Getting your tax refund after a European trip is easy money

Now that European summer travel season is in full swing, it's time for a simple-but-potent savings reminder: Always remember to claim a tax refund for whatever you buy on your European vacation.

European countries have a simpler tax system than we do. First of all, the price that's marked is the price you pay. There are no surprises at the cash register when tax suddenly appears on the total, because tax is almost always included in the sticker price. That arrangement is much easier on shoppers and cashiers alike. But more significantly, European countries charge a flat VAT (Value Added Tax) of 15% to 25% to pretty much everything you buy. It sounds like a lot, but when you add up all the various taxes Americans pay on purchases, we're in that ballpark, too.

Americans are not subject to that tax and in many cases, we can get that money back at the airport before we leave. On a recent three-day trip to Germany, I had a expense of €66 (a pair of cool shorts) for which, in the waiting time before my flight home, I got my tax back. I put about €5 back in my pocket. That was €5 I didn't have to lose, and €5 that many tourists forget to reclaim. Here's how: