Just when I thought I knew everything about my credit card, I went to Norway.
My credit card and I got a little closer in March, when my husband and I took a little winter getaway to Oslo. There I learned what it’s like to have to eat in the second-most expensive city in the world — try $60 for two Frydenlund beers and a bag of peanuts. I learned there is no such thing as a fee-free vacation, and that sales-tax refunds can come in handy, even if they’re small.
Being a smart traveler, I called my bank before we left and told them I’d be using my credit and debit cards in Europe. I guess I wasn’t that smart, though; I didn’t think to ask about fees.
When we got to Oslo, we extracted what we thought was a decent amount of krone from an ATM. However, a few shockingly pricey meals later, we decided to conserve cash and put all dinners on our credit cards. That worked well, until a scary moment when the tabletop credit-card processor — they’re standard in Europe — didn’t work. I sat fearful, imagining a laundry list of duplicate charges as the waiter swiped my card three, four, five times. Being a bit of a Nervous Nelly, I followed the waiter to the cash register to oversee him as he processed the card the old-fashioned way. But even after we left the restaurant, I still wasn’t completely confident that everything had gone as it should.
Later, we stopped by a souvenir shop to pick up hand-knit mittens and a hat for my mom. I really didn’t want the hat, but buying it hiked the bill to 664 krone (about $119), which qualified me for a sales tax refund. Many foreign governments offer tourists a refund of their value-added tax (VAT), but to qualify, you typically have to spend over a certain amount of money at a single retailer, though rules vary by country.
Our vacation proceeded as planned: Walks through the city, an evening at the Oslo Philharmonic and more, plus one unexpected detour to the ER. (Treatment cost less than the cab ride to and from the hospital, but that truly is another blog post). Then we flew home.
When the credit card bill arrived, I tore it open with trembling fingers. Ah, relief. No duplicate charges from that restaurant.
But wait, what was that on the next page: $13 in transaction fees? For a minute, I thought the clerk at the airport VAT counter had charged my card instead of crediting it.
I called my bank. The representative assured me they’d always charged a 3 percent foreign transaction fee for purchases made overseas. Except before, they buried it (my phrase, not hers) in the cost of the item. The Credit CARD Act, she explained, required the bank to spell out the charges separately. Easier to read, yes, but slightly more painful. I liked the buried way better.
I kept reading the bill and found the $15 VAT credit, which made my mom’s hat and mittens merely ridiculously, rather than frightfully, expensive. I decided to think of the VAT refund as covering the transaction fees, with two dollars to spare.
Two whole dollars. That’s 11 Norwegian krone. Enough for a single peanut.
See related: CreditCards.com’s 2011 credit card fee survey