Travel Tips: How to Make the Most of Your Leftover Foreign Currency

foreign currency exchange rates
foreign currency exchange rates

If you've ever come back from a trip with some foreign coins jangling in your pocket, you know that your choices are limited: Exchange at a bank, or throw them into a drawer until the next trip. But bank exchange seems like a hassle for what amounts to a few dollars, and if you're like me, you're lucky if you remember to pack socks, let alone a tiny bag full of forgotten coins.

Rather than render your hard-earned euros and yen worthless once you're back on U.S. soil, here are some ways to get the most from them.

• Play Brewster's Millions at the Airport

Flash back to the classic 1980s Richard Pryor film, and pretend your wealth depends on spending as much money as possible in a short amount of time. Of course, in the film, the budget was $30 million. You may be dealing with a few dollars. No reason not to have fun with it, though. I once spent a layover wandering around the Denpasar airport trying to find something that was exactly 100 rupiah (about $1 at the time). I bought a sticker, and boarded my plane with nary a rupiah in my pocket.

• Use It to Teach Youngsters a Geography Lesson

When my nephew was younger, we used to play "Where did Aunt Molly go?" with a map and my passport. Now, with my older nieces, we're doing the same thing with currency. Kids love the different colors, designs, and sizes of various currencies, and it's a fun way to teach them about different lands. And when they're older, they can look back fondly on the euro from that trip you took this year, and say that that's when they learned the meaning of a bank run.

• Say, "Gracias Por El Cafe."

Grabbing a coffee or a sandwich for a flight that doesn't include either? While many cultures don't tip, airport restaurants and coffee shops always have tip jars out for the customers who are inclined to do so. Sadly, these jars are often empty. Drop a couple of coins in, and you'll make someone's day by the gesture, if not the amount.

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• Plan Ahead By Spending It All Now

Ever get back from a trip and have someone ask you, "What did you bring me?" Prevent such awkward moments by stocking up on pencils, playing cards, tiny hard candies, and other foreign versions of items you can find at any dollar store or street vendor for less than the change rattling in your pocket.

• Change for the Better

Many airports and individual airlines have arrangements with international charities. You'll find boxes at the airports, or envelopes in your seatback pocket. Your last few coins may amount to less than a dollar or two, but those donations can add up over the course of a full flight. Multiplied by all the flights of that airline, or every person who drops a coin in the airport donation box, the impact can be wide-reaching.

• Act Like a European at Home

If you head back and forth to Europe so often that "jet-setter" is embroidered into your luggage, odds are those euros will come in handy sooner rather than later. As you're unpacking, gather all of them from your pockets, wallet, and depths of your suitcase into one pouch, and put it next to your passport. After all, who needs a bank when you can keep your euros in a drawer or beneath a mattress? It's all the rage in Europe.