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Good, bad, and ugly of currency exchange
Currency conversion fees can be more expensive than you think if you’re not careful. Update your understanding of currency conversion to get the most bang for your buck when traveling abroad.
Travelers should be aware of currency exchange possibilities abroad, according to Douglas Stallings, senior editor of Fodor’s Travel. “Many options have outrageous hidden fees, and some places are simply more difficult to negotiate since they are more cash-based than the average American is used to,” adds Stallings.
There are more simple and less expensive alternatives to shift currency than using foreign currency exchange counters at airports and major hotels, according to Stallings. While some exchange desks promote “no-fee” exchanges, they still make a substantial profit by charging a high rate.
Take a look at the best and worst ways of currency exchange using Bankshores “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” rating before your next trip:
|Currency exchange methods||Rating|
|Credit card||Thumbs up|
|Debit card||Thumbs up|
|Airport or hotel exchange desk||Thumbs down|
|Dynamic currency conversion||Thumbs down|
|Traveler’s checks||Thumbs down|
|Cash advance||Thumbs down|
Credit card: Thumbs up
Some of the best currency exchange rates are available through credit cards. You’ll obtain a reasonable rate because card firms base their exchange rates on wholesale pricing supplied to larger organizations. Fees for international transactions are a different affair.
“The majority of people have many credit cards, each with its own set of fees. Making some calls ahead of time and understanding which cards to use will help you save money on fees “Tom Meyers, editor in chief of EuroCheapo.com, a budget travel guide in Europe, agrees.
Some major card issuers have eliminated foreign transaction fees on all of their cards. Others just provide a few cards with no international transaction costs.
Consider getting a card with the most up-to-date technology in addition to no-fee cards. Chip and PIN technology is now the preferred method of completing credit and debit card transactions in Europe, according to Maria Brusilovsky, a spokeswoman for Travelex Currency Services, and some retailers exclusively accept chip and PIN cards.
The term “chip” refers to a microchip integrated in the card that protects account data. PIN stands for personal identification number, which is entered by the cardholder to authorize payment.
Remind your card company that you’ll be traveling, whether or not you have a chip and PIN. Otherwise, it may think your card has been stolen and freeze it.
Debit card: Thumbs up
When traveling abroad, one advised method of getting cash is to use your debit card at ATMs. “In terms of convenience, exchange rates, and costs, we believe the ATM is the best option,” Meyers explains.
Institutional fees differ. According to Meyers, some charge a fixed amount, while others charge a percentage, and still others charge both. Keep ATM trips to a bare minimum to save money.
“If your bank charges a flat cost for withdrawals, you should definitely reduce your trips to the ATM by withdrawing greater amounts each time,” Meyers advises.
Also, finish your assignment. According to Stallings, you may be able to avoid some fees if you withdraw money from a bank that has a relationship with yours.
Meyers recommends calling your bank ahead of time to inquire about ATM withdrawal cost structures. For ATM debit card withdrawals, each bank has its own set of fees.
Prepaid card: Neutral
Prepaid cards for international use are becoming more common. One big credit card business, for example, has begun to provide prepaid cards without the usual ongoing fees. It also avoids foreign transaction fees and converts currency at the same rate as its regular credit card.
Another company sells a prepaid chip and PIN card that can be loaded with euros or pounds and used like a debit card. They may be a viable choice for Americans who do not have access to a chip and PIN card.
Chip and PIN prepaid debit cards, according to Stallings, have the advantage of being able to be used in an automated payment system to purchase train tickets and pay at unstaffed gas pumps and highway toll booths in Europe. When you load or reload it, you lock in the exchange rate.
Prepaid cards are also easy and safe because they eliminate the need to carry as much cash and need a PIN to withdraw funds, according to Stallings.
Attention: According to Stallings, certain prepaid debit cards have high fees, aren’t accepted everywhere, and might leave you without funds if stolen. Before making a purchase, he recommends reading the fine print.
Airport or hotel exchange desk: Thumbs down
The currency exchange rates at airport exchange counters are among the highest, implying that you will pay more in dollars for the conversion.
EuroCheapo.com’s Meyers recommends strolling right through the currency exchange station or the airport baggage claim area upon arrival. “These businesses pay a lot of money to rent such spaces, and they make up the difference with service fees and bad exchange rates,” he says.
To make money, airport exchange counters rely on convenience. You’re better off finding an ATM in the airport and withdrawing cash with your debit card.
The cost of using a hotel exchange desk is comparable, but for a different reason. “The hotels that still provide this service frequently charge exorbitant conversion rates because the process is inconvenient for them,” Meyers explains.
Warning: Don’t be fooled by the “no fees, no commissions” sign at the currency exchange counter. Meyers claims that even if they don’t charge you a direct fee, they will profit from rising exchange rates.
Dynamic currency conversion: Thumbs down
During a transaction abroad, several credit card issuers give US customers the option of paying in US dollars or the local currency. This is referred to as dynamic currency conversion. If you’re not careful, dynamic currency conversion might cost you big time.
“Dynamic currency conversion, which is mostly used in Europe, allows you to pay with your credit card in your native currency.” While this appears to be a good offer, it is one of the worst deals in travel and should be avoided at all costs, according to Fodor’s Stallings.
When traveling, Meyers advises paying in the local currency: “The local bank will convert it back into euros, and then your U.S.-based bank will change it back into dollars.” This adds another conversion, which is beneficial for the banks but bad for the consumers.
You’ll have to pay more in fees as a result of the extra conversion. “For every dynamic currency conversion transaction, you basically pay twice: once to your own bank for the pleasure of using your card abroad, and once to the company performing the transaction,” Stallings explains.
Stallings advises that you demand that your transaction be charged in the local currency or simply pay in cash.
Traveler’s checks: Thumbs down
According to Brusilovsky of Travelex Currency Services, sales of traveler’s checks are declining as people use new technology and more convenient payment alternatives. Traveler’s checks peaked in popularity in the 1990s, according to the Federal Reserve of the United States, but have subsequently dropped in popularity. At its peak, there were more than $9 billion in traveler’s checks outstanding. There are only about $4 billion left now.
They can, however, serve as a safety net, according to Meyers. “If they’re made out in euros, many establishments abroad still take traveler’s checks,” he explains. If they’re written in dollars, though, you’ll have to convert them at a bank or currency exchange, which could result in a fee or a poor conversion rate.
Warning: If you have problems with your cards or lose your wallet, a few hundred dollars in traveler’s checks can be an excellent emergency fund, according to Meyers.
Cash advance: Thumbs down
Taking out a cash advance on your credit card, whether you’re in the United States or abroad, is a simple way to become bankrupt.
Although your card may provide a competitive foreign conversion rate, the interest rate on cash advances can be quite significant. On certain cards, cash-advance interest rates exceed 20%, and interest begins to accrue as soon as the advance is taken out. One bank’s reward card, for example, has a cash advance annual percentage rate (APR) of 24.9 percent. In addition, there is a cost for taking out the advance.
“Call your bank before you depart and inquire what fees they charge for cash advances abroad,” Meyers advises.
If you’re in a tight spot, it can be worth it to take out a cash advance. Just remember to pay it off before the interest starts to accumulate.