Sun, sand, muggers and thieves

has some tips on holiday currency, gleaned from bitter experience
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The Independent Online
If you are one of the many people planning to use your building society or other windfall for an exotic holiday, you may well be in for a completely new experience. But if you do not have the spending power you need, you could find that you do not enjoy your break as much as you would wish.

While credit cards are accepted in most tourist spots, once you get off the beaten track, or want to make purchases in the local market or bazaar where credit cards are not accepted, you may well find that the US dollar is king. In China, Russia and the less frequently visited countries in Asia, people selling their wares in markets will shun their local currency in favour of US dollars.

It therefore makes sound sense to take small denomination US dollar bills in addition to your credit cards and travellers' cheques. One-dollar bills are also very useful for tips in most countries.

In certain long-haul destinations, it is important that even your travellers' cheques are in the "right" currency. In the United States it is virtually impossible to change sterling cheques. But US$ cheques are not only exchangeable at banks, they are also accepted as cash in many retail outlets. It is therefore recommended that you take more smaller denomination cheques than you may think you need. Your travel agent or bank will advise you what travellers' cheques to take to a particular destination.

For single-centre holidays, security of your cash and travellers' cheques is usually not a problem - all but your immediate needs may be deposited in the hotel safe. But when you are touring, this is not always convenient. No one would leave valuables unattended in a hotel room, but it is easy to overlook travellers' cheques.

Three years ago, while on safari in Kenya, my travellers' cheques were concealed in my hand luggage throughout the tour. On the safari drives the bag was with me, but it was left in my room at meal times. Every couple of days we would move on to another safari lodge. Before leaving, I always made sure that the two folders of cheques were there. It was only when I reached a hotel on the coast before flying to Zanzibar that I realised only the first and last cheques in each folder were in place. Those in between were missing.

Thomas Cook in Nairobi was immediately advised of their loss. Upon my return to the capital the sterling cheques, for which I had the numbers, were immediately replaced. There was a 24-hour delay before the dollar cheques, for which I had mislaid the receipt, could be replaced, as the branch of Thomas Cook in London where they had been purchased had to be contacted to ascertain their serial numbers. Thankfully, because they had been stolen in an isolated location, they had not been cashed, so no one but the receiver of the stolen items lost out. I now carry all my cash, credit cards, travellers' cheques and passport in a money belt.

In certain locations you will be asked on the street if you would like to change money at an advantageous rate. The simple advice is "don't". Inevitably you will be breaking local currency laws which could get you into trouble. Additionally you could be running the risk of having your cash stolen by the black market exchange dealer. Even if the transaction goes smoothly, the currency you receive could be counterfeit. Nevertheless, certain countries do have two-tier exchange rates, the authorities turning a blind eye to the unofficial market. The best course is to take advice from your local official guide and entrust the transaction to him or her.

Safety is certainly the best policy. But even when you are cautious, disaster can strike. On that same trip to Kenya, being advised that it was perfectly safe to walk through the old town of Mombasa, I set out for a brief meander on a tourist route.

In daylight I was attacked by two muggers. Although my only loss was a camera and asmall amount of local currency, it was not a pleasant experience. My credit card and most of the cash I had with me were safely in my money belt. Always have a small amount of cash in a "decoy" wallet which is easily accessible to hand over if "asked". Hopefully, you will never need itn

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