The world has many different customs, cultures, foods, languages, and, of course, currencies. While navigating food and language can be an adventure, showing up unprepared to pay for your yurt rental in Mongolia or a Fair Isle sweater in Galway can be incredibly stressful.
Before you hit the road or the airport (or the airport to the road), make sure you have the right combination of cash and credit cards to ensure your journey is a smooth one. You wouldn’t want to miss out on the best taco in all of Mexico City because of a simple misjudgment.
Here are a few tips for making sure you have a handle on your money while you’re out exploring the world:
Cash is king.
The general rule is to bring enough cash to cover your expenses—taxis, food, emergency coffee, —for the first 24 hours of your trip or until you can find an ATM. Pay for hotels, car rentals, and larger purchases on a credit card, but keep cash on hand for smaller sales at local businesses.
Many Asian and African nations and smaller towns everywhere across South America and Europe are not yet tied into the global ATM and credit network, rendering your credit card a useless piece of plastic. Depending on where you travel, you’ll most likely want to have a good cache of cash with you to make sure you can fill your gas tank in Tanzania or buy dinner in the Belizean jungle. As for stashing the cash, make use of your hotel safe, your money belt, or that can of fake shaving cream your uncle gave you for Christmas—whatever makes you feel safest.
Exchange before you go.
Airport currency exchanges typically charge a commission when swapping dollars for baht, pesos, or other currency. Most banks will have a stash of Euros, British pounds, and Canadian dollars on hand, but if you’re traveling somewhere less common talk to your bank at least two weeks before you travel and they will usually be able to get any currency you need. As for the amount you need, it’s up to you to balance necessity and risk. As for you high rollers, don’t forget you must declare amounts over $10,000 when entering many countries, including the U.S. and E.U.
Use your ATM card.
If you’re traveling in a major city like Amsterdam or Glasgow or Vancouver, the easiest way to get cash is to simply hit the ATM. Thanks to the vast reach of banking networks, it’s easy to use your bank card and extract local currency at an exchange rate set by the banks. They may charge an ATM fee, but it’s usually much less than the fee charged by a currency exchange. Minimize the charge by taking out a reasonable amount (say, $200 instead of your usual $60) when you go to the ATM. That said, be aware that even in developed nations like Brazil, it can be incredibly difficult to get cash out of an ATM and you may need to go into a bank or fall back on a currency exchange. A final note of caution, be sure to choose an ATM associated with a bank and not some stand-alone ATM in the back of a Berlin beer hall.
Tell your bank you’ll be traveling.
There is nothing more frustrating than carefully choosing a souvenir at Helsinki’s Kiasma Museum or picking up a gorgeous scarf at a boutique near Rome’s Spanish Steps only to have your credit card declined because your bank doesn’t know you’re abroad. Avoid this frustrating situation by taking a few minutes to alert your bank about your travel plans in advance.
Pay in foreign currency.
When you’re at the shop and you’ve handed the clerk your credit card and he asks if you would prefer to pay in dollars or Euros (or Yuan or Rand), choose to pay in the local currency. Your bank’s rates will almost always be better than the retailer’s rate. Plus, if your purchase takes place outside the U.S., your bank will consider it a “foreign transaction” with the associated fees, even if you choose to pay in U.S. dollars.
Bring a back-up card.
Whether you’re headed to a sample sale or traveling abroad, it’s always a good idea to bring backup. Bring a spare credit or debit card and stash it separately from your primary card (like in your cosmetics case, instead of your wallet or in the hotel safe). That way, if you leave your wallet in a Venetian vaporetto or on a bus bound for Reno, you’ll already have a back-up plan ready to go until you can get a replacement for your primary card. If the worst happens and you lose your card due to distraction or theft, be sure to bring the international phone number to cancel your card, if need be.
Get a chip card.
Much of the tech-savvy world has switched from credit cards with magnetic strips to so-called smart cards with chips embedded in them. While usually it’s not a problem for a clerk to simply swipe the card, more and more stores, ticket kiosks, gas stations, and restaurants are starting to switch to chip-only card readers. That can translate to standing at a register in Oslo with no way to pay for the latte you just ordered. Luckily, many U.S. banks are starting to offer chip cards, and it may be worth asking your bank to send one your way before you travel. Plus, chip cards are meant to be more secure, which is always a good thing, especially when you travel.
Consider (modern) traveler's checks.
Traveler’s checks are basically the flip phones of travel currency—they’re solidly old school, but still useful. That said, American Express still offers them to travelers. If you’re looking for a more modern take on the security of traveler’s checks, consider a pre-paid travel card, which works like a credit card for cash withdrawals and purchases, but can quickly be replaced if lost or stolen, usually within 24 hours.
In a pinch, wire money.
Those who enjoy traveling far off the beaten path, or those who find themselves in the midst of a misadventure may find themselves desperately needing an infusion of cold hard cash. The best way to get some quick cash from back home is to ask a good friend or family member to wire you money. Whether you’re in Marrakech or Montevideo, Western Union and Moneygram have offices and agents in some surprisingly far-flung corners of the world. That means that travelers who find themselves in a bind can get emergency cash almost anywhere in the world.
Unfortunately, that convenience comes at a price—wire transfers from home with services tacking on a hefty percentage as a service fee, which is why wire transfers are only recommended in emergencies.