Exchanging Foreign Currency Before Travel


For many of us It seems as if the same ritual plays itself out before each trip…frantic last-minute packing followed by a brain-storming session to determine if anything has been overlooked.  Inevitably THE question arises: “What about money? What do they use there anyway?  Rubles? Drachmas?  Pesos? Shekels?” 

In days past it was a serious problem…myriad currencies with different methods of exchange in nearly every country.   We struggled trying to exchange traveler’s checks, (always a HUGE target of thieves), we haggled (and got cheated) at currency exchange booths, and we inevitably brought home a fistful of currencies and coins that were as useful as Monopoly money.

There are just as many currencies in circulation today…in fact at last count there are a mind-boggling 182 different recognized currencies in the world.  So what’s the best way to get a hold of the foreign currency you need?  

Local Bank or Credit Union

One option is to visit your local bank or credit union a few weeks before your trip and order some foreign currency.  Your bank will place your order, typically with a 3rd party foreign exchange service, this service will then deliver the foreign currency to the bank for pickup, or directly to your home.  I generally don’t do this myself, I’ve found that most banks charge exorbitant fees for this service, including delivery fees and transaction fees. 

But today we have one big advantage that makes our money-changing chores a lot easier…the worldwide electronic banking system…better known as the ever-present ATM. 


ATMs are present in nearly every country in the world.  With your PIN you can withdraw local currencies, usually up to about $500 USD per day.  The exchange rate charged is usually matched to the rate the international banks are charging each other that day, which is a LOT lower than the currency exchange booths you see in the airport and near train stations.  There are also some fees unique to each credit card, such as a per-transaction fee (usually $3-$5), or it may be a small percentage of the withdrawal (normally 1-3%).   These fees are nearly always a fraction of what you would pay at a currency exchange. I like to hit an ATM in the airport as soon as I arrive.  I’ll get my first bit of local cash and be able to pay for my taxi, and tip the bellboy at the hotel.

Before You Travel

Nowadays I advise my clients to:

1)    Bring their credit cards on their trip, (one at least, two or three different cards is a better plan).

2)    Be sure they have a Personal Identification Number (PIN) for each card.

3)    Notify their credit card company of their travel plans.

4)    Make sure they understand their credit card company’s fees and charges for foreign currency withdrawals.

ATM Safety

Some normal common sense is necessary when using an ATM when traveling.  (Actually, no different than using one at home.)  Pay attention to the people loitering near the ATM, avoid suspicious characters.  Don’t let anyone crowd you at the ATM, ask them politely to move back while you’re using the machine.  If you’re with a companion, take turns using the ATM while the other faces the other direction and keeps a sharp lookout for scoundrels.   Block the view of the keypad while you’re typing in your PIN.  Put all your currency in your pocket or purse, and zip it closed, BEFORE you leave the front of the machine. 

 In all my years of traveling and using ATMs, (and believe me, I’ve used ATMs in some pretty dicey spots…) I’ve never had the misfortune to run afoul of the local criminal element.  BUT…if you are accosted immediately after withdrawing cash from an ATM, use the method favored by most international spies when captured…quickly swallow all of your currency and your credit cards, and your purse if you have one.  (If you’re not carrying a purse swallow the nearest purse you can find.) THAT will show them that you’re not to be messed with…no doubt they’ll retreat quickly after observing your zeal for hanging on to your valuables.

Of course your cash and cards won’t be accessible for a day or two, but you probably won’t feel much like shopping anyway. 

Disclaimer:  If you’re not bright enough to recognize hyperbole and sarcasm, tinged with humor, then you probably shouldn’t be leaving your house to travel.  Of course I’m kidding….DON’T swallow your cash, credit cards, your purse, or any fashion accessory in an attempt to thwart a thief.  Swallowing your pride is acceptable.

Points to Remember

  • Your local bank or credit union is an option before you travel, but beware of high service fees.
  • Travel with one or more credit cards and an ATM card.
  • Make sure you know your PIN  (yes, credit cards have a PIN too!).
  • Notify your bank or credit card holder of your travel plans.
  • Understand the fees and daily limits associated with each card.
  • Avoid exchange kiosks, they typically have the highest fees and least favorable exchange rates of all.
  • Be safe and use common sense when at the ATM; block the view of the keypad and put your money away before you step away.