It’s what helps us to travel, what keeps us from traveling, and it’s something we don’t talk about enough when it comes to travel: money.
In helping a good friend plan an upcoming trip through Central America, I realized there’s a ton of stress surrounding money and travel. Here are just a few questions she threw my way:
“Currency, ugh! How much do I get? How do I exchange it? What if I get too much? Banks? Ahhhhhh”
Everyone has a different strategy for what works best for them. But here’s what works best for me:
How to Get Money Out While You’re Traveling
When I first started traveling, this confused me. I used to think I had to bring hundreds of dollars in USD to exchange, or get traveler’s checks to be able to use money, until I realized getting money out while traveling isn’t that different from what you do at home: use the ATMs.
In almost all major cities and airports, you’ll be able to withdraw money from an ATM as you would at home. You might be charged a fee for this (my bank, Wells Fargo, charges $5 per withdrawal) but I’d rather lose the $5 than have hundreds or thousands in cash on me.
For Shorter Trips
I’ll typically take out the max amount I can–usually the equivalent of $300 USD. I’ll split that amount up among my things. For shorter trips, I spend it all, and if I can’t, then I exchange it before I leave the country. Knowing I’m going to spend it all also helps me set a budget.
For Longer Trips
I’ll do the same—take out the max each time. I try to anticipate if the towns I’m heading to next will have ATMs or how much cash I’ll have to use. Sometimes that means I’ll have to withdraw twice to have extra money on me for things I’ll need cash for. In that case, I refer to this article for great tips on where to hide money.
How to Stretch Your Money While Traveling
There are things you’ll need cash for, and things you won’t. Whenever possible, I’ll put things on my credit card, which frees up my cash for situations that are cash-only.
I usually pre-book my accommodation using Booking.com (my absolute favorite), and I’ve also pre-paid for buses by booking them online using my cards in advance.
And, in times of absolute emergency, I’ve eaten meals at a hotel that accepts my card. These are usually slightly more upscale places. Rough, I know!
Things You Need Cash For
In general, there are things you will be more likely to put on credit cards (hotels, flights) and things you will need cash for. Those things look like:
- Cabs/ Buses/ Transportation
- Restaurants (generally)
- Deposits for Rooms/ Towels/ Rental Equipment
- Tattoos (if that’s your thing)
If I think I’ll be pressed for cash the next week, I’ll try to put as much as I can on my cards when I can use them.
As for banks? I tend to avoid them. The lines can be crazy long in certain parts of the world, and I generally don’t really need to visit them when there’s an ATM outside.
Which leads me to my next topic:
Using ATMs Safely
Taking out cash can feel risky, but it’s usually safe. Take precautions like you would at home: cover your pin, keep an eye out for who’s around you and who’s watching you—and be sure to get your card back before you leave the ATM (coming from someone who has lost their card in an ATM abroad more than once).
If an ATM seems like it’s in a sketchy location, has a large green swiper, or in general gives me bad vibes, I avoid them. This article has good info about what a credit card skimmer looks like.
If you do find yourself with money you’re hoping to exchange, you’ll have to decide: do you want to do it quickly and pay more for the convenience, or do you have time to wait until you find a good rate?
We all know that airports and hotels have notoriously the worst rates—but in times of need, I’ve exchanged money in both.
I’ll sometimes get a little bit of money at an airport that will help me cover my cab and a meal, before I can go out in the city and find a cadeca or currency exchange office.
Know that while you should never exchange money with a guy you meet on the street who tells you he can give you a “good rate,” currency exchange houses will often give you better rates than banks will. You can identify them by the neon currency lights in their windows. Many of them will need to see your passport before issuing cash.
Traveler’s checks are a thing of the past, but in cases of absolute emergency (i.e., you lose all of your cards in an ATM), Western Union is still in most of the world so your friends or family will be able to send you money.
At the end of the day, my advice when it comes to money is to not sweat it too much. You’ve planned your trip, you’ve budgeted for it—don’t be afraid to spend it.
Be cautious, not paranoid, and have fun.
What are your main concerns when it comes to money and traveling?