For most miles and points enthusiasts, cash is one of those things that has no impact on our daily lives. In fact, we'll deliberately go out of our way to avoid using it. There have been times when I've taken $20 out of the ATM, and will find that same $20 bill in my wallet a month later.
However, when traveling abroad, especially in countries that aren't as developed, cash is a necessary evil for a couple reasons:
- In general, credit cards simply aren't accepted in as many places as back home, and you're more likely to find yourself in situations where you are dealing with small vendors or even individuals. I mean, do you really expect the guy renting surfboards by the hour at a remote beach to accept plastic?
- Credit card fraud is a huge problem, just ask Target and Home Depot. And you're even more vulnerable while traveling abroad. While chip and pin/signature credit cards certainly help to prevent fraud, to me it all boils down to risk. The more times you swipe, the greater likelihood that something bad will happen. Even if you have no problem swiping your card for a $2 coffee at home, is it worth the risk do to so aboard?
Do your homework
The first step? Be prepared. Seems simple enough, but here are a few tips to help you get ready for your upcoming international trip:
- Make sure you know the foreign currency conversion rates for all countries that you'll be visiting. Don't rely on the rates you'll find at airports or currency exchanges
- Figure out the prevalence of ATM's in countries you'll be visiting. It was no surprise that Dubai has ATM's everywhere. Heck, you can even get gold at some of them. Based on my research, I also found that the Seychelles had ATM's on all of the islands we would be visiting
- Do some rough calculations on the amount of cash you know will be needed, based on method of payments that will be accepted for tour operators, transportation, and food/lodging vendors you plan to use
- Based on the bullets above and taking into account the duration of your trip, create a rough outline of how much you'll need at various points in time
- Lastly, there may be specific rules that you need to know about in certain destinations. For example, as part of my research for our trip to Myanmar, I read reports that only pristine, crisp dollar bills would be accepted for exchange. I went to my local bank, requested brand new bills, and transported them to Myanmar with the same amount of care that someone would give to a newborn child. Even then, one of my bills which had the smallest of small wrinkles was not accepted. But I would have been in big trouble if I didn't know and had crumbled them all into my wallet.
Have a no-fee ATM card
I have found that the best way to get cash is through the ATM - it's a no-hassle way that ensures a competitive exchange rate. However, ATM fees are charged both by your bank as well as that ATM's bank, and can be as high as $10 for a single transaction.
This is where having a no-fee ATM card is a must when traveling aboard. For us, we use a Fidelity ATM card which reimburses us for all ATM fees. Similar cards are typically offered by other financial instantiations like Charles Schwab as well as credit unions.
Bring an emergency fund
Even if you've done all of your homework and brought your no-fee ATM card along, things can still go wrong. We were having a great time on Praslin Island in the Seychelles, and stopped by the ATM to refill on cash.
"ERROR: We are unable to contact your bank"
Uh oh. I tried our card at another ATM, same error message.
We were in a pinch and needed cash to get back to the airport, but luckily I had brought about $300 in US dollars that I was holding for situations like this. I stopped by a nearby no-commission exchange shop to get some local currency and we were on our way.
If I didn't have the emergency fund and really needed money, often times hotels will let you take a small amount of cash that can be charged to the hotel room, or as a last resort could have used my credit card for a cash advance.
Keep records and check all transactions
Even though I don't get a receipt at home when using ATM's, when traveling abroad I keep receipts for all credit card and ATM transactions. I'll throw them away only after returning home and verifying that the transactions were posted correctly.
And those two failed transactions that I mentioned above? Something seemed fishy to me, and I made sure to check those transactions online the next day. Both of them actually went through, and the money was debited from my Fidelity checking account. As soon as I noticed, I called Fidelity and was extremely pleased with their customer service response. Fidelity immediately reversed those transactions, and opened an investigation into the matter. But if I hadn't been vigilant about checking, I very well could have been out of luck.
Everyone has a different cash strategy when traveling aboard. This is mine - what's yours?