While some cities in the U.S. have struggled to attract more international visitors, Houston charged ahead with a 22% growth in overseas visitors in 2013, the most recent data available. Medical tourism alone draws 16,000 to 20,000 international patients each year to the city’s Texas Medical Center. One-third of the 823,000 annual visitors to NASA’s famous Space Center Houston are international tourists, who come to have lunch with the astronauts and tour the historic Mission Control Center (remember “Houston, the Eagle has landed”?). Houston has another big draw: megamalls that bring in droves of shoppers from neighboring Mexico. In Texas, sales taxes are refunded to international visitors, so shopping is tax-free.
Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) services about 180 destinations worldwide, including 31 in Mexico – more than any other airport in the U.S. The busiest domestic routes are Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, San Francisco, and Newark. Mexico City, Cancun, London, Frankfurt, and Calgary are the busiest international routes. In 2013, more than 800,000 travelers came to Houston from overseas – a figure that does not include travelers from Canada and Mexico. Whether you travel to Houston from Canada, Mexico or someplace else, you’ll probably need to exchange some of your home currency for U.S. dollars. Here are a few options.
At the Airport
Airport currency exchange kiosks typically don’t offer the best rates, but they do offer convenience, especially if you are arriving in Houston with no U.S. dollars. Unlike many airports that offer currency exchange services through only one company, Houston has two primary currency exchange service providers: ICE (International Currency Exchange) and Travelex.
- Terminal C, Departures North. Hours are 6:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., daily. Contact: 281-233-3583.
- Terminal C, Departures South. Hours are 6:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., daily. Contact: 281-233-3895.
- Terminal D, Departures South. Hours are 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., daily. Contact: 281-233-3585.
- Terminal E, Arrivals South. Hours are 8:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., daily. Contact: 281-233-3869.
- William P. Hobby Airport, Main Floor (7 miles from downtown Houston), 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily. Contact: 713-649-6664.
- Terminal E, near Gate 12. Hours are 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., daily. Contact: 281-443-8636.
ATMs are considered one of the easiest ways to get cash while traveling. Exchange rates are generally better than what you’ll get at a currency exchange store and, depending on your bank’s policies – and any agreements it may have with U.S. banks – you could pay little to no fees when making a withdrawal. To avoid any surprises, it’s a good idea to contact your bank before you leave home to find out what, if any, fees you will have to pay. If your bank charges a per-transaction fee (which many do), you can limit fees by making larger and less frequent withdrawals.
Chase Bank ATMs are located throughout the airport in every Terminal: A, B, C, D, and E. There is also a Cardtronics ATM in the airport. Once you leave the airport, you can find a wide selection of ATMs throughout Houston – from banks such as Bank of America, Capital One, Citibank and Wells Fargo – at shopping centers, grocery stores, gas stations, banks and places close to tourist attractions.
Currency Exchange Stores
In addition to the ICE and Travelex branches within the airport, there are a few other exchange stores located in Houston. Some options include:
Currency Exchange International. Operated through affiliate First Citizens Bank, 5002-C Westheimer Rd., 713-479-6000.
Travelex. Multiple locations:
- 1201 Lake Woodlands Dr. (at the Woodlands Mall), 281-419-5599.
- 5085 Westheimer Rd. (at the Houston Galleria Mall), 713-398-6130.
- 10777 Westheimer Rd. Ste. 105, 713-782-8092.
Texas Currency Exchange. 303 Memorial City Mall, 713-468-6800.
Many travelers find it practical to use a combination of currency exchange, ATM withdrawals and credit-card purchases to fund their trips. In general, if you need to exchange only a small amount of money, the convenience of airport kiosks can be worth the small hit you take on the rate. If you plan on exchanging more than that, however, it's worthwhile to look around to find a better rate. Keep in mind that many stores advertise no fees or no commissions, but you still might end up with a poor exchange rate – sometimes due to “hidden” fees. No matter where you exchange money, always ask how many U.S. dollars you will get in return for your currency – before handing over any cash.
A currency converting app can help you figure out how much you should be getting. You enter the type and amount of currency you want to exchange, and the app calculates how much of the “new” currency you get at today’s exchange rate. Free apps like XE Currency and GlobeConvert are available for both iOS and Android phones.
Using your ATM card is one of the easiest ways to get cash. If you pay a per-transaction fee, plan your withdrawals to limit the number of transactions you have to make during your trip. You may also be able to use your card as a debit card and get cash back at participating retailers. As for credit cards, many banks charge fees for overseas purchases. If you are a frequent traveler or plan to use your credit card a lot, it might be worth getting a no foreign transaction fee card – especially one of the cards that also has no annual fee.