Everything You Need to Know About Money When Traveling

Posted By Trav


Money, Money, Money.

Something you need in life, and certainly something you need when traveling (although you don’t need as much as you think).

And the best way to use money when traveling is something that has a lot of misconceptions, false information, and general confusion surrounding it.

Should you exchange money before leaving for a trip…or while you’re in the country?

Should you bring a lot of cash with you….or just a little?

Are ATM’s the best way to get money in a foreign country?  Are they safe?  And are there fees?

What credit cards should you use?  And should you pay in the local currency or your home currency?

In this post, we’ll answer all of those questions and more, so that you will know exactly what to when it comes to money when traveling, both before and during your trip.

*Some of the specifics, such as which accounts to open, will be for US-based people only, but the general rules should be followed by everyone.*

What Not to Do:

It’s always easier to tell people what they shouldn’t do, so let’s start there.

1.  Don’t Convert Money Before Traveling

The worst exchange rates will be at your home bank, converting your home currency to the currency of the country you are traveling to.

If you want to convert some just to be safe, I’d recommend $100 or less.

Then, use your debit or credit card while in the country and get a much better exchange rate (more about this in a moment).

2.  Don’t Carry A Lot of Cash

Carrying a lot of cash has one major downside – the chance to lose it.  If you’re someone sitting there saying “I never lose my wallet or purse”, well, you’re better than me.

But…why risk it?

If you follow our suggestions for getting the right debit and credit cards, you’ll have no need for a lot of cash, and if something does happen, you’re protected.

I personally never carry more than $100 on me at once.

If you are someone who still feels the need to have cash (looking at you, Dad), then I highly recommend splitting it up and putting some in your wallet or purse, some in a safe pocket in your luggage, etc.

3.  Don’t Convert Money at Money Changers

Money changers, just like your banks back home, will rip you off – avoid changing money at them unless absolutely necessary.

Much better to take money out of the ATM with a debit card that charges you a small or no fee or pay with a credit card that doesn’t have a foreign transaction fee.

What To Do:

4.  Open a Bank Account and Debit Card With Little or No Foreign Transaction Fees

Some banks will charge you for everything when using your card out of the country – a fee (up to 3% sometimes) on the amount you take out AND sometimes a set amount per withdrawal or transaction.

That’s ludicrous, and there is no need to get crushed with these fees when there is an amazing option out there.

The absolute, hands down best option for international travel is the Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking account.

It charges no foreign transaction fees – not a percentage nor a set amount per withdrawal.

And here’s the best part:  it reimburses any ATM fees you pay, both at home and abroad!

For example, when traveling in Thailand, you’ll pay about $6 every time you take money out of an ATM (which is highway robbery, especially because you can get the best meal in the world for $1).

But with the Charles Schwab account, you’ll get reimbursed that $6, each and every time.

If you can’t get a Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking account for some reason, make sure the bank account you have charges either no foreign transaction fee or a small one.  My secondary bank charges 1%, which isn’t bad if I have to use it in a pinch.

5.  Carry two separate cards for two separate accounts when traveling

Speaking of secondary accounts, I always make sure that I’m traveling with more than just one ATM card.

I’d recommend having two different bank accounts (Charles Schwab and one other one) and bringing both ATM cards with you.

If you don’t want two bank accounts, you could bring one ATM card and one credit card.  I personally bring along two ATM cards from two different banks and at least two credit cards.

You never know if one might get locked out for some reason, so better safe than sorry.

6.  Tag your cards before leaving the country

Speaking of getting locked out (like these segues?), always make sure to call your bank and credit card companies before you’re traveling to let them know where you are going.

If you don’t do this, many times the banks will freeze your card when they see a suspicious purchase from overseas.  If this happens, you’ll have to call them up to unfreeze it, and if it’s not normal business hours back home, you may find yourself stranded.

Instead, make the 5 minute phone call before leaving.  It’s not foolproof – I’ve tagged my cards before and still had them get locked out – but if you don’t do it, you’ll almost certainly get locked out of your account pretty shortly after touching down somewhere.

7.  Open up a no foreign transaction fee credit card

Just like you want to have a bank account and debit/ATM card that has no fees, you also want to have a credit card with no foreign transaction fee.

This allows you to use it abroad and not pay anything extra.

Be careful, because many of the best credit cards WILL have a foreign transaction fee of 3%.

The best ones with no foreign transaction fees are the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Barclays Arrival for personal use and the Chase Ink Plus for businesses.

If you’re looking to find the best credit card for your specific situation, fill out our free credit card consultation form and we’ll give you our personal recommendations.

8.  Pay with a credit card whenever possible

Once you get a credit card with no foreign transaction fee, pay with that whenever possible while traveling.

In some countries, credit cards are not widely accepted, but in countries where they are, I always use it as my first option.

The reasons are threefold:

  1. It’s hassle-free.  You don’t need to worry about taking money out, carrying cash, or getting stuck with a bunch of small change.
  2. You rack up rewards points and frequent flyer miles.  If you use a credit card at home for this stuff, then you why not do it abroad as well!
  3. It’s easy to track your spending.  If you want to see how much you spent in a specific place or on the entire trip as a whole, it’s all right there on your statement.

9.  When you pay with a credit card, ALWAYS pay in the local currency

Some places will give you the option of paying in the local currency or your home currency.

For example, in Spain, we were often asked if we’d like to pay in Euros (the local currency) or US dollars.

ALWAYS choose to pay in the local currency.

If you pay in your home currency, the restaurant/bar/store will add on an extra charge, usually up to 5%.  This is called “dynamic currency conversion”, and you DON’T want this.

If you have a credit card or debit card with no foreign transaction fee then there is never a reason to pay in your home currency.

10.  Take money out of ATM’s that are tied to banks

No matter what country you are in, it’s always safer to take money out of an ATM that is tied to a specific bank.

If it’s a bank that you recognize or have in your home country, even better.

While most ATM’s around the world are fairly safe, use common sense.

Ones that are found in city centers that are tied to large banks will generally be much less likely to steal your information than the one on dark street corner next to a pub or some random convenience store.

11.  If you’re traveling with someone else, split up your cash and cards

In most relationships, one person is more forgetful than the other (points finger at self), which is why it’s always good reason to split up your cash and cards.

On top of that, you never know when you’ll get split up while traveling for one reason or another, and you don’t want to be left stranded with no cash or way to get some.

12.  Keep your wallet and purse in safe areas

I’m not one to be overly cautious – no money belts for me – but getting pickpocketed or having your purse snatched is a very real possibility in many places.

For this reason, we always make sure to take small and simple precautions that can have a big impact.

For guys, I always suggest putting your wallet in your front pocket instead of the back and keep your hand on it when you’re in subways, trains, or big crowds.  

If you want to take it one step further, Bluffs makes incredible travel pants that have a zipper pocket in the front for extra protection (use the discount code epop for 10% off).

For females, Heather suggests wearing a cross body bag, like this or this, and wearing the actual purse part in the front in crowded areas.

Bonus tip:  Heather also turns her wedding ring upside down so that the diamond is facing down while on trains so it looks less conspicious.

13.  Always be aware of the currency rates while traveling

You certainly don’t have to be as huge a nerd as I am about it (in fact, for your sake, I hope you’re not!) but being aware of the currency exchange rates can really help you save some big money when traveling.

Most people won’t plan their trip around this, but if you are flexible, you can score some really great deals.  For example, just two years ago, Japan was very expensive to travel to because the yen was strong, at about 80 yen for each dollar.

In the past two years, that has flipped dramatically, and now you’ll get 124 yen for every dollar.

Two years ago, a sevenday Japan Rail Pass would have cost $363.  Now, it costs $234.

The easiest way to track and convert currency quickly is the Converter App – which also helps when changing things to metric – or the XE Currency app.

14.  Be prepared when paying a bribe

Depending on where you travel to, there may be times you’ll have to pay a “fee to a certain official”.

While this may sound either incredibly romantic or incredibly terrifying, depending on your personality, the truth is, it’s usually not either and is actually fairly common.

But being prepared can be the difference between getting completely ripped off and having it be no big deal.

A perfect example of this is in Indonesia.

Technically, in order to ride a motorscooter in Indonesia, you need a license.

But do you think the thousands of Aussie bros and Eat, Pray, Lovers who flock to Bali for the week get their licenses?

Of course not!

This means that the police will regularly pull people over so they can make a little extra side cash.

If you have no idea what’s happening, pull out your wallet, and flash a lot of cash, they’ll realize that and demand you pay them a lot (relatively) – upwards of 300,000 rupiah ($22).

But if you drive around with a 50,000 rupiah note ($4) in your pocket, you can easily just hand that over and be on your way.

So don’t flash a lot of cash, carry some small bills in your pocket so you don’t have to take out your wallet or purse, and you’re fine.

Final Word(s)

Many people worry about money when traveling, but really, it doesn’t have to be that difficult.  Here’s the cliffnotes version:

  • Open a bank account that doesn’t charge you any fees to use abroad (Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking is the best).
  • Carry that bank account’s ATM card with you and use it to get money out.
  • Only use ATM’s that are tied to banks.
  • Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
  • Use your credit card whenever possible.
  • Bring at least two types of ways to get money out.
  • Tag your cards before leaving the country.
  • Don’t carry a lot of cash on you.
  • Don’t exchange money at your bank at home or at money changers.
  • Be smart and safe with your wallet and purse.

Follow these simple rules, and you’ll not only save yourself a lot of money in foreign transaction fees, but you’ll also feel much less stressed about your situation when traveling.

What are some of your best tips for using money when traveling?  Do you have specific things that you do?  Let us know in the comments below!


  1. Sudarto says:

    Carrying cash money when traveling is a hassle. Moreover, to travel for a few days.

    I always carry cash dollars when traveling to another country. Of course only the amount that I think is pretty. If you bring too much money, we would bother to save it.

    We worried to be taken by others.
    Now, there is also equipped with a T-shirt in irregularities money. It is completely safe.

    But, we must keeping the money we save on the shirt pocket is not broken. But, it is very safe.

    Of course, a practical way to carry money while traveling abroad that you described is very safe. It is a modern way of using technology of money security.

  2. LarryInNYC says:

    While your wedding was, no doubt, an auspicious event I think it’s possible that the word you’re looking for in this post is conspicuous. ;-)

    1. Trav says:

      @LarryinNYC- Yessir, you are 100% right. Conspicious was the word I was looking for, and yes, our wedding was an “auspicious” event. Thanks for clearing it up!

  3. SHIRLEY says:

    2nd choice for ATM: Fidelity – Works like Charles Schwab but charges a 1% conversion fee

    1. Trav says:

      @SHIRLEY- Thanks for the tip. Any other benefits for Fidelity that might make it better than the Charles Schwab?

  4. Matt says:

    Really nice article Trav! Very much appreciated.

    1. Trav says:

      @Matt- Thanks!

  5. mll3k says:

    An exception to #2 would be in Argentina. Exchanging $100 notes can get you a much better exchange rate than the ATM.

    1. Trav says:

      @mll3k- I’ve heard that in Argentina, the “blue market” is much better. Actually exchanging cash while you are down there gets you better exchange rate. I’d still be wary of bringing a lot of cash down though…always the chance you might lose it!

  6. Alice says:

    I have another tip! In certain countries (in Latin America for example), you should always ask whether there is an extra fee to use credit cards. Fees to use cards can be up to 6%, and not every company/restaurant/hotel is up front about this.

    1. Trav says:

      @Alice- Good point, for sure. You should always ask if there is an extra fee, and if there is, weigh how much it is vs. your other options. I’ve never been to Latin America, but I’ll keep this in mind. Thanks!

  7. Dana Smith says:

    Great tips! I’d like to add that some small hotels in Europe offer 5% to 10% discount if you pay by cash, so you might want to weigh that against the frequent flyer miles from your credit card. Also, it’s not a bad idea to contact your banks even if you are traveling within the US. Citibank froze our credit card when we traveled to Arizona from our home in Texas.

    1. Trav says:

      @Dana Smith- Completely agree. There is a restaurant near us in Philly that gives you 5% off if you pay with cash, which we always do then. So definitely worth taking in to consideration and asking.

  8. Really, really fantastic article and money tips. There are so many frauds if you’re in a foreign country and especially if you don’t speak the local language.

    1. Trav says:

      @Izy Berry- Yep, gotta be cognizant of your surroundings, for sure.

  9. Rico says:

    Etrade Bank has a 1% currency conversion fee and no ATM fee.

    Also, AllPoint has no fee ATMs in Mexico, Great Britain, Canada and Australia. I’m not sure what the conversion fee is. RedBird is an AllPoint ATM card.

    1. Trav says:

      @Rico- Interesting, very interesting. I still love the Charles Schwab though…no conversion fee and reimburse your ATM!

  10. Matthewsf says:

    Question re. making sure hotel charged are displayed/payed for in the local currency: for places like Mexico and costa rica, you generally make your reservation in us dollars. When you check out, you can pay in the local currency but the conversion is usually based on their rate, not the official one. I always used to ask for my bill to be displayed in the local rate, but as I now have a chase ink card with no FTF, wouldn’t it be better to get the bill in dollars-matching the actual amount of the reservation I made-instead of having them do a conversion there? It seems you get the short end if you pay in the local currency. Plus, with a card with no FTF, dollars would be ok. Thoughts?

    1. Trav says:

      @Matthewsf- Yes, you are right. If the reservation was made in dollars, then I’d pay in dollars instead of the local currency. But if you are out at a restaurant or some place like that, always pay in local currency so you don’t get dinged.

  11. Jordan says:

    Great tips here. It’s important to understand what getting currency in a foreign country means, and figuring out what the right cash to card ratio is good for you. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. Trav says:

      @Jordan- No problem, my pleasure!

  12. Brock says:

    Really loving tip#4. Sounds crazy to pay too much money to simply withdraw our own money.
    Thanks for the list. Good stuff!

    1. Trav says:

      @Brock- I am LOVING my Charles Schwab ATM card. Now, I don’t have to worry about going to ATM in other countries, which means I can take out whatever amount I want vs. trying to figure out exactly how much I’ll need in a country, taking that out, and hoping I have none left over. It’s awesome!

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