Travel Tuesday: 4 Ways to Obtain and Use Foreign Currency
At the time that I write this, international travel is still a no-go for us Americans. Despite this, I haven’t stopped thinking about my (hopeful) upcoming travels nor halted my reflections back on my past adventures. Among the aspects I’ve been considering lately is how my M.O. while traveling has evolved over the years — namely when it comes to spending money overseas. What’s more, thanks to a recent discovery, it seems my strategy for obtaining and utilizing foreign currencies could be adjusting once again. Because of this, for this installment of Travel Tuesday, I thought I’d highlight four different international currency options you can mix-and-match to meet your needs and save you money.
4 Ways to Save Money When Using Foreign Currencies
Use a credit card
Truth be told, in most cases, the easiest way to spend money abroad is to simply use a credit card — specifically, one that doesn’t charge you a foreign transaction fee. With this method, you can essentially pay for purchases the same way you would if you were at home and have the currency converted in real-time using the current rates. Plus, barring a few issuer-specific restrictions, you’ll likely earn credit card rewards for your overseas purchase as well.
By the way, if you do have a card that waives foreign transaction fees, make sure you always elect to pay in the local currency. While some retailers and restaurants may allow you to pay in U.S. dollars, typically the exchange rates on this option are marked up. Thus, while it may not seem obvious, forgoing the dollar option is actually the right move.
Obviously the downside to this plan is that credit cards may not be accepted for everything you need to buy. For example, train tickets, night markets, or purchases at small cafes may be cash-only. Additionally, if you only have one credit card, you do run the risk of hitting trouble should issues arise with that card (you did remember to tell the bank you were traveling, right?). Meanwhile, if you don’t have a foreign transaction-free card, this plan may be a losing proposition due to the up to 3% extra you’ll pay for each purchase. Because of this, if you’re unable to get a new and better card before your travels, you may want to consider one of the other strategies on this list.
Order cash ahead of time
Once I booked my first ever solo international trip (to Tokyo, Japan), among the very next things I did was obtain some Japanese Yen. This was mostly done out of excitement — as the upcoming trip felt even more real as I held the currency in my hands — but was also predicated on my fear that I would need cash immediately upon landing in the country. That may have been at least partially true at the time but hasn’t really been the case for subsequent trips to other places I’ve traveled. Nevertheless, if you wanted to obtain some foreign currency before boarding your flight, I certainly wouldn’t blame you.
To be clear, when I say “before boarding your flight,” I mean well ahead of boarding your flight. That’s because foreign currency exchanges at airports tend to have among the least favorable rates, meaning that you won’t truly get your money’s worth. Similarly, some popular exchanges may also charge you a flat exchange fee on top of their less-than-stellar rates. Therefore, if possible, I recommend looking for a small, local exchange and comparing their rates before visiting. If you live in an area where these types of stores are far less common, then you might want to check your bank’s website to see if you can order foreign currency through them. Even in this case, however, it does pay to compare rates as I found that one of my banks offered a better deal than the other.
Another thing to keep in mind with this option (and the next, for that matter) is that you likely don’t want to over-order on currency. After all, unless you plan on heading back to the country soon, you probably don’t want to have your money tied up in foreign cash. I say this as some people are apparently currently attempting to sell some of their leftover currency for above market value on eBay… but I can’t really see that being a viable option.
Hit up the ATM upon arrival
As I mentioned, while I used to be a stickler about obtaining foreign currency ahead of my travels, I’ve since moved past that rule. Still, I do enjoy having some foreign cash on me while visiting other countries — and even bringing a little back just for fun. To accommodate this, I now typically hold off on ordering currency and, instead, look for an accessible ATM once I arrive. In Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Paris, this strategy has worked swimmingly as I was able to find ATMs before I even departed the airport terminal.
In terms of advantages, the first is that ATMs typically provide you the same real-time exchange rates that using a credit card would, likely saving you money compared to using an exchange service. Speaking of such services, while they may offer you a discount for exchanging larger amounts of cash or have a minimum that you can buy, ATMs allow you to take out only what you need. This, in turn, could help prevent you from ending up with a lot of excess cash when returning home.
Meanwhile, the downsides will depend on your bank account. In some cases, your bank may charge you a flat fee or a percentage of your withdrawal for using foreign ATMs. On top of that, the ATM operator might impose a fee of their own. It should also be noted that not every ATM you encounter will even accept American accounts. Instead, you may want to do some research and/or try a few machines to find one that will work with your debit card.
For the record, I actually get around the ATM charge issue more often than not thanks to my SoFi Money card, which offers ATM reimbursement for any machine in the world. Sadly, that perk is no longer being offered for new customers but is retained for existing ones like me. At the very least, you can still find accounts that don’t charge you a foreign ATM fee, leaving you to only worry about the machine owner’s fee. That said, I’ve actually come across several free ATMs on my travels, so you may just get lucky.
Hold foreign currencies in your account
Finally, we come to an option that’s really only recently has been brought to my attention — which is what helped inspire this post. As it turns out, you may be able to convert your U.S. dollars to foreign currency digitally and then hold those international funds in your account. Then, when you do travel, you can spend them using a debit card. Specifically, I’m referring to using the Britain-based neobank Revolut.
With Revolut, you can exchange your dollars for more than two dozen different foreign currencies. What’s cool about this is that you can then hold those currencies for spending (or continue to keep them in your account as a means of Forex trading). That way, you may be able to buy Euros, Yen, Pounds, or whatever else when the exchange rate is favorable instead of waiting until you arrive. Of course, it’s not always easy to time such things out, but it’s a pretty fun idea nonetheless. Also, it seems that, in the event that your foreign funds aren’t doing so well when it comes time for your trip, you can elect to pay with dollars via your debit card instead and convert on the spot like you would with a credit card.
Personally, I’ve only started using Revolut but have already bought some currencies for places I hope to visit as soon as that becomes a thing again. Even with the small amounts I’ve exchanged, I find it fascinating to watch my USD balance fluctuate as the value of these international funds gain strength or weaken against the dollar. Yet, as far as a strategy goes for buying and spending foreign currency goes, I’m not sure what makes the most sense. But, if you do, then this may be yet another option for your travels.
Ultimately, while some may seem more attractive than others, each of these options has its own pros and cons. Moreover, what may make the most sense from a purely financial perspective may include risks that some travelers simply aren’t willing to take. That’s why I believe that the top strategy likely involves a combination of two or more of these individual options — although the absolute best method is the one that allows you to be comfortable and in control when traveling. So what’s your go-to foreign currency plan?
Also published on Medium.