Backpacking Tips and Advice – Money

Getting Money Abroad

The easiest way is to take debit or credit cards. With these you can withdraw money from ATMs in most countries all over the world, using a decent exchange rate. Most foreign ATM’s have an English language option at the start of the transaction. Visa and Mastercard are the most widely accepted abroad. You will usually be charged for a withdrawal by the ATM company, and sometimes your own bank as well. Remember to call the banks before you leave to let them know where you will be using the cards and how long for – or you’ll get a nasty shock when your card is blocked by your banks security when you try and withdraw out there!

Do some research before you leave to find the best cards. Don’t just take your normal bank cards, the withdrawal fees and exchange rates will be appalling. Some domestic bank specialist travellers cards offer the best exchange rate and don’t charge you at your bank’s end for ATM withdrawals. There are also online accounts you can apply for which have cards which have no withdrawal fees at all and even refund the foreign bank’s withdrawal fee. If you are from the UK, check out Money Saving Expert’s website which keeps up to date on the best accounts and cards. A pre-paid card such as Caxton FX provides good security as you can fill it up online with only what you need at the time.

Take Multiple Credit Cards!

If you are travelling for a while, I recommend you have at least 3 credit/debit cards from different accounts. It may sound excessive but a card can easily be lost, stolen, eaten by an ATM machine, get damaged and so on. I am down to my last credit card now. I’ve met travellers who have only brought one or two, then get screwed when they lose them. If you only have one card, the ATM machine eats it and you are in the middle of nowhere, what are you going to do?! Replacing a credit card when travelling is a massive ball-ache you don’t want to have to go through.


creditcardsTips for Withdrawing Money

Becuase you are usually charged for withdrawals, it’s usually a good idea to take out big chunks of cash and then keep it safe, though I rarely take out more than £100 in cash in case it is stolen. Obviously hide your big wads of cash before you leave the ATM, an under-clothes money belt is a good idea for big withdrawals.

Different foregin ATMs charge different withdrawal fees and have different maximum withdrawal limits. If you want to save some money, do some research beforehand on the cheapest banks to use (often guide books or travelling websites have this info) – or simply wander around different ATMs in town, try your card and see what their costs and limits are – you can just cancel the transaction before withdrawal costing you nothing. Some people end up paying upwards of 10$ per withdrawal! You should be able to get this down to less than 4$ using the right cards and banks

When You Arrive

When flying in, I usually take out money from airport ATMs to start me off. When you arrive  in a new country with wads of big notes from your first withdrawal, it’s wise to find a chain shop like a supermarket and buy some small stuff to break one of those huge notes. Otherwise, especially in poor countries, you are going to have problems getting change. If you are going to take a local taxi/bus to start with, get hold of some smaller money before you get in, they are usually short on change (or at least claim to be).

For your first country, it’s a good idea to have some cash – US dollars, Euros or British Pounds. If something goes horribly wrong with your cards when you arrive, at least you can get around, find somewhere to stay, eat and start calling people!

Figuring Out New Money

It always takes a while to get used to how much things are worth in a new country. First of all, when you arrive check the exchange rate online or at an exchange counter to get an idea of how much the local currency is compared to yours. People will often try and rip you off at airports or sometimes short change you. If you know how much in your currency soemthing is, you will be better prepared. If a taxi ride is going to cost as much as back at home but you are in Asia, alarm bells should be ringing. With taxis from airports/bus stations, if you can find out in advance from other travellers, guide books etc about how much a taxi should cost this will give you a good idea about whether someone is trying to rip you off.

I find it useful to begin with to scribble a note I keep in my pocket which has the rough conversions for $1, $2, $5, $10, $50, $100.

Travellers cheques and money emergencies

Some people like to take travellers cheques in case of emergency. In reality, only some banks accept them, the exchange rates are poor, you have to carry them around with you and you have to pay surcharges. If you do have an emergency money situation, chances are you are closer to a Western Union branch anyway (which can arrange other people like your family to send you money). My advice is don’t bother with travellers cheques. If you take a number of credit cards and a small amount of US dollars and keep them in different places, these will act as emergency backups. Another last resort if you lose everything is to go to a local bank and arrange a bank transfer from your bank to theirs.

Backups, Backups!

Make sure you have access to your bank details, or someone at home does (at least the account code and sort number), and try and memorise all those annoying passwords. Change PIN numbers to ones you will remember (although it is stupid to have the same PIN for all your cards!). If something goes wrong, you’ll need this info to get started again or communicate with your bank. It’s a good idea to take a note of the emergency cancellation phone numbers and keep them seperate to the cards – remember when calling from abroad you will need to add a phone number extention.

If you need to get another card sent to you, get someone to send it to somewhere secure, like a hotel you trust or maybe even your local embassy if they will agree to it. If you need to get information like your PIN number or sensitive account information, use common sense and do it over the phone and not via email or text message.

I personally use Dropbox (an online file backup program) to store my basic account information like account number and sort code. Noone can do anything too drastic with that, and I can access it from my laptop and so can my parents. If my laptop gets stolen, they can’t access those files, and I can get access to them again online if necessary.

Changing Money

If you can find other travellers who need the currency you want to get rid of, do a deal with them – you both win. You can check the latest conversion rates online ( is a good start). Failing that, local banks often offer better exhange rates than money change booths and shops around. If you do have to go to a money change shop or booth, shop around for the best rate, and if possible get a local or guide book recommendation for reputable money changers, some short-change travellers.