As outlined in our bank fees guide, exchanging cash incurs the highest charges. Therefore, only exchange cash if absolutely needed. ATMs are available almost anywhere nowadays, and withdrawing cash with your low-fee card would (in most cases) be cheaper than exchanging cash. Plus, you don’t need to walk around with stashes of notes that could get stolen.
If you don’t feel comfortable entering a foreign country without cash or you know you will need to pay for entry fees/tourist cards in cash upon arrival, exchange whatever your cash needs are (for the first 24-48 hours) into your destination’s currency.
You can order your desired currency online (for example with Travelex) and collect your order at the airport on the day of your departure. Online FX rates are better than the rates offered at airports and the ones you get at your bank’s FX counter. Make sure you do not pay your currency order by credit card as your card issuer would treat this as a cash advance, incurring cash advance fees (F) and interest on cash advances (G).
If your foreign exchange provider does not sell your desired currency take US dollars or Euros, but note that the cash foreign exchange spread (A2) applies twice.
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What to do with currency left over at the end of your trip?
If you still have a stash of foreign currency when you leave your travel destination, preferably exchange it back to your home currency (or the currency of your next destination) before you leave the country. You may not get the best foreign exchange rate at the airport/seaport but if it’s a rarer currency you may find yourself left with notes no one wants to exchange back home.
If it’s only a small amount it’s not worth trying to exchange it as your foreign exchange commission (B) would eat it all up. And if you have coins left you won’t be able to exchange them at all. Do a good deed and donate your small currency leftovers to charity. You can find collection boxes at airports, and many airlines collect donations during flights.
Want to see more tips like this to make your travel budget stretch further? Follow our handy guides below.
What do we do?
We only carry a relatively small amount of emergency funds (in USD) on us (less than USD100 per person). We withdraw cash from an ATM at the airport upon arrival. If we can’t find an ATM as outlined in our cash withdrawal guide at the airport, we change some of our emergency funds to cover the transport to our accommodation (and then look for an ATM near our accommodation).
Before we leave a country (and move on to our next destination), we change our leftover notes back to US dollars (to replenish our emergency funds) or into the currency of our next destination, depending on how much is left and whichever has the better exchange rate. All our coins are being donated.
Foreign exchange can be a minefield. So, if any of the information provided (above or in any of our other guides) doesn’t make sense please don’t hesitate and send us a comment below or an email.
How do you normally exchange cash for your overseas trip?
I wrote this travel finance article based on my own personal experience. If you, like most people, travel overseas and exchange cash for foreign currency and have something to add, please feel free to contact me. If you liked the tips and found them helpful, I would appreciate if you could share them with your friends and family via the Share buttons below. Even better, link to the page from your personal blog or social media platforms.