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Airport Money Exchange: Risk Free but Poor Rates

City

Budapest Airport management smiled for the cameras last month and proudly collected a certificate declaring Budapest Ferenc Liszt International the “Best Airport in Eastern Europe 2019”, although the airport, for reasons best known to itself, deftly massaged its press release to read “Best Airport in the Region”.

The award, granted by U.K.-based air industry consultancy Skytrax, is the passengers’ choice. As the blurb states: “During the past 12 months, travelers around the globe have participated in the airport passenger satisfaction survey.”

Which, on the surface, sounds fair enough. Except Skytrax never asked me. And presumably, they never asked the Hungarian government. If they had, BUD, as Budapest Airport refers to itself, might not have scored quite so well.

Indeed, Hungarian officials have been increasingly scathing of the airport in the past few months, complaining about overcrowding, lack of cleanliness and inadequate facilities. In remarks to Hungarian media on April 4, Gergely Gulyás, the powerful head of the Prime Minister’s Office, implied the airport had failed to invest enough to meet growing passenger flows and denounced conditions in terminals used by budget carriers for failing to meet even “animal health requirements” on hot summer days.

Strong words, even from a government which revels in hyperbole. But speaking of hyperbole, the airport does that well too, particularly at its exchange bureaus, where arriving passengers are greeted with signage such as: “Get your local currency. 0% commission. Risk free money exchange.”

It all sounds reassuring, and the exchange rates are certainly posted for all to see, with no sly footnotes denoting extra fees. But what rates: on April 9, shortly before this paper’s editorial deadline, the Interchange bureaus (the dealer appears to have a monopoly at the airport) were offering HUF 253.51 per euro and HUF 225.09 per U.S. dollar.

No risk? Sure, no bureau at the airport will give you worthless old notes, but this was when the mid-rate for the common currency was around the HUF 321 level, and the greenback at HUF 285. This translates into a whopping 21% take, more than one fifth of the value, for the booths on both currencies.

No commission? When you get the equivalent of USD 79 for every USD 100 handed over, who needs commission?

McExchange

Of course, the wary frequent flier will usually avoid airport exchange bureau altogether. A YouTube poster has exposed the farcical state at Prague Airport, where McDonald’s food outlets offer by far the best value when exchanging euro for Czech crowns – plus a cheeseburger thrown in.

(Do a Google search under “Worst exchange places at Prague airport”. The video was made in 2015, but local informants assure The Bottom Line the situation is essentially unchanged.)

Warsaw Airport failed to respond to a Bottom Line for information. Perhaps surprisingly, given the reputation of the Balkans, Tirana Airport bureaus take only a 3.6% slice from Euro-endowed arrivals, while Belgrade is the traveler’s friend – charging a mere 2% on euro for Serbian dinar before even customs clearance, just one tenth the charge of the Budapest offer.

For anyone changing a few hundred euro to finance a holiday on arrival, it could certainly wipe out any savings made on a low-cost carrier. But they can rest assured – there is no commission.

Budapest Airport responded to our questions by arguing that “ships, hotels and airports” are traditionally more expensive than city kiosks, and pointing out that the Skytrax award has 39 different evaluation categories.

Indeed, the list includes “Bureau de change facilities”. Your correspondent can only assume that survey respondents just never use them.

The Bottom Line is a monthly column written by Kester Eddy, a long-standing and well respected Budapest-based business and economic journalist, who has written for the Financial Times and many regional publications. The opinions expressed in the column are not necessarily those of the Budapest Business Journal. To comment on this column, or on anything else in the BBJ, email the editor at robin.marshall@bbj.hu

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