Money Travel Tips You Need to Know – ATMs, Credit Cards, Foreign Currency, Security and More

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Whether you are traveling domestically or internationally, having access to your money is critical. The last thing you want is to be stranded in someplace where your cards are not working and you don’t have cash available. This can be super stressful, but especially if you are traveling overseas.  So when you are planning your trip, doing a little extra preparation can minimize your worry.  Follow these money travel tips to help you rest assured you are prepared so that a money or credit card snafu doesn’t ruin your vacation!

1. Always Carry Multiple Payment Methods

I can’t stress this enough. One of the best (and easiest) ways you can be prepared is to always carry multiple forms of payment when you are traveling. At minimum I recommend:

  • Some cash (local currency if you are in another country)
  • Debit / ATM card (1 at minimum, but preferably 2 different banks just in case of an issue)
  • Credit Cards (at least 2 different cards are ideal, we actually bring about 5)

The key here is that in case there is a problem with one bank or card, you still have a backup.  You never really know when there might be some kind of an issue and a card won’t work. Sometimes it’s a system error, sometimes it’s a bank error.

carry multiple credit cards and forms of payment when you travel is a good money travel tip

Of course, if you live in Washington and are traveling to California then it might not be as much of an issue. But especially if you are traveling overseas there can be some problems. One time we were in China and had real trouble using our cards. We were trying different banks and different cards — thankful we had about 5 backups…otherwise we might have been stuck!

How Can I Use My Credit Card When I Travel?

Credit cards are widely accepted around the US, and even around the world in major urban areas. But keep in mind that there are some types of cards that are less widely accepted. For example, perhaps Discover Card is not accepted while Visa will be. Or maybe they won’t take American Express but they take Mastercard. 

That’s why it’s always a good idea to have a few different methods and card types, just to be sure you are covered wherever you are.  You also want to be sure you put a travel notification on your account, which we’ll talk about next.

READ MORE: How We Got a $3000 Vacation for $1000 Using Credit Card Travel Rewards Points

Beware of International Transaction Fees

One thing to keep in mind is that some banks will charge you international transaction fees for using your card overseas in another country! As frustrating as it is, sometimes it’s unavoidable if you don’t have another card to use.

However, you might consider applying for a new credit card before your trip that does not have any foreign transaction fees. Chase Sapphire, AMEX, and Capital One are all good options.  If you are unsure, call the credit card company to check on their fees abroad.  It is silly to pay a foreign transaction fee if you don’t have to. For example, we have multiple Chase credit cards and none of them charge us international transaction fees. 

Be Prepared for “Cash Only” in Rural Areas (And Have Small Bills)

Even though so places around the world take credit or debit cards,  smaller establishments (especially in rural locations) will only accept local currency.  And please don’t be those foreign tourists who ask if they can pay their bill with US Dollars!  Usually they do not. But if they do, beware…because you are probably getting ripped off with a terrible conversion rate.

Be prepared and always have a bit of local currency on you (which we’ll talk about further below).

It’s also a good idea to break larger bills and keep small bills on hand for things like shopping at local markets, paying for transportation, etc.   Some merchants don’t always have change (or at least they won’t admit that they have change). Having small bills will help you avoid paying more than you should. 

Do People Still Use Travelers Checks?

I’ll keep this short, nope! Seriously, do not fuss with travelers checks at all. It’s the 21st century…no one uses these anymore. They are way more hassle than they are worth. Even if you have them it can be extremely difficult to find somewhere to cash them – especially in another country.

2. Put a Travel Notification on Your Account Before Traveling (Debit & Credit Cards)

Many people don’t realize that one of the easiest things you can do before you leave on a trip is to notify your bank that you will be traveling. You simply need to request a “travel notification” be put on your account. This prevents them from possibly flagging charges as “fraud” and freezing your account! 

Trust me, it’s super frustrating to have your account frozen while you are traveling and having to deal with it instead of enjoying your vacation!

You should put a travel notification on both your debit / ATM accounts as well as your credit cards. It’s super easy to do, but every bank does it a little differently. Sometimes you can just call their customer service to do it over the phone, other times you can log into their online banking system and do it through your account.

They will typically ask you the dates you will be away and what countries you plan to visit.  They will make a notation on your account, which will reduce the risk of your account being locked due to fraud suspicion while you are gone (sometimes it still gets locked, which is why you should bring multiple payment options with you).  Some credit card companies have self-service sections on their online banking websites that allow you to put “travel notifications” on your account yourself.

 This way the bank will be aware when the charges come through. 

READ MORE: How to Plan a Trip – A Comprehensive Step-by-Step Guide

3. Beware of Using Debit Cards as Credit Cards When Traveling

One of the downsides of using debit cards (even here at home) is that if it is stolen or somehow “hacked” you lose that money out of your account immediately. That can cause serious problems, especially if you use that account to pay bills or get cash from. Even if you realize it pretty quickly, you’ll have to cancel that card with your bank and wait for a new one – which could take a while and leave you without access to cash.

Also, it might be a while before you get that money back. Or possibly…you never get the money back! (yikes!)

Using Credit Cards Can Protect You From Losing Money

Credit cards are a great option when you travel abroad because if it gets into the wrong hands, they can’t liquidate your cash accounts before you know it.  Credit card companies are good about catching fraud, and even if transactions go through, there are ways to get your account credited.  With cash…it’s usually gone forever!!!

This is why we prefer to use credit cards most of the time when we are out and about, whether at home or traveling. It adds a layer of protection because if there is fraudulent activity, we can cancel the card and we don’t actually lose the money.

Hotel “Holds” Are a Nightmare with Debit Cards! Always Use a Credit Card

Okay, so this is something I learned years ago when working right out of college in corporate training. Part of my job was coordinating business travel for training purposes, and I had to deal with the attendees at conferences and hotels. I quickly learned that many of these nicer hotels and resorts require a form of payment to be on file at check-in for things like incidentals (dining and other fees on property, etc.). 

The issue is that some of these hotels will actually put a HOLD on the card, for say $500 until check out. 

hotel check in may require credit card for incidentals

Sometimes this isn’t always disclosed very clearly. And sometimes, people don’t quite understand what this means. Essentially, if you use a credit card for this “hold” then you never really notice the funds being gone. Because it’s just a credit card charge that they reverse when you check out. 

However, if you use a debit card…well then that may cause some problems! Because that “hold” will actually remove those funds from your bank account. And it could be a while until they are returned after you check out. 

This means that if you put your personal debit card down at a hotel for these incidentals, they will take out $500 in your checking account! I can’t tell you how many times I had upset training attendees who were freaking out because they gave the hotel their debit card — and now they didn’t have money in their account to cover bills they paid or didn’t have access to cash they needed.

This is why it’s really important to have at least credit card when you travel. Even if you don’t like to use them personally for budgeting reasons, they can be valuable and help protect you.

READ MORE: Budget Travel Tips – How to Plan a Cheap Vacation You’ll Love!

4. How to Get Cash While Traveling Domestically

If you live here in the States and are just traveling elsewhere in the US, then you shouldn’t have a problem accessing your money as you would when you are at home. You could use your debit card for a purchase and get cash back, or you could just use an ATM machine. However, you should check with your bank to make sure which ATMs you can use so you don’t incur additional fees.  

Beware of ATM Fees (especially credit unions)

Some banks charge fees for using different ATM machine networks. And some local credit unions also charge these fees when you are traveling and have to use ATMs in other places. Be sure to check on this before you leave on your trip so you are prepared. You might even consider getting a different bank account / ATM card that allows you no-fee ATM withdrawals. 

5. How to Buy Foreign Currency Before Traveling Abroad

When you are traveling in another country you need to do a little bit of preparation in advance to be sure you are ready and have the money you need while traveling. While you can always get local currency when you are on the ground in another country, I always believe it is best to get some foreign currency in advance before you travel.

Bringing some international currency with you and having it when you arrive can save you time and headache because sometimes you need it right away and don’t have time to exchange right away. 

Buy Foreign Currency from Your Bank

One of the easiest ways is to buy foreign currency from your local bank. Essentially what you are doing is “buying” currency. You just need to tell them what currency you need and how much you want to buy. Then they will tell you the cost and process the transaction.

foreign currency you can buy from your bank before a trip

For most major currencies, such as the Euro, they will sometimes have the currency on hand and can give it to you that day. But be prepared if you are going to less popular country, because sometimes they don’t have that on hand and need to order it for you. In that case, it can take up to a week to receive the cash – depending on your bank. 

So be prepared for this and be sure you have enough time.

Order Foreign Currency Online in Advance

Another option that is quite convenient is ordering currency online from major banks. I know banks such as Wells Fargo offers this option. They make it easy to order the currency online and pay for it right there. Then they will ship it to you or you can go pick it up at a local branch. 

6. How to Get Foreign Currency When You Are In Another Country

There are a few different ways you can obtain local currency when you are traveling in another country. From exchanging the currency you have, buying more, or pulling it out of an ATM. Below we’ll talk about the different options and pros and cons to each. 

Using An ATM to Get Money When Abroad (The Best Way IMO)

Nearly all countries have ATMs (unless you are really off the beaten path), and this is usually the best way to get cash overseas.  Not only is it the most convenient way to get local currency, but it is often the cheapest!  Before you leave, be sure to verify that your bank will allow you to use an ATM abroad, typically they just need to be a part of a larger network, such as STAR.  If you use a major bank, then it shouldn’t be a problem.  But if you use a small bank or local credit union, then you may run into trouble, so just give them a call to check.

foreign currency withdrawal from an ATM in another country

You will likely pay a fee each time use an ATM abroad (so don’t visit the ATM everyday), but the fee is minimal compared to the fees that currency exchangers will charge you. However, it’s possible to get no international ATM fees with certain bank accounts, such as Charles Schwab. We have a Schwab bank account specifically because there are NO ATM FEES anywhere in the world! 

You will also get the best exchange rate through a bank’s ATM. Just remember that the ATM will dispense in local currency, so keep that in mind when you are calculating how much you need and how much you input. You don’t want to estimate wrong and end up with a ton of money (or deplete your account accidentally)!

** Be sure to use an ATM that is affiliated with a bank abroad, and preferably an ATM machine located at a physical bank office. That way, if there is trouble you can go inside.  Plus, there is less risk of it being criminally tampered with.

International Currency Exchange (also in Airports and Hotels)

Another way to get local currency when you are already in another country is to visit an international currency exchange office. You’ll find these in many popular travel destinations, but especially near major hotels in touristy areas (or even inside the hotel at reception) as well as within the actual airport itself.

foreign currency exchange inside a hotel

These are easy to use, as they often have their exchange rates shown on a large screen. You simply tell them what type of currency you want to exchange and they’ll tell you the conversion rate. This is super easy and super fast! However, keep in mind that these currency exchange places do charge a fee for their services. So keep this in mind. 

This is partially why we prefer to use ATMs to get local currency, because usually it’s a cheaper fee (or no fee with our Schwab account). However, currency exchanges are great if you have a pocket full of foreign currency that you no longer need and you want to physically exchange it for something else. 

7. Keeping Your Money Secure

When it comes to securing your money (cards & cash), It really depends on where you are visiting and the risk. For most places traveling here in the States, just taking practical measures as you would at home is perfectly fine. Such as using zipper pockets and bags / wallets, being mindful of your surroundings and crowds, and not carrying large amounts of cash if you don’t need to.

When it comes to international travel, I use most of these same measures. After traveling to 40+ countries now, I can tell you that much of the world is quite safe just like at home. Taking these common-sense measures are really all you need. However, if you feel uneasy then below are some additional tips that will make you feel at ease.

Security Pouches / Belts / Scarves

One of the most popular methods is to use a type of money belt or pouch that can be worn under your clothes.  Some of them wrap around your waist, attach to the inside of your pants (like a belt loop), or around your neck.  This is a safe way to store some of your emergency cards and cash; although, honestly, I have these and have rarely (if ever) used them. 

Another option is this really cool scarf that I’ve seen around online. It’s great because it’s stylish and functional but it also has a hidden pocket inside where you can stash some extra cash, etc. Personally, I think it’s a really great alternative to the traditional money belt idea. And plus, I love scarves for traveling because you can convert them to use as blankets on the airplane, etc. So many uses!

Spread It Out & Keep It Secure

I do keep 1-2 cards in my wallet so they are easily accessible, as well as some cash for the day.  The rest of the cash is spread it around in different bags because I don’t want to go to the ATM everyday, and I also don’t want to carry large amounts in on me (or in one bag) at any given time.  

My wallet is NOT kept in my pocket, but in an over the shoulder bag that zips closed (Josh uses a shoulder bag that zips as well).  When we are in crowded areas, we are careful to be sure the bag hangs in front of our bodies, with our hand holding over the zipper. That way, people can’t easily get into the bag.

cross-body travel bag that zips is a great way to keep your money and credit cards secure and safe
My current daytime travel bag, pockets galore, a great padded strap, and secure closures & flaps – I LOVE it!

Write Down Your Numbers, in Case of an Emergency

It is also important to write down all of your card numbers and phone numbers, just in case of emergency.  Keep them in a safe place – and I recommend that you keep it cryptic because writing all of your information on a piece of paper, and then losing it, wouldn’t exactly help your security concerns!  If this still worries you, then perhaps you just give this information to a family member to hold on to in case of an emergency.

Money Travel Tips – Being Prepared Doesn’t Mean Being Paranoid

Overall, being cautious with your money is important when you travel; however, don’t worry about it to the point that it ruins your experience.  Luckily, I’ve never experienced much trouble in this area, but I would have been prepared just in case.   Simple common sense goes a long way, so be careful just as you would at home.  

It’s not that other countries more are risky for theft, but rather people seizing an opportunity to target tourists who are NOT paying attention. If you are not an easy target, then you likely won’t be a target.  As long as you have planned ahead, and taken these 5 money travel tips to heart, then you should be able to enjoy your trip and not worry so much about your money while traveling.

Do you have some additional money travel tips to share? Please include in the comments below!

 


 

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