Making Change in €uroland
All about the euro
By Rick Steves
If efficiency were an "ism," it would be the "ism" of our age. Streamlining is going on everywhere. To be competitive globally, corporations are consolidating, free trade zones are being established, and in 2002, 12 European currencies such as the mark, franc, and schilling — for generations symbols of their respective countries — made way for a single currency, the euro (€).
Now, nineteen nations from Ireland to Greece have officially adopted the euro. The advent of the euro was the biggest monetary switch in history, as a continent of vending machines, ATMs, menus, and even wallet sizes were adjusted to fit the new currency.
The euro is already old news in Euroland...and good news for travelers. Changing money — which wastes time and is expensive — is no longer necessary in these places. And price differences from country to country are now obvious (in 2001, only a mathematician knew if gas was cheaper in Germany or France — but today, prices are easy to compare). This stimulates competition.
But there are downsides to the pan-European currency. When the transition took place in 2002, many greedy businesses took advantage of the situation to raise their prices — hoping that nobody would notice in the shuffle of exchange rates. Many of these inflated prices never came down. And the united euro has proven to be a strong competitor against the dollar. Seven years ago, a dramatic rise in the Deustchmark might not have affected the Spanish peseta. But today the currency rises together, so a spike in France's economy leads to an increase in Greek prices.
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about the euro:
Which countries use the euro?
Seventeen European Union countries — and about 300 million people in all — officially use the euro: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Esotnia and Spain. In addition, the euro is the official currency of non-EU members Montenegro and Kosovo, and is legal tender in several of Europe's tiny countries, like Vatican City and Monaco. These countries are known collectively as Euroland.
There are still several European countries not using the euro. These non-euro countries include:
- European Union members who have voted not to adopt the currency (Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom)
- Eastern European countries that have joined the EU — including the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and the Baltic States — are working hard to satisfy requirements that will allow them to adopt the euro in the future
- Countries that do not belong to the European Union (such as Norway, Switzerland, and Croatia).
Even if the euro isn't the official currency, it is still widely used in most of these places. Swiss ATMs give euros, prices are listed in both Swiss francs and euros, and travelers can get by in that country with euro cash. (But if you pay in euros, you'll get a rotten exchange rate. Ideally, if you're in the country for more than a few hours, stow your euros and get some local cash instead.)
What do the coins and bills look like?
The paper currency is nationality-neutral, with drawings of nonexistent windows, gateways, and bridges — metaphors of communication within Europe, and between Europe and the rest of the world. But the coins all have a side that reflects their country of origin. So, while the coins are accepted everywhere, you'll spend more coins featuring the Colosseum in Italy, Queen Beatrix in the Netherlands, Brandenburg Gate in Germany, and a traditional harp in Ireland.
What are the denominations?
You'll find euro bills in denominations of €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200, and €500. A euro is broken down into 100 cents, and there are coins of 1 cent, 2 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, €1, and €2. Note that it's called simply the euro — you won't win any friends by calling it the "eurodollar."
What is the exchange rate?
The euro was designed to be more or less equivalent with the US dollar. At its inception, the euro was traded at a lower rate than the dollar — making it a great deal for American travelers. But in recent years, the dollar dropped sharply against the euro, effectively raising prices for American visitors to Europe. Most experts agree that in the long term, the new currency will settle into a more predictable pattern against the dollar — following the same ups and downs that any currency goes through. For the current exchange rate, visit www.oanda.com.
Does the euro threaten the identity of each country?
Italy is just as enticing without its itsy-bitsy lira, and the draw of Greece never had anything to do with drachmas. The euro is just another step in the development of Western civilization. In ancient times, the ideal size of a Greek city-state was about the distance you could walk in a day. In the 19th century, Germany went from 35 independent countries to one. In the last generation, borders have withered away as most of Europe has become a giant free trade zone. With the euro, the evolution continues as 330 million Europeans can now use each other's gumball machines.
What's fun about the euro?
Coin collectors have the joy of filling in coin books as eight denominations of euro coins from 16 different countries (and counting) make for a whole new frontier in coin collecting. Europhiles can buy these books in Europe and chart their travels by gradually completing the collection, filling those 104 holes with wonderful travel experiences.
Updated for 2011. For lots more tips, check out our best-selling Europe Through the Back Door travel skills guidebook.