In this post I’m going to cover things you might not even consider about spending your money in another country. From cash to credit cards to using travel money cards to using apps. I’ve had to do it all so hopefully you’ll avoid the mistakes I’ve made and things will run smooth for you.
Cold hard cash
The bread and butter of travelling
When you’re travelling cash is by far the easiest payment method to use for the day to day things, and depending which country you’re in, it can be used for larger purchases as well. Wherever you are everyone accepts cash, so you’re guaranteed a purchase, a night in a hostel, a train ticket, cab fare, whatever you need at that point: if you have cash you’re set.
Well this is obvious right, so what about the pitfalls of cash?
It can get stolen
Again this is obvious but worth mentioning. Keep an eye on your cash. Don’t leave your wallet in your back pocket when you’re wandering around a busy touristy market. The greater the tourist spot, the greater the chance of something bad happening like your money getting stolen. It’s common sense really but please be careful, thieves know the tricks, so don’t give them an opportunity. The local places you should be fine as robbing tourists isn’t really a thing because there are no tourists to rob, so if they see the odd westerner wandering around they’ll probably want to chat and be nice rather than take all your cash.
Getting it costs you money
If you’re travelling, unless you carry large sums of cash with you (which I strongly advise against) you’re going to need to withdraw cash from an ATM. This is going to cost you money, it could be your own bank charging you, the bank from the country you’re in, or even worse: both. Most banks will offer some kind of ‘travel card’ where you can load up money using your home currency, and withdraw it in the currency of the country without any fee from your bank. I use the Commonwealth bank “Travel money” card, which I’ll explain in greater detail later. You can also use your everyday banking card, but I advise against this otherwise you’ll probably pay a fortune in fees. Talk to your bank about your options.
When you do draw out money a good thing to do is get enough cash to last you a week or so, so you keep ATM fees to a minimum. When you get it put it straight in your wallet or purse or wherever you keep your money. Don’t stand there and count $500 at the ATM, that’s just painting a target on your back. Either do it in your room or a private place like a public toilet, yes I’ve counted money in a toilet before.
Know which other currencies the country uses
This might sound strange, but some countries will accept more than one currency. Usually the currency of choice other than the native currency is USD (United States Dollar). An example of this is Laos: it accepts both the Lao Kip and USD. This can be handy if there are no working ATM’s around or you’re in a small town that doesn’t even have an ATM, and you still have a few dollars kicking around – it’s better than nothing.
This is very common in Vietnam and across a lot of Asia. You’re probably used to drawing out hundreds of dollars to keep your wallet topped up, or ready for a night out, well you can’t do that here. ATM’s here have a maximum withdrawal amount. The limit is around 3,000,000VND ($130), some ATMs it’s slightly higher, some slightly lower. I bought an iPhone 6s here from a university that got them cheap and they needed $600 cash. It took me about 2 hours driving around finding ATMs and about 8 different ATMs to get it all, I racked up about $15 in fees. I wasn’t happy but unless you have a local bank account (and so can withdraw over the counter), that’s what you’ll need to do. If you want to withdraw a lot of money there’s no way around it.
Security SMS codes
Oh my goodness this is annoying. You know when you transfer money to a new account, or perhaps make a purchase from a website your bank doesn’t deem to be 100% safe (perhaps some nice rugs you decided to buy when you got home, after a visit to a great shop you went to in the Congo). Well it’s easy right – they send you an SMS to your phone and you enter the code.
Consider you’ve gotten a SIM from the country you’re in (which you should definitely do to avoid stupidly high phone bills). And you’re out enjoying some free WIFI somewhere having a coffee casually planning the next place you’re going to stay. You go to book and low and behold! The bank wants you to put a code in! Oh crap your original SIM is back in your luggage in your room which is an hour train ride away. It’s not life a death, but it’s incredibly frustrating when this happens. I’ve had to switch back and forth between my Australian SIM and Vietnamese SIM about 100 times just to get these damn codes. You can update your phone number if you call your bank, but there goes all your phone credit on an international call. Considering the hassle I’ve had I think it might be worth it if you plan to stay for a while, if not you’ll have to put up with it.
They’re not always your saviour
You might be thinking “I don’t need cash I’ll use my card”, well you’re in for a big shock. Consider that a place might not accept cards, it might only accept VISA and you’re Mastercard. Your credit card won’t help you in some small train station where you need to get a ticket.
You shouldn’t rely on your credit card to save you, and you shouldn’t rely on it to buy what you want to buy. Always keep cash on you and if you’re in doubt call ahead and check the tour provider/bus company/small out-of-the-way hotel that you can use it.
Fees Fees Fees
This is a fact: anytime you use your credit card in another country you’ll get a credit card currency conversion fee. This means the bank is converting the local currency into your home countries’ currency, and it’s charging you for the pleasure of doing that. It’s only small, a dollar here and there, but if you base your travelling on this form of payment you’re going to be spending a lot more than you’d like.
A way to avoid this is to treat your credit card as an ‘I literally have no other options so I’ll try this’ card. If you’re near a hostel but have no cash and can’t get any, then by all means whip out the credit card. You should inform your bank that you’re going overseas too, or they might think it’s suspicious activity and block the card.
Travel Money cards
Travel money cards are a great idea in concept, but I’ve found mine to be of little use here. It’s basically a debit card, so I can use it like a credit card and the funds are taken off straight away, I can also use it to withdraw money. There’s just a VERY BIG CATCH…
Almost nothing online will accept pre-paid debit cards
A travel money card is a pre-paid debit card. What I mean by this is you transfer money from your normal account onto the travel money card, and then you can withdraw those funds in the country you’re in, in the local currency, without any fees from your bank. Once your travel money account gets low you can transfer more money to top it up.
The trouble with this card is that almost nothing online accepts this form of payment! You can’t use it for Uber or Grab, you can’t use it to book flights, you can’t use it to pre-pay for hotels, you can’t use it for PayPal, you can’t use it to pre-pay tours or train tickets, you can’t even use it to buy a book from Kindle in the local currency. In other words it’s basically a glorified ATM card, its one functional use it to be able to draw out money without getting a fee from your bank. Oh, also to pay for things in person with the card if it’ll work in the shop you’re in.
I don’t rely on my travel money card, and now that I have a local bank account I don’t need to use it. In my opinion the only thing this card can be 100% relied on to do is withdraw money from an ATM.
Final words of advice
Be careful with your money, and check with your bank or financial institution or whatever to see what deals they have. ALWAYS have cash on you no matter what, at least enough for a cab/bus ride home. Some countries are cash currencies so you’ll need to get used to carrying larger sums than you might prefer. Get to know which ATMs have the lowest fees, or where you can withdraw the largest amount. Be prepared for credit card SMS security codes, if you’ve lost your original SIM in the bottom of your backpack it’s going to be a huge hassle to pull everything out just to find it and prove to the bank that you’re you. And finally don’t rely on ‘travel cards’ for anything more than an ATM card, you should question your bank heavily about that, because I found out the hard way and it got me stuck a few times.
Happy and safe spending and travelling!