Travels Abroad Call For Trust, Quick Math
By Carolyn Spencer Brown
A few minutes later, walking down a deserted street on the Lido, I heard a voice shouting, "Signorina! Signorina!" It was my waitress, brandishing the wad of lira I'd left. She was babbling in Italian, pressing the money into my hand. Pretty quickly, I was able to figure out that I'd left her a $20 tip on a $15 meal, and she was giving it back. I frantically leafed through the bills, trying to compute how much a $5 tip would be, but she waved and smiled and hurried back to the restaurant. I was embarrassed, of course, but impressed with my hostess's grace.
For all the attention paid to news reports about currency fluctuations, the only time most of us can really understand what it means to live in a world with multiple and inconstant currencies is when we go abroad. After traveling to about 30 countries over the past five years, I've gone from feeling utterly mystified with the process to developing ways to cope with other countries' money. Along the way I've put myself at the mercy of a London taxi driver, as I held out a handful of coins and asked him to help himself. I've purchased saffron in Grenada with U.S. dollars and received Caribbean coins as change. I've tried to spend the Brazilian real in Brazil, only to have locals insist on U.S. dollars instead.
On the most mundane level, travelers have to do math on the fly. Trying to figure out how much you're paying for a $2.45 tube of toothpaste, for instance, can be confounding. That tube can cost you 1.71 (Irish punt), or 19.31 (Swedish krona), or 33,981 (Vietnamese dong) or 2.17 with the new euro.
I've learned to cope, mostly because I'm too proud to carry around one of those pocket currency converters that scream "tourist." I create a mental currency recipe for each country I visit. In Paris last fall, my system worked pretty well. Francs were 5.5 to the dollar. To figure out what I was really paying for a 30-franc lunch, I multiplied 30 times two, then added a zero to come up with $6. The purist would say that's about $5.75, but six bucks is pretty close--and, more important, it lets me preserve my vanity in the deal.
But sometimes currencies move so quickly no device can help. When the Mexican peso went through a wild phase a couple of years ago, restaurateurs were handing out menus with no printed prices and covered in clear plastic. They would mark the prices in grease pencil, a sort of "catch of the day" approach to currency valuation.
For worse or better, technology is smoothing out many travelers' money problems. Automated teller machines that accept U.S. bank cards are by now so pervasive you'll even find them in Antarctica (where they dispense U.S. dollars). Your ATM card usually provides local currency in a foreign country at a fair exchange rate (though you pay a fee, just as you'd face a charge for using low-tech traveler's checks or visiting the bureau de change). The only difference between using an ATM in Stockholm is that it'll spit out Swedish kronor instead of dollars. One lesson I've learned the hard way, though: ATMs, which depend on local phone systems, can fail. I wasted most of a day in London going from one nonfunctioning ATM to another, with only 2 pounds remaining in my pocket. When I finally found a working machine, I withdrew twice as much as I needed and worried that I was carrying too much cash the rest of my trip. My new policy: I always keep $100 U.S. hidden deep in my purse. (Millennial travelers, take note!)
One imminent change that should make life easier for baffled Americans abroad is the euro, the currency adopted by 11 European countries on Jan. 1. Coins and bills are not in circulation yet, but when I was in France in November, receipts were already being printed showing prices in both francs and euros. The euro will make intra-European travel easier for Americans; that tube of toothpaste will cost 2.17 euros whether I'm in Austria or Spain.
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