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TRAVEL INSIDER

Paying the Right Price for Foreign Pocket Money

Budget * Rates and fees fluctuate, so it's smart to shop around for cash you're taking abroad.

November 26, 2000|ANDREA SACHS | WASHINGTON POST

For travelers going to strange lands with even stranger currencies, arriving with a pocketful of pesos, pounds or francs is a smart way to start a trip. That's especially true now that many bank cards are charging 2% to 5% for transactions in foreign currencies.

Remember that it's more difficult to get some foreign currencies than others, so there's no guarantee that the place you choose will have the money you need. Also, keep in mind that it is illegal to enter some countries with that country's currency already in hand. A good currency exchange company will tell you which countries these are.

With this in mind, we scoped out several currency exchange services, changing $100 (or as close as the companies would allow) into British pounds, to see which offered the lowest transaction fee, fastest service and smallest denominations. Here are the results of these tests:

* Internet: Chase Manhattan Corp., a banking-plus company, promises on its Web site to "get foreign currencies delivered . . . overnight!" Even better, the money is delivered right to your door. Eventually.

Ordering online at http://www.currency-to-go.com was a simple fill-in-the-blank process that took mere minutes. Chase does not deal in foreign coins, so the final figure was rounded off. We paid $106.02 plus a $10 delivery fee (waived for orders of more than $500) and received 60 pounds. (You must exchange at least $100.)

The next step was more difficult. Chase delivers only to your home or credit-card billing address and requires a signature. When our money didn't show up in Washington, D.C., the next business day, we called the company. We were told to contact Airborne Express, and after a game of phone tag, we learned that our money had been sent to Washington, Md. More than 48 hours later, we had our pounds, but by that time we might as well have been on British soil.

Total for 60 pounds: $116.02.

* Phone: You can walk into the offices of International Currency Express Inc., 427 N. Camden Drive in Beverly Hills, but we didn't have that option, so we tried the Web site and phone approach. We went to Internet http://www.foreignmoney.com, where we filled out an order form online, although the actual transaction is made by phone. An agent will call you to place the order (with correct information at hand) or you can phone first, (888) 278-6628.

There is no minimum exchange amount; in fact, when we first tried to convert $100, the agent recommended that we save some money and get our pounds at an unrelated exchange office down the street.

We decided to stick with this company, and for $101.94 plus $10 in shipping (and $10 extra for overnight delivery), we received 65 pounds in 5- and 10-pound notes and 1-pound coins. The cash-filled UPS envelope was on our desk the next day, with a handwritten note thanking us for our patronage.

Total for 65 pounds: $121.94.

* Travel club: In some areas, AAA, which is an affiliation of 86 independent clubs, offers fixed-rate currency exchange. AAA has 1,100 offices throughout the United States and Canada, but not all of them have currency, so it's best to call ahead. (AAA of Southern California does not offer this service.)

We buzzed into an AAA office during lunch hour and were surprised to find that English pounds were sold only in packs of 25 (five 5-pound notes), each costing $44 for members ($46 for nonmembers). Bonus: On the way out, we could purchase London guidebooks and the Easy Exchange estimator, so we could check whether we got a good rate. (Hint: We didn't.)

Total for 75 pounds: $132.

* Airport kiosk: We received 65 pounds in small denominations (coinage offered if available) for our $106.90, which included a $5 service charge.

Total for 65 pounds: $106.90.

* In-town walk-up: Most, although not all, American Express offices offer currency exchange, so again it's best to call ahead. American Express filled our order in a snap. Sauntering in shortly before the 6 p.m. closing time, we paid $103.15 and a $4 service fee for 65 pounds, in denominations no smaller than 5-pound notes.

Total for 65 pounds: $107.15.

The bottom line: Exchange rates fluctuate daily, and each of the five companies varied slightly with its offered rates. At airport outposts, you probably can pick up some foreign spare change en route to your departure gate--unlike AmEx (a close second for rates) and AAA (costs almost 10% more). As for the online and phone services, you'll pay a premium, but you won't have to move a muscle.

*

Andrea Sachs is a writer and editor for the travel section of the Post. Times Travel writer Christopher Reynolds is on assignment.

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