Tuesday, 31 August 2004

The Amazing Race 5, Episode 9

Dubai (United Arab Emirates) - Kolkata, West Bengal (India)

Starting during the first season, I’ve urged in my columns that the producers of The Amazing Race give the contestants less money, to cut down the extent to which the race hinges on the speed and recklessness of taxi drivers rather than the skills of the racers. When I interviewed Team Guido after that first season, they made the same recommendation .

This season, the producers have finally begun to cut back on how much cash they give out: The racers still have enough money to take taxis everywhere, but only if they are careful to minimize other spending. Those that aren’t, or that lose their saved cash (and their allowance for the next leg) as a penalty for finishing last in the non-elimination legs, have repeatedly run short.

Unfortunately, they’ve resorted to begging for cab fare — not, I hope, a strategy that any of you will emulate — rather than providing any useful object lessons in how to travel more cheaply.

But there are financial issues of a different sort for some of the racers this week, when “bowling moms” Karen and Linda discover that they can’t use U.S. Dollars to buy tickets on a government-operated Indian commuter train.

Ironically, it was “the moms”, earlier this season when the racers arrived in Argentina by ferry from Uruguay, who induced Marsha and Jim to waste time changing money by telling them that they wouldn’t be able to use U.S. dollars or Uruguayan pesos (either of which, especially the former, would have been readily accepted) for taxis or other services in Buenos Aires.

This week in Kolkata, the moms lose both time and money through not having local currency (Indian rupees). First they try to take a cab to the bank, only to find that the nearest bank that will change foreign currency is downtown, further away than where they were trying to go on the train. Then, their desperate hurry (and willingness to give up money for time) obvious, they change US$10 with the taxi driver, who gives them only Rs. 250 when a bank would have given at least Rs. 400.

So how can we real travellers avoid these problems? I have a lengthier discussion of currency issues in The Practical Nomad, How To Travel Around the World , but here are a few key tips:

First, you can try to figure out, in advance, what currency(ies) are accepted or preferred. Bear in mind, however, that this can change overnight, and that any current guidebook was probably researched at least a year ago. You can’t totally rely on acquaintances who’ve been there before, either, even if their visits were recent: in my experience, “Everyone takes dollars” often means, “Everyone I dealt with took U.S. dollars, but I stayed in a resort and never tried to spend money with anyone who doesn’t make their living from foreign tourists.”

The best informants on this (and on many other things) are people on or waiting for the plane, bus, train or ferry with you, who live in the place you are going (and who are themselves returning from a short trip abroad). If you don’t yet have any local currency, these are also the people most likely to have a little extra that they will exchange with you privately, to tide you over in case there are no ATM’s or money changers, or none open or working, at the point of entry. There’s simply no excuse for any of the teams in the race to arrive in any new country without having changed a small amount of dollars with other travellers for the local currency of their destination.

You’ll have any easier time changing money informally, and not having to waste it, if you have it in relatively small denominations. You’re much more likely to find a fellow traveller willing to change US$5, $10 or $20 for local currency than willing to change a US$100 bill (note). And, as Chip finds out in the race, if all you have are $20 bills, you’ll have to pay $20 even if the taxi meter shows only $5. What esle can you do if the driver claims to have no change (which might even be true)?

For a trip oversees, I bring some money in US$100 bills (for the unpredictable times when there are no ATM’s working and the banks or money changers prefer cash to travellers’ checks), some in US$20, $10, and $5 notes (for small-scale transactions and local purchases), and a thick pile ($100 or $200) of US$1 notes for things like taxis, transit fares, and other minor expenses, especially when first arriving in new places, or for places where U.S. dollars are in routine use in the local economy.

It’s usually easier to get large-denomination notes than small ones, whether from a bank or money-changer or an ATM. Banks, money changers, and ATM’s generally give you your cash in as few notes as they can, in the largest possible denominations. That’s what’s easiest for them, but rarely what’s best for you.

Except when I get a huge pile of small-value notes (I’ve been in places where the local currency has collapsed, new notes have yet to be printed, and the largest-denomination local currency note was worth little more than US$1), I automatically hand back some of what I get from any currency exchange and ask for more smaller notes and coins. If I’ve gotten money from an ATM, I take the first opportunity to ask a bank, money changer, or merchant to break some of it down for me into smaller denominations, even if that requires buying a newspaper or packet of chewing gum from a vendor or kiosk.

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 31 August 2004, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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