In the spring of 1984, I quit my job and a few days later, I found myself in Prague, in what was then Czechoslovakia.
At the time, the country was communist, and their currency was flaky. One of the first things I did was to change $40 into korunas at a bank. The official rate was then around 30 korunas per dollar, so I walked away feeling rich with about 1,200 korunas in my pocket.
Emerging from the bank, several men offered to exchange their korunas for 150 per dollar. While I was tempted, I ignored them, as I worried about being thrown in the slammer for egregious monetary crimes.
That night, I went on a spending spree, buying dinner and a couple of beers. The food was pretty awful, and expensive for what I got.
The next morning, I counted my korunas and found I had only 200 left. I thought I’d take a cheap tour of the town, so I hopped on the subway to visit several of Prague’s neighborhoods. Along the way, I discovered the Hotel Bristol, which had an elegant western restaurant with prices to match. My 200 korunas would barely buy me a drink in this place. So on my return to my rather dilapidated lodgings, more men approached me with money changing offers.
Facing several days of crappy and expensive food, I decided to take up their offer. I found the meekest looking guy who gave me a good rate, and on the sidelines of a crowded bar I swapped $40 for 6,000 korunas. The bar was crowded with soldiers and other officialdom, and I felt nervous playing this game. Sure I was being followed for my transgressions, I ducked back into the subway and tried to shake the imaginary currency police.
Getting off at the Bristol Hotel subway stop, I made my way to their restaurant. I ordered a delicious meal, and when it came time to pay, instead of it costing $50 at the official exchange rate, it only cost me $10 in my black market gelt. And the next day, when I was hiking up the hill to the city’s castle, I decided to stop in at a bar, and ordered Pilsner Urquils by the liter. Again, what were nominally 50 cent beers were only a dime a pop.
Getting a good rate of exchange on your money is a good thing.
Today, if you’re an American tourist, the dollar is definitely king. Compared to a few years ago, the currency rates in Mexico, Canada and Colombia are great. But instead of having to worry about imaginary currency cops and swapping dollars in shady bars, you can get these bargain rates in the banks themselves.
A dollar will now buy 18.3 Mexican pesos, and Canada’s dollar is worth only 74 US cents. And in Colombia, the dollar fetches more than 3,300 pesos.
So how can you benefit from these rates when you’re abroad? Shop where the locals shop, eat where the locals eat and stay away from really touristy joints that are frequented mostly by gringos. Pay for your purchases in local currency, or use a credit card.
In Mexico, an elegant meal that a few years ago cost $50 per person now runs only $30; a beer and a taco at a local stand is only the equivalent of $3. In Vancouver or Victoria, bar hopping at their great brewpubs is a true bargain; it’s like buying three beers, and getting one free. And if you’re looking for great deals in the shopping malls, they’re there in abundance. Plus in Colombia, great deals on food, drinks, shopping and local transportation abound.
Will you find these rates staying the same throughout 2016? Probably, because these three countries are dependent on the sale of oil and natural resources, and the prices of these commodities are not expected to increase very much, if at all, in the year ahead.
So if you’re taking a cruise to Mexico, Vancouver, Victoria or Cartagena this year, enjoy your trip, and savor the experience of a strong dollar.