This article is to help you save yourself money and hassle. I'll start this by noting *this is my opinion and my experience only and nothing on this page should be taken as professional or legal advice*.
There are two key things you'll want to avoid when traveling abroad and they are foreign transaction fees (for using credit/debit card) and currency exchange fees (getting cash). They add up and can be costly in the long run and the good news is they are avoidable.
Like home, you have options when it comes to buying food, drinks, souvenirs, bus tickets or anything. You can use cash, card, smartphone apps and more. Card is accepted in Europe but usually not in as many places as the USA. Even less acceptance in Asia and South America. If you use your card you'll want to be using one that has no foreign transaction fees.
Commonly cards like Visa and MasterCard charge 3% in additional fees when making purchases in a currency other than the US Dollar. This can be avoided by getting a card with no foreign transaction fees. With a card like this, you will be able to make all kinds of purchases including your room, food, and other travel expenses. Nerwallet.com has extensive information about the pros and cons of different cards available.
Next, you're going to want to have money and the ability to access your money with you at all times. This means cash on you plus a way (debit card) to access more cash. You have many options when it comes to getting your very own local currency (Euro €, Pound £, Yen ¥, peso, etc.) Not all currencies are equal nor are the ways of obtaining them.
There are three major ways of getting foreign cash in your hands. The first two involve going to your bank before you leave for your trip. You can request foreign currency in the amount you deem necessary and safe to carry around. Depending on your bank this can be your easiest and most cost-effective way to get cash.
If your bank charges high fees or unreasonable exchange rates you can pull out US dollars and carry them with you to your exotic destination. After arrival at your destination, you can use a bank or more commonly a currency exchange company (they're all over big cities outside the USA) to exchange your American dollars for foreign cash or coin. Take note that the exchange rates are often inflated at places like this and sometimes they will add a fee on top. I've been able to negotiate at places like this in more than one country.
The last major way and the way I stick to is withdrawing foreign currency from ATM’s or banks inside the country I'm visiting. Doing this often comes with the fair exchange rate being used and sometimes a small flat fee depending on your own bank and the bank you're pulling money from. This minimizes the amount of extra cash I have on hand in the case of loss or theft. Note when using ATM’s make sure it is a real bank sponsored ATM and not a private exchange company ATM. An example would be using a Wells Fargo ATM vs a Western Union ATM.
Planning around your money can save you a lot of dollars and stress.
What I Do
I bring with me 2 credit cards (always no fee), a debit card, and emergency US dollars in case my cards don't work. I put one credit card in the best-hidden place I can within my baggage. I leave it in the room and don't use it. It is there in case something happens to my other assets. I try to withdraw the full amount of local cash I plan to use during my stay. With flat rates on withdraws, its cheaper keeping withdraws to a minimum. Converting an extra $40 back into USD is a lot cheaper than a $5 fee to pull $40 out of the ATM (that's 12.5% fees in that example). When leaving my room for the day I only take the cash I need with me and one credit card. I leave the safety card hidden along with my debit card. I also put all my online payments (Spotify, Netflix, web hosting, etc.) on a completely separate card that I don't bring on the trip.
- Call ahead and notify your cards of where and when you'll be traveling so your card isn't declined
- When using your cards tell the merchant to use their local currency
- Avoid using the wrong currency to pay when using cash. Merchants will use their own rates to convert your money which will be by far the worst you can find.
- Increase (or decrease) your ATM withdrawal limit according to how much you plan on taking out at a time. Do this before you leave.
- Find out approximate exchange rates ahead of time so you have an idea when buying things and getting your cash. When withdrawing from a foreign ATM you will not see the USD equivalent to what you are withdrawing so make sure you don't go over or it won't work.