How We Did It: Currency (Part 1)

London, UK
Going to a new country is always exciting. New cultures, new foods, new sights and they all have one thing in common...you need money.

I highly recommend you make purchases with credit cards. They offer the best exchange rates if you select the right one (see Part 2 of this post), but sometimes you just need cold-hard cash. This is especially true when dealing with merchants where credit card transaction fees are higher, like Italy.

Forget the traveler’s checks and currency exchange kiosks of yesterday. My favorite way to get cash is the ATM, but you have to select the right debit card. Many travelers recommend Charles Schwab Bank. They refund other banks’ ATM fees and charge 0% currency transaction fee. I would have opened a Schwab account, but it requires a hard inquiry to your credit report. Instead, I found one of my existing accounts is just as good.

My primary checking account (that's really for saving) is Consumers’ Credit Union. Not only do they offer a jaw-dropping 3% APY on checking accounts, but they also reimburse $15 of fees. This includes other banks’ ATM fees and currency transaction fees, which is almost unheard of. I try not to carry a lot of cash when traveling so generally this means they cover all of my fees.

Most banks will only reimburse ATM fees at domestic out-of-network ATMs. They also usually pass along a 1% international currency fee charged by Visa or MasterCard.

You can get an estimate of how much you’ll get from an ATM by checking the Visa or MasterCard exchange rate websites. It allows you to add a currency fee, if applicable, giving a good estimate to what you’ll get at the ATM or when using a credit card.

If you don’t want to go through the hassle of opening an account, I would recommend calling your current bank.

Here are some questions to ask:
  • Do you charge a fee for using out-of-network ATMs?
  • Is there a currency fee for using international ATMs?
  • What, if anything, is reimbursed?
If your bank charges you a fee for using another bank's ATM on top of that bank's ATM then that's a deal breaker for me since that adds up quickly. A 1% currency fee is pretty standard although nice to avoid.

For perspective, we used about $260 worth of Euros and Swiss Francs during our trip. The ATM and currency fees came to a whopping $6.42, which was reimbursed by Consumers'. We saved more than that since they don't charge a fee.

As a reminder, always tell your bank ahead of time when you're traveling internationally and plan to use the ATM. You don't want to find out there's a security hold on your account when you're traveling.

Finally, for security purposes, I always use an ATM inside of a bank and never at a merchant or out on the street. Check to make sure the card reader is secure and doesn't appear tampered with. Don't be afraid to walk away. We did once at a bank ATM because the reader looked odd. We also noticed one of the ATMs looked different than others so we avoided it. I'm not sure if there was a skimmer, but why take the chance? It would be a headache to deal with fraud overseas.
How We Did It: Currency (Part 1) How We Did It: Currency (Part 1) Reviewed by Brandon on April 20, 2017 Rating: 5

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