If you want to get the most out of your dollar and your trip, Pauline Frommer's Travel Guides are for you. I put a fresh spin on budget travel, showing you how to experience the best for less and how to see it in a more authentic way -- the way the locals do. In this series of monthly tips, you'll find some terrific ideas to help you get the most out of every trip. This time around, I share some insight about how to get money abroad while paying the least for the transaction.
The easiest and best way to get cash away from home is from an ATM. The CIRRUS and PLUS networks now 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. You may also consider getting a four-digit PIN number. In many foreign destinations, longer PINs won't be accepted by local machines. Note: Remember that many banks impose a fee every time you use a card at another bank's ATM, so if you're a member of a global bank do some research to find out where its machines are in the destination you'll be visiting.
If that's not possible, know that the fees can be higher for international transactions ($5 or more in some cases) than for domestic ones (where they're rarely more than $2). 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. Even with these fees, you'll often save money by using ATMs simply because the exchange rate they give is generally excellent (and will often beat the rate of exchange being given to those who exchange money at the bank counter). Changing money in this way also allows travelers to take out small amounts at a time, which is always the better part of wisdom. One of the reason tourists are often targeted by pickpockets is that they unwisely carry large amounts of cash on their person. Don't make that mistake.
Traveler's checks are something of an anachronism from the days before the ATM made cash accessible at any time. They've become so uncommon that many hotels and restaurants will no longer accept them as a form of payment. And certain exchange bureaus and banks now charge an additional fee to convert them. Still, they're a good back-up as they can be replaced within 24 hours should they be lost. Many travelers also get a sense of security from seeing the denominations they have left to spend, and knowing that the checks can't be easily used if stolen.
American Express, Thomas Cook, Visa and MasterCard offer foreign currency traveler's checks. You'll pay the rate of exchange at the time of your purchase (so it's a good idea to monitor the rate before you buy). Most companies charge a transaction fee per order. Note: You'll get a better exchange rate if you use traveler's checks at banks, rather than currency exchanges, hotels or shops.
Credit cards are another safe way to carry money. They also provide a convenient record of all your expenses, and generally offer good exchange rates. However, you should NEVER use a credit card at a bank machine to get a cash advance. You will be charged an outrageous fee if you do so, as the bank considers this type of usage as a "loan" rather than a "withdrawal."
Mastercard, American Express, and Visa all charge a 2% fee for the use of their cards abroad. On top of that, the issuing bank may often add a transaction fee (usually between 1% and 3%), whether you're using the local currency or U.S. dollars. If you plan to be traveling a lot, therefore, it might be wise to get a credit card from Bank One or a credit union in your community; neither of these sources adds on additional fees. It must be said that even with these additional fees you'll often spend less with a credit card than you will by changing dollars into the local currency at an exchange bureau. That's because these agencies generally offer lousy rates of exchange and add on fees, to boot.
It's a wise idea to notify your credit card company about your impending trip abroad, so that they don't become suspicious of foreign transactions and block your charges. If you forget to do so, contact the credit card company immediately if a charge is refused. You may have to do an Internet search to find the correct number to call, as U.S.- based toll-free emergency numbers generally don't work from abroad.
Find out more about the Pauline Frommer Travel Guide series, read articles by Pauline, and listen to Podcasts on Pauline's page on Frommers.com.