The 5 Best Currency Exchange Options For Travellers

You’ve booked your flights, your itinerary is set and now all you need is some local money. Getting foreign currency is easy but choosing the right method could save you a ton of cash.

Here are the best currency exchange options for travellers.

1. Using ATMs

Using ATMs is the best currency exchange option to get cash at the lowest rate. ATMs are everywhere and the best part is they only charge the spot rate of the day plus 2.5%.

Your home bank might charge you an additional $2-5 for using a foreign ATM but this fee can sometimes be waived depending on your account status. Don’t forget to call your bank and let them know you’ll be travelling otherwise they may block your card on suspicion of fraud. If the fee won’t be waived, just max out your daily withdrawal limit each time to avoid making excessive trips to the ATM.

To find out which foreign ATMs are affiliated with your bank, check the back of your debit card and look for the PLUS (VISA) or Cirrus (MasterCard) symbols. When you’re overseas, search for ATMs with the matching networks and you should be good. Both VISA and MasterCard have ATM locators so you can find the right ATM before you even take off.

Not only is using ATMs the cheapest way to get money, it’s also the safest way since you’ll never be carrying large amounts of cash. Note that internationally, 4-digit pins are the standard for ATM cards so change yours before you depart if it differs.

2. Credit cards

Credit cards are a must these days since you’ll need them to book a hotel room or make large purchases. Credit card providers charge slightly more than ATMs by adding 2.5-3% on top of the spot rate whenever you make a purchase in a foreign currency.

You can avoid this fee altogether by picking up a Canadian credit card without foreign transaction fees. It works exactly the way it sounds; you won’t be charged any additional fees when you make a purchase in a foreign currency. It’s worth signing up for one of these cards even if you use it just when travelling

If you have a travel rewards credit card you get extra benefits that can save you a lot of money and grief. Most of these cards include travel medical insurance, lost/delayed baggage insurance, and trip cancellation/interruption as a standard benefit. With any insurance policy, read the fine print to find out exactly what you’re covered for.

Similar to your ATM card, call your credit card provider to let them know about your travel plans to avoid any service interruptions. Note that internationally, 4 digit pins are the standard.

best currency exchange

3. Foreign exchange offices

Foreign exchange offices are located in popular tourist areas and airports. They offer better rates than the bank and in some countries their exchange rates are very competitive, but you need consider any additional fees that they might charge. They’re also convenient if you’re trying to get rid excess currency from a country you just left.

If you’re looking to exchange money before you depart, foreign exchange offices can offer good value as long as you do your research. Look for an exchange office where thee spread is less than 2.5% and they charge no fees. The spread is different for every currency so just because it’s a fair rate for one currency, doesn’t mean it’s the same for another.

4. Using a bank

Getting foreign currency at your home bank is usually the first place you think of, but it’s a huge rip-off since they can easily charge upwards of 10% on the spread. Considering spending is a big part of any trip, that’s a pretty big premium you’re paying.  Of course, you don’t want to show up in a new country without any local money so exchanging enough for a cab ride to your hotel is still a must.

That being said if you’re changing money to a neighboring country’s currency e.g. US dollars to Canadian dollars or Sterling to Euros, the bank spread is usually fair.

5. Traveller’s Cheques

I’m not sure why traveller’s cheques are still billed as a convenient and safe way to carry funds for travel; they really aren’t widely accepted anymore. You pay a commission on the cheques on top of the spread when you cash them in, so you’re effectively paying a fee twice. They can give you peace of mind but there are better options available these days.

 Related: Save money on your next trip with Airbnb

Final word
Generally speaking this list presents the best currency exchange options, however, your individual experience may differ. It’s impossible to predict what will happen when travelling; bank machines might act up, or your local exchange office could be more expensive. Do your due diligence and pick the method that works best for you.

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This post first appeared on The Huffington Post; it has been modified here for Canadian audiences.
Photo By Bindalfrodo via StockPholio.com

By | 2017-04-04T02:04:54+00:00 January 22nd, 2015|Budget Travel, Credit cards, Personal Finance, Travel|

35 Comments

  1. Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom January 22, 2015 at 11:11 am - Reply

    When we travel, we use our credit card whenever possible. We like it because we don’t encourage ourselves to spend all the money we’ve converted. We made it two weeks in Iceland without having to use cash once. We have a travel card, but I think we still got charged for the exchange. I’m interested in that Amazon card now…

    • Barry Choi January 22, 2015 at 11:22 am - Reply

      Emily, I also use credit a lot when travelling so as you can imagine having a forex free card has saved me quite a bit of money over the years. Definitely get the Amazon one for foreign currency purchases and use your regular travel card for benefits/rewards. Oddly enough I’m considering Iceland this year.

  2. Virna January 22, 2015 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    Great post Barry. I will definitely check out Amazon card as those forex fees do add up.

  3. Tawcan January 22, 2015 at 2:51 pm - Reply

    We typically use credit cards when we travel but also carry some foreign cash.

    • Barry Choi January 22, 2015 at 3:23 pm - Reply

      Tawcan, having some cash is a must hence why I’ll use ATMs when i need it.

  4. DanaDavid Krzyszton January 23, 2015 at 4:44 pm - Reply

    So technically speaking, the Amazon credit card with no foreign exchange fee is actually the cheapest method of payment while travelling, as you pay only the spot rate of the day. When you use your bank card at an ATM you still have to pay the 1-2% fee in addition to the spot rate.

    • Barry Choi January 23, 2015 at 4:54 pm - Reply

      DanaDavid, technically yes assuming the spot rate is indeed charged. With ATMs is usually near the spot rate but some do charge that extra 1-2%. Of course cash is needed sometimes but I do try to charge to credit when I can.

  5. No Nonsense Landlord January 24, 2015 at 8:53 am - Reply

    The Credit Card is typically the best. And do not under-estimate the ability to buy things with the good ol’ USD. Many merchants will take it, but often their exchange rate is a real rip-off.

    • Barry Choi January 24, 2015 at 9:05 am - Reply

      No Nonsense Landlord, yes generally speaking I prefer to charge most things since credit cards also give you price protection.

  6. B. Causeiknow January 27, 2015 at 11:17 am - Reply

    My advice (for what it’s worth) is to use a credit card for hotel and restaurant payments, i.e., large payments, but take cash as ‘pocket money’. Use a debit card at the ATM but, definitely, not a credit card. It’s just a matter of planning.

    It’s like someone who uses a credit card to buy groceries … if you don’t have it, don’t use it.

    Sorry to spoil your vacation.

    • Barry Choi January 27, 2015 at 11:24 am - Reply

      B. Causeiknow,

      That’s a fair point, many people can get carried away with using credit. Using cash to make payments will encourage us to spend less since we’ll physically see the money disappearing.

  7. David Robertson January 27, 2015 at 1:01 pm - Reply

    I’ve been using Amazon Visa for the last 6 months as my go to foreign transaction credit card. Exchange fees do add up as I recently received a letter from other credit card indicating they were crediting my M/C 600 dollars as they had made an error on their pre-recorded call center messages indicating their was no conversion fees for foreign transactions, but going forward they would charge me 2.5 percent.

    • Barry Choi January 28, 2015 at 9:29 am - Reply

      David,

      Nice of them to honour their mistake. I’ve had bank employees tell me information in person that I knew was incorrect, had I been someone else I may have ended up paying a ton of extra charges and there would be no record to back up my claim.

  8. Brin January 28, 2015 at 11:31 am - Reply

    If you want to exchange a larger amount of money either use a discount broker or use some called Norbert’s gambit .I recently used Norbert’s gambit in my investment account to exchange $5,000 with a .5 % cost.

    • Barry Choi January 28, 2015 at 11:32 am - Reply

      Brin,

      Yes brokers are probably best if you need to change a massive amount. Norbert’s gambit is great for investing purposes but I suppose you could do the Gambit and then withdraw the money if you have the time.

  9. Smartwatch Rankings January 28, 2015 at 12:12 pm - Reply

    Can’t emphasize not exchanging at a bank enough, some will charge a delivery fee in addition to the horrible exchange rate for any currency they don’t have in stock, the XE app is a very handy one to have at all times. I vote for the Amazon Visa as the most convenient way to pay when travelling as you’re not carrying around a large amount of cash. ATM’s are second but the drawback is carrying large amounts of cash,as every withdrawal will cost you so you may want to withdraw a large amount depending on your length of stay. That also means paying attention to your withdrawal limit as it can be low “for your protection” and that will mean multiple trips to the ATM depending on where you’re travelling. The best option would be to use the money exchangers that can be found in many countries in the market areas or on busy streets, I find them to have rates equal to or better than the xe.com exchange rates and this will add up to significant savings and knock on wood, I haven’t had a problem using so far.

    • Barry Choi January 28, 2015 at 12:18 pm - Reply

      Smartwatch,

      Maxing out your ATM withdrawal limit is ideal but yes be sure to head back to your hotel to drop off your excess cash. I have also found some foreign exchange offices in some countries to be quite competitive but this was only in Jordan and Egypt.

  10. Local traveller January 28, 2015 at 1:05 pm - Reply

    Great comments people. Maybe someone can answer my question. When I travel to the US I usually buy some US cash from a local , at home, exchange outlet ( leaves the banks in the dust ) and head south with my credit cards and debit card. When I need US cash I go to Walmart , or some other large retail chain , buy some small needed item , and on paying , us my debit card to get cash back. The cash back is a ” purchase ” and no fee is charged. The rate does not seem unreasonable and it’s very convenient.
    My question is , is it possible to do this type of transaction in other , say European countries ?

    • Barry Choi January 28, 2015 at 3:31 pm - Reply

      Local traveller,

      In my own experience I’ve never seen cash back options in Europe and Asia. I suppose it would work but I wonder how much Wal-Mart or any merchant changes on their spreads.

  11. David January 28, 2015 at 5:17 pm - Reply

    As an emergency protection, as well as using some foreign cash for arrival and ATMs and credit cards, I usually take some cdn travellers cheques. At my bank there is no charge (there is for US, plus exchange), and I don’t usually use them, and can cash them back on return at zero cost.

    • Barry Choi January 28, 2015 at 6:08 pm - Reply

      David,

      If you can cash them back at zero cost that’s a pretty solid idea.

  12. Laurie January 29, 2015 at 12:02 am - Reply

    It’s worth noting that you can’t be sure your ATM card will work in foreign countries. Our CIBC cards worked consistently in Guatemala in 2013 but our friends TD cards didn’t so we gave them money and they paid us back later. Many places didn’t take Visa and some of the banks were for customers only and would not allow cash advances against a Visa card so it would have been a hassle if we had not been successful. Most of the ATMs there had a really small daily max withdrawal limit so our bank fees really added up. Maybe it’s better now.

    In Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca Mexico the HSBC has many times, over a number of years, taken the funds from the Cdn bank account but not advanced the funds at the machine. It happened twice to me and several times to another CIBC card user. It takes at least two months to get the CIBC to put the money back -a big problem if you don’t have a decent cash reserve and expensive if on overdraft. In 2012 the Bancomer ATM would not accept a CIBC card but it had for the several previous years and went back to accepting them in 2013. Bancomer said it had been an agreement issue between the banks and the CIBC said it was a problem with the foreign bank, not them. This month I tried to help someone with a Credit Union card from Winnipeg and another with a TD card and Bancomer would not accept either but minutes later the HSBC ATM on the next steeet did. If you’re in an area with poor phone / Internet connectivity the ATMs may not accept your foreign card as the transaction won’t go through so patience is required.

    Thanks for the tip about the Chase Amazon card.

    • Barry Choi January 29, 2015 at 12:35 am - Reply

      Laurie,

      Excellent points, odd that your friends TD cards didn’t work. Assuming they had a 4 digit pin and they used an ATM on the Plus network it should have worked. Oddly enough I have always found HSBC to be the most reliable ATM. I tend to carry some emergency Canadian cash with me. If I get into a jam I just change it at a foreign exchange office.

      • traveller February 3, 2015 at 2:26 pm - Reply

        Barrie, that isn’t odd.
        Happens REALLY often.

        • Barry Choi February 3, 2015 at 2:29 pm - Reply

          Yikes that’s unfortunate. I’ve only come across minor issues when using partner ATMs. I did lose my debit card in Buenos Aires, that was a huge pain.

  13. John Di January 29, 2015 at 8:35 pm - Reply

    When going to a country regularly worth setting up an account with a local bank in that country.

    In parts of I convert $cdn to Euro for a Euro1.50 fee regardless of amount. Plus local merchants offer amazing discounts when paying with cash.

    The trade off is the monthly acct fees but all in it is worth it. I have heard of similar options for snow birds that go to Florida – just keep the transaction under the mandatory reporting amount.

    For credit card lovers get one in the local currency (US$ or Euro) and keep an acct in those currency and top up when currency exchange is more favorable – there are many no fee cards for this.

    • Barry Choi January 29, 2015 at 9:16 pm - Reply

      John,

      Yes if you’re making regular visits it might be totally worth setting up an account that holds the foreign currency.

  14. Our Big Fat Wallet January 30, 2015 at 11:58 pm - Reply

    I recently converted some cash at foreign currency shop called Calforex. Funny thing is that I originally went to the bank and they were the ones that told me Id be able to get a better rate by going there. I’m all for saving money so I went there and got a slightly better rate

    • Barry Choi January 31, 2015 at 1:02 am - Reply

      Dan,

      Yeah banks charge some crazy spreads and they usually need to order the currency. ATMs and credit are my preferred choices.

  15. traveller February 3, 2015 at 2:35 pm - Reply

    I find this article is full of misleading information. Way too simplistic.
    Everything discussed MIGHT be correct, or could easily be wrong, it all depends.

    For instance, please tell me one Canadian bank that only takes a 1 percent spread off the interbank rate for foreign currency withdrawals. And exchange houses I have checked charge way more for converting currency than one of my banks does. Traveller’s cheques can be commission free, depending. ATMs can have major problems from running out of cash, not working with your card (very common) and fraud.

    The only thing I agree is correct, is about the amazon ca credit card!

    • Barry Choi February 3, 2015 at 3:11 pm - Reply

      Everyone’s personal experience is different so it’s important to do your due diligence to figure out what the best option is for you.

      Sure ATMs can give you problems but they also offer incredible convenience. There’s no way to predict in advance. Some traveller’s cheques may offer no fees but they still aren’t widely accepted.

      In the end travellers should just pick the option that they are most comfortable with.

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  17. judy August 13, 2017 at 1:28 pm - Reply

    I am interested in getting money back when I make a purchase at Wal-Mart
    is there any chagprg for this
    how well does work

    • Barry Choi August 13, 2017 at 2:27 pm - Reply

      Hi Judy,

      Any cash-back credit card will allow you to earn money back while shopping at Wal-Mart. Some cards have annual fees while others don’t.

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