It's always advisable to bring money in a variety of forms on a vacation: a mix of cash, credit cards, debit cards, and, occasionally, traveler's checks.
The unit of currency in Guatemala is the quetzal. In June 2008, there were approximately 7.5 quetzales to the American dollar, but because the quetzal does fluctuate, you can expect this rate to change. To check the very latest exchange rates visit www.xe.com/ucc.
The quetzal is theoretically divided into 100 centavos. However, because of their insignificant value, you will rarely see or have to handle centavos. If you do, there are coins in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50 centavos. There are also 1 quetzal coins, which are quite common and handy.
There are paper notes in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 quetzales. This can be a bit of a problem for travelers, since the bill with the largest denomination is worth only around US$13 (£6.50). In late 2009, the government is expected to introduce a new 200 queztales note.
If your ATM card doesn't work and you need cash in a hurry, Western Union (tel. 502/2360-1737 in Guatemala; www.westernunion.com) has numerous offices around Guatemala City and in several major towns and cities around the country. It offers secure and rapid, money-wire and telegram service.
Exchanging Money -- You can change money at all banks in Guatemala. Most charge a very slight service fee. Given the fact that banks handle money exchanges, there are very few exchange houses in Guatemala, although you may run across one here or there. In general, there is little variation in the exchange rate offered at banks and exchange houses.
Hotels will often exchange money as well; there usually isn't much of a line, but they might shave a few centavos off the exchange rate. Warning: Be careful when leaving a bank. Criminals are often looking for foreigners who have just withdrawn or exchanged cash.
Most airport taxis, shuttles, and major hotels will accept dollars upon your arrival, so it's not absolutely essential to exchange money before traveling to Guatemala. There are two banks inside the airport terminal that will exchange dollars and major European currencies, and will cash traveler's checks. They are usually open for all arriving flights. However, if you arrive outside of this bank's hours, or want to avoid any delay at the airport bank or ATMs, you might consider exchanging at least some money -- just enough to cover airport incidentals and transportation to your hotel -- before you leave home (though don't expect the exchange rate to be ideal). You can exchange money at your local American Express or Thomas Cook office or at your bank. American Express also dispenses traveler's checks and foreign currency via www.americanexpress.com or tel. 800/807-6233, but they'll charge a $15 (£7.50) order fee and additional shipping costs. American Express cardholders should dial tel. 800/221-7282; this number accepts collect calls, offers service in several foreign languages, and exempts Amex gold and platinum cardholders from the 1% fee.
Small Change -- When you change money, try to get some smaller bills and 1-quetzal coins. Petty cash will come in handy for tipping and public transportation. Even though the largest bill is not very valuable by Western standards, many taxi drivers and small shop owners have trouble making change for a 100 quetzales bill. Consider keeping the change separate from your larger bills so that it's readily accessible and you'll be less of a target for theft.
The easiest and best way to get cash away from home is from an ATM (automated teller machine). The Cirrus (tel. 800/424-7787; www.mastercard.com) and PLUS (tel. 800/843-7587; www.visa.com) networks span the globe; look at the back of your bank card to see which network you're on, then call or check online for ATM locations at your destination. Be sure you know your personal identification number (PIN) and daily withdrawal limit before you depart. Note: Remember that many banks impose a fee every time you use a card at another bank's ATM, and that fee can be higher for international transactions (up to $5/£2.50 or more) than for domestic ones (where they're rarely more than $2/£1). In addition, the bank from which you withdraw cash may charge its own fee. To compare banks' ATM fees within the U.S., use www.bankrate.com. For international withdrawal fees, ask your bank.
You can use your credit card to receive cash advances at ATMs. Keep in mind that credit card companies protect themselves from theft by limiting maximum withdrawals outside their home country, so call your credit card company before you leave home. Also remember that you'll pay interest from the moment of your withdrawal, even if you pay your monthly bills on time.
ATMs are fairly common throughout Guatemala, particularly in Guatemala City and Antigua, and at most major tourist destinations around the country. You'll find them at almost all banks and most shopping centers. Still, make sure you have some cash at the start of your trip; never let yourself run totally out of spending money, and definitely stock up on funds before heading to any of the more remote destinations in the country. Outside the more popular destinations, it's still best to think of your ATM card as a backup measure, because machines are not nearly as readily available or dependable as you might be accustomed to, and you might encounter compatibility problems.
While many of Guatemala's ATMs will work fine with five- and six-digit PINs, some will only accept four-digit PINs. Before traveling, it's wise to change your PIN to avoid any unexpected hassles in getting access to quick cash.
Traveler's checks are something of an anachronism from the days before the ATM made cash accessible at any time. Given the fees you'll pay for ATM use at banks other than your own, however, you might be better off with traveler's checks if you're withdrawing money often.
You can buy traveler's checks at most banks. American Express offers denominations of $20, $50, $100, $500, and (for cardholders only) $1,000. You'll pay a service charge ranging from 1% to 4%. By phone, you can buy traveler's checks by calling tel. 800/807-6233. American Express cardholders should dial tel. 800/221-7282; this number accepts collect calls, offers service in several foreign languages, and exempts Amex gold and platinum cardholders from the 1% fee.
Visa offers traveler's checks at Citibank locations nationwide, as well as at several other banks. The service charge ranges between 1.5% and 2%; checks come in denominations of $20, $50, $100, $500, and $1,000. Call tel. 800/732-1322 for information. AAA members can obtain Visa checks for a $9.95 fee (for checks up to $1,500) at most AAA offices or by calling tel. 866/339-3378. MasterCard also offers traveler's checks. Call tel. 800/223-9920 for a location near you.
If you do choose to carry traveler's checks, keep a record of their serial numbers separate from your checks in the event that they are stolen or lost. You'll get a refund faster if you know the numbers.
Credit cards are another safe way to carry money. They also provide a convenient record of all your expenses, and generally offer relatively good exchange rates. You can also withdraw cash advances from your credit cards at banks or ATMs, provided you know your PIN. If you don't know yours, call the number on the back of your credit card and ask the bank to send it to you. It usually takes 5 to 7 business days, though some banks will provide the number over the phone if you provide some personal information. Keep in mind that many banks now assess a 1% to 3% "transaction fee" on all charges you incur abroad (whether you're using the local currency or U.S. dollars). But credit cards still may be the smart way to go when you factor in things like exorbitant ATM fees and the higher exchange rates and service fees you'll pay with traveler's checks. All major credit cards are accepted in Guatemala, although MasterCard and Visa will give you the greatest coverage, while American Express and Diners Club are slightly less widely used and accepted.
Because credit card purchases are dependent upon phone verifications, some hotels and restaurants in more remote destinations do not accept them. Moreover, some add on a 5% to 10% surcharge for credit card payments. Always check in advance if you're heading to a more remote corner of Guatemala.
To report a lost or stolen American Express card from inside Guatemala, you can call tel. 336/393-1111 collect in the U.S.; for MasterCard, tel. 1800/999-1480, or call tel. 636/722-7111 collect in the U.S.; for Visa, tel. 1800/999-0115, or call tel. 410/581-9994 collect in the U.S.; and for Diners Club, call tel. 502/2338-6801, or call collect to tel. 303/799-1504. When you contact your bank or issuing company, it might be able to wire you a cash advance off your credit card immediately; in many places, it can deliver an emergency credit card in 1 or 2 days. Odds are that if your wallet is gone, the police won't be able to recover it for you, but your credit card company or insurer might require a police report number, so file a police report anyway (after you cancel your credit cards).