Paper, plastic, and ATM machines: your plan for spending money while traveling

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?





  1. I didn’t know that credit cards have pin numbers! I agree that one should research on whether your destination is more of a cash or credit card economy. It pays to plan.

    Useful stuff. Sharing this on Twitter tomorrow. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing with the Twitterverse ideacribber! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. If your destination is Italy -cash is very definitely king! The smaller denominations the better right down to the 5/10/20c amounts.

    The frown/groans in the coffee shop when you only have €10 or worse €50 is a lasting memory!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Italy, Romania and Bosnia are my top three cash destinations to date. It’s a struggle to get the small bills, that’s for sure!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I use a card called Revolut, you upload from your home bank account in any of 3 currencies (£,$ or Euro) then withdraw at any ATM for free! It offers you bank exchange rates which are better than forex places offer and you operate it all through an app on your phone 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the tip about Revolut, PrincessLotts–I haven’t heard of that one before and it sounds like they have decent exchange rates too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, the lack of a chip can still be a problem for American tourists in France… my brother had to make sure had cash ready any time he got on the (paying) highway. On the other hand, I had trouble paying for gas with my French card in the US and in Canada because all the machines ask for your zip code in order to authorize a purchase. It wasn’t a big problem since I just went inside for a pre-authorization—but fortunately we never cut it close outside of business hours.


    1. We once were stuck at a tiny station in rural France. There was no attendant and the machine only took chip cards. I had to beg a stranger to buy the tickets for us with his credit card and I gave him cash.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Fabulous tips! I didn’t know about closed currencies, and I’m headed to the Bahamas soon, so thank you for that!

    I’m so glad my husband looked into this before we went to Italy last year, or else we really would have been out of luck without a chip and PIN card. (And yes! Even though chip cards are becoming common in the U.S. now, you still have to request a PIN. And it takes foreverrrrr.)

    And our bank waives all ATM fees, so between that and no foreign transactions on the cc, I never pay fees. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Have a lovely trip to the Bahamas Kaitlin. What is the name of your miraculous-sounding bank?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you! Can’t wait! We’re not usually beach people but friends invited us, so off we’ll go! And we have USAA. I’m not sure where you’re based, but it’s for US military and their families. I got in by marriage, and I never plan to leave!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I had a couple of secret pockets in my clothes for stashing the cash and kept a spare card there as well. It was fantastic as I only had to withdraw money every other week or so. Each day i took out my cash allocation for the day for my purse. The only downside was setting off the metal detectors in Catania airport and after removing my shoes and belt and still setting it off I was taken aside for a long and thorough and pretty public search. When they found my card and cash declared loudly across the queue that it was ‘la carta di credito’, …not one person in that airport didn’t know about my secret pocket! Mortifying.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! I am also of the “secret pocket” school and I never know what to do with my stash when going though security. I definitely won’t try to get away with smuggling a secret credit card at Catania airport.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Turns out my bank is paranoid about security and declines transactions which do not fit normal patterns. Soyou have to call them and tell them when you’re visiting another country. Very safe, but I forgot to do this once. As it happened, I’d bought a cheap sim while travelling, so they wouldn’t even accept my authorization, because it came from a strange phone! Not just the credit card but also my ATM card was blocked. So now I travel with a backup card.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A bit annoying, this business of calling the bank, but ultimately a good thing in case your card was actually stolen. Smart idea bringing a back up card.

      On my last trip we were going to Croatia so I called my bank and they said “Oh no, we can’t pre-authorize for Croatia!” And I was like, “Why not?” and the guy at the bank said “Because it’s Croatia–very dangerous” which is totally weird because it’s not dangerous at all and a gazillion cruise boats go there. I asked what other countries they couldn’t authorize and listed North Korea, Syria, and South Sudan. It took a long visit to the bank to sort that weird situation out.


  8. My (Canadian) bank no longer requires that you let them know if you are traveling. I think some scary program recognizes your spending habits and flags stuff that does not fit. Five minutes after buying an Apple laptop in San Francisco a couple of years ago I got a call on my cell phone; “yes, thank you, that was me.” This year they called me at home to question a gym membership in Chicago(!); “definitely not me. ” So they cancelled my card immediately.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh hey–I live in Chicago. Thanks for the gym membership. 😉

      I don’t even want to know what my bank thinks of my spending habits; “There she goes again, buying overnight train tickets in the Republic of Georgia” and “Another $16 lipstick?”.


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