to issue preliminary press releases about what they claim is a major development that saves big bucks and makes their cards the equivalent of those issued by Capital One (www. capitalone.com) or by various savings-and-loan issuers.

Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is not nearly as consumer-friendly. Read the announcements carefully, and you'll discover that the waiver does not apply to the standard cards issued by these banks, but is available only to holders of elite, upscale versions of Chase, Citibank and American Express credit cards, like the British Airways version of Chase's Visa card or Citigroup's Platinum or Centurion cards.

These are the cards with a yearly fee that can be as much as $90 or $100. They also charge immense penalties for late payments. You will need to decide whether saving 3 percent in the course of an overseas trip will justify taking on the added expenses of owning such a card.

I simply will point out that Capital One — whose issuing fees are reasonable ones (and sometimes are entirely waived) —charges no conversion fee, not even the 1 percent that Visa and MasterCard normally charge for use of a card overseas. And Capital One certainly doesn't charge the additional 1 percent to 3 percent of various bank issuers of credit cards.

If you're planning to make heavy use of a credit card overseas and want to avoid that pesky conversion charge, you'll probably want to obtain a Capital One card and use it exclusively when you make purchases in a foreign currency.

A major new tour operator to China

Because so many travelers are currently making their bookings for trips to China in the spring and summer months, I feel an obligation — based on rather skimpy information for the time being — to tell you about a new Chinese tour operator, Wendy Wu Tours, that has just entered the U.S. market and is rapidly establishing itself as a major source for air-and-land packages to China.

Since around 1993, Wendy Wu Tours, headed by Wendy Wu (whom I met at the Philadelphia Inquirer Travel Show), has been a leading source of China tours in Australia. From that base, which made the company into a major, well- financed firm, Wendy Wu is now offering a wide range of packaged tours to China (and other destinations along the Asian rim) for sale to Americans.

To compare Wendy Wu's prices with those of such established China-bound operators as China Spree, China Focus, Ritz Tours, Champion Holidays and Pacific Delight is extremely difficult, as each company follows different policies as to what its tours cover and include. While Wendy Wu includes the substantial cost of your Chinese visa (as much as $170) in her overall prices, the other companies usually bill it separately. Some of the other companies assess an extra charge for using a credit card to make payment, and Wendy Wu doesn't. Different companies charge different amounts for the gratuities set aside for bus driver and guides. So, to do the mathematical computations will take a bit longer than usual.

But the following can be said with certainty: Although Wendy Wu does not match the prices of China Focus and China Spree for short tours of 10 days' or a week's duration, she is extremely competitive when it comes to tours of three or four weeks' duration. I plan to do a careful analysis in a future column, but for the time being: If you are planning a fairly lengthy tour of China (and many Americans will want to stay for more than just two weeks), it will be a valuable exercise to study carefully the three-week and four-week tours offered by Wendy Wu.

You find that information at Wendy's website (www.wendywuschina.com). You'll be impressed.

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