Many of us won't think about holidays abroad until the war against Iraq is over, according to hard-hit tour operators.

But turbulence in the Middle East and the resulting economic uncertainty has made for some hefty bills for British people who travel or buy homes abroad.

British holidaymakers take as much as £25 billion a year abroad in cash and travellers' cheques.

An even bigger sum is spent on holiday homes as Brits replace the Germans as Europe's biggest buyers abroad.

Foreign exchange specialist Halewood International says clients spend an average of 150,000 euros on villas on the Costa Blanca and even more on the Costa del Sol.

The company's Alex Wright said: "The overseas property market has gone through the roof. People are keen to realise the equity in their own homes, while shares are completely out of favour for those with spare cash."

As international tensions mounted in recent weeks, the exchange rates lurched all over the place.

The pound is falling steadily and the dollar is wobbling while the beleaguered euro has risen to scale the rarefied peaks of 68p.

In the year to March 13, British travellers to the euro zone lost ten per cent of their spending power. In the United States, curiously enough, sterling has gained in value by a similar amount - up from 1.41 dollars to 1.60 dollars.

Potential property buyers in the Med are losing out too.

The 200,000-euro villa which cost a British buyer £127,388 in December would now set him back £137,931, a rise of eight per cent in just three months.

The euro is strengthening against the dollar and causing pain for the pound, which is closely linked to the US currency.

Unless Chancellor Gordon Brown's Budget pulls something exceptional out of the hat on April 9, the pound faces further turmoil.

It faces pressure on two particular fronts: A flat housing market which could seriously impact on consumer spending as personal debt becomes painful and the falling interest rates which make UK bonds less attractive to international investors.

Property buyers, who may be spending six-figure sums, face a tricky decision.

Mr Wright said: "To try to predict currency movements is a foolish pastime. If you are buying a property overseas, fix the costs straightaway. This then removes all currency risk.

"If you buy the currency now and the exchange rate improves, you would be mildly annoyed.

"But if you do nothing now and the rate gets worse, you would then be very annoyed.

"No sane person would agree to buy a property in the UK and then instruct their stockbroker to speculate with the sterling to pay for it, even if they had a good hunch about a share."

The dawn of the euro era on March 1, 2002, made life simpler for British visitors in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Euro travellers' cheques have swiftly become accepted as legitimate currency in cities and major resorts as well as petrol stations, coffee shops and tiny Greek fishing villages.

Buying travellers' cheques this summer could be a matter of timing and luck. Where you buy is also important.

A survey compiled for Marks & Spencer a few weeks ago showed the cost of purchasing 700 euros (about £450) varied by about £25.

Travel agents usually offer better deals than High Street banks, who had the field to themselves not long ago.

Those who leave it to the last minute and change money at airports get the poorest deals.

The best rates are found at M&S and The Post Office, which claims a 15 per cent market share in the last two years.

Cash and cheques in foreign currencies are available at both places free of charge, with commission free buybacks after the holiday.

Other providers may charge one to 1.5 per cent commission while some levy a flat fee, usually between £2 and £4. Bureaux de change may have good deals on dollars, euro and yen.

Chargecard holders do particularly well at M&S - money ordered by phone or internet worth more than £500 is delivered free to their doorstep.

Under £500, customers pay £5. Donald MacKenzie, from FX Currency Services, said: "Commission-free deals need to be evaluated alongside the exchange rate on offer. Shop around to find both a good rate and a commission free deal."

It is possible the big travel agency chains will use currency offers to kick-start holiday bookings once hostilities cease.

If you haven't already given them to charity, take notes and coins from discarded currencies with you when you holiday in Europe.

Although the cut-off day varies between countries, national banks convert formerly legal tend er into euro coins and notes free of charge.

France has a cut-off day of 2005 for coins, 2012 for notes. In Spain, there is no time limit on either.

The falling pound has cost many people a great deal of money. The pain could get worse as our economy loses its sparkle.

Friday March 21 2003