7 Things to Consider When Spending Money Abroad
Spending money is an unfortunate inevitability everywhere we go. Because it’s an everyday occurrence it can be one of those things you don’t think twice about until it’s too late, or worse, ever. There is a lot about culture and currency that you should take into consideration when traveling for your own benefit and to the country you visit.
Debit or Credit Cards
There are many places that have gone all plastic or electronic and having cash on hand isn’t necessary. Contactless payments make transactions quick and easy. Check with your bank or provider for international fees and whether or not you need to notify them about travel beforehand to avoid a freeze. If you’re incurring a lot of international fees on your purchases it’s probably not a great idea to be using your card a lot.
Travel credit cards, or any that do not incur international fees, can be extremely beneficial. There are usually extra points or miles on travel purchases and dining out so if you do either of those often it can really pay off. I’ve gotten free flights, hotels, tours and extra benefits all from travel points.
Revolut is a digital bank/app that works with more than 130 currencies at the real exchange rate and can also work similarly to Venmo as far as money transfers and has the ability to work with cryptocurrency. It is a good option for locking in exchange rates as well as avoiding fees some of your other cards might have.
Cash it still king in plenty of countries and you’ll need to be prepared to carry it around with you. NEVER, and I repeat NEVER exchange your money at the airport. The rates are always outrageously high. In many places, I find the best way is to take from an ATM. Again, you’ll want to check with your provider because some banks have fees on using ATMs outside of their network on top of the ATM fee itself. For Americans, Charles Schwab will reimburse you at the end of the month for all ATM fees which is game changing.
This is when you’ll need to use your judgement. If you’ll be using the same currency for a little while then take out the maximum amount so you only pay fees once. If you’re not going to be spending spend that much money it could be better just to exchange. You’ll want to keep an eye on how much you have left as your trip winds down because if you’re in a country with obscure currency you won’t be able to sell it once you leave.
Cities on the border are perfect for exchanging money with other travelers directly. They might have come from somewhere you’re headed to and looking to unload their unused cash or vice versa. Honestly, some people will just give you the remainder of their money.
Even in places that are card friendly, it is always a good idea to have a little cash on hand for tips or unforeseen circumstances.
If you know the market, there is yet another possibility. There are countries where the US dollar means a lot to them and you can get a great exchange rate when paying straight up in dollars or exchanging your money on the “black market”, which isn’t as sinister as it sounds.
Look up the exchange rate before you go so you know what you’re paying and what are good and bad rates if you need to exchange. Sometimes the math is easy and sometimes it’s not, there are plenty of apps out there that can help if need be. My favorite is XE Currency Converter.
You might have a favorable exchange rate when visiting certain countries or find that products you’re used to paying a pretty penny for are much cheaper in other parts of the world.
In Thailand I was furious with a monkey for stealing my water (that sounds fake but it’s not). We were down on the islands where it is much more touristy and expensive and I paid 26 baht when I normally buy the exact same water for 13 baht on the mainland. “I PAID TWICE THE NORMAL PRICE FOR THAT DAMN WATER!!!!” I yelled at the monkey’s back. My friends reminded me that 26 baht was only about $0.80 USD and I should probably chill out but it was the principle! Just because something is cheaper than it is at home doesn’t make it a good deal.
Similarly, if you pay attention to restaurants with tourists vs smaller hole in the wall restaurants that might not be as shiny, you’ll normally find both the prices and the quality are much better. While it’s important to know the exchange rate, it’s also good to learn what standard prices are.
God. Tipping. I have to text my mom or my friends sometimes because I am still not positive about everyone I should tip or not tip and if so how much?! I feel as though it should be obligatory for everyone in the US to have had to work in the service industry at some point in their life to understand what goes on behind the scenes and how much those poor, poor people have to put up with at times.
In the United States:
- Sit down restaurants – 20% is the standard minimum. Servers make somewhere around $2/hour so the majority of their money is made in tips. The more the better! If you had a poor experience, stop and think about it before you leave a bad tip. Was it something wrong with the food? The server didn’t have anything to do with that. Was it poor service? Maybe the restaurant is extremely busy and they’re still doing their best. Be kind. And no, religious brochures do NOT count as tips.
- Bars – $1 per drink at minimum. If a drink is $4.50 do not leave $5 and call it a day. Leave $6. If it’s open bar you should still be tipping. I like the one large tip at the beginning of service trick, especially if you don’t have a lot of small bills. Make sure they see you put it in the jar.
- Delivery – Tip your delivery. I think 10% was standard before Covid and now it’s more like 20% or more since the pandemic.
- Fast casual dining – When you order at the counter and pick up or get it delivered to your table – I tip if the food is delivered, depends on my mood otherwise. IT doesn’t have to be much, every little bit counts.
- Carry out – Not usually necessary but suggested during pandemic times.
- Bellhops – tip a few bucks
- Tour guides – always tip, depends on the duration of the tour
- Beauty services – Tip 15% -20% or $10 – $20, whichever seems most appropriate
The list goes on. Which is why I have anxiety about understanding the tipping cultures in other countries. Tipping isn’t expected in many places around Europe but it’s still considered polite to round up on the bill. In some cultures a hefty tip is seen as charity and is more of an offensive gesture than one of kindness. And still other cultures it isn’t expected but know that Americans always tip and expect Americans to do so. Unfortunately it is just one of those things that it’s best to know before you go. This is a feature coming soon to each country profile on Roam Wild so you can easily find it! Let me know in the comments what your country is like or if any of these percentages need updating, I haven’t been to the US in a while and the standards are always changing.
Don’t be afraid to barter but know when to stop. Is it really worth getting into a fight with someone over a few dollars when those few dollars are worth so much more to this stall owner than to you? While you don’t want to get taken advantage of, don’t forget that this is people’s livelihood here. Generally you should keep the bartering to the streets and the stores have more fixed prices.
Scams are everywhere and sometimes even unavoidable. In countries with currencies that have a lot of zeros on the end make sure to pay attention to how much change you get back. People know new currency is unfamiliar so when you’ve just arrived and are paying for a taxi (or anywhere, really) you might give a 100,000 note for a 10,000 purchase but instead of 90,000 change you’ll only get 9,000. Be purposeful and sure of yourself, they might gaslight you into thinking you paid with a 10,000 note.
As always, be aware of your belongings for pick pockets or other petty crime that can happen anywhere, even at home. Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket either. Never take all your cash out with you at once and keep different cards in different places. Traveling abroad is one of the most inconvenient times to need a new credit or debit card. If you lose or get anything stolen it’s very helpful to have a backup back in your hotel in another bag. If you’re at a hostel and leaving valuables behind make sure to lock them up. Most of the time hostels are very safe but there is the occasional asshole.
Tracking your spending
Sure, you’re on vacation and carrying around an Excel spreadsheet isn’t exactly the sexiest or the most convenient thing to do. But being generally aware is very helpful, especially when you’re on the road for longer periods at a time. The beer with dinner or the bottled water you keep buying really starts to add up. And even if you’re not counting your pennies, you probably didn’t get to that financial stability by just buying whatever you wanted.
When traveling with friends and splitting costs it’s much easier to add up along the way and settle up at the end. I use an app called Splitwise that allows you to track and divide up expenses. You can add multiple users to a trip and each purchase you choose who paid, who it should be split between and you can even customize how much if you’re not splitting evenly. It makes for a math and drama free trip.
Spend that hard earned money and maybe even start up a little currency collection of everywhere you travel. I try to get rid of all of my money when I leave unless I know I am coming back or want to save a few bills and coins that aren’t worth very much (a portion pictured above). Knowing all of this ahead of time takes the stress that money can cause off the table so you’re free to enjoy yourself!