I love to travel, and I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to do a lot of it. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot of things about how to handle money abroad. If your summer plans include travel to another country or two, these tips may help your trip be a little smoother – and a little less expensive.
Credit and debit cards
- Call the bank that issued any credit or debit cards you plan to use. Some banks require advance notice of where you’ll be, or they will not approve any charges that you make. When you call, ask about foreign transaction fees and fees for using foreign ATMs.
- If you remember your PIN as a word rather than a number, figure out what the number is before you leave. Keypads often lack letters in countries that do not use the Roman alphabet, speaking as someone who had a few moments of panic in front of a cash station in Kyoto. Most ATMs will give you a choice of languages, but you may want to look up the word for “withdrawal” in a phrase book, just in case.
- In many countries, credit cards have chips instead of magnetic stripes, and the users enter a PIN instead of a signature. (This is not the same PIN as the one for using your credit card at an ATM.) Although many retailers can handle magnetic stripe credit cards, not all can.
- If you are staying at a Caribbean resort that caters to Americans and don’t plan to leave it except on organized tours, you may not need to change money. TripAdvisor’s forums are a good way to find out about this.
- In all other situations, it is best to have the local currency. The dollar isn’t as almighty as you might think in most of the world, at least not when you’re trying to get into a museum or buy a Coke Light.
- In general, you’ll get the best exchange rate by withdrawing money from an ATM machine and the worst rate from the hotel desk. Remember that you’ll have a transaction fee each time you make an exchange, so exchange as much as you think you’ll need for your trip at one time .
- The easiest way to keep track of an exchange rate is to figure out how much you have to spend each day in the local currency. It’s a lot easier to remember that you have 100 euros per day to spend than that each euro is worth $1.36, so that a six-euro sandwich really costs $8.16.
- If you are traveling by yourself to parts unknown, you may want to exchange money before you leave home. It’s not the cheapest way to go, but it may be worth it for your peace of mind. Few banks in the United States have foreign exchange desks, but airports do.
- Unless you have more than about $50 in foreign currency at the end of your trip, it’s probably not worthwhile to change it back. Give it to church, buy candy and magazines at the airport, or use it for a birthday present for any young coin collectors in your life.
Security and convenience
- Between fraud concerns, different technologies, and cultural habits, you may not be able to use your credit cards. Don’t get into a situation where your credit card is your only source of funds. I was in China a few years ago and could only use my credit card with hotels and tour operators.
- If you are traveling by yourself, take two credit cards. If you are with a spouse or friend, each of you should have your own. That way, you have a backup.
- Use a money belt, neck pouch or jacket with very deep pockets or interior pockets to keep your money away from pickpockets.
- If you have a lot of cash, divide it up and hide it in different places in your room and on your person. That way, if some of it gets stolen, you won’t be completely out of money. It’s a good idea to have photocopies of your credit cards and passports hidden somewhere, too, so that you can get a stolen card cancelled or a lost passport reissued.
- Go to a local bank if you have trouble with your credit and debit cards. Contact the American consulate for problems with your passport. In some places, the local police are excellent. My husband misplaced a Kindle in Tokyo and reported it missing. It was found and returned to him. In other places, the police are incompetent or corrupt. The hotel desk may be able to give you good advice about how to handle a tough situation.
- There are bad people everywhere. And good people everywhere, too.
And now, get out there and have a great trip!
D Jones says
omg, this is AWFUL advice. I can’t take it….
1) Never encourage travel newbies to get money from an ATM without warning them of 3% foreign currency conversion, $5-$25 ATM usage fee, and any other fee their OWN bank will tack on.
2) Get a Charles Schwab account, which is fee-free 100% of the time, anywhere in the world.
3) Don’t encourage anyone to exchange money at an airport!! EVERY bank has a “foreign exchange desk,” it’s called the internet. You can order foreign currency online from any major bank, and pick it up at your branch, This is not as cheap as ATM cash, but it certainly beats the airport desk.
4) Credit cards put on a 3-4% foreign transaction surcharge. You mention this, but fail to offer any info on cards that DON’T. CapitalOne Venture and BarclayCard Arrival cards do not charge this fee. If you’re going to use a credit card- and cards are not remotely as freely accepted abroad as they are in the US, so be prepared- get one of those cards. The low-end ones have no annual fee.
5) The easiest way to keep track of an exchange rate is with YOUR PHONE. Get the xe app, and the world’s conversions are at your fingertips.
6) If you want to keep track of your expenditures, get the TravelWallet app.
This is advice for 2014.
Annie Logue says
Hey, not everyone is going to open a Charles Schwab account in order to take a vacation once a year. Let’s face it. And yes, people run out of money on vacation, or don’t want to carry a ton of cash on them, which makes an ATM a good option.