If you’re traveling internationally, there are many things to consider when it comes to dealing with money in a foreign country.
You’ll be using debit cards to take out cash from ATMs and make payments, credit cards to rent cars and earn points, and cash for basically everything else in destinations that haven’t caught up to the 21st Century.
You need to be prepared with the right debit card, a good credit card, and the best strategies to getting cash or else you’ll be wasting money on fees you don’t need to pay.
In addition, you’ll need to know the best ways to avoid overspending, transfer money internationally, protect your money, and what to do if something happens to it.
On this page, I will outline everything you need to know about managing your money when you travel so that you are well-prepared and you know exactly what to expect!
1. Get the right debit card
Debit cards are an absolute necessity when traveling (and for everyday life, for that matter). They are needed to access your money, make payments, and take out cash from ATMs.
Pretty much everyone has a debit card, but not everyone has a good debit card for traveling. Some might charge you high fees to use them whereas others might not even be compatible with foreign ATMs or allow you to make payments in the first place.
Having the right debit card for traveling is extremely important as it can mean the difference between having a stressful experience trying to figure out how you can pay for things in cash because your card doesn’t work in your destination and blowing your budget because you didn’t account for hidden fees vs being able to pay for things easily both online as well as in person while also saving hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year on fees that you don’t need to pay.
Some of the things you should look for in a debit card for traveling include a chip & 4-digit number PIN, contactless payments, Visa or Mastercard integration, and low or no foreign transaction fees, foreign conversion fees, and foreign ATM withdrawal fees.
If your current bank offers a card like this for you, then great! But most banks don’t so you might have to look for a different one.
I wrote a whole guide on the best debit cards you can get for traveling, including which banks offer them, which you can find here: Guide to the Best Debit Cards for Traveling.
2. Get a good credit card
While you can still travel without a credit card, not having one means you miss out on being able to rent cars, book certain hotels, and have even more options for payment.
Having a good credit card can also provide you with benefits that can save you even more money on your travels. There are lots of different credit cards out there so you need to make sure you get a good one to maximize your opportunities and potential savings.
Similar to the debit card, using the wrong credit card can mean spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year on extra fees that you don’t need to pay.
You should try to get one with a chip & 4-digit number PIN, contactless payments, and low or no annual fees, foreign transaction fees, foreign conversion fees, and foreign ATM withdrawal fees.
However, those are only the basic requirements for a good credit card for traveling.
The best credit cards for traveling also include rewards and perks such as travel points, access to airport lounges, free upgrades, car rental insurance coverage, and travel insurance coverage.
Finding the best credit card for you depends on where you live, your personal spending habits, and the types of rewards and perks you are most interested in.
I wrote a whole guide on the best credit cards you can get for traveling, including how to get them, which you can find here: Guide to the Best Credit Cards for Traveling.
3. Don't get your cards blocked
Some banks and credit card providers require you to inform them when you will be traveling abroad so that they know that any foreign transactions that appear were actually made by you and weren’t as a result of fraud.
Find out if yours requires this because if you don’t do this, your cards might get blocked which can be super annoying to deal with when you’re halfway across the world!
And sometimes, even if you did inform them ahead of time, your cards will still get blocked because their internal fraud detection systems are too trigger-happy (some banks and credit card companies just love to watch the world burn).
If you forgot to inform them that you will be traveling or you did, but your cards still got blocked anyways, you’ll have to give them a call to unblock them. Making a long-distance international call where you will probably be kept on hold for several minutes can get really expensive, especially if you are roaming.
Having a travel-ready phone and getting a local prepaid SIM card can save you some money, but the best thing you can do is to actually download an app called TextNow which gives you a Canadian or US phone number that you can use to make and receive calls and texts to and from any other Canadian or US phone number for free over the internet.
TextNow also lets you make calls to other countries at super cheap rates, including free calls to Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
You can make calls using your smartphone, but also your computer: you just need a wifi or data connection, a TextNow number, and credits if you’re making a call to a country which is not free.
4. Know how to get cash
At the end of the day, cash is king. Even if you have the right debit card and the best credit card, there are still many countries and destinations in the world where you won’t be able to get by without cash.
And even if you are traveling to an almost cashless society like Sweden where many stores don’t even accept cash and only 20% of all in-store transactions are actually made in cash, you will probably still need to use cash at least once or twice on your trip in one form or another.
Therefore it’s very important to know how to get cash when you’re abroad, especially when the place you’re going to uses a different currency. There are a few different ways you can do it, but some ways are better than others and you need to know the tricks to avoid paying extra fees that you really don’t need to pay for.
A lot of people think that exchanging cash at foreign exchange offices, whether at home or abroad, is the best or even only way to get cash, but it is actually one of the worst ways. The actual best strategy is to wait until you are in your destination and take out cash using local ATMs.
I tell you why and also give you other tips in my Guide to Getting Cash While Traveling.
5. Bring some US Dollars if you can
Some countries around the world operate using US Dollars, even if it’s not their official currency.
For example, many countries in Southeast Asia that have Visas on Arrival for tourists require that you pay for them in cash using US Dollars or their own currency. Since you can’t enter the country to access an ATM to get cash in their own currency, you will have to be prepared ahead of time with US Dollars.
In addition, many of them will not accept US Dollar bills that are too old or that have any rips or tears. This could mean being stranded at the border if your bills aren’t in pristine condition.
Do your research ahead of time to know what to expect and even if you’re not going to such a country, it’s still always a good idea to have some backup cash in US Dollars with you anyways as it may come in handy in case of emergencies. The US Dollar is the most widely accepted currency around the world so it’s a good one to have.
6. Stay safe and be prepared
A lot of things can go wrong when you’re abroad if you’re not prepared. Here are a few tips to help you stay safe with your money while traveling:
Take care of your money
Avoid taking out and carrying too much cash with you at any one time. Keep a small amount in your wallet to cover what you need while you’re out, but keep the rest of it hidden somewhere in your luggage, ideally separated and spread out in different, hard-to-access pockets.
Whenever possible, lock up your valuables when you don’t need them, such as in a hotel safe or hostel locker.
Consider investing in travel accessories designed to prevent pickpockets such as a money belt and be aware of your surroundings when you’re out. Never leave your bags unattended and wrap the straps around your arm or leg when sitting somewhere. Avoid sketchy areas and try not to stand out too much in public.
If your mobile banking app has this feature, freeze your card whenever you’re not using it. This will ensure that it cannot be used to make any fraudulent transactions at any time. This only works if you have a consistent internet connection to be able to freeze and unfreeze it whenever you want.
A Travel-Ready Phone and Prepaid SIM Card will let you do this. In addition, you should also set up the instant push notifications on the app so that you receive one every time your card is used. This way, you will notice immediately if any unauthorized transaction is made with the card.
Watch out for card scams
Take care and watch out for card skimmers when using your debit or credit card. Card skimmers are what more sophisticated thieves use to copy and steal your card information. It involves placing a recording device over the card slot of an ATM or payment terminal that looks identical to the original card slot, but that copies and saves your card information when you slide it through.
They usually also have a camera pointing at the keypad or a sensor over it to record your PIN as well. So before you use any card machine or ATM, give the card slot a tug, feel the keypad to make sure there isn’t a fake one placed over it or that there aren’t any sensors on it, and check for any small, hidden cameras that are facing down towards it.
Another thing to look out for is a scam called the Lebanese Loop which is when a small film is placed inside the card slot which traps your card in it. If your card gets stuck in an ATM, feel along the card slot to see if there is anything sticking out and watch out for “friendly” people nearby who try to “help” you as they are most often the scammers that put the film there and who will look at your PIN when you try to put it in.
Once you give up and walk away, thinking that the ATM ate your card, they will pull out the film with your card in it and then run away with it. If you can’t seem to find the film by running your finger along the card slot and someone comes along to “help” you, ask them to go get the staff from the bank instead of entering your PIN in the machine in front of them. And if you must walk away from the ATM, block your card immediately.
And even if it seems safe, always cover your hand when entering your PIN because you never know. Also, never let your cards leave your sight such as when paying at a restaurant as it can take as little as one second for someone to snap a photo of your card, letting them use it to make fraudulent online purchases.
Have emergency backups
You should also be traveling with more than one debit and credit card anyways in case something happens to your main ones because it will be very stressful for you if you don’t have other ways to get money while you’re abroad.
To be most prepared, you should have at least 2 different debit cards and 2 different credit cards with you: your main ones and your emergency ones. Make sure to keep the emergency cards separate and hidden somewhere in your luggage and to note down all your card information somewhere safe so if something happens to any of them, it’s easier to get your money back later.
If you’re traveling as a couple and you have a joint bank account, then take a card each with you on the trip (and keep the second one safe). That way, if something happens to one of them, you will still be able to access your money with the other one.
In addition, you should also consider storing some money in a different format such as PayPal. Open up a free PayPal account if you don’t have one already and add a couple hundred dollars to it just in case.
Be careful with wifi
Be wary of free public wifi networks and avoid logging in to your bank account when connected to one. The best thing you can do is have a Travel-Ready Phone with a Prepaid SIM Card that has data which you can use to create a hotspot if you want to connect to the internet with your laptop.
However, if wifi is your only option, then you should consider getting a VPN for your phone and computer. A VPN will disguise your identity when connected to a public wifi network, making it much harder for hackers to access your information.
Most VPN providers offer both mobile and desktop versions, but I recommend using NordVPN. I use them myself and they do a great job.
If you’re looking for more travel safety tips, be sure to check out my Guide to Staying Safe While Traveling.
7. Know what to do in case of loss, theft, or fraud
Everyone at some point in their lives is going to have to deal with losing or getting their cash, cards, or money stolen.
Even if you’re the type of person that never loses anything and you’re impossible to pickpocket thanks to all the high-security travel accessories you invested in, you simply never know when an ATM will get hungry and decide to eat up your card or you walk into the wrong neighbourhood and bump into the wrong people.
No matter how it happens, you need to know what to do in case your cash, cards, or money goes missing or gets stolen. Here is a step-by-step guide:
- Don’t panic.
Okay, this is easier said than done because it’s in our nature to panic when something like this happens to us. That being said, you need to make your best effort to calm down as soon as you can and think rationally about the situation.
If you can’t find your cash, you may have simply misplaced it. Check every possible pocket you may have put it in and if necessary, go back to the last few places you were in to see if they’re there.
And if it’s your card that’s missing, remember that you most likely will be able to get your money back from the bank/credit card provider if it gets used to make any unauthorized transactions.
- Take appropriate action.
If you can’t find your cash even after looking for it, you may have to accept that it’s gone. There’s not much you can do about it now except try not to carry as much cash next time and move on from it.
If your cash was stolen, especially if you were mugged, you should file a police report with the local authorities. You probably won’t be able to get your money back, but at least the police will be aware of it. And some Travel Insurance policies might even be able to reimburse you for a small amount of that cash if you have a police report.
If your card was stolen, you lost it, or you notice that unauthorized transactions were made using it, you’ll have to take a few more steps:
- Block and cancel your card.
You’ll need to block the card as soon as possible to prevent it from being used to make any unauthorized transactions (or any more if some were already made).
If your mobile banking app allows you to freeze it instantly, go ahead and do that, but you will still need to contact your bank/credit card provider to cancel the card anyways since it has now been compromised. Use the TextNow app to avoid spending a lot of money on roaming charges.
- Report any unauthorized transactions.
If no unauthorized transactions were made before you blocked and canceled your card, you can skip ahead to #6. However, if some were made, then you will have to report them to your bank/credit card provider if you want to get your money back.
Every bank/credit card provider will have a different procedure for this and you will most likely be informed of it when you call to cancel your card anyways, but it usually involves some paperwork you have to complete.
- File a police report.
Part of the paperwork involved typically includes filing a police report with the local authorities about the unauthorized transactions. Find the nearest police station and get a copy of the filed report so you can send it to your bank/credit card provider.
- Request a new card.
Once you’ve cancelled your old card, you’ll have to get a new card so you can use your account again. Find out if your bank/credit card provider is able to send a new card to the country you’re traveling in and if so, how long it would take for delivery.
If your trip is almost over and you will be back home before the card would arrive anyways, then just have it sent home and use other forms of payment for the rest of the trip.
If there is still lots of time left on your trip, then have them send the new card to a destination that you will be going to later. Find out the estimated delivery time, add an extra week to it just in case there are delays or something, and figure out where you will be then.
Ask the accommodation you will be staying in if they can accept mail on your behalf and hold it for you until you arrive (most will say yes). Give their address to the bank/credit card provider and have the new card sent there.
If the bank/credit card provider is only able to send it to the registered address on your account, then have a friend or family member who has access to that address pick it up and mail it to you using the same process I just described.
Some countries may not allow the mailing of debit or credit cards and you should take precautions to protect it anyways so before it gets mailed, tell your friend/family member to tape it inside a relatively thin, but still hardcover notebook that will fit in a standard envelope and to mail it with a tracking number, ideally with a private delivery company like UPS, DHL, or FedEx. If they require a description of the contents, do not say debit or credit card. Instead, say documents and you will not run into any issues.
- Activate your new card.
Use your emergency card or any other forms of payment that you have prepared until your card arrives in the mail. In the meantime, follow up with the bank/credit card provider on the unauthorized transactions to ensure you get your money back.
Once you get to the accommodation where the card has been sent to, pick it up and activate it so you can go back to using it for the rest of your trip! Make sure to update your accounts with the new card number if you have any recurring payments.
8. Set a budget and track your spending
One of the best ways to make sure you don’t overspend on your vacation is to actually set a budget for yourself, stick to it, and track your spending.
A lot of people will book the cheapest flights and accommodation, but when they arrive at their destination, they start to spend money like there’s no tomorrow. Then they come home and wonder how their vacation that they got the best flights and accommodation for ended up being so expensive!
Setting a budget is one way to prevent this. Get an idea for how much you should expect to spend in your destination for everything on a daily basis. Use sites like Numbeo which can show you the average cost of everyday things in many different countries around the world.
Add up and include the cost of all the tours and attractions you plan to do while you’re there as well as any pre-trip expenses that you have already paid for (such as transportation, accommodation, visas, vaccinations, and travel insurance).
Once you’ve figured out how much you will be spending no matter what, see how much more you can afford to budget for. Whatever is left you will be able to use on souvenirs and gifts, other fun experiences that you might come across while there, and any emergencies that you might run into.
Make sure you know what the exchange rate is if you’ll be dealing with a different currency and track your spending by noting down any expenses you make and by checking your bank account frequently. Stick to this budget and you won’t come home to any surprises!
9. Transfer money internationally like a pro
While traveling, you may run into a situation where you need to transfer money from your bank account to another one in a foreign currency or maybe you do a little work while abroad and they want to pay you in their currency. If you try to use your standard bank in these scenarios, you will be spending lots of money on transfer fees.
So if you want to save a lot of money, I recommend opening up a TransferWise Borderless Account which is completely free to have. Use this link to open yours and get a no-fee international transfer of up to £500!
TransferWise is an online banking company that lets you keep money in more than 50 currencies in your account as well as real bank accounts for the USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, and the Eurozone which also let you receive payments in those currencies.
They have the cheapest exchange rates out there as well as super low foreign conversion fees compared to standard banks and they can also provide you with a Mastercard debit card which you can use while traveling.
The debit card does have ATM withdrawal fees for withdrawals over $250 over a 30 day period, but it makes up for it with very good exchange rates and no fees for foreign transactions so you can also use it to make payments while abroad if you haven’t found a better debit card for you in my Guide to the Best Debit Cards For Traveling.
You can also stay safe by locking and unlocking your card instantly from their mobile app! Keep in mind that they are only able to send cards to residents of Europe, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, or the USA.
If you want to open a TransferWise Borderless account, use this link to get a no-fee international transfer of up to £500!
And that’s all you need to know!
Managing your money the right way while traveling means you will spend less of it on unnecessary fees and more of it on great experiences!
Let me know if this guide helped you figure out your money situation in the comments below and if you want to know what other things you should get for your trip, check out my Guide to the Top Travel Accessories.