Do I Need Cash Abroad? Your Currency Questions Explained
Updated: 6 days ago
Always Pack Tissues explains when you need cash abroad, how to get it, and how much to carry.
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Recently a friend contacted me regarding his upcoming travels and he didn't know how or where to get foreign currency and whether it was needed. A fairly common question for new travelers, he asked me about his no foreign transaction fee credit card and ApplePay (both are winners and work), but didn't know where to start with cash. These days I can get away with not carrying any cash on me at all at home. I have grown used to tucking a $20 bill in my phone's credit card sleeve, just for emergencies, but that emergency never really comes. Do yard sales count as emergencies?
The truth is, cash used to be King but has gone out of favor in most of the developed world. Here's some tips and advice on what I've learned in my travels.
1) Order foreign currency at your local bank before departing on your trip.
This can take 2-3 days, but do it when the exchange rate is looking good (in your favor). Your bank will charge a small fee for this and will deduct all the funds directly from your bank account. All you do is tell them "I would like $400 in Euros" and they'll call you a few days later with an envelope full of Euros. Easy!
2) Pull Cash Out of an ATM Abroad
First things first - login to your ATM portal online and notify them of your travel destinations BEFORE you travel. Most cards are smart these days and this is not necessary. Check with your bank. Note that although most countries have ATM's readily available, some do not. For instance, in Cuba we asked our AirBnB where to get some cash. Cuba is weird and has foreigner (tourism) money and government money. If you want the tourism money (and I guess you do), you go to the local "ATM", in our case a scruffy looking man about 60 something years old, who greets you in his wifebeater at the front of his home. The top half of a split door opens up to reveal his living room and his family sitting on the couch. "How much do you need?", in Spanish of course, he will ask. You tell him, exchange your US dollars for the Cuban money, and off you go. Totally legit. Not normal.
3) Foreign Currency Counters
You see them at malls, airports, little booths on the street...these are ok too, but beware large fees. I don't use this option often, but it's there if you need it.
4) When You Need Cash
Commonly cash is only needed at open air markets. Taxis take credit cards, but just be aware that a lot of the world does not accept American Express, so always have a backup or alternate card if that is your primary card.
Other common times you will need cash - coins, really - is on buses and also at supermarkets. Pay a coin for a cart!
The biggest reason to carry cash, however, is for hotels and restaurants that do not accept credit cards. No matter how legit or established these places may be, some flat out advertise 'cash only' and others have 'issues' with their credit card machines. For instance, in Morocco we used Booking.com to book all of our hotel stays. Some were paid in advance (advised) and others were pay at the property. For the pay at the property ones I swear to you 4/5 hotels struggled with their internet connection, or the payment just wasn't working on their machine, or some other excuse to get cash in hand instead. Twice we had to go to the ATM to pay for our night and once we had to go to the ATM because we didn't calculate the cost of our meal, which was cash only. Which leads me to point 5:
5) Carry Enough Cash for Your Hotel and Food
At a minimum, carry (whether on your body or in your room) enough for one night stay in a hotel, plus dinner, plus maybe $20 extra in incidentals. If you know in advance that a restaurant is cash only, literally work out the math in your head before you start ordering the bottle of wine, two appetizers, meals, and so on. We have gotten ourselves in a pickle a time or two on this. My husband had to dart to the ATM (a 25 minute drive to Essaouira) from La Fromagerie in the outskirts of the seaside town in Morocco. We ordered the bottle of wine and the elaborate homemade cheese board and shared it with friends we had met from Germany. It was a slice of heaven, but it came at a price. My husband told the cheese shop owner that they could keep me as collateral while we went to get more funds to pay for our spread. The owner joked that he didn't want me, he already had a wife. But nevertheless, I waited for my husband's return. While I waited I was invited to share a table and some wine with some very intoxicated French people at least 30 years elder. At a table for about 12, several were up dancing with the breeze, arms in the air, drunk and melodic. A guitar trio had appeared out of nowhere and played them some tunes. I spoke in awful chopped sentences with a Frenchman about cheese and wine, attempting to simplify my speech so he could understand. We emoted mostly through gestures anyway, and enjoyed what ended up being nearly an hour and a half wait for my man to return. I had a blast, but my husband didn't.
Lesson here? Always have enough cash to pay your way!!!
6) Final Word
At the end of your trip, save your extra foreign currency in your safe at home. You can use it for the next trip or sell it back to currency exchange counters on another occasion. If it is just coins and small bills, save it as a foreign money collection (label by destination!) or give it to a kid. I still have my money collection from my dad's early travels to places like Oman and India on business. It's one of my coolest collections and memories from childhood - I even have a lot of out of print coin too! Be safe, be smart, and carry just what you need.