Some of my own personal travel observations…
This week I am doing something totally different…I am going to post some of my random thoughts and suggestions on cutting costs and saving money while traveling. Here are a few:
One of the things I love about traveling is learning all the denominations of a new currency, whether they have paper and coins, or just paper money only. What is their exchange rate to the United States dollar?
Do money changers or exchange locations give different rates when I am changing my dollars to the local currency? What do the banks in the countries I am traveling in charge for a debit transaction? Are there ways around a debit charge?
Should I bring $5.00 bills, $50.00 bills, or maybe $100.00 bills? What shape should the money be in? How old? And…when arriving for the first time to a new country when I don’t have any of their currency, what should I do?
Before I get started, I would just like to say that these are only observations of mine, and my own thoughts on how to work around those observations!
So, let’s take these one at a time…first, of the countries I have been to, all had both paper and coins other than Cambodia and Vietnam, which only have paper. Cambodia uses both the US dollar and the Cambodian Riel, but there are no US coins in circulation, so when someone is given anything less than $1.00 USD back, it is not in change but in Cambodian paper currency.
As far as exchange rates, money changers, locations, etc, it pays to be observant, and to shop around. When I was traveling to Hong Kong a few years ago, the rate below my hostel was 7.071 HKD to $1.00 USD. If I were to take the train a few stops, which I was doing every day anyway, I could get 7.75 HKD for my one US dollar. Think of it this way, $100 USD would get me either 707 HKD or 775 HKD.
A decent meal cost me about 40 HKD at the time, so just by traveling a few stops on the MTR, I could get almost two dinners for the difference between those two money changers. Now that is not always the case, but if you are as cheap as me, then you will do the shopping and get the most you can get, as long as it doesn’t waste any extra money and isn’t too much of an effort.
So the short answer for this is, there are typically MANY locations to exchange your money in EVERY country. The exchange rate though, can sometimes be quite a bit of a difference, as you can see by my example in Hong Kong. As I just mentioned above though, DON’T waste too much time and effort over what sometimes might amount to only a few dollars!
I started by talking mostly about cash exchanges, but there is nothing wrong with using a debit or credit card, the difference is just that you will not get as good an exchange rate as you will when dealing with cash.
Another thing I discovered in Thailand was that the typical charge for withdrawing money from an ATM machine by a Thai bank was around $6.00 per transaction! So, depending on your bank, you can pay a pretty hefty fee each time you withdraw money! After doing a lot of Googling about best banking systems to use while traveling, I learned about Charles Schwab, and it has worked out excellent for me!
They do NOT charge you a fee for using their card anywhere in the world, as long as the ATM machine has a VISA logo on it. Not only do they not charge you a fee on their end, they reimburse you ALL foreign ATM fees at the end of every month. I can 100% verify this, at least as of my last trip, and it is highly unlikely they will stop this practice anytime soon. So this is a great way to save money on withdrawals with your debit card. They also give a great exchange rate when withdrawing from those machines, too.
Now, on to what denominations you should bring, what condition they should be in, and when and where you should get your currency for the country you are visiting. Bring big bills that are BRAND NEW! Your bank will have no problem giving you brand new $100.00 bills if you tell them you are traveling. Just like no on wants an old and worn out pair of shoes (unless you are a South Korean art sculpture), the Asian banks don’t want your worn out dollars either.
Pretty much every country I have traveled to will NOT accept worn bills, and will completely refuse ANY bill with a small tear, etc on the bill. The Philippines in almost all instances will only take $100.00 bills and NOTHING smaller. That being said, just about every other country I traveled to WILL take smaller bills but will not give you as good of an exchange rate for them. It is a also a given that fifties and $100.00 bills will get you the best exchange rate.
I did learn a hard lesson a couple of years ago when I traded a fellow traveler some smaller currency I had for an older, circa 1992 $100.00 bill. No one, and I mean NO ONE, would take that bill in either Thailand or Vietnam. I tried every bank, every money changer, every jewelry store, anyone that accepted money, and no one would take it. It did work out for me in the end, by giving me an extra hundred dollars when I arrived back in America at the end of my trip! But, I really, really had a lot of days when I was wishing I could exchange that bill while I was traveling! So I would highly recommend NOT bringing any old bills with you if you travel to southeast Asia.
I am going to close this blog with one last suggestion/tip. There is no doubt that you will have to get SOME currency when you land and arrive in the airport at each country you will travel to, BUT, exchange as LITTLE currency as possible in the airport. You will get an absolutely TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE exchange rate from them. I typically exchange the smallest denomination I can that gets me some transportation and to get a meal or two with, or just get money out of the ATM.
Also, DO NOT exchange money with your personal bank. I have checked with them in the past and the currencies were substantially lower, and I have friends that were burned by their bank by exchanging their currency here, in the US. You will get an EVEN WORSE exchange rate with your bank than you will at the airport!!! When arriving at the airport, this might be a good time to use some small denomination bills if you have them, or withdraw money out of an ATM machine to catch a taxi or a bus to your destination.
After having written all this, I want to again remind everyone that these are just my experiences and lessons I have learned from my trips to the other side of the world, and my small amount of travel knowledge is limited to that part of the world. Not only that, but my experiences may be different than other travelers, so please do the research and make sure you understand the best ways to stretch your money. The key to traveling for months, or years at a time, is to make every dollar count!
My next blog post will most likely be my final post on Phuket, and from there my stories will find me in Bangkok and the surrounding area for a few weeks. I hope everyone will continue to follow me. I will leave everyone with one of my favorite sunset memories from the rooftop of one of my favorite hostels in Bangkok. Peace, out!