As a travel agency at Monroe Travel Service, when planning a trip abroad, I inevitably get asked about the foreign currency. Immediately afterwards we discuss the weather, phones, adapters and converters, dealing with the money situation is always a challenge for most travelers. In today’s travel article, I hope to help you make “cents” out of the process.
The good old days of travelers checks are over, and even if we live (electronically) in the fast-paced digital e-world, cash is still worth its weight in gold. It speaks a universal language, so we always have it at hand or quickly available, no matter where we are on the world’s highways. How much you should carry with you depends not only on your spending behavior, but also on your risk assessment, because access to your money is seldom a problem thanks to ATMs and credit cards.
Using a debit card to withdraw cash from an ATM or get cash on your credit card is by far the easiest way to tackle the local currency challenge. Whichever method you choose, it’s important to remember that there can be daily cash limits on both of them. Clarify and increase this before leaving the US as I seriously doubt finding an ATM will be a problem. Even small cities in Africa have them. When the risk of losing an amount of cash is an issue, consider using ATMs. The ATM withdrawal fees could certainly outweigh the risk of carrying cash.
Once the decision has been made to use ATMs as an easy source of cash when needed, and after completing your trip with a trusted travel agent (like me of course), I would definitely plan to let my bank and credit card company know of my trip, maybe even the daily one Increase spending limits, set up notifications, and charge their foreign exchange transaction fees. This fee usually varies between 1% and 3% of the item purchased or the ATM withdrawal.
It’s always good to know if there is an overseas transaction fee before you travel, and since most credit cards are not charged, I would suggest that they are the safest, easiest source of money to exchange while traveling. Visa, American Express, and Master Card are probably by far the most widely accepted; the Discover Card, UATP and Diners Club would be “dodgy” at best in shops and restaurants. Another benefit of using credit cards is that if they are lost or stolen, they can be easily replaced, even abroad, and don’t forget that as you continue to spend, you will earn more bonus points or increase your cashback incentive! How is that not a win-win?
Another reason to rely on credit cards when traveling is because of the purchase protection they offer. Remember, when you use a debit card, you’re essentially writing a check or paying electronically in cash, and the money comes straight from your account. However, when you use a credit card it’s like taking out a loan, which means that the bank must show the card that you actually authorized the purchase. This is your ace in the hole in the event of theft or fraud because if you see a charge on your credit card that is not yours, you can dispute the charge. It is then up to the credit card company to prove the charge to your account and, if the charge is unauthorized, to refund you. If you’ve ever had a problem with your debit card, you know there is no quick fix to getting the controversial money back into your bank account.
Given that crooks take their jobs as seriously as we do ours, making your online banking sessions as foolproof as possible is probably a good idea. This definitely means never “looking” for a WiFi signal in public places. Cyber thieves are known to set up WiFi hubs in parks and tourist attractions where travelers hang out. So if you’re looking for a signal, for example, and you enjoy a strong, free connection, don’t use it just because it’s there! You could easily give your data – and any information on your phone – to fraudsters. Go to a restaurant, hotel, or other facility and ask to use their wifi and always make your passwords as complicated as possible.
Exchange offices should also be avoided. You can find these exchange offices all over airports, city centers, and train stations, and they offer notoriously terrible exchange rates. Yes indeed! There will likely be a “no commission” sign, but don’t be fooled, they make up for it with their exorbitant exchange rates. You rely on travelers’ ignorance and desperation for cash, but before using one, double-check the currency exchange on your smartphone to see if it is in your best interests. Since Rob and I were “taken away” from these stock exchange booths, we now rely on the “XE Currency App”. If math isn’t your forte then download a currency app before you go!
Since it’s still the one that’s widely accepted, and some developing countries still only use cash payments, it’s always a good idea to have some cash with you – be it in USD or in local currency – but it does us also a target for clever thieves. A number of products on the market have been designed to hide money, such as money belts, bra inserts, and money chains, but it is best to just use common sense.
For example, Rob always has a travel wallet in his front pocket. We often hide money in our shoes. Instead of a wallet, I prefer a backpack filled with water, hiking maps, ponchos, etc. A small wallet with my passport, credit cards and cash is attached to the inside of my backpack with huge safety pins. No matter where or how much you travel, be aware.
Some of our agency’s most seasoned travelers recently fell victim to the infamous fake bird drop that currently appears to be rampant in Europe. Basically, this scam happens in a busy area and involves spraying someone with a solution similar to bird droppings. A kind do-gooder brings this to your attention, may even help deal with the nasty spot, and while you and your new friend inspect the spot, an accomplice is very adept at pickpocketing you and maybe others you know while handling the Delimma watch .
Other tricks that distract tourists include an elderly person falling, a woman throwing a baby or cat at you, or someone dropping a wallet and accusing you of pocketing the contents after you pick them up. Another bad idea is giving your phone to someone who will volunteer to take your picture unless you know them. Do not allow anyone to put a bracelet around your wrist or give you a sprig of rosemary for good luck because when you have it they want money and to avoid a scene, you pay. You can easily avoid my-meter-is-broken taxi scams with Uber or Lyft.
Money is really the root of all evil. The simple truth is that no matter how well you think you are prepared, or what you know about avoiding travel fraud, it is easy to fall for it simply because most of us are so very trusting. It wasn’t until last weekend when I was in New Orleans that I made a donation to a veteran who was asking for money. When my nephew, a retired Marine, asked the gentleman where he had served, he did not answer the most basic questions. Sure, it was daunting to be betrayed, but never in a million years would I let myself be stopped from enjoying New Orleans over and over again.
Things happen when you travel the world. Avoid them as best you can. Let your debit and credit cards know of your travel plans. Create notifications. You might even set daily limits on your account. Use only secure WiFi connections. Hide your cash. Be aware of your surroundings. Trust your instincts.
In all of our travels we have never been the victim of fraud, pickpockets or robbery. I admit that we were “picked up” by taxi drivers and cheated at exchange offices, but that was our own stupidity. We have never felt threatened or afraid, and always, always, always when we traveled around the world, we might have spent more than we planned. Still, we always thought we had come home much richer.
Dianne Newcomer is a travel consultant for Monroe Travel Service located on 1908 Glenmar Avenue between N. 19th and Tower Drive. For your next tour, cruise, or flight trip, please call 318 323 3465 or email [email protected]