I have been really lucky and had the opportunity to travel quite a few places, at times for weeks and months on end. Alas, adult life has curtailed my global roaming.
Traveling has some unique challenges when it comes to money. No, I don’t just mean being able to afford a trip in the first place, though I could write at length on that subject! (You should read more about what we have to say on traveling.)
I mean that how we store, access and spend money while on the road has more dimensions and challenges than when we are at home and doing our weekly grocery run. Let’s talk our way through some money tips for travelers, shall we? Depending on the length and destination of your trip, you will need to apply more or less of these points. A weekend in NYC or Toronto won’t require the same level of planning as a boat trip around Easter Island with some jungle trekking in Patagonia.
Read the Fine Print
Ugh. The fine print. The part that you normally ignore, or skim over. There are a lot of things hidden in that fine print. Things you need to know before you go! This might be the best of the money tips for travelers, right in here. Be sure that you can answer all of the following questions:
- How much will my debit card charge me to withdraw from a foreign ATM?
- Do foreign ATM withdrawals count against my monthly transaction limit?
- Are there any partnership agreements between my bank and other banks, that save me money?
- What exchange rate percentage does my credit card charge? (It’s usually embedded, in addition to what’s shown on your statement.)
- How are new cards issued, if I am not in the country? (In-person pick up is NOT a good option if you’re in a plaza in Spain.)
- Can I set up power of attorney on my accounts for a limited amount of time?
- What can a power of attorney do for me? (ie: Can they request a replacement card and mail it to you?)
- How much money can I withdraw from my debit card in one day/week?
- How much money can I withdraw from my credit card in one day/week?
- Is my credit card configured for cash-advances?
- What is the cash-advance charge on my credit card? (Sometimes this can be a viable option for getting cash from an ATM.)
- Which networks do my debit and credit cards work on?
If you’re like me, you have a good working relationship with your banker and you would just copy and paste these questions into an email, and send it to your banker. Maybe don’t tell them that I recommended it, they might not care for all of the extra work, but hey, that’s what they’re there for!
If you do not like the answers that you’re finding, go shopping! There are some credit cards and bank accounts designed specifically to cater to travelers. It is now-defunct, but for awhile I had a debit card with no foreign ATM fees, from a place called Citizen’s Bank. That was amazing. I simply transferred money from my main account, online, and then withdrew funds as I needed them.
Add in Some Safeties
You might need a money belt* (Amazon affiliate link), for example, depending on your destination. They are for keeping money stashed under your clothes and come in a lot of different styles, including actual belts.
Don’t keep all of your cash in your main account. I haven’t heard of it in awhile, but there were a string of muggings in Mexico where people were forced to withdraw from their accounts until they were empty.
If there isn’t money to withdraw, it can’t be taken out. This is another reason to know what your maximum withdrawal per day looks like, and to consider ensuring cash-advances are not available on your credit cards.
Have a Backup Plan
So something went horribly wrong.
What is your plan?
Not some sort of wishy-washy thing, but the answer to “OH MY GOSH MY CARDS AND BAGS ARE GONE AND I HAVE NO CASH WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?”
First up, you’ve read the fine print, so you know what you need to do in order to replace your cards while overseas.
Next, have someone in line, with a plan, that can get money transferred to you internationally. Parents are usually good choices for this. Pick a vendor, like Baydonhill, set up an account, understand how to send and receive the funds, and work out your message in advance. You want to make sure that you get a good peer fx rate, if your fx (exchange) rate is bad, this backup plan is going to be extra expensive!
Set an amount, and come up with a contact plan. It might be a collect phone call (if so, know how to make an outgoing international call from the country you will be visiting!) Or perhaps it is a pre-scripted email. I highly, highly recommend pre-scripting the email, and both parties knowing what it says. I have received “please help, send money” emails from friends, from the country they are visiting, when their email accounts have been hacked. They can look surprisingly legitimate.
As part of your backup plan, you may want to give someone power of attorney, on your behalf. Again, parents are often good choices. Sometimes, you’ll want to extend power of attorney to all of your financial affairs, other times your bank will have an option that doesn’t require a notary and just covers your main accounts.
Have Copies, Up in the Clouds
Take all of your important documents, like plane tickets, travel insurance coverage, passports, health cards, driver’s licences and credit cards, and scan and photocopy them. Make sure it’s in colour so it’s easy to read. Hide two separate copies in your luggage, and save a scanned copy to the cloud.
I like to email myself a set and put another set in Dropbox. Don’t call them something super-obvious, in case your email account is hacked after using a hotel or internet cafe computer.
Tell the World
Send a scanned copy of your documents to someone that you trust, like your power of attorney.
Attempt to phone your credit card issuers. Sometimes, they can be a pain in the butt. Other times, they put a note across all of your accounts, everywhere! Here’s hoping that they are like the latter. You do not want all of your cards to be turned off for suspicious activity while you are on a five day safari that ends on a bank holiday at home!
Read Up on the Destination’s Banking
Fun fact: Most ATMs in Argentina have a maximum withdrawal amount of 300 pesos. When I was there, that was in the neighbourhood of $100 USD. (Today it’s about $35USD. Ouch!) This was the motivation for me finding a debit card with no foreign withdrawal fees! Additionally, credit cards are not widely accepted in Argentina, especially in corner stores and tiny restaurants, where I was going to be eating.
In many countries, credit cards are not widely accepted, or if they are, they require a passport to use. Know this in advance. Oh yes. Americans: Discover and Amex are not terribly useful outside of the US. You *might* be able to get by in Canada, but you’re hooped in Europe and Australasia. Visa and MasterCard are your friends. Additionally, the perception of credit cards can vary widely, depending upon where you are.
Not all countries use the Interac or Cirrus payment systems. Flip over your debit card and take a look at the symbols on the back. You want as many as possible to be present. Read up on which ones are used in your destination country.
A few google searches will sort this information out for you in no time. I also love the money section in Lonely Planet Books.*
Have a Plan for Management While You’re Traveling
You need to make sure that your credit card bill and your heating bill and whatever else get paid while you are away! Set up automation, pre-pay, figure out how to log in and make yourself a calendar note… just make sure you have a plan in place!
* Denotes an affiliate link.
What are your Too Important To Ignore Money Tips for Travelers?