October 18, 2013

Dollars, Francs, Pounds, but No Problem

Written by Dan Suits.

European travel used to involve endless hassle with foreign currencies. In the first place, hotel, restaurant and other charges had to be settled in cash, so you had to get two or three thousand dollars in traveler’s checks from your bank at home, carry them around and keep them secure during your trip. The traveler’s checks, in turn, had to be exchanged for the currency of your host country. Exchange rates varied with the kind of exchange office you dealt with, and changing money usually involved shopping around for the best rate. Regular banks with foreign exchange desks gave the best rates, special foreign exchange offices for tourists charged somewhat more, and hotels usually were happy to charge the most.

Regardless of rate, exchange was a time consuming and troublesome business. It always involved hauling out passports and ID, usually after waiting in line. To add to your problems, if you were visiting several different countries you had to be careful not to convert too many dollars at once, for every time you went from one country to another you had to stock up on a new currency. If you had to pay a new exchange premium to obtain, say, French francs with leftover English pounds that you had already purchased at premium, your exchange costs were doubled.

But all that is gone from modern travel. These days, the financial side of the trip to Europe is a little different from what you find traveling around the United States. Restaurants hotels, and stores accept credit cards as freely as at home. Indeed, in some ways payment with plastic is easier in Europe. When you settle a French restaurant tab with your credit card, the waitperson brings to your table a little computer that appears to be radio-connected to the bank. Your card is swiped, the amount punched in, and after a short wait for validation, the receipt is printed out (Incidentally, unlike the receipt you sign in an American restaurant, the French copy has no space to record a tip, French meals are priced service inclu or tip included). These little computers are even found in many taxis, and rail and subway tickets can routinely be purchased on your credit card.

Of course, you still need cash. You can’t use a credit card to buy a newspaper or make small purchases, and small rural inns and bed and breakfast places sometimes deal only in cash. But getting cash is no longer a problem. Even in small villages practically every bank features an ATM where you can get cash on your own ATM card if your American bank -as almost all do- belongs to Cirrus or one of the other international banking networks. Insert your card and punch in your PIN just like you would at home. The screen layout and the exact way you specify how much money you want may differ somewhat from what you’re used to, but you can select directions in English. Merely follow the simple instructions and the ATM delivers the amount you of local currency you need, charged against your bank account back home at the most favorable rate of exchange. Next year, with the arrival of the Euro as the common currency of most of the countries in the European Union, travelers will no longer even have to learn to use different coins and bills every time they cross an international boundary.

It’s true that having currency exchanges used to be part of the distinct experience of being abroad. But the reduction in hassle and worry about money has made foreign travel more relaxing and a whole lot more fun.

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