Handling Money While Abroad
Gone are the days of American Express Traveler’s Cheques! Today, there are more ways than ever to make sure you always have foreign cash handy when exploring. Here is a short guide to obtaining and dealing with foreign currency on your next trip out of the country.
1. ATMs – This is by far the easiest and smartest way to access cash while abroad. The conversion rate is usually the best available but proceed with reasonable caution. Be sure that the ATM is located in a well-lit secure area and be sure no one can see you type in your PIN number. There are “stand alone” ATMs in many touristy areas that are NOT related to a banking institution, but these tend to charge higher transaction fees and have lower exchange rates. Check with your home bank before you leave to see if they have any agreements with foreign banks in the country you are visiting to minimize transaction fees and be sure to let the bank know that you are going to be using your ATM card in foreign countries so they won’t put a security “Hold” on your card when you withdraw cash.
To use a foreign ATM, just insert your card and choose “English” as the language option. Then proceed as you usually do here in America. But remember that you are withdrawing foreign currency, not US dollars. For example, if you withdraw 100 Euro, the equivalent (adjusted at the current exchange rate) in US dollars will be debited from your account at home. Some countries don’t call them ATM’ machines; look for “Bankomat” or “Cash Point” or sometimes a “Distributeur”. Don’t worry; you’ll know one when you see it!
2. Your Home Bank – Your local US bank can order foreign currency for you before you ever leave home. I usually have some foreign currencies on hand from previous trips, but if I find that I don’t have enough to comfortably arrive in my destination, I always order a small amount from my bank. The exchange rate is usually not as good as using a foreign ATM, so I limit it to just the amount I think I need to hold me over - enough to cover a taxi and some food until I can find a local ATM. Be sure to give your bank at least a few days to complete the foreign currency order!
3. Currency Exchange bureaus – These should always be your last resort, especially the ones located in airports, train stations and touristy areas. Rates and fees are very unfavorable. The only time I recommend an exchange bureau is if you have several different kinds of currency that you want to combine into one. For example, you have British Pounds, Euros and Norwegian Kroner that you want to convert all into US dollars at once. Or maybe use them if your ATM transaction didn’t work and you need foreign cash before you can contact your local bank to see what the problem might be. Whatever the case, just be prepared to pay a substantial fee.
4. Credit Cards – If you plan to make major purchases while abroad, you’re almost always better off putting it on a credit card that can give you certain protections – especially if the merchant is going to ship the item to you back home in the US. A credit card that has the “chip” embedded is - instead of just the magnetic stripe on the back. These are more commonly used in foreign countries and you might have trouble using a non-chipped card, especially at gas stations and restaurants. And be sure to let your credit card company know that you will be using the card abroad during your trip, so they don’t place a security “Hold” on your account when a foreign charge comes in! Also, sometimes the merchant will ask if you want your purchase to be in local currency or US Dollars…ALWAYS CHOOSE LOCAL CURRENCY! If you ask for the charge to be made in US Dollars, you will usually be hit with an extremely unfavorable exchange rate. And make sure the check with your credit card company before you leave home to see if they charge foreign transaction fees. These can really add up so make sure you do your homework before you travel.
Most countries are more of a cash society than we are in the US, so you may not want to use your debit or credit card for a simple cup of coffee or an inexpensive snack.
So, with just a little planning and knowledge, you can ensure that your trip to a foreign country is as rewarding financially as it is emotionally! Let’s get packing