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Q&A: What Are The Safest And Easiest Ways To Travel With Money?

Travelling With Money

Dear Essential Travel
In the beginning of August I’ll be leaving the UK and exploring different parts of Africa for the next seven months. I’ve travelled Europe before and it was pretty easy to access cash using my bank card. However, my friends who have travelled through Africa say the situation is somewhat different and while many regions do offer ATMs and foreign exchange stores, there are parts that don't.

What are the best ways to travel with and access money, especially in areas where you may not be able to find machines or places where you can exchange currency?

Melanie Ryce, Kent

Our Answer

Hi Melanie. I’m so glad this question has come up, especially since the options are constantly changing and developing. There is no set or right way, and this applies even more if you’re going to be travelling through a number of different places. Take a look at some of the methods to travel with money and you can decide which one suits you best. Also, don’t forget to follow our Quick Tips Guide and pay special attention to the parts about safety, as handling any cash (in hand or electronically) comes with risk. But this shouldn't dampen your trip - especially if you have travel insurance as you'll be covered for loss or theft if it does occur.

Cash

You can simply go to an agency that handles currency conversion (most of the time they’ll be conveniently located in the airport or major shopping malls), hand over the cash that you have and they’ll give you the equivalent of that in local currency. Voila! You can now buy a cup of coffee without the waitress staring at your foreign notes in bewilderment. You will have to pay a fee for the conversion and this often comes directly out of the cash that you’ve handed over so do take note of the percentage that the agency takes to avoid confusion.

Currency ConversionConverting currency is easy, but can be risky

Pros

  • Immediate cash exchange - so you’re given the local currency on the spot.
  • Most countries have these agencies in easy-to-find and convenient locations so no running around looking for a way to pay for a simple dinner when you do in fact have money.
  • Agencies can handle small and larger amounts (although larger amounts are discouraged for safety reasons) and having cash on hand is convenient when paying for things like parking, tipping or entry fees.
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Cons

  • Most agencies take significant commission and you end up with substantially less than the value of what you handed over.
  • Travelling with a large amount of cash is dangerous. It can make you a very easy target for potential thieves and it’s much easier to lose. If you lose cash it’s gone, if you lose a bank card, it can be replaced and your money will still be there.
  • Constantly having to exchange your money can be time consuming and inconvenient. While these places are ideally located in major cities, they are much harder to find in smaller cities.
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Credit Cards

Arguably the most popular way to travel with money is using credit cards. They are best for large purchases such as airline tickets, hotel bills and car rentals. For U.S travellers, one problem is the “chip-and-PIN” credit cards used throughout Europe, Asia, South America and places in Africa. These are designed to prevent fraud as the user is required to enter a verification pin once the information is read from the chip. Although some places do accept swipe cards, US travellers have reported problems with paying at kiosks and petrol stations.

Credit CardCredit cards are safer and cheaper, but not always accepted

Pros

  • Credit card purchases are exchanged at the inter-bank exchange rate, which is usually the cheapest rate you can get for currency exchange.
  • You don’t have to handle large amounts of cash and if your credit card proves problematic, a call to your service provider should sort it out.
  • It can be used in almost any country (Visa or Mastercard), saving you a significant amount of time and effort.
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Cons

  • Some restaurants, stores and even hotels won't take credit cards, so you need to find out about this before the time.
  • While you can use credit cards to get cash advances at ATM's, remember that they'll be subject to international charges that your credit card company imposes and these can add up very quickly.
  • And a little detail that most people overlook, if you're not home by the time the bills come in and you haven't made arrangements to pay them, you’ll have to pay heavy penalty fees.
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Debit Cards And Other ATM Cards

This is another popular way to access money abroad, mainly because you can get cash in local currency. These days, most banks and bank accounts come with an added beneficiary of Visa or MasterCard. Thanks to their partnership with banks throughout the world, going to a different country with a bank account associated with Visa or MasterCard means that you can actually use your own bank card at an ATM in a different country and cash will still come out - in the local currency of course.

ATM WithdrawalOnly some debit cards are accepted and you won't always find an ATM

Pros

  • You’ll receive the same reasonably priced exchange rates when you make cash withdrawals as you do with your credit card purchases.
  • ATMs are available in most major cities all over the world, which makes cash withdrawals the cheapest and most convenient way to get cash in the local currency.
  • Having access to your own money is comforting and a lot safer - you’re able to budget and not overspend on your travels.
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Cons

  • Each cash withdrawal will be subject to currency conversion fees, foreign ATM or other charges from your bank - and these could add up.
  • While debit cards work much the same way as regular credit cards for purchases, if your card is lost or stolen you may not have the same protection. You have to report that your card is missing within a stipulated number of days, otherwise you’ll lose any money that was spent after the card was stolen.
  • If your card is not connected to the worldwide Cirrus or PLUS networks then you won’t be able to access cash abroad - phone your bank to make sure that you have access to Visa and MasterCard facilities with your bank card.
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Travellers' Cheques And Cheque Cards

With ATMs sprouting up in even the most secluded regions of the world, the allure of travellers' cheques has flown out the window faster than Crocs. However, don’t rule them out completely - they come in handy when you have an emergency and can’t find a functioning ATM. They can also be used as a more secure alternative to cash. The old, traditional travellers' cheques of yesteryear have checked into the geriatrics ward for technology, but Visa and Travelex offer travel cards that are prepaid like traveller’s cheques, but work like credit cards when it comes to purchases and ATM withdrawals. Earlier on we mentioned the trouble that some people have with “Chip-and-PIN” machines, well Travelex offers a solution to this because it also offers both a swipe and chip-and-PIN card.

Travellers' ChequesTravellers' cheques are safer than cash because they can be replaced

Pros

  • Travellers' cheques and cheque cards are more secure than cash because if they get lost or are stolen, they can be replaced within 24 hours.
  • The card option offered by Visa and Travelex means that you won’t get stuck when your credit or debit card won’t work in a chip-and-PIN machine.
  • If you can’t find a functioning ATM, you can still use your travellers' cheque.
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Cons

  • The exchange rate for traveller’s cheques is much higher than the rate for credit and debit cards.
  • These days, very few merchants accept the cheques for purchases.
  • You’ll have to pay commissions, shipping charges and conversion fees. For the travel cheque cards you’ll have to pay for activation fees, charges for reloading the card, ATM charges and even inactivity fees.
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Travel Wallets

While travel wallets can’t help you access cash, they are very useful when it comes to keeping all your travel essentials safe. They are specially manufactured pouches designed to hold banknotes, credit cards and passports/IDs in a way that is easy and safe to carry. There are all kinds of travel wallets: breast wallets (a wallet in which the banknotes are not folded), bi-fold wallets (the banknotes are folded over once - this has become the standard traveller’s wallet), and a tri-fold wallet where there are two folds in the banknotes and space for card storage.

Travel walletTravel wallets are a great way to keep your money and cards secure

Pros

  • Easy and safe way to store your money and cards.
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Cons

  • Well, if you lose your wallet, all your important possessions get lost with it.
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Essential Travel’s Money Safety Tips

  • If you’re going to use a credit card make sure that you let your bank or provider know. The international activity might set off a warning signal and they could freeze your card.
  • It’s best to get a credit card with a pin. Credit cards that don’t require verification can be really dangerous.
  • Take two credit cards along in case one stops working.
  • With a debit card, contact your bank to make sure that your card is authorised for international transactions.
  • If you’re going to be using a travel wallet, keep it with you at all times. It’s designed to hold all your important belongings in one place and losing it could mean a swift end to your trip.
  • Always carry extra cash - but never carry cash in large amounts.
  • If the room you’re staying in has a safe then you should store one credit card and some cash there and take your other credit card and additional cash with you.
  • Make sure that you have extra money back home so that if you lose anything, it can be transferred to you.
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I hope that helps you decide the best solution for you. Have a safe and memorable trip!

Last Updated: July 2013

Caelyn Woolward

Caelyn Woolward

Having lived in the same house for 18 years, Caelyn decided it was time to pack her bags and head out an adventure. The trip took her to the tiny place of Grahamstown in South Africa where she majored in Journalism and English at Rhodes University. Fresh out of university and having lived the student life for the last four years, she is slowly adapting to working at Essential Travel under the guidance of senior writers. She finds comfort in the smaller cities of the world nestled away in Europe, Africa and South America.