An item in Sunday's Travel section incorrectly said that European national currencies fluctuate more than the euro. The exchange rate between the euro and participating national currencies is fixed. (Published 01/12/2000)
Euro Cheque Book
Though the first bills and coins won't emerge from European mints until 2002, travelers can start using the euro now. American Express and Thomas Cook on Jan. 1 each launch-ed euro travelers cheques, which can be used immediately in 11 European countries in the First Wave of currency integration (Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, Belgium. Handy mnemonic: SPIFFING LAB). In popular destinations, prices are already prominently listed in euros alongside the local currency.
There are advantages to traveling with euro cheques, particularly if you visit more than one participating nation. The most obvious is the money you save by not paying commissions to exchange currency in each country. Another is the ease with which one can calculate euro/dollar exchanges (in recent trading, euros and dollars are about one to one). One disadvantage: National currencies often fluctuate more than the euro, meaning enterprising travelers may find better deals using local money.
Cheques are available at American Express and Thomas Cook offices, and via their phones and Web sites. If after arriving you want cash instead, both companies' European offices convert their euro cheques into local currency commission-free.
How Safe Abroad?
Nepalese officials in Kathmandu have admitted a breach of security that permitted the terrorists who hijacked an Indian Airlines plane bound for New Delhi to get a significant number of weapons aboard. While hijackings are statistically rare (the Federal Aviation Administration tracked 65 between 1994 and 1998, all on foreign-flagged carriers), the incident raises questions about quality of security in airports abroad.
In other words, how could somebody manage to carry on--or perhaps secretly hide on board--weaponry that included guns, knives and hand grenades? What's going on in Nepalese airports that made this possible? And what security standards exist for Americans flying on other countries' domestic carriers?
In the United States, the FAA establishes guidelines for security procedures in domestic airports. Airlines are then responsible for handling checkpoints and luggage screening. Foreign carriers must also obey FAA rules when flying to or from the United States.
But the FAA has no jurisdiction on setting guidelines abroad. That chore is handled by the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency. It sets safety standards but plays no enforcement role, leaving implentation to its 185 member countries (which include Nepal and India). But the countries, for obvious reasons, provide little useful (or reassuring) data about specific security practices.
The FAA offers the most useful, if sketchy, resource on aviation security for Americans traveling abroad. Its International Aviation Safety Assessment Program (www.faa.gov/avr/iasa/iasaxls.htm) rates countries in three categories that indicate level of compliance with ICAO standards.
The most common foreign destinations for Americans--Australia, western Europe, Canada, the Orient and Middle East, including India--get top scores. The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, which includes Antigua, Grenada, St. Kitts and St. Lucia and others, is in category two. Countries failing to meet ICAO standards include Belize, Gambia, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Suriname, Swaziland, Uruguay, Zaire and Zimbabwe. Nepal is not tracked by the FAA.
Bargain of the week
Virgin Atlantic is offering the winter's first sale fares to London. Pay $119 each way, plus taxes, from Dulles; total fare comes to $325. Other airlines are matching; fares are slightly lower from BWI. Cheapest fares are valid Tuesday and Wednesday through Feb. 29; no advance purchase requirement. Purchase deadline is tomorrow.
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