Travel Money Tips – What Currency To Bring And Where To Keep It

“Spend it while you can – money’s contraband.
You can’t take it with you when you go.
Spend it while you can, before it’s taken from your hand.
There’s no free ride in this Carnival World.”
– Jimmy Buffett

It may not make the world go around, but it certainly helps travelers get around the world. We work hard to save it just so we can turn around and spend it. And the slower we travel, the less of it we need. Money comes in many different forms, and below we will discuss the best ways to access and carry your travel money when you’re on the road.

Credit Cards

At least one major credit cards is essential, but don’t count on using it everywhere. The most widely accepted is VISA. Due to hefty merchant fees charged by Amex, many businesses refuse to accept its cards. MasterCard is increasingly recognized, but not to the extent of VISA.

ATM cash advances from credit cards can get expensive. You’ll get a reasonable exchange rate, but the service charges are high, and daily interest will start accruing immediately. A credit card can be your ticket home if worse comes to worst. It can also facilitate car rentals and purchasing expensive souvenirs or tours. Many credit cards offer purchase protection against loss, theft and breakage, as well as trip cancellation and interruption insurance if the item or service is bought with their card.

ATMs attached to a bank branch are the safest to use

ATMs attached to a bank branch are the safest to use

Keep your credit card in view at all times during a transaction. If it disappears in the back, extra imprints may be made, which will be reflected in next month’s statement. Don’t be careless with your signed receipts – all the card information and your signature is right there. Disputing a credit card charge can be time-consuming and inconvenient, especially if you are unable to phone the issuing bank or visit one of its branches.

Debit Cards

Debit cards linked to a global system are probably the best way to go. You can access your own chequing and savings accounts funds back home from most ATMs worldwide. If your card has an Interac, Cirrus or Maestro symbol, you should have no problems.

Apart from a nominal transaction fee, the service is free. Your bank will give you the going exchange rate, you won’t get charged commission fees for traveler’s cheques, and you’ll only have to carry enough cash for a week or two. Determine when the next chance to use a cash machine will be, and base your withdrawals on the frequency of ATMs throughout the region in which you are traveling.

Using credit and debit cards varies by country. For example, in Australia a PIN is required when the card is swiped but not when it is inserted. The opposite is the case in Canada.

Sometimes, the machine will not accept your PIN even when you key it in correctly. If this happens three times, your card will likely be suspended by the issuing bank and will only be reactivated with a visit to a branch of that bank, which may not exist in the country you are visiting. Carry more than one credit or debit card.

A standalone ATM might nab your bank card

Standalone ATMs might nab your card

Bank Machines and ATMs

Watch for people sneaking a peek over your shoulder at ATMs or when using a keypad, and make sure it doesn’t have a fake keypad or skimmer. Hide the keypad with in one hand when punching in your PIN. Swipe keypads may inadvertently charge your card for the transaction of the person in front of you. Disabling this feature is recommended.

Use stand-alone bank machines with caution and use them only if no other options are available. Avoid ATMs that pull your entire card into the machine, and opt for those where you can pull it out. Use ATMs that are physically attached to a financial institution during banking hours. If the machine short-changes you, delivers counterfeit of damaged bills, or swallows your card, you will have little recourse if the bank doesn’t open until Monday morning, and it’s only Friday night.

Be sure the expiry dates on any debit, ATM and credit cards are valid for the duration of your trip. To minimize exposure to theft, many debit and credit cards have daily limits.

If you find you need to extract more travel money than the machine will let you or you want to maximize you transaction fee value, contact your bank and ask for an increase.

Protect your PIN when using an ATM or POS keypad

Protect your PIN and your travel money

Cold Hard Cash

Nothing beats cash, especially US dollars. They can buy anything anywhere. Euros are becoming increasingly popular and equally accepted. Do not accept damaged bills, as it may be difficult or impossible to use them. Whenever paying for something, count your money out so misunderstandings and shortages are avoided. It is also worthwhile to count any change you receive to ensure you aren’t being short-changed.

There seems to be a shortage of small denominations throughout the developing world. Hoard yours and part with them only as a last resort. If you pay the exact amount for a good or service, you will avoid being short-changed, the vendor not having enough change, or being surprised by last second surcharges.

Money Transfers and Traveler’s Cheques

Online banking is the best way to keep track of your bank account, transactions and balance from anywhere in the world. If you’re using a public computer to access your online banking, open it in a private / incognito window and clear all the browsing history when you’re done. Email money transfers are convenient and quick. All banks and credit unions offer this service, usually for a nominal fee. You will need to have online banking set up to use this service.

Wiring funds from your bank isn’t the most convenient way of getting to your travel money and probably isn’t necessary unless your debit card is lost or stolen. If you require these services, be sure to get a printed confirmation of the transactions through email, fax, telex, etc. This will help prove to the receiving bank that they have your money. These transfers are occasionally misfiled, lost or pocketed by a less than honest bank clerk.

Shop around for the best Currency Exchange Rates

Shop around for the best Currency Exchange Rates

If you decide to carry traveler’s cheques, buy American Express ones in US currency, as they are the most widely accepted. Visa, MasterCard and Thomas Cook also receive global recognition. The exchange will be lower than for cash and they can be difficult to change in some areas. Some exchange houses charge a set commission per cheque while others charge a percentage of the transaction. Carry a variety of denominations and record the serial numbers somewhere. Use smaller bills for percentages and larger ones for flat rates. You will need to produce identification – usually a passport – to cash traveler’s cheques.

Money Changers

You can exchange currencies at any financial institution. Shop around for the best exchange rates. The best rates are usually found on the black market. But, try to avoid changing money on the street as you run the risk of getting counterfeit bills for your real ones or being short-changed. However, sometimes changing money with a street vendor is necessary, like when crossing borders.

Spread It Around

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, or all your travel money in one pocket. Carry a variety of payment methods in different places. I keep my traveler’s cheques, my visa/departure tax US cash (about $150), and a credit card in my money belt with my plane ticket and passport. I only wear my money belt when I am moving from one hotel, city or country to another. Otherwise, it is locked up in the hotel. I never wear it sightseeing or on day trips.

When I am sightseeing or on a day-trip, I carry a wallet in my day-pack. My wallet contains my drivers license, travel insurance card, photocopies of my passport and visa pages, about US $75 of local currency, and some small US bills (about $25). I also have my walking around money of about US $25 in local currency and an expired credit card. This is my “decoy wad” in case of being robbed or mugged, which I replenish from my wallet as necessary. I also sew a US $50 bill into the waistband of each of my pants. That way, if I somehow lose everything, I can get a cab, a bed and a phone call or two.

Carry a Variety of Currency and Cards when Traveling

Carry a Variety of Currency and Cards

Of all these choices for travel money, keep a bit of everything, everywhere. Keep enough US dollars or Euros handy for visa fees and departure taxes. and a supply of smaller denominations for the odd cab fare when arriving in a new country or a shortage of local currency when leaving. A debit card is a good source of primary funding. A major credit card is essential – two is even better. Keep a supply of traveler’s cheques or bring enough cash for towns with no ATMs.


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