Keeping track of different currencies, exchanging them in cities, and having even an ounce of a clue of how much something is without taking out your phone every second is a pain. You’re either getting ripped off by an exchange booth with horrible rates and hidden costs, or you look like a dumbass at the cash register.
The context of my advice is dealing with six currencies in my pocket in Europe and trying not to get ripped off.
Roughly Doing Currency Conversions in your Head Using a Baguette
It sounds ridiculous, I know it sounds ridiculous, but if you have a currency that isn’t easily converted to the one you are familiar with then find the average price of a baguette in the currency you know. I say baguette because I’ve found, for the most part, it is relatively the same price in different countries.
Using this you can get an idea of the exchange rate by having a base price to look at — the price of a baguette. Of course, it matters if you’re in a city for these prices, or the country, or the store, etc. This is a very rough estimate, but enough to be able to judge if something is too expensive without having to start doing conversions.
For example, a baguette is usually about a euro in Paris. In Zagreb, Croatia, where I have traveled through before, the average cost of a loaf of white bread according to Numbeo.com — because I can’t remember what I paid for bread while I was there — is about 5.2 kr. As of publishing, this is about 0,7 €, not exactly one euro, but rough enough to exchange.
What you can even do is look up the exchange rate once, compare it to another…anything, really…and just keep that in your head instead of having to remember numbers, and in case the baguette idea doesn’t work perfectly where you are.
Cash vs. Card
This is always an issue no matter the experience, the amount of money you are bringing, and where you are will change how you use this advice a lot. For context, I normally never bring more than $600 USD or so on a trip. This is generally because I don’t have any more to bring, but it’s also a good amount to use as an example.
First thought is how much to bring in cash versus having on a debit card or expecting to use on a credit card.
Generally, credit cards exchange at the actual exchange rate at the time but just charge a fee, some don’t charge a fee at all and a quick google search should show those as I don’t use credit cards to know.
Debit cards will usually charge a fee as well, and a flat fee and percentage fee for withdrawing money abroad. Here you can find the different fees for different banks. Having money on a debit card is how I normally do it, I have no reason to say not to use a credit card, but I have no experience doing so. ATM withdrawals is a no-no with all its fees though.
With this in mind, I usually split my money half in cash, half on my debit card. You should always have access to money besides cash in case you lose your pack with cash in it or, you know, get mugged. If you have an international bank, then all the better.
Where/When/How to exchange for cash
Next is how to get the cash. You have two options, 1) you can either exchange the money at a bank before you go abroad or 2) you can bring your native currency into the country and exchange it there.
Option 1: This is what I do most often. It eases your mind so that you don’t have to worry about finding a place to exchange money when you arrive, and depending on where you are going, you may not be able to use a card like paying for a taxi.
It’s easy to exchange currencies at a bank but the process depends on each. Some banks have foreign currencies in their vault and all you have to do is ask to have it exchanged. In my experience, they don’t charge a fee and use the exchange rate at that exact moment.
Some banks need to have it shipped in from another bank and can take up to two weeks sometimes, so check early if you’ll be doing this. It’s also the easiest way to get the max amount of money in an exchange.
Option 2: It’s possible that even if you exchange money beforehand, you’ll still have to exchange more cash when you get somewhere. I usually travel to New York from Florida to fly internationally and therefore have some US dollars in my wallet when I fly abroad. I end up exchanging this if I run out of cash overseas.
Do not, and I can’t stress this enough, do not exchange money at an airport or bus station or any other transportation area. Not only will you likely get a shitty exchange rate, but even if it looks close enough to make you happy, there are certainly hidden fees. If you intend on exchanging cash currencies, do so once you’ve gone deeper into a city, possibly away from big tourist areas, or try a bank.
There are too many cities to start listing the best actual places to exchange, so I’ll give London as an example. I Googled “best exchange rate booth in london” and found this article. When I was in London I went to the first booth they mention. An easy search will find you the best places in whatever city you are traveling through, I’m more concerned with giving you the best advice on how to go about it all.
I have tried once and succeeded once in exchanging at a bank abroad. In Zurich, Switzerland I went to the first bank I found and asked to exchange euros for swiss francs. He asked “how much?” and I watched in horror as he handed me practically nothing back, but that’s just because of the worth of the swiss franc compared to the euro. Whether it’s common for a bank where you don’t have an account to do this, I do not know, but it’s worth a try.
How you store your cash is important, some people, I’m sure, already have their ways of keeping cash securely on them but I want to add this for those who may not have thought about it.
Never keep all your cash in one place, keep only the cash for the day in your wallet or pocket. Keep the rest hidden away in your backpack. You don’t want to be in a foreign place, not speaking the language and pull out a wad of cash when you are trying to buy something. Suddenly the price will rise with a sudden “tourist tax”.
Also, keeping your cash hidden away is good, of course, in case someone wants your money. They take your wallet, you only lose a day’s worth of money. If they search your bag, hopefully, you have it hidden where they won’t find it. Another option is keeping some folded in your shoe.
This is all advice I’ve come onto through trial and error between getting ripped off at exchange booths and paying “tourist taxes” and trying to buy groceries without going broke. I hope it’ll help you travel farther and longer and getting ripped off less.