You may have become accustomed to depending on those little pieces of plastic when at home, but on the road paying for that bowl of noodles, train ticket or local beer is unlikely to mean simply whipping out the Visa or waving your Amex.
Carrying your money abroad often means literally carrying it – in cash – as you’re likely to be charged a fee each time you use your card. And it’s certainly going to mean more forward planning than your usual “just popping to the ATM” lifestyle back home requires.
The first question is: where are you headed? Our guide to carrying money abroad is divided into regions, depending on how easily available ATMs, banks and chip and PIN machines might be. Pick your travel destination below and we’ll help you start planning the practicalities behind that skydive you want to do, that market you want to visit, or that cross-continent train journey you’ve got up your sleeve.
Easy money: the UK, most of Europe, Australia and New Zealand
It’s always advisable to have some local currency on you – especially on arrival, you may need it for those first taxi or bus journeys, or that first coffee or meal before you get to an ATM. Throughout your trip you are sure to come across smaller businesses, markets or bars and restaurants that don’t accept debit or credit cards.
If you use American Express, be aware that it’s not as widely accepted as Visa and Mastercard. Carrying both a Visa and a Mastercard is always the best bet, though keep them separate to avoid losing both at once.
It’s also a good idea to keep one credit card in your hotel or hostel, tucked away somewhere hidden, for emergencies.
For security reasons, taking money out of an ATM every few days is a better idea than carrying large amounts of cash. Although using ATMs to withdraw cash is convenient, it can be costly as most banks will charge you a fee when using your card abroad.
Wherever you’re travelling don’t forget to tell your bank so they do not block your card.
Take a tip: the USA and Canada
Although the USA and Canada are also countries where debit and credit cards are widely accepted, you will certainly need cash here – you are expected to tip everyone from taxi drivers and hotel porters to waiting and bar staff.
Before your trip get some US or Canadian dollars and ask for small bills so that you’re ready to tip as soon as you arrive. Be sure to continue breaking larger bills into smaller denominations so you always have one dollar bills for those small tips. Bear in mind that roughly $1 per bag is expected by porters and $5 for valet parking.
Plan ahead: North Africa, South Africa, Japan and South Korea
Although ATMs are reasonably widespread in these areas, you may find that only some banks will accept foreign cards, and that in rural areas (or even smaller towns and cities) there may be no ATMs.
Credit and debit cards are also less widely accepted than you might be used to, especially in smaller restaurants and shops. Plan ahead for what you expect to spend and get cash organized in advance.
If you are travelling for a while, don’t carry all the cash for your trip from the beginning. Instead, plan to withdraw further, larger sums at an ATM in a large city or at an airport or train station, where ATMs are not only more common but also more likely to accept foreign cards.
Where cash is king: most of South America, Southeast Asia and Africa
In these areas cash remains king and you may find that even larger hotels do not accept credit and debit cards. If you are planning to cross any borders you should also expect to need cash for visas and should not assume that there will be an ATM nearby.
Many of these countries have currencies that are either unstable or unpopular, meaning that the US dollar is often accepted widely.
In Vietnam for example, you will even find hotel rates quoted in dollars. Check before you travel and if the US dollar is widely accepted take both dollars and the local currency.
Make sure also that all bills are clean and undamaged, as well as in small denominations such as $10 and $20. A hotel in these destinations may only set you back $20 and a meal $2, so you won’t have much use for $100 bills.
As you may need to pay for everything in cash, even more forward planning is required in these areas. Try to work out a budget for your entire trip, assuming that every cost will need to be paid for in cash, and order the currency you need in advance so that you will have it when you arrive and won’t need to hunt down an ATM. For longer trips, research where you will be able to find an ATM online (generally in larger cities and at airports) and plan to replenish your cash roughly once a week.
Some countries (including Vietnam and Cuba) have a closed currency – meaning it is not freely available outside the country of origin. For these, plan to visit an ATM on arrival (at the airport, if you’re flying in) and carry US dollars at all times.
Note that the countries and regions listed here are generalizations. Thailand differs from Vietnam, and France will be different to Germany. We recommend that you check the Rough Guide to your planned destination, as well as online advice, before travelling.