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!]