Eagle-Flying Friday: The 7 Types Of Travel Money — And What Can Happen To Them

Be sure to check your credit-card statements frequently -- and call right away if you spot an issue.
Be sure to check your credit-card statements frequently — and call right away if you spot an issue.

By Sharyn Alden

Anyone who travels has pondered the what-ifs. You know: What if your purse or wallet is stolen while cruising the coast of Belize, shopping in Rome, sunning in Trinidad, or hanging out in a café in Amsterdam?

Losing these personal items with your financial information inside could be horrific, but you’d probably be less stressed if you thought this through before leaving home—and packed accordingly.

Here’s what I mean. First off, what are you carrying with you when you’re walking the streets of a foreign city? If you’ve packed the same stuff in your wallet that you do at home, that’s a mistake.

I’ve listed below the most common forms of travel currency and how you should deal with them when you travel.

Cash: The first rule of taking a mix of money is to never ever keep all your money – cash, credit cards or other financial info — in the same place. If that wallet is lost, so is your access to spending power.

Guys, if you’re carrying a wallet bursting with stuff … beware. I know someone who carries a wallet thicker than a hamburger filled with business cards. Those who have mischief on their minds live for wallets like these. And even though the thief would be sorely disappointed at getting a mound of business cards instead of a wad of cash, it’s not as though he came up empty.

Obviously, you have to have some walking-around cash when you travel. Plan on having about $100 (US) in various denominations with you at the start of your trip for travel incidentals. Depending on where you travel, you might want to carry an additional few hundred dollars with you as emergency cash.

However, never, ever keep all your cash in one place. If I’m carrying a couple hundred dollars, I usually keep it in two or three different places: money belts, old film canisters, a laundry bag, in secret pockets in clothing (like the Pick-Pocket Proof items from Clothing Arts), or — who would look there? — underwear.

When you get to your destination, divide up foreign currency in the same way so you don’t have all the foreign coins and bills in one place – like your wallet.  (Editor’s Note: We divide some of our cash among the billion pockets in a old photographer’s vest. That seems to do the trick, presuming we don’t lose the vest.)

If this sounds complicated, consider writing yourself a note as to where you stashed your cash. Just don’t forget to hide the note … somewhere where you can find it.

Currency exchange: There’s a sucker born every minute when it comes to exchanging U.S. money into foreign currency – and I’ve been there and done that numerous times simply because of convenience.

If you can help it, don’t exchange money at airports, main-street tourist traps, or hotel lobbies. Instead, try local banks or reputable tourist agencies. In Stockholm, for example, you can exchange money at tourist bureaus located throughout the city, generally at better rates than local banks.

You’ll usually get the best exchange rates when you order foreign cash from a major bank at home. If you’re a bank customer you’ll probably pay a small fee, but non-customers usually can order foreign cash with only a slightly larger service fee attached.

Credit Cards: Credit cards make safe travel options because you’re completely covered if the card is lost or stolen. Take one or two major cards when you travel, but never more than that. You don’t want to be seen juggling a wallet of plastic.

Before you leave home, make photocopies of the front and back of your cards. Keep a copy with you in a stashed, secret place. Keep emergency phone numbers handy, including local police and your cards’ international numbers, to cancel your cards if they’re lost or stolen. Also, call your card companies and tell them which countries you are visiting and when. That way your purchases won’t be “suspicious” and declined.

If your card is lost or stolen, some card programs may send you emergency cash or a replacement card as soon as possible. Know which cards offer that service before you leave.

Don’t let credit and debit cards out of your sight. If your restaurant server is going to take your card to a back room, opt to pay in cash. Look around before you pay. If you see a point-of-sale machine in the room, that’s what you want. Watch the transaction as it’s completed.

Debit Cards: Debit cards give you access to a designated account back home in, and can provide a lot of security and peace of mind.

If your debit card is linked to a major card like Visa, you can use it to withdraw cash at ATMs, but you’ll pay a small fee for withdrawing foreign money at ATMs. Some banks may also charge for making the transaction, though some card companies have partnerships with international banks that let customers use their ATMs at no charge. Before you leave home, ask your bank if they have these types of partnerships abroad.

Keep in mind banks make money as much as 3 percent to 4 percent (or more) off every swipe in foreign currency, so keep withdrawals to a minimum to avoid fees.

If you opt for travel insurance (and you should), Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection pays claims in seconds into personal checking accounts via debit cards. Not only is this the fastest way of getting claims paid, it’s the most secure and practical method for travelers.

ATMs: The global proliferation of ATMs has made them a widely popular go-to option for getting cash. The downside is it’s not always easy to find an ATM when you need one. But even a blind squirrel can find a nut, so press on and you’ll find one eventually.

A few words to the wise: Don’t depend on ATMs as your main money backup. The machines depend on electricity and a phone signal, and in some areas of the world these things can be unreliable.

Review the layout of the ATM keypad. Lots of travelers have lost their cards by entering the right pattern but typing the wrong numbers on a foreign keypad.

Prepaid travel cards:  These cards have strict limits — $500, for example — and can help you stick to a budget. Usually they’re used the same way debit cards are.

Keep in mind the cards may have “hidden” charges, like buying the card and withdrawing and reloading money. If you buy it, use it. Some prepaids may charge you for not using the card within a certain timeframe.

Travelers’ checks: Back in the day these were a safe and popular form of travel currency, but not anymore. There are too many other faster and easier money options.

One of the main reasons travelers’ checks lost their luster is that the number of places that accept them  is only slighter larger than the number of places that send telegrams. Still, if you love the idea of taking these with you, find out if they’re accepted where you’re heading. Then hide the receipts with the check numbers on them with the other stash of items you’ve divvied up in your ‘unmentionables.”

Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis.