I spent my first couple of weeks in London standing like an idiot at various counters, peering at the coins in my hand, struggling to count out the correct change.  The sizes of UK coins don’t make sense to me, but the shapes are very helpful.  Today I’m going to share a few money tips with you that I wish I’d known before I went off on my adventure.

First, and probably most important, if you’re an American making a debit or credit card purchase in the UK, and they ask if you want to pay in pounds or dollars, ALWAYS choose dollars!  What I didn’t know then is that most banks charge a fee to convert pounds to dollars – my bank charges 3% - and while this doesn’t seem like much, believe me, it adds up.  When I booked my room in London I ended up paying a hefty transfer fee that I could have avoided.  It’s also a good idea to have some UK currency in your wallet before you leave, just in case.  I found it much easier to make chunks of cash withdrawals periodically and pay cash for most things rather than using my debit card.  Easier to keep my checkbook balanced and focus on fun instead of accounting.

Secondly, if at all possible, it’s a good idea to open a credit union account before you travel, especially if you plan on being overseas for more than a couple of weeks.  Why?  Most credit unions do not charge the currency transfer fee, and that could end up saving you a lot of moolah.  Most credit card companies don’t charge the fee either, but I try to use my credit card for emergencies only.  Anything I can’t pay for immediately, I technically can’t afford.

Now, that crazy British coinage.  First, there is no such thing as a pound note – only 5, 10, 20, 50, 100...  The one pound comes only in a coin.  And I cannot tell you how annoying I found this.  By the end of the day my wallet was weighed down by all that clinking copper!  And as if that’s not enough, there is also a 2 pound coin, almost twice the size of the pound, with a copper-colored ring around it to make it stand out further.  So far the sizes make sense.  But that’s where sense ends.

Next down from the pound is the 50 pence coin – TWICE the size of the pound.  Then 20p – about half the size of 50p.  10p – larger than 20p.  5p – the smallest coin of all, same size as our dime.  2 pence (why on earth does anyone need a 2p coin?) – much larger than the 10p (huh?)  And the 1p is about the size of our penny.

The thing that makes all of these seemingly illogical sizes less confusing is that the 20p and 50p coins have ridges around their edges to distinguish them, kind of like octagonals.  So when you’re fumbling around in your pocket and you feel those ridges, you immediately know what you’ve got.  From there it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it, and soon I was whizzing through check-out stands like an ice cream addict at a Haagen Dazs hand-out.  (Okay, maybe not the best analogy, but I’m really craving some ice cream right now)

So there you have it.  Some of my new British friends have told me that their currency system is actually much simpler now than it used to be.  And honestly, our own doesn’t make complete sense, either.

Check out these pics of UK currency to acquaint yourself with the coinage before you cross the pond.  Oh, and if you decide to hop from London to Paris, that’s a whole other piggy bank – Euro-land!

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