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Foreign currencies can come to you

Several Web sites will deliver the currency you need before a trip abroad, though all it may save you is a wait in line.

Cash may be making a comeback. Two major companies say they have a brisk business delivering bundles of foreign currency to people who are preparing to travel overseas.

Oanda, a company with a Web site that specializes in currency transactions and international currency quotations, linked up with Thomas Cook Global and Financial Services in August to offer overnight or second-day delivery of 100 foreign currencies, or Thomas Cook traveler's checks in six foreign denominations. Orders are placed through the Web site http://www.oanda.com. Deliveries are made on business days.

The other company, Chase Manhattan Bank, which for five years has had a phone service allowing its customers to request delivery of currencies of 75 countries, in November began offering deliveries upon request through http:// www.currencytogo.com to holders of any MasterCard or Visa card, as well as to its own customers. Again, deliveries are made only on business days.

The currency amounts are usually hundreds of dollars' worth of lire, pounds and yen. Timothy Kelly, chairman of Oanda, says its average request is $400; Amy Friedlander, product manager for Chase Currency to Go, says $600 to $650 is average.

Overall sales of traveler's checks are shrinking markedly. Robert A. Fader, managing director of travel payment services for Citicorp, said that sales of all brands worldwide dropped to between $35-billion and $40-billion in 1999, from $50-billion in 1998.

From January through July of this year, American Express was selling traveler's checks for home delivery at its Web site, http:// www.americanexpress.com. Card holders can order traveler's checks in 10 currencies and cash in 19 currencies at (800) 721-9768.

There are changes in modern life that explain why offering currency on the Web is an idea whose time has come. ATMs are common and live tellers scarce. Since an ATM at this moment produces only the currency of the country it is located in, getting foreign currency away from that country requires tellers, and that means standing in line.

One advantage of Web sites with conversion rates highly visible is that one can comparison-shop. The exchange rates offered by Oanda-Thomas Cook and Chase on their sites are less favorable than the bank-to-bank rates quoted on the financial pages (which involve multimillion-dollar sums) but certainly better than the exchange booths at airports. ATMs abroad do not charge the $1 or $1.50 fee that banks charge non-customers in the United States.

The Oanda-Thomas Cook Web program, FXDelivery, is available only in the United States and only with a Visa or MasterCard. It can be reached through the Oanda Web site or through links on AOL, Alta Vista, Swissair and http://www.trip.com.

After providing a current quotation in dollars for the currency being bought, FXDelivery asks for the amount desired, with a minimum of $200 and a maximum of $1,500. It then seeks name, address and credit card information; the delivery address must be the same as the billing address for the card (no post office boxes). Someone must be at home to accept delivery.

If a credit card is used, the cost is handled as a cash advance, with whatever fees that may involve. The delivery charge is $12 for next-day delivery, $8 for second-day delivery.

This service will also sell Thomas Cook traveler's checks in British, Spanish, German, Dutch, Swiss and Canadian currencies. The help number is (877) 414-6359.

Chase's Currency to Go, (888) 242-7384, also requires that the user have a Visa or MasterCard or a Chase checking or savings account, from which the purchase is debited. For home delivery, the minimum purchase is $100, the maximum is $1,000. (Larger deliveries can be made to Chase branches.)

The address for home delivery must be the one on the Chase account or the card's billing address; it cannot be a post office box. Chase delivers the money free if more than $500 is requested; otherwise the fee is $10. Chase processes the transaction as a purchase, so credit card users are not charged a cash advance fee.

Is it an advantage to use these services? Only for the convenience of not having to stand in line at the bank or worry about finding the ATM at the airport when you land. Financially, there is no gain, and it could be more costly than using a bank or an ATM.

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