In the excitement of exploring a new country, it's all too easy to rack up extra expenses when paying in a foreign currency. Exchange rates fluctuate and it's not always clear what commissions and fees you're being charged.
But just a bit of advance prep can turn you into a savvy consumer overseas. To start, check the exchange rate and familiarize yourself with the price of common items as a benchmark. Then use this list of smart money moves for travelers.
Alert your financial institutions
Have your financial services providers set a travel notice on your accounts. That way they won't take unusual spending — lunch in a Paris cafe — as a reason to deny your card or freeze your account. While you're at it, make sure your online accounts are set up so you can easily transfer funds.
Order some foreign currency before you go
Carry some local cash for initial expenses so you're not forced to change money at airport kiosks, train stations or tourist attractions, which tend to have the worst rates. Order your euros or pesos well ahead of time, shopping around for the best deal. Large institutions usually offer better exchange rates and you may incur only a small delivery fee — or none at all, if you're already a customer.
Prepare your credit cards
It's great to use credit cards whenever possible at your destination. They save you the trouble of exchanging money and offer special protections in case of loss or theft. However, make sure to use a no-fee card. Many major cards charge a 1% fee for foreign transactions and some issuers add a 1% to 3% currency-conversion fee. Bring a card that charges no fees and perhaps offers special travel perks like insurance or bonus reward points. Check with your issuer in advance to avoid surprises on your statement.
If you have a newer EMV chip card, you may need a PIN to use it abroad. In some countries you'll be asked to provide a PIN rather than a signature when making purchases with a card. If you've forgotten your PIN or never set one up, get it in order before your trip to avoid any hassle.
While you're traveling, make sure credit card purchases are rung up in the local currency. Some shopkeepers may offer a “service” of converting to U.S dollars before ringing up your purchase. Always decline that option; it may come with a less advantageous exchange rate.
Use an ATM card to get local money
Forget those old-time travelers checks, which are loaded with service fees. Pack an ATM card you can use at your destination and you'll get much better rates than at tourist exchange bureaus. Ask your bank or credit union about any fees for withdrawals overseas. They may have partnerships with foreign institutions that give free ATM privileges, or they may waive fees for certain customers.
Check your health insurance
Protect your health to protect your money. Getting sick or hurt overseas can mean big bills, as well as difficulty getting care if you don't have the proper insurance. The U.S. State Department advises travelers to find out what services their policy will cover. Medicare, for example, does not cover health care abroad. Insurers might cover certain medical care but not emergency evacuation back to the U.S., which can run $100,000 or more. Or they might not pay foreign hospitals directly, leaving you with a bill. If your policy falls short, consider buying a travel medical insurance policy.
By learning to cleverly deploy cash or cards as the situation demands, you can prevent your trip from turning into a financial nightmare and increase your chances of returning home happy and satisfied.
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