A Couple’s Journey to Get a VAT Refund From the EU

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Tourists traveling to Europe continuously leave millions of dollars on the table in eligible Value Added Tax, or VAT refunds, which can be 15-25% back on purchases depending on the country and nature of the purchase. That’s a decent amount of savings, and shouldn’t be left with your vacation memories in London or Rome or Budapest.

A lot of travelers end up leaving behind the VAT refund, either because they don’t know about it or it just seems like a hassle to follow through with getting it.

Because we’re not ones to leave savings on the table, when one of our Point Savvy colleagues went to Europe, she followed through on paperwork for VAT refunds and is still waiting to receive the fruits of her multi-country labor.

Just a few months ago a friend gushed about her wonderful experience of getting hard cash in hand at Heathrow after the end of a late summer getaway in London. After collecting her forms from a variety of retailers, she simply filled out a few more forms at the airport, and was given a little wad of cash before she departed on her flight back across the pond. Easy-peasy.

This prompted our colleague to go through the steps to get her refund too. She was traveling with her new boyfriend for a European tour beginning in London, followed by a “Chunnel” ride to France for a few days, and then a jaunt to Tuscany before flying back to the U.S. on a flight out of Florence with a stop in Munich.

She and her significant other followed the protocol. They carried their passports along on each shopping trip. They inquired at each retailer as to whether the VAT was applicable, and gathered the paperwork when people were willing to help. Despite the lack of enthusiasm from some retail staff, they took these steps in the hopes of getting a bit of cash back to offset the cost of their pricey trip.

Their first stop for a refund was at St. Pancras railway station in London on their way to Paris, and were kindly told that they could not get a VAT refund. The reasons being they were traveling by train (only airports process VAT refunds), and they weren’t leaving the EU. They were told to try at Charles de Gaul airport when they departed for Italy in a few days.

After picking up some lovely French wines and small gifts and the necessary paperwork for the purchases, they tried for the VAT refund again at the airport on their way to Italy. The customs agent looked at them like they had three heads, and told them to try when they were leaving Europe to return to the U.S.

After four glorious days in Tuscany, our friends had accumulated receipts eligible for a VAT refund from three different countries totaling hundreds of dollars. Their flight out of Florence was an early one, departing at 6 am. Needless to say, there was not an open espresso bar let alone an open VAT office at that hour. The flight attendant with Lufthansa assured them that the Germans would be sure to help.

So, as soon as they hit the ground in Munich, they went on a hunt for a VAT office with little piles of papers in one hand and the mobile app of the Munich Airport in the other. After an hour of searching and a dubious route through two terminals, they met two young German customs officers who were not at all surprised at the VAT refund story.

They informed our young travelers that each country should have processed their own receipts for a refund at each point of disembarkation, regardless of where a traveler’s next stop might be. They frankly explained that countries that are struggling financially don’t easily give potential revenues away, especially if the process of doing so increases their overhead.

Even so, the German men tried to help our friends and stamped their receipts. But, they informed them that their quest was not over. Because none of their purchases were made on German soil they would have to file their forms with one of three banks located in the terminal.

Based on principal alone, they trudged from bank to bank where they continued to fill out additional forms and then drop said forms and receipts hoping to receive their “VAT” refund within the next 4 weeks.

It’s been 5 weeks, and they are still waiting. We have a feeling that they shouldn’t be holding their breath, and neither should you if you are looking for a quick way to get money back for your purchases in the European Union.

We’re not sure if our friend who traveled to London this summer had such an easy time because she only spent time in one country, but if you’re doing a multi-stop trip, you will most likely have to go through the same rigmarole as our friends did.

Do you have a VAT story that you would like to share with Point Savvy. We welcome the opportunity to learn from you, and share your thoughts with our other readers.

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