Reasons abound to visit Washington, D.C.—from museums to monuments to the Capitol itself. But this tourist-friendly city can also be very expensive, so here are some tips for getting the best deals for your currency exchange in America’s capital.
- Washington D.C. offers several options for exchanging currency.
- Using a credit card or bank card at an ATM is probably the cheapest option, followed by exchanging at a brick-and-mortar bank.
- Currency exchange stores are often more convenient, but more expensive. Options in Washington D.C. range from global chain Travelex to a local venue called Treasure Trove.
ATMs are more widely available than currency stores (see below) and, given the prevalence of global financial networks, you're likely to have a bank card that they will accept. You may or may not be assessed an ATM fee and/or a foreign transaction fee on the funds you withdraw, though—so check with your financial institution first.
A number of credit cards offer no foreign transaction fees. Using them at an ATM is often the most cost-effective way to get cash. You won’t be paying fees when you use one of these cards (except perhaps an ATM fee, which is charged by the bank or ATM operator, not your credit card issuer). However, you also may not know the conversion rate you are being charged.
It probably wouldn't hurt to check with your card issuer to make sure the United States is covered—and whether special provisions apply—before using your card in D.C.
Washington has numerous brick-and-mortar banks, of course; some might even be branches of the one you use at home. Whether you're an account-holder or not, though, most commercial banks will exchange currency for a fee (usually under $10) and will offer competitive exchange rates.
Although it can be risky, converting large amounts of cash at once can save you from paying conversion fees or ATM fees over and over. If you do, try not to carry it all with you when you go out, unless there's no safe place to keep it at your lodging. If you do opt to take it with you, keep your money hidden, wear a money belt and be alert, especially in crowded tourist-ridden places where pickpockets might operate.
Currency Exchange Stores
Currency exchange stores offer convenience, though not always the most competitive exchange rates, compared to banks and ATMs. Washington DC boasts many, as you can imagine, so we'll mention two contrasting examples.
Travelex is probably the best-known currency exchange business, with several locations in central Washington, D.C., including 1800 K Street NW, Union Station, and Pentagon City. It's also in both Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport. Travelex offers traditional currency exchange, but the rates it charges per transaction vary by store and by currency type (usually it is less than $10 per transaction). You can also order currency by phone or online to avoid fees.
Travelex also offers a prepaid MasterCard known as a “Cash Passport” that allows the user to load up to five currencies. The Cash Passport does not have a variable exchange rate (once the money is loaded, the exchange rate remains the same) and it is not connected to the traveler’s personal information. The card can be used like a MasterCard and as a debit card at certain ATMs, and it can be reloaded online. But this convenience comes at a hefty price: ATM fees are $3 per transaction in the U.S., there is a foreign-exchange fee of 5.50% and there is a sneaky inactivity fee of $3 per month. If you want to refund the balance on your card, there is a fee of $20 for that service.
Treasure Trove Currency Exchange
In contrast to giant Travelex is a local spot: a place called Treasure Trove, near the White House (within Bensons Jewelers, 1331 F Street NW). Many frequent travelers swear by it, for fees that are slightly less than Travelex's ($5 for $500 or less; then $10 for any amount over $500), no matter how much or little you're exchanging.
The Bottom Line
There are a number of choices for currency exchange for travelers to Washington, D.C. Whether you value low fees, convenience, security or competitive exchange rates, there is a currency solution that will suit your needs.
Traditionally, it has been always better to make the exchange where the currency is local (so, you get a better deal on dollars in the U.S.) But that's not gospel. If you watch exchange rates in advance of your trip, you can exchange money when rates are favorable rather than when you need it. A little pre-planning can stretch your travel budget considerably.