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Photo: bradipo

During a recent trip to Paris, one of my companions said he needed to find a bank to change money. No, you don’t, I said. Changing money is so last century — like travelers’ checks and bank drafts.

Use an ATM, I advised. It’s the easiest way to get a good exchange rate without getting whacked with a big fee.

He declined, saying he was afraid of identity theft. Understandable — but there are ways to minimize exposure. I use a no-fee debit card linked to a separate checking account in which I keep only enough to cover my trip plus some online bill payments. And I only use the ATMs at branches of well-known foreign banks; in Paris that was BNP Paribas. Just as I do at home, I avoid the freestanding machines in cafes or convenience stores; they’re likely to charge a big fee and are probably easier to tamper with.

Whenever I use an ATM in a foreign country, I’m hyper-vigilant, even a little paranoid. I’ll ask a companion to stand guard, and when I’m alone, I cover the keypad with my hand. If something doesn’t seem quite right about the ATM, or if I see anyone loitering nearby, I’ll pass it by and find another bank. Thieves do target tourists, and I never want to make the assumption that I don’t look like a tourist.

I don’t carry a large amount of cash, knowing I can charge most of my major purchases — hotel, restaurants, expensive souvenirs — as Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted. For charging purchases, I sometimes use a Capital One Venture card, which doesn’t impose fees for international use. A partial list of no-fee cards includes the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, as well as a number of other Chase cards; American Express Platinum; some Bank of America cards; and Discover, which is accepted in Japan by stores displaying the JCB logo and in China through China Union Pay.

Some cards issued by credit unions either charge low fees (as little as 1%) or no fees at all.

Inquire about the fees your credit card company may assess before you leave home. If you don’t, you may be hit with a big bill — usually a 3% (minimum) cash advance fee, plus ATM fees. And the money you withdraw will be subject to the company’s highest interest rates, up to 20%, beginning the day you withdraw the money (no grace period) — and until you pay off your entire balance.

Also, be sure to inform your credit card company of your travel plans. If you don’t, your card may be declined. Fraud has become such a worldwide problem that companies are on the alert.

And if, for some reason, you do plan to change some cash on arrival, try to avoid the Travelex currency exchange desks in airports. On a day when the exchange rate was €75.95 for $100, Travelex was offering me only €68.81.

Know before you go

Track current exchange rates with converters on sites like Yahoo! Finance,, and, to name just a couple. is one of several companies offering a free smartphone app currency converter.

Since the introduction of the Euro, life has become easier for travelers to most European countries — no more change purses full of coins for every country visited. Euros are also widely accepted in some countries that have their own currencies, such as Switzerland and Turkey.

In hopeful anticipation of my next trip, I get extra cash whenever the exchange rate is favorable, as it has been recently.

Of course, on many trips you’ll never have to change money at all. In Jamaica, American dollars are more than welcome, even by small vendors at craft fairs. This holds true for most Caribbean islands and many countries throughout Latin America, such as: Panama, Ecuador, El Salvador, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos, the British Virgin Islands, and members of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St Vincent and the Grenadines). In fact, armed with American dollars and a fistful of Euros for St. Barths, my mother and I managed a two-week cruise of the Caribbean without even seeing foreign currency.

Several countries around the world have turned to the dollar to stabilize their troubled economies. In Cambodia, the dollar is more welcome than the local riel. Zimbabwe began using the dollar as one of its official currencies in 2009. Their biggest problem now is a shortage of change, so if you go to this Southern African nation, bring plenty of small bills and coins.

Financial Savvy


About The Author

Nina Africano

Nina's international travels started with a sunburn in Antigua at the age of two. Since then she has studied in Paris, played golf in Scotland, danced in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, and shopped the casbah of Tangiers. A member of SATW, IFWTWA, and the MGWA, Nina often writes about golf and sports-related travel, spas, art, wine, and restaurants.

  • Shuni Vashti

    May I ask several things, please.

    What does “… Discover, which is accepted in Japan by stores displaying the JCB logo and in China through China Union Pay.” mean? Are you suggesting to apply for Discover before traveling to China or Japan? Won’t there be an application cost? An annual fee (although only used for 1 month)? Can Discover be applied from Indonesia? Are you sure Discover is WIDELY ACCEPTED in China?

    Does Citibank include in “some Bank of America cards”?

    Based on my traveling experience in China, some hotels and shops accept China Union Pay, but many accept CASH ONLY. Of course if what you mean with China is Beijing, Shanghai, then that’s a different story.

    Some hotels in Hokkaido, Japan, let prospective guests know from the start that they accept CASH ONLY with no exception. Same thing, if what you mean with Japan is Tokyo, it’s another different story.

    Maybe my home-country, Indonesia, is the exception in this world, I don’t know. But in my case, exchanging cash prior to departure is much more beneficial than cashing money on the spot using ATM card, because the banks usually apply high rate and charge fee. Cashing money using ATM is usually the last choice. Using credit card is still better option than ATM. However, when it comes to China, my ATM card just turns useless for there’s no ATM machine for Cirus Alto. My credit card (Citibank) can only withdraw cash from Bank of China’s ATM machine.

    In Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi), exchanging USD with VND at the AIRPORT’s money changer has 90% proofed more beneficial than exchanging in down town’s money changer. This is based on my 6 times traveling Vietnam back and forth in different periods of time. Why not just use ATM? That’s back to previous paragraph. Also in Kuala Lumpur, I’ve once experience pretty low rate at the airport’s money changer.

    “I don’t carry a large amount of cash, knowing I can charge most of my major purchases — hotel, restaurants, expensive souvenirs — as Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted.” –> To me, it looks like referring to major metropolitan cities, or the popular tourist spots, only.

    So is Euro accepted in Turkey, but only in the major areas. Or, it can be like this. In Cappadocia, I paid my room with Euro. But because the host wasn’t accustomed to doing transaction in Euro, she had no change in Euro. Thus, she gave me the change in TL. It didn’t come out good for me, because she calculated with high rate. I could have benefit more if I had exchanged my Euro beforehand at a money changer and paid my host in TL.

    The only thing I can relate to in your article is that Cambodia prefers USD to Riel. However, I only traveled Phnom Penh in Cambodia. If I traveled Cambodia like I have been traveling China, Vietnam, or Japan, it might be a different story. Maybe.

    “Nina often writes about golf and sports-related travel, spas, art, wine…” –> That indicates your class. I see.

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