Cash and ATMs

FrancsYour money is undoubtedly the most important component of your backpacking trip. Without it you wouldn't be going, and if you run out or lose all of your money while you are traveling, your trip might be in jeopardy. Your money options include cash, ATM cards (Automated Teller Machine), credit cards and traveler's checks, each of these payment methods having pros and cons.

Although easy to use and always accepted, cash has one major drawback -- once lost or stolen, it cannot be replaced. It is a 100% loss of your funds. And this is the great strength of cash alternatives like ATM cards and traveler's checks. If they are lost or stolen, they can usually be replaced within a short period of time and with a minimal financial loss. Carry little money and stick with ATM and credit cards for this reason.

But you will (and should) always have a cash reserve on you for any occasion that may arise. Whether you need a small amount of money for a tip, or the place you want to stay at doesn't accept other methods of payment, you should always have some cash at your disposal. The importance then is how you are going to carry your money and ATM cards safely and conveniently. Here are some valuable tips to help you hold on to your money and make using it in a foreign country as convenient as possible:


Cash and Carrying Your Money

  • use a neck wallet to keep your finances organized. You should be able to keep your money, cards and passport all together and secure on your body.
  • your neck wallet with your money and passport in it should never leave your body! When you sleep, wear it or at least stick it in your sleep sheet. When you shower, hang it IN the shower (preferably somewhere where it will stay dry).
  • try to get a money pouch with a small change compartment in it or take a small pouch with you. Because so many countries in the world rely on coins rather than paper currency (because it lasts hundreds of years longer), you will find that you will have a lot of coins on you.
  • look into purchasing a small, plastic, waterproof pouch to put your cash and passport in. Similar to a Ziploc bag but stronger (and the same size as a passport), it will keep your papers dry when swimming or showering.
  • put your money in a money belt to conceal your wealth. BUT...put some money in your front pocket too! If you do get approached by a mugger, give him your pocket money to ease his needs and then plead poverty. This also helps when ever you buy something because you won't have to keep pulling your money belt out.
  • don't remove anything from a concealed money belt while you are in public. Instead, as with the above tip, keep some money and one piece of identification in your pocket to use. If you need to get more money out of your money belt, find some privacy in a washroom first.
  • in some countries it is beneficial to carry some US currency. I found some things (like hostels) to cost less if paying with US money on occasion. Plus, you can sometimes avoid paying the extremely high (approximately 17%) tax that is on everything in many countries, including all of the EEC (European Economic Community) or EU (European Union) countries.
  • if you are going to Europe, you will find that the north is a lot more expensive than the south. Scandinavia and the cities of London and Paris are easily the most expensive places to hang out.
  • when traveling in some countries, look into the VAT (value-added tax) rebate for foreigners, which can run as high as 25% in some countries. If you keep all of your receipts, you can usually get all this tax returned to you when you leave. In Europe, you can re-claim the VAT when leaving the last EU (European Union) country you are traveling in.
  • in some countries the VAT will be waived if you pay in cash, depending on what you are paying for. It doesn't hurt to ask about such deals if you know that you will be charged the VAT.
  • look closely at foreign bills and coins before and after paying or receiving money. Because you will be dealing with a variety of currencies, all the numbers, colors and different sizes will be unfamiliar to you.
  • if you are leaving a country that you will not be returning to, and you have a pocket full of coins, either cash them in before you leave or spend them. They're not worth much in the next country. As well, most foreign money exchange services will not accept coin currency.
  • don't spend all your time worrying about saving money. You may only do your trip once so enjoy it while you can and do it comfortably.
  • don't accept torn bills or those with missing pieces. You may have difficulty spending them.


Bank Cards (ATM  or 'Automatic Teller Machine' cards)

  • make sure that your ATM card is in sync with either PLUS (VISA) or CIRRUS (MasterCard). Ask your bank about this before you leave (and don't forget your PIN number).
  • remember your PIN number numerically (with numbers) rather than using letters. Many international ATM machines only have numbers on the key pads. If you only have the letters memorized, use a phone key-pad to convert the letters into the appropriate numbers.
  • try to get a PIN number with only 4 digits. Many foreign ATM machines only accept 4-digit numbers, yet many people have up to 8-digit PIN numbers, which won't work.
  • always have some cash on you. There may be times when you won't be able to use your ATM card.
  • consider taking a second ATM card with you. The magnetic stripes on them are surprisingly fragile.


Changing Your Money

  • compare rates when exchanging money, as commissions vary greatly from place to place. Large hotels tend to have the worst exchange rates, although you can almost always find an exchange depot there.
  • before you enter another country (ie. if you were going from Italy to Greece), get the next country's currency. If you arrive in the next country on a holiday or at night, you will not be able to get money at a bank, currency exchange or store. You will need the money for the hostel or for food, so why not guarantee that you will have it ahead of time. About $25 American usually works for us.
  • watch out for exchange bureaus that offer extremely low exchange rates. They may have high service charges to make up for the difference.
  • banks usually have the best exchange rates and lowest fees -- the bigger the bank the better. Money-changing booths and other smaller facilities usually have the worst, particularly at airports, borders and hostels.
  • beware of black-market money exchanges. You may receive bills that are counterfeit or out of circulation, placed under authentic bills (in case you really could tell the difference).
  • be cautious of local residents who claim that they can give you an excellent personal exchange rate. You may be setting yourself up for a robbery.
  • try to change larger amounts of money less frequently rather than small amounts more frequently.  For example, change $100 at one time rather than $50 two times. This will cut down on service charges and fees. If you're in a group, pool your money and get it all changed together for one fee.
  • you may get a better deal by using your ATM card to withdraw cash rather than pay high service charges at an exchange bureau.


Finance Links

  • MasterCard - products, services, consumer tips and an ATM locator for MasterCard/Cirrus ATMs
  • Oanda.com - currency convertor
  • Visa - products, services, consumer tips and an ATM locator for Visa/Plus ATMs
  • XE.com - currency convertor