One of the most daunting tasks while traveling is having to make the decision between traveling with your bank cards or withdrawing a large sum of money and doing a currency exchange once you arrive at your destination. I’ve always preferred to travel with debit cards because it was a relief to have money on me without having it physically on my body. If my card was lost or stolen, it was a simple phone call or email to secure that account. The problem comes in when ATMs in other countries fail to speak your banks language, literally and figuratively.
On my way to Poland I decided to make an ATM run. It was in the lobby of the hotel I was staying at so I thought the transaction should be without issue. I put my card into the ATM and I received several error messages. The bank knew of my travels and had known for quite some time but the further east I went, the less likely my debit card was going to work. In this situation it was smarter to carry cash and exchanging once there. My first mistake was using the ATM at the hotel. In America, it may be okay but in some parts of the world an ATM is privately owned. This means unknown interests rates, transaction fees and the fear of not knowing who exactly has your banking information. With American issued debit and credit cards, we are the most likely to be scammed when abroad and it’s not because we are foreign but because our cards are the least secure. Most countries have adapted the chip into their banking and credit cards. America, generally speaking, still uses the magnetic strip. That strip is extremely easy to duplicate. When I first landed in Europe, I remember reading about pseudo-tam machines. They are on random corners, not connected to any bank. Those are the sketchy ones, avoid them! If you must use the atm, seek out an actual bank. Google the recommended ones in the country you are visiting. Keep in mind that for every withdrawal you are being charged both there and back home. So $100 turns into $115 or $120. Make your withdrawals count if you must do them or you’ll come home to $300 in transaction fees alone!
When it comes to cash, I see the value in it now and not just because of outrageous fees. Cash is a universal language – period. It’s easier when traveling when you can see the value in your dollar. You learn the exchange rate and in some cases you get more bang for your buck. While in the Dominican Republic, I ran through their peso. I felt rich when I converted because of the dollar but once I switched to their currency, I received a lot less. Using cash is good for tipping and for excursion trips (especially those!). In both Europe and the Caribbean, I paid significantly less when using cash for day trips and tours. A way around using your on-hand spending money on excursions would be to see if you can find a tour company online and pre-pay before your arrival.
Check around online and see what people are suggesting for the country you are visiting. Had I paid attention, I would’ve known to just bring my dollars to the Dominican Republic instead of using the ATMs and worrying about exchanging. Learn what is in your best financial interest during your travels, it may save you more than you think!