7 Money Tips for Traveling Abroad

Congratulations on the trip of a lifetime.

Your scaling the Alps, temple-hopping in Japan, high-fiving the Easter Island statues (except not). How amazing.

I’m jealous.

Obviously, though, if you’re reading this, you recognize that paying for things internationally can be a bit tricky. Do you need local currency, and if you get it, where should you exchange? How many vendors are likely to accept your credit card? How much cash do you need on hand?

Read these seven tips on handling your money abroad, so you can simply focus on enjoying yourself instead of how not to drain your bank account to its bone-dry basin.

1) Inform Your Bank

You’ll see this advice in any article like this one.

It’s common practice for banks to decline cards used abroad, or the freeze the account altogether, to prevent identity theft. To avoid this, inform your bank about the dates you’ll be out of the country so there won’t be any surprises on either end.

You definitely don’t want your card to get rejected as you go to sleep somewhere.

2) Exchange Currency—But Be Careful About Where

You’ll definitely want some cash on hand for your trip (see below), but where you decide to exchange currency actually is a pretty big deal.

Some experts say not to exchange at U.S. airports because of the way-too-high exchange rates. Others say not to exchange in airports period. According to MoneyUnder30.com, exchange fees could conceivably be up to an outrageous 27 percent.

Working with local banks can be a challenge, depending on where you are. Language barriers are tricky to navigate, of course. But if you are able to do so, banks will often exchange for very low rates, or sometimes none.

Bank-associated ATMs are also an option for exchanging. Watch out for other person-to-person sources, as you could be handed counterfeit bills—and you may be unknowingly breaking the law.

3) Have Enough Cash on Hand for One Full Day

All kinds of bad situations can pop up with your money in a different country.

Sure, you might say, but isn’t that true at home as well?

It is, but you have plenty of resources and avenues to deal with those situations in your home country. Elsewhere in the world, if your wallet gets stolen or your card gets frozen, even accidentally, by your bank, you need to make it through.

It’s a good idea to have enough cash (in local currency) with you for at least a full day, enough time to pay for a place to stay and a little food to eat as you contact your bank’s international number or whatever authorities need to be involved. You may want to keep this cash back at your hotel or in some other safe place that’s not your wallet or purse, in case those are stolen.

On that note, think about keeping cash and cards somewhere other than in your pockets. There are travel wallet-type holders that you can wear around your neck that work well for international travel.

Just maybe avoid the fanny packs…

4) Get Billed in Foreign Currency

This one comes from Business Insider, quoting Ed Perkins from SmarterTravel.com.

“Never let the merchant bill you in dollars,” warns Perkins. “What happens is they’ll decide on whatever exchange rate they want, and they’ll often use a bad one.”

Some card issuers will waive the currency conversion fee if you’re charged in dollars, but you could very well lose out because of the baked-in fees from the merchant.

A story on Travelocity.com illustrates this overall point perfectly:

“On my recent trip to Budapest, I heard a woman ask if she could pay for her purchases in US dollars. The clerk was more than happy to take her dollars — and quoted her a price of $45 for two bottles of water, two glasses of lemonade and a sandwich. She obviously declined and paid for her purchase in Forints, which came to the equivalent of about $5.

5) Spend the Cash You Take Out

Whatever cash you do end up taking out, be sure to spend it all.

What this does not mean: Withdraw all the money you own and spend every penny, because “they told me I had to spend it all.”

What it does mean: Take out as much money as you need (and maybe a little extra in case of emergencies), then spend it before you leave the country. The reason is, you’ll pay a high price in conversion fees as you return the currency to dollars. So why bother?

6) Keep a Bill for a Souvenir

This one comes from personal experience, and you’re welcome in advance.

It’s fun to keep a bill or coin of foreign currency as a souvenir, right? How cool would it be to build up a collection for all the many places you’ll go, and maybe even make some cool art display with them to hang on your wall?

The answer is yes, that sounds pretty nice. But here’s the kicker . . . if you’re not doing some art project, you really only need to keep one foreign bill to remember and show off.

I made the mistake of traveling to Cambodia and coming back with a dozen bills in riel that now overstuff my wallet and distract me from the dollars hiding around them. And all in all, their value is probably less than a U.S. dollar.

Sure, yes, fine, I could take them out of my wallet. I know that, OK? I just keep forgetting about it.

Until I go to pay for something…

7) Have a Basic Understanding of the Exchange Rate

Familiarize yourself with the exchange rate for whatever currency you take out. You don’t need to be perfect, but you should have some context for how much you’re paying at meals, hotels, and so on—obviously.

The key here is the word about. One dollar equals about 4,000 riel, about 1,000 Korean won, and so on. You just want to be able to estimate, enough to know a ballpark for what’s reasonable.


If you never did any research, you wouldn’t know how much money to exchange for in a new country, and what to do with any excess at the end of the trip. But you did do research, and now you know. Hooray!

Now, as for how to make more money to bring on future similar trips . . . well, that’s a topic for another day, now, isn’t it?

By: Ryan Drawdy
September 25, 2017

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion or suggestions of CenterState Bank.