The Mystery of Foreign Money Unraveled

One of the biggest hurdles for inexperienced travelers is the concept of foreign money. In the USA, our culture is so ethnocentric that when we see currency that isn’t green and doesn’t have a famous historical figure that we know and love, we just don’t see the value of it. The only time we see money that is a different color or size than what we carry in our wallets, is usually a Monopoly game. Paying for Boardwalk is confusing enough but at least we know that $100 to get out of jail is $100. What happens when we go to another country and we have to do math?

The first thing you should remember is that the funny money that you’re holding has some value. Not only in terms of what you paid to exchange it, but also to the people of the country who print it. I was in Cuba last week and there is no place on this earth that will take Cuban currency except Cuba. However, to the people of that country, it’s got value. They would much rather accept payment in money that they understand than your Yankee dollars. In Cuba, you actually lose money when you change dollars because they really don’t want to deal with exchanging  even though the value of their CUC is based on the greenback. That money you’re holding also is symbolic of the country. Making fun of the figure printed on it, the color or size of it or anything else can be offensive to the native inhabitants. I had some Chinese currency so small it looked like the kind of money Barbie might spend. Some of the coins had a big hole in the middle and looked more like washers than  coins. Remember no matter what it looks like, it’s money to the country who printed it.

Secondly, lose the calculator. If you’re bargaining with someone and pull out the calculator or ask what the price is in dollars, you already lost your  power. It’s very easy to create a formula in your head to convert the price easily. Often it just involves dropping a zero or two, dividing the price in half or adding a small percentage to get an idea of what you’re spending in American dollars. Being able to do that quickly can help you get better prices if you are in a negotiation situation or prevent you from spending too much. I’ve seen tourists actually hand a wad of money to a salesperson to let them take out what they want. Don’t do that. You’re smarter than that. It’s first grade applied math.

Before you arrive in a new country, Google the currency exchange rate. It only takes a minute to find out how many Pesos, Euros or Dinar you should be getting for your American money. Some airport banks have terrible exchange rates. If the country you’re visiting has currency that is not recognized worldwide, you want to make sure that you don’t change too much and get stuck with a wallet full of worthless paper.

Finally.,Spend a few minutes to look at the money you changed. Some countries will actually have smaller bills for lower denominations. Some might have two bills that are almost the same color but a completely different value. Put them in your wallet in order of worth and it will be much easier to pay for things without pulling out a wad of bills and having a confused tourist look on your face.

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