There are many reasons to visit Washington, D.C. From museums to monuments, the White House to the Capitol, there is plenty to do and see. The city is very tourist friendly, but can also be very expensive.
Here are some tips for getting the best deals for your currency exchange in America’s capital.
Start by trying out the strategies below. ATMs are more widely available than currency stores if you have a credit or bank card that they will accept. Washington also has numerous banks, of course; some might even be branches of the bank you use at home.
Credit Cards/ATMs: A number of credit cards offer no foreign transaction fees. You can use them to get money from an ATM, 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), but you also may not know the conversion rate you are being charged. If you're coming to Washington from abroad, be sure 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. See Top Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fee.
Banks: Most brick-and-mortar banks will exchange currency for a fee (usually under $10) and will have competitive exchange rates. Many banks only provide this service to customers, so this service may not be available to all visitors.
Cash: Although carrying large amounts of cash can be risky, converting large amounts of cash at once can save you from paying conversion fees or ATM fees over and over.
Planning ahead can pay off – if you watch exchange rates in advance of your trip, you can exchange money when rates are favorable rather than when you need it (see Time Your Travel Abroad To The Exchange Rate). A little pre-planning can stretch your travel budget. If you choose to carry large amounts of cash, keep your money hidden, wear a money belt and be alert: Washington, D.C., is a safe city, but visitors should always be aware of their surroundings and not put themselves at risk.
Traditional Currency Exchange
Currency exchange stores offer convenience, though not always competitive exchange rates compared to banks and ATMs.
Travelex: Travelex is a very popular currency exchange business, with three locations in the Washington, D.C., area: 1800 K Street 103 NW, Union Station and Pentagon City. 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. 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: The alternative to Travelex for currency exchange in Washington, D.C., is a place called Treasure Trove, near the White House (1305 G Street. NW). Its fees are slightly less than Travelex's ($5 for $500 or less; then $10 for any amount over $500), but the day I called I found its currency exchange rate was slightly worse than the one offered by Travelex.
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. Enjoy your visit!