How to Access Your Money on the Road: Cash, Credit, Debit, and Traveler’s Checks

What's the best way to get to your money on the road?Updated November 28, 2016

What’s the best way to access your money on the road? What works best internationally, debit or credit? Are there any good tips to avoid fees and comissions from your credit card company?

If you forget everything else, just remember this general guideline – use your credit card for purchases and your debit card for cash. This is because most credit cards charge an extra fee for withdrawing cash.

How to Get Cash On the Road

Cash is king. Everyone accepts it, so you should have at least a little of the local currency on you at all times no matter where you go.

So, how do you access it without unnecessary expense?

  • Exchange your cash before arriving in your next country. Exchange rates are usually more favorable outside of the country whose currency you’re looking for, and can be as much as a 5% lower.
  • Avoid exchanging currency at airports or near tourist sites. The most convenient exchange outlets have the least favorable rates – walk a little and save yourself money.
  • Use an ATM machine to get the best exchange rate available. If you’re arriving without local cash, get it from an airport ATM or bank, not a currency exchange shop.

Since cash is so easy to lose – and steal – only carry a modest amount with you. That way minor theft or loss doesn’t have to be devastating to the rest of your trip.

ATM/Debit cards

ATM machines exist pretty much everywhere that has electricity these days, therefore your debit card will be the most convenient way to get cash around the world.

Unfortunately there are fees to use ATMs – up to 5 bucks per transaction at home and potentially more on the foreign side, so keep withdrawals to a minimum. Taking more out with each withdrawal gives you a smaller percentage of fee per overall use, think $200-$300 withdrawals depending on your daily budget but don’t overdo it, either.

Expect functionality problems with ATM machines in developing nations – a network can often go down for days at a time with no explanation or apology. Try a different bank if this happens, the problem isn’t always system-wide.

Talk to your bank about a spare card that you bring with you on your round-the-world trip and activate and use right away if your first card is lost or stolen.

Ideally your debit card should have a chip-and-PIN built into it for use abroad. In some countries your bank card will be all but useless without it. If your hometown bank doesn’t offer a chip-and-PIN card, it may be a good idea to consider opening an account with a national bank.

Credit cards

Before you go, try to find the best travel credit card for purchases to use on your trip. A big detriment, however, to using a credit card for everything under the sun can be the foreign transaction fee – a charge on all the purchases made overseas. Most major card issuers (American Express, Chase, Capital One) offer cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees and offer airline miles rewards programs to earn mileson each dollar spent, but some cards charge an annual membership fee.

Don’t forget: since credit card companies have the freedom to charge whatever exchange rate they want for transactions, you may end up paying more without even knowing it. American Express often offers more favorable exchange rates in our experience.

Make sure to notify your bank before you depart for a foreign country. They’ll be quick to freeze your account when transactions start appearing thousands of miles from your home address. A quick phone call will save you all kinds of hassle.

Traveler’s Checks

Even though romance of using traveler’s checks wore off long ago, their practicality still lingers — they’ll still come in handy if you’re robbed.  Many hotels won’t change them anymore and they’re nearly impossible to change outside of a bank. While carrying a few to help you out in a pinch isn’t necessarily a bad idea, debit and credit cards are much easier to use on the road.

The Cash Passport card from Travelex

Basically a pre-paid credit card, it’s specifically geared toward the international traveler. The benefit is you don’t have to pay it off later, which is great in hindsight. Load it up before you leave and then collect or spend the cash worry-free on the road. Note that the Cash Passport also has a variable fee for transactions as well. There are also maximum limits on withdrawals and purchases. But like a credit card they offer purchase protection.

This may be a great solution for the chip-and-PIN dilemma with some U.S. debit cards that are still behind the curve, as they’re building this technology into the cards they issue.

Notify Your Bank!

Most credit card companies and many banks have fraud protection as a standard feature. Part of fraud protection is to automatically freeze an account if is any unusual activity posted to it.

It takes virtually no time at all for fail-safes to click into action when there’s been evidence of a threat to your personal identity — it’s automatic and immediate.

Suspicious charges can come in the form of unexpectedly large postings, foreign currencies, unusual company names or foreign locations, those out of the geographic area in which your account exists.

For example, if  you start making purchases in Vietnam out of the blue (because you’re there on your multi-stop trip) your bank will likely freeze your account until you tell them what’s going on.

Normally this would be a feature you encourage, but when you need a train ticket and you suddenly have no access to your cash you’re suddenly in a tight spot.

So take a moment a few days before you depart and call the customer service numbers on your credit cards and tell them the countries you’ll be visiting and the dates you’ll be there.

Photo Credits: KANOWA