Accessing and Spending Money Overseas

This is probably obvious, but accessing and spending money overseas is not always as simple as it is at home. After visiting over 100 countries, I have experienced many methods of obtaining and exchanging money. I have learned that a bit of research into this topic can save you from heartache and struggle when you travel. Unfortunately, much of this was learned the hard way. I didn’t have auntie Cher doling out these tips for accessing and spending money overseas. This guide is being written with an American-centric slant but hopefully, many of these tips will apply more universally.

Have you ever wondered about the best way to use an ATM or credit card while traveling or how to exchange money without getting screwed? I got you covered. Click To Tweet

Currency Conversion

This is one of the most basic things you’ll want to research before you go to any country. What currency do they use and what is the conversion factor to your home currency? I’ll be using the United States Dollar in my examples for obvious reasons. I use the XE app and prior to traveling, I download whatever currencies I plan to use. Usually, I’ll look at what $1 or $100 dollars is in that currency, just to get an idea of what I’m dealing with.

Knowing a rough currency exchange rate will help you with several items on this list. Also, when you are drawing money from an ATM, you don’t have to stand there staring wondering what all these crazy numbers are and how much you should get. (I have totally done this, BTW)

Research How the Country Does Business

Cash-Free Society?

Some countries are now cash free. Sweden is one that I know has been this way for years and will likely be the first totally cashless nation. I visited Stockholm in 2016 and never needed cash, in fact, it wasn’t permitted! Norway, Finland, New Zealand, and even the UK are trending this way, just to name a few. I was recently in London with $100 pounds in my wallet and very few vendors would take it. I was able to tip a bartender and pay for one item of food at a local market. Bus drivers will not take cash. You can use your wireless swipe credit card on The Underground, and basically all public transport, which is super nice and easy BUT I am now stuck with loads of pounds for when the apocalypse happens.

I know TONS of Americans who seem to think everywhere is like this and that couldn’t be further from the truth, even in the USA. MOST countries are not like this. I have been to festivals and street markets in the USA where they will only accept cash. Therefore, I think it’s wise to always have some cash on hand (even in the USA). Have you ever been to a city that lost credit card charging ability because of a broadband cable accident? Well I have and I was the ONLY one who had cash and we didn’t starve because of me. Ok, rant over.

Cash is king

In many countries, cash is the only way to buy anything. When traveling in much of the global south, you cannot rely on using your credit cards everywhere. Bigger hotels and some restaurants will likely take them but other than that, you will need cash. Taxis will not have credit card readers in them in most countries, so don’t fly in and assume you can just use your plastic from the get-go to get from the airport to your hotel.

To summarize, you need to research IF you will be needing a significant amount of cash and then plan how will you obtain it.

Exchanging Money

Exchanging Money Before You Leave Home

You will find many people who won’t agree with me on some of this but that’s ok because I am very comfortable with the way I do things. If others have their way and it works, great. You will often find a generational divide for this as well because my parent’s generation often didn’t have ATMs available (if they even existed) and credit cards weren’t as easy to use so they relied on travelers’ cheques (does anyone still use these?) or basic money exchange, meaning you bring American dollars and literally just exchange them for the local currency. It’s rare that I need to do this, but I still do sometimes and I will explain why.

Many people want to get the currency for their destination BEFORE their trip at a local bank or AAA. Some will say this is the best rate of exchange. I don’t agree that you will necessarily get the best exchange rate doing this but feel free to shop around and compare it to what your credit card or ATM exchange rate will be. I have NEVER done this because there is NO way I can possibly know how much cash I will need. Also, I do long, multi-country trips. Imagine if I left the United States with hundreds of dollars in multiple currencies. Hell no.

I have heard of travelers “ordering” foreign money from their local bank and because it’s some really off-the-grid currency, like the Bhutanese Ngultrum for example, they aren’t likely to obtain it. I’m pretty sure the people who do this, don’t travel the way I do and to the places I do. Not that I’m better or worse, it’s just not everyone travels the same and not everyone can use the same solution.

Getting money ahead of time means carrying a large amount of cash with you and is a huge opportunity to lose money if you’re not extra cautious. TLDR, I don’t think this is the best option at all, but I must tell you that it exists as an option and some people do this. Ok, if you’re going to Mexico or Italy for one week, it’s probably fine. Backpacking through central Asia for months. No. Also, keep in mind that any excess currency you have will have to be exchanged back again and you will lose a bit with that transaction as well. The fewer transactions you have, the better.

Exchanging Money While You’re Traveling

This option requires you to be carting around cash, your USD. This is not a fun or easy option but sometimes it is necessary because it’s the only way to get local currency. I found this to be the case in Uzbekistan and then other random places where my credit card was lost or ATM machine was out of money and various other issues with plastic. That’s why when you are going a bit off the grid or to less traveled countries, you probably need to carry more cash than you would if you went to Germany or France.

Airport Vs Non-Airport

Exchanging money can be stressful. Many rip-off artists exist. You will almost always find a money exchange place at the airport. The classic adage is that these are the worst rates but I’m going to challenge that logic a bit. I hear this from so many travelers but upon further questioning, many cannot specify HOW MUCH of a difference it was. I’ve read that it can be 20% higher. I think this is one of those things we hear so often, we just keep repeating it. I have seen horrible rates at airports and then I have also seen rates that are comparable to other places in town. Granted I didn’t go to every bank in town because who wants to do that on their vacation?

Now yes, the airport exchanges can definitely be a rip-off and they can take advantage of you because of CONVENIENCE. Every expert will tell you to avoid them. But sometimes, I want the damn convenience PLUS I NEED MONEY ASAP. Like, I gotta pay for a cab. I’m not really sure how all these travelers who refuse to change money at the airport and refuse to use ATMs actually get out of the airport unless they are in a certain type of country.

Once upon a time, I went somewhere in Europe with enough cash to get me from the airport to a hotel and then I planned to later find a place to exchange money. Fast forward to me running around town struggling to find a money exchange and when I do they are closed for lunch or siesta or whatever and finally I have to exchange at the hotel for an abysmal rate. Is this worth the loss from using airport exchange? Not to me. I value my time and energy.

This is why understanding the numbers is important. Sometimes if you really have your shit together (which I never do) you can contact your hotel ahead of time and ask about their exchange rate and what exchange places are nearby and which are recommended. Then you have decent info to compare to the airport rates. One of the big things to look at is the commission charges. You should try to find a place with no commission. Banks typically don’t, but your bellboy’s cousin Omar down the street who works in the back of a shoe store might. (I have used Omar BTW because he has better hours than the bank…it’s not always bad. Sometimes it’s the only place available).

Black Market Exchange

Sometimes you will have to exchange money on the black market. This is less shady than it sounds. Many countries that have struggled economically may have terribly devalued currency and if you exchange your money through traditional methods you won’t get the right amount. Countries like Cuba, Zimbabwe, Syria, and Lebanon are just a few examples where the currency exchange is not straight forward so read up before you go!

Too Much Left At the End?

Just know that if you don’t spend all your cash, you may not be able to exchange it back to dollars. You also don’t want to do this because you lose money at both ends but certain currencies (the Bosnian Mark for example) I have had sitting in a drawer for years hoping I return to Bosnia because NOBODY would take that currency outside of Bosnia. If I have extra currency at the end of a trip I generally keep it if it’s euros or pounds because I know I’ll be back in those countries but somewhere I’m unlikely to return to, I try to buy something at the airport, tip my hotel staff, donate to charity, etc because it’s useless to keep.

I know this advice is all over the place but that’s the reality of travel.

Honestly exchanging money is inherently a bit sketchy. You have to trust your instincts, trust certain locals and try to figure out when the amount of being ripped off is just too high to bear. There is really no one-size-fits-all… Click To Tweet

Using ATM Cards

To me, this is the easiest way to get local cash, as long as you can find them. With both credit cards and ATM cards, you will essentially get the best exchange rate of the day and this will be a better rate than exchanging money. Obviously, this will change slightly from day to day but not too dramatically unless your country has a coup d’etat and the currency takes a nose dive (not completely out of the question these days I guess)

In most places in Europe and North America and in most big cities around the world, this is fairly straightforward. The hard part is YOUR asshole bank in the United States charging ridiculous fees. I once had Bank of America charge $15 each time I used it and that does not include foreign transaction fees OR the local ATM fee. Chase Bank and many big American banks aren’t much better.

If you are going to use one of those cards, find out what fees will be charged. Pretty much most places you are traveling to are going to be “out of network”. If you can’t avoid this, get as much money out at one time as you can to minimize the fee each time. (Paying a $5 fee on $500 is better than paying that same $5 on $100 five times)

Best ATM card ever

A better option if you are traveling or plan to travel regularly, get yourself a travel-friendly ATM card. I SWEAR by Charles Schwab. I pay ZERO ATM fees anywhere in the world. Zero foreign transaction fees and the icing on the cake, they reimburse for any local ATM fees charged. I can go hog wild as I did in Thailand because I underestimated how much shopping I would do and got money out of the ATM twice a day for a week. “Oh just a little more”

Here is an article that summarizes the best ATM cards for travelers. I don’t see how any are as beneficial as the Charles Schwab card. Charles is my man.

Avoid ATM pitfalls

Do NOT use your credit card at the ATM. This is considered a cash advance and the rates will be very high. This is a life-or-death move only! Also, beware of machines that ask you what currency you want. Always choose the local currency and read the fine print on the screen. I will explain this further in the Dynamic Currency Conversion section below. Please read it because it’s important. Choosing ATM machines at big banks is always preferable to small independent machines. Also, look for ones in safe cubicles whenever possible. Keep an eye out for skimmers.

The “I only exchange money” crowd will say they avoid ATMs because they fear their info being stolen. Well, after 20-plus years of travel using ATMs pretty much everywhere, I had this happen precisely one time. I suspect it was an ATM skimmer. It happened at a Barclay’s Bank in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was a Chase Bank card and I noticed several ATM transactions I didn’t make and reported it to my bank immediately and I was not responsible for it. That’s another thing to consider…will your bank help you if this happens? When you are traveling with the right mix of cards, you can be relatively worry-free about these things, knowing that you have protection. It’s a good idea to check your accounts periodically to make sure everything is in order.

Using Credit Cards

This is definitely the easiest, safest, and most economically friendly choice, when available. I already covered how not everywhere is credit card friendly but in places that are…use them! Remember that American Express is not accepted in many places so travel with Visa or Mastercard (or both).

Find credit cards that give you travel rewards for your spending and that don’t charge foreign transaction fees. Ones that offer some forms of trip insurance like car rental protection, baggage delay protection, etc are nice to have. There are many available such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Preferred, the Citi Rewards, and the Capital One Venture. I’m not here to sell you a card but do your research to find the one that is best for use out of the country. Here’s a list of the best travel credit cards. When I was a baby traveler I came back from a trip to Greece and had hundreds of dollars in credit card foreign transaction fees. I was even interviewed on the local news in Miami about it. Baby, I’ve come a long way.

Sometimes when you use your card the local merchant may ask if you want to pay in dollars instead of the local currency. It may sound like an enticing offer but this conversion is very expensive for the cardholder and should be avoided. ALWAYS CHOOSE THE LOCAL CURRENCY. I’ll explain why. It’s all about the DCC…Dynamic Currency Conversion

Dynamic Currency Conversion

This one is a real bitch. What is it exactly? Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) is a service that may be offered by a merchant or an ATM that enables the Cardholder – when traveling abroad or making a transaction that is not in their billing currency – to choose whether their transaction should be completed in either the local currency or their billing currency.

DCC at a merchant point of sale

Remember earlier when I said that you may have the option to be charged in dollars vs the local currency? Generally, when overseas merchants make this offer, they will use a conversion rate that is far higher than the actual going rate – as much as 7 percent higher – and pocket the difference as a fee. They get away with it because many customers are not checking the math at the point of sale. Many Americans like seeing what they are paying in dollars and they mistakenly think that this will avoid any foreign transaction fees their credit card may charge. Instead, you may get BOTH the foreign transaction fee AND the currency conversion fee. The credit card company is simply charging the customer for a transaction made abroad, not for the actual currency conversion.

DCC at the ATM

At the ATM the DCC offers international cardholders the option to withdraw cash in the local currency with full visibility of the foreign exchange rate applied and the cost of the transaction in their home currency. It seems like a good idea if you don’t know better. You’re thinking…I have no idea how much I’m taking out in this weird foreign currency but when they show me in dollars exactly how much, then I feel much better! NO! You won’t feel much better when you see how badly you were just screwed.

Avoid Euronet ATMS

Don’t get me started on the Euronet ATM. I detest them. I think they are criminals. Do NOT use them unless you are desperate and if you do, read all the words on the screen very carefully!!!!! They will try to direct you toward DCC at an atrocious rate. I was in a hurry when I was in Crete and didn’t yet know about this scam and only realized when it was too late how badly I lost money in the transaction because I didn’t read all the fine print on the screen. I just kept hitting “continue” to get on with it (me and my damn impatience). Here is an article that explains how Euronet ATM is a well-known scam and how they steal your money.

They are EVERYWHERE. I just arrived in Paris last week and the first 3 ATMS I saw when exiting baggage claim were Euronet. Oh I notice them now. I kept walking and walking until exiting the airport and finally saw some real banks. I will reiterate, always choose bigger well know banks when you want an ATM. Think Banque Populaire, Bank of Greece, Barclays, Santander, DeutscheBank, HSBC, BNP, Banca D’Italia, Scotiabank, BBVA just to name a few. The small independent ATMs are always the sketchiest. The most likely to have sketchy fees and the mostly likely to have skimmers stealing your info.

Obtain ATM money WHILE YOU CAN at least small or least remote place

If you are traveling via a larger city to a smaller one, you are more likely to find an ATM in the larger one and this includes the airport.

Ok, for example, if you are flying to a remote part of Bolivia but go through the capital La Paz first, THIS is where you should hit up an ATM and secure your local currency. Don’t wait and assume the small airport or small town will even have ATMS or have ones that work with international cards OR that actually have money in them. This is the case in many countries in S. America, Asia, and Africa.

I actually did have this problem. And of course, I had to have the cash to pay for a taxi but had none. The driver had to take me into the town, out of the way from where we were going and LUCKILY a bank was open because the ATMs there also had no cash in them. So I exchanged my trusty dollars and was so thankful I had them. This was in Uyuni, Bolivia FYI. Lesson learned! (also lucky I knew enough Spanish to communicate all this to the taxi driver…had I been in Vietnam…would not have been so easy)

My Experiences

I like to have USD on me at all times because it can come in handy. The amount I bring correlates to how remote and “sketchy” of a place I am going and the trip length

Examples of ATM and cash struggles

The Galapagos Islands. Ecuador actually uses the USD. Super convenient. However, ATMs are hard to come by on the islands. I was expected to pay for some small hotels in cash, many small restaurants didn’t take credit cards and I had to tip in cash for my dive trips. Therefore, I brought about $500 in cash so I’d be prepared. I dislike having lots of cash so this is the exception.

In Indonesia, my ATM card didn’t work, one of my credit cards was shut off because of attempted fraud and the other one wasn’t working for one reason or another. I was on a small remote island. Thankfully, I had my stash of USD and found a money exchanger. I believe you should make sure you have several avenues to obtain money at all times because trust me when I say, shit happens.

I’ve had an ATM card eaten by the machine in Egypt, I have found ATM machines that have no cash in them in Uzbekistan and Bolivia, had banks put a security hold on my credit card for no apparent reason. There is no shortage of mishaps and no I make sure I have back plans.

What I Actually Do

I bring 2 ATM cards and 3 credit cards as a general rule. I rarely bother to bring my Amex because it is the least accepted card internationally. Visa and Mastercard are accepted everywhere. The 2 ATM cards are the Charles Schwab, which I mentioned above, and my Chase checking card which is ONLY a backup in case the other gets lost because I don’t play with ridiculous bank fees.

I could bore you for hours with tales of my traveling money woes. I have had so many different scenarios of things going awry and each time it taught me to do something different so in a way I’m grateful. Let my past struggles help you prevent future ones!!!

What are your best money tips for traveling abroad? What money-related travel hiccups have you had?

About The Author

Cherene Saradar

Cherene is a travel expert with 30 years of experience in over 100 countries and 7 continents. She has traveled solo to over 50 countries. She is also a nurse anesthesiologist with over 20 years of healthcare experience. Her passions include wildlife travel and visiting wine regions of the world.

4 COMMENTS

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  3. Sue Ann Priemer | 9th Sep 22

    Hello! This is great information!!! Thanks for sharing. I consider myself your number one fan. I have read every blog and traveled vicariously with you! Please don’t get freaked out though, I’m not weird stalker. I used to work with your Mom and miss her dearly. Please hug her for me.

    • csaradar | 14th Sep 22

      Hey there! I’m not freaked out…happy to have some fans lol. I’ll hug her for you:)

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