Here's a scene I've seen repeated dozens of times around Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. It's late Saturday afternoon, maybe early in July. A young (or not-so-young) couple has driven up from the city by car or motorcycle, just for the day, in sparkling clear weather. But something magical has happened. They've fallen in love with each other all over again, and with the quaint lovely New England-ness of (insert town name here). They've decided to stay for the night in a feather bed, eat a nice meal, and maybe watch the sun set over the (ocean/mountains/lake), and head home tomorrow morning fully assured that all is right with the world.
Except that here they stand, before a tourist information center staff member, looking despondent (or even desperate) as the staffer holds a phone in one hand, waiting for an answer.
"Isn't there anything cheaper?" pleads one of the lovebirds. "No, and that's a good price," responds the person behind the desk as kindly as possible. "You won't find anything better."
Yes, travelers are in for a little sticker shock here in northern New England, at least during peak travel seasons. In midsummer, there's simply no such thing as a cheap motel room in places like Winnipesaukee, Portland, Portsmouth, southwestern Vermont, Camden, or Bar Harbor. Even no-frills mom-and-pop motels can and do sometimes happily charge $100 a night or more for a bed that could fairly be described as a notch above car-camping. Blander-than-bland chain hotels demand even more.
To be fair, innkeepers in some of these tourist areas must reap nearly all their annual profits in what amounts to just a 2- or 3-month season each year, so that's one reason for the astronomical rates.
Anyhow, take heart. Except during peak foliage season and holidays, the cost of rooms, meals, and day-to-day expenses is generally a lot less here than you'd pay in a major non-New England city. You can find excellent entrees at upscale, creative restaurants for around $20, comparing favorably with similar dishes at big-city restaurants that would top $30.
Still, lodging here is more expensive than in almost any other rural part of the United States (see above about the paucity of cheap motels), and planning can prove tricky for budget travelers.
So you'll need money to enjoy yourself here. It's always advisable to bring money in a variety of forms on a vacation: a mix of cash, credit cards, and traveler's checks. You should also exchange enough petty cash to cover airport incidentals, tipping, and transportation to your hotel before you leave home, or withdraw money at an airport ATM upon arrival.
The easiest and best way to get cash away from home is from an ATM (automated teller machine). ATMs are easy to find in New England's populated areas and regions that cater to tourists. Machines are also making their way into the smallest villages, but don't count on finding them in every last town; stock up on cash when you can.
The Cirrus (tel. 800/424-7787; www.mastercard.com) and PLUS (tel. 800/843-7587; www.visa.com) networks span the country; you can find them even in remote regions. Go to your bank card's website to find ATM locations at your destination. Be sure you know your daily withdrawal limit before you depart.
Many banks impose a fee every time you use a card at another bank's ATM; the fee is often higher for international transactions (up to $5 or more) than for domestic ones (rarely more than $2). In addition, the bank from which you withdraw cash may also charge its own fee. To compare banks' ATM fees within the U.S., use www.bankrate.com. Visitors from outside the U.S. should also find out whether their bank assesses a 1% to 3% fee on charges incurred abroad.
Credit Cards & Debit Cards
Credit cards are the most widely used form of payment in the United States: Visa (Barclaycard in Britain), MasterCard (EuroCard in Europe, Access in Britain, Chargex in Canada), American Express, Diners Club, and Discover. They also provide a convenient record of all your expenses, and offer relatively good exchange rates. You can withdraw cash advances from your credit cards at banks or ATMs, but high fees make credit card cash advances a pricey way to get cash.
It's highly recommended that you travel with at least one major credit card. You must have a credit card to rent a car, and hotels and airlines usually require a credit card imprint as a deposit against expenses.
ATM cards with major credit card backing, known as "debit cards," are now a commonly acceptable form of payment in most stores and restaurants. Debit cards draw money directly from your checking account. Some stores enable you to receive cash back on your debit-card purchases as well. The same is true at most U.S. post offices.
Though credit cards and debit cards are most commonly used, traveler's checks are still widely accepted in the U.S. Foreign visitors should make sure their traveler's checks are denominated in U.S. dollars; foreign-currency checks are usually difficult or impossible to exchange in northern New England.
You can buy traveler's checks at most banks. Most are offered in denominations of $20, $50, $100, $500, and sometimes $1,000. Generally, you'll pay a service charge ranging from 1% to 4%.
The most popular traveler's checks are offered by American Express (tel. 800/807-6233; tel. 800/221-7282 for cardholders -- this number accepts collect calls, offers service in several foreign languages, and exempts Amex gold and platinum cardholders from the 1% fee.); Visa (tel. 800/732-1322) -- AAA members can obtain Visa checks for a $9.95 fee (for checks up to $1,500) at most AAA offices or by calling tel. 866/339-3378; and MasterCard (tel. 800/223-9920).
Be sure to keep a copy of the traveler's checks serial numbers separate from your checks in the event that they are stolen or lost. You'll get a refund faster if you know the numbers.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.