The bespectacled young man, who had arrived recently in New York from Great Britain, wants to know what it will cost to call Boston from a pay phone. He has seen a notice about a public-interest group in Massachusetts which will hire foreigners for summer work, but his finances are tight, and he has to watch every penny.
''And do you know about inexpensive places to live (in the Boston area)?'' he also asks at the international hospitality center at the William Sloane YMCA in Manhattan.
With the ever-stronger US dollar making an unfavorable exchange rate for many countries, students and other travelers have had to look for bargains in new areas, become more conservative in their travel plans, or postpone trips to the United States.
The US share of the world tourism market has fallen during the last eight years from 13 percent to 10.1 percent. And the single most important cause of the drop in foreign visitors and spending has been the currency fluctuations, says Thomas Lloyd, senior policy analyst for the Travel Industry Association of America.
''We do find when the fluctuation begins, the impact is the greatest,'' says Mr. Lloyd, adding that though the dollar is still quite stong, travel by international visitors is expected to go back up this year.
Lloyd says that initially, people think to themselves: ''It was a lot cheaper last year, why don't we wait until the dollar goes down.'' But, he adds, foreigners still see the US as a good travel value, and they are unwilling to postpone traveling indefinitely.
''The longer the dollar stays strong, the less effect it has on travel,'' says Lloyd. He says that the second most important reason for curtailment of foreign visitors to the US is economic and political conditions in each country. Last year, for example, France effectively restricted foreign travel by its residents by limiting the amount of currency they could take out of the country. Those restrictions, designed to help the country's ailing economy, have since been lifted.
Bob Feinberg, who helps travelers at the Sloane YMCA in Manhattan, says there have been decreases in visitors from some countries. Those who are coming are asking more questions about cheaper ways to travel, such as hitchhiking. Although his office would get commissions for selling tickets to guided tours, he often sends visitors on walking tours of New York, and tells them of such bargains as the 25-cent Staten Island ferry or the free walk across the Brooklyn Bridge for an incomparable view of Manhattan.
In Los Angeles, the Greater LA Visitors and Convention Bureau says there will be fewer foreign visitors at the Olympics than originally expected, partly due to the ticket distribution system and partly to the strong US dollar. The spokeswoman says businesses that marketed package tours overseas have been losing money, and some are trying to sell the tickets they bought to US brokers.
To spur travel to the US, major air carriers and buslines are offering packages for foreign travelers, such as a $10-a-day unlimited mileage pass from Continental Trailways or a $50-for-5 days Greyhound Ameripass.
Out of $210 billion in total travel receipts in the US in 1983, only $13.8 billion came from foreign travelers, says Patricia Duricka of the Travel Industry Association of America. But it ranked as the fourth largest source of export income, she says. A new international marketing plan to boost this figure being sent to the Department of Commerce this summer, and if implemented it will create a federally funded travel campaign.
Jim Buck is general manager in the US of the British Universities North America Club (BUNAC), which helps young Britons get summer jobs here.
''We've seen a marked increase in requests for prearranged jobs,'' says Mr. Buck. A student can have a job waiting, or come over and find a job on his or her own (if an American sponsor has promised to help the student in the event of job difficulties). Usually ''more independent souls'' choose the latter route, he adds. Fewer students this year are willing to take that risk.
It is not just students that have difficulties. An American woman recently talked to a married couple in East Sussex, England, who are planning an April trip to California and around the country. She says they plan to fly stand-by on a regular airline carrier, or find a thrift fare. They will stay with friends and relatives as often as possible. They are currently saving every spare pound for the spring trip, and are pouring over the fine print in travel literature to find bargains.
''Dorothy is a super-sleuth at this sort of thing,'' says her American friend.
One Irish group that helps youths come over for summer jobs sees an increase in the number of students who want to come to the US, mostly because of the ''job crisis'' at home. Like BUNAC members, though, more Irish students are not willing to come unless there is a job prearranged.
Interestingly, BUNAC's Mr. Buck says there has been little problem finding jobs for British youth - ranging from camp counselors to employees in resorts. Part of the cooperative effort of the program is to give US students a two- to three-week head start on summer job hunting, but he says that Americans seem to be finding more lucrative summer jobs.