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Once you travel a bit and learn your way around, many things (such as always packing your raincoat for daytrips) will become second nature. But it is worth touching on a few routine needs.

Changing money is one of the great operatic experiences in Europe. You never know if it will be a tragedy, a comedy, a drama or something in between. Each bank has its own character, and each teller his or her own quirks. Get in line and hope for the best. Traveler's cheques and cash can be exchanged at banks, train stations, large hotels, some post offices, and often in private shops. Banks and sometimes train stations generally offer the best rates, but you must also beware the commission. Always ask first whether there is one, and whether it is for each cheque or for the total amount.

Since the Continent has largely adopted the Euro, things will be much easier to sort out. It's kind of too bad, since figuring out new currency was always one of the fun challenges of crossing a border. Well, OK, you had to be a bit masochistic, but the currency was often a small window on the culture. France had these huge, weathered 100 franc notes. Holland had colorful monopoly money. Italian lire were just shreds of colored paper taped all together. Danish crowns were nice yet unassuming. Sigh.

If you carry American Express Traveler's Cheques, you can often cash them in their travel offices (in all the bigger cities) without commission. Always ask first, though. Only use hotels and shops as a last resort - they generally give poor rates and take big commissions. For all their convenience, train stations occasionally offer surprisingly good rates.

Take most of your traveler's cheques in large denominations to avoid per-check fees. Take a few small denominations or cash for last-minute purchases before you depart a country. Some people advise carrying a large chunk of cash for times when you can't exchange a cheque, but I would not carry more than $200 or $300, mostly in smaller bills. If you are going east, however, check the latest conditions; western cash is often the favorite currency.

A major convenience of having an American Express card is that you can walk into most of their offices in the world and cash a personal check for up to $1,000 in traveler's cheques. This is especially helpful for the long-term traveler. Otherwise, getting money wired over can be an expensive, time-consuming process. If you plan on going this latter route, check with your bank at home and find out the procedure, costs and time frames involved.

Credit cards can often be used to make big purchases, so you don't have to change a big chunk of cash beforehand. There is also the advantage of receiving the most favorable exchange rate available when you are billed.

Of course the ubiquitous ATMs have taken a lot of drama out of the deal, but again fees can kill you. You should check with your bank regarding international charges. If you suspect you will be getting a cash advance on your credit card, overpay your account before you leave so that in essence you'll be drawing against your credit and not incur charges. Theoretically.

To keep track of how much things cost in each country, I like to make a list with the respective currency on one column and its dollar equivalent on the other, with amounts from 25 cents to 25 dollars. This makes for easy, quick reference in buying spontaneous items. Some people also use the "beer currency," which means that you learn first how much a beer costs in a given country and then compare prices with that. "Oh, that shirt costs 15 beers - it's too expensive." Wine works just as well, or pastry, or...

As you go along, collecting all manner of souvenirs, you might want to stop in at a post office and mail it all home. Most post offices have special parcel counters and sell boxes in which to mail your treasures. Keep your dictionary handy, because the parcel staff in some countries may not know your language. In general, the experience is fairly fast and painless once you get to the front of the line, and saves you from having a ton of stuff by trip's end. Postal rates vary greatly but are generally reasonable for sea mail.

You can call the home from most any pay phone in Europe. They are convenient because they show how much money you have left on illuminated digital displays. On the other hand, a long-distance call costs up to three times what it does from, for example, the USA. Overseas calls also can be made from many post offices, which can also serve as telephone and telegraph centers.

If you have any logistical questions while on the road, go to the local tourist office or perhaps travel agency. Embassies and consulates generally are not the place to go unless you need a recommendation on finding medical or legal advice. Some embassies do have libraries, though, where you are welcome to come in and read your nation's latest magazines and newspapers. US embassies are pretty notorious for being nonwelcoming to their citizens.

Now we move on to Chapter Three, Cultural Relativity. | Ratings | Comments | Contact

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