Tip #3: Handling Money Overseas

What is the best way to get foreign currency without paying exorbitant conversion or international transaction fees?
1. Check with your credit card company, bank or credit union to find out a) what (if any) transaction fees are levied on international purchases & withdraws; b) the exchange rate for a particular foreign currency (i.e. GBP aka British Pounds); & c) if they have (or are affiliated with) any banks in the country you are going to visit. I have found that American Express (at least my Rewards card) does not charge a transaction fee. However, it’s hit or miss if Amex is accepted overseas. Most merchants prefer Visa and MasterCard.

2. Check the exchange rate via an independent online tool (i.e. XE Universal Currency Converter). This can give you an idea if your bank or credit union is giving you a good rate. Right now, with the economic turmoil in Greece (and Italy as well as a few other European countries), the Euro is losing some of its value which is making it weaker against the U.S. dollar. That means more euros for your buck.

3. Debit Cards/Check Cards = I always withdraw cash from the ATM once I get to my foreign destination. The exchange rate is usually pretty good. Be sure to research banks in the country you are visiting to check out their exchange rates beforehand. While exchange rates change daily, usually you can spot trends to identify banks that offer the best rates on a consistent basis. Quick tip — ATMs at the major train stations in the UK do not charge fees for non-bank users so this is a great place to withdraw cash.  Be sure to call and let your bank know you will be using your card overseas. 

4. Credit Cards = A few years ago Europe (including the UK) introduced a “Chip + Pin” card. These are credit cards that are embedded with a “smart chip” and require a 4 digit pin to authorize transactions. Think of it as a debit card.
    a. Using U.S. credit cards abroad: It used to be that you could use your U.S. credit card for foreign purchases with no problem. But this past year, I have found that the acceptance of cards without a “smart chip” is becoming less common. However, most hotels & major restaurants and store chains still accept U.S. credit cards. I usually ask the merchant before purchasing a product or service if they accept cards without a chip. Be sure to verify methods of payment with small B&Bs as I’ve found they prefer cash.
    b. Dollars vs. Foreign Currency: If you pay for an item with an American credit card, be sure to verify that the merchant charges you in the local currency. DO NOT allow them to charge you in U.S. dollars. Hotels will usually ask if you would prefer to be charged in U.S. currency. ALWAYS DECLINE. The exchange rate is terrible & you will end up paying up to 6% more than if you kept the charge in the local currency. Your card company will convert the charge on your statement. Which leads me to…

5. Travelex Cash Passport = I found out about this while at JFK airport on my way to Prague in April. It’s a “pay as you go” Chip + Pin card. You can load up the card either online or at the Travelex kiosk at the airport. It’s safe & easy to use. This allows you to pay for items via a credit card without transaction fees. When the card runs out of money, simply go online and add more funds. You can either buy the card online (for a $9.99 fee) or at a Travelex location (which are in most airports but you can verify on their website).  If you purchase the cash passport online, you can have it shipped or pick it up at a Travelex location.  I prefer to buy my card at the airport which allows me to avoid the $9.99 fee.  The exchange rate is very competitive.