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India's ban on large rupee notes creates headaches for travelers

Heading to India in the next few weeks? Pack rupees — or the next best thing, your spending money in U.S. dollars.

A surprise move by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Nov. 8 aimed at fighting corruption and black market money has removed the country’s 500- and 1,000-rupee notes from circulation and created hours-long lines at Indian automated teller machines and stress for unsuspecting travelers.

The declaration that the existing notes would no longer be valid after Dec. 30 has created a stampede to exchange bills as well as a currency shortage affecting locals and travelers alike.

India’s government will be printing new 500 rupee notes, hopefully before the ban goes into effect, NDTV reports.

During a recent Thanksgiving week visit to the popular Golden Triangle of tourism — Delhi, Agra and Jaipur — I found myself struggling to stretch existing cash on hand in a country that has not thoroughly embraced credit cards.

Many tours, popular forms of transportation (tuk-tuks, rickshaws and hired drivers), small shops and a healthy culture of tipping all require cash.

Hotels and currency exchange venues (even at the airport) were limited in their ability to exchange U.S. dollars for rupees. One hotel allowed us to exchange the equivalent of $35 dollars per booked room, while another informed us they were out of rupees.

Some locals suggested that because we were tourists we would be welcomed to cut to the front of the line at the bank, but elbowing our way through a frustrated mob sounded less appealing than a case of Delhi belly.

For travelers with tickets to India this month there is no easy answer.

World BNotes Exchange and other popular currency exchange retailers in the Los Angeles area are no longer trading in rupees.

Travelex informed me they stopped trading in rupees in November.

“It’s a big problem,” said John Scott, owner of Bretton Woods currency exchange in Brentwood. “Right now, everybody is stuck with the old 500 and 1000 notes … and we haven’t seen the new ones yet.”

Scott said family friends traveling to India this month have agreed to try to exchange his 500- and 1,000-rupee notes for him but said there is no guarantee.

He said, “If you have a hard time getting them there, it’s going to be even harder to get them here. … I don’t know when we’ll be dealing with them again.

“I’m sorry I can’t help you,” said Scott, “I don’t think anybody really knows what the situation is.”

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