Money Travel Tips: Banking, Saving, and Scams

by wheretheroadforks

One of the biggest hassles of travel is dealing with money. First, you must make sure that you can always access your money. This means dealing with banks, credit card companies, and ATMs. Next, you have to deal with money related inconveniences such as tipping, currency conversions, budgeting, and negotiating prices. Most importantly, you must keep your money secure by avoiding various scams and crimes. This guide outlines the most important money travel tips to help you save, stay safe, and avoid hassles. 

Table of Contents- Money Travel Tips

Part 1: Banking Related Money Travel Tips

Inform your Bank and Credit Card Company of Your Travel Plans

Before you leave for your trip, put in a travel notice with the banks and credit card companies that issue your credit and debit cards. All they need to know is the countries that you plan to visit and the rough dates that you’re traveling to each.

You put in a travel notice by simply calling the number on the back of your card and explaining that you plan to use the card abroad. Some banks allow you to put in travel notices online.

The reason that you need to do this is to avoid having your card shut off while you’re abroad. These companies use automated fraud detection systems that shut your card off when an unexpected transaction occurs. A charge or withdraw in a foreign country is a big red flag.

Don’t worry if you don’t know exact dates or even all of the countries that you plan to visit. You can always call your bank from wherever in the world you are to update the travel notice. The most important thing is that your bank knows that you will be using your card in a particular country before you arrive. You don’t want to find yourself in a foreign country without the ability to withdraw any local currency.

Consider Bank Fees

Before you set off on your trip, check what fees you’ll be paying to your bank and credit card company in order to use their card abroad. Some companies charge a steep foreign transaction fee of around 3%. This means you’ll be paying a currency conversion fee every time you withdraw money.

To avoid this fee, look for a credit card that is advertised as a travel card. These usually don’t charge a conversion fee. Many offer other travel-related benefits as well. As for your debit card, shop around at various banks for the card with the lowest fee. Some credit unions offer no-fee checking accounts. You may be able to save some money by opening a new account.

For some card recommendations, check out my guide: The Best Debit and Credit Card for International Travel.

Consider ATM Fees

Many ATMs charge a withdrawal fee for each transaction. The fee is a flat rate and is set by whoever owns the ATM. It usually ranges between $2-$5 per transaction. I’ve seen fees as high as $12. Before using an ATM, be sure to check how much it’s going to cost you to take out cash. As you can imagine, you can easily rack up $30 per month in ATM fees alone. This is pretty ridiculous in my opinion.

ATM

Ways you can reduce ATM fees include:

  • Look for another ATM- You may be able to save a couple of bucks by walking a couple of blocks to another bank.
  • Reduce the number of transactions that you make- For example, instead of withdrawing money every day, withdraw a big chunk to last you several days. Because the fee is a flat rate no matter how much you withdraw, you’ll save money by visiting the ATM fewer times during your trip.
  • Use bank-owned ATMs instead of privately owned ATMs- The fees are usually lower. They’re usually safer to use as well because banks almost always have cameras or security guards around.
  • Search for a card that refunds you the ATM fees- These are rare but they do exist. For example, I use a debit card from Charles Schwab Bank for all of my travels. At the end of each month, they reimburse me for all ATM fees no matter which ATM I use.
  • Convert cash instead- Occasionally, it’s cheaper to go to a currency exchange. Do the math first. I always carry some dollars for these situations.

Pay with a Credit Card Whenever You Can

These days, credit cards are accepted almost everywhere. With a good travel card, you’re not paying any additional fees to use it abroad. Benefits of paying with a credit card over cash include:

  • Credit cards offer protection that debit cards and cash don’t- If you get overcharged or are unhappy with a product or service that you bought, you may be able to do a chargeback and get your money back. The credit card company offers you some level of security for your money. If you pay with cash or a debit card, you must deal with the vendor instead. The bank can’t protect you.
  • Credit cards offer benefits- You earn points which you can redeem for travel or cash. I paid for all of my airfare on my Africa trip with credit card points. That was around $1200 in airfare that I got for free. Some card also include travel insurance, discounts, or access to airport lounges.
  • If your card is lost or stolen, you can shut it off so nobody can use it- If someone steals your cash, your money’s gone. Of course, you can shut off debit cards as well.

Credit Cards

Carry Backup Credit and Debit Cards

If one card gets lost, stolen, or eaten by an ATM, it’s a good idea to always have a backup just in case. That way, you don’t have to wait until your bank ships a new one out to continue your trip.

For added protection, always carry your cards separately. Keep one set of debit and credit cards in your money belt and one set in your luggage, for example. While you’re staying at a hostel or hotel, leave one set locked up and carry one set. This way, you’re less likely to lose all of your cards if you get robbed.

When I travel, I carry 2 credit cards and 2 debit cards from different banks. That way, I will hopefully always have a backup in case something happens to some of my cards.

Carry at Least One Visa Credit or Debit Card

Visa seems to be accepted at the most ATMs and shops around the world. Anyone who accepts cards accepts Visa. MasterCard, American Express, and Discover are all hit or miss. 

Never Withdraw Cash From an ATM Using your Credit Card

Cash advance fees on credit cards are sky-high. Even when you pay the balance off every month, you’ll still eat fees if you withdraw cash. When you need cash, always use your debit card.

Don’t Bother with Traveler’s Checks

Traveler’s checks are outdated. They are expensive, time-consuming to get, and very few places accept them these days. Instead, use your debit card at an ATM to withdraw local currency.

ATMs are common enough that you can withdraw money almost anywhere in the world. There are two cases when you may not be able to rely on ATMs

  1. Rural or developing regions- If you’re out in the middle of nowhere or traveling in a small town in a developing country, ATMs may simply not be available. These places are becoming increasingly rare. ATMs are everywhere. I was shocked to find a working ATM in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia.
  2. Counties that don’t permit foreign withdraws from ATMs- Ther are a few countries that highly regulate banking and don’t allow foreigners to use the ATMs. For example, Cuba, Sudan, and a handful of other countries are like this.

In both of these cases, the best thing you can do is to stock up on cash before you arrive. You can always convert Dollars, Euros, or British Pounds into the local currency. Make sure you carry enough money to last you the duration of your stay.

Part 2: Travel Tips to Save Money During Your Trip

Don’t Overtip and Don’t Tip Unnecessarily

In my opinion, tipping culture is getting out of hand. It seems like everyone has their hand out these days. Even when they’re getting paid a full wage for the job that they’re doing. I won’t get too into this because it’s pretty controversial but what I will say is do your research so you know when it’s appropriate to tip and when it’s not necessary. In many countries tipping is not part of the culture. In these places, you’re just wasting money if you give a tip.

Also, know how much you should tip. In most countries where tipping is normal, 5%-10% is more than generous. The US is an outline. Here, 20% is standard for good service in a restaurant. You don’t want to be giving away money for no reason. Do a bit of research on the tipping culture before you arrive in a new country. When in doubt, don’t tip.

When travelers tip unnecessarily or tip too generously, workers grow to expect it. Over time, this lowers the quality of service for future customers who don’t tip or tip minimally. Tip creep also causes travel costs to rise over time. For example, 20 years ago, a 15% tip was standard for a meal in the US. The standard tip has crept up to 20-25% now.

I’ve noticed in some countries, people ask me for a tip just because I’m American even though tipping is not customary in their country. I find this pretty infuriating.

Know Your Exchange Rates

Before arriving in a new country, check the exchange rate between the local currency and your home currency. After all, you need to know how much you’re paying for everything in order to stay on budget.

To help make this easier, I recommend you install a currency conversion app on your phone so you can check exactly how much things cost when you make a purchase. Doing conversions in your head on the fly is challenging and unreliable. Sometimes when you’re in a rush, you can make a mistake and end up overpaying or getting ripped off.

currency symbols

Always Use the Local Currency

You always get the best deal by paying with the local currency. Occasionally, you’ll see signs in shops that indicate that they accept dollars, euros, or pounds in countries that don’t use those currencies. These are common in touristy areas.

The problem with paying in a foreign currency is the fact that you always get a poor exchange rate. Sometimes you end up overpaying by as much as 20% if you do the math. This makes sense because the shop owner has to pay a fee to convert the currency if he wants to spend the money in his country. Of course, this cost is passed onto the customer. Most shop owners add a bit extra on for additional profit. Basically, you’re paying a premium for the convenience of using your home currency.

While living in Tijuana, Mexico, I noticed that most shops accept dollars. In fact, when a tourist comes in, that’s the default currency. When you ask what something costs, they always quote the price in dollars. I always asked the price in pesos. If found that it always worked out better to pay in pesos. Travelers are losing 3-5% of their buying power by paying in the wrong currency.

Know Your Prices

Before arriving in a new country, it’s a good idea to do a bit of research on pricing. By knowing what stuff costs, you can greatly reduce the likelihood of being overcharged or scammed. When someone quotes you a rate that is way out of line, you can recognize it and negotiate or shop around a bit. Items you may wish to research the price of before you travel include:

  • Hotel rooms and hostel dorms
  • Restaurant meals
  • Tickets for museums and tourist attractions
  • Bus and train tickets for routes that you plant to take

Plan Out Your Cash Withdraws

You don’t want to end up with a big stack of foreign currency when you get home or cross into the next country on your itinerary. You’ll just end up losing money when you exchange it. Some currencies, you can’t even exchange in your home country. After all, who wants to buy Malawian Kwacha outside of Malawi?

Instead, try to calculate exactly how much you’ll need so you run out of cash on your last day in the country. Basically, plan out your last cash withdraw. To help you plan how much you’ll need to withdraw, check out my guide: How to Create an Accurate Budget for Long Term Travel.

Always Carry Some Cash

Even though credit and debit cards are accepted almost everywhere these days, it’s a good idea to always carry some cash. Maybe your cards were stolen or lost. Maybe your bank’s fraud detection mistakenly shut off your card. Whatever the case, you need to have a backup plan in case you find yourself in a situation where you can’t access your money.

Cash money

When carrying cash:

  • Choose a currency that can be easily exchanged in your destination country- I recommend US Dollars. They are accepted pretty much everywhere around the world. In some destinations, Euros or British Pounds may be preferred.
  • Carry enough cash to support yourself for at least a week- This gives you enough time to sort out whatever the problem was. I generally carry around $300. In some destinations I carry $500.
  • Carry large denomination bills- These are easiest to exchange. 20s, 50s, and 100s are best. Smaller bills sometimes aren’t accepted or cost more to exchange. This depends on the country.
  • Carry new bills in good condition- Some currency exchanges don’t accept old bills or bills with creases or tears.
  • Divide it up- Don’t carry all of your cash in one place. Put some in your money belt and some in your backpack. That way, if one gets stolen, you still have some cash.

Negotiate Prices

For whatever reason, many travelers hate bargaining. Myself included. For some, it’s anxiety-inducing. For others, it’s just annoying and tedious. However you feel about it, you have to bargain if you don’t want to be overcharged.

In much of the world, bargaining is expected. If you don’t negotiate almost every purchase, you’ll end up overpaying. Sellers often start with a price that is 50-200% higher than they are willing to sell the item for. Many jack the price up for foreigners so they can make an even bigger profit.

Things you can bargain include:

  • Hotel and hostel rooms- You’ll have the best luck negotiating prices in small or family-owned properties. Particularly if you’re staying multiple nights.
  • Taxi rides- Drivers always try to overcharge tourists. Negotiate hard with these guys.
  • Tours- Most tour or travel agencies will negotiate the price. Particularly to sell last-minute spots.
  • Street food- Usually the price is set. If you’re buying a lot, you may be able to strike a deal.
  • Street markets- Prices are almost always negotiable.
  • Souvenirs- Prices are usually negotiable. Particularly if you’re buying something from the person who made it, like a piece of art.
  • Big-ticket items- You can usually bargain over anything that’s expensive. Even in the developed world.
  • Used items- If you’re buying something second hand, the price is often negotiable.

Of course, you can’t bargain for everything. If you’re at a supermarket or large shop, chances are, you can’t negotiate the price. The same is true of restaurants. Most of the time, the price is set.

Bargaining is also not acceptable everywhere. It’s more of a developing world thing. In much of the developed world, prices are set. Of course, there are exceptions.

For help negotiating while traveling, check out this great guide from Thrifty Nomads.

Don’t Bother Buying Foreign Currency Before your Trip

Some travelers feel the need to go to their bank and order some foreign currency so they have cash when they arrive at their destination. This is unnecessary and a waste of money. You’ll end up paying exchange fees and probably won’t get a very good exchange rate.

You’ll save money by waiting until you arrive to get foreign currency. The reason is that you get the best exchange rate when using the ATM. Hopefully, you aren’t paying any exchange fees if you chose the right card.

Almost every international airport has multiple ATMs available. If an ATM isn’t available, there is always a currency exchange booth which you can use as a last resort.

Avoid Using Currency Exchange Booths

These places operate by charging you a commission on each exchange. You usually end up paying 5-10% each time you make an exchange. This is a waste of money.

Instead, use your debit card to withdraw money from an ATM. This way, you get the best exchange rate. You also avoid fees if you chose the right debit card. Of course, currency exchanges are always available to use as a backup.

Keep Track of Your Budget and Check your Bank Balance Often While Traveling

Unfortunately, most of us have a limited budget to work with. Before you leave for your trip, it’s a good idea to sit down and put together a travel budget. You need to know roughly how much money you plan to spend on accommodation, transportation, food and drinks, activities, and other miscellaneous expenses associated with your trip.

To help you with the process, check out my guide: How to Create an Accurate Travel Budget.

During your trip, it’s important to check your bank balance periodically to make sure that you’re sticking to your budget. If you find that you’re spending too much, you need to find a way to adjust your budget or cut back. If you’re under budget, that’s great.

How often you need to check your budget is up to you. If you’re good with money, you could probably check weekly or monthly. If you’re not so good with money, you’ll probably want to check daily or every other day.

A benefit of checking your account balance often is the fact that you can find errors. Maybe a restaurant overcharged you for your meal. If you catch it, you can call the restaurant and have the error corrected. You can also call your bank and request a chargeback.

Watch your Alcohol Budget Carefully

This is one place where you can easily go over budget. On a night out, you can easily spend $100 on drinks and food without even noticing. The next day, you check your balance and see that you’ve blown through your budget for the next few days. If you do this often enough, it can cut your trip short. I’ve seen travelers go home early because they spent too much on booze. 

Check your Cell Phone Plan Before you Leave

Some carriers charge predatory roaming rates for any cellular services used outside of your country. Before using your phone abroad, make sure you know how much you’ll be charged for data, calls, and texts. If the rates are too high, consider leaving your sim card at home so you don’t accidentally rack up a large bill.

To save money, consider buying a sim card and prepaid phone plan from a local provider when you arrive in your destination. This way, you can have a local phone number and use mobile data while you’re traveling. This comes in handy often. It’s surprisingly affordable as well. A basic plan costs just a few dollars a month in many countries.

Before you can use a local sim card, you need to make sure that your phone is sim unlocked. If it’s not, you’ll have to unlock it before you leave or buy an unlocked phone.

Alternatively, you can just use Wifi for all of your communication needs. You can call and text for free with apps like WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook, etc. as long as you’re connected to Wifi. This is a bit less convenient but works just fine for most travelers.

Part 3: Money Travel Tips to Avoid Crime and Scams

Research Common Scams in Your Destination

Unfortunately, scammers often target travelers. They target us because they know we have money, we’re often confused, and we won’t be in the area for long. Some scams are vicious and can end up costing hundreds of dollars. Some are simple and just annoying. Luckily, travel scams are pretty similar all over the world. They just vary slightly by region. Once you get to know the most common scams, you can pretty easily recognize them and avoid them.

To help lower the likelihood of losing money to a scammer during your trip, check out my guide: 19 Common Travel Scams and How to Avoid Them. Here, I outline every major travel scam, explain in detail how it works, and list various ways you can avoid it.

Of course, even if you take every precaution, sometimes a particularly sneaky criminal can pull one over on you and separate you from your money. I’m embarrassed to say that it’s happened to me on a few occasions even though I’m pretty careful with my money. For an example, read about my afternoon with an Ethiopian scammer.

Consider Network Security When using Wifi

While traveling, you find yourself connecting to dozens of different wifi networks. You’ll connect at hotels, airports, train stations, restaurants, cafes, hostels, and friends homes. By logging into all of these new networks with unknown levels of security, you increase your risk of falling victim to an online crime like identity theft.

Avoid checking your bank balance while connected public Wifi networks.

If just one network that you connected to happened to be compromised, a criminal could log your keystrokes and suddenly have access to your bank account or other login information. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to lower your chances of falling victim to an internet crime. You can:

  • Avoid logging into online banking while you’re connected to a questionable network.
  • Consider doing your banking over the phone instead of online while traveling.
  • Use a VPN to increase security.
  • Change your important passwords often.

Of course, the likelihood of falling victim to this type of crime is pretty low. With the strength of wifi security these days, the criminal would have to be pretty sophisticated to pull anything off. There’s no need to be paranoid. Just be careful.

Be Cautious of Pickpockets

Pickpocketing is a common crime all over the world. It happens in the developed and developing world. It happens in rural and urban areas. For whatever reason, pickpocketing is a particularly common crime in much of Europe.

These sneaky criminals will steal cash, valuables, or whatever they can get their hands on. Unfortunately, pickpockets often prey on tourists. The best way to protect yourself from falling victim to a pickpocket is to properly secure your belongings. To do this:

  • Don’t use your back pockets- These are the easiest for pickpockets to reach into. Instead, use your side pockets. They are slightly harder for pickpockets to access because they are tighter and your arms cover them.
  • Wear clothing with secure pockets- Choose pants with pockets that button or zip shut. This isn’t foolproof but it makes the pickpocket’s job harder.
  • Use a money belt- These are almost impossible for pickpockets to access.
  • Secure your backpack or bag- Keep it zipped up. Wear it on the front of your body while walking through a crowd.
  • Keep your camera strapped to your body- Cameras are one of the biggest targets for pickpockets.
  • Stay alert- Pickpockets often use distraction to commit their crimes. Try to always pay attention to what’s going on around you.

In my travels, I’ve been pickpocketed twice. Once on a minibus in Tanzania and once while walking home from a bar in Tijuana late at night. On both occasions, the pickpocket took my phone out of my pocket without me feeling a thing. Miraculously, I was able to get my phone back on both occasions.

For more tips, check out my guide: How to Avoid Pickpockets While Traveling

Pay Attention to the Change you Receive when Making a Purchase

When making a purchase, always assume that you’ll be shortchanged. As travelers, we’re prime targets for this scam because we’re not used to using the local currency. We’re also often in a hurry. You can get shortchanged anywhere you spend cash including restaurants, hotels, ticket counters, banks, etc.

The only thing you can do to prevent yourself from being shortchanged is to count your change every time you make a purchase, no matter where you are. Some vendors just play a numbers game with this scam. They shortchange everybody. Maybe 75% notice and ask for their correct change. The remaining 25% don’t notice and lose money. This is theft. Over the course of a day, a vendor could steal hundreds of dollars this way.

Unfortunately, many dishonest salespeople don’t consider this crime to be a big deal. I’ve even had people smile at me when I told them they shortchanged me. They think it’s funny to rip off tourists.

Use a Money Belt

A money belt is basically a hidden pocket that you strap around your waist to secure your belongings. The pocket hangs between your pants and underwear. Use your money belt to hide valuables such as your passport, cash, cards, phone, jewelry, etc. from criminals.

Money belts are incredibly difficult for pickpockets to access due to the fact that they hang in your pants near your crotch. Muggers won’t expect you to be wearing one and usually won’t search for it. Money belts greatly reduce the risk of losing money to thieves.

I like the Eagle Creek Silk Undercover money belt. I’ve been using the same one for the past 8 years and am really happy with it. For more info, read my full review of the money belt here.

Tip: Pair your money belt with a decoy wallet stocked with a few dollars and an expired credit card or two. This way, you have something to hand to the muggers if you get robbed. Chances are, they’ll take it, assume it’s all you have, and leave you alone. Otherwise, they may hassle you more.

Have Travel Insurance

While traveling, there are so many things that can go wrong and cost you money. You could get robbed. Your flight could get canceled. You could even have an unexpected medical issue pop up. If you’re uninsured, any of these situations could cost you thousands of dollars. A good travel insurance policy protects you from major unexpected expenses. It also brings peace of mind.

I like World Nomads travel insurance. I have bought insurance from them for almost all of my international trips and have had good experience with their service. For more info, check out my travel insurance page.

Final Thoughts- Money Travel Tips

Dealing with money while traveling is a hassle. You must keep it secure, avoid scams, as well as deal with banking and budget-related issues. It is a lot to think about. The best thing you can do is to stay aware and prepare yourself for every scenario. Hopefully, this guide helps you save some money and have a smoother and less stressful trip.

Do you have any money travel tips that you’ve picked up in your travels? Share your experience in the comments below!

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