Cash change: Euro currency coming Jan. 1

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NEW YORK -- Europe's common euro currency becomes tangible coin of the realm Jan. 1, when long-awaited banknotes and pocket change finally will hit the streets of most European Union countries.

U.S. visitors should benefit from the historic switch to the euro, said travel industry figures, although agents should prepare clients heading to the Continent for minor hassles and glitches as national currencies are phased out for good.

Euro ABCs

For all its novelty and hype, "the euro's just another currency, and it makes life easier," said Heinz Wesner, president of Destination Europe Resources, Rosemont, Ill., noting euro bills and coins will be legal tender across 12 of 15 very different EU states.

Colorful euro banknotes will be issued in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 euros, while coins will be worth 2 euros, 1 euro and 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1 "cents."

Agents who want to familiarize clients with euros before departure can download educational materials -- including mock bills and coins -- by visiting the EU Internet site at www.europa.eu.int/index_en.htm and clicking on the "The Euro: The European Union in Your Hand" logo.

The good news

The replacement of national currencies with the euro will make price comparisons across frontiers -- once clouded by discordant exchange rates -- a simple matter, said DER's Wesner. Fewer trips to exchange bureaus and banks also spells savings for tourists.

"Travelers will definitely benefit on that front," said Sue Harraka, a Europe specialist agent with Nova Travel Services, Calabasas, Calif. "Banks earned commissions each time people exchanged; thanks to that alone, [the change] is worth it," she said.

And because the euro (symbol: E) is "pretty much equivalent to the dollar, it makes currency conversion -- figuring out the price of dinner, shopping, etc. -- so much easier," said a spokeswoman for Rail Europe, in White Plains, N.Y.

Indeed, the euro -- valued at 89 U.S. cents at the time of this article -- should ease headaches for tourists used to struggling with multiple currencies on one trip, even as Europeans themselves struggle to adapt.

The other side of the coin

The changeover, however, could result in delays at points of purchase across the EU, so visitors should be warned to expect some annoyances.

Cashiers at both public and private concerns will be working with dual cash tills for at least two months, until national currencies are phased out, said Christopher Matthews, spokesman for the EU's European Commission executive branch in New York,

"The will be some lines" as cashiers fumble with the new currency and exchange rates, he said, despite a decade-long campaign to familiarize Europeans with their new monies.

"They've run simulations in some cities where lines for things like train tickets expanded considerably," noted Matthews.

The E.U. also is addressing fears that unscrupulous suppliers may use the changeover to mask price hikes.

"It's a hot political issue," said Sven Boinet, a member of the management board of hotel activities at Accor Hotels, Paris. "You've got governments looking at all pricing and scrutinizing anyone who might take advantage."

Austria tour operator Susanne Servin of Herzerl Tours, Tuckahoe, N.Y., noted that rounding up to the next euro there is already illegal and "is being very strictly watched."

However, visitors to the Netherlands may encounter some rounding off, said Conrad van Tiggelen, director, North America, for the Netherlands Board of Tourism in New York. "But it will be in small percentages, and sometimes may benefit the consumer."

Travelers should be reminded local currencies such as Finnish marks and Spanish pesetas can be used at hotels, restaurants and other businesses until Feb. 28, after which only the euro will be accepted as legal tender.

Old national banknotes and coins, however, will be exchangeable at banks for several more months, if not years. And although the euro is the new EU monetary standard, not all member states will adopt the currency.

Visitors to Great Britain, Denmark and Sweden still must purchase local currencies, though prices may be posted in euros as well.

Getting to know euro

Destinations and suppliers will work throughout 2002 to educate consumers and agents about the new currency. The Netherlands, for example, includes euro updates in its bimonthly news fax to agents, said van Tiggelen.

And the EU and European Travel Commission will host a joint marketing conference and forum on the euro Jan. 16 at the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York. (For more information, contact the ETC at (212) 218-1200.)

The currency itself should be available at U.S. exchange venues beginning Jan. 1.

JPMorgan Chase's New York-based Currency to Go exchange service will sell euros as of the new year, said a spokeswoman.

Until then, Chase -- which is not taking advance orders for next year -- can issue traveler's checks denominated in euros.

Spare coins can go to a good cause

NEW YORK -- Spare European coins lying around and collecting dust?

Thanks to the joint "Euro Currency for New York" effort of the European Union, the Bank of New York and Travelex, residents of and visitors to the metropolitan New York region can donate leftover European change -- which is virtually impossible to exchange in the U.S. -- to the Twin Towers Fund for victims of September's terrorist attacks.

Twelve national currencies lose their status as legal tender to the euro after Feb. 28, but currency from Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain can be donated to the fund at 300 branches of the Bank of New York.

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