Travel: Will you jingle along with the euro in your pocket?

Europe's new currency is launched on Friday, but travellers - and the industry - are still less than sure how to react to it.
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"WE'RE NOT allowed to start selling them until the start of January," the helpful lady at Thomas Cook's head office told me when I tried to buy some euro travellers' cheques this week. "The trouble is, we won't know what they're worth."

That is the problem facing not just the foreign exchange industry, but the British travelling public in January. A survey for BBC2's Money Programme revealed that fewer than half of the respondents know what the single European currency is called. People within the travel industry are rather more clued up about the euro - but are still undecided about the benefits when it comes into being in 11 countries on Friday.

"It won't even occur to me to use the euro until it's really in full swing," says the travel photographer Geoffrey Roy. "I travel at too short notice to think much about the currency I use. I'll just go to the bank like I always do, order, say, pounds 50 worth of French currency, and if they ask me whether I'd rather have euros than francs, I'll probably say yes just for the fun of it. As for the old European coins, I'll take them to the bank where they can be given to charity."

Roy's change will be of value to him for at least the next three years. The euro that comes into effect on 1 January will be an intangible concept; notes and coins do not arrive for another three years. The 11 national currencies will be locked in to the rate, and therefore will be fixed against each other. Sterling will continue to float against the whole raft of currencies just as it does at the moment - but if the Deutschmark appreciates by 10 per cent against the pound, you can be sure that everything else from the Irish punt to the Finnish markka has, too.

One way to hedge against an effective devaluation of Sterling is to purchase euro travellers' cheques - but you could just buy a consignment of French francs, or any other currency. The euro cheques could take a while to catch on when there is little perceived advantage. "I'll be avoiding the euro travellers' cheque," says Petra Shepherd, head of research for the cable and satellite station Travel Channel. "For a start, I think they'll take a long time to catch on. More importantly, I think that travellers' cheques in themselves are redundant for travel today. Most people when they travel use a hole-in-the-wall card or credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard to get cash or to make payments. I'll wait to see what happens before I use the euro, but that's a personal thing - I always wait to see how everything goes and then I join the bandwagon."

Broadcaster Fi Glover, who reports for BBC2's Travel Show, believes that reluctance to embrace the euro could be a British thing. "I think it'll be some time before the general public trust the euro and begin to think of it as a `real' currency," she says. "Initially, the only people who will use the euro in any form will be business travellers, and those who are handed wads of cash by their company before they travel so that the choice of what currency they use is not really their own."

But Chris Gill, author of Where to Ski, believes that the new currency will quickly take hold. "Everyone will use the euro: I don't think they'll be reluctant to do so. In French supermarkets they have given prices in euros as well as in francs for ages and I think that all the countries in Europe will take the full arrival of the euro in their stride. It'll make things easier for travellers."

At present, though, the Europhile traveller who sets off on 1 January with his wallet full of the new currency and his heart full of good intentions could be thwarted. On a journey though Europe, you could end up with the same uncomfortable mix of currencies as before. Yes, you can change your 50-euro travellers' cheque for 4,300 odd Belgian francs, but when you cross into Germany, shopkeepers will not be inclined to accept the Belgian currency in lieu of marks. By the time you arrive in Italy by way of Austria you'll be jingling like Santa from all the small change.

The big change, believes Martin Moore, a travel guidebook publisher, will take place in 2002. "Until then, I think that the euro will gradually work its way into general use, as people, especially those who travel frequently, slowly pick up the currency on their travels."

Geoffrey Roy agrees that the new currency will benefit primarily the business community. "The euro is very much a trade thing. Business will deal in euros and will be greatly facilitated by a common currency," he says. "For Joe Public, on the other hand, it'll be just one more confusing aspect of travelling in Europe."

In a spirit of easing the confusion just a little, The Independent's travel desk has come up with a handy mnemonic to remember the 11 countries that are in the first wave: BAFFLING SIP, standing for Belgium, Austria, France, Finland, Luxembourg, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Portugal. A bottle of Euro wine to the reader who comes up with the best alternative.

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