I like to explore Europe. It's relatively simple - I book the ferry, arrange to take the time off work, pack the panniers and go.
Money once was a problem - and if things go wrong, still can be. The lack of currency when miles from home can be painfully embarrassing.
In 1982, a friend asked me if I wanted to accompany her to Budapest to attend the Pannonia Rally. I had never travelled abroad before and in my naiveté eagerly agreed. Three of us travelled to Budapest and each had different ideas about money. Anne took a wadge of cash, backed up with travellers' cheques and just in case, a Visa card. Paul took a huge wadge of cash. I took no cash at all, but an Access card and Postcheques.
Postcheques, issued by GiroBank, were, and probably still are, a means of accessing your bank account while abroad. Of the methods we chose, this seemed the best. It was cheap, simple and as secure as any form of cheque can be. The idea of carrying wads of folding stuff in my pocket sent shivers down my spine.
Our journey took us from Zeebrugge through to the Netherlands where we stayed with friends, then across Germany, through Austria and into Hungary via Vienna. It is in cases like this, where the traveller is crossing borders, that a flexible means of money becomes desirable. It is one thing to look up the local bank having decamped for a week or so. It is quite another to have to traipse about when you're attempting to make progress. I find that when I'm trying to get on, I'm resistant to the idea of long stops. Banking abroad can be very long.
Changing money on the border is an option (we used to change a small amount to tide us over until we found a bank further on). Providing, of course, you cross the border at a reasonable time of day - when the banks are open. Another problem with this option was the poor exchange rates we encountered. Postcheques were immune from this. They were like writing a cheque on my own account with very favourable exchange rates, so it was with some smugness that I proved their effectiveness in Germany. Smugness, however, has an uncanny knack of coming before an embarrassing fiasco...
We crossed the border into Austria at about nine in the evening. The banks were closed. There were no Post Offices on the border. I wasn't so smug then - I had no dosh. Paul and Anne reluctantly used English money to buy petrol and put up with the rip-off exchange rate at a local garage - he didn't accept credit cards. At that time, most petrol stations in Germany and Austria didn't accept them. I had three crumpled English pound notes in my pocket and used those to fill the tank.
Lesson one; Post Offices have limited opening hours. One of the first things I learned about touring on a bike is that time has a different perspective. Everyone else carries on their daily routine while the rider floats through, touching their lives briefly before moving on to the next destination. This is fine - it's why I do it. It just pays to remember that when you want things like money and food and such, you need to fit in with the locals - and their opening times. Ignore this at your peril.
Another problem with Postcheques manifested itself some years later in La Fleche. Frankie and I stopped for a brief coffee and money stop. Er, brief was the plan. The trouble with cunning plans is that they have a habit of falling apart.
This one sure did. We found La Poste relatively easily and waited patiently in the queue to change some post cheques. The assistant took our cheques, cards and passports and wandered off into a back room. Fifteen minutes or so later, she returned, accompanied by her supervisor. Together they waded through a book of specimens, double checked our cheque cards and returned to the specimens. After several minutes of this charade, they came to a unanimous decision: our Postcheques were invalid.
I politely but firmly begged to differ. Consequently the supervisor called her head office and gesticulated into the phone while glancing in our direction, for several minutes more. It transpired that GiroBank in Britain had changed the design of their Postcheques without fully distributing the specimens to places like La Fleche. We obtained our money - about three quarters of an hour after we stopped. So much for brief. As we progressed, it seemed progress became progressively less.
Talking of money problems in France reminds me of Beauvais. Beauvais is a provincial town in Normandy. Don't get me wrong, I like Beauvais - rather a lot. We stopped for a break on our way to Austria in 1986. Just a quick stop - coffee, pee and money. We found a guichet automatique. Great. Frankie put her visa card in, demanded dosh and the machine promptly ate it.
We went into the bank. The teller was apologetic but they could not open the back of the machine. C'est impossible. I begged to differ (I seem to end up doing this a lot on my travels). I pointed out that we needed the card returned as we had to travel to Austria. After a brief conflab, they decided that someone could open the machine at four o'clock. It was currently just after two. Sod that for a game of soldiers. In my best Gallic I said
"Can't wait - now."
To his credit, the supervisor, or whatever he was, opened the machine, gave us the card and had the decency not to look too grateful when we left.
Flipping back to the Hungarian trip, halfway through Germany Anne's Yamaha XS650 started rattling. It is true that they all rattle, but this one rattled more than most. We spent some time checking things like the cam chain tension, but it still rattled. We made Austria and spent the following morning attempting to resolve the awesome racket. Eventually we limped into Linz where we found a Yamaha dealer who replaced a piston and re-honed the bore.
Anne attempted to pay for the work using the RAC letters of credit issued with her travel insurance. These are internationally recognised letters of credit issued by the AIT (Alliance Internationale De Tourisme Geneve). They are incredibly useful things that allow you to pay for expensive breakdowns without delving into your holiday funds. There are a couple of provisos though. (Aren't there always?)
Firstly, anything other than labour is refundable to the issuer - so you need to remember that the RAC will want some of it back when you get home. Interestingly when I needed them in Spain in 1994, I spent the money in July and received the invoice in October, so I figure that I did reasonably well out of the deal.
Secondly, as Anne found out to her cost, the dealer is under no obligation to accept them. We tried, by 'eck did we try, but they wouldn't budge.
We needed money - the real folding stuff. Anne had a limited amount on her - Paul had enough for his purposes and I had Postcheques. We headed into Linz town centre to seek out a bank that accepted Visa cards. We trudged from bank to bank - all with the Visa symbol on the door, only to be told that they didn't cash Visa cards. One even told us that the symbol was there for information only. When we finally found one that did cash the damn things we had to wait for the best part of half an hour while they processed the transaction. The ultimate irony to this story manifested itself in Budapest several days later. In the centre of a communist country we found market traders who proudly displayed Visa and Mastercard signs.
In 1990, Frankie and I travelled to Provence. On the way back, we decided to revisit Paris - I must tell you sometime about riding in Paris. We found a hotel just outside, in Mennecy. The following morning Frankie drew out 1000 francs. We had been using a mixture of her credit card and my travellers' cheques. As we only had a couple of days to go, we'd finished up the travellers' cheques and drew out enough cash to settle the hotel bill and cover the petrol home. Good idea.
In Paris, some low-life snatched Frankie's purse. We had about two hundred francs in my pocket - nothing to pay the hotel bill and no credit card. At times like this you may wonder why you bother - we certainly did. Hours spent tramping the back streets of Paris to the police station and wading through the forms and officialdom when we got there did nothing to raise our spirits.
The people at the hotel were terrific, they told us to stay that night as planned and settle the bill by sending the money when we arrived home. We managed to use the two hundred francs on petrol and limped home on next to no funds. Moral? Well, there are two.
Never rely on one source of money - always have some sort of backup.
and the other: It's when the chips are down that you often see people at their best.
We tend now to travel with two credit cards and if I'm feeling really paranoid, roughly £100 in travellers' cheques as a backup fund. When I think about the Hungarian trip I smile. Now, the readiness of cashpoints makes life easy - credit cards are pretty well universal. On the downside is the zest at which they zip through your account. It is not unusual to find that the bill is on your statement on your arrival home.
Another anomaly is that you may find yourself in some remote village with no more than a main street, a couple of bars and a bank - that's why you went after all, isn't it? You will find if you try to cash your credit card that they won't. Chances are, they won't have a cashpoint either. For some obscure reason that I haven't got to the bottom of, you can obtain cash through a cashpoint, but you can't always get it over the counter. Ironically I managed to in Bilbao - and they had a cashpoint outside. It just didn't work. If you find any logic in this let me know; I'd be fascinated. There is a moral to all this (I like morals). Make sure you obtain enough cash when you're in the larger towns to see you through the remoter regions.
Despite this, you will still be able to use credit cards for petrol in all but the rarest of cases - if you carry a reserve of cash, you should be okay.
Insurance is essential. I have claimed enough to know that. When we returned from the fateful Paris trip, we refunded the hotel and claimed the lost money through the RAC. Because of that, our losses were confined to inconvenience.
Most travel insurance will cover lost or stolen money as well as medical expenses and breakdown cover. It's tempting to risk travelling without it. My advice is don't - the relatively low cost saving isn't worth the risk of being stranded without money or a busted bike in the middle of nowhere. It will still be inconvenient, but there is someone on the end of a telephone pulling strings to get you out of the mire.
In the past fifteen years we have seen a dramatic change from the need to use cash and travellers' cheques to bits of plastic. There are still problems - but compared to my first trip to the continent, they are minor. In the next few years will we see monetary union and a single currency making life easier still?
I wait with interest, but I'm not holding my
Click here to return to Lessons Learned Page