Updated: Aug 11, 2020
You’re planning a trip and you want to know the best way to get local currency, or at least how to pay for the things you want to enjoy.
Not all destinations are the same, you might also find that your personal style of travel or even the style of an individual trip might not lend itself well to the way you pay for things at home.
In addition to a whole new scale of economy, you might have to contend with transaction fees and some practical matters in securing your holiday money. What we're after is a reduction in stress for you and for those travelling with you!
Will that be cash or card?
Do you prefer card because, no matter how hard you try, the cash seems to evaporate from your wallet by the end of the week? Or do you like the control that comes with physical notes and coins?
Cash is king
Depending on your destination, cash might be the easier option.
Walk up to a taxi, grab some street food, or join in an activity without any need to wait for a merchant device. This can include areas where electricity or communications equipment is unreliable or perhaps even non-existent.
Using cash can require some foresight. You may find that no matter how well you plan, you’ve got to use the local infrastructure anyway. Unless you brought your whole travel budget in hard currency with you, you’ll likely have to use a card at least once to withdraw some money in the first place!
But where is the best place to change the cash?
In my mind, you've already selected your preferred financial institution - your home bank!
But if you’re like me, you have maybe once or twice in your entire life had the time (and the foresight) to order the desired currency in your home branch with sufficient time before your departure to receive it!
If you are able to apply such preparations, however, there is some benefit to be enjoyed, including a very relaxed pace when it comes to the actual transaction. You get to pick up the money and talk to an actual person who lives or at least works local to you. Someone whose job entails answering your questions about the ways in which you can use your money to receive that target currency, and who works for a business with which you already enjoy some level of trust.
You won’t get such luxury of time when you’re pressing the taxi rank at a Paris train station or stepping off your connecting flight in Dubai.
There is comfort in knowing that you have had clear information covering the terms of the transaction, the rate, information about any fees, and perhaps even got to choose the denominations of the notes you receive – and unless you came running through the door only a few minutes before close, you should get as much time as you need to review.
A painful lesson
By delaying until after your arrival, you're almost putting yourself on a back foot. You're now a visitor and no longer familiar with the rules or even traditions surrounding use of financial services.
I myself was once stung for a €50 fee while changing cash in Milan’s airport.
I had maybe C$500 in cash on me and decided to change it to Euros for the pleasure of my long weekend trip instead of swiping my credit card during my dining and excursion-going hours.
I might have noticed earlier if I hadn’t been in a rush to get out to find a taxi or maybe had I changed a smaller sum - it would be far easier to notice a €50 fee when only changing an amount closer to $100!
At the time I had handed over my cash, I got a huge receipt that would have been mind boggling in English, let alone that it was in Italian. I don't speak Italian.
My mind was racing through the mental math surrounding a C$480-something change into Euros at a rate of 0.71-something (approximate rate at that time), split between two charts of “buy” and “sell”... I felt like Mr Bean and it wasn’t until I was being whisked away in my cab that I realized my accounting error.
But this kind of thing happens. We learn from it, we move on. We try our best not to let it happen again!
Pretending to cry into the most incredible pasta I've ever had added the comedy that my friends needed so they could stop ripping me. I just wanted to eat. In the end, everyone was happy and had a great time.
Different country, different standards
My fatal error was in assuming the standards held local to my trip were the same as I might expect at home. My consumer protections were diminished. The law and the enforcement of law are not the same that I might expect.
Local exchange businesses are just that, they're businesses. They're out to make a profit.
I'm not suggesting at all that there is anything illicit or even untoward at stake, but the trust you put in a local business in a new country might be better placed at your own institute back home, don't you think?
Even if you don’t want to change the whole amount at home, maybe ordering $100-$200 or so will help smooth any process surrounding the unforeseen.
Let’s say your connection was delayed on the runway and you’ve missed your arrival transfer. You arrive at 1:00 AM and you’re weary from the journey, you just want to check into your suite and relax!
Nothing would bring you less pleasure than having to find an exchange bureau or have your driver bring you to an ATM of their choosing under such circumstances.
If you have to change money locally, consider changing at a bank. More on this below.
Withdrawing local currency locally
If I can't use my cards and I need cash, I'll make some special considerations.
An adventure destination, for example. Unless I'm immediately disappearing up a mountain or into a jungle, I personally like taking some time to get the lay of the land in terms of costs and to make a moderate cash withdrawal at a convenient time.
That’s because it takes me a day or so to figure out what the local atmosphere is like. I can better determine if my home for the next few nights is going to be an easy burn through $1000 in meals and entertainment, or if my destination is extremely well priced and $200-$300 would be more appropriate.
I don’t want the inconvenience of having to visit an ATM more often than is necessary, but I also don’t want the liability of having $1000s in superfluous cash, especially in some of the more adventurous destinations.
If you go on safari, you want to be looking for lions not hunting for a safe in your tented lodge.
Do you really trust the safe in your room to do its job and hold onto your most liquid of assets?
In reality, you can probably trust the safe, you can probably trust the staff… but if it’s causing you stress and worry, would you rather be thinking about how great the local people are or waste your time building FBI-like profiles of your room service staff?
Unique considerations for cash
There are places somewhat renown for their care of currency and this can lead to additional steps along the path to cash success.
For example, despite having its own currency, the Kyat, Myanmar (formerly Burma) widely promotes the use of USD for visitors. There are additional requirements for the USD notes themselves though – they must be in pristine condition. That means no marks, nicks, or blemishes, and you’d do yourself a favor by ironing them and filing them in the pages of a hardcover for your journey.
Sounds like a lot of effort, right? Not so convenient to have to physically file and maintain the appearance of your bills, is it?
No locally viable currency, no problem
If I’ve got cash you can use when you arrive, great. If you were intending on withdrawing some, (probably) no problem!
Before I arrive at my new destination, I might at least have done some due diligence on the local banking systems and figured out which names are more credible or which may even work in partnership with my home bank. Note that this is less common for Canadian financial institutions, but not non-existent.
I'll make mental note of an ATM or even a whole bank at some point early on in the trip and just withdraw what I think is a reasonable amount of local currency for my next few days of holiday fun.
If the transaction is a success, I might choose to return to this chain again during my trip. I'll make a note of the name or of some concrete, identifying factors if there is no language I can readily discern from the branding.
Be sure not to associate something so simple as the color of the machines and go for a full institute name - if you have to take a picture of it on your phone so that you don't mix it up later, do it!
If I end up back at the machine during the week, it’s not a problem – I know I might pay the transaction fees twice, but I like the peace of mind that comes with a manageable amount of cash.
In this instance, I choose to trade some of my time by returning to a cash point once or twice rather than trading my sanity in worrying about the security of my wallet (more on this point below).
Withdrawing cash is preferably achieved with a debit card, yes. In all but the most insanely specific of circumstances, you'll start paying interest on the sum withdrawn immediately following a credit card cash withdrawal. Have a look at your credit card's documentation to see how much that will cost you from hour-zero!
I'd probably finish my list of benefits for use of a debit card there. The purchase protections are limited, the risk that you've tied your bill-paying ability to your holiday spending spree is real, and you're going to have a tougher time navigating car and room deposits.
Credit cards can come with benefits
Many modern credit cards have additional benefits and protections tied to the service. This can sometimes be travel related, such as complimentary travel coverage or loyalty rewards, but it may also mean purchase protections against fraud or instances where services were not actually rendered.
There may also be a card available to you which features “no foreign transaction fees”.
I write in parenthesis as you’ll likely get a rate which favors the bank while not outwardly denoting the cost as a “fee” or that the fee has been deferred by an annual cost.
This will be specific to each institute and card, so again, you’d be best served by referring to your account documents or by getting in touch with your bank.
Let them know before you go!
Unless you’re a frequent traveler, you might consider giving your bank the heads up that you’ll be traveling.
Your bank expects you to make purchases and withdrawals in your home country. From their perspective, any undeclared use of your card abroad can look identical to fraud and may trigger fraud protection on your whole account.
Getting your card unblocked can mean an international phone call or some Skype time (you’ll have to find working internet and somehow pay for it), and maybe even some arbitrary waiting period.
If you're a frequent traveler, a pattern of your travel history may lead to a lowered frequency or reduced likelihood of such blocks. Why not just give them a call while you're packing? Put the phone on speaker and wait out the hold music while you fold your unmentionables.
My first trip to Southeast Asia was with my great friend, Billy. During the week we arrived, his card became blocked to services and the security procedures in place at his bank required a full 24-hour wait before the block was released.
It wasn’t an issue for the two of us to juggle the costs and payments during that time, my cards were not blocked. The story might be different if you're on your own or share an account with your travel partner. Your spouse, for example.
What about fees
Whether debit or credit, beyond just a heads up, you may also want to review both the relative rate of exchange and confirm any other fees for withdrawals or local purchases.
Your rates will be unique to you and to your card/account, but many banks charge a foreign transaction fee of around 2-3%, sometimes more. There may also be a minimum flat rate.
If those flat fees are high, taking only $20 worth of notes from a machine can quickly add a few dollars to your expenses. Like my Euro sting in Milan, not something that will ruin a trip if it happens once or twice, but if you’re not aware or not planning well, it can be an unwelcome surprise when you review your balances later.
Local fees on top of home institute fees
Back to my trip with Billy - 10 years ago, withdrawing cash in Thailand was almost fun!
Using a debit card from a foreign bank got you Thai Baht, cost you whatever the daily rate was from your own bank (based on their interpretation of time of remittance), and the machines even played a little music with a series of beeps to wish you on your way…
Arrive in Bangkok now, however, and the local fees for use of an ATM might be 400 Baht or more. If you’re only drawing C$100, you might be paying an additional C$15+ for the service.
You're going to be charged a second, separate fee / rate by your bank, too!
Can you see where it can quickly add up?
Again, if it’s only a few times during your trip, some cash for ice coffees and tips, no problem! However, if you’re paying everything by cash and you've got a trip of 2-weeks or more in length, you might need a more robust solution.
I’ve seen ATM fees as high as €20 from machines in Germany, typically an institution-free unit, such as those you might find in a bar or restaurant. They tend to be located in establishments which are conveniently unable to accept card payments and helpfully point you in the direction of their machine…
Destination dependent dramas
For me, the any issues in relation to the use of cards lies in the destination.
Headed on an adventure? If there’s an outage to power or the local telecommunications grid, you might not be able to use your cards. Some locations are just plain remote or never had access to such features in the first place.
What about countries which don’t have favorable access to global banking systems or which, as a matter of practicality, just don’t have terminals for foreign cards?
An actual hole in the wall
I lived in China for nearly three years, during this time it took some practice to figure out which banks did or did not feature machines which would accept my foreign cards. It wasn’t always uniform within a branch, either.
Related | Check out our China travel guide
You’ll know irony when you’re standing on a busy street in a bustling Chinese metropolis, surrounded by banks, each with a queue of 3-10 ATMs, none of which will allow you access to the $1000s in your account, and the delicious street food you smell only costs the equivalent of 50 cents…
Likewise, Japan – although I suspect that in recent years the growth their tourism industry has enjoyed might have brought rains to the desert of bank machines accepting foreign cards. I spent two weeks there in 2010 and was only ever able to withdraw money at the Post Office or at the occasional 7-11.
Be wary of those who’d help you with your cash
Desperate times call for desperate measures, right?
Well, if we’re changing money, try to delay the desperation and get yourself to a reputable institution or possibly trust your hotel to do the changing.
If your cards aren’t being accepted, you might be tempted to try the services of those who’d offer you help on the matter. Resist, please.
All too frequently, I see street vendors or even just groups of young men at border crossings and near banks in heavily frequented tourist destinations, all offering a “better rate” or "faster service" or “no fees”.
If your gut isn’t giving you alarm bells just by reading this, well, good luck with your money!
Aside from the prospect of being robbed, even if you do walk away with a fist full of cash you might not yet be in the clear. You won’t know that you've received counterfeit bills placed intermittently among the real ones. Even if you figure it out, what will you do about it, file a grievance with the local council of black-market vendors?
To me, the path to success in changing currencies is unique not only to the traveller, but perhaps to each trip. You may also find that your travel companions have each found different solutions on the same trip!
If you're comfortable, if the transaction is convenient, and if everything is secure, you're probably doing it like a pro!
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