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Cash Tips (or, The Only Way to Get Foreign Currency)

You’ll want some pesos to buy these sweet treats!

I was going to do a post today about those amazing Geneva fireworks I mentioned last week…but after yesterday’s events in Nice, writing about fireworks didn’t feel right. Instead, I’m offering another dose of practical travel advice, this time about money. Without further ado, my top tips for dealing with cash abroad:

1. Hold Your Horses. I never acquire foreign currency before I leave for a trip, and except in special circumstances, I recommend against it. You’ll get a much less favorable exchange rate if you buy foreign currency at a US bank or exchange office, plus you’ll pay an exorbitant fee. I know it can feel odd to show up in a foreign country without any local money already in your pocket, but it’s so easy to get local currency (see tip #3) that there’s no reason to burn a deeper hole in your pocket in advance.

2. Avoid the Obvious Exchange Spots. You know those “Travelex” currency exchanges that are all over international airports? Avoid them. Same reason as tip #1: you’ll get fleeced.

3. Head for the ATMs. Withdrawing money from a bank ATM is by far the best (and in my humble opinion, only) way to get foreign currency. ATMs are ubiquitous almost everywhere in the world now. Once you collect your luggage and proceed through customs into the airport’s main hall, look around for an ATM. There will always be one somewhere. Then head to a kiosk or shop and use one of your newly-acquired large bills to buy something small – a bottle of water, a pack of gum – and voila, now you have small bills and coins, too (particularly useful if you’re getting straight on public transportation).

Your bank will charge you a foreign transaction fee (usually around 3%) plus a flat fee (around $5) for using a foreign ATM. But you’ll still be better off than if you had bought the currency in advance. To avoid paying the foreign ATM fee multiple times, take out larger amounts. There’s usually a daily limit on how much you can get out of a foreign ATM – often around $300-$500 – so on my first ATM stop, I’ll try to max out that limit. Then see how long that cash lasts you.

4. Choose Plastic. I don’t ever go completely cash-free when I travel, but you’ll probably find that you need less cash than you used to, because credit cards are now accepted almost everywhere. Most US credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee around 3%, but since you don’t also have to pay a foreign ATM fee, you’ll come out slightly ahead using plastic instead of paper. There are also a number of credit cards available now that don’t charge foreign transaction fees at all (though they usually come with an annual fee attached). Be aware that MasterCard and Visa are widely accepted in other countries, but American Express is not.

5. Keep the Change. Unless you have a really large amount of foreign currency left at the end of your trip and you’re absolutely positive you’re never going to need it again, hang onto your currency instead of exchanging it back into US dollars. You’ll be on the losing side of that financial transaction. Spend the leftovers at the airport gift shops instead. I’ve also sold leftover Euros to friends heading to Europe, using the published exchange rate and (of course) no fees. That’s a win-win for everybody.

6. Alert the Proper Authorities. The one thing you need to do before you depart, money-wise, is to alert your bank and credit card companies that you’ll be using your cards overseas. Otherwise, they might think someone stole your card and flew to France – and they’ll shut it down. Many banks and credit cards allow you to submit travel alerts online; otherwise, give them a call. And take at least two cards with you, in case one of them goes on the fritz.

7. Keep It Safe. Last but definitely not least, be safe with all that cash. Keep just small amounts in your wallet and stash the rest in a money belt or other secure spot.

And of course, once you’ve got the money you need, get out there and enjoy spending it.

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