A currency left to your imagination

The euro may now be the official currency of Europe, but that's all it is -official.

You can't buy euros at any local bank, and generally you will still need national currencies - or a credit card - to pay for things in Europe.

"I think American tourists can just disregard [the euro]," says John Matthie, a Philadelphia travel agent who recently returned from Spain.

Across Europe, most stores and restaurants list prices in euros as well as national bills, but they still expect to be paid in local currency.

"I think they're just getting people used to the euro," says Mr. Matthie.

The fact is, you still can't put a euro in your pocket. They won't roll off the printing presses until 2001.

But travelers with a keen eye can use the euro prices to compare values between countries, says Caroline Haberfeld, executive editor of Fodor's travel guides. "Some countries may have to lower rates or provide better service" to continue attracting tourists, she predicts.

She and Matthie recommend buying a few dollars' worth of the local currency for cab fare and using credit cards and bank machines for the rest.

When you get home, credit-card and bank statements will usually list debits in euros.

If you really want to use a form of currency that says "euros" on it, you'll have to do it with travelers checks.

American Express and other companies have been selling the checks since January.

"Overall, we haven't seen a big demand yet," says Nancy Muller, spokeswoman for American Express. Though she adds that people snapped them up at the beginning of the year as collectors' items.

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