Shout out to all my fellow cheapskate travelers: you savvy penny-pinchers have taught me so much about budget travel. In all the focus on saving money, though, the logistics of spending money during a trip sometimes get sidelined. Every traveler, even a cheapskate—make that especially a cheapskate—should have a money plan. You’ll need a combination of cash and debit/credit cards. (In case you were wondering, traveler’s checks went out with rotary phones—-don’t even consider them.) A few hours of pre-trip planning to sort out your cash, debit and credit card situation will save you a lot of hassle on the road.
Your plan will vary depending on your destination, but will include the following:
- I like to bring a small amount of local currency (the equivalent of $100 or less) with me from home. I prefer to get the money from my bank a month or so ahead of time. You could also go to a currency exchange, such as Travelex, though they have particularly crappy exchange rates. Whichever you choose, request that your currency order be fulfilled with small bills.
- Some countries have closed currencies, meaning you can’t get their currency in advance (and shouldn’t take it back home with you). If you’re traveling to one of these countries, bring about $150 or so in US dollars and/or euros.
- The best way to get local currency at your destination is to use an ATM machine. Look for a British flag on the ATM screen and press that for English. Might as well take out a lot of cash, since you’ll be paying a withdrawal fee. Stuff your dough into your money belt ASAP in a secure location and then go on about your travel business.
- Breaking large bills is a hassle so when you make an ATM withdrawal, ask for an odd amount (€270 instead of €300). This way you’ll be getting at least a few smaller bills.
Credit and Debit Cards:
- Did you know your credit card has a pin number, just like your ATM card? Yup, you’re going to want to know that number since you may be asked for it abroad. You should sort that out at least a month in advance, since your bank will mail you the pin number and that could take a while.
- A week before you leave for your trip, call the 800 number on the back of each credit and debit card you’ll be using. Let them know the dates and countries where you’ll be travelling. Don’t forget to include the layover country, since even on a short layover you might want to use your cards, or as what happened with us on a layover in London, you’ll have to stay the night due to a delayed flight. (Seriously, try to avoid layovers in Heathrow—it’s a hot mess of an airport and the whole city shuts down for like, 1/2 inch of snow).
- Write down your card’s contact information, including the “outside the USA” collect number, and put it in a safe place in your luggage. If you’re travelling with a companion, keep a copy of each other’s information, in case your cards are lost or stolen. You may also want to scan the cards and email the scanned document to yourself.
- Figure out whether your card has a “chip and pin” or “chip and signature” security function. Not only are Europeans are far ahead of Americans in having superior public transportation and commonly available bidets, they also have a superior security feature on their cards: the chip. Fortunately, American banks are finally getting with the program and issuing chip cards. Though many businesses will accept and non-chip card, you’ll need a chip card for things like buying train tickets from a machine in France, and, though I don’t drive, I hear it’s also a necessity for gas stations and toll booths.
My preference is to pay with credit card while traveling, but my traveling style mostly brings me to places that only accept cash, such as B&Bs, homestays, farmers markets, etc. Do some research in advance of your travels to get a sense of whether your destination is more of a cash or credit card economy and use that information, along with your travel style, to come up with a plan for how much cash you’re going to need.
Since travelling is an important part of my life, I have a special credit card with no foreign transaction fees. I earn frequent flyer miles from each purchase and it comes with great fraud and travel protection benefits. There are quite a few websites that exist purely to fetishize travel credit cards and frequent flyer miles, so I recommend consulting them as your personal tolerance for such matters allow.
Finally, you’ll want to have a way to quickly calculate exchange rates. Yeah, I know it’s the 21st century and you can calculate rates on your phone, but I’ve got to say that in most situations that looks pretty obnoxious. A better solution is to find a currency exchange calculator online and print out a mini conversion chart, laminate that sucker with packing tape and keep it in your pocket for whenever you need to make a discreet calculation. You’re not getting accuracy to the last penny, but like a good budget traveler you’re not spending much to begin with, are you?
What’s your best plan for spending money while traveling?