In 1969, my mother took her five children to Europe for 10 weeks, using a Volkswagen van for transportation. The trip was challenging enough, crossing many country borders and navigating the languages but a particular problem was the currency. Credit cards were non-existent. Some U.S. dollars were brought but most of the money for the trip was in American Exchange Travelers Checks, safely tucked away in a money belt.
To cash a traveler’s check required hotels that would accept them or banks or currency exchanges. Banks had very limited hours of exchange and were always closed on weekends and often for two hours in the afternoon. Exchange rates were posted but not just for dollars. The exchange rates were dizzyingly different. The British Pound was strong and worth $2.25. The Italian Lira not so much – 624 lira for one dollar.
It cost to exchange money and the challenge was to exchange only as much as needed for that country. My mother would place her travelers checks in the hotel safe, keeping only as much as she thought would be needed during our stay there. I loved the different currencies. The British pound was heavy. The French franc was not. Because of its diminished value, the Italian lira relied more on paper bills.
The beginning of the loss of individual currencies came with the advent of the Euro in 1999 when eight countries’ currencies disappeared. Soon after the launch, I was traveling in Spain and encountered older shopkeepers confused about the need to convert in their heads the old currencies to the new one. It was a godsend for travelers but an adjustment for residents.
When I began traveling through South America in 1973, the dollar, including travelers’ checks, was quite strong. I used the traditional banks or exchange offices to convert into the local currency, accumulating the Ecuadorian sucre, Peruvian Sol, and Bolivian peso until I got to Argentina. Then, as now, Argentina was suffering from very high inflation rates. Dollars were in high demand as they only increased in value as the Argentinian peso cratered. Credit cards had still not come of age. With dollars or traveler checks, one could get 2 to 3 times the value of the peso on the black market. Of course, that was illegal, but it was very available. It required nerves of steel to watch an unknown person disappear with your passport and signed traveler checks to the back of a building. After some anxious minutes, he reappeared with a fistful of Argentinian pesos. Sadly, Argentina today is suffering from the same sky-high inflation and their presidential candidate wants to just convert to dollars and eliminate the peso. I’m not sure that will solve their problem.
My favorite currencies are from the Middle East and northern Africa. Their bills and coins have great flourishes from the Arabic script. On a photo safari in South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, I tried to get some local currency. I begged a restaurant owner in Botswana to convert my $20 into pulas. She had to send a runner with the $20 bill to a nearby bank to oblige me. While we missed the extravagant inflation in Zimbabwe years ago, bills of 100,000,00 dollars were available for purchase in the flea markets. Today, their ATMs only return American dollars to be used in markets. And in the far east, I loved the Cambodian bills that carried the name of the country as the Kingdom of Cambodia. Bhutan was also the Royal Government of Bhutan.
The largest loss of currency is due to the widespread use of the credit card. Even small businesses can easily use the Apple reader for foreign visitors’ use. On a recent trip to Norway, we visited with an American couple who tried to use their credit card on their independent time abroad without converting any dollars. Their only hitch came at a fish stand in Bergen that required Norwegian krones. We sprang for their lunch.
I’m certain bills and coins will continue to disappear with even more reliance on credit cards and now crypto. Travel will become even easier, but I will miss the excitement and the artistry in each country’s currencies.