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Foreign exchange debit card -- at stiff price

Travelex, the leading foreign-exchange agency, has introduced the first chip-and-PIN debit card available to U.S. travelers. Because you can't always use traditional magnetic-stripe American cards at European banks - many merchants have switched to the embedded-memory-chip card system - this card could come in handy.

HOW IT WORKS The Travelex card is a stored-value debit card that the buyer loads with money before traveling. It carries the MasterCard logo and is available in euros or pounds. Carriers can use the cards for most payments overseas other than a few, such as renting a car, that require credit rather than debit. It also be used to withdraw cash at foreign ATMs. Once loaded, the card imposes no transaction or exchange fees, and you pay extra only when the operator of an ATM adds a local fee. If you have a remaining value, you can reconvert to dollars without further penalty.

THE DOWNSIDE The convenience of Travelex can come at a stiff price - the lousy exchange rate. Storing $500 worth of euros costs 1.52 to the dollar, compared with a bank rate of 1.32. That's an exchange premium of more than 15 percent, far more than you pay with any credit card, most ATM withdrawals and exchanging cash or travelers' checks at most locations. You have to store $2,500 or more before you get a decent exchange rate, currently 1.38 to the dollar, still worse than many other options.

If you think you'll need it, buy a Travelex card with a bit more value than you expect to charge, but use it only where you can't use your regular cards. For now, that's mainly automatic merchandising machines.

Travelex's Chip and Pin Cash Passport cards are sold only at retail locations - including Roosevelt Field mall in Garden City and JFK International Airport, Terminal 9 (American Airlines). Details at travelex.com.

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