Money Matters: trimming wallet, PIN security, rubles vs. dollars

Trimming waist and cost

I have been following the “Money Matters” correspondence with interest (October-December ’05 & Jan. ’06, pg. 92). In the December issue, Edward Lifset (pg. 73) recommends one-dollar bills and a USAA MasterCard; Robert Hersch (pg. 74) found he needed a Visa card in Tahiti, and David Williams (pg. 75) says he prints a currency-rate “cheat sheet” and avoids travelers’ checks.

I do all of the above. However, to avoid tempting pickpockets, I don’t carry 50 to 100 one-dollar bills (which would make for a fat wallet) but instead carry a small nylon/Velcro© (hook-and-loop fastener) wallet containing a driver’s license, a USAA MasterCard, a Visa card and only a few one-dollar bills for initial tipping and some 20-dollar bills in case an airport does not have an ATM. (A USAA MasterCard does not charge a transaction fee for cash advances. They only charge interest on the amount until the end of the billing cycle, and I have no problem with that.)

I also carry an IsCard telephone card (Iscom, Inc., in New York, NY; 212/324-1100 or visit Nothing could be simpler.

On page 38 of the December ’05 issue, Joe Mehaffey’s outrageous telephone charges at the Thistle Euston hotel in London prompts me to mention that the call he made to the British Library could have been done for only 21¢ a minute if he had used the IsCard. The call would have been routed to the U.S. and back to London, but it works perfectly and can be used even in public phone boxes. It is actually cheaper to use this card for calls within the U.K. than to use cash or a U.K. phone card.
San Rafael, CA

PIN security

When I was in Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy, in 2003, my ATM/credit card was lifted out of my zippered fanny pack (worn on my stomach) without my being aware of the loss. Mercifully, not much was charged against my account before I called my American bank and canceled the card. The thief had used the Visa part of my ATM card to charge his purchases.

As soon as I arrived home, I asked my bank to give me an ATM card WITHOUT Visa ability so that I could get money at an ATM but if my card was stolen the thief couldn’t do a thing, as he would not know my PIN to access my account.

I also had with me another regular credit card, which I carried for those occasions (rare, believe it or not) when I was going shopping for more than lunch.

Rockport, MA

Rubles vs.dollars in Russia

Many people, including my wife and I, until we recognized the game, tried to avoid foreign currencies because they are unfamiliar, are a hassle to get and are difficult to change back. But I think you’re better off learning to use the local currency.

After over 30 independent trips overseas, our return to St. Petersburg in September ’05 really illustrated the advantage of using the local currency.

Russia provides the visitor with a unique situation, because the ruble is the only legal currency there and it has two interesting characteristics: 1) it is absolutely valueless anyplace else and 2) it is the least desirable currency for the Russian people you will be dealing with.

In St. Petersburg, for foreigners the rates in hotels and restaurants are often quoted in euros, so there will always be an exchange involved. The basic principals of exchange are as follows: 1) when an exchange is calculated, it will not come out even and thus 2) there will be rounding, always up.

We arrived in St. Petersburg armed with enough cash in dollars and euros to last until we got to Germany, because we didn’t want to use ATMs or travelers’ checks in Russia. The equivalents I am using in these examples are calculated based on the exchange rates I was getting at the “official” exchange office for currency in dollars, at $1 = 24 rubles, and euros, at €1 = 33 rubles.

• Let’s start with a restaurant where menu prices are in euros but, when presented, the bill is converted to rubles. You may have seen on the menu or on the bill that other currencies may be accepted at the “current exchange rate.” (Note: they don’t say whose rate.)

The bill is presented for €63.75 and converted to 2,103.75 rubles, if you’re lucky. You ask to pay in euros and are told it’s €65 (at least). If you do happen to get change, it will be in rubles.

To test the change policy, I used one-dollar bills and one- and 2-euro coins for tips, which were graciously accepted. But giving them a 5-euro bill and asking for €2 in change got me a fist full of rubles and a courteous explanation that it is illegal for them to use anything but rubles.

• Now let’s take a typical taxi from one of the better downtown hotels. There are none in sight; the doorman asks if you want a taxi. He asks where you are going and says the fare is 600 rubles, which seems to be standard for any trip in the central city (600 rubles equals $25 or €18.18).

He waves and a car pulls up. Unlike taxis on the streets, it is good sized, well maintained and clean and the driver is neat and courteous and speaks some English. It is not metered nor even identified as a taxi. If you ask to pay in dollars, the fare may be $26 or even $30, and in euros, €20 or €25.

On one such taxi ride to the Church of the Spilled Blood, I gave the driver 600 rubles plus a 70-ruble tip. He asked if we wanted him to come back later and return us to the hotel. I said that we would probably walk back or maybe go somewhere else. He then said that he could come back and take us anyplace else for €10. I’ll let you speculate on why the rate is different when you’re out of sight of the hotel — that’s another game entirely.

• If you go to an “official tourist sight,” such as a museum or church, and need to pay admission or want to buy postcards, you will need rubles. There are always ATMs in sight, but you may not see a bank symbol that you recognize. You can, of course, buy postcards on the street with dollars and they’ll gladly play the game — with your dollars. (Please note that the game is played worldwide, not just in St. Petersburg, and that these are my personal experiences, which may be different from yours.) Repeat this exercise with euros or British pounds and see how you come out after rounding up.

Most important — you need to be in control! You only have control when you know the exchange rate and eliminate any rounding up.

Play the game, learn the local currency, get just enough to meet your needs plus a little safety net, and change back what you can at the airport. If you wind up giving a few rubles to the grandkids to play with, it’s a small price to pay for control.

West Des Moines, IA