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Cruise Tips
Foreign Currency Tips

by Alan Walker

This month, Alan Walker has some EXCELLENT ADVICE concerning currency when cruising outside of North America and the Caribbean. As this subject is pretty serious for Alan, he can't help himself and follows with some good tips on "Italian toilets"!


Foreign currency issues can easily be ignored on Caribbean, Mexico or Canada/Alaska cruises, because locals in each country are happy to take U.S. dollars - not so in Europe. When your cruise starts in Rome, Athens, or Barcelona, and you need to get to the ship or a hotel by taxi, you will be paying in the local currency.

Your first choice is to obtain some foreign currency - at least for your first port of call - before you leave home. Bank notes of most major European countries are available at larger banks, and foreign exchange stores. It is important to get plenty of small notes, so that you can pay for a baggage cart or porter at the airport (if necessary), the taxi, or a tip for the bellman. Larger transactions, including hotel costs and meals, will likely be placed on your credit card (which seem to be widely accepted in those parts of Europe which cruise ships visit).

You should memorize the rate of exchange for your first European country, so that you can quickly work out the proposed charge by your first taxi driver (always ask the cost before you hop into a taxi - most taxis in Europe do not have working meters). Tip: Have a pad of paper and pen handy; if your taxi driver cannot speak much or any English (which is quite likely), then the quote of the taxi driver in Spanish, Italian or whatever, won't help you - get him to write down the figure on your note pad.

One problem in obtaining foreign exchange ahead of time is that you can rarely get coins for the country you are visiting, and occasionally a coin is what you may need for a baggage cart. While this is annoying, keep in mind we do the same thing to foreign visitors when they come and visit North America, by sometimes charging a price like a $1.25 for a baggage cart, leaving the poor European with the task of finding a quarter somewhere.

If you haven't picked up the necessary foreign money before you leave home, you will likely have additional opportunities to purchase the currency that you need at your departure airport, intermediate airport, or arrival airport. Once your cruise starts, you have more alternatives for purchase of foreign currency. Most major cruise lines will have a foreign exchange service on board, but this is likely to only be open for certain hours during the day. One handy aspect of this service is that the foreign exchange desk will buy back your unneeded currency, once you have completed your visit to a particular country. Although the ship that we were recently on (Royal Caribbean) proudly announced there was "no commission" on foreign exchange transactions, the reality is that the difference between the "buy" price and the "sell" price is the "profit" for the cruise line. In other words, the ship will not give you back as much money when you return currency, as you paid for it in the first place.

If you do not want to end up coming home with a collection of foreign coins, remember that most money-changing places (including the ship) will not accept coins for changing into another currency, and therefore you need to use up your coins before you leave the country in question.

In European cities, money changing stores seem to be everywhere, usually with a sign saying "Cambio" or "Change". Rates will vary from store to store, and it is important to find out ahead of time how much commission is charged on the transaction. An apparently better rate for the change of dollars may be more than offset by a higher commission charge.

A further alternative for obtaining local currency is to use an ATM machine. You can access your own bank account back home, and your Visa, Mastercard or American Express card will cause the machine to pop out money in local currency. Although I did not personally compare rates, a well-travelled friend of mine swears that the rate of exchange is best using ATM machines, because they have a "wholesale" rate, compared to the retail rate charged by a foreign currency store. Although we saw lots of ATM machines in our travels, they didn't seem as prevalent as money-changing outlets.

Some miscellaneous notes:

Public washrooms in Europe usually have a lady at the door collecting money; the charge in Italy was usually 500 lira (about $0.30). Most restaurants have washrooms, but these are rarely what we are used to in North America. Toilets often don't have seats, and some washrooms don't even have toilets [just a hole in the ground and a place to put your feet (grin).]

In some small restaurants, it is cheaper to stand and eat your lunch, instead of sitting down (there is an additional charge for having a "table").

Many European restaurants have a built-in service charge of 15% (which is usually itemized on your bill), so you may not want to add any other tip.

A few European coins have the denomination spelled out, rather than written as a number, which you leaves you absolutely lost as to what the coin is worth. We sometimes took the lazy way out, and gave the serving person a handful of coins, hoping they would be honest in what they returned to us.

Almost all tourist attractions where you go inside a building, will cost you an entrance fee - usually in the order of about $3.00 in local currency.

Italy is one of the more difficult countries to use local money because of the high rate of exchange, with the result that you could make a considerable mistake by being out by a decimal point.

At the time of writing (October, 1997) 2,000 Italian lira was worth $1.25, and 50,000 Italian lira was worth $29.75. The rate of exchange in effect for France was 20 French francs is $3.50, and 100 French francs is $17.25. For Spain, 1,000 pesestas was worth $7.00, and 5,000 pesetas was $34.50.

Watch out for the closing time of the foreign exchange office on board ship at the end of your cruise, so that you do not end up coming home with a pocketful of colorful money. Expect a long lineup on the last day.

When you want to tip the steward who brings you room service (one of the few times - other than the last day - where you need to pay tips in cash on the cruise ), you can always give them some of your foreign currency, if you do not have small denomination U.S. bills handy.

It perhaps go without saying that the major American-based cruise ships, whether cruising in Europe or anywhere else, will still use U.S. dollars on board, despite the itinerary of the cruise.

[Editor's Note: On Costa's ships cruising the Mediterranean, the slot machines pay jackpots in LIRA rather than in $$. It's not-so-great to hit 50,000 lira and come away with $29.75!]


Alan Walker resides in Vancouver and is the Sysop for the Cruise Ports/Destinations section of the CompuServe UK Travel Forum. Alan is becoming a regular reporter for the SeaLetter and can be reached at: 74671.3046@compuserve.com.

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