“Why can’t everybody just use dollars?” you ask. A single world currency won’t happen any time soon – or maybe never – so you’re stuck navigating the confusing waters of currency exchange if you’re traveling abroad.
But don’t let it get you down. There are simple ways to avoid the headache of foreign exchange.
It Depends Where You Go
Some countries are more reliant on cash than others. If you’re traveling to Singapore, for example, you might get away with very little cash. Same with the Netherlands, France, Sweden and Belgium (see 6 Factors That Influence Exchange Rates). About 60% of all payments are cashless in these countries.
But if you’re traveling to Taiwan, Italy, Mexico, Greece or Egypt, 6% or fewer transactions involve “non-cash” methods. In general the more developed the country, the less cash you’ll need.
Don’t Do It Over There
If you need cash – and it is a good idea to have at least some local currency – exchanging your money is more of a headache if you wait until you arrive. Not only do you have the exchange rate hassles, you probably will have a language barrier to deal with. The fact that you’re a tourist in unknown surroundings and eager to just get the transaction done might mean that you spend more than you need to.
Instead, do the exchange before you board the plane and preferably before you get to the airport. If you talk to your bank about one week in advance, they’ll exchange your money for you. It doesn’t get much easier than that – and it’s one of the cheapest ways.
If you’re a little more daring, head to Craigslist and offer to do an exchange. For every person traveling to a foreign country, there’s somebody who has just come back and wants to get rid of their foreign money. (See Best Ways to Save on Currency Exchanges for a discussion of how to do this safely.)
Don’t Do It at All
The best way to exchange your money is to not do it at all – or at least very little. Check the terms of your credit card. If you have a CapitalOne card, for example, you generally won’t pay any foreign transaction fees. In other words, the card company makes the exchange for you without charging you an extra fee. Check out Top Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees.
If you do have to pay a fee, it’s likely between 1% and 3%, which is lower than the exchange rate you would pay at most currency exchange services after factoring in fees (see Currency Exchange: Floating Rate vs. Fixed Rate).
If you plan to travel internationally a lot in the coming years, getting a no-transaction–fee card could potentially save you a lot of money.
You can also use an ATM once you get there. There’s a chance that the exchange fees you’ll pay at the ATM will be nearly the same as exchanging your currency at your local bank. The key is to find an ATM that partners with your home bank. Larger banks such as Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Chase are most likely to have options available to you.
The Bottom Line
Do your homework and some comparative shopping to find the best rates. Depending on your relationship with your bank, you might get an amazing exchange rate, for example.
As a rule, carry as little cash as practical when you travel because of safety concerns. But research the country your visiting and be prepared to pay on its terms. For example, China has had a special arrangement with the Discover card for some years (see Best Credit Cards for Travel in China). For more information, see Time Your Travel Abroad to the Exchange Rate.