Don’t Pay 27% More to Convert Dollars to Euros at the Airport!

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I’ve always known that changing money at airports is a terrible deal.  But I was curious to see just how much I would be ripped off, so I converted $100.50 into 60 euros at the Travelex Currency Services in Newark airport.

This was a terrible deal, because I would have received 16 more euros, for a total of 76 euros, if I had converted $100.50 at the official inter-bank rate.

I paid ~27% more (16 extra euros/60 euros) because of the fees involved at the Travelex store!

Don’t expect Travelex to tell you just how much extra you’re paying.  In my experience, the representatives are either themselves clueless about the fees or intentionally understate the fees to make a sale.  My receipt labels the representative as a “Sales Consultant” so I suspect a significant portion of the representatives’ salary is based on the volume of foreign currency sales.

This means that there is a significant incentive for the representative to generate sales and divert attention from the high fees charged by Travelex.  I specifically asked about fees, and was told that no fees were charged.  Which is technically correct because the receipt labels them as “Service Charges.”

Currency Conversion Airport-1

A $9.95 Service Charge is a Fee to Me!

The colorful marketing chart at the Travelex booth has the audacity to state “Discounted Exchange Rate on Today’s Transaction” when the foreign currency fee is 14% MORE, for converting US dollars to euros, than the inter-bank rate!

No Value For You!

And the “savings” mentioned are fictitious savings likely generated by comparing to inflated base rates.

Foreign Currency Conversion Fees

You pay two fees when you change currency at an airport.  This is in spite of the sales consultant (& the Travelex receipt) telling you that there are no fees.  That’s because there is a “Service Charge” so Travelex can honestly say that you weren’t charged a “fee” when in-fact the service charge has the same effect as a fee!

And the big rip-off is because the rate you pay for the currency is much higher than the official bank rate.  The difference between the official rate and what Travelex (or other airport currency exchange companies) charge you is the “spread” which is the main source of profit for the currency exchange companies.

1.   High Currency Exchange Rate.   You are almost always charged a much higher rate for foreign exchange than the official bank rate.  This difference or the “spread” is how currency exchange shops make most of their money.

I paid $1 for 0.6626 euros on December 30, 2012 at the Travelex in Newark.  However, the official inter-bank rate was $1 for 0.75653 euros.

This means that I paid 0.09393 more (Official Rate of 0.75653 – Travelex Rate of 0.6626) per $1 that I changed or ~14% more (0.09393 more per $1 converted / Travelex Rate of 0.6626) for my foreign exchange.

14% is a huge profit margin for foreign exchange conversion.  In comparison, most credit cards which charge a foreign transaction fee charge only 3% and some charge no transaction fee.

2.   Service Charge.   Travelex charges a $9.95 service fee at airports if you convert less than $500 into a foreign currency.  There is no service fee for converting more than $500, but you still pay a very high currency exchange rate.

High Transaction Fees

So you’re effectively paying at least ~2% extra ($9.95 Service Fee/ $499 converted) if you convert $499 into a foreign transaction. And much more if you convert smaller amounts.

I effectively paid an extra ~11% because of the service fee ($9.95 Service Fee/ $90.55 converted) for converting $101.50 into 60 euros at the airport!

What To Do?

Many of us change money at airports because we need to have local currency in cash when we land in a foreign country.

But don’t change ALL your money at the airport because you will get a terrible rate!  The rate offered at the airport was 14% worse than the inter-bank rate in my example above.

1.   Debit Card.   Use your debit card to withdraw money as soon as you land at the airport.  Granted, this could backfire if you can’t locate the ATM or your debit card doesn’t work at the ATM and you need to have cash in the local currency to pay for a bus or taxi.

Most debit cards have foreign transaction fees of 1% to 3% which is much better than the 14% spread when you change cash at US airports.  You will also pay a fee for using the foreign ATM, so it helps to withdraw large amounts to reduce the impact of the fee.  However, many foreign ATMs have a limit on the maximum amount which you can withdraw at a time.

The Charles Schwab debit card with the High Yield Investor checking account (not an affiliate link) has no foreign transaction fees for withdrawing money overseas AND it reimburses you for ATM fees charged by banks.

2.   Credit Cards.  Use a credit card to pay for most of your expenses.  Many credit cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink Bold/Ink Plus, Chase Hyatt, Chase British Airways etc. charge no foreign transaction fees for foreign purchases, but even a card which charges 3% is better than paying the higher conversion fees for converting US dollars into local currency in cash.

However, be sure to be charged in the local currency when you pay with a credit card overseas, and not US dollars, to avoid an extra 3% fee.

Granted, that there are many, many places where using a credit card is NOT an option and you shouldn’t rely on this method exclusively when traveling.  There WILL be times when you need cash.  This happens even in the US, but is more likely to happen overseas.

But it doesn’t hurt to try to put all your foreign spending on credit cards to get the extra miles and points!

However, don’t withdraw money from an ATM with your credit card because you will be charged high cash advance fees.

3.   US Dollars.  Carry US Dollar currency with you.  If faced with no payment or payment in US dollars, a shopkeeper may accept dollars or guide you to a bank where you can change them.  I wouldn’t expect the best rate, but surely it can’t be worse than the currency exchange rate at US airports.

However, I wouldn’t rely on everyone cheerfully accepting dollars, and you could be stranded if you rely on only credit cards and no local cash.

4.   Hold Your Nose and pay the high currency conversion fees at the airport so that you have local currency when you land.  But do this for only a small amount.

I usually convert ~$100 into local currency at either the US or local airport when I land so that I have enough money for the 1st few days. Yes, I overpay for the currency, but I feel more at ease knowing that I won’t have to explain in a foreign language why I have no local currency!

5.   Bring Cash Back With You.   After that, I withdraw cash using my bank debit card and bring some back with me to the US if I know that I will be transiting or visiting those countries again.  I’ve got a small stash of Euros, UK Pounds, Brazilian Reals, Indian Rupees, Chinese Renminbi etc. which I will use the next time I visit those countries!

Bottom Line

Converting money at a US airport is expensive, but could be worth it for small amounts.  After that, it is best to either use a credit card with ideally no foreign transaction fees so that you earn miles and points on your purchases.  And to withdraw money from a local ATM using your debit card for those times when you need to pay with cash.

Readers, I’m curious what method you use to get local currency when you travel?

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66 responses to “Don’t Pay 27% More to Convert Dollars to Euros at the Airport!

  1. FYI, if you apply for the Schwab Investor Checking account, they will pull a credit report. In CA, it pulled Equifax for me, so no big loss (no one pulls Equifax for me). It’s also a good idea to keep a receipt of all your ATM transactions and write down what the ATM fee was on it … a few ATMs don’t disclose their fees properly and Schwab’s system may not catch the fee to refund it at the end of the month.

    Another good idea is to just keep the cash you get on vacations if it’s a country/region you foresee returning to. I have upwards of 300 Euros in my travel wallet just because I always tend to be in a Euro currency nation at least once a year anyway (and have experienced arriving on a bank holiday and having only JUST enough change to get on the train to the city).

  2. Confucius Jackson

    You forgot an obvious one: keep a small stash of foreign currency from your last trip. If I think I’m going to be going back there in the next five years, I make sure to bring enough for an airport cab ride back with me. Worst case is that I exchange that currency in another country at the airport for the local currency.

    I always have Canadian dollars, Hong Kong dollars, Euros, and Pounds at home.

  3. I highly recommend Charles Schwab debit card for this feature as well. The fact that there is no foreign transaction fee OR ATM use fee means you don’t have to worry about where you’re going to get the best exchange rate for your money. Although, there was that one time where the very first ATM I used in Guatemala (granted, it wasn’t in the airport) on a 2-week trip was flagged as a “compromised” ATM, and they shutdown my card which caused quite a bit of a headache for me, even though I had notified them before that I was traveling.

    @Amol Didn’t know they pulled a credit report… Will have to check on that.

  4. frequent grouponer

    MMS:

    Very nice and useful post, thanks. I an confused on one point, however. In this post (paragraph #2 above), you advise, when using a cc overseas, to always be charged in US dollars. This seems to contradict the main point of your August 2, 2012 post (linked in paragraph #2 of this post), which is to be charged in the local currency when using a cc overseas.

    What am I missing?

    tia for the clarification

  5. I use Ally bank internationally. I pay no fees on account and I get a MasterCard platinum debit card. Not sure what platinum designation means for debit. I pay a 1% currency change fee and no ATM fees anywhere in world. While ATM fee refunds are not a published benefit from ally I frequently see few refunds on my statement.

  6. @Amol (@PointsToPointB) - Thanks for the heads-up on the hard inquiry. Good to know!

    @Confucius Jackson - I did mention that under #4 “After that, I withdraw cash using my bank debit card and bring some back with me to the US if I know that I will be transiting or visiting those countries again. I’ve got a small stash of Euros, UK Pounds, Brazilian Reals, Indian Rupees, Chinese Renminbi etc. which I will use the next time I visit those countries!”

    But perhaps it deserves its own paragraph since it seems to have been missed!

    @Jonathan H – I don’t have a Schwab debit card yet, but am considering opening one.

    @frequent grouponer – Late night error. Thanks for pointing it out!

    @Jacob – Good to know and thanks for sharing! I get reimbursed for some ATM fees from Bank Direct for international withdrawals even though only domestic withdrawals are supposed to be reimbursed.

  7. We also have a suggestion, as your blog is about miles/points …. submit your receipt to Flying Blue to try to earn some award miles.

    More info is here: Flying Blue partners – put “Travelex” in the “Partner search by name” box.

    It’s worth a try!

  8. Love the blog, but had a few comments to add to the discussion.

    First of all, I never exchange money at the airport. That has to be the worst place to do so. Most people know this, but sometimes you need some cash when you arrive.

    You can’t complain in this instance about them advertising a Discounted Exchange Rate because you only converted $100.50, and the poster you have a picture of shows that advertised for $350+ transactions. Having said that, I’m sure the rate they give you for each tier is still pretty bad.

    Also, keep in mind that it’s a little unfair to compare their rates to the 3% Visa/MC rates. They’re different services. One is converting actual cash, and they obviously have to hire someone to work the booth where Visa/MC is all electronic. Again, I’m not saying that the exchange rates aren’t awful, but I don’t expect to pay 3% or less when converting my cash. It’s just a different service. Also, I believe many of the airport money exchanges will buy back unused money at the same rate, so if you have money at the end of your trip you can get back US $.

    99% of the time, I don’t convert cash for cash. I do what others do and withdraw from an ATM. I have a Capital One Bank account (not sure if it’s still offered since it was bought by ING) that has no monthly fees, no ATM fees, and no forex fees! So when I travel, I just withdraw money as I need it and not worry about it. I also have a few 0% forex fee credit cards (CitiBank ThankYou Premier & AmEx Platinum), which is always my preference.

    If you are looking to convert cash, shop around. I won some money in a poker tournament and had an excess of Euros, and when I was in the UK I found a shop called Ace/FX that gave me an extremely good conversion rate on Euros. I live in Las Vegas and we have a specialty foreign transaction shop with the best rates in town. If you do some Googling, you’ll find something like this in every town. They’re still going to charge you something to convert your money so they can turn a profit, but rest assured it’ll be better than the airport!

  9. @veeRob – can you share the shop in LV?

  10. ATM’s are definitely the way to go, and I totally agree with the idea not to change back to dollars at the end of the trip, if the currency you have is from a monetarily stable place you are likely to go again, or, I would add, if it is a readily convertible currency that would be just as welcome as dollars for dealing with in the next place you go.

  11. Just use an prepaid amex blue card and withdraw from atm no forex and 1 free withdrawal every month. If you go to a hotel they may have a free atm and it will cost you nothing.

  12. Humorously enough, when I was in Yangon last month thanks to a certain jumbo sale, the money changer at the airport charged no fees or service charges and the exchange rate was 0.5% lower than the published rate ;)

  13. I go to my local bank and put in an order for some currency of the country we are going to just so I have some on hand. We are taking cruise from one country to another this spring and when we land in the second country we are off on a guided tour immediately. I need cash to pay him so I’ll order it here in the US. It keeps the stress level down for me.

    I also have have a Schwab Investor checking for the sole reasons that Amol stated.

  14. I always use either my debit card at a bank ATM when landing in a foreign country or a no foreign transaction fee credit card for all other purchases. I also save any extra foreign money for the next time I visit. I had about $150 Euro left over from one of our trips. The next time we went to Europe we were travelling with a friend. We land at the airport and they were all in a panic because they didn’t have any of the local currency for a cab, bus, etc. My husband and I had it covered though because we had the saved money on hand. We also had about $250 left over from this trip which came in handy when my mother in law was going to Italy to visit family. I handed her a card with the Euro inside and she couldn’t have been happier. Our family from Italy also sent us Euro as our wedding present a couple of years ago. We still have that saved for our next trip there. Why cash it in when we know we’re going to need it in a few months? We would much rather have the bases covered. I am so with Daraius on this…save your extra currency because it will always come in handy.

  15. I got screwed at the airport exchange too. I heard you could go to a Starbucks and put all your foreign currency on your Starbucks card and it would convert to usd.

  16. Anyone try bluebird internationally? If u have dd there should be no ATM fees besides what fees the ATM charges per use.

  17. I use a Bank of America debit card at affiliate banks when traveling abroad for best current exchange rate with absolutely zero fees.

    BNP Paribas (France)
    BNL Banca Nazionale Del Lavoro (Italy)
    Barclays (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands)
    Deutsche Bank (Germany)
    Scotiabank (Canada and the Caribbean, Caribbean countries include: Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Jamaica, Netherlands Antilles (St Maarten), St Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & The Grenadines, Trinidad & Tobago, Turks & Caicos Islands, US Virgin Islands)
    Westpac (Australia and New Zealand)
    In addition, Bank of America has arranged for you to use your debit or ATM cards in China at China Construction Bank
    ATMs (China Construction Bank ATMs in Hong Kong are not included) and in Mexico at Banco Santander with no ATM
    Operator Fees or Non-Bank of America International ATM fees. An International Transaction fee for converting your
    currency may apply.

    There are also Barclay’s in other places outside of the UK that are viable.

  18. Darius, thanks for the informative post and I really enjoy your blog. However, as a former employee of a major retail currency exchange I want to add to this discussion.

    Using the interbank rates as a comparison for your $100 transaction is a little misplaced. Currency is traded bank to bank as cash, forwards, futures, swaps, spot and any number of other ways. When banks (or other large institutions) trade currency with each other they do so in massive million or billion dollar contract size. The normal “standard lot” is a trade size of 100,000 units (read $100,000). Thus, they get better pricing due to the higher volume.

    So, when you read that the interbank rate is 27% different from the rate you bought at, you’re comparing yourself to someone with a purchasing power of billions of dollars.

    It would be similar to going to fill up my car’s gas tank and getting upset since the station owner is charging a premium above what the wholesale rate for gasoline, according to the futures price on the NYMEX or CME.

    As an example (as of this writing) RBOB Gas is trading at $2.8037 per gallon on the CME. My local gas station was selling gas this morning for $3.09 per gallon. That’s a premium of around 10%, what a rip off!!

    Just because we know the wholesale rates, doesn’t mean that we’re entitled to that rate. When overseas. I’ll continue to use my Sapphire Preferred card, and withdraw any needed cash from ATMs.

  19. If you have a fidelity retirement account, the free fidelity mysmart cash option is great to. No ATM fees (or rebated). No foreign fees. I use it all over the world.

  20. One thing I do is check to see if my destination’s taxis accept credit card. I then use my credit card to get me to the hotel. If my hotel doesn’t do foreign exchanges, I then check if a casino is nearby. If so, I then go to the casino and exchange some cash. I haven’t yet been hit with a fee in a casino.

  21. I’ve always used a debit card overseas to withdraw money from an ATM. People should also look at banking with a credit union because, at least in my experience, most credit unions do not charge a foreign transaction fee – or I should say the ones I have banked (sorry, credit unioned) with have never charged me a foreign transaction fee.

  22. Fidelity cash ATM is the best. No fees worldwide. Hopefully I’ll get around to our a post about it.

  23. i use the atm’s (debit card) in local towns in Eu countries esp france and as my bank in U.s. has offices in europe there are no foreign fees. U must have Euros in france et as everyone wants cash (under the table) to not pay the high taxes… we in the US will be doing the same soon as all of our Taxes are increasing esp some of the hidden new obamacare tax=taxes….

  24. I think Fidelity Cash Management account charges 1% foreign transaction fee. and i think fidelity mysmart is grandfathered by Fidelity Cash Management account. Do i miss anything?

  25. I have never understood wanting to search out ATMs in a foreign country while on a trip, but that is just my preference.

    I order foreign currency through my bank ahead of time.

    And Michael has an excellent point, you were comparing apples to oranges.

  26. Schwab did pull my credit report when I applied for the ATM card, even though I have already had the regular and retirement accounts with them for many years. The online application did not mention the inquiry. I learned about it from my credit report.

    Citi will reimburse your ATM fees if you’re Citi gold.

  27. In Vietnam you can take your US currency to a local jewelry store gives you better conversion rates. They’ll usually post the exchange rate outside on a sign. Remember Crisp new $100 bills in good condition gets the best exchange rates. They’ll often pay less for damaged bills, they have torn, ripped, heavily soiled bills.

  28. @jason
    Eventhough bank of American advertized that using China Construction Bank in HK is excluded, I have used their ATM in HK and there’s no ATM or Foreign transaction fees. Believe it or not, the bank of America debit card actually under-promised and over-delivered on many aspects of its Global ATM Allliances.

  29. Daraius,

    I would also caution your readers against using a Travelex ATM.

    I was in Italy and pulled out 100 euros, but instead of charging my debit card 100 euros (and letting my own bank in the US do the conversion), the Travelex ATM did its own conversion to US Dollars (at a poor exchange rate) and since I was in a rush, I clicked “Yes”. So not only did I get a poor rate, my own back in the US charged me a fee on top of that since it was a foreign transaction (although I wasn’t charged a conversion fee, I was charged a cross-border transaction fee). So buyer beware… don’t use Travelex ATM’s!

  30. I agree with your blog that exchanging currency in a US Airport prior to departure will get you just about the worst exchange rate possible. However, my experience is that if you exchange cash in a foreign airport when you arrive at your destination, the rates are much better. It obviously depends on exactly where you are going, but in some places I have been to, the foreign airport cash exchange rates were the best options I could find (better than hotels, banks, or exchange shops).

  31. What if you withdraw too much and don’t want to bring it back, ie you don’t see yourself going back in the near future? Can you deposit foreign currency back into a US bank when you return or do you have to exchange it at a US airport — paying the fee you initially tried to avoid?

  32. I hit a local ATM with my USAA debit card (1% fee) and take out $100 and use a points-earning credit card with no foreign currency conversion fee wherever possible.

    An exception to this is for very short trips like a recent overnight layover in FRA. In that case I converted my remaining KRW to Euros (maybe 20 or so) at a local currency shop in Seoul before leaving Korea. This almost left me in a bind due to the ticket vending machines not accepting my cards, but actually worked out fine in the end. I now have a chip and signature card, so hopefully it won’t be a problem next time.

  33. Using Bank of Amer. at a sister bank ATM as stated above is the best way. Can use a Deutsche Bank at most German airports. Take out about $50 for each day, most things you can do on Cr. Cards. But plan carefully – at the end of the trip and you have excess cash, pay hotels, gas, food, etc to get you down to $50-75 on your last day and then pay transportation to airport. Should leave you with $20 or less and buy magazines, food, etc. at airport shops.

    I wish there was an internet sight where ‘frequent users’ would be able to trade US$ for Foreign currany at reg rates, a benefit to both sides. If you have nerve, you can always ask US folks leaving a foreign airport to the US if they have local money to sell — probably get a good rate.

  34. Generally speaking it is always better to buy the foreign currency in the country that you are visiting, rather than the country you are originating in. E.g buy Rupees in India, euros in the euro-zone, etc… and never in the USA.

  35. I think I would prefer to order from a bank at home before heading off on the trip. We have accounts with Wells Fargo and they have a currency converter I will link below which seems to offer decent rates. I have not checked other banks but will shop around before our next international trip. Thanks for the info.

    https://www.wellsfargo.com/foreignexchange/

  36. I always preorder foreign currency a couple of weeks before a trip. For whatever reason, my larger regional bank does not offer foreign currency, but my wife’s, small, hometown bank does offer foreign currency at really good rates.

    Then once at our destination, if I need more money, I use my debit card with a Visa logo and have usually received good rates.

    Once (when I was still naïve and dumb), I made the mistake of using a Visa credit card to get cash from an ATM. Wowzer, the cash advance fee and instant interest charges added up to a hefty sum.

  37. I usually just suck it up and convert at local Wells Fargo. Does anyone have experience doing conversion at Singapore airport or will cabs accept CC??

  38. Before traveling I just hit up a BoA and exchange currency there. You get a good exchange rate and you won’t be bumbling around the airport or country trying to find an ATM. The bad thing is you will be traveling with a decent amount of cash. I try to use my credit card wherever possible with traveling but I always to want to have local currency and a couple hundred USD on me too.

  39. I have a random question not necessarily related to foreign currency fees. I am trying to book travel services with a foreign travel agent so will use my Chase Sapphire card to avoid any foreign transaction fees because the agent will charge me in euros. The agent offered a 3% discount if I paid via bank transfer. Given that I do not pay a fee via bank transfer, would it be worth it to pay by Chase to get points or get the 3% discount?

  40. Thanks everyone for the great suggestions!

    @curious m – Giving up a 3% discount means that you value 1 Ultimate Rewards point at 3 cents which is higher than what I value them at (~1.5 cents each). That said, you do have purchase protection on your Sapphire Preferred, so you may be able to do a chargeback if the foreign travel agent runs away with your money which you can’t do one he/she has your money transferred from your bank account.

  41. Darien, since Chase Sapphire gives 2 points for $1 of travel, would that ultimately be the same then since you value one point at 1.5 cents each?

  42. sorry, i meant Daraius.

  43. @Mike – If not returning to the country anytime soon, I try to “kill off” the rest of my foreign cash by paying the balance on my hotel room with whatever I have left on the last morning. You may miss out on some CC miles/points, but it usually beats the exchange fees for changing it back to USD. Just make sure you still have enough cash for taxis or public transit to the airport.

  44. Robert Hanson

    My Wells Fargo branch gave me a “special travel account and ATM card”, so that if compromised, my main account wouldn’t be vulnerable. Before leaving for Europe I called Wells and asked about fees. The answer: Wells charges $5 per International ATM use, no matter how little I took out. I left that card at home.

    Next I called CitiBank, where I have a Citi Gold Checking account to facilitate acceptance of my quarterly Citi cc apps :D Citi told me no ATM fees and no currency transaction fees beyond the above mentioned “interbank rate”. I used my Citi ATM card all over the EU, taking out relatively small amounts at a time, so as not to worry about loss or theft of my Euros.

    Especially in the Prague train station {the Czech Republic is not in the Euro currency zone}, where the German bank ATM only gave out unusable {$100} Czech bills, since the train station stores refused to cash such a large bill. Then I found a CitiBank branded ATM in the station that gave out as small as {$10} bills, which the train station’s stores would accept when buying, say, a bottle of water. Change from that purchase giving me the coins I needed to buy metro tickets from the metro vending machines, which was the only way to buy them.

    No attended window for metro tickets at the central train station in Prague, and vending machines that only take Czech coins, when the main industry is tourism, what are they thinking? Anyway, my Citi ATM card, and the Prague Citi ATM machine, got me to my hotel via the tram without having to deal with the notoriously corrupt Prague taxi drivers.

    And if you need to go into a branch, Citi has locations in Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Spain, Turkey and the UK.

  45. LOL about no fees being charged at Travelex. THANK YOU for getting the word out of just how they function. I know thy have terrible rates, but for some reason they usually have a long line of people waiting to get those rates.
    I often cannot get foreign ATMs to work for me, so I can see you need a strategy and a back up plan for both arrival and the duration of trip. This may be less of a problem in large cities in Europe, but ATMs may not be working for any number of reasons in other parts of the world. Upon arrival to Morocco last year (tired and a bit overwhelmed), I withdrew 5X what I wanted due to incorrect conversion in my head. Fortunately it was just the right amount for my entire stay in Morocco.

  46. Yikes, how naive could you possibly be? Your blog post is filled with half-truths (at best) and contains a lot of really terrible advice. Wow, just wow.
    There is no reason EVER to “exchange” money at an airport kiosk or “exchange window”. Those are just con artists looking for suckers. Period.
    You say “Converting money at a US airport is expensive, but could be worth it for small amounts.” No, it “could” not (only if you want to throw away money for no reason).
    There are ATMs everywhere upon your arrival overseas – EVERYWHERE. You would be very hard-pressed to find an airport without multiple, easy-to-locate ATMs where you can simply use a debit/ATM card to withdraw funds form your own bank account in local currency at a favorable rate. Your advice in this case is really, really terrible.

  47. jomama, I could not get an ATM to work at the Managua airport 2 years ago. Fortunately, an airport vendor took US dollars for a bit of candy and gave us change in cordobas.

  48. I’m a big fan of the Charles Schwab High Yeild Investor Checking debit card. It was recommended to me by Mint and I keep a bit of money in there for anytime that I travel. It saves me lots of money in Vegas and other places like sporting venues and such where they really get over on people with the Atm fees. Also took it with me to Honduras and it worked like a charm. Used it with my Hilton Honors Reserve and enjoyed traveling and spending just like I do at home with no fees what so ever. Got an inq through Eq but no biggie since there are not many banks that pull Equifax in my area. Just a quick note for all of your readers too. Equifax Advantage is running a free trial right now. May be a good time to pull your score from all three right now for free and know exactly where you stand at the beginning of 2013. Just remember to cancel the service before the trial period ends.

  49. I travel internationally extensively and frequently. I never, ever change money at the airport, or obtain foreign currency prior to departure. I always visit an ATM upon arrival, and don’t recall ever having a problem. I use the Schwab investor checking account, so no fees whatsoever.

    I agree with the sentiment that changing money in advance is essentially throwing money away.

    I also pretty much never keep foreign currency to bring home for next time…not worth the effort of filing it away or remembering to take it back.

    I suppose everyone should do what they feel comfortable with…but at some point, I encourage everyone to step out of their comfort zone and just look for an ATM upon arrival…I think soon it would become quite comfortable and save most people a bit of cash. After all…this entire blog is about big travel for small money…so I’d rather spend my small money on something more interesting!

  50. @curious m – It would be a wash provided the charge is recognized as a travel charge. If the charge is not from the travel agent, you’d earn only 1 point.

    @jomama – The purpose of this post is to show folks how terrible the airport conversion rate is and how a debit card at an ATM is a better option. Some folks don’t want to arrive in a foreign country without any local cash and for them, it could be worth the piece of mind to pay a higher conversion fee for a SMALL amount of local cash and to then use a debit card or credit card elsewhere. If you leave the airport in India, good luck getting back in and finding an ATM outside. I don’t remember seeing an ATM in Addis Ababa as well. And sometimes ATMs aren’t working or don’t accept a US card. Some folks would prefer to avoid those situations and arrive in the country with a small amount of local cash. And other “half truths” you care to point out?!

  51. I have a Citigold account and pay no fees etc on foreign transactions. If there is an ATM fee, Citibank reimbureses it automatically. I have found that the exchange rate is very good by using any major bank’s ATM, with my debit card, to get cash and it’s very convenient. In major cities in Europe they are everywhere, sometimes 3-4 in a block on a shopping or business street. I normally have gotten some local currency at the airport and then get more as I need it. If I can easily get to a Citibank branch, the rate is even better, but I won’t go far out of my way to save maybe 1/2 percent, time on my vacation is valuable.

    One new glitch, it appears that all of the ATM’s at LHR are now owned by Travelex and the rate is as bad as the window (I think it is 5%) , but no fees. So last summer, I got enough for the first day including the taxi (about 100 pounds) to the hotel and got more on the street.

  52. Robert Hanson

    One other tip is to carry debit cards from at least two banks. If your bank is updating it’s system in the middle of the night at home, which might be noon where you are, or if their fraud department puts your card on hold, having a second card can tide you over until that gets taken care of.

  53. We always go to our local WellsFargo 2-4 weeks before our trip to order the local currency of the country/ies we ‘re visiting. We exchange enough to get by for a while. If we have some leftover, we bring it back to WF. Because of our accounts with Wells, this is all exchanged at no charge to us. It’s nice to have some cash–especially for our teens; we can hit the ground running.

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  55. I always place a foreign currency order with my bank for at least enough cash to get me started. No fees or service charges and the exchange rate is only slightly worse than mid-market rates. Place the order online, pick it up a week later. Simple.

  56. We arrived at Rome, Italy intending to exchange $ to euros via an airport ATM Machine – all 4 machines were out of order !!!
    Fortunately, we had $ to make an xchnge to euros for the airport to port taxi fare , think we were just unlucky ?

    Daraius – U didn’t address the chip & pin CC requirement at some places in Europe ??

    Also, what do U recommend for an upcoming trip to S America – we have to pay our private guides ~ 1 K $ – don’t like the idea of carrying large amts of $ on my person. – suggestions appreciated

    Finally, an unrelated Q — arriving in B Aires from Lima – do we have to pay the hi incoming tax ? Is it payable by Sapphire ?

    Thanks. Good blog

  57. @david sugar @Robert Hanson @Kim @Brad – Thanks for the tips!

    @Wagger – I’ve written about Chip & Pin in this post, but most US cards are Chip and Signature so not very useful in Europe.

    You could withdraw the cash from an ATM in South America using your US debit card if their are ATMs available. Here’s a post on the reciprocity fee and there’s a link at the end of the post to an article with more details.

  58. Some exceptions to the rule – I got extremely competitive exchange rates (spread of 1-2% on LIBOR and no other fees or service charges) at the airports in Dubai and Singapore. But then, those are airports where wifi and baggage carts are also free. I got the impression that airport ripoffs are a regional trend with North America and Western EU leading the way

  59. I used my bluebird recently in India and Japan (both countries without BofA affiliate ATM’s). The only fee charged is the $2. No foreign exchange fee. The only difficulty is that not all ATM’s take Amex. But for the most part, checking online prevented me from wandering from ATM to ATM trying to find an Amex one. Plus, I earned CC points from loading my Bluebird with Vanilla reload cards. :)

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  61. Their FEE STRUCTURE sign states they charge a Service FEE” of $9.95 (or 2% whichever is greater) which is he SAME amount they charged you for the “service CHARGE” (even the receipt also includes a line for fees).
    To me it looks like they did charge you a “fee”, (for the same amount posted on the fee structure sign), just that they put it on the wrong line of their receipt.

    Seems like either way the representative made an error, 1) told you they would not charge a fee – (they did) service fee for the exact amount as their fee structure sign or 2) they put the service fee on the service charge line. Either way you should not have been charged. Note: Their Fee Structure sign does NOT even indicate a service CHARGE?

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  63. Mustafa Ismail

    Here is the article I texted you about regarding foreign currency exhange.

    Ali

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