Sorting out 'If this is Tuesday, it must be Belgian francs'
Going abroad this summer? Take your camera, your maps, your address book (for post cards), your comfortable shoes, and your guide to foreign phrases (in case you have to say, ''Which way to McDonald's?'' in Dutch).
But what about money?
Figuring how much money and what currencies to take can be almost as confusing as deciding how many sweaters to pack. But thanks to the strength of the US dollar, you won't have to take, or at least spend, as much money as you may have expected. This, of course, makes people in travel-related businesses quite happy.
''I've been a believer all year long that the dollar will remain strong,'' says Christopher D'Elia, manager of the Boston office of Deak-Perera Inc., currency brokers. ''Everybody we talk to in the travel industry is expecting a very robust year.''
They are also expecting a continuation of frequent changes in values of various foreign currencies against the dollar. This means people will spend more time trying to get the best exchange rate when they convert dollars and traveler's checks into pounds, francs, guilders, marks, or whatever.
They should not, however, use up a lot of what is supposed to be enjoyable vacation time trying to find the cheapest place to exhange a few dollars, Mr. D'Elia advises. ''For the amounts of money people are usually taking with them for a few weeks, the rate differentials are insignificant,'' he says.
Still, he does have some thoughts on ways you can save some money in currency exchange.
* First, think about how much foreign currency you should take before leaving the United States. You won't get the best rate here, but you will want some money in the local denominations when you get there, especially if you're going to be arriving on a weekend, late at night, or anytime the local banks are closed.
A moderate amount, say $100 to $200 of foreign currency, should be enough to get you through the first day or so, D'Elia says.
If you can, try to get this foreign currency at a large commercial bank that does a fair amount of international business, or a currency broker. They usually give better rates, and because of the volume they exchange, they won't have to add on as much profit. Try to avoid the currency exchanges at US airports. They have high costs and need high profits to offset them.
* Plan to take most of your additional money in US traveler's checks. Most people know about the protection offered by a traveler's check, which can be replaced or refunded. But you can sometimes get a slightly better exchange rate than you can with cash.
Some people have found, though, that traveler's checks in a few of the major foreign currencies, rather than US dollars, are as easy to get at home and are accepted at some places where the US version may not be. So you might want to also have some checks in pounds sterling, francs, or marks.
* The best place to turn your traveler's checks into the local currency is the local commercial bank. You will have to inquire about the local banker's hours; in some countries, they are surprisingly short or irregular, by US standards. In France, for instance, banks in many of the provinces outside Paris are not open on Mondays.
* The next best place to exchange money, D'Elia says, is at one of the international travel service offices, such as American Express or Thomas Cook.
* Hotels are ''typically bad'' places to exchange money, he says. So are restaurants, retail shops, and tourist areas. While it's nice to know you can exhange some money at your hotel desk, even late at night if it's an emergency, try to plan things so you don't have to.
* Avoid the black market. Although you may run into people who can and do offer better rates than even the banks, there are two possibilities to consider when you try this: You might get counterfeit money and you might get arrested.
* Credit cards, D'Elia says, ''are a convenience of last resort.'' Unlike in the US, where you know when you charge something how many dollars you will be billed for, you don't know that in Europe or elsewhere. Say you charge a German cuckoo clock in July. Your charge slip will have to travel back to the US and through the banking system before someone here decides how much you owe. And that will be based on the exchange rate at the time, which may be in September, not the date you bought the clock.
Of course, if the dollar has become even stronger against the mark in that time, you'll benefit. On the other hand, you'll lose if the rate goes the other way.
Here again, however, the issue of cost vs. convenience comes up. If you face the choice of losing a few dollars on the currency exchange or not being able to buy a prized souvenir because you didn't want to carry that much in traveler's checks, you may decide to use the credit card.
* Try not to have too much foreign currency left over before you return. You lost a little in converting dollars into the local currency; you'll lose again when you change it back into dollars. Also, unless you want a few more souvenirs, don't bring back any coins. Almost all US banks that will exchange bills won't bother with coins, although a few currency dealers might do so.
If you would like a question considered for publication in this column, please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115. No personal replies can be given by mail or phone. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.