For many in Britain, it has always been a point of pride that the British Pound functions as an independent currency not directly tied to the Euro. While no longer the predominant reserve currency as it was during the Empire, the Pound is nowadays simultaneously a reminder of that golden past, a practical mechanism for conducting monetary policy independently from Europe, and most importantly to students wanting to go abroad, a royal pain when trying to buy things in Europe. The shifting strength (and recently, weakness) of the Pound compared to the Euro makes it hard to keep perspective of how much you’re really giving up for that Belgian chocolate or German Sauerkraut. Combined with the general high cost of, well, everything in Europe, a visiting British student can easily find themselves spending more than they intended to while visiting European Union countries.
This is the case for only part of the European Union, however. Like the United Kingdom, eight (really six) other countries in the EU use a non-Euro currency. Unlike the Euro and the Pound, the exchange rates between the Pound and these other currencies are significantly more exotic and require somewhat more arithmetic to get your head around. Doing so is important because (for now at least) these EU countries rank among the easiest to reach and cheapest to visit from the UK. These countries are Sweden (okay, not all of them are cheap), Romania, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Croatia. Bulgaria and Denmark also have a separate currency, but these are tied directly or indirectly to the Euro.
As of 26 March 2019, the Pound is worth around 5 Polish Złoty and around 5.5 Romanian Leu. As far as exchange rates go, those are not too bad as the mental compensation isn’t complicated. More annoying is the Croatian Kuna of which around 8.75 go into one Pound. Another step up is the Swedish Krona at 12.25, and another is the Czech Koruna at around 30 to 1. Yet none of those compare, or could possible compare, to the Hungarian Forint. One Pound, I regret to inform you, is equivalent to around 375 Forints. Enjoy paying 6000 Forints for a decent steak.
Besides the obvious difficulties of mentally converting exchange rates (or having to repeatedly open up your phone’s calculator), the idiosyncratic currencies of the EU non-Eurozone countries pose other challenges. For one, it is more difficult to find a reputable currency exchange office for these currencies, or an ATM that will not charge a significant rate for coughing up Forints or Korunas. This compounds the problem that in Eastern Europe, the adoption of card readers is much lower than here in the UK, where a tap of a card against the reader makes payment painless. Cash is far and away the most common form of payment, even at good restaurants in capital cities like Budapest and Prague. Some touristy spots will offer the ability to pay in either Euros or the local currency, but it is almost always the case that paying in Euros exacts a “premium” that is best avoided. As a result, travellers to these countries will likely need to take out more hard cash than back here in St Andrews. This brings the issue of pick-pocketing into focus, which is more common in these countries, Sweden and Denmark excepted.
Even if all else goes well, it is still very possible to end up with tens of Pounds worth of foreign currency at the end of the trip. With Euro countries, this is less of a problem as it’s likely that if you’re visiting the Eurozone once, you will visit again reasonably soon. But how likely is it that you’ll need those Romanian Leu anytime soon? Keeping track of how much you plan to spend and not under- or over-purchasing currency can save a decent bit of money in these cases.
Leaving aside the issue of the EU as an institution, my visits to Eastern Europe while attending St Andrews have made me value the concept of a unified currency a great deal more. Currency barriers are annoying at best, and expensive at worst, and it is simply so much easier and less stressful to be able to pay with one currency wherever you go. The idea of the United Kingdom joining the Euro does feel like a fever dream at this point, but whatever the future holds for the UK itself, students will want to travel, and will inevitably face this issue in Europe and elsewhere in the world.