At one time or another, inflation has been a thorn in the economies of every South American nation. Because of this, many South American hotels quote their rates in dollars, and in some South American countries, dollars are widely accepted. (Throughout this guide, U.S. dollar rates are indicated with the "$.")
The easiest and best way to get cash throughout South America 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 continent; 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 -- you'll need a four-digit PIN throughout much of this region.
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 or more). In addition, the bank from which you withdraw cash may charge its own fee. For international withdrawal fees, ask your bank.
Credit cards are another safe way to carry money throughout South America. They also provide a convenient record of all your expenses, and they generally offer relatively good exchange rates. You can withdraw cash advances from your credit cards at banks or ATMs but high fees make credit card cash advances a pricey way to get cash. Keep in mind that you'll pay interest from the moment of your withdrawal, even if you pay your monthly bills on time. Also, note 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 your native currency).
Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and, to a lesser extent, Diners Club are all commonly accepted in South America.
Traveler's checks are hard to cash outside major South American cities, and even in those cities, you may still have problems doing so. Some travelers feel safer carrying a few traveler's checks just in case, though, and they can be bought at most banks in denominations of $20, $50, $100, $500, and sometimes $1,000. Generally, you'll pay a service charge ranging from 1% to 4%.
The most popular traveler's checks are offered by American Express (tel. 800/807-6233, or 800/221-7282 for card holders -- this number accepts collect calls, offers service in several foreign languages, and exempts Amex gold and platinum cardholders from the 1% fee); Visa (tel. 800/732-1322 -- AAA members can obtain Visa checks for a $9.95 fee for checks up to $1,500 at most AAA offices, or by calling 866/339-3378; and MasterCard (tel. 800/223-9920).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.