London - For those heading overseas, getting the best rate for your cash is as vital as packing the suncream and booking a hire car. We all love to splash out on our hols, so knocking even a few pennies off every dollar or euro you spend can make a difference.
As a rule of thumb, you can usually unearth the best rates by ordering your currency over the phone or the internet, and picking it up in store or at the airport.
Despite this, many of us still love to get our cash from a bureau de change.
And the rates on offer from the dozens of travel agents, banks, building societies and bureaux de change vary hugely. That’s because they buy and sell currency in different volumes, at different times, and from different organisations. As a result, some make a hefty mark-up on their deals, while others are determined to give customers a fair deal.
The good thing about foreign currency is that you can see how much of a cut they are taking it’s right there in front of you in the buy-and-sell rates they quote.
So, if an organisation says of its euros that it ‘buys from you’ at 1.31, but ‘sells to you’ at 1.17 its profit margin is a very healthy 12 percent.
As you can see how much they make and can compare how much all their rivals offer, surely that means the rates are open to negotiation?
We tried to find out by shopping around in the tourist town of Windsor and in West London.
It’s 11.45am and I expect this branch of Barclays to be heaving. I’m in the shadow of Windsor Castle and people are streaming by in their thousands.
But inside there’s not a soul, aside from two staff members one sitting, one standing who are chatting behind a counter.
There’s no queue. No rush. Conditions for haggling are perfect. I approach the counter and give my best cheesy grin. On the wall hangs an electronic board displaying a dozen of that day’s currency rates. ‘I would like €100 how much will I have to pay for that?’ I ask.
‘The rate’s on the board,’ says the woman, who is standing, and points at it. She looks annoyed that I’ve stopped their conversation.
‘I can’t do the sums. Can you help me work out what that would cost me?’ I ask.
She grabs a calculator off the desk €100 will set me back £85.63. Now, it’s time for my gambit. I smile a little bit wider.
‘I’ve just been to the Post Office and that’s slightly better than their rate but can you do any better?’
I didn’t think it was possible for this branch to get any quieter, but suddenly it seems deathly silent. The staff member looks horrified.
‘I can’t help at all we’ve just one rate,’ she retorts, her tone distinctly uppity.
I switch tack. I can see the rate is 1.1678, so ask if they could offer 1.17. That’s 0.0022 of a cent more for every £1. Surely that’s peanuts?
‘No,’ is the stony reply. ‘I’m afraid we can’t do anything.’ I can see that she is agitated and thinks I’m wasting her time. But I gamely make one more attempt.
‘I’m a customer of Barclays, does that make a difference?’ It doesn’t.
So, as politely as I can, I leave to find somewhere cheaper in town.
Surely it can’t be this hard to shop around for the best currency deal?
It was hard not to let my confidence get dented by the outright rejection in Barclays.
I’d popped in to the Halifax, but they didn’t do on-the-spot currency customers had to book their rate in advance.
The Post Office could give me only €100 for £89.29 a very poor rate of €1.12.
I’d planned to make Metro Bank largely based in the South and London my last stop.
Their friendly staff hadn’t been able to budge on their more competitive rate of €1.1727 ‘because it’s set every day at 9am’.
But as I turn to leave, the staff member helpfully recommends a little shop near the train station.
Even following her directions it proves easy to miss Windsor Travelmoney, tucked away next to platform one at Windsor & Eton Central train station.
It’s a small booth inside the entrance of a gaudy gift shop selling flags and figurines, right next to the station ticket office.
It appears to be the only independent bureau de change in town. As I approach I can see the rate is a fantastic €1.20 to the pound. Crikey, this place really may be the diamond in the rough.
But I’m worried that doesn’t give me much wiggle room.
‘What’s your best price for €100?’ I ask, pretending not to have seen the sign.
A friendly assistant called Virginia jabs at her calculator before telling me it is £83.33. That’s £6 cheaper than the Post Office deal for €100, a five-minute walk away.
‘I appreciate that is a really good deal, but do you still have any room to negotiate on that?’ I beg.
Virginia smiles: ‘We’re the best rate in town by a mile.’
I have another weapon in my arsenal. The previous night I’d checked online to see what rates these currency services were paying. The best was €1.22, with International Currency Exchange (ICE), a company that will deliver to your home, and offers pick-ups at airports and train stations.
‘I checked online last night and could get quite a bit more around €1.22 if I order it for tomorrow. But I’d be keen to get my hands on the money today,’ I say. ‘Any chance that you could match what they had?’
Virginia’s smile slips. ‘Not for €100,’ she says. ‘But if you wanted to change €1,000 I could probably do you a slightly better rate.’
I sigh: ‘Is there any chance you could do €100 at the higher rate, just as a one-off deal? I’ve just in Windsor for the day and travel a lot. If you could ask the manager, I’d be grateful.’
She goes to find him. When he arrives, I spin my yarn again. He listens and then talks about the tight margin he’s on. From the board outside, it’s clear their profits on each transaction are smaller than High Street rivals.
At the Post Office, the difference between the buy and sell rate on €100 was 17.6 pc; at Barclays it was 15.7 pc; and at Metro Bank 11 pc but here the difference is just 8.2 pc.
That means Windsor Travelmoney is making half as much profit per transaction as some of the big corporations but giving you a much better deal.
Even despite this, the manager finally budges: ‘I’ll give you a rate of 1.21 rate but only if you buy €500. It’s my final deal, I just can’t go any lower.’
This extra 0.01 cent may not sound like much of a victory, but on €500 it’s a saving of £3.45 off their original offer. That’s a cup of coffee and a croissant just for the sake of a short conversation.
And, for the same €500, he has saved me £14.94 on what I would have paid had I not shopped around in Windsor.
Buoyed by this success, I decide to give haggling another go in Ealing, West London.
I head to Marks & Spencer, where surely its famed customer service will work in my favour. Plus, according to the digital display board, they offer one of the best rates on the High Street at €1.1881.
The assistant sitting behind the enclosed glass screen is friendly.
‘I’m about to fly off on holiday, and need €100 how much will it cost?’ I ask. He says £84.17.
Though that’s better than most banks, I give a mock grimace.
‘Can you do me a rate of €1.19 for a bit of extra value?’ I ask.
He smiles: ‘Sorry, these rates are set by Visa and we have no authority to move on them. But if you want to haggle, I’d try an independent currency exchange. There are some on the High Street.’
I appreciate his candour, ask him where one is and he helpfully obliges.
As I turn to go, I hear a more senior colleague chide him for sending me away.
Defending himself, he explains that I clearly wanted to haggle and probably wasn’t going to buy if I couldn’t.
I hear him say: ‘It’s about customer service first, isn’t it?’ That man deserves to go far.
I never found the independent bureau de change, but there is a branch of the travel agent Thomas Cook nearby.
Based on my previous experiences, I don’t hold out much hope.
But since they take millions of holiday bookings every year, it’s worth a try.
Inside, it’s bare and airless. There’s a thin carpet and well-worn furniture. Perhaps this is why people book from home on the internet these days.
Unhelpfully, the day’s currency rates aren’t displayed on the wall.
Suddenly, I’m not even so sure that they offer foreign exchange.
But there at the end of the room is a glass screen and a counter manned by a fresh-faced assistant.
I ask what he’d charge for €100.
‘Give me a sec,’ he says and taps a keyboard. ‘The rate is €1.21... that will cost you £82.64.’
I’m stunned. That’s the best price I’ve been offered so far.
It’s time for some straight talking: ‘I’ve seen the local independent bureau’s top deals today. But I’m short on time to go there, too. Could you do a slightly better rate?’
In a flash, he replies: ‘Well, I can give you 1.211 it’s our VIP rate, reserved for online customers.’
Blimey! That was easy. My poker face drops for the first time that day.
‘That is fantastic,’ I tell him. When I ask, he explains that Thomas Cook staff have a degree of discretion on the rate set.
It just goes to show you shouldn’t blindly accept the first offer you get and you certainly shouldn’t rely on your bank to treat you as a loyal customer.
Shopping around and haggling has saved me £15.31 the difference between the best and worst deals on every €500 I take on holiday.
The average family spends around €2,000 on a two-week trip abroad, so that is about £60 more bang for your buck (or euro) and that really does help add to the holiday happiness. - Daily Mail