Credit and debit cards have modern flair, but cold, hard cash is still an international traveler’s best friend.
But how do you even get foreign currency these days? How much cash should you take? And whatever happened to travelers checks? We talked with currency expert Bruce Beattie, owner of Foreign Currency Exchange in Birmingham, Mich., who keeps close watch on travel money issues around the world.
Q: Why would an international traveler need cash at all? Isn’t cash old-fashioned?
A: “Cash is still critical for emergencies and for smaller purchases where you can’t use a debit or credit card,” Beattie says. “Have some foreign currency so if you arrive at an airport and can’t find an ATM, you have enough money for a taxi, train or a bottle of water at least.”
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Q: But can’t I just use my debit or credit card abroad? I have one with no foreign transaction fees.
A: U.S. credit cards still do not work everywhere in the world or work in strange ways, he says. For instance, “Germany is still largely a cash country even though it is the biggest euro zone. You can’t charge a cup of coffee there. They want cash for anything under $30, basically.”
Sometimes, even a no-fee credit card will register overseas as a cash advance, incurring fees. Sometimes, your credit card simply won’t work, even if it has chip and pin technology. Always take backup cards. And, of course, cash.
Q: Whatever happened to travelers checks?
A: They still exist, but almost no one uses them. “It got to the point that counterfeiters figured out how to make them,” says Beattie. “In one famous case in Milan, $40,000 of fake travelers checks were passed. Then nobody wanted to take them anymore. We stopped selling them in 2007. People would tell us they couldn’t cash them anywhere.
“If you still have them, deposit them into your bank account. They are still good.”
Q: If you don’t bring enough foreign currency, where can you get it abroad?
A: “Currency exchange windows at airports, railway stations and hotels have the worst rates, and cruise ships, too, because you are a captive audience,” he says. Instead, use a bank or bank-owned ATM, preferably one inside of a bank for the best rates and safest transaction. “If you use an independent ATM you are at risk of skimming machines (that criminals install to commit fraud). Also, privately owned ATMs can charge as much as 10 percent in fees, plus the regular exchange fee.”
Q: What about changing money on the street?
A: Not a great idea. “You might pay a bit more at a bank, but it is worth it. We had a travel agent take a group to Tanzania. They bought old Tanzania dollars on the street that turned out to be worthless,” he says. “They got taken.”
Q: You sell foreign currency. I’m sure a lot of people take only like $500, but do some people carry a lot of cash, like tens of thousands?
A: Yes, says Beattie, who sells to everyone from experienced business travelers to first-time study-abroad students. “I always ask people, what is your comfort level with carrying cash? If it is not high, don’t carry too much because you will be worried about it.” If you do carry cash, split it up and keep most of it in the hotel safe. Be sure you know rules on how much cash is allowed to be taken in and out of the countries you plan to visit.
Q: Why is the exchange rate I get never as good as what I see on currency information sites like www.xe.com?
A: Those are rates for large currency market transactions and midpoint between buy/sell rates, he says. Still, published rates give you a rough idea of the true retail exchange rate. “With the euro, we are (selling it) about 3-4 percent above the XE rate,” says Beattie. “The rates on some more exotic (unusual) currency can be different.”
Q: What if you find yourself without any cash or credit cards?
A: “Someone can wire you money via Moneygram or Western Union. In our experience, transit time, depending on where you are, is 10 minutes to a week. Sometimes someone takes a cut of it along the way,” he says.
Q: What about a prepaid credit card where you can add value to it?
A: Be careful. “Some prepaid cards you buy are actually like gift cards and can only be used in the United States,” he says. However, a card like the prepaid VISA Travel Money card or Travelex Cash Passport prepaid Mastercard is reloadable and usable in other countries, making it good for students studying abroad.
Q: If you buy too much foreign currency, can you change it back into U.S. dollars when you get home?
A: “Yes. But you will get less for it than you paid for it.”
Q: What about old foreign currency? Can I still use it when I travel or trade it in?
A: “It depends on the currency itself. Some have a window in which you can turn it in. For instance, Germany uses the euro. But the old German mark has not closed the window for exchange; it still has value. But the Italian lira and French franc, those countries stopped honoring that currency a few years ago.”
Q: So if I have old French francs are they worthless?
A: “Pretty much, except to the secondary market of collectors. Some people collect old foreign currency. It has to be in pristine shape,” he says. “But a lot of currency has the same problem. In Switzerland, any currency prior to the past two issues have been de-monetized. It has no value. Sometimes I have people come in, maybe their father has passed away and they open a safe deposit box and find this old currency, maybe 4 grand worth of old Swiss francs, and I have to tell them it has no value.”
Q: What countries have money that never expires?
A: The U.S. and just a couple others. The euro (which the public began using in 2002) does not expire (at least yet). “Most currency expires. Brazil, for example, has had three or four currency changes since the ‘70s,” he says.
Q: Some places in the world accept tips in U.S. dollars but they ask for crisp new bills. Why?
A: So the bills can more easily be verified as real and be accepted for exchange at their banks, Beattie says. Once he was traveling in Asia and tried to exchange a bill that had a sharp crease on the face of the president. After a long examination, the bank clerk finally took it.
How to find out current foreign exchange rates: Go to www.xe.com. These are not retail rates, but this gives you an idea of trends and a rough idea of what the dollar is worth around the world.
How to find bank ATMs around the world that don’t charge a fee: If you are a Bank of America customer, you can withdraw money at ATMs belonging to eight Global ATM Alliance partner banks around the world with no fee, such as Scotiabank in Canada, Barclays in Britain and Deutsche Bank in Germany. Citibank customers can find many ATMs around the world. Other travelers will incur ATM fees when they travel.
Where to find out more about world currencies: The bible of foreign currency is the Houston-based MRI Bankers Guide to Foreign Currency. (www.mriguide.com). Just for fun, take a look at the “updates” section to see the latest on the wild world of currency.
What $1 U.S. buys in foreign currency:
65 Russian rubles
7.55 Guatemalan quetzals
1.76 Bulgarian levs
1.33 Australian dollars
103 Japanese yen
1.31 Canadian dollars
.75 British pounds
Source: www.xe.com, Aug. 30