Money, Euros and Banking While Abroad

This is probably a little too far in the blog but that is what labels/tags are far. I hope you skipped ahead and found this gem of vital information. Sadly, I didn't get a lesson in world wide currency until abroad and two countries later. All I knew was my own countries money. I have only been mildly fascinated by the color & variety of international bills. My ignorance to currency exchange and the value of the U.S. dollar seriously hurt my spending ability while in Europe. I would encourage anyone embarking on a trip outside of their realm to research the comparing dollar before making any financial moves. Such moves do include any bookings of travel, accommodations or getting funds to spend while on your trip. Of course, I did make some specific financial moves well before I left but I'm afraid I didn't ask all the right questions regarding them. In order to save you precious time and a fair deal of money - here is what to do, say and ask BEFORE you leave.

Call All Banks and Credit Card Companies For Future Spending

You want to notify all your card companies/banks - credit & debit - of your potential purchases. You want to tell them about your bookings in multiple currencies before you leave and what countries you may be making purchases within. You are doing this for multiple reasons. Your bank may explain to you certain fees and/or policies. Your bank may ask if you would like to increase daily limits or offer you a balance increase. Your bank may not allow transactions to be completed once attempted abroad and/or a certain currency and amount. Your bank may need your approval before making such charges that may be deemed as fraud. It may be merely impossible to contact them in the moment and your card may be become flagged. They should be willing to provide you with more secure and insured options for travel like travelers checks or a money card which is pre-paid. 

I did contact my bank and told them every transaction I was making and what countries I would be traveling to. I had to do this because I failed to inform them about initial purchases to secure my train tickets and hotel stays. Most of those transactions were flagged so when I went to make important local purchases my card declined. Once on the phone with them they asked what future purchases I would be making and at that time I explained the dates and countries I would be in during the summer. Had I failed to do this my card may have been declined while abroad. Thankfully, I never had any hiccups but she did multiple times. You want to have your contacts for services while traveling so if you have a problem you know who and how to call. Most banks do offer a collect call number or a line just for international customers. 

Know Your Rates For Credit/Debit Card Purchases and ATM Transactions

You want to be very clear about possible fees associated with credit/debit card purchases and ATM withdrawals while overseas. Sadly, fees vary according to where and how you use your cards. Banks may impose additional ATM fees, exchange rate fees etc just to withdraw cash. Also retailers may impose fees or mislead you on purchase amounts because they ask you to opt out of bank imposed fees. So a 20 Euro purchase that may cost $26 via a debit card could be $30 or $32 because the retailer asked if you would like them to negotiate the exchange rate and fees. Never opt for this especially when you are aware of your banks options. More than likely your bank will cost less and be far more trusted than a random retailer or vendor. Also some banks have a "Global ATM Alliance" where you can avoid fees by using a specific bank for ATM withdrawals. These banks do vary by country so always research with every new destination.

In example, Bank of America has an alliance with Barclays but only in Spain. If you are in Italy BofA works at BNL. I found this out far too late and had some ATM's charge me as high as 10% in extra fees. In most cases, it is better to withdraw local currency and use that versus swiping any credit/debit card. Try to reserve your card usage for more important transactions like travel arrangements, services and checks for larger parties in better dining establishments. Always use cash at open markets, with street vendors, for taxis and fast food. Just be safe than sorry. When using ATM's use ones that look active and exposed. Try to go to secure ones within the bank and only take money when accompanied and/or during daylight. I even found that "American" looking ATM's like Citibank charged the most so try to go where the locals go.

Understand The Exchange Rate and Value of Your Dollar

So this was the MOST confusing part of my currency woes. You must stay abreast of the value of the dollar. At this time, the U.S. Dollar isn't worth much against the British Pound Sterling or Euro. So when you buy something you will be paying more for it. So our $20 at this time is about 26 in Euros. So when you take out 20 Euros from the ATM you will be charged at least $26 USD. You must account for this when spending and checking your balances. You want to take the most cash you can so you don't incur the exchange rate and fees for every single 20 in Euros you take. When in Europe most countries use the Euro as their currency but some places are different. When I flew through Iceland purchases there were Icelandic ISK and read very high but its actual value was less than our USD. However, when in flight according to where we were you could have been charged ISK, BPS or Euro. So I had to be prepared for whatever amount came through my bank account. In the end an inflight baguette cost me 7 Euros which was almost $10 but my receipt said 900 ISK! Just buy things that are of value to you and keep bigger purchases to a minimum. Unless you have a major resource of cash always track your US dollar spent in comparison to actual cost. You may want to have a exchange rate calculator on your smartphone for reference. Use it every time you consider a purchase or make any withdrawal while traveling. Always budget accordingly!

Familiarize Yourself With Money

Surely, you know your own currency back and forth. You know the denominations, how to identify it, how to count it and make/accept change. Do not think for a second you can manage this in another country without trial & error. Euros for example only have bills in 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100. This can make for odd ATM withdrawals and confusion about your singles. You can get coins in 1 cent, 2 cent, 5 cent, 10 cent, 20 cent, 50 cent and 1 & 2 Euro values. Don't let someone mislead you into giving them 2 Euro as 2 cents. This did happen to me. The easiest thing is to remember the sizes versus the colors. The coins do go from tiny to dollar coin size. Also count out your change. In the states, we are so casual about cash and coins especially because we rarely use it. People will take advantage of your temporary ignorance. Get your cash, make change at a reputable retailer like a pharmacy or grocery store and learn what is what. Once you've done this and go about regular purchases count out your change before leaving your server or cashier. It will be strange for a while spending 1 Euro and cashing out with a 5 Euro bill to get a handful of coins or going to an ATM and having a 30 or 50 Euro option. If you skip learning you can easily get shortchanged or simply give someone way too much money. 

Don't Carry All Your Cash

The BIGGEST lesson learned about international currency is to never carry it all. If you can avoid it, leave bigger bills and wads of cash at home or in your hotel room. Of course, you want to put this money in an inconspicuous place or maybe several places. You do not want to lose all of your money, spend all of your money or have your money stolen. You can do all of the above in so many ways so it is better to have it out of sight. Women should carry their cash in a proper wallet that is housed in a cross body bag. Men should carry their cash in a secured billfold that is concealed and not within easy reach. If your loose cash or wallet is exposed whatever cash and cards you have can be lost. You can also reach in to pay a vendor who may see your total amount of cash and lure you to keep spending. You can also wind up short changed, pick pocketed or robbed. It is better to carry only what you will need and most days all I needed was under 20 Euros. Seriously, if you are going out for a quick bite and a stroll 20 is fine and if you think you may buy a souvenir or some drinks maybe 40. Also, when going to the ATM go before you go out for the day or as you are returning home. Doing this ensures you are able to put the lot away before having any opportunity to lose or spend it. I think the most I ever took out while in Europe was 320 Euros and I always put the lot away and took only what I needed. 

In order to do all the above you must have a clear focus on your trip. You must know what purchases you will make to be able to go, when and where you will be going, what banks are open to your cards, your spending budget and where your holding places for cash lots will be. I personally bought a specific bag just for travel. I also brushed the dust off an older, larger wallet I never used. I typically carry a large hobo bag in the states. I  honestly prefer a bigger bag with lots of change purses and makeup bags holding IDs, cards and cash. I switched to my wallet faithfully two months before my trip. I had learn to manage my trip money well before I left. I'm also the type of person who puts cash in pockets, never balances accounts etc. It was very important that I created good habits that I could use while abroad. The only thing I regret was not being well versed in my banking services, not knowing or understanding European money and not having any concept of the exchange rate. If I had the above I could have saved myself hundreds in fees. I'm afraid I took out money too frequently, used my card on smaller transactions and risked being short changed too many times. I had the ability to really take my time and learn about it but failed to. I'll also say Google was never a good friend when it came to education on the subject. Sadly, international currency is more of a hands on learning experience. Do not rely on travel books or friends who have gone - do your own real time research to know what is happening just before your trip. Talk to your bank, get the financial exchange rate information and budget wisely - and never stop doing this both before and during your trip!

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