The Very Real Currency Struggle for International Travelers

International travel comes with a slew of currency complications. Prepare for fees, inflated exchange rates, cash economies and more. Here’s how to handle them!

It’s expensive just to use money while traveling – but it doesn’t have to be. Half the battle is a good credit/debit card, but there are still annoyances no one can avoid. With these tips, you’ll minimize most of the overhead.


ATM Withdrawal Fees

Problem

Depending on your bank, you could be paying more than you think for ATM withdrawals. My first checking account charged $5 per international withdrawal (Chase Checking; not recommended). That doesn’t seem like much offhand, but combine that with ATM fees, max withdrawal limits and cash economies, and the number adds up! I was being charged $12 per withdrawal in Argentina, $12 per withdrawal in Thailand, etc. Spending far more than a nonthreatening $5 quote.

Solution A

The most sustainable solution is a travel-friendly checking account. These cards refund charges incurred at the ATM (among other benefits).

Check them out here: What’s the Best Checking Account for International Travel?

Solution B

Withdraw what you need. Though this introduces a new problem of sitting on too much cash. Find a hiding place and cross your fingers…

Solution C

If doing a short trip, you can sometimes call your bank and request some of those charges be removed. They won’t touch the ATM fees, but the bank fees are often negotiable.

Max ATM Withdrawal Limits

Problem

Maximum ATM withdrawal limits are the mortal enemy of non-refundable checking accounts. These enforce a certain number of banknotes that can be dispensed at one time, forcing you to make multiple withdrawals for larger transactions. I once paid $50 to get enough cash to pay my hostel (never again!).

Solution

Find a large, international bank. Here, you can withdraw larger sums with a show of your passport.

Cash-based Economies

Problem

If your destination countries accept a good travel credit card, you’re in the clear (Chase Sapphire; highly recommended). Unfortunately, credit cards are not accepted in all parts of the world. This forces you to make numerous cash withdrawals, transact without insurance, and loose valuable credit card points. I spent 6 months traveling the Balkans and SE Asia with almost no vendors accepting credit card.

Solution

Cash economies are a reality, and there’s not much you can do about it. Securing large-ticket items online (like accommodation or car rental) keeps your cash payments minimal. But sometimes, even those require cash on arrival.

Credit Card Upcharge

Problem

Perhaps you’re in a cash-based economy, but vendors will accept your credit card for a fee (usually 10-20% of your total). This is tempting for big-tickets you want recorded/insured… but 10-20% is outrageous!

Solution

Similar to above, it’s the reality. I’ve sometimes been successful negotiating down the base price 10-20% to cover the credit card fees.

Commissioned Currency Exchange

Problem

Probably my biggest rant on the list is commissioned currency exchange. Most small exchange shops charge 30-50% on your total amount (!!!). This forces you to (a) loose a lot of money, or (b) hoard your cash and risk theft.

Solution

Find a large, international bank; they’ll exchange at the day’s rate. Know what you should get before agreeing to anything; write that number down since many banks don’t allow phones inside (i.e. no conversion apps).

Actual photo of me escaping withdrawal fees.

Currency on Arrival

Problem

You’ve arrived at a foreign airport. It’s 11pm, you’re exhausted and you’ve got to get to your hotel. Unless you’re in a metro city where you can credit card a taxi, you’re kind of f***ed. You could withdraw cash (with fees), exchange at the airport (with fees), take the bus (but you need cash), or go to a bank (except not, because it’s 11pm). Fun, right?

Solution A

Organize transport before you get there. Oftentimes, hostels/hotels have this option available and can include it in your bill.

Solution B

Exchange currency before you leave.

Solution C

Accept the fee and exchange a small amount on arrival. You can do the rest once you’ve settled and found a bank.

Actual photo of me when I CAN’T escape withdrawal fees.

Legitimate ATMs

Problem

ATMs are available almost anywhere, but that doesn’t mean you should use them. Skimming fraud is more predominant in public areas (like tourist attractions and corner stores) and put you at risk for bigger problems.

Solution

Withdraw from ATMs connected to banks; these are more heavily monitored. If there are no banks nearby, look for bank-branded ATMs which oftentimes have cameras installed alongside them.

Black Markets

Problem

This is a new one. Some money markets are so corrupt and volatile that you can’t use/exchange them in any other country. I traveled for a year with $200 in Argentinian Pesos because no one would take them!

Solution A

Research the currency situation when visiting “high-risk” destinations. Only withdraw what you need.

Solution B

If it’s too late, network with other travelers on apps or in-person. You may find someone heading that direction that would exchange at face value.

Solution C

Return to the country, and get your money’s worth. 😉

Short Change

Problem

You can put as much faith as you want in humanity, but mistakes happen. Here, they result in under/over payments whether intentional or not. I’ve had to correct cashiers more times than I’d like to admit…

Solution

Always, always, always count your change. Even for vendors you visit frequently.

The Coin Game

Problem

Am I the only person who didn’t know this? Coins cannot be exchanged! So unless you plan to add another 5 lbs. to your bag, you’ll need to get rid of them.

Solution

Finish your coins before departure. Snacks are a good option; they’re cheap and the perfect accompaniment for a long trip.

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