Money for International Trips

International money background

I dropped John off at the airport yesterday. As usual, I went through a small list of essentials on the drive:

  • passport
  • visa (if necessary)
  • immunization record (if necessary)
  • credit / debit cards (always bring a spare)
  • cash

Anything else can pretty much be taken care of while traveling. But when I mentioned cash, he asked, “Oh shoot. Did you get that for me?”

“Nope.” I said, “This isn’t my trip.”

He laughed a little and pulled out a small handful of Chilean pesos he’d held onto from a few months previously and said, “Well, at least I have these.” I’m glad he had something, but here are a few suggestions for international trips.

Bring US Dollars: A couple days before departure, call your local bank and arrange for them to reserve clean, un-torn bills. US bills are widely accepted and are great for tipping; however, many countries cannot exchange bills that are in moderate to poor condition.

Small Denominations: We often use dollars for tipping or those “in a pinch” situations. Like, a taxi to the hotel upon arrival. Our general rule of thumb is about one hundred US dollars per week. If moving between a lot of hotels, take more $1 bills for all those times you could have handled your luggage, but didn’t. Example 10-day trip with three different hotels and some plans for guided tours. Bring $150 US dollars as follows:

  • 20 $1 bills
  • 8 $5 bills
  • 5 $10 bills
  • 2 $20 bills

Currency Calculator: It helps to download an app to determine the exchange rate. As long as you download it when you have good internet access, you should be able to access it anytime while traveling.

Local Currency: If you’re great about planning ahead you can make arrangements with your bank to get some cash in the local currency beforehand. Don’t sweat it if you don’t have time in the pre-trip panic. You can get cash at the airport or hotel, but you’ll pay some hefty exchange rates. Alternatively, we recommend stopping at a local ATM (cash machine) between the airport and the hotel or home where you’ll be staying. This is easier to arrange if you’ve hired a car service or transfer. I never arranged transfers before kids, but there’s nothing quite like seeing your name on a board with someone ready to help after you’ve survived international flights with children. Trust me. Other transfers aren’t as critical. Plus, they’re usually willing to take you to a cash machine, grocery store, and even a quick stop for a meal if needed.

Credit and Debit Cards: Before leaving, create a travel notification through your credit and debit card companies. Most can be done online or by calling the toll-free number on the back of the card. This will alert the company that you will be traveling and limit the possibility that they will turn off your card for detected fraud. Always travel with a spare card and visit more tips specific to credit cards here.

While Traveling: We use credit cards where possible so we can best track where and how we spend. When cash is low, look for more ATM machines, which tend to be available in even the most remote parts of the world. Debit cards are best for these transactions since most credit card companies charge higher interest rates for cash withdrawals. Keep in mind that cash machines may not always be well stocked with cash. Weekends are especially taxing on the machines, so plan ahead when possible.

Leftover Money: Use this excuse to buy some frivolous things at the end of your trip. Unless you’re John, it’s unlikely that you’ll happen to need that wad of Chilean pesos in your back pocket. If you can’t spend it, don’t worry. You can exchange it anytime at your local bank upon return for a decent exchange rate. We like to keep a few of the smaller bills from trips as memorabilia. At first I thought this was silly and wasteful, but now that I’ve seen some currencies come and go, it’s become more meaningful.

Leftover Coins: Visit our favorite tip for leftover coins to create another great keepsake.

international coins

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