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Value travel

Lonely Planet's travel money essentials

Joe Bindloss

It’s the ultimate travel nightmare. You use an ATM in a remote part of the world and it eats your card. What do you do? You’re booked to leave on the 8am train and the bank opens at nine. Yesterday was a general strike and tomorrow is a national holiday. All you have left in your pocket is a few notes and there’s still the hotel bill to pay. Eek.

You could always throw yourself on the mercy of strangers – on one occasion in Nepal, we were able to call the bank manager at home and persuade him to get out of bed and retrieve our card – but it’s best to have a plan B, particularly when it comes to your hard-earned travel cash. Here’s how to keep your money flowing on the road.

Carrying cash

The golden rule for travel money is never keep all your eggs (money) in one basket (your bag or wallet). If you get robbed or lose your stuff, you lose everything. Even if you plan to use a bank card for everything, carry a useful amount of cash in an easy-to-change currency hidden somewhere separate from the rest of your valuables.

Everyone has their own trick for hiding the emergency stash. Money belts, secret pockets, a ziplock bag tucked into the lining of your suitcase, an old film canister in your washbag – after all, when was the last time you heard of somebody stealing a washbag?

US dollars, British pounds and Euros are the easiest currencies to change, particularly in the developing world. Even if all the banks and moneychangers are closed, you can usually find a shopkeeper who is willing to exchange a few bills. Keep enough aside to support yourself for several days and use smaller denomination bills, so you don’t have change everything at a disadvantageous rate.

Travelling with cards

If you’d rather rely on plastic, here are a few simple rules that every traveller should follow.

  • Make sure your credit or debit card is accepted in the country you plan to visit.
  • Call your bank and tell them where you are going and when, so they don’t block your card the first time you use it on your travels. Many banks allow you to do this online.
  • Never let your card out of your sight. Most credit card scams require time alone with your card – if you don’t see an electronic-point-of-sale machine, play it safe and pay with cash from an ATM.
  • Keep the emergency phone number handy – that means the local police and the international number to cancel your cards if need be.
  • Check the layout of the keypad on the ATM. Loads of travellers lose their cards by entering the right pattern but the wrong numbers on a foreign ATM keypad.
  • Always carry back-up cash or travellers cheques. ATMs rely on an electricity supply and a phone signal, two things that are notoriously unreliable in the developing world.
  • Be aware of bank charges – banks charge a fee for every withdrawal, and most offer poor exchange rates for credit and debit cards.

Identity theft has made some people reluctant to use their main bank card overseas, but lots of companies offer pre-paid cards that take the risk out of travelling with plastic. Charge the card with as much as you like, and you can use it like a debit card when you travel. As an added bonus, most cards offer favourable exchange rates, and you can recharge the card by phone or SMS.

Changing cheques

While cash is great in an emergency, it does have one big disadvantage – if it gets stolen or lost, you’ll never see it again. Travellers cheques on the other hand are accepted by banks and moneychangers all over the world and are easy to replace if lost or stolen. So long as you have the receipts and the emergency phone number, you can get new cheques in a matter of days, though you may have to travel to a local agency to pick them up.

The global proliferation of ATMs – they even have them high in the Himalaya – has made this a less fashionable option. Cheques are no longer as widely accepted as they used to be, and changing cheques can involve drawn-out bureaucracy and yards of red tape. If you do take cheques, Thomas Cook and American Express are the most widely accepted brands.

Before you buy cheques, contact the issuer to find out how widely cheques are accepted in your chosen destination, and which currency the cheques should be drawn in. If in doubt, carry cheques in US dollars, the unofficial second currency in most of the developing world. Bring a mix of denominations, keep the receipts separate from the cheques, and save the emergency phone number somewhere safe.

Cash-only countries

Of course, there are some destinations where cash is the only game in town. Parts of Africa and Asia have yet to plug into the global ATM network, so the only money available is what you bring in. Most countries have limits on the amount of foreign currency you can import or export, but this is typically in excess of US$10,000 – the challenge is keeping your money safe while you travel.

Follow the golden rules for travelling with valuables. Be discreet with your cash – carry only as much as you need for the day and keep the rest in the hotel safe. While on the move, split your money into several batches, and store them separately. Carry a currency you can change anywhere. Carry travellers cheques as back-up. And always lock your hotel door at night.

Flying by wire

If all other options fail, you could always ask someone to wire you money. Western Union and Moneygram have agents all over the world where you can receive a wire transfer from home, but you pay a premium for the service – sometimes as much as 30% of the transfer amount. Just pray you have an understanding relative!