International travel is full of excitement. Seeing new places, trying new cuisines, and navigating a different culture lead to memories that last a lifetime.
As a college student or young professional, travel can be one of the most rewarding ways to spend your well-earned money.
But with all the excitement of traveling abroad, you can’t forget about managing your money. In addition to having the right currency and understanding foreign exchange rates, you’ll want to take measures to manage your money well while on the move.
While traveling doesn’t have to be more expensive than your day-to-day life, there are extra considerations to take to keep money safe while traveling.
Before you leave
1. Alert your bank and credit card company
Alerting your bank and credit card company used to be a standard practice when traveling abroad — so “suspicious” charges in another country didn’t put a freeze on your accounts.
These days, however, banks are a little better at tracking fraud. But alerting your bank and credit card company still can’t hurt — especially if you’ve never traveled abroad with your card and want to make sure you don’t run into any issues with your account.
2. Look into your cards’ foreign transaction fees
Foreign transaction fees — tacked onto any purchase made outside of the U.S. — can add up fast when you’re traveling abroad. If you’re not sure if your card company charges foreign transaction fees, give them a call before your trip to find out. While you’re on the phone, ask if there are specific ATMs to use that will help you avoid extra fees.
If your cards do charge foreign transaction fees and you have enough time before your trip, you might want to consider getting a credit card that doesn’t charge them. If you plan to do more traveling abroad in the future, a card without foreign transaction fees will save you a lot of money over the years.
3. Save copies of important information
Before you leave, make sure you have access to all of your important bank and credit card information in case something happens and you lose your cards. Keep an accessible digital record of the following:
- Your bank’s phone number
- Your credit card company’s phone number
- Your credit and debit card numbers
It might be easiest to take photos of your cards and save them on your phone. The important thing is to be able to access your card numbers and contact your bank in case of an emergency.
4. Confirm or purchase travel insurance
If you have a travel credit card, chances are it comes with travel insurance benefits. These benefits can come in handy when things don’t work out as planned — like when your flight gets delayed or your rental car windshield cracks. You don’t want to be on the hook for added expenses, especially after working hard to plan a trip within your budget.
Look up the travel insurance benefits that come with your card so you know exactly what’s covered. If you don’t have a travel credit card — or your benefits don’t cover enough — consider buying travel insurance. You can compare policies online using sites like SquareMouth and Travelinsurance.com to find the best option for your trip.
5. Get some local currency
It’s always wise to have at least some local currency on hand before arriving at your destination. You never know when you’ll have unexpected card troubles and need cash when there’s no ATM or bank around. Bring at least enough cash to get you a couple of meals, a hotel room, and transportation to tide you over until you can access a bank or ATM.
And don’t wait until you get to the airport to get cash, or you’ll pay a fortune to exchange currencies. Instead, call your bank ahead of time to see if you can exchange your money there — you’ll usually get a much better deal.
6. Consider a prepaid travel debit card
If you don’t have a credit card without foreign transaction fees — or you’re worried about using your card abroad — you can always get a prepaid travel debit card to load up with cash before your trip.
These cards, while they can be costly, come with lots of perks — like fee-free transactions, 24/7 assistance, and no ATM withdrawal fees. But just like credit cards, the perks vary card-to-card — and the fees can add up — so weigh your options and do your research to pick the best card for your trip.
During your trip
7. Know when to use card vs. cash
It’s always wise to have several methods of payment while traveling abroad. Some businesses will prefer card over cash, while others may not accept a card at all.
For example, using a credit card at a local street market may not be possible — so you’ll probably want some cash on hand. And in some countries, it’s best to tip with cash rather than on your card.
Alternatively, businesses like hotels may prefer you pay with a card — and you may save money if your card doesn’t have foreign transaction fees. And depending on how you tend to spend and budget, using a card can help you categorize and analyze your spending more easily at the end of your trip.
Read more: How to budget using credit cards
8. Use points
Travel hacking — or using miles or points to pay for travel — has become more popular in recent years. And contrary to what you may think, you don’t need to spend a ton of time or effort to earn and make use of points.
Travel credit cards usually issue points or miles when you pay with the card, which add up over time to help you save big on flights or hotel stays. If you have a travel credit card, read the fine print to understand how to earn points and make the most of them while traveling. If you don’t have a travel credit card, pick one that maximizes benefits you’ll actually use, doesn’t clobber you with fees, and — to get you some rewards right off the bat — has an attractive sign-up bonus.
9. Avoid random ATMs
When withdrawing money in a foreign country, be smart about what ATMs you use. First of all, if your bank allows fee-free withdrawals at particular ATMs — or they have branches where you’re traveling — make sure to use those machines to save money on withdrawal fees.
Try to avoid independent ATMs — they’ll often have higher fees and lower security than bank ATMs. And don’t use any ATM in an area that feels unsafe. Use machines in public places, and check your surroundings before making a withdrawal.
10. Protect yourself from theft
A smart way to manage money while traveling is to not keep all your money in the same place. If your wallet gets lost or stolen while you’re out, you don’t want to risk losing all your cash.
If you withdraw more cash than you need to spend at once, keep the extra bills in your hotel safe. When you’re out, carry your cash securely in a money belt or tamper-proof wallet. You might even want to invest in an RFID-blocking wallet, which protects your cards from digital theft by radio-frequency identification skimmers.
11. Choose local currency when paying with a card
When you’re paying with your credit card in a foreign country, you may notice an option to select either your home currency or the local currency when checking out. It might not seem like a big deal in the moment, but you’ll save money by choosing the local currency.
Despite having a credit card without foreign transaction fees, you may still pay a fee — usually around 3% —for paying in your home currency. And though you may have to do a quick currency conversion to determine how much you’re spending, you can end up saving a lot of money with this one easy tip.
12. Understand tipping culture
In North America, it’s not just polite — it’s expected — to tip 15% or more in restaurants and for other services. But tipping culture isn’t the same across the globe, and in some countries, tipping is even considered rude.
In Europe, for example, you’ll often pay a 5-10% service charge that’s already tacked on to the bill. In Asia, however, tipping isn’t the norm (and in some countries, like Japan, can even be disrespectful). Do some research on tipping culture in the countries you’re visiting. Consult travel guides and tourism websites to find out what’s expected before you go.
13. Check your account regularly
When you’re spending a different currency than your own, it’s easy to spend more than you realize (I am definitely guilty of this 🤑). And when you’re using a card — in any currency — it’s easy to overspend. Now that lots of restaurants and stores are now card-only, you might be spending more than you realize.
Make sure you check your account regularly to avoid overspending your budget. You don’t want to arrive home after your trip with a pile of credit card debt that you weren’t expecting to pay.
14. Bank securely while traveling
Banking securely will help you keep money safe while traveling. And since most of us bank online these days, it’s extra important.
First of all, make sure all of your devices are password-protected before you travel. Otherwise, if your computer or phone gets stolen — and you have your passwords saved automatically — someone could instantly gain access to your online accounts.
If you can help it, try to avoid using free public Wi-Fi, which could potentially put your information at risk. If you need to log into your bank accounts, make sure you’re using cellular data or a protected Wi-Fi network.
15. Don’t forget the exchange rate
No matter whether you’re paying with card or cash, keep the exchange rate in mind when you’re spending. It’s easy to lose sight of how much you’re actually spending — and think something is “cheap” when you’re really paying with a more expensive currency.
If you need to, you can use an app to convert currency prices before making a purchase. That way, you know exactly how much you’re spending each time you swipe your card.
After your trip
16. Convert your leftover cash
Unless you know you’ll be traveling again soon, try to spend any foreign currency before returning home. If you come back with foreign cash, you’ll have to exchange it back to U.S. dollars. Exchanging money twice — to a foreign currency and then back to U.S. dollars — will cost you a lot in fees.
If you do need to exchange currency back into U.S. dollars, you’ll want to return to the bank. That’s where you’ll find the best exchange rates and lower fees. Or better yet, if you have a friend who’s planning to visit the destination you just came from, see if they’ll buy your leftover currency for a reasonable, fee-free rate. You’ll both come out ahead.
17. Pay off your credit card
When you return from your trip — and before you start dreaming up the next one — make sure to pay off your credit card. If you used your card for most of your purchases abroad, you don’t want to let that hefty balance linger.
Make sure you pay off your credit card and any travel-related expenses as soon as you can so your trip doesn’t end up costing you more down the line.
18. Check on your accounts
On a similar note, make sure you check up on your accounts after returning home from your trip. Don’t let any unfamiliar charges go unnoticed — instead, if you see something suspicious, call your bank or credit card company right away to report the charges.
Next time you travel abroad, use these tips to help keep your money safe while traveling. When you take the time to make security a priority, you can travel with a lot less stress — and spend a lot more time having fun.
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