It’s 7 AM on a Monday morning right now. The kettle is on, bubbling away. The dive staff are outside working hard getting the boats ready for this mornings trips; loading tanks, sweeping, checking equipment, getting coolers ready, and more. Little Keiran, Emma and I have checked in with all the instructors and boat captains, made sure that the GoPro that one of the divers on the Private Charter requested is ready and that everything is running smoothly. Check, check, check!!
I thought I would come inside and just take a moment to explain something about currencies in St Martin as so many people ask me “What type of currency should I bring?” After 6 years on the island I would like to share with you what I know, because it took me about a year and a half to get it straight.
You see, in St Martin there are actually 3 currencies: The US Dollar, The Guilder, AND the Euro. I know… I know… it is ridiculous and confusing. Try running a business here!
The Euro is only used on the French Side of the island. The Guilder is only used on the Dutch Side and the US Dollar is used on the both sides. The Guilder you can be aware of, but you will never really have to use it, so don’t worry too much about that.
Let’s tackle the Guilder first. (Chris and I like to call it the “Glider.”) This currency isn’t actually used in The Netherlands, it was discontinued in 2002 when they switched to the euro. The “Netherlands Antilles Guilder” (abbrevieated as “NAF” for some reason), is only used in St Maarten and Curacao. It used to be used in Saba, St Eustacius and Bonaire until the 1st of January 2011 (they now use USD). Apparently, it will soon be replaced by the Caribbean Guilder (at which point we can look forward to having four currencies on the island at the same time 🙂 ).
You shouldn’t worry too much about the Guilder and you will most likely never spend it (unless, like me, you accidentally select Guilders at the ATM instead of USD). You will see “NAF” on menus and signs on the Dutch side as there is a law that says it has to be written. However, you will also normally always see the USD price just next to it. The Guilder is always at a fixed exchange rate to the USD.
1.8 Guilders (NAF) = 1 USD
I would say that locals on the Dutch side are the only ones that really use Guilders because that is how they are paid. You do not need to use Guilders. One thing to take note of though, is if the price is in Guilders or USD. The first time I went to the supermarket I almost freaked at the price of meat and fish, until I realized it was in NAF and actually about half the cost of what I thought it was.
Now, the beloved Euro (so they would have you believe). This is only used on the French side and it has a floating exchange rate. This means that the exchange rate changes every day depending on the market. I have been here six years and the lowest that I have ever seen it was 1.25 Dollars to the Euro. The highest that I have ever seen it was 1.57 Dollars to the Euro. I pay all my bills in Euros but charge my wonderful divers in dollars, so I prefer it when the exchange rate is low.
Today it is $1.381 = 1 Euro. Not great, but not bad.
This means that if I go to a restaurant in Grand Case and the bill is 100 Euros, this equates to $138.10.
Now… here is where it gets tricky.
If you use your credit card, they will simply charge you in Euros and you will have to pay whatever your credit card company deems the exchange rate is on that day. So, for that 100 Euro restaurant bill, it will be a $138.10 charge on your statement at the end of the month. They often use the excuse that if you pay with a credit card they have to charge in euros because it is the only way, but as a business owner in St Martin on the French side, I can assure you this is not true. Almost all businesses have a US Dollar account and it just takes the press of a button on the credit card machine to change EURO to USD. If they don’t have a US account, they are silly.
Some restaurants give discounts if you pay in cash in dollars. Some places advertise this (especially restaurants). For example it will say “$1 = 1 Euro – cash only” This means that the 100 Euro restaurant bill will only be $100, saving you $38.10 if you pay in cash. It isn’t always as good as a 1 to 1 exchange rate. The companies can choose what ever rate they want to. For example at the pizza place on top of the hill to Orient Bay, Rancho, it is always $1.20 = 1 Euro. Which is better than the actual exchange rate of $1.38, so it still saves you money to pay in USD cash, but not as much as other restaurants.
When choosing a restaurant on the French side you may (or may not) want to take this information into consideration. You can always ask “what is the exchange rate if I pay in cash?” and see what they say. It can’t hurt.
Some places do not advertise that it is a 1 to 1 exchange rate, but you should just know that it is. For example, the Lolos in Grand Case (the outdoor BBQ place). All the bills are written in Euro, but everyone just pays in USD. Same thing at the small local corner stores. We call these “Chineses” because they are all run and owned by people from China. They normally have great names, like “Special Family Store” or “Paradise Shop.” I should get some photos up of them…
Always pay in USD cash at these places.
Accounting for me is a nightmare because I pay for so much in cash. I am constantly withdrawing cash from my accounts. Cash comes in and then it goes out. This is the way on the island. It took me a few years to figure it all out. Should I buy on the French side, or the Dutch side? Should I pay in Euro or Dollar? On occasion I have been at a restaurant and figured out that it is actually better to pay in Euro (this is rare and only because they had some crazy exchange rate).
Now, where can you get USD cash if you don’t want to be walking around with thousands of dollars in your pocket?
Hmmmmm, this is also an issue. You can get USD cash on both sides of the island, BUT (there is always a “but”) if you get it on the French side they will charge you in Euro and it will not be a good exchange rate.
Example: You go to the ATM on the French side and withdraw $100. A screen will pop up that says something like “1 Euro = $1.22” and you press “ok” because you think you are just getting USD from your USD account back home, so who cares what the exchange rate is. You get five $20 bills and go on your merry way. Then, you get home and check your bank statement and it says “86.10 Euros withdrawn in St Martin on the 14th of April” and then the amount is $113. However, you only got $100. Eh? What happened? This is what happened. They charged you $1.22 for each Euro, so $100 was 86.10 Euro. However, your bank charged you $1.38 for each Euro, so 86.10 Euros was $113 dollars. Tricky.. huh?
On the Dutch side this isn’t true. $100 out of the ATM is $100. You may get charged a fee for using a foreign ATM, however you won’t see Gliders on your bank statement, only USD.
You would be better off getting EURO cash out of the ATM on the French side and then going to an Money Exchange and buying USD with your Euros. You will get a better exchange rate.
So, let’s summarize on how to spend money in St Martin.
1) Pay in US dollars.
2) If you pay with credit card you will be charged in USD.
3) It is a fixed exchange rate of 1.8 NAF = 1 USD.
1) Always try and pay with USD cash.
2) Ask what the exchange rate is for Euro to Dollar if you pay in USD Cash.
3) Get USD cash from ATMs on the Dutch side. If you have to go to a French ATM get EURO cash and then take it to a Money Exchange.
On a side note, you should be aware that all the prices at Octopus Diving are in USD and you can pay with a credit card here in USD. We try and be as simple as possible. If you want to pay us in EURO, we just look up the exchange on the day and charge you the equivalent in Euros.
Phew, I know it can be confusing. Hopefully this helped a little bit!
It is way past 7 AM now. Boats are all gone, Chris has taken Keiran to see the donkeys and it is time for me to have another cup of coffee!
(Sally wrote this blog 🙂 )