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. What you might be surprised to learn that there are many hidden fees when exchanging money and what used to be an easy way to get cash is no longer widely accepted.
Here are the best currency exchange options for travellers.
Using ATMs / STACK
There’s no doubt in my mind that the STACK is now the cheapest way to get cash while abroad. STACK is a prepaid Mastercard that has no foreign transaction fees. That means when you withdraw money from ATMs outside of Canada, you’ll just pay the Mastercard mid-market rate plus any fees that the local ATM charges. You obviously need to ensure you have preloaded some money into your account, but that’s easy since you can do it through the app. If you sign up for STACK with my referral link, you’ll get $20 when you activate your card. This offer is $5 more than the standard referral of $20, but you must click the link via your mobile device for it to work.
Using your debit card from your bank is also an option, but keep in mind the majority of banks charge the spot rate for the day plus 2.5-3.5%. This wasn’t a big deal before since it was still one of the cheapest ways to get cash, but now with STACK, I can’t imagine I’ll ever use my bank debit card again to get cash.
That being said, I get some people don’t want to sign up for another card, but note that since STACK isn’t a credit card, your credit score doesn’t take a hit when you apply.
If you do decide to stick with your regular bank’s debit card, make sure you call them and let them know that you’ll be travelling so a lock isn’t put on your card the first time you use it outside of Canada. 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.
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.
Check out my list of the best travel rewards credit cards in Canada now to find out which cards have the best signup bonuses.
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 to 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.
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.
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.
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.
This post first appeared on The Huffington Post; it has been modified here for Canadian audiences.