Cash or Card - The Travelers Dilemma

When preparing for a trip, I'm always asked by travelers with more than a little anxiety, "How much cash should I take?" Or, "Should I take my debit/credit card?" The answer to these questions depends on where you're going, and what types of credit or debit cards you have.

CASH

My travel plan is to always take enough cash that if I needed to get through a day or two because I wasn't able to use a credit card or withdraw money from an ATM I could use my US dollars to have some food and a warm place to stay. US dollars are desired across the world, and while most countries won't transact with them on a regular basis, and might give you a funny look if you try to pay with them, if you're in a pinch you can likely find someone who will take them, although it will probably be at a bad exchange rate. 

Instead, I wait until I get to my destination and either change money at a bank or use my debit card to withdraw money from an ATM. If you do decide to bring cash with you and exchange it, seek out a reputable bank at your destination. Typically a bank will give you a much better exchange rate, if not the exact going rate that day, rather than try to make a small margin from you on the exchange. Also, make sure you know what the current exchange rate is, so you aren't taken advantage of.

A few things I never do with cash:

  • Bring cash and plan to exchange it at the money changers in airports or exchange shops. You will never get a good exchange rate. This is because those places make money on the margin between the rate they receive from the bank and the rate they are giving you.

  • Try to bring enough cash to last the duration of my trip. This is simply too much cash to carry, and represents a significant risk in the event it is stolen or simply lost. While you can take up to $10,000 until you have to claim it with the TSA, there is no reason to carry a large amount of cash with you at any time. Don't do it.

DEBIT CARD

The most important thing to remember when taking your debit card abroad is to call your bank prior to leaving and discuss the following information:

  • Inform them of where you'll be traveling to and when. This allows the bank to setup a travel notification on your account which will prevent your account from being automatically locked when the bank sees transactions originating from the country you're visiting. The customer service agent will also let you know if your card cannot be used in any countries you plan to visit.

  • Ask for a detailed explanation of any fees you might incur if you use your card while away. Using an ATM abroad is likely not free, so being aware of any fees will help you plan how and when to use your card. If, for example, your bank charges a flat fee each time you use your card at an ATM, it may be advantageous to only make a couple withdrawals of larger sums rather than many smaller withdrawals.

  • Whether or not your debit card is protected from fraudulent transactions. While credit cards are generally protected with zero liability from fraud, your debit card may not have the same protection. Be aware of your liability, if any, and whether or not you are required to report a lost or stolen card within a certain time period.

The other thing I always do prior to leaving is write down the international customer service phone number found on the card and keep it in a separate place in my luggage. In case your card is lost or stolen, you can call this number and have it cancelled immediately.

CREDIT CARD

A credit card is the easiest way to pay for goods and services while abroad, and also allows you to make and hold reservations for lodging and rental cars. Additionally, many credit cards have additional services you can take advantage of when traveling. One of the most advantageous I've seen, and actually used, is rental car insurance coverage. Call you credit card company and inquire about this service in relation to the country you will be renting in, as it means you can decline all extra coverage from the rental car company as the credit card company will cover all damages.

Similar to your debit card, you will want to

  • Call your credit card company prior to leaving and notify them of your travel plans so they can add a notification to your card to prevent it from being locked once you use it abroad.

  • Inquire about any fees for using your card out of the country. There are a large number of credit cards that do not charge any additional fees while using your card abroad, and simply apply the appropriate exchange rate in effect at the time of the transaction, but you will want to confirm this.

  • Write down the international customer service phone number and store it separately from the card in case it is lost or stolen.

PREPAID TRAVEL CARDS OR TRAVELERS CHECKS

These can be secure forms of money to carry while abroad, but can either be difficult to use, if accepted by certain merchants at all, or expensive to obtain or use. For starters, travelers checks are nearly obsolete. Prepaid cards can be useful if you don't have a bank account or credit card, but be weary of fees, either to load them with money or to use them. I have never used either a prepaid travel card or a travelers check, and don't recommend either.

SUMMARY

Before you depart, do your research regarding the country you will be visiting and what forms of payment are typically accepted. Call your bank and credit card companies to inquire about the above information. If your fees are too high, you may even consider a new, travel friendly debit or credit card.

Travelers will typically employ two or three of the above methods. Cash is king, and will always be the preferred form of payment by vendors, but I prefer credit cards for their simplicity, zero fraud liability, and additional services they may provide such as rental car insurance coverage. It is always a good rule to carry enough cash for whatever expenditures you have planned for the day, as some vendors do not accept credit cards, particularly small businesses, but the less cash you have to carry the better.