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Get their currency (euros, rupees, pounds . . .) here first

Email|Print| Text size + By Lylah M. Alphonse
Globe Staff / November 21, 2004

One of the best ways to get foreign currency when you're abroad is from an ATM. The transaction is instantaneous, the exchange rate is competitive, you have a record of all of your transactions, and the fees, though sometimes substantial, are deducted automatically from your account.

But what if the automatic teller machine is out of order? Or the tiny, picturesque seaside village has a couple of local banks but no ATMs? Or you forget your personal identification number or -- worst of all -- lose your card?

That's when it pays to have a little foreign currency tucked away, just in case.

Not all places accept US dollars, and you can't always purchase with plastic. A cab driver in Amsterdam may be happy to take your $20 traveler's check, but the rickshaw walla in Ahmedabad, India, could be reluctant.

Many national banks in the United States have a small supply of the most popular currencies -- British pounds, Canadian dollars, euros -- available for immediate purchase. Smaller banks or local branches often can special-order currency for you, for a fee.

Fleet Bank, now part of Bank of America, has several branches in Boston that have foreign currency on hand (the amount and type depend on the location), and branches that don't can still place special orders for you.

You don't have to be an account holder to purchase foreign currency from them, and there is a $10 fee per transaction (a request for $100 in euros, $50 in British pounds, and $100 in Indian rupees counts as a single transaction as long as it is all placed as a single order). Special orders take approximately three business days to process. For more information, call 800-841-4000 or visit www.fleet.com.

Citizens Bank offers several currencies at its 28 State St location, and you can get euros, British pounds, and Canadian dollars at the Cleveland Circle office in Brookline and the Kenmore Square branch near Boston University. Account holders can order currency from any branch for a $3 fee ($5 for noncustomers), and orders take about a week to arrive and must be picked up. Call 800-922-9999 or visit www.citizensbank.com.

If you'd like to have enough currency on hand to tip the bellhop, buy bottled water at the airport, or get a snack as you drive across Europe, but don't know how much you'll need, the Automobile Association of America offers its members a ''Tip Pack," available at most AAA offices. It contains $100 in small bills in euros, pounds, or Canadian dollars -- enough to tip your cabbie, make phone calls, and buy small items before you get to a bank or ATM.

AAA members can order larger amounts online at www.aaa.com. You have to spend a minimum of $300 (the maximum is $1,500) and orders under $500 are subject to a $7.95 processing fee. Orders of $500 and up get free two-day delivery; for smaller orders, there is a $7-$13 charge. It takes three to five business days for your order to arrive, and according to the website, more than 100 currencies are available.

Don't like the idea of carrying around that much cash? For a $9.95 handling fee you can order AAA Visa Travelers Cheques in Canadian dollars, euros, or British pounds in various denominations. The same maximum and minimum order requirements and delivery charges apply. To find your nearest AAA office, or to become a member, call 800-222-8252 or visit www.aaa.com.

American Express offers foreign currency as well as its ubiquitous traveler's checks. For $15, you can order up to $1,000 in 55 currencies online, including Swiss francs, Indonesian rupiahs, and Brazilian reals. The currency is shipped within 10 business days via first class mail for $5.95; second-day UPS shipping and next-day air shipping are also available (many currencies from smaller countries take an extra business day to arrive). You can only order $1,000 in currency or checks in any 14-day period, and American Express will not ship to a post office box. Go to www.americanexpress.com and click on TravelFunds.

Another option is to order from an online broker such as International Currency Express (www.foreignmoney.com; 888-278-6628) or OrderCurrency (www.ordercurrency.com; 877-663-8309).

International Currency Express offers euros and cash from 63 countries. Traveler's checks are available in pounds or euros, and if you need to make a wire transfer or pay for a hotel room in advance with a bank draft, you can do so in 13 currencies. If you're ordering online, ICE requires that you purchase at least $25 in international currency, but no more than $1,000 (for greater amounts, you can place your order by phone). Pay with a credit card, and the order is shipped to you (though not to a post office box) within five business days for a fee of $10.

OrderCurrency sells currency from 68 countries, and will buy back any paper money you bring back as long as it totals at least $50. You can pay for your purchase with a credit card, and your order is shipped overnight. The minimum is $300 and the maximum $2,500 for online orders (you may order more over the phone), and there is a shipping and handling fee of $15 per order..

Lylah Alphonse can be reached at alphonse@globe.com.

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