Currency Issues and Travel Advice

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There are so many things to do before traveling abroad—plan the trip, get your passport up to date, arrange for someone to keep an eye on the house, get a pet sitter and check out the best credit and debit cards for international travelers.

Web sites such as Bankrate compare credit and debit cards to get you the best deal. What you are looking for is to get no fees or to reduce as many fees as possible. Savvy travelers may even take out a new card just for international traveling. Visa and MasterCard are well known; American Express is less universally accepted, and Discover is virtually unknown in Europe and South America. If possible, it’s a good idea to have an extra debit or credit card. Things happen, and nothing can ruin a trip faster than losing a card, having it stolen, demagnetized or “eaten.”

Check the expiration date on your card and get a new one if it expires during or soon after your trip. Talk to your bank and let them know where and when you will be traveling to avoid being denied because of unusual activity on your card. Ask for your pin numbers for all cards; they’re sometimes required overseas. Since this information is sent by mail, be sure to allow enough time for them to arrive at your home.

After you arrive at your destination, take out $200 to $300, using your debit card, from a bank that charges low ATM fees, and keep the cash safe in your money belt. Then, pay cash for everything you can, especially small purchases. If you’re heading off to a small town, plan to use cash because ATMs may not be available. For your hotel, shops, restaurants and travel agencies, credit cards are useful. For car rentals, you may want to use a separate credit card to cover the collision damage waiver.

Another good idea is to use the ATMs that are associated with a local bank. Then if your card is “eaten,” you can go inside and register a complaint. Many ATMs dispense large bills, so you can go right into the bank and exchange some of the large bills. These ATMs generally have lower fees than independent ATMs; thus, you get a better deal.

Remember that you will be withdrawing money in the local currency. Convert your withdrawal into the local currency and stay below the local limit for the day. Also, ATM machines may have a maximum that you can withdraw in one day.

Research the local coinage before you travel; become familiar with the money and understand how the exchange margin works. Banks and others sell currency for more than they buy it; this is the exchange margin. Play around with the figures to see how this works and then change a couple of hundred dollars before you travel in order to have cash on hand for taxis, meals and tips when you arrive. Travelex is generally regarded as a good site to purchase currency. Don’t change all of your money, however, because you can probably get a better deal in the country you are traveling to. Avoid at all costs the high rates charged by the currency exchange booths in airports; their rates are usually predicated on the traveler’s urgent need to obtain local currency. When you’re flying home, spend your money on magazines, snacks or a meal. You will not be able to exchange coins once you arrive home, only bills. If you exchange currency in the airport kiosks as you land, and again when you leave, you’re losing money twice!

Should you buy travel insurance or not? First of all, do your research. See what it costs and what is covered. According to a recent survey, less than 30 percent of travelers buy it, but given the volatility of today’s world, not to mention the real possibility of getting sick, travel insurance might be a good idea to protect you against devastating bills and allow you to recover your money for interrupted travel. There are different kinds of travel insurance, such as trip cancellation — available for any reason — trip interruption, delays, financial default (remember WOW Air earlier this year?), travel medical insurance coverage, medical transportation coverage, accidental death and dismemberment (car crashes are a common reason), and terrorism-related coverage. It’s scary to think of all the things that can go wrong, but at home you are probably protected with these policies already. Unfortunately, they may not be valid outside the United States. Still, check and see what your current policies cover. Then, consider what you many need to buy in the unlikely event weather or illness intervenes.

Just do your research and once you have covered your bases, bon voyage! Enjoy your well-deserved trip. ■

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