Ask Kate: How Do I Handle My Money While Traveling?

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This week’s question is about how to handle money — and are traveler’s checks worth it?

I am going to Abu Dhabi for a 10 day trip in the spring — how should I handle my money? Do I need to get travelers checks? Can I use my debit and credit cards instead?

The single best advice I can give for handling your money while traveling is to use cards that don’t carry foreign transaction fees.  I have a Charles Schwab debit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees — and it also refunds all my ATM fees at the end of the month.

For a credit card, I have a Chase British Airways visa that I use to earn miles.  I also take an American Express card with me for backup, mostly because they are fantastic when you have an emergency abroad (like if your cards are stolen and you have no means of getting money, which has happened to me twice).

If you can’t get a card like this before your trip, minimize your ATM transactions.  If your bank charges you $5 per transaction in Abu Dhabi, just take out larger amounts of money less often.

Another tip — call your credit card providers before your trip and tell them that you’ll be in Abu Dhabi so that they won’t shut down your card for unusual activity.

As for obtaining foreign currency, the best exchange rates are at ATMs.  Because of this, I never get currency in advance — I simply wait until my plane lands and get it at the airport ATM.  (The one exception: when I have to pay a visa upon arrival.  Many countries will accept US dollars, euros or British pounds for visas, but some require the local currency.  Do your research and find out what they accept.)

It’s also a good idea to hide backup cash in different places in your luggage.  Don’t keep it all in one place.  (I sometimes hide money inside a tampon applicator — I guarantee no man will touch it!)

As for traveler’s checks, I haven’t used them in years.  It’s tough to find people who will accept them, and the exchange rates are pretty awful.  That said, they can be good for a backup stash of cash to hide in your luggage because if they’re stolen, you can get all your money refunded.

But since you’re on a short-term trip, I don’t think they’re necessary.

Have a fabulous time in the desert!Ask Kate: How do I handle my money while traveling?

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46 thoughts on “Ask Kate: How Do I Handle My Money While Traveling?”

    1. I’ve heard great things about Capital One as well. My friend who also lives here in Paris has never opened a French bank account because she can just use her CO card with no fees.

  1. Love the tampon applicator idea! Genius!!!

    I know a lot of people travel with Schwab debit cards. I looked into it, but don’t feel like fronting the $1,000 necessary to open up the investment account required to have that particular debit card…

    Another thing I do when traveling – I also take one debit card that is tied to a bank account that my parents have access to. There is no money in the account, but in case my other cards were to be stolen, my mom could transfer money to me pretty much immediately.

    1. I just got Schwab and there was no $1,000 up front fee at all for me. I got a brokerage acct which you link a checking account too (one which earns interest btw), and then i put my money in the checking.

      Im in the USA, dont know if that makes a difference, but I just opened mine last week with $250.

    2. Amanda, I opened my Charles Schwab account a few months back and didn’t need ANY amount of money to open up the account. Same with Dani Blanchette, I easily opened up a Brokerage Account and they automatically link a Checking Account for you. I needed $0 to open either one, but I did move a hefty amount of $ shortly after to gain interest.

      1. Good to know. I am on the road and will not be back to the US for another 6 months until July. Can I open an account online and ask my parents to send me the card abroad, I wonder. I have had credit cards sent to me via mail. Just wandering if possible to open bank accounts abroad.
        I have Chase and their ATM fees out ridiculous. I use ING Direct but ATM transactions are still at 2%.

        Also have a question, Kate. If you have too much cash, how can you deposit it? Sometimes we run into gigs and get too much cash that I don’t want to carry around or store under my bed. Any suggestions?


        1. Naomi, every time I’ve had no choice but to get paid in cash, I just hold on to it. Discreetly and carefully. It happens very rarely.

          Yes, you can definitely have your parents send it to you — OR you can talk to Schwab and see if they would be able to send it abroad. It could happen. They overnighted a debit card to Madrid when I needed them to.

    3. Yep, I didn’t need to front the $1000 either. I have a brokerage account (which I use solely for accepting non-US wire transfers) and my checking account, which is my main one. And that’s a great idea!

    4. I just opened an account with them last week and I was able to set it up with $0 in the account. You just have to open the brokerage account along with the investor checking, then you can transfer money as you please! 😀

  2. Thank you so much for this Kate, my biggest worry is that my bank will block my debit card. They said that I have to inform them everytime that I go to a new country. Pretty hard when I have no idea what I will be doing or where I will be going when I’m out there!
    I’m going to bring a debit card, credit card and some pre paid cash cards with me on my imminent trip. Oh and some American dollars in case I need to bribe someone!

  3. Kate,

    I always use cards as well. But they keep calling me to say if it was not a fraud since im not in the country. Putting the money in different places is a good tip as well.



    1. That happens a lot to USA citizens. I moving back to Colombia and there is only 1 bank I can use my card at. Unfort, because we are pretty much the only country that doesn’t chip our cards, many machine recognize them as fake.

  4. I also use the Chase British Airways card and love it! Did a lot of research on which miles card would be the best fit, and finally decided on that one.

    Also, the tampon idea is brilliant! Thanks for always providing the most clever, unique, and useful travel tips!!

  5. Lots of awesome advice here 🙂 thanks so much for sharing! It’s actually what I’m most worried about for our 3 month RTW trip, is spending the right amount of money and when to budget, etc.

  6. Heard a lot of good things about Chase and Schwabb, but aren’t they mostly for US citizens?
    I’ve been looking into them a bit, but apparently not enough yet:D
    Getting good deals on credit cards seems a lot hader in Europe than in the States…

  7. Putting the money/cards in different places is a good idea, my only concern is that i’m going to forget all the places i’ve put it! im a bit of a mess 🙂 so i bought a pair of hot pants with 2 hidden pockets (they are actually sold as underwear but i’m putting it as a second layer 🙂 so i put one of my cards and the cash in there and they are always with me. I hope this is a good idea. I’ll be finding out very soon…departing in 2 days and FREAKING OUT!!! 🙂

  8. What’s this chip business? Maybe that’s why my Schwab debit card was denied at an ATM in Costa Rica last year, despite me informing Schwab of my travels to Costa Rica! Very frustrating!

    1. Only a few places in the UK required chip and pin cards — the ticket machines for the tube, and the Co-op grocery store. That’s it. Every other place has been fine with any credit card I use, including all ATMs. Julee, I’m guessing it was another issue.

  9. I usually use ATM’s. I wasnt aware that they carried the best exchange rates though. Thats good to know. Although I always notice Travelex have shocking rates.

  10. Kate (or anyone else) do you know if Cambodia and Thailand accept American Dollars for Visa on arrival? I’m heading there in April and didn’t even think about this being an issue…so thanks for mentioning it!

    1. Tim, you don’t get a visa on arrival — when you arrive by air, you automatically get 30 days with no visa necessary. If you arrive by land, 15 days with no visa necessary. If you get a visa in advance (in another country), you just pay then. Easy!

  11. That is one thing about traveling, trying not to have your stuff stolen, esp. your money and passport, or you are stuck! Thanks for all the great ideas Kate and everyone else that commented! =) So helpful!

    1. My one problem with them is that I had to FAX them paperwork when my card was stolen — it took half a dozen tries because they kept giving me the wrong numbers and the machine in Sevilla kept malfunctioning. Faxing is ARCHAIC!

  12. I always thought that only American credit cards offer airmiles, so must check out the British Airways one you mentioned Kate! Never used traveler cheques in my live and always carry a combination of debit cards (hidden in a money belt) and cash (one part in a wallet and one part hidden in my bra).

  13. These are great tips! I need to sign up for Charles Schwab because even though the ATM fees aren’t that much they add up. Usually I just take out larger amounts of money and I also carry cash in different places so if one thing gets stolen they didn’t get it all!

  14. Good advice, I would also add that during the travels keep a record of spending, In this case you will see if you need to tighten your belt by not buying extra beers or if you have some spare cash to carry on to your next destination or to indulge into a local activity.

  15. I agree about travelers checks and ATMs. The first time I traveled to Italy I took a bunch. It was so hard to find a bank that would accept them. I started doing withdrawals from ATMs – usually once or twice during the trip so that I would get the most amount of $ for the withdrawal fee. Also – we use a credit card that doesn’t charge international fees (as you mentioned). Great post!

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