Ideally, you’re aware of the exchange rate of a country before you arrive. Even though it is difficult to get the exact rates that you find on the internet, it will give you some indication of how much cash you will need to carry with you. In the first year of my travel, I didn’t have a smart phone so I was relying on the internet at the backpacker hostels or internet cafes. At one stage, I didn’t have the opportunity to check the exchange rate before going to a country – Mexico in fact, and my first transaction at the ATM left me with the equivalent of about $14 with a fee of $5. I soon realised that I would need to return and get some more cash in a hurry. It was a lesson that I already knew, but was quickly reminded of. It also pays to know the price of a take away meal in that country to gauge your expenditure.
Some people say that knowing the price of a Big Mac meal or a can of Coke will give you an indication of the local currency. I tend to do a quick skim through a supermarket on the way to an ATM and check out the price of fruit and vegetables, as this is what I mainly eat. Some places have limited access to ATMs, especially in the islands of any area. It always pays to cash up as soon as you are able to do so.
I usually travel with a debit card that accesses my bank account directly from an ATM to limit any interest charges, but I still get fees added on. Often a foreign bank will add its own fees. Check with your bank if they have ‘companion’ banks in the country you’re visiting because you maybe able to avoid this. My main card isn’t guaranteed to work in all machines, so I always have a couple of cards. Usually if one card doesn’t work for some reason, the other one usually will. It increases your options.
A debit card, Maestro or Eftpos rarely works off your bank account in another country other than at an ATM. You will almost always need to have the ability to use your cards as a credit card when making purchases in another country in a shop.
Make sure you have a PIN linked to all your cards so in case of an emergency, you can draw money out of your credit card – But be aware of instant interest charges on withdrawals. Check with your bank.
I have unsuccessfully tried to try and find a card with no overseas transaction fees. Apparently there are a few in Europe, such as Barclays, but when we tried to apply for one, they wouldn’t give us one because we had no employment, so make sure you get your cards organised before you quit your job if that’s part of your plans.
It pays to carry cards from at least two banking institutions because if you report one of your cards lost or stolen, they will often cancel everything and leave you stranded. Sometimes you can do a temporary block on-line if you’ve just misplaced your card. This is a great option if you think it will turn up.
I rarely use money exchange booths as I find their fees usually quite high.