What You Should Know About Cash and Currency Before You Travel

April 16, 2015

“To Exchange or Not To Exchange….That IS the Question”

You’ve scrimped and saved and are finally able to make that long-dreamed about trip to Europe!  Good for you!  Now, you need to decide how you will pay your expenses as you travel:

  • Traveler’s checks?  – They have pretty much gone the way of the dodo bird and are, quite frankly, a waste of your time and your money!  Stand in line at a bank to buy them….plus, pay a fee.  Stand in line to cash them….plus, pay a fee.
  • Buy foreign currency in advance? – While you may feel more comfortable with a few euros jangling in your jeans, most banks in the USA will charge you an exorbitant exchange rate and high fees to make the exchange.
  • ATMs? – This is your best bet.  You won’t have a problem locating an ATM at an airport in Europe.  (This, obviously, won’t be the case if you’re traveling to smaller developing countries.)  Exchange a bit of money at an airport ATM once you’ve reached your destination – just enough to get you transportation to a bank where it will be cheaper to exchange a larger sum.
  • Exchange Booths? – You’re exhausted from your flight, toting your luggage and you spot an exchange booth – right at the airport! You think, “How convenient!  I’ll exchange my money here; it’ll save me so much time!” – Possibly….but, it definitely won’t save you money!  Exchange booths at airports offer very poor exchange rates and will charge you a high fee to make the exchange.  The same is true of exchange booths at train stations.
  • Postal Banks? – You’ll find these inside Post Offices throughout Europe.  They will offer you a surprisingly good rate of exchange for your greenbacks!
“Funny Money” – (What are these coins and bills really worth??)

Now that you have cold, hard cash in your pocket – it’s time to figure out what it’s really worth.  First of all, take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the various coins and bills.  With the euro and the British Pound Sterling both being based on a decimalized system, just like ours, it’s a matter of simple logic to figure out the new currency.

There is an app for that

You could use your smartphone to get a ‘real-time’ conversion with every purchase you make – “there’s an app for that”!  But, really, it’s not necessary – as long as you roughly know the exchange rate, you’ll be able to calculate, loosely, what items are costing you in USD.  For example, you know the exchange rate for the euro is roughly $1.40 (1 euro=1.40 USD).  The cappuccino you want to order at that lovely little sidewalk cafe costs 5 euros.  A quick calculation….$1.40 x 5…and you’ll know that your java is costing you roughly $7.00.  Based on this hypothetical rate of $1.40 per euro – ten euros amount to about $14 ($1.40 x 10) and 250 euros to about $350 ($1.40 x 200 is roughly $250 plus a little less than half). Do some of these rough calculations for practice before you start shopping and you’ll find it much easier to stick to your budget!

Don’t attempt to use USD when shopping internationally.  IF the store will accept them at all, which is highly doubtful, the exchange rate they charge will be terrible!  Always use local currency.

“No Euros, please….We’re British”

With the introduction of the euro, traveling through Europe is much less complicated than it was in the day of the French franc, Italian lira, German Deutsche Mark, Greek drachma, and different currency for every other country as well. With very few exceptions, the euro is the only currency you will have to contend with.

pound vs quid

The Brits, however, are sticking with their precious Pound Sterling….not unlike the U.S.A.  holding on to the Imperial System of weights and measures  So, if you’re traveling throughout the U.K., you’re still going to need to know your Pence from your Pound! The U.K. monetary system has been greatly simplified by the deletion of the shilling and the introduction of the decimalization system (which corresponds with the system used by much of the world).  You’ll need to know that 100 Pence = 1 British Pound Sterling.  Familiarize yourself with the various coins (1 penny, 2,5,10,20,and 50 pence, and the 1 and 2 Pound Sterling) as soon as you can after arrival – you’ll be much less likely to be shortchanged by shop merchants, if they realize you’re not their typical ‘run of the mill’ tourist. Tip:  You may hear the term ‘quid’ tossed around….no worries, it’s not yet another coin you need to know; ‘quid’ is a slang term used in lieu of ‘pound’.

The euro can be spent in any country in Europe that has adopted it as its currency.  Don’t be confused by the national side of the coin which shows a specific country – this is merely an indication of where the coin was minted.

“Have No Fear….Help is Here!” – (Protecting Your Personal and Financial Information)

You’re strolling down the Champs-Elysees, camera dangling around your neck, knapsack slung over your shoulders, staring at Google Map on your cell phone  – the quintessential tourist.  While you may be easy to pick out of a crowd, don’t make yourself an easy ‘mark’ for bad guys!  An item to add to your travel gear – an item which, unfortunately, is becoming more of a necessity – is an RFID wallet, neck stash or waist stash.

You’re already very familiar with RFID technology whether or not you realize it. What is RFID?  Wikipedia defines Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) as “the wireless use of electromagnetic fields to transfer data, for the purposes of automatically identifying and tracking tags attached to objects.  The tags contain electronically stored information.”

Rapidly replacing bar codes, RFID tags can be and most likely are attached to or embedded into clothing that you purchase, your credit cards, your passport, among other items.  They are tiny enough to be implanted in animals and in people – some so small they have been glued to live ants to enable scientists to study their behavior. Now that’s teeny!

The difference between an RFID tag and a barcode is that the tag can be read if passed NEAR a reader – the tag doesn’t need to be visible.  It can be packed inside a box or a case, completely covered, and still be read.  And, whereas barcodes can only be read one at a time, RFID tags can be read hundreds at a time!

man with banana

This technology is terrific….if you’re counting cattle or inventory….NOT so great for the personal information stored on your credit card, passport, driver’s license, even your cell phone.

Along with the convenience and speed at which information can be relayed comes the possibility of someone ‘skimming’ personal and financial information linked to these tags.

A counterfeit RFID reader can pull or delete data from your credit cards or passport while you are doing something as innocuous as standing on a platform waiting for a train or, simply walking by such a reader.  Your information can be read through your knapsack, handbag, even your clothing. Disconcerting, to say the least!

Protect your personal data by adding one or all of these items to your travel gear.  These items are equipped with a thin metal lining to make it more difficult for unauthorized readers to “skim” information and compromise your identity, bank account or credit card information:

  • RFID-blocking neck stash and/or waist stash – these will safely and discreetly keep your money and identification, including your passport, out of sight while traveling.  The waist and neck set holds on to your money, ID and travel documents to make them less easily accessible to pickpockets.  Plus, they are made with RFID-blocking material that won’t easily be detected by unwanted scanners.
  • RFID-blocking cell phone cases – if your credit card information is stored on your phone, you may want to invest in one of these for security.
  • RFID-blocking envelope – you can slip your credit card into this – then put it back in your regular wallet.
  • RFID-blocking wallets – these can be quite bulky if you carry your wallet in your pocket as they have a metal lining; still, a good precaution to have to ‘foil’ criminals!

TIP: Never pack cash, credit cards, documentation or other personal ID in your checked luggage.  Even if you have taken the precaution of locking your luggage with a TSA lock (which can be opened easily for inspection by TSA agents), don’t take the risk of your luggage getting lost or sent to the wrong airport and your credit card or cash going with it!

“Hey Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?”

You’d be wise to change any foreign cash into dollars, to get a better exchange rate, before you leave that country.  While you can convert any leftover paper money at home (as if you’ll have any money left at the end of your trip :-), banks won’t exchange your foreign coins.  So give them away to someone who needs them more than you, or spend them at the airport on coffee, or snacks for the plane.  Some airports have containers that accept your local currency for a charity. Unless you want souvenirs – coins will become worthless once you’ve reached home.

Written by Emma Ghattas