Travel Comment
Ponderings on all aspects of travel - both at home and abroad.

Get a good deal - on cash (+graphic)

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All around the world, New Zealanders are known as frugal travellers. The unkind might even be cruel enough to describe us as tight. Yet when it comes to the business of buying money, most of us go for convenience over thrift.

Why is that? Why will we drive 5km to find the "right" service station to fill up on petrol with our 4c-a-litre supermarket discount voucher (perhaps saving a princely $2), yet stay true to the bank when we're looking for foreign currency cash to take on holiday?

If you prefer to buy your Aussie dollars at the shopping centre trader rather than the bank, you're among a growing band of travellers whose hunt for bargains extends beyond hotels, airfares and food halls. But if you're one of those creatures of habit and tradition, you are probably throwing money away.

As the New Zealand dollar starts to slide away, many of our favourite holiday spots are beginning to look expensive. Less than six months ago, the New Zealand dollar bought US80c - and that four-star Los Angeles hotel room you picked up on the web for US$150 a night translated to a mere $187. Today the room special is still available but the currency drop means that last week it was costing you over $230.

We can't do anything about our tumbling dollar but we can improve our purchasing power by shopping around for foreign currency before heading overseas.

While credit and debit cards carry the bulk of the burden for offshore spending these days, most of us like the safeguard of a small wad of foreign cash in our back pockets when we land in faraway places.

As a guide to Travel readers, the Herald surveyed 11 Queen St foreign exchange traders - six of them big banks. The main finding: the convenience of using your bank carries a cost.

From our count, Queen St (from Customs St through to the Auckland Town Hall) has 14 banks selling (or buying) foreign currency and eight hole-in-the-wall independent operators. We visited our 11-strong sample within one hour on the afternoon before the Reserve Bank made its unexpected 50-point drop in the official cash rate and before the latest market turmoil - so the rates you see in the accompanying graph have now moved on. But the comparison between each of the dealers is a general guide to the variations that are always there.

Our mission was to buy US$500 and A$500 in cash - and the banks filled the bottom six places in terms of value. You could have pocketed up to $17 extra for the Australian currency and $15 more for the American cash if you grabbed the best deal in that day's survey and weighed it against the worst.

Hardly worth the hassle? For many people out there, perhaps so. But if it pays for half the airport taxi or a bottle of duty-free gin, why not?

It's unfair to single out one bank as more expensive than another because their commission structures are so varied; if we had wanted to buy more - or less - cash than the listed $500 bundles, the rankings would probably have changed. Another day or two might also have made a difference.

But the overall message was clear: if you want your dollar to go further, buy your currency from a trader specialising in foreign exchange, rather than a bank.

The key factor was the absence of commissions at the hole-in-the-wall operators (and other specialist foreign exchange dealers which were not included in the survey), although they also tended to offer a better selling rate as well.

All the banks charged commission on top of their usual margin between buy and sell rates but just one of the independent traders surveyed took that step (and that was only on sums of less than $500). A commission on top of the "normal" profit of a currency transaction is common around the world but the logic of that extra hit will escape many travellers.

Of course, the convenience of using your own bank saves a lot of hassles (and if you live out of the city you may have no choice). The little guys are also less likely to always have the currency you need at hand.

But if you want to stretch your travel dollar - and have the time to sniff out a bargain - it may pay to look beyond your bank.

What your dollar buys

- Bruce Morris

- NZ Herald

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