Dealing with travel finances can be stressful. At every stage of your trip, from the initial plans to arriving back home, there are money-related matters to consider. In this complete guide, we cover all the bases about how to manage money when travelling, including some useful tools you can use while on the road.
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Financial admin before your trip begins
I’m not going to delve into how to save for long-term travel or plan a budget here; for that you can check out our essential guide to saving money for a travel career break. This article focuses on the ongoing financial management once your trip has begun; but in order to do that effectively, there are a few things you need to sort before setting off.
Let your bank know about your travel plans
Before your trip begins, it’s important to let your bank know you will be overseas. This will avoid the frustration and inconvenience of having your card blocked or rejected. For example, this could happen at an ATM, when paying for something by card, or when topping up a prepaid travel money card (more on those below).
We encountered such a situation in Singapore, when Lisa tried to top up her Revolut card. Her bank flagged it as strange activity and blocked transfers. She had no option but to call the bank, at significant expense, to get it sorted.
Let your bank know a rough plan of where you plan to travel and when, and if possible keep them updated about any changes to your plans.
Make sure you are set up to use online banking
Most bank accounts offer internet banking these days, which is invaluable for managing money when travelling. It means that you can log in from anywhere to check and manage your finances, and you will rarely need to make expensive phone calls from overseas.
If you’re not set up to use internet banking, make sure you sort it before setting off on a trip. The process varies from bank to bank, but it’s usually simple and involves setting up an ID and security processes. If your bank has an app for online banking, then download that before you leave too.
Change the address on your accounts
Even though you can access your bank online while travelling, it’s still important to update the address on your accounts before setting off – especially if you are leaving your permanent address. If you lose a bank card while travelling – which is very common – they will probably only post it to the address on your account for security reasons.
It’s a good idea to change the address on your account to a friend or family member’s address who lives in your home country. Lisa and I both changed our accounts to her parents’ address. We both lost bank cards during the trip – more than once, for varying reasons – and each time, we were able to have new cards sent out thanks to Lisa’s parents. If we hadn’t changed the address, we would have had to get in touch with our old landlord.
Get a digital bank account or prepaid travel money card
In our experience, digital bank accounts and/or prepaid travel money cards are by far the best option for managing your money when travelling. We have used both Monzo and Revolut, both of which are good options and have made it easy for us to stay on top of our finances overseas.
These cards offer zero withdrawal fees up to a set amount each month, and then low rates afterwards. They also come with really useful apps that let you track spending, as well as other cool features such as savings pots and split bills. You can top them up from your regular bank account at any time and in your preferred currency.
Other options are available with alternative benefits. For example, TUI Travel Money offers a multi-currency travel money card that has a fixed exchange rate at the time of purchase.
Get a backup credit card for emergencies and car rentals
In addition to a prepaid travel money card, it’s also a very good idea to get one or two backup credit cards for emergencies. If you use them every now and again for payments, this will also help your credit rating to keep ticking over (but remember to pay off at least the minimum each month).
Sometimes a credit card might be a requirement. For example, car rental around the world usually requires a security deposit to be held against a credit card. If you don’t have one, you may have to pay a significant amount extra for insurance (this happened to our friends recently in France).
Automate payments for anything you need to cover while you’re away
If there are any bill payments you need to keep up while you’re travelling, such as your phone or utilities at home, make sure you have direct debits set up before you leave. This will ensure you don’t need to worry about regular finance admin while you’re overseas.
Get a mobile phone plan that allows international roaming
If you expect to use your phone while you are travelling, then you may want to consider a plan that allows you to use data roaming in the places you are visiting. This gives you a lot more flexibility when you need to get online, and could potentially save you a lot in roaming costs.
We are signed up to Three in the UK, which has a ‘Go Roam’ feature allowing us to roam in 71 countries at no extra cost. Before Brexit it was free to roam, but now, coming from the UK, there are daily charges. O2 is the only UK provider we’re aware of that still offers free roaming in the EU.
For travellers from the USA, the Sprint network has one of the best deals for international roaming. Its global roaming plans offer free texts and basic data in over 200 countries around the world.
Get your travel insurance sorted
Travel insurance is one of those things that it’s tempting to put off, or even ignore completely. This could be the biggest mistake you will make during your preparations.
By investing in travel insurance you make sure that you are covered in a variety of scenarios that could happen while travelling. If you are the victim of a crime, lose your valuables, or get ill or injured, for example, the cost to you can be vast without coverage. It’s best to get this sorted as soon as possible so you are covered for cancellation too.
We recommend SafetyWing for travel insurance. You can choose between a monthly subscription plan, which works out at great value for long-term trips, or a fixed policy for specific dates. Read our SafetyWing insurance review to find out more about how it works.
General tips on how to manage money when travelling
The tips below are about looking after your money and tracking spending. For insights into the cost of travel and how much you will need to budget for your trip, see our breakdown of how much it costs to travel the world.
Don’t exchange currency at airports
The currency exchange rates at airports and ferry ports are often the worse you will find. Many people rush to get currency when arriving in a new place, and so airport exchanges tend to charge higher rates. It’s better, if possible, to wait until you can shop around for a good rate somewhere else.
Similarly, be careful with ATMs in airports. They often charge withdrawal fees in places where you can withdraw for free elsewhere. Also, we’ve sometimes found that airport ATMs apply hidden fees to bump up the exchange rate. If you can wait for cash, and instead pay for things by card until you’re in a nearby town or city centre, it’s best to do so.
Be careful with currency exchanges in general
Dodgy currency exchanges are one of the most common ways that tourists are scammed around the world. Before you exchange any money, check what the correct current rate is, ask a trusted local for advice (for example at your accommodation), and shop around. Be wary of anywhere that offers “0% commission”; always ask how much of the local currency you’re going to get before agreeing, and compare that to the correct rate.
We prefer not to use currency exchange rates at all; if you have a prepaid travel money card then you should rarely need them.
Spend up before leaving the country
One surefire way to waste money when you travel is to leave a country you are unlikely to return to with lots of currency left over. You’ll then either have to sell it to an exchange at a poor rate, or if you get lucky you can do a deal with a traveller who is going in the opposite direction.
Always try to spend up what you have in the local currency before leaving the country. However, be sure to check whether you will be required to pay an exit fee when departing, and keep aside what you need. You might, like us, also like to keep a coin or banknote as a memento for your travel scrapbook.
Always carry some spare dollars
US dollars are accepted as payment in many countries of the world. With this in mind, it’s always useful to keep a float of dollars with you as an emergency backup. Stash it somewhere safe and inconspicuous. When overseas we usually carry at least $100 to use in emergency situations.
Be ready for hidden costs
It’s easy to plan and prepare for the big costs when travelling, such as accommodation, food and transport – but there are many smaller, often unexpected costs that can accumulate over time and disrupt your budget. Necessities such as medication, haircuts, laundry, local taxes and toiletries can really add up.
Our complete guide to the hidden costs of travel details all of the unexpected fees you are likely to encounter on the road, and how you can either avoid or mitigate them.
Using ATMs overseas
It’s likely that you will often need to use ATMs (cash machines) when travelling. It’s the most common way that Lisa and I access our money overseas, as we always use our prepaid travel money cards. There are a few things to know that will help you stay safe and avoid any confusion when using ATMs abroad.
Make sure you have a 4-digit PIN number
Depending on where you live, your banking PIN number might be four or five numbers, or perhaps even letters. Before you set off travelling, change it to a 4-digit PIN (if it isn’t already). Many ATMs around the world do not use letters, and some will only allow four-digit PINs to be entered.
Withdraw the maximum to keep fees down
As detailed in our hidden costs guide, it is commonplace for ATMs in various countries to charge fees for withdrawals. One way you can combat this is by withdrawing the maximum amount you need. This avoids racking up multiple withdrawal fees (but be careful not to withdraw more than you will spend before leaving the country!).
The fees and maximum withdrawal limits on cash machines often vary. If you are planning to spend a long time in the country, try to become familiar with the ATMs that have the lowest fees and highest limits, and use those whenever you can.
Say no to conversion offers
One sneaky trick we have seen banks pulling all over the world is the offer of an exchange or conversion rate on ATM withdrawals. These conversions are always far worse than the going rate, and can cost you a lot of money if you accept them.
You might see this as a pop-up when you try to withdraw money. It may offer a conversion, or ask if you want to withdraw in your own country’s currency. Always say no! Withdrawing in the local currency will give you the correct rate.
This helpful article on WeSwap explains more about this trick, how to recognise it and why you should avoid it.
Consider withdrawing an odd amount
A quirk of overseas ATMs that can be infuriating is the tendency to pay out in high-denomination bank notes. I remember withdrawing 2,000 pesos from an ATM in Argentina, and the machine spat out two thousand-peso notes. At the time, these were worth about $60 each! It was really hard to get rid of them; local markets wouldn’t accept them, and I got some cold looks when I tried to use them elsewhere.
One possible way around this is to withdraw slightly less than an amount that can be divided into high-denomination notes. If I’d withdrawn 1,950 pesos that day, I would have at least gotten a few smaller notes to use as well.
Safety when using ATMs
Wherever you are in the world, whether at home or overseas, it’s important to be mindful of safety when using ATMs. Here are a few general rules to apply:
- Only use ATMs in safe and well lit locations (the machines inside bank buildings with surveillance cameras are best)
- Avoid using ATMS when alone if possible
- Be aware of your surroundings, and look out for anybody nearby who is acting suspiciously
- Inspect the ATM for any signs of damage or tampering before you use it
- Have your card ready so you can make a quick transaction, and put the cash away immediately
You can read more about ATM safety in this useful article by The Balance.
Keeping your money safe on the road
Aside from ATM withdrawals, there are many other situations when need to keep your money safe while travelling. These are our top tips for money safety overseas:
- Days of travel are when you are most vulnerable, because you carry all of your money and valuables with you. Use a travel money belt to keep your cash securely strapped to your body. If possible, buy one with RFID blocking technology to protect electronically chipped cards from being scanned by hackers.
- Keep your cards separate if possible. At the very least, keep one emergency credit card in a different place to your others. When we were robbed and lost our cards in a distraction theft, our backup credit card came to the rescue.
- Buy a disguised stash can and keep a float of money in it for emergencies. This is how we would recommend storing your float of US dollars. If your main money supply is compromised, you will always have this as a backup.
- Stay in accommodation that has safety lockers, and carry your own spare luggage lock or two.
Tools for budgeting, planning and tracking on the go
You might already have a nailed-on travel plan and budget set out in a spreadsheet. However, plans and circumstances change, and you will need to keep adjusting your budget as you travel.
Our go-to resource for travel budgeting is Budget Your Trip, which provides estimates for the cost of travel in places all over the world. If your plans change and you add somewhere new to your itinerary, it can help you figure out how much you will need to spend.
Xe.com is a great tool for checking the latest currency exchange rates. It’s a good idea to to check the rates regularly for any countries you are planning to visit. You can also download the xe app.
In our guide to planning a round-the-world trip you will find a section on travel planning on the go. For general planning and tracking, you can download our basic travel budget sheet template to adapt and use however you like. This will not only help you plan your budget, but you can also use it fluidly and keep it updated as you go. Tracking what you’ve actually spent will enable you to keep an eye on the accuracy of your budget.
When travelling, you can use apps such as TravelSpend to log and track your expenses while you’re out and about (and then transfer to your spreadsheet later if you like).
Planning and tracking in detail isn’t for everybody, of course, and you may prefer to plan more loosely and go with the flow. But having a good overview of your finances will help you to understand what you can afford, and avoid any nasty surprises.
Are you still planning your big trip? Get on top of all the practicalities with our ultimate guide to taking a travel career break.
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The top feature image in this article is by Marco Verch, professional photographer and speaker, distributed under a CC BY 2.0 license.