You've booked your flights, your itinerary is set and now all you need is some local money. Getting foreign currency is easy but choosing the right method could save you a ton of cash.
Here are the 5 best currency exchange options available to you.
1. Using ATMs
Using ATMs is the best way to get cash at the lowest rate. ATMs are everywhere and the best part is they only charge the spot rate of the day plus a conversion fee of 1-2%.
Your home bank might charge you an additional $2-5 for using a foreign ATM but this fee can sometimes be waived so talk to your bank. You need to call them anyway to let them know you'll be traveling otherwise they may block your card on suspicion of fraud. If the fee won't be waived, just max out your daily withdrawal limit each time to avoid making excessive trips to the ATM.
To find out which foreign ATMs are affiliated with your bank, check the back of your debit card and look for the PLUS (VISA) or Cirrus (MasterCard) symbols. When you're overseas, search for ATMs with the matching networks and you should be good. Both VISA and MasterCard have ATM locators so you can find the right ATM before you even take off.
Not only is using ATMs the cheapest way to get money, it's also the safest way since you'll never be carrying large amounts of cash. Note that internationally, 4-digit pins are the standard for ATM cards so change yours before you depart if it differs.
2. Credit cards
Credit cards are a must these days since you'll need them to book a hotel room or make large purchases. Credit card providers charge slightly more than ATMs by adding 2.5-3% on top of the spot rate whenever you make a purchase in a foreign currency.
You can avoid this fee altogether by picking up a foreign exchange free credit card. It works exactly the way it sounds; you won't be charged any additional fees when you make a purchase in a foreign currency. It's worth signing up for one of these cards even if you use it just when traveling. The CapitalOne VentureOne Rewards card is the most popular forex free card among U.S. travelers.
If you have a travel rewards credit card you get extra benefits that can save you a lot of money and grief. Most of these cards include travel medical insurance, lost/delayed baggage insurance, and trip cancellation/interruption as a standard benefit. With any insurance policy, read the fine print to find out exactly what you're covered for.
Similar to your ATM card, call your credit card provider to let them know about your travel plans to avoid any service interruptions.
3. Foreign exchange offices
Foreign exchange offices are located in popular tourist areas and airports. They offer better rates than the bank and in some countries their exchange rates are very competitive, but you need consider any additional fees that they might charge. They're also convenient if you're trying to get rid excess currency from a country you just left.
It's always a good idea to have some emergency U.S. Dollars with you; if you ever find yourself needing to dip into those funds then using a foreign exchange office is the quickest way to get cash.
4. Using a bank
Getting foreign currency at your home bank is usually the first place you think of, but it's a huge rip-off since they can easily charge upwards of 10% on the spread. Considering spending is a big part of any trip, that's a pretty big premium you're paying. Of course you don't want to show up in a new country without any local money so exchanging enough for a cab ride to your hotel is still a must.
That being said if you're changing money to a neighboring country's currency, e.g. U.S. dollars to Canadian dollars or sterling to euros, the bank spread is usually fair.
5. Traveler's Check
I'm not sure why traveler's checks are still billed as a convenient and safe way to carry funds for travel; they really aren't widely accepted anymore. You pay a commission on the checks on top of the spread when you cash them in, so you're effectively paying a fee twice. They can give you peace of mind but there are better options available these days.