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Tips for Managing Your Money While Traveling

When I was 21 years old, I left North America for the first time on a three week trip around Europe. I had worked two jobs all summer and saved up every penny I could spare. I went to my bank to ask them how I should manage my money while I was abroad. They told me that I should take traveler’s checks with me.

Traveler’s checks? What is this… 1987?

Being the naive and clueless travel newbie I was, I followed the bank’s advice and brought all my travel savings to Europe with me in traveler’s checks. It was a nightmare. Whenever I tried to cash them anywhere, people looked at me like I was a total nutcase. I ended up using my credit card for virtually everything and bringing my traveler’s checks back home and depositing them straight back into my account.

I realized that managing your money while traveling is a lot easier than people make it out to be. I could take money out of my bank account with my debit card in Paris as easily as I could in Vancouver. Visa or Mastercard are accepted all over the world. I don’t know why the bank didn’t tell me this, but perhaps they didn’t have any experience with travel either and were going off old fashioned advice. (In the last few years, banking has really evolved and I don’t think any bank employee would recommend such an out-dated solution anymore.)

I’m now 26 and have been traveling full time for about the last 4 years, so here are a few little tips that I have learned from my own experience about managing money on the road.

Download a Currency Converter App for Your Phone

Quick – how much is 500 Thai Baht in British Pounds? How much is 1,500 Hungarian Florint in US dollars? Unless you are some sort of mathematical genius and you have memorized all of the currency conversion rates, you will likely not be able to do all of these calculations in your head. Sometimes when you are travelling it is easy to spend too much on something because you don’t actually realize how much it converts to. It is a great idea to download an easy to use currency converter app to your phone so that you can quickly see if that taxi driver is ripping you off or that hostel is really a good deal. We use this one.

Lee in Bangkok - how much did that Pad Thai just cost us? About a dollar? That's alright then.
Lee in Bangkok – how much did that Pad Thai just cost us? About a dollar? That’s alright then.

Create a Separate Bank Account for Your Travel Savings

When I was saving up money for my working holiday in New Zealand, I created a separate account for my travel money. I wanted to keep it separate from my living expenses so that I wouldn’t be tempted to dip in and spend it.I lived as frugally as I could for nearly a year and after I paid my rent and my living expenses each month, the rest of my wage would be transferred over into my travel savings account where I couldn’t touch it. It didn’t take long until I had saved up enough to buy me a flight to New Zealand and to support myself until I found a job. Having two separate accounts will be helpful while you are on the road too, because you will be able to keep a fund for yourself to come back to that you won’t accidentally spend while abroad.

If you are opening a new account, take the time to compare a few different options to find an account that might offer you better interest or rewards for signing up.

Watch Out for International Withdrawal Fees

One of the most convenient ways to access your money while on the road is to withdraw it from ATMs using your debit card. However, although this is very easy and prevents you from having to carry around large amounts of cash, you will be subject to a high fee every time you make a withdrawal. Sometimes the fee can even be doubled up, as both your bank and the foreign bank will charge you.

Call your bank to find out what the international withdrawal fees are, so that you are not shocked on your bank statement at the end of the month. If the fees are extortionate, you might want to consider switching to a bank account that doesn’t charge so much for foreign withdrawals.

Don't forget to save some small change as a souvenir.
Don’t forget to save some small change as a souvenir.

Always Carry Multiple Credit and Debit Cards

ATMs and POS systems around the world can be finicky for no explicable reason, so carry several different cards so that you have a backup. I can’t tell you how many times I have been to a random ATM somewhere in a mall in Bulgaria, a train station in Sri Lanka or a bar in Bangkok and have had to go through all three of the cards in my wallet until something is finally accepted. The other day Lee and I were buying train tickets in England and while his British bank card didn’t work in the card reader, my Canadian credit card did. Very strange.

Beware the “No ATM Zone”

If you plan to do your traveling in some of the more remote and less developed parts of the world, keep in mind that ATMs will not be as accessible as they might be in your home town. Lee and I arrived in the beautiful town of Brinchang, Malaysia in the misty green Cameron Highlands only to realize that the only ATM in the town wouldn’t accept any of our cards. We had to walk 45 minutes down the road to the next town of Tanah Rata to find another bank where we could get money. In Kep, Cambodia we found no ATMs and had to withdraw cash from a local hotel using our credit card. If you are going somewhere remote, take out cash in the nearest city before you go so that you are not caught short.

Plenty of gorgeous scenery, but no ATMs for miles!
Plenty of gorgeous scenery, but no ATMs for miles!

These are just a few of the things that I have learned about managing my money from my experiences traveling the world. if you have any other questions about accessing your money while on the road or want to share your tips, leave a comment below.

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About Kelly Dunning

A Canadian freelance writer with a love of art, culture, literature and adventure, Kelly loves exploring foreign lands and expressing her experiences through the power of the written word.

4 comments

  1. Interesting that you mention travelers checks. I was just thinking about them recently and wondering if they existed anymore and if anyone used them. I guess you’ve answered my question. 🙂

  2. Let your bank know that you’re going to be traveling. Many banks will put a hold on your credit card or ATM card when they see that it’s being used in a foreign country because they assume someone has stolen it. If it happens, you can have them unblock the account by calling the number on your card, but it’s an annoying little hassle that you’d rather avoid if you can.

    Another tip: if you want to feel like a millionaire just head to Vietnam. About $50 should do the trick. 😉

  3. Good post on a very grey area in the travel world. After traveling for multiple years however those bank accounts become much more in depths and that $4 transaction fee followed by the international exchange ratre % along with the monthly operating costs might not mean much on a 14 day all inclusive trip to Dominican republic, it certainly does after 3 years of using a debit machine 2 – 3 times a week. I won’t go into detail here because I’ve researched this subject to an inch of its existence but through researching every possible bank, credit card, debit card, travel card, and travelers cheques, I’ve managed to save myself over $2300 in bank fees in 1 year that would otherwise be gobbled up in the transaction process. The research is worth the reward. Any frugal traveler knows $2300 goes a looooooooooong way 😉

  4. Regarding the “no-ATM” places, we found that it worked better with a credit card than debit card in a cash machine. In Rurrenabaque (Bolivia´s jungle), they have many cash machine that will only work with credit card.

    On another note, it is worth try several ATMs in town from different banks to be able to withdraw as much money as possible. The limit is often very low in one ATM and 5 times higher two blocks away!

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