There are plenty of resources out there espousing best practices for changing currencies and using foreign currency. You’ll garner that many think you should arrive in country with cash in hand. Some maintain that the Benjamin Franklin fallback is always necessary (traveling with a $100 USD bill to change in case of emergency or use as it would be generally accepted as currency/payment). A gold standard nugget of advice is to contact your bank/credit card issuer to let them know where and when you will be traveling so they don’t automatically block purchases. I don’t pretend to have a comprehensive list or any flashy new ideas, but I’ll share what I’ve learned as a young, female, often solo traveler across four continents.
Sometimes, you can forget the advice to always arrive with some cash in the local currency IF you feel comfortable and confident that 1-you will be able to find an ATM nearly immediately upon arrival; 2-your debit card will work without incident, 3-you can get the money you’ll need to hit the ground running. (Spoiler alert, sometimes even when you think you know the answer to those questions, you will be surprised. I’ve pompously traveled many places assured that I would just grab cash at an ATM whenever I needed, and most of the time, it has worked without incident. I cannot forget the great Canadian incident of 2014 when I could not find an ATM to accept either my Mastercard or VISA debit cards. I was only in country for 2 days, so I decided not to contact my bank to get the issue cleared and just charged everything. Counting up all those conversion fees once I was home made me a sad traveler. Don’t be a sad traveler. Don’t be overconfident. Cover your bases and don’t spend 2 hours running around downtown Toronto sticking your debit cards in every ATM you find. Don’t be like me.)
I don’t know about you, but I hate spending money to get money. Find below some ideas for lessening the amount of fees and hassle while converting and using money abroad.
- Check with your bank to exchange money before you go. Some banks have foreign exchange services that charge very low or no fees, and they can buy back any of your currency upon your return. This would also be a great opportunity to check if they have branches or a partner institution in your destination. You’ll save on fees going to an affiliated ATM. Also, be aware that some currencies will be much easier to get than others. In the US, you’ll be able to get Euros, Canadian Dollars, Mexican Pesos, and more common currencies where people travel from the US sometimes same day or within a few days. However, if you need Tanzanian Shillings or Pakistani Rupees, make sure you start your search earlier rather than later.
- Research your destination to find out what is most common there. Lots of ATMs available? No ATMs available? Chip and pin debit cards only? Just as certain merchants only accept certain kinds of credit cards, certain regions are known for the popularity of one over another. To be safe, I recommend traveling with at least two different kinds of cards even after you’ve done your research (Mastercard/Maestro + VISA, or VISA + AmEx, etc.) so hopefully in an emergency, you’ll have what you need. Beyond credit cards, make sure you are aware of any other money particularities of the region. For example, SnapScan, a smartphone app allowing users to make wireless payments, is exploding in popularity in South Africa. This is something to research and consider if traveling there!
- If necessary, before leaving, up daily your withdraw limit for large purchases or if you have to make payments at your destination. This can limit the fees from multiple withdrawls. Honestly, learn from my mistakes. We scheduled our travels in Thailand with a travel agent in country, so I knew I had to collect about the equivalent of $1200 to pay for our reservations, our activities, and have a little walking around money. Well, when the bank will only let you take $300 out at a time, and charges a separate fee each time on top of the percentage conversion fee… let’s just say, that adds up!
- Have a credit card for emergencies and to make large purchases to leave your cash flowing. But know that credit cards are not universally accepted. While living in Argentina, I learned quickly how infrequently a credit card will be accepted. Because of their credit crisis and financial crash in 2002, they still have a deep distrust of credit cards and efectivo, or cash money, baby, is the only way to go. So, make sure to revisit Tip #3 above if you’ll need that kind of disposable cash.
- Use apps and the Internet to be up-to-speed on conversion rates. I really like XE.com, but there are many options out there. It’s so important to be an informed traveler–you need to advocate for yourself and know the value of the money and the service you are requesting. For example, it is a common scam in some areas for cab drivers to take advantage of newly arrived tourists at the airport who haven’t gotten their sea-legs yet, so to speak, often doubly or triply charging for the ride from the airport to the destination. It is so easy to find out the going rate from airports to city centers or otherwise and the costs of commonplace items you may need to purchase. Make sure you walk in knowing what to expect!
- Finally, be smart. There is petty crime and ATM fraud everywhere. Carrying cash is helpful, but don’t set yourself up that you are absolutely financially devastated if you were to be pick-pocketed or lose your wallet. Don’t keep your cash, credit/debit cards, identification, and passport in the same place. Make photocopies of all your cards and your passport and keep that in your luggage (I usually unzip the lining and put the copies there–very discreet, but there if I need to access the emergency numbers on the cards or have the card numbers to report a theft). Listen to your gut when using an ATM. A bank’s ATM inside is a really great bet. Put your money away quickly and move on! If you have to withdraw a large amount, wait until you get to a safe, private area, and separate the large bills/majority of cash from a bit of cash to have accessible. I feel so much better with this because I know I’ll be able to grab the cash I need to pay for a coffee or water without dropping my life savings on to the sidewalk in Phuket.