We're going on the RS Eastern European trip, going to 5 countries that have their own currencies. Should we buy small amounts of each currency before we leave the US?
I didn't pre-purchase any currencies for my RS Best of Eastern Europe tour, although I did have some Euro left over from a prior trip that I took along. Instead I withdrew an amount sufficient for that country at the first ATM we encountered, and that was never a problem. I always withdrew on the low side of my estimate, knowing that I could make another withdrawal or borrow from other tour members who overestimated if needed. We did stop in Slovakia between Krakow and Eger, but the guide provided the minimal cash the group needed for that stop.
I have traveled through many countries that were formerly behind the Iron Curtain, and I have never obtained their currencies before arrival. I just use ATMs for the cash I need. I pay for larger purchases with a credit card.
I have both credit cards and ATM cards that don't assess fees, which makes life easier (and cheaper). I still find it necessary to watch out for ATMs that themselves charge fees (as disclosed on the ATM screen) and for both ATMs and hotel/restaurant/shop personnel who want to charge me in dollars rather than in local currency so the establishment can use its chosen (bad) exchange rate to pad its profits. Watch out for that very carefully. Some of those folks are sneaky/aggressive.
"We're going on the RS Eastern European trip, going to 5 countries that have their own currencies. Should we buy small amounts of each currency before we leave the US?"
If you do that, you will pay a small fortune in fees (each separate currency exchange will have its own fees) and will probably end up with money you don't spend, so you'll then pay more fees exchanging it back.
If you want, you can get a small amount of the first country's currency before you leave. For other cash needs, you can get it from a local ATM with much lower fees than buying it in the US. Other posts here indicate that the RS guides are very good at estimating how much cash you will or won't need in a country, so you don't over-withdraw. Remember that more and more transactions can be done with credit cards; you will want and need some local cash, but less than even just a few years ago. And since you're on an RS tour, you'll use less cash than an individual traveler would (for instance, some of your meals are included, so you won't be paying out of pocket during the tour for these).
I just got back from a trip to Central Europe and used six currencies during my trip. I got local currency out of an ATM in every new country, either at the train station or airport, depending on how I arrived. It was always easy and I had no problems with any of the currency withdrawals.
Should we buy small amounts of each currency before we leave the US?
No. And I'd be surprised what banks even stock them. I'm from Eastern Europe myself and I never get currency ahead of time, I wait until I'm on the ground.
In the old days, when every country had their own currency, I'd just take whatever leftover currency I had from country A to a exchange shop and convert to country B, and so forth. Yes you get hosed on the exchange rates, but if you manage it right, you won't accumulate a lot of cash. Its easier than dealing with it back home.
We have done this tour. At your first stop in each country, your guide will point out ATM machines right away. Also, the guide helps in estimating how much will be needed for each country. Credit cards were widely accepted as well.
No need to get $ ahead. Better to not have too much, and have it left over. Most of us on the tour gave the guide our leftover loose change, which they donated to charity.
What Ellen has posted above is the same experience we had when we took this tour last year. There is no need to bring any currency other than Euros, if you want to bring those. The guides are well informed and prepared to advise you what to do and where to go to get what currencies you will need as you go.