Euros, pesos, baht, or dollars– money really does make the world go around. Whether you’re visiting the land down under or Europe for the first time, nobody wants to lose money through poor exchange rates or unnecessary international fees.

Exchanging cash abroad has long been debated by frequent travelers. Should I exchange beforehand? Should I use my debit card abroad? This guide aims to answer some of the most common questions about exchanging currency. It covers a bunch of useful advice on the best ways to withdraw money abroad, where to exchange currency, and how to keep your cash, and yourself, safe while traveling.

Should I exchange money before travel?

It is probably a bad idea. The fact is that you are going to be paying a premium when you buy foreign currency in your home country. You can save a lot of money by waiting until you arrive at your destination before exchanging your dollars.

However, for many inexperienced travelers going to a foreign country where they don’t speak the language makes them anxious enough already. The idea of landing at the airport without any local currency is downright scary. If this is how you feel, it may be worth losing a little in the exchange rate to gain the extra security of knowing you won’t be landing in a foreign country without local currency in your pocket.

People choosing to exchange money in the US need to be aware that in addition to unattractive exchange rates, many banks charge a fee. You may be able to have this fee waived if you are a long-time customer of the bank or if you have certain types of accounts. It is worth asking the teller to find out. If you do buy foreign currency at a stateside bank, especially if you have the additional fee waived, only exchange a minimum amount, probably less than 50 dollars. And finally, be aware that it may take your bank up to a week to get you the foreign currency, so plan ahead!

How do I exchange money when I am abroad?

How and where you exchange money in a foreign country will have a huge impact on your bank account. Let’s get the worst places to buy foreign currency out-of-the-way first. You should only use the following money changing services as a last resort (or never at all):

  • The money changing kiosks at the airport. Every major international airport has a few money exchangers, but even if they are convenient, avoid using them. You can get a much better rate from a local bank.
  • The front desk at your hotel. Just like money changers at the airport, you won’t get the best rate at your hotel. As a side note, if you are using a credit card to pay for your hotel, ask the front desk clerk to charge your card in the local currency and not US dollars. That way, you will ensure that you get the best exchange rate.
  • From a random stranger. You should already know better but exchanging money with a stranger is never a good idea, even if you are getting a good deal. Not only is there a high risk of being scammed, but depending on which country you are visiting, it may be illegal.

Okay, so where should you exchange your money? That answer is easy — at the ATM. ATMs offer the best exchange rate by far, and you won’t have to worry about being scammed as long as you use one inside of a bank. Find out before you leave if your bank has any local branches at your destination. If it does, plan on using its ATMs because you can often save on fees. Remember that even if you use an international debit card with zero percent foreign transaction fees at any ATM besides your bank, you may need to pay additional fees.

Many of the added fees associated with foreign ATM withdrawals, such as a non-bank usage fee or an ATM-operator fee are at a fixed amount. One way to save money on ATM withdrawals is to limit the number you make. Of course, that means you will have to take out more money at a time which presents new potential problems.

What is the best way to carry money while traveling?

There is no getting around the fact that when you travel, you are an attractive target to pickpockets and other criminals. So, you need to be extra mindful of your valuables. One of the best ways to do this is to buy and use a neck safe or money belt.

Keep your credit cards, debit cards, passport, and cash safely inside, and put only your spending money for the day in your wallet. Remember to avoid reaching into your hidden stash in public. Consider carrying a fake wallet with a few lower denomination bills inside along with used-up gift cards to hand over to a thief if you are mugged. Remember to always keep your real wallet out of your rear pocket, and store it in a zipped or interior pocket away from quick and sticky fingers.

If you’re looking for the adventure of a lifetime, Travel For Teens offers exciting programs in over 40 countries. Our experienced tour guides and program directors are here to help you get the most of your trip. Our directors have spent many years abroad in dozens of cities and countries, and stay up to date with the best spots to exchange and withdraw currency. Reach out to us if you have questions, or find a program that’s right for you!