How to Manage Your Money When Travelling

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It’s Travel Money Week on Never Ending Voyage to celebrate
the launch of our new travel budget app Trail Wallet.

You’ve been saving hard and now you have a big pot of cash to spend on travelling the world. But how on earth do you manage your money when hopping from country to country? How do you access it cheaply and safely? What if something goes wrong? How do you stop yourself running out of cash halfway around the world?

We’ve put together this detailed guide to managing money when travelling to help answer these questions, using our own four years travel experience together with advice from other long term travellers from around the world.

Open a Bank Account with No or Low International Fees

The main way you will access your money on the road is through withdrawing money from ATM machines using a debit card. You will find ATMs almost everywhere and it’s an easy way to withdraw money as you need it, and not have to carry around huge amounts of cash.

The problem is that many banks charge high fees for withdrawals abroad. You need to check your bank’s fees and if they are high then change to a different bank account—it could save you a fortune.

For example, Lloyds TSB bank in the UK charges a fairly typical 2.99% foreign exchange fee plus a 1.5% cash withdrawal fee (minimum charge of £2). So withdrawing £200 costs you £8.98! That’s a days budget in India or a night in a hotel with a pool in Thailand! You need to find a better option if you don’t want to give away your hard earned travel fund to the bank.

Here are some of the best bank accounts for travellers that we’ve come across: 1

Worldwide

If you have a HSBC bank account you can withdraw money from their ATMs around the world for free. The problem is that if you can’t find a HSBC ATM (and you won’t everywhere) then you are stuck with their high fees for using other ATMs, so it’s best to look at the alternatives.

For UK Residents

For up to date information on the best cards for use abroad see Money Saving Expert’s extremely useful Cheap Travel Money guide.

The current best credit card is the Halifax Clarity credit card, which has no foreign exchange fee or cash withdrawal fee, but as it’s a credit card you’ll pay interest on the amount withdrawn even if you repay in full. This works out as around £1 per month for every £100 withdrawn so it’s still much cheaper than other banks. [Update: We now have a Halifax Clarity card, which we use to withdraw cash. We avoid the fees by paying off the balance as soon as possible after the withdrawal. You could even add money to the card in advance.]

The current best debit cards are with the Norwich and Peterborough Building Society and Metro Bank (London only) neither of which charge any fees for using your card abroad.

Our main travel account is with Nationwide who didn’t use to charge foreign transaction fees but they have started to since we began travelling, and it’s now difficult for us to apply for one of the better cards available. Their fees are lower than many banks but it still costs us £5 to withdraw £200. Luckily there’s no foreign exchange fee on the Nationwide Select credit card so we pay by credit card when we can to minimise the amount of cash we need to withdraw.

For US Residents

The Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking Account is popular with travellers and charges no foreign usage fees and they will refund any fees you get charged from using other ATM machines.

Capital One credit cards also don’t charge foreign transaction fees.

For Australian Residents:

The 28 Degrees Mastercard credit card doesn’t charge international fees.

Set Up Internet Banking

When choosing a bank account make sure internet banking is an option as this is how you’ll manage your bank account on the road—keeping track of your spending and transferring money in and out.

In the UK some banks have now introduced card readers that you’ll need to complete some transactions on internet banking. These are a pain to carry around but they do make things more secure and, since you don’t have a choice in using them anyway, make sure you take yours along.

Link Your Current Account to Your Savings

You’ll want to keep the bulk of your savings in a savings account and periodically move some over to your new traveller friendly current/checking account. This keeps your money more secure as it’s not all in one place and you wouldn’t lose it all if someone gained access to your account, and you can also earn interest on your savings.

Although interest rates are low at the moment this can still work out to be a significant amount. In the UK see the best savings accounts on Money Saving Expert. You can save up to £15,240 tax free in an ISA. In the US see Get Rich Slowly’s guide to high interest savings accounts.

The easiest way to transfer money from your savings to your current account is with internet banking. You could set up a regular transfer to deposit a certain amount of money per month or just do it as and when you need it. Make sure you test the transaction process before you leave the country to make sure it’s set up OK.

Sunset in Dahab, Egypt

Finance posts are kind of boring so here’s a gratuitous sunset shot

Take Multiple Debit and Credit Cards

We recommend taking two debit cards and two credit cards. Bank cards can get stolen, eaten by ATM machines and blocked by banks and if you have any problems with your main debit card you won’t be able to access your cash, so a backup is essential.

Choose your main bank account from the traveller friendly list above and have a second bank account as a backup. This could be your existing bank—it doesn’t matter so much if they charge high international fees as you’ll only use it in an emergency.

If you are a couple with a joint account then take a card each for the same account as well. This has been very useful for us on the two occasions when we’ve had to cancel our card: once when the card was pickpocketed, and the other after our card details were stolen somehow and money taken from our account (luckily the bank refunded us the money). With our backup card we could continue accessing our money as normal.

Even if you don’t plan on using a credit card it’s good to have just in case. As our credit card doesn’t charge international fees we use it when we can and pay it off in full each month. Some people use credit cards to accrue frequent flyer points as well, but this only seems worthwhile in the US where credit card companies give you large amounts of points just for signing up.

Availability of ATMs

You can find ATMs in most places around the world but if you are going to a remote area check before you go. For example when we visited Myanmar/Burma in March there were no ATMs in the entire country (I think there’s one now) so we had to take all our money in pristine US dollar bills. ATMs may also be limited in rural areas in many parts of the world so you’ll need to stock up on cash in the nearest city.

One thing to bear in mind is that not all cards are accepted everywhere in the world. In fours years of travelling round the world we have only had problems with a cash machine not accepting Visa once or twice, but it might be worth taking a Mastercard too for times like these. It really depends on the area you are travelling to so do some research before you go.

Getting New Cards Abroad

As we are travelling permanently it can be an issue to get new cards. If they are expiring soon we order new ones before we head to the UK for a visit and pick them up there (we use Simon’s mum’s address). If this isn’t possible we have had cards sent to us in Thailand using the normal mail with the cards hidden between bars of chocolate (bonus chocolate!) and had no problems.

Consider Alternative Payment Methods

An alternative to a debit card is using a prepaid card that you load up with money and then use just like a debit card. We haven’t used one but our friends did for their RTW trip and recommended it. We looked at the rates and as the fees weren’t less than our bank it didn’t seem worth the hassle.

As an extra extra backup you could even keep some money in your Paypal account. Wandering Earl says that he does this and in an emergency you can always use Paypal to pay for hotels and flights on sites like hotwire.com.

Take Cash

You’ll want to take some cash. We don’t use our cash stash often but it’s important to have. Just recently we arrived in Mexico and couldn’t find an ATM that worked at the airport or in town—they had all run out of money. We used our dollars to pay for the bus at the airport then exchanged $20 at a money exchange place across from the bus station for the taxi to our hotel and dinner. Then the next day when we had more energy we went searching for an ATM that worked.

US dollars are the most widely accepted currency and the best option. You could also take some euros which are popular in countries like Egypt. We just take a few hundred dollars with a mix of large and small notes. $100 or $50 bills often get better exchange rates but take some smaller notes too for tips and visa fees (in some countries you can pay on entrance in dollars). Make sure the notes are in good condition as some places can be fussy.

It’s a good idea to hide a small amount of contingency cash in your backpack in case you lose your main stash.

We used to travel with traveller’s cheques as an additional safe backup but we don’t bother any more.

Inform Your Bank

Before you leave home call your bank and tell them when and where you’ll be travelling, otherwise they may block your card due to suspected fraud.

Unfortunately telling them doesn’t always help and your card might still be blocked. In that case give them a ring and you’ll usually get your card unblocked straight away. We pay for Skype credit and use this to call as it’s easier than finding a phone locally and international rates are low.

When you leave on a long trip you still need an address in your home country to give to your bank, even if you switch from paper to online bills (which you’ll want to do). We use Simon’s mum’s address and phone number. Sometimes they call her if there is suspicious activity on our account and she passes the message on to us to call them.

Set a Budget

Before you leave you’ll want to create a realistic budget based on what you expect to spend in each country, plus a healthy contingency for unexpected extras.

We have written about how to budget for long term travel which also includes our spending breakdown for our first RTW trip.

For ideas of worldwide travel costs to help you set your budget you can read our travel budget posts, see the compilation of budget posts on Legal Nomads, or look in Lonely Planet guidebooks.

Know the Exchange Rate

Before you enter a new country know the exchange rate so you know how much cash to withdraw (within the daily withdrawal limit of your bank) or the exchange rate to expect from money changers to avoid getting ripped off.

I use the xe.com website or iPhone app, or our own Trail Wallet budget app. In our pre-digital travel days the fxCheatSheets were useful to print out and take with us.

Withdraw Money as Soon as You Can

When you arrive in a new country withdraw cash as soon as possible.

In Italy this summer we stood behind an irate American guy at the Pisa airport train station who was annoyed that he couldn’t pay for his train ticket by credit card or dollars. The lady behind the counter wasn’t impressed with his little hissy fit and he lost his place in the queue. Never assume you don’t need local cash and make the ATM your first stop.

There are usually ATMs at airports and often bus stations and borders. If there isn’t, only change enough money to get you to your destination as money exchange offices at these places usually have really bad exchange rates. Alternatively get a taxi driver to take you to an ATM on the way to your hotel.

A good tip is to withdraw an uneven amount so you get some smaller notes as big bills are often hard to get change from, especially in developing countries, e.g. 390 instead of an even 400.

Research the ATM situation before you arrive as some ATMs charge you in addition to your bank’s international fees. For example in Thailand almost all banks charge a fee but we discovered that Aeon don’t. They don’t have many branches but when we could find one it saved us $5 per transaction. In Mexico we can’t find an ATM that doesn’t charge but by trying a few different ones we can minimise the fee paid.

Track Your Expenses

Us whitewater rafting in Costa Rica

By tracking your expenses you can make sure you can afford experiences like this.

You’ve got your banking situation sorted and have finally hit the road. How do you stop yourself running out of cash halfway through your trip?

It’s important to track your expenses and know how you’re doing against your budget. This will prevent you running out of money or constantly stressing about whether you can afford something or not, and missing out on fun activities. If you know you are under budget this month you can happily book that whitewater rafting trip.

At the very least keep an eye on your ATM withdrawals and credit card spending using internet banking—check it at least once a month. This also helps you notice any fraudulent usage, or recently we realised we’d been charged for an ATM withdrawal that we hadn’t received (as the ATM didn’t have enough cash). Make sure your inform your bank of anything like this as soon as possible.

It’s even better to keep track of everything you are spending, broken down into categories. You’ll know if you are under or over budget, and where you are spending your cash.

It can be a pain writing down everything you spend or at the end of the day trying to remember so you can enter it in a spreadsheet. That’s why we created our new iPhone app Trail Wallet which allows you to quickly and easily enter amounts when you are out and about. It provides support for multiple currencies; tells you if you are over or under budget; and the pie chart shows you which category is eating up your budget.

Keep Your Cash Safe

Using ATMs

You don’t want to carry too much cash on you but we withdraw the maximum we can at ATMs to minimise our fees. Before you use an ATM, there are three checks you should make:

1. Check that the actual card slot is not easily removed. Give it a wiggle or a tug to make sure that a skimmer hasn’t been added.
2. Check there isn’t a fake keypad, which are sometimes used to try to capture PIN numbers.
3. Check for cameras pointing down at the keypad. There are often cameras pointed at you for the bank’s security, but there should be no cameras pointing down. Again, they’re trying to capture your PIN number

Always make sure that you cover your hands while entering your PIN, and if in doubt, find another ATM.

On Travel Days

On travel days we carry our cash in a money belt that goes under our clothes, along with our passport and cards. You can get ones that look like a real belt with a hidden compartment for cash, but doesn’t fit anything bigger. This would be great as an extra backup if you wear a belt.

At Hotels

When we leave our hotel for the day we leave the bulk of our cash locked in our backpacks, which we sometimes lock to an unmoveable piece of furniture with a cable lock, or in the room safe in nicer hotels. We take out a small amount of cash that we’ll need for the day, and depending on how we feel about the safety of a place we’ll take just one debit and/or credit card, or no cards at all (like for trips to the beach). Never carry all your cards in your wallet as it’s too easily stolen.

For more security tips see our post How We Were Robbed and How to Avoid It. The only time we’ve had anything stolen in the last three years was when we were pickpocketed on a bus in Costa Rica. In the post we wrote about the mistakes we made and the things we did right that meant we only lost $30.

Spend Up Before You Leave The Country

Some currencies are closed so you can’t use or exchange it outside the country. Make sure you don’t withdraw too much cash in your last few days, and then spend or exchange what you have left before you leave.

We’ve tried to make this post as detailed as possible to answer all your concerns about managing travel money, but if you have any more questions please feel free to ask.


  1. Please note that bank terms and conditions often change and the information above may go out of date. It is important to research the best bank account before making your final choice. ↩

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33 thoughts on How to Manage Your Money When Travelling

  1. Pingback: The Practicalities of Being a Digital Nomad Part 2: Tax, Visas, Flights & Security

  2. Great advice!

    I’m opting for opening a metro account, seen as my travel to Colombia is before the fees are instated. After reading your info and taking your tips of having two cards, I plan to keep my savings in my nationwide card and transfer spends into the metro account.

    However – I’ve read a lot of information online warning of internet banking whilst traveling in internet cafes or hostels. I do have a nationwide secure key that I have to use to log on, any advice on internet banking abroad??

    Thanks

    • We have used internet cafes for online banking, occasionally with mixed feelings, but over 3 years of travel never had any problems with somebody hacking into our account or the likes… Our accounts also come with these little security tokens, so that extra layer is certainly helping with security. I also lamost always use my own browser (Firefox for USB stick), and have general usernames in a text file on the same stick (not too obviously named) and copy and paste this into the log-in page, then you can type the password in bits and pieces, eg 2 characters of password followed by nonsense followed by more password characters, highlight and delete the nonsense section and copy and paste the correct remaining pw = both should help a bit against key loggers.

      Enjoy your travels

    • Nationwide is particularly secure as they you need to use the card reader to withdraw money from the account. We’ve used internet banking everywhere without a problem.

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  4. Hi Simon,

    I think that I am pretty screwed. In my home country, South Africa, I do have a bank account but its destined to charge me a lot more abroad. I’m living in South Korea now for 6 months and plan on traveling the world after about two more. Currently I’m using my newly created korean bank account. Would i be able to continue on a Korean bank account or should I go back to South Africa? It is really pretty far away and any detours would save me a fortune. Are there any ways around this? Thanks so much for all the great info.

    Ruann

    • I don’t really know as I’m not familiar with the banking systems in either countries. I would compare both banks’ foreign transaction fees and see which one is best. If you keep the Korean bank you’d probably need a friend’s address to use as your correspondence address.

  5. What do you do for phone service around the world? How do you manage that and Internet connections? Please write a detailed story on this subject. Thank you.

    • We mostly just choose accommodation that has wifi. We recently got an iPhone 5 and we buy local SIM Cards and get a prepaid data plan to use 3G.

  6. Regarding prepaid cards, they do serve as a security buffer between your bank account and scammers. I got back from an Indian travel and 6 months later lost £4000 from my UK account! An ex of mine then said she always uses a top-up pre-pay card when she goes away, and I had a light-bulb moment 🙂

  7. Pingback: The Practicalities of Being a Digital Nomad Part 1: Insurance, Health, Banking & Retirement

  8. For Canadians travelling overseas, ING Direct’s Thrive Chequing account charges a $2 ATM fee, which is probably the lowest I could find.

  9. One more thing – all the PIN numbers can be hard to keep track of on the road so we use an app called Password Keeper which encrypts them and only allows you to access with a secure password.

  10. Great article! We use Norwich & Peterborough for our main account. Only slight niggles with this is that if one card is blocked, than the other card from the joint account is also blocked, which means no access to our main account, as both cards have the same card number. Something we found out in Argentina when an ATM weirdly temporarily blocked my card! Also, they don’t do Faster Payments so money from a savings accounts can take more than a working day to come through, especially over weekends. Phone banking is only available during UK business hours so be aware of that too. Otherwise they’ve been great. No charge unless you don’t make 3 or more transactions a month (or transfer at least £500 in a month) and no overdraft facility.

    Another tip we picked up from an unlucky couple who lost both their bank cards was to use phone banking to transfer cash into Western Union by BACS which are plentiful in SE Asia. Good to know we have that route as a back up too.

      • The other useful info about N&P is the maximum you can take out per day is only £250. This is during the UK day so being overseas can sometimes work to your advantage by taking more cash out before and after midnight UK time. Especially useful in South America when paying for tours when agencies don’t accept credit cards without a huge surcharge.

        • That’s good to know and is something everyone should check with their bank. With Nationwide we can get £300 a day but as it’s a joint account we can both withdraw that amount.

  11. Very good and comprehensive post!
    We managed almost everything the same way, except that we never kept more than one withdrawal in our bank account. This had to do with fear of being kidnapped and forced to reveal your PIN-numbers (you hear all these horror stories from Latin America). All other money was in a high interest account and needed to be transferred via internet banking. Our credit cards were set to a very low limit (lower than suggested by the bank).

    ATM usage: we always made sure that for larger withdrawals we both went to the machine, one watching the back of the person making the withdrawal, keeping an eye out for possible “bag snatchers”. It’s also worthwhile noting, that in some countries specific banks place different limits on ATM withdrawals; particularly in Colombia many banks had a limit of 200,000 or 400,000 Pesos, whereas only a few permitted 800,000 Pesos per withdrawal – this is important if you have to pay a flat fee per transaction.

    Card storage and cash carried on person: before setting off we made sure that our credit cards had different billing periods to take advantage of the interest free period. So one person would carry his/her credit card with the longest interest free time left on it, the other person his/her cash withdrawal card. The remaining 2 cards were always stored with our luggage. When we carried more than a basic daily budget in cash we had only a minimal amount in our wallet (fear of robbery), and spare cash hidden in some other place (one of our day packs had a cushion compartment in the base with extra zipper – from the outside not clearly visible, it just looked like a padded base).

    Electronic tokens vs. other methods of securing internet banking: when we set off in 2006 not many banks offered these tokens; we actually changed bank because ours didn’t offer this security at the time! We found this the safest way to use internet banking in internet cafes, as a keylogger won’t be much use when you enter this one-off number to access your account. The system of getting a transaction number sent via SMS seems to be less convenient: you always rely on expensive international roaming, since the bank pre-records your phone number (we either bought a local SIM, or sometimes didn’t bother to have a mobile at all, eg in Belize), and in some remote places mobile reception can be very unreliable.

    I would like to highlight the advantage of carrying US-Dollars in cash. We’re not US citizens, but always found that small US-$s are being accepted almost everywhere in the world, although often at a dismal rate. Still: you probably lose less than having to change money twice, so US-$s can cover unforeseen expenses during the last hours in a country (instead of making another withdrawal at an ATM).

      • as to the US-$s: we found that it was relatively easy to get more Dollars at a bank counter in any capital city, so from the outset we only carried around $200 in small notes (mostly 20s and 5s). In Panama, Ecuador, Paraguay and Argentina is was possible to get US-$s straight from the ATM, although I read that this has changed now in Argentina.

  12. Thanks for writing this; really useful. I had assumed for a long time that Nationwide was the best bank for UK residents as travellers since I thought there were no longer any banks that don’t charge any fees. I may have to change my plans to travel with their current account and open a new one with one of the others you suggested. How did you hear about them? Do you have any personal experience with MetroBank or N&P?

    • I would get another bank account and keep Nationwide as a backup in case terms of your new bank change. I don’t have personal experience with either of those banks but they were recommended on Twitter when I asked about fee free accounts people were using. They are also included on the Money Saving Expert site which I really trust.

      We spend a lot on fees with Nationwide now so if we could change we would.

    • My bf and I are leaving for our trip in March and we’ve just opened up a joint N&P current account so we can access our money abroad without being charged. The whole process had to be done over the phone and documents had to be sent in the post since there aren’t any N&P branches in London, but that wasn’t much of a hassle. The only ‘drawback’ with the N&P card is that you have to make at least 5 transactions per month, or transfer at least £500 a month into the account, which won’t be a problem once we’re travelling. We also took out a couple of Halifax clarity credit cards just in case, since they don’t charge either.

        • As far as (UK) banking goes, I switched to Metrobank in 2010 after Nationwide started charging. I’ve always found Metrobank’s service exceptional. They have customer advisors based in the UK who are really helpful and easy to get hold of by phone. The only drawback is that all MB branches are in London, so you need to go there to open your account. Otherwise, highly recommended.

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