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How to Exchange Money--Cheaply

March 22, 1987|MORRIS D. ROSENBERG | Rosenberg is a Washington Post writer.

Even the most sophisticated travelers can become perplexed when faced with converting dollars to foreign currencies. Whether it's francs, drachmas, lire, pounds or pesos there are easier--and more accurate--ways to deal with exchange rates than juggling figures in your head.

A currency converter, whether a simple chart or an electronic calculator, can save you time and maybe money. (Not every shopkeeper will refund an overpayment made because your arithmetic faltered.)

Three Major Types

Basically, converters are divided into three major types:

--A single sheet or brochure that lists approximate values of foreign currencies for various dollar amounts, according to the prevailing rates of exchange at the time the brochure was printed.

--A slide rule-like device, essentially an improved modification of the first type, that allows closer computations. It has two scales that permit rapid adjustment for changes in exchange rates and provide a wide range of dollar values.

--Battery-operated converter-calculators; they allow you to reprogram for the exchange rate of any currency and then instantly convert back and forth from U.S. dollars.

The Cheapest Way

The first two methods are the cheapest. But the electronic calculator permits faster, more accurate computations over a wider range and often includes other functions, such as helping you keep track of travel expenditures. The price of a calculator varies according to the number of functions it offers and its manufacturer.

Products are on the market in each of the three categories, among them:

--The "Foreign Currency Guide," published three times a year in winter-spring, summer and fall by Ruesch International, which specializes in foreign-exchange services.

The small brochure lists 24 countries, from Australia to Yugoslavia, showing conversion rates against the dollar. It also provides information on currency restrictions in 15 countries; metric measurement, temperature and weight conversions, and suggestions on tipping in eight European countries.

For a free copy send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Foreign Currency Guide, Ruesch International, 1140 19th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

--Unicom II, a patented cardboard and plastic slide rule-type converter. This device also fits in a shirt pocket and includes metric conversions and international clothing sizes.

Some bookstores carry Unicom II for $3.50. Or order by mail from Unicom Enterprises, 3602 W. Glen Branch, Peoria, Ill. 61614, for $3.50 plus 75 cents for postage and handling.

--Austin House Money Exchange Calculator. With this and all similar electronic calculators, you enter the exchange rate for the currency being used, and the unit is automatically programmed to give you the correct conversion figures requested. It has "memory," thus retaining the current exchange rate even when the power is turned off, and also makes metric conversions.

The pocket-size Austin House calculator is $15.95.

--Brookstone's Travel Currency Calculator. This converter functions in the same manner, with memory retention of any preprogrammed exchange rate and conversion of U.S. measurements to metric. It includes a pen and is encased in a 4 1/2x7 1/2-inch vinyl wallet with space for passport, traveler's checks, cash, airline tickets and other papers.

The calculator (item No. 09867) is sold by Brookstone in its retail stores for $31.95, or by mail from Brookstone, 127 Vose Farm Road, Peterborough, N.H. 03458, for $29.95 plus $4.44 postage and handling.

Calculator and Clock

The company has just begun marketing a product (item No. 11784) that combines the currency conversion function with a calculator, stopwatch and world time-zone clock. It sells for $34.95 in stores (add $4.95 for postage and handling if ordering by mail).

--International Travel Calculator Wallet. This Hammacher Schlemmer mail-order item (No. 27601-k) computes conversions after the exchange rate has been programmed for the desired currency. It will convert metric measurements and has separate keys for checkbook balancing and discount-percent functions. The memory function also retains the total value of your remaining traveler's checks or checking account balance when the unit is shut off--it cuts off automatically after five minutes to conserve power.

A compartment with a security snap holds traveler's checks, and large documents are accommodated inside the leather case, which has a pen attached. The cost is $44.95 postpaid, with unconditional guarantee.

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