Changing currency & optimizing credit cards for travel

currency exchange

So, you’re headed on vacation to a country and you need the best way to get your hands on their currency.  First of all, that’s awesome.  Whether you’re headed to a foreign country or you’ve already arrived, we dive into the best ways to get your currency changed and how to minimize credit card spending fees..

When getting a foriegn currency, there are two major things to consider.

  1. Fees
    1. Flat out, fees when converting money can be a rip off.  With some planning we can minimize that impact.
    2. At ATMs specifically there can be fees from your bank and fees from the bank that runs the ATM.
  2. Convenience
    1. I can’t say enough about convenience.  If you’re short on the nation’s currency, you will likely not want to travel much distance to get a lower conversion rate.
  3. Avoid currency exchange desks whenever possible

Overall Foriegn Money Strategy

  1. Use your fee-free credit card as much as possible
  2. Get cash using low-fee ATM withdrawals, when possible
  3. If given the option, always pay in local currency

What is my money worth in XXX country?

This tool will give you the best estimate on what your currency is worth in any nation.  Be aware that the currency exchange prices that you will actually get will be slightly worse in order to allow the companies to make money off of your currency conversions.


There is something to be said about the ability to swipe or tap your credit card and complete a payment without using physical local currency.  In most countries outside of the United States, credit cards are not accepted everywhere so having physical local currency is useful.

The challenge on local currency is that you often don’t have much of an option.  Either you are changing physical cash at a vendor who will give you bad rates or you are limited to the ATM machines local to your location.  Changing physical cash at a vendor is NOT recommended.  Using an ATM is recommended.

ATM machines to get foreign currency exchanged

ATM machines are common in both cities and airports and are the recommended way to get foriegn currency.  Before you arrive make sure to reach out to your bank beforehand to avoid ATM machine denials.  I remember being in Argentina and having my ATM/debit card fail to retrieve money from an ATM.  To make matters worse when I called my bank they were unable to resolve the issue.  So making that 5 minute call to your bank to alert them to your travels before you leave can save you a ton of headaches.

If you are arriving without local currency then use the airport ATM machines over cash conversion desks.  You need some local currency on you at all times when you leave the airport, without cash you’re asking for trouble.

ATMs have their challenges as well.  Namely fees.  ATMs part of the Global ATM Alliance are preferred as they will have low or no fees but these are hard to find.  The best bank account to avoid ATM fees while traveling is currently Charles Schwab.  Certain accounts at Charles Schwab have 0% atm fees, 0% foreign transaction fees, and refund any additional transaction fees that you incur from the other bank hosting the ATM machine.

Using Credit Cards to pay in a foreign country

Use your no-transaction fee credit card as much as possible, saving your cash for when it is truly needed.

But what credit cards offer no transaction fees?  To be more specific, you want to sign up for and use a “no foreign transaction fee” card.  Use your credit card as a credit card and never use them in the ATM machines as that is where you will get screwed.  

I highly recommend using one of the following cards (reminder, this is not a sponsored post)

  1. Capital One Venture card (no yearly fee)
  2. Capital One Sapphire card (yearly fee, better rewards)

Both of these cards have no transaction fees and also provide some amazing benefits in terms of travel rewards.  I personally use the Sapphire card.  The Sapphire card reimburses you for global entry and TSA applications as well as provides you with some great points to use in your travels.

When in a foreign country, if they offer to complete your credit card payment in your currency or in the local currency, always choose to pay in the local currency.  The local currency exchange will always be cheaper than paying using your home currency.

Should I bring cash with me?

Yes.  I recommend keeping at least $200 USD locked in your bag for emergencies.  Cash can often be converted at hotels and at currency exchange desks across the world at terrible rates, but it is helpful in an emergency.

Can I get foreign currency before leaving on vacation?

Yes.  If you are nervous about exchanging currency when you arrive at your destination, the best way to get local currency before you leave for a trip is to organize it with your local bank.  A quick runner-up is by visiting an American Express office.  An American Express office or your local bank will be able to help you to convert your money to local currency before you leave on vacation.  Often the conversion rates are not in your favor, but the feeling of confidence before you land on vacation could be worth it.

In summary:

  1. Use a no-fee credit card as much as possible
  2. Exchange currency at low-fee ATM machines
  3. Avoid currency exchange desks and stores
  4. Optionally, convert money locally before you go

If you enjoyed this, please visit our larger set of travel tips