How To Get Local Currency for Your Trip

December 16, 2013 — 8 Comments

After traveling for work for ten years and a nine month trip around the world, I’ve collected some strategies for traveling cheaper. I’ll cover them in a ten part series in this order:

A. The flight
How to Book the Cheapest Flight
How to Use Free Flight Stopovers
How to Find Alternatives to Expensive Flights
Finding the Cheapest Airport Transportation
B. The Hotel / Accommodation
How to Book Cheapest Hotel Rooms
How to Find Hotel Alternatives
How to Use Hotel Points
C. Arriving
How to Get Local Currency for Your Trip
Avoid International ATM Fees!
Know How Much Things Cost

How to get local currency for your trip - Vietnamese Dong

Wow, we’re rich! Oh wait, this is only about $5 US!!

One of our biggest concerns when planning our round the world trip was how to get local currency at the 20+ countries we’d visit.  Although you can get by in the United States and western Europe solely on credit cards, most of the world still works on cash and if you’ll be in a country for more than a few days, it’s usually worth it to get their currency.

The most popular ways to get local currency for your vacation are to exchange currency you brought from home or get cash out of the ATM.  There are a few other methods to get cash that I’ll discuss at the end of the post, but I don’t think they’re very good.

One caveat before we get into the “how” – make sure you research your destination a little bit instead of just hoping one of these methods work because in some countries such as Myanmar, they’re still working to get international ATMs!  Luckily we researched in advance so we had enough US currency to exchange with local money changers, but if we were going to solely depend on ATM’s we would’ve been in trouble.

How to get local currency from ATMs

Our preferred method for getting local currency was to use the ATM at the airport as soon as we entered the country.  This worked 95% of the time and made our trip into town much less stressful because we could easily pay the bus fare or taxi driver with their currency.

You will need to make sure you have a debit card/credit card that will allow international transactions.  We used Chase which leverages the “Plus” network and we only had a few ATMs where it didn’t work, but we always found another ATM in the general location that did work.

Another thing to think about is that you’ll usually get hit with ATM fees from the foreign ATM as well as your bank, so we’d usually take out the maximum cash amount to try minimize our additional fees.  We used 60+ ATMs across the world to get local currency and were lucky enough to not have our card information stolen or our card eaten by the machine!  On that note, make sure you have a back up card just in case that happens.

Get local currency by exchanging

I consider currency exchange more dangerous than ATMs based on our own experience.  If you do plan to use currency exchange booths, follow these tips:

1.  Download a currency exchange calculator to your smart phone or at least know what the exchange rates should be

2.  Run the exchange numbers before you hand over cash at the exchange booth to make sure you’re not getting ripped off too bad

3.  Don’t hand over your cash until they tell you how much you’ll receive with the exchange

Additional Tips

– Bring crisp bills because some exchange booths won’t take beat up bills

– You’ll usually get a better rate for larger bills ($100’s and $50’s are usually the highest rates)

– Stay away from airport currency exchange booth if at all possible!

We got ripped off by atrociously high fees at exchange rate booths that looked the most ‘official’ and were oftentimes the first one you’d see at an airport.  We only used airport currency exchange booths if we were absolutely desperate.

Additional Exchange Methods

The most often discussed additional currency exchange method is to take Traveler’s Cheques.  I think this might have been good twenty years ago, but with the advent of international ATMs, they aren’t so good anymore!  You can usually find places to exchange them in Europe, but it gets much harder in the rest of the world to find places that will exchange them.  There are some other desperation methods like Western Union that might save you in a bind, but I’d never use them as my primary exchange method.

No matter your method for obtaining local currency, make sure you have a decent cash stash in US Dollars or Euros to bail you out if you run into problems getting money.  In the beginning of our 9 month trip we tried to have $500-$1,000 US on hand, but by the end we were down to a couple of hundred.  This saved us a few times when were unable to get local currency.

Do you have any additional tips for how to get local currency while traveling?  If so, please add them in the comments!

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8 responses to How To Get Local Currency for Your Trip

  1. It is interesting how much the atm has become a part of our lives. The machines are everywhere. When i was in the Marines they weren’t as prevalent. I think out of my entire time overseas i saw one atm outside of a military base. That was in Aubu Dhabi.

  2. That was interesting. I’ve only traveled to Eruope so it wasn’t a big issue. My brothers both travel to countries less popular and local cash is a must. The best part for them is their company takes care of the cash handling for them. 🙂

    • Oh wow, that’d be nice!! It can be tough traveling internationally for business because many companies (like my own) only let you use your corporate AmEx… which many places in Asia don’t take!

  3. I guess I was surprised about the use of ATM machines in eastern countries. I didn’t think they would be so prevalent. In the “olden days” you could also get cash at a local American Express office. Is that still true?

  4. We have done our fair share of traveling. ATM’s were great. Sometimes we had to use more expensive ways to exchange, but we always had our cash in hand before leaving the airport. We also found that in some places people like the American dollar and wanted us to pay using them, this is when you need to know what it is worth.

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