Getting and managing money when traveling
Getting and managing money when traveling is not all that complicated or difficult, but a few pointers do make the task easier wherever you may go in the world.
- Do not purchase the currency of your destination prior to your departure. That is an expensive endeavor and, in today’s world of ATMs, not necessary. Now, if you need cash immediately upon arrival – say for transportation – you can exchange a small amount at an ATM at the airport, but in almost all cases, you will save money exchanging money at an in-town national bank’s ATM. Above all, do NOT – unless it is an emergency – exchange money at a currency exchange teller due to unfavorable exchange rates.
- Do not bother with traveler’s checks. They are old-fashioned and difficult to deal with. In fact, many banks don’t even sell them anymore.
- Unless you have no alternative (if you don’t have a credit card or debit card), do not bring cash in your home currency to exchange at a bank at your destination. First, it can be difficult to deal with, especially if the associates do not speak your native tongue and, two, you then have to do this business during banking hours, meaning you may need to wait in what can be, especially in large cities around the world, very long lines.
- Additionally, unless the bills you are planning to exchange are in crisp, new condition, banks in many countries may turn them down.
- Be sure to have an ATM/PIN-enabled debit or credit card with you. Look VERY hard at the fine print with your cards. Most charge 2-3 percent foreign conversion fees on all exchanges and, on top of that, most international banks will charge a few additional dollars in fees as will perhaps your home bank. That can really add up.
- Consider opening an account at a financial institution that actually reimburses ATM fees! Yes, indeed, long ago we learned that Schwab bank offers an account with no minimum, no fees, and actually reimburses all fees. Nope, you don’t have to be some millionaire to get one.
- Read our story, 7 travel tips to save money when traveling internationally to know how to save even more!
Withdraw cash at an ATM, but…
… not just at any ATM when you need money.
- Our cards have been rejected at the ATMs at different banks in several large countries after having used them successfully several times prior. When we called our bank’s international 800 number, we discovered three key facts: One, ALWAYS go to large international banks, like the national bank of the country you are in; two, use ATMs inside a bank during open hours and not just on the street (especially useful if the machine happens to snag your card for some reason); and, three, select a specific amount from the withdrawal list of choices on the screen since an alternative customized amount can also trigger a rejection. Seems some banks find non-international banks and street ATMs riskier (makes sense to us!) and can decline those transactions, as well as those “other” amounts you may want.
- In many countries, the advice is to go to a bank and not to change money at a hotel or airport ATM, where rates are usually higher. Every country has its own traditions, though. For example, in Ukraine, we found currency exchange booths in nearly every tiny business or snack shop. Rates were clearly posted, varied widely, and usually were less favorable (they gotta make money, right?).
- Consider getting money during the week since some bank ATMs are known to run out of money to dispense over the weekend, especially in so many countries that really still deal only in cash not cards.
- Don’t worry about not being able to find an ATM. Except in the most rural of locations around the world, bank ATMs are available in most cities and larger villages and sometimes are even lined up along a street. Just choose an international one, as mentioned above, and look for the typical logos of Cirrus, Visa, MasterCard, etc.
- Don’t fret about operating the ATM. As long as you are using an ATM with a card not from that country, the screens either change immediately to English or will all allow you to choose English as your language. In addition, you will (usually) see a note about any fees before you final a transaction; if they are unreasonably high, cancel and go elsewhere.
- Keep your wits about you at any ATM, even at those inside banks. Do NOT be casual with your cash. Once you receive it from the ATM machine, bundle it up quickly and stash it securely. If you are withdrawing larger amounts (limits vary, but typically there will be maximum withdrawal amounts for security) be sure you are discrete about tucking it away before you turn away from the ATM. If convenient, it is often best to stash your cash in several different places so if anybody is watching and tries to pick your pocket, they don’t get it all. And definitely do not put it all in a wallet left in some pick-pocket-accessible, insecure apparel or pack pocket.
Do not rely on your credit cards
- Only in hotels, large restaurants, very large stores or malls, and at large tourist sites will a credit card be accepted in many countries. Even in a country you may consider “advanced,” such as Germany, when shopping or dining out, the system is still mostly cash or debit. Some businesses also will not accept foreign credit cards or an American Express. And if you do make a purchase at some larger businesses, you may also be asked to show your ID, i.e. your passport, so keep that handy too (and safe in an RFID-blocking sleeve and in a secure pocket next to your body please!). In other words, unless you are only in large towns, 5-star hotels, and at large tourist sites, you will need cash.
- Forget the old tales about bringing US $1 or $5 bills to bargain at markets. The perceived love affair with the precious U.S. dollar is a thing of the past. Use the local currency. Merchants, especially small ones, don’t want to deal with foreign currency.
It may seem daunting prior to a trip to think about acquiring and managing money when traveling but relax it’s really very easy. We just have one final tip: Make sure you have a wallet with a coin purse and multiple sections for bills since many countries deal in a lot of (heavy) coins and you’ll need to keep your money organized. Now go have fun!
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