Money & costs
Chile is not cheap by South American standards, but is more economical than Europe or North America. Prices can double during the late-December to mid-March high season, but travel just before or after the official season and you'll most likely score bargain accommodations. Internal flights devour travel funds at any time of the year.
Shoestring travelers should budget around US$25 per day for food and lodging, though with determination - camping or staying in hostels, eating in markets - you could cut that to below US$20. Surprisingly cheap and ridiculously filling set lunch menus are served by most restaurants - even expensive eateries have very affordable lunchtime deals.
From about US$60 per day you can wine and dine well and sleep in cozy accommodations. Families can enjoy excellent deals in fully equipped cabins wherever Chileans like to spend their summers. Spend more than US$100 per day and you can enjoy luxuries that would commonly cost you double that in North America or Europe.
It's customary to cough up an extra 10% of the bill as a tip in restaurants, except in family-run places, which rarely expect a tip. In general, waiters and waitresses are poorly paid, so if you can afford to eat out, you can afford to tip, and even a small propina will be appreciated. Taxi drivers do not require tips, although you may round off the fare for convenience.
The Chilean unit of currency is the peso (Ch$). Bank notes come in denominations of 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10, 000 and 20, 000 pesos. Coin values are 1, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500 pesos, although one-peso coins are fast disappearing, and even fives and tens are uncommon. Carry small bills with you; it can be difficult to change bills larger than Ch$1000 in rural areas. Gas stations and liquor stores are usually able to, just make an apologetic face and ask, '¿Tiene suelto?'.
Exchange rates are usually best in Santiago. Generally, only Santiago will have a ready market for European currencies. Chile's currency has been pretty stable in recent years, but fluctuation may occur. Paying a bill with US cash is sometimes acceptable, especially at tour agencies (check their exchange rate carefully). Many top-end hotels publish rates in US dollars with a lower exchange rate than the daily one. Compare the rates carefully to determine whether paying in pesos or US cash is the more favorable option. Other than that, expect to pay all transactions in the local currency.
Money transferred by cable should arrive in a few days; Chilean banks will give you your money in US dollars on request. Western Union offices can be found throughout Chile, usually adjacent to the post office.
Accessing funds through an ATM, known as un Redbanc is by far the easiest and most convenient way of carrying money while in Chile. Most ATMs use the Plus (Visa) or Cirrus (MasterCard) systems and will accept your debit card. Most also have instructions in Spanish and English. You may have to pick an option titled 'foreign card' (tarjeta extranjera) before starting the transaction.
You'll find machines in most towns (with the exception of Chile's Pacific Islands and small highland villages) and they are often open 24 hours. They give decent exchange rates though your bank will probably charge a fee for each foreign ATM transaction.
A few banks will exchange cash (usually US dollars only); casas de cambio (exchange houses) in Santiago and more tourist-oriented destinations will also exchange. However, they also charge some commission or have less agreeable rates. More costly purchases, such as tours and hotel bills, can sometimes be paid in US cash.
If you've got plastic in your pocket (especially Amex, Visa and MasterCard) you'll be welcome in most established businesses; however, it's best not to depend on credit. Many businesses will charge up to 6% extra to cover the charge they have to pay for the transaction. Credit cards can also be useful to show 'sufficient funds' before entering another South American country.
A few places have street changers, but they don't offer much difference in rate.
Traveler's checks are the least convenient way to go. Hardly anyone wants to exchange traveler's checks, and those who do offer poor rates. Carrying a combination of monetary forms is wise (traveler's checks are a more secure back-up), but depositing funds into a debit account before going will be most useful.