Currency conundrum

Weekend Wanderlust

By Jamie Hazlett
Sun Star Columnist

You’re finally there, the exotic locale that you’ve dreamed of visiting for years.  Elbowing your way through crowds of other tourists, you exit the airport and inhale deeply, immediately intoxicated with your surroundings.  As your cab winds through town toward your hotel, you can’t help but stare about.  Eager to dive right in, you leap from the taxi, a broad smile on your face as you reach for the fare.

And that, gentle reader, is when you realize that you’ve spaced getting the right currency.  Some of you may be thinking, “No problem – everywhere takes plastic these days.”  That assumption would be dead wrong, especially if you are traveling outside of North America and Europe.  A case such as the one described above could turn from an honest mistake into a major problem in the blink of an eye.  Save your vacation from the start by going prepared.

Your best bet is to make sure you change a little money before leaving home.  If you’re heading somewhere remote, change enough cash for several days worth of expenses, as opportunities to replenish your billfold might be rare.  Those headed for more technologically modern destinations can go a little lighter, but always carry enough for a day of basic needs.  The quickest way to change money before you leave home is to head to a bank.  Note the “bank” bit – credit unions cannot change money, so don’t walk into AlaskaUSA and ask for pesos.

Once you’re overseas, the rules change.  In the United States, Canada, and certain parts of Europe, traveler’s checks can be your best friend.  Find out before leaving, though – don’t just assume you’ll be able to whip out a check and get change back.  In some countries, the only place you can change out traveler’s checks is in a bank, and the last place you want to spend your vacation is in a bank line.

“Okay,” you tell yourself.  “I’ll just use my card.”  That works in some places, namely Europe, North America, and the metropolises of Asia.  If you’re traveling to these locations, Visa and Mastercard can generally get along, but check with your card issuer before leaving.  Don’t just run your card for every purchase, as financial institutions charge an international transaction fee per use, and those few dollars per transaction add up quickly.  Your best course of action is to hit an ATM every once in a while and take out enough cash for needs and wants for several days.  Watch your back as you make your withdrawal, however, especially in very touristy locations.

The biggest part of money management overseas is to know where you’re going.  Some places abroad will take a “major” currency and give change in the local dime; other places just plain don’t accept anything but their own money.  Wherever you’re going, try and talk to someone who has been there recently to get advice about what they found to be the best technique.  Guidebooks can also offer destination-specific hints.

Part of being a good traveler is doing your research.  Anyone who has worked in tourism in Alaska can remember how badly they wanted to roll their eyes every time someone asked whether we take Canadian money; don’t inflict that pain on someone else just because you were too lazy to do your homework.  Don’t be the “Ugly American.”  When you step out of the cab in front of your temporary abode, be it hotel, hostel, or rented villa, give the driver a big grin, say thank you, and pay them in their own currency.

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