Traveling also can come with truly outrageous fees — so avoiding high currency exchange charges can save you a bundle before you even get on the plane.
Where to exchange currency
Here are the best places to change your money inexpensively, painlessly and securely.
1. At your bank, before you travel
Save yourself a major headache by converting your cash before your trip. This way, you can start your vacation as soon as you land — instead of embarking on a mission to find a currency converter abroad.
At home, you can quickly exchange funds at the bank or credit union where you already do business.
Some banks even offer the option to order foreign funds in advance over the phone or through their websites. The bank can ship it straight to your home. (But watch out for shipping fees.)
Banks and credit unions usually have the most up-to-date conversion rates and the lowest fees. Established financial institutions also publish their rates on their websites, along with a list of the currencies they convert.
2. Never at an airport kiosk
In general, it’s a good idea to avoid airport kiosks for changing currency. The exchange rates tend to be less favorable, and you’ll encounter longer wait times as you stand in line with harried travelers at the airport.
Exchanging cash involves more than just buying the currency — exchangers also charge fees on each transaction.
When converting cash at an airport booth, you’ll pay commission charges, which are charged on a per-transaction basis or as a flat percentage of the amount you convert.
Each business charges a different amount, so always make sure to ask what the fee is before you agree to do the exchange.
3. At banks abroad that partner with your bank
If you didn’t get a chance to pick up foreign currency before leaving on vacation, the best way to get cash abroad is through a local bank that has an arrangement with your financial institution.
U.S. banks often have partnerships with banks in other countries. If you find a partner institution in your vacation spot, you should be able to use the ATMs in that bank’s network to take out cash in the local currency. Check your bank’s website to find out about its international partnerships.
Once you locate a partner institution, you should withdraw relatively large amounts of money each time. Every transaction will hit you with a volley of fees, so the fewer transactions you make, the fewer fees you’ll pay.
To help hold down your fees, try to avoid using ATMs outside the network of your bank's foreign partner.
If you can’t locate a partner institution abroad, check the rates offered by local foreign exchange providers. The rates aren’t as good as banks, but they’ll be better than airport kiosk rates.
4. At a bank back home that takes foreign currency
After traveling, dining and shopping your heart out on vacay, you might have some foreign currency left over from your trip.
The easiest way to exchange foreign currency back home is to go to your bank and ask the teller to convert the cash.
If your bank won't accept it, you might need to go to a currency exchange store instead. But don't expect to get the best exchange rate or the lowest fees.
Your best bet is to look online for another bank or credit union that will take the currency in question — or just hold on to the foreign money, especially if you, a friend or a relative might be going (back) to that destination sometime soon.
5. Or, avoid exchanging currencies altogether
If you don’t want to carry a lot of cash when you travel, you have some alternatives.
The first is to use a credit card, because you'll often get the best exchange rate on your purchases that way. Just make sure to check how much your card issuer will charge you.
Some cards do charge foreign transaction fees, which can add up quickly if you make a lot of purchases during a trip abroad.
But if you shop around, it's easy enough to find a credit card that doesn't have a foreign transaction fee — and might even offer additional rewards for frequent travelers.
Finally, some international destinations are perfectly happy to accept payment in U.S. dollars. According to the travel website Frommers.com, you may find it's not necessary to change your greenbacks into the local currency in more than 30 countries, including:
- The Bahamas
- Costa Rica
- El Salvador
- Mexico (mostly in popular tourist areas)
- Turks & Caicos
There are too many ways you can lose money when you travel. Isn't it comforting to know travelers have plenty of options for saving money — by avoiding foreign exchange fees and stingy exchange rates?