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Cash, Charge or ATM: How to Handle Money When on an Overseas Vacation

Yeah, I’m an old guy and I miss Traveler’s Checks. They were accepted almost anywhere (just like the commercials said,) and safe, handy, and easy to carry. I’m sure a lot of you have no idea what I’m talking about so we’ll move on to Cash, Charge or ATMs.

Cash is King
Cash is accepted everywhere and sometimes preferred. Especially in tourist towns, the U.S Dollar is king. If you’re shopping in a market in Mexico and are hoping to wheel and deal on that silver bracelet the wife just has to have, you’ll get a better deal with the U.S.Dollar. Sometimes though, it’s not only more polite to use the local currency but way more fun too. On a trip to Costa Rica a while back the Costa Rican colon was almost $1000 to $1 American, (It’s currently about $548 to $1.) At the time, I told The Wife I wanted to withdraw a grand from the ATM just so I could say I had a million bucks in my hand. Luckily, common sense (Hers) prevailed and I settled for converting just a couple hundred dollars’ worth.

Card Game
If you’re in Europe your credit cards pretty much work the same as in the states, though not every card is accepted everywhere. Some places aren’t into Discover, others accept Visa but not American Express; you get the idea. If you have at least three of the majors (Visa, MasterCard, Amex) you’re probably covered. Most cards charge a fee for converting to foreign currencies, so you will be paying more for that beer stein in Switzerland than you thought. Credit card fraud is another consideration. Things can get pretty screwy when you don’t even speak the language; but math is math and if you can add and convert exchange rates, you’ll sometimes do better with cash.

You can find an ATM at pretty much any bank in the world, and if your network is worldwide, chances are you’ll be able to use your card. It really is best to withdraw enough to last a while, because not only will you pay transaction fees and exchange fees (they are converting your savings account to local currency) on most cards, but some ATM spots are very dangerous. Thieves do hang out around these machines, not just overseas but here at home as well, so avoid late-night withdrawals or out-of-the-way machines.

Conversion Roulette
Whether you are converting U.S cash to local currencies or using your credit card, the current exchange rate comes into play. Your credit card company will do the conversions for you on your bill, but you will usually pay quite a fee for the service. The best rate for cash you will find is usually at your hometown bank. Big banks either have an exchange desk or can have the money you want brought to your branch with a little notice. I prefer to have some local cash before I even arrive at my destination so I can cover taxis, bellhops, and bartenders—not necessarily in that order. Most hotels will exchange your U.S Dollar to local currency, but the exchange rate will be terrible. Once there, try to find a bank at your destination to get the current exchange rate.

Be Safe
No matter which way you go you have to protect what you have. Credit card fraud is more rampant in some countries than others, so only use your card when in a seemingly respectable establishment. When walking around, use a money-belt, not just for cash but for your cards and passport as well. Pickpockets abound, especially in tourist spots and on public transportation. Pacsafe travel bags are the best way to deter thieves; tamper-proof zippers and slash proof straps to help protect your valuables while on the move. Use the hotel safe in your room when available for everything of value when you leave your room and only use ATMs when others are around and you feel safe using it. The other option I would suggest is, let’s all wish Traveler Checks would make a return.


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