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Franc talk about changing U.S. dollars in France

Paris is burning. You can feel it in your wallet.

The signs are all over. "No Commission!" "Special Today: 5.54 FF Per $$ US!" "CHANGE: No extra charge."

Before you do: Don't!

Those extra-conveniently situated currency exchangers that have sprung up all over this city aren't the bargains they might appear to be. As with a convenience store, you pay dearly for the chance to be taken.

Advice: Get your money changed, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., at a regular bank. And even then, be selective.

Change shops are in business for one reason: to exchange money for a profit. They do. Even though there is "no commission charged" at the window, be aware that the rates are deeply discounted before they hit the big board. A dollar that is posted in the window at 4.74 French francs, for example, is probably worth about 5.30 the same day at a full-service bank, which usually changes currency only as a sideline.

Similarly, when the same "Change" stations billboard what appears to be a great rate for the dollar, perhaps somewhere around 5.54, read the fine print, usually cleverly disguised in the local language. In French, you'll see the word vente. That means that they'll sell you dollars at 5.54. Thanks, but no thanks. Achat (buy) is the operative word when you are exchanging dollars for francs. These places are easy to spot; one of the more popular being ChequePoint, which has attractively lit storefronts around the city that are open all hours. If you're stuck for cash for a late-night cafe, you'll have to surrender. Otherwise, wait until the time is right.

As of mid-February, favorable rates were found at the now-popular Banque Libanaise Pour Le Commerce, located at 7, rue Auber, directly across from the American Express office in the middle of Paris. Not far away, Westminster Bank in Place Vendome also offers fair rates. To determine what exactly is fair, check the daily exchange rates on the front page of the International Herald Tribune and accept perhaps 1 to 2 percent less.

Exchange-rate discrepancies might not seem to mean much when you think in centimes, the decimal breakdown of the franc, but when you're changing $100, the difference between FF 480 and FF 530 might be, well, if you stay in Paris, two cups of coffee.

Don't let your dollars go up in smoke.