7 ways to mind your cash when you are abroad

This post originally ran as a guest post on plonkee money. Not only the author of a great personal finance site, plonkee’s also got a great second blog over here. I’m about 90% in agreement with her… 🙂

Creative Commons License photo credit: bogers

American Express – don’t leave home without it! That may be one of the most famous phrases in advertising history, but it tapped into a deep fear for most travelers: the fear of being stranded in the distant unknown parts of the world without ready access to their money. What are some simple methods to safeguard access to your money when traveling?

1. If you are traveling to very remote areas, make sure you have plenty of cash, not just credit cards. The parts of the world that don’t accept credit cards or debit cards are dwindling, but there are still places. Keep plenty of cash, but keep it spread amongst your wallet, your luggage and even a bit hidden somewhere else. I used to prefer to keep some spare money hidden in my toiletry bag on the theory that nobody is going to check there.

2. Carry dollars (or euros). Despite the fact that the dollar is terribly weak right now, it is still the most accepted currency in the world. Carry $100 bills; these are far easier to exchange, ironically enough, overseas than in the US. If you are coming from another country (you’re a European traveler, etc.) I would still recommend carrying US dollars. Don’t count on your drachmas or forints being accepted everywhere.

3. Keep a list of your credit card numbers and customer service – and give a copy to someone at home. There is nothing like having your wallet stolen overseas. However, you want to be able to quickly cancel them if you do lose them or have them stolen, and the easiest way is to have a separate “panic card” ready. Give one to a friend at home in case your panic card is stolen, too.

4. Debit cards are convenient, but pricey – and see point #1, too. When I started traveling in the early 90s, debit cards were almost worthless when traveling. As time has passed, though, they have become far more useful. Be careful when changing money, though – you may pay a fee to your bank and the local bank. In addition, you may get hit with an exceptionally unfriendly exchange rate.

5. Go gray, but be careful. I can’t emphasize enough that you should stay in compliance with the laws of the countries you visit, which often prohibit individual currency exchanges. Depending on the country you visit, though, you may find significantly better exchange rates dealing with individuals than with banks or exchanges. In developing countries with high inflation rates local people will often be willing to give you better rates simply to protect their earnings by converting them to dollars. I would not recommend exchanging with locals, however, unless laws (and safety) permit.

6. Get rid of change. Spend your change as fast as you get it, and small bills, too. These are often difficult – if not impossible – to exchange on your return. Try to spend all of your local currency before you leave the country. Exchanging your money to local money and then back to your money is a terrible waste. Try to spend down to 0 before you leave; put your last few expenses on a credit card.

7. The most important money tip when traveling, of course, is to keep it and yourself safe. Never flash large sums, never discuss how much you have, keep it well hidden and ensure you know how you could get ‘emergency money’ if you needed it (for example, where ATMs are that accept your bank’s ATM network).

Fun (and safe) travels!