Question for travelers re money (exchange rates, etc.)

My lucky friend Linda is going to London and Paris next week. She’s traveling with her friend, a travel agent, but the travel agent is more used to sending folks to Branson and Disney World than London and Paris, so they’re still checking on lots of things.

They’re getting different opinions on money. Some people tell them to convert their dollars here, in the U.S. some are telling them to wait till they get over there. Being unsophisticated Iowans, we’re wondering why it would make any difference. Isn’t the exchange rate the same on either side of the Atlantic?

Someone else told her to just take a little bit of cash and use her credit card or debit card. That seems like a reasonable idea. Is it?

We’re assuming the pounds and francs will be converted to dollars by the time they’re on the statement. Is that true?

And they’re also being told to NOT wear “informal” shoes, like their comfortable Reeboks, or they’ll “stick out like a sore thumb.” ???

Any comments, hints or suggestions from the well-traveled Dopers would be much appreciated.

The worst place to exchange money is an airport- you pay for the convenience. IIRC, if you’re trying to turn money into another currency, it’s best to do it in the country of the currency you’re changing into (i.e. if you’re going to England, wait until you get there). I could be misremembering, though. The exchange rates aren’t all the same.

Credit cards used to be a great way to handle things. The currency conversion is handled automatically, so you’re credit card statement is in US dollars (assuming it’s a US-based bank) no matter what currency the purchase was in. Best of all, the exchange used to be at a low inter-bank rate, much better than you’d get at a currency exchange place.

Lately, though, many credit cards have tacked on fees, as high as 2 or 3%, to each foreign transaction. This can make it much more expensive. I think a few are even treating it as a cash advance in terms of fees. You should check with your credit card company for details- it might be the best way or a really bad way to go.


I know on my trip to Canada, I got the best exchange rates using my credit card for purchases and my ATM card for cash withdrawls. (Optimum withdrawl was about $100 Can. More was too risky, less didn’t justify the bank fees.)

The problem I encountered was trying to account for everything that had gone through using my telephone banking. The amounts were converted to US dollars, so no amounts matched. And we went out for many meals of the same general price, so there were a lot of similar charges. Also, the exchange rate changed daily, so the same purchase on two successive days would hit my charge account differently.

I know travelers’ checks were the way to go (according to Karl Malden). But now they’re a royal pain. You have to sign every @!?#@! one at the bank, then sign them again at the merchant. And as what happened to me on a previous Canadian visit: my last dinner in Calgary was at a McDonalds. I was out of Canadian cash, so I used a $20 travelers’ check. They gave me $22 change, Canadian, of course. So I tried to use it up on our way back to the US. I had spent all but $2 when I tried to use them at a convenience store in Montana within view of the border crossing. “We don’t take those here!” was the snotty reply I got. :frowning:

That’s the way to go. My debit card worked in Europe just dandy, so I nabbed cash whenever I needed it. Of course, I have an account with no ATM fees. Why risk carrying a lot of cash? Use credit cards as much as possible.

Be careful in England spending money, though. The mega-expensive pound makes expensive things look cheaper 'cause the numbers are lower.

They should wear the most comfortable shoes they have; after sightseeing for a few days they’ll thank you for the advice. Who cares if they stick out? London and Paris are teeming with tourists anyway.

Arjuna34 – she was concerned about her cards being generally accepted – didn’t even think about extra fees. Thanks for the tip on airports too.

AWB – she was considering traveler’s checks, but they seemed like a hassle, and from what you say, it sounds like they’re a bad idea. Check that one off the list.

RickJay said:

Ha! She’s almost as math-impaired as I am. She’s figuring to add 50% to the price of something when paying in pounds, and to divide by 8 when paying in francs. Hope she doesn’t get it turned around.

Thanks, everyone!

I’ve travelled around quite a bit and my experience has been that you should have enough cash on you to be able to take care of small emergencies as they crop up. IIRC the French and the Germans are notorious for not taking credit cards, and there are minimum sums, so you wouldn’t be able to buy newspapers or stuff like that.

The exchange rate on cards is usually the best one available, the inter-bank rate, which is good. Every purchase I made in Asia on my Visa, AmEx or Mastercard listed the time of purchase, vendor, original amount and home currency amount.

Trainers? Sheesh, sure you stick out a little, many Europeans don’t wear them, but so what?

Many Londoners also wear trainers but Americans still stick out a mile on the Tube. I have never quite worked out what it is but they (you) seem to secrete some sort of american-ness which a change of footwear fails to disguise. Don’t fret though, us locals are a bit standoffish but mostly friendly, and you will not be alone. Can’t speak for the French though.

Yes. I have used my British Visa debit card without any difficulty in the US, and various European countries and I have found it to be the most convenient and cheapest method of getting foreign currency.

They should make sure they have enough cash to get to their hotel from the airport when they arrive, though. If they’re flying into Heathrow, the best way is to get the Heathrow Express train to Paddington (£12-14 each) and then get a cab to their final destination (< £10 within central London).

This is nonsense. American tourists stick out like a sore thumb in London whatever kind of shoes they wear. :slight_smile:

Also, an archive search helps, at times :slight_smile:

International ATMs

Going to Europe!

  1. Change money in your own bank. Don’t pay tourist exchange rates and commissions. If you must change money abroad, go to the counter of a high street bank, not an exchange facility catering for tourists.
  2. Credit card yes, but beware. Europeans don’t use cards for small transactions like you Yanks. Bring cash and carry it safely, in separate pockets, not visible, leaving most of it in the hotel safe each day.
  3. A mature adult wearing trainers looks very odd to Europeans. Do they really have no comfortable walking shoes?

Re credit cards, don’t take your Discover card - few places outside the US take them, generally only international hotel chains. Visa, MC, and Amex are pretty much universally accepted, with no more difficulty than there’d be at home. Their exchange rates are pretty good, too, since they deal in such high volume.

The advice about checking with your issuing bank about terms is good. Most won’t treat foreign-currency transactions any differently, except for taking more space on your statement, but some will try to suck every penny out of you that they can.

There’s no problem finding ATM’s in London or Paris, but they’re only at bank branches, not on every corner like here. They may work with your ATM card or they may not, depending on the network. If you find you do need a small amount of cash and your ATM card won’t work, you can get a credit-card cash advance at any foreign ATM. Yes, it will cost a couple of bucks extra, but it won’t break you.

If you use your credit card for most transactions, and you can, then the exchange rate on actual currency won’t be so bad at the airport you land at that it will really matter to your life, though. You WILL need some local cash, though. Usually I just take $100 or so for a few days, change it when I arrive, and go from there. In case the trip is cancelled for some reason, that doesn’t leave me in the US with some amount of foreign cash that I have to exchange back for another fee.

There are Exchange/Cambio/Wechsel/etc. storefront booths all over both cities in case you need to change more cash, but their rates are even worse than the airport’s. Don’t bother. Also, don’t do the classically-American-tourist thing of changing your pounds back to dollars when leaving the UK for France, then changing those dollars for francs when you get to Paris. You can swap pounds for francs directly, don’t worry.

And tell your friend to relax and enjoy both cities without being hung up on money. She’ll love 'em both, I guarantee.

So that’s where I’ve been going wrong !! I think that’s probably true - there are an awful lot of sub-serious more fashion orientated walking shoes / boots out there. And they may be a little more waterproof, that’s also relevant.

Hi Pam, A trip to London - is she nuts ?

On the money thing: As you say, yep, the exchange rate is kind of the same both sides of the pond. The rate itself changes whenever the market thinks an adjustment is needed but that won’t affect your friend too much. The important thing to remember is that anyone dealing in currency makes money in one of two ways:

Giving you a rate slightly less than they themselves can get

Skimming off (charging you) a small amount as a ‘commission’ for providing the ‘service’

You’ll need to be switched on to both to get the better deals.

Where ? In my experience, you tend to get a better rate if you change the money after you arrive in the country. The caveat is you don’t always know what’s a good deal until you’ve been in situ for a while. IMHO, I’d be tempted to exchange $ into £ at Heathrow. Each terminal has at least a couple of Bureau de Change desks and I’ve found them to be fair to good. Wouldn’t change all the money there but certainly enough to keep her going for a while and at least she’ll have a benchmark for future transactions.

On credit cards: I think they need to check with their own bank to find out the current rate on those kinds of transactions and what, if any, additional charges are incurred. That’s primarily the US end so it might make more sense.

They will need quite a lot of folding stuff for every day expenses – probably more than they expect. Worst rates are probably from those Bureau de Change booths / sharks she’ll see all around central London and also hotels – both are worth avoiding in my experience. Regular banks close around 4.00pm but the larger ones are pretty geared up to the tourist market.

Ask away if she / you need any more information. Bring an umbrella and thick underwear.

My job involves a fair amount of international travel, I’m usually in Europe two or three times a year. Please note that everyone’s comments are focused on small amounts of savings; like $2 per $100 converted. So, don’t get all up tight if you’re stuck converting some money at “less favorable” rates. (I’m assuming that you’re converting $100 or $200, here and there. If you’re going to convert $10,000 then that little 1% or 2% difference starts to add up!)

For most purchases, restaurants, etc. you can use your charge card, and that will give you the very best exchange rate. Almost everyplace takes credit cards, just like in the US, and pretty much the same brands (VISA, Mastercard, AMEX, etc) although some of the minor cards like DISCOVER might be less acceptable.

For small cash amounts, like for taxis and tips and little purchases (under, say $25), you’ll want cash. When you first arrive, convert a bit of money at the airport – it won’t be a great rate, you’ll pay a commission, but it will give you the $100 or $150 you need for pocket money.

After that, when you need cash, go to an ATM and use your credit card or bank debit card, same as you would in the US. Yes, you’ll be charged a small fee (same as you would be in the US if you used an ATM for a bank not your own.) No biggie, and usually far less than the commission that would be charged elsewhere. DON’T use the ATM for itsy-bitsy withdrawals. The ATM will charge you, say GBP 1 or 2 per transaction. If you withdraw GBP 100, you’ve beat the commissions charged at the kiosks.

Hotels give the worst exchange rates, but, as I say, it’s not to worry about. I’ve been stuck on occasions, out of cash and need some fast, and I use the hotel. OK, so it cost me an extra few bucks for the convenience.
On pickpocket risk, I recommend common sense. Use the same precautions you would use in a large city in the US. If you were going to downtown Chicago, you wouldn’t leave your credit cards at home. You’d have them in a secure place, you wouldn’t flaunt their use, you wouldn’t leave them laying on the counter. Similarly with purses and wallets.

I usually put one credit card and some cash in a separate pocket so that I have an emergency source of financing if my wallet gets swiped. But I think leaving cash in the hotel is silly, unless there’s a safe.

Let me add about pickpocket risks: the most valuable thing you have with you is your passport. A U.S. passport is worth thousands or tens of thousands on the black market. You should have it with you at all times, in a safe location – not in your purse, for instance. I have one of those under-the-shirt little packets where I carry mine.

If you lose cash, you’ve lost cash. If you lose a credit card, you’re stuck with the pain of cancelling the card etc. but no big deal. But if you lose your passport, you’re in deep trouble when you’re ready for the flight home…and you’re talking many hours of your vacation spent fighting through the bureaucracy to get a new one.

There’s a catch-22: without your passport, you can’t prove you’re an American citizen to request a new passport.

BE SURE to write down the passport number and have it somewhere separate and safe. Like, in your luggage. If you lose your passport and have the number, you can call the U.S. Embassy or consulate and cut through the paper work MUCH faster.

As well as bank branches, there are ATMs at all the major railway stations in London and Paris and some Tube stations (e.g. Bond St, Embankment) in London. Most shopping malls also have them.

Supermarkets (and even some pubs!) will allow you to get “cashback” with your debit card: you buy £10 worth of stuff, they charge £30 to your card and give you £20 in cash. This can be worth bearing in mind if you pay a fee for ATM withdrawals and not for other transactions.

The in-store ATMs in convenience stores which are so common in the USA are just beginning to take off here. Two or three of my local shops (in North West London) have acquired them in the past six months.

One other thing: most English people call it a “cashpoint”, not an “ATM”, though my friend who works in banking insists that the latter is the correct term.

There are exceptions, like Japan. The best exchange rates in Japan are always available at the airport money exchange booth, it’s the law. Just FYI, there are no hard and fast rules, it depends on the country.

Thank you, everyone.

London_Calling – the air fare is free – how could anyone resist? It’s going to be a quick trip – two days flying, two in London, and two in Paris.

Lots of good information here – I’m going to send her the link to this thread. All of this will help her relax and not worry too much about the money part.

Appreciate the tips on being extra careful with the passport too.

Still no definitive answer on the footwear though. :slight_smile:

Umbrella. Check.
Heavy underwear. Check.
Keep passport safe. Check.
Carry some cash. Check.

Are standards for tipping the same in Paris and London as in the U.S.? I assume one would tip in that country’s currency. ?

I’m a Yank living in the UK with a couple things to add - now is a very good time for Americans to come to the UK because the dollar is very strong against the pound right now ($1.40 = £1.00 reported in today’s Financial Times). You’ll get something alot closer to this rate using your ATM or credit cards. It was mentioned above I think, but don’t bring your Discover card, nobody here has heard of it. And some smaller shops and restaurants may not take American Express, but Visa and Mastercard are universal. When buying things in shops, the price you see is what you pay, there are no sales taxes added on. If you save your receipts you can reclaim the VAT (17.5%) at the airport when you leave. Check your bill at restaurants, a service charge may already be added on. If not, be prepared to leave a tip in cash since many credit card receipts don’t have a space for adding a tip to the total. Don’t look for a tip jar at pubs, there aren’t any, but then, don’t expect table service either.

Yep, good points from kferr – sales tax is already included on price tags, don’t tip in regular pubs and treat restaurant-pubs and restaurants the same i.e. check the bill to see if sevice is already included. Otherwise a 10% tip is pretty reasonable.

Footwear: If they wear Reeboks, etc they might get carted off to the funny farm. Seriously though, they will be recognisable as tourists anyway. Maybe wear what they would at home when it’s pouring and cold ? Pretty much the same for Paris.

As an aside: Things here are very fast, very crowded and very busy – they should perhaps brace themselves a little for that change of pace. Remember, London isn’t a true reflection of the country, it’s brash - more NYC than Paris. England on steroids.

My job involves travelling to just about every country I DON’T speak the language, most of the time I am on my own, for a long long period of time (weeks to months). I have learned a few things, and at the same time I spent 2 hours today walking around Belo Horizonte, Brazil looking for an ATM that took my MasterCard… Sooooo, you may assume I have made all the mistakes that you shouldn’t if you follow my suggestions…

Ok gang, here’s the scoop on how to travel right:

Before you leave:

Call the bank or credit card company and get a list of all the names of banks that will accept your Card in the country that you’ll be in. Don’t let them give you that “Any ATM that accepts Cirrus” crap, demand names. Write them down!

Also, make sure you have 2 different types of credit cards, or one check card and one credit card (I carry Visa and MC), so that when you someplace and they don’t take one you can use the other.

Be sure you know the ATM pin codes for all of your cards

Bring $20 or so in American Cash to exchange at the Airport in the Country you are travelling to, just incase the cab driver, the shuttle service, etc, don’t take credit cards.

Have your total Itenerary, including the location and phone number of the hotel, keep it in your wallet, purse, so if your lost you can always get a cab and show him the piece of paper, etc.

Memorize your passport number

When you Arrive:

When you go through customs, keep everything that they stick in your passport, or give to you. I have had foreign customs agents just cram stuff in my passport, had it fall out, and then have to explain why I’m missing it when I’m trying to leave.

Get the number of a local cab company and keep it with you, assuming your not renting a car.

Take out enough cash at the ATM in the country your in, enough to pay cabs, eat breakfast, tip, etc. I usually take $50 worth of the local currency when I am down in S.A. (lasts me about a week), In Europe you may need more, it just depends. What you don’t want happening, is you being across town, at odd hours of the night, hungry, with no cash, and it’s pouring down rain. Trust me, this has been me.

Use your credit cards as much as you can, just use the local currency when there is no other option.

Leave your passport at the hotel, in the safe in your hotel room, if a safe is not available in your hotel room, ask the hotel if they have a safe, use your best judgement here (sometimes I don’t trust the people behind the counter with my only ticket out of the country).

Make as many friends as you can, and unless your that type of person, dont spend all your time at the trendy tourist traps, because to really enjoy the country is to experience the culture, IMHO.

Wear what’s comfortable, but bring some clothes and whatnot that are appropriate if you plan to go out at night and meet the locals. (I.e. don’t go dancing in tennis shoes, but don’t go walking around the Arc De Triumph in High heels either)

When Leaving:

Give yourself plenty of time to make it to the airport, most countries have traffic so bad, you think the freeway is a parking lot. But don’t cut your trip short, just give yourself a few hours more than usual.

Make sure you have everything you brought, and enough luggage or whatever to carry back all the extra crap you bought.

Make sure you have all of the documents the Customs guys gave you, chances are they’ll ask for them again.

Have fun, and enjoy your trip!