Avoid foreign exchange gouges abroad
Since at least Biblical times, money changers have been gouging foreign visitors exchanging their currency for local shekels.
Fortunately, if you’re going outside the U.S. this summer, you can avoid most of the gouge.
Unless you’re a currency speculator, you’ll almost always lose a little in exchanging your dollars for whatever. That’s because the actual cost of exchanging currency is the 1% or so that the international Visa, MasterCard or American Express networks charge to do the exchange job.
But many credit and debit card issuers add their own foreign charges and fees for doing nothing — they gouge because they can — running the cost up to 5% or even more.
Retail foreign exchange desks can use a combination of lousy rates and fees to run your cost up to 10% or more.
But if you’re using the right credit and debit cards, you can limit your loss to the basic 1%.
Credit Card. These days, a lot of credit cards, especially co-branded travel-related cards, have stopped surcharging foreign charges. They no longer charge a fee at all, or add just the fee of 1% or less to cover the network transaction cost.
To keep losses to a minimum, the traveler’s key rule is to put as many bills on a no-surcharge credit card as possible.
Debit Card. You may not need much local currency, but the best way to get what you need is to get it from a local bank’s ATM. But finding the right card and the right ATM can sometimes take some digging.
Although a large foreign bank’s ATM generally uses the bank rate for conversion, when you use a debit card at a foreign bank’s ATM you face up to three possible fees:
— Your bank may assess a fee — typically around three or four dollars — for every ATM transaction at any “foreign” bank, regardless of the amount.
— Your bank may also add a conversion surcharge.
— The foreign ATM may assess a withdrawal fee.
To avoid these gouges, you need a debit card account with a bank that (1) charges no exchange fees on foreign withdrawals and (2) absorbs some or all foreign-bank fees as well.
If your regular bank doesn’t offer such an account, do what I do: I maintain a small no-fee checking account with a small local bank that I transfer money to before a trip but otherwise keep idle. Your best bets for such a “travel money” account are credit unions, former savings banks and online banks.
Cashless Traveling. Forget the old “tip” that you need to get some local money before you depart. Last October, I traveled from Gatwick Airport to my London hotel without handling a single pound or pence. And when I tried to buy a can of Sprite at St. Pancras station using coins, the attendant said, “Sorry, we don’t take cash here.”
Avoid Traps. Keep away from three major gouges:
— Airport exchange offices almost always give very poor rates — you can lose up to 10%.
— Many foreign airports have given local exchange agencies an exclusive franchise to operate all ATMs at the airport. Those ATMs proclaim “no fees,” but they give the same lousy rates as the exchange office. Find a major bank’s ATM instead.
— Some foreign merchants may offer to bill you in dollars rather than local currency. Even if your card adds no junk fees, the merchant will almost certainly give you a lousy exchange rate. Don’t fall for it.
Exceptions. The recommendations above apply to countries with stable currencies. Unfortunately, there are still places — Argentina, most noteworthy — where the official exchange rates are unrealistic. Check before you visit any country that might have a currency problem.
What’s in your travel wallet? Check the card(s) you normally carry. If your cards don’t avoid the fees, get some that do before you leave.
Email Ed Perkins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, check out Ed’s rail travel website at rail-guru.com.
© 2023 Ed Perkins. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.