A new place to spend euros: Estonia

euro, euros, eurozone, EstoniaOne of the greatest boons to travelers in recent years is the expanding eurozone. Gone are the days when you spent a few days in France, then wasted money getting your francs exchanged into lire in order to visit Italy. There were always a few odd coins left over that ended up sitting useless in the sock drawer.

At the start of 2011, Estonia has become the 17th country to join the eurozone. The kroon will soon become a memory as the old currency is phased out.

While this is good news for travelers carrying euros, it could carry a hint of future trouble. Many countries that adopted the euro saw prices rise as shopkeepers rounded up in the exchange. This is what happened in Spain, and prices never stopped rising. What used to be a budget travel destination soon became almost as expensive as the rest of Europe. Living in Madrid I’m constantly hearing Spaniards complain about how much more expensive things are these days.

Estonia has also become a budget travel destination in recent years. The Baltic republic may be small with only 1.3 million people, but it has an interesting history, some beautiful countryside, and a distinct culture. Hopefully it won’t get too expensive to experience all that.

Worst travel mistakes of the 2000’s: Diplomatic Dipsticks

As we take time to count our travel sins of the past decade, I get all teary-eyed and indecisive. Where to begin? Couldn’t we just say “Iraq” and be done with it? And are we including food mistakes? ‘Cuz I got some real doozies: how about shrimp ceviche from a quaint Mexican beach cafe or fresh cut watermelon in India? Uh, those would be travel mistakes, no? But like, since we’re trying to refrain from the scatological (are we?), I choose to relate the following story of which I may or may not have played a small cameo role:

Once upon a time, there were two young men working in Brussels, preparing to embark on a business trip to poor, struggling, deprived Eastern Europe. Filled with kindness and goodwill, the two decided they would add a charitable purpose to their journey by driving across Europe in their vehicle–a beige, 1975 Mercedes with a good 250,000 km under her belt–and filling it with used office computers to give away to the lesser half of the digital divide.

in order to ease their way through the red tape of certain notorious Eastern European countries, the boss of the young men lent them a pair of expired diplomatic license plates, which (in Euro-capital Brussels) tends to grant you permission to do whatever you want: park on the sidewalk, speed a little bit, drive like a maniac, etc. So, the young men screwed on the two red license plates and set off on their grand cross-European adventure.

Feeling confident with their special diplomatic status, the young men parked in the city center of lovely Budapest for a break. They wandered about for hours sightseeing and upon returning, discovered not one, but TWO parking tickets fluttering from the car’s windshield wiper. As they wrung their hands with worry for this small misfortune, a Hungarian policeman approached them, pointing out the fresh car ticket and asking for additional information. Immediately after that, a second Hungarian policeman approached from the rear, pointing to the second parking ticket.The young men stood back and watched with awe as the two Hungarian policemen began to argue with each other. Both policeman had issued parking tickets, both wanted glory for punishing the foreign offenders and yet, upon closer look, they had in fact issued tickets to two different cars. The pair of diplomatic license plates were actually different number plates gleaned from different cars, and each cop had recorded only one of the numbers on the ticket. It was also soon revealed that both were expired plates. The young men could not respond to the policemen’s inquiry as to the actual registration number for their car. This led to the car getting towed to the outskirts of Budapest and a thorough search being conducted during which time, a dozen computers were found stashed in the backseat and trunk of the car.

To make a long story short, it was something of an international incident that required some top-level EU intervention to resolve. Anyone who traveled in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 2000s will remember the huge stolen car rackets that pervaded and made it nigh impossible to rent a car. After this little glitch, it was a miracle that the car was eventually released back to the young men and they were able to drive back to Brussels.

And so the moral of the story is: When in Budapest, make sure your back matches your front. Always.

UK towns opening up to euro

A lot of travelers stop by the United Kingdom as part of a European trip, but they have the problem of what to do with their euros when they are in a land that uses pounds.

This is becoming less of a problem, according to a report by the BBC. More and more businesses are accepting euros as well as pounds in an effort to attract tourists. Shops, restaurants, even hotels are accepting euros. I noticed this trend several years ago in London, but it has spread across the country now, and is gaining ground in places like Northern Ireland towns that want to draw in shoppers from the Republic of Ireland, which uses euros.

There are some limitations, however. Most places only accept banknotes and give change in pounds. Also, the exchange rate may not be all that good, although the little town of Dunster is offering a one-to-one rate, a great deal considering that in a bank a euro will only buy you 85 pence, minus whatever fee they slap on you.

But before you whip out your euros in the Green and Pleasant Land or Emerald Isle, be careful. Some places defiantly stick to the pound. I’ve even seen signs telling in no uncertain terms that euros are not welcome. For the UK, integration with the Eurozone is still a long way off.

French francs worth something again!

You know where your expired money is. Now a collectible rather than currency, your kids have those leftover lira in a shoebox under the bed. Or, they’ve stashed a jar of “funny money” on the nightstand. Wherever it is doesn’t matter. These random pieces of paper may ignite a child’s imagination about far-off lands or trigger a fond memory from an amazing trip, but the value is strictly sentimental.

Not any more.

The Currency Commission wants to help you turn all these strange bills into real money, specifically Euros. Sure, they’ll take a cut along the way, but that’s only fair. After all, The Currency Commission is turning nothing into something.

You may remember that the notion of a pan-European currency became a reality in 1999. Since then, sixteen countries surrendered their monetary identities in favor of the efficiency of conformity, in addition to others (such as Monaco) that have currency relationships with other countries. Clearly, the experiment has worked. Only three years later, €1 is worth $1.30, and that’s after a decline through much of last year.

Though we celebrate the Euro today, there’s still a lot of orphan old money out there, especially in major non-European countries such as the United States, Canada and Japan, according to David Brooks, The Currency Exchange’s public relations advisor. The people holding this currency missed the deadline for changing it to Euros. Often, the legal currency was in such small amounts that those holding it simply didn’t care.What The Currency Commission realized, however, is that there’s a ton of small money tucked away in sock drawers and coffee cans all over the world. In Germany, for instance, Brooks has seen a study suggesting that there could be up to €3 billion worth of unrecovered Deutsche marks. If you assume a similar amount of legacy currency outstanding for each of the 16 countries officially on the Euro, well, a lot of a little becomes a lot of a lot. And, The Currency Commission just wants a small piece of each transaction.

So, worthless money becomes worth something again. Yeah, I thought I smelled bullshit, too. When I asked Brooks why people should trust The Currency Commission, he made the obvious and powerful point: it’s not like you’re putting anything of value at risk. And, he’s right. At present, your 10,000 lira isn’t worth a dime. So, what do you lose by testing out this service? “Kick the tires. Try it with a small amount first,” Brooks recommends to the skeptics, “then, do more later.”

The process is pretty straightforward. Simply create an account, select the currency and amount you plan to exchange, print and sign the receipts, then mail them in with the bank notes. Your new cash will come back in fewer than 14 days. The company is working on a PayPal interface right now, which Brooks expects to make the process even faster.

If you rush over to The Currency Commission right now, you won’t be the first user. Hundreds have already come before you and swapped old currency for new since the service first launched in early October last year. Among them … Brooks’ parents!

Of course, there’s one big question in all this, and Brooks knew it before I could ask. “I know,” he said with a laugh, “how do we make money, right?” Brooks explains that even though the exchange deadline has passed, the various central banks in Europe are still willing to exchange aged cash for Euros. They just prefer to do it locally. So, The Currency Commission aggregates and repatriates. It collects currency from its customers, sends the money back to its homeland and makes the trade. Economies of scale kick in. again, all these small transactions add up.

So, if you have any dated dinero lingering on your desk, ship it off to The Currency Commission. Your money may be worth something (again).

Weekly Euro watch: we’re still making ground

I just can’t help but feel giddy about all of the progress that the Dollar has been making against the Euro over the past month. Sure, this is the direct effect of a near worldwide financial meltdown, banks are failing left and right and Iceland was briefly for sale on Ebay. But the slim silver lining to the whole debacle is that we, as Americans, now have more buying power overseas.

As of this morning, you can now officially buy a Euro for a $1.25, down from nearly $1.50 in September. That means that if you’ve got some late fall (say, Thanksgiving) travel to the EU lined up, it just got 17% less expensive.

In case you’re wondering, Iceland’s Krona started trading again a couple of weeks back after the government effectively froze trading for a little while to let the market stabilize. One now earns 126 Krona / Dollar instead of the 76 from earlier this summer.