How to manage your money while on the road

You spend a lot of time saving up for your trip and money is what we all need in order to travel. The last thing you want is to find yourself in a situation where you have lost your cash or had your cards stolen and your account raided at an ATM. Manage your money well while travelling and you can stay on the road for longer!

How you spend your money on your travels is entirely up to you. I’m here to help with a few ideas on how to make the most of what you’ve got, and how to keep it safe and easily accessible when on the move.

Cash or card?

In our developed western world, we almost exclusively manage our spending money through credit or debit cards, cashless payment apps, and electronic payments. Travel destinations to larger cities and towns may offer those options. However, cash is still king in large parts of the world, especially in rural areas and the countryside. How can you travel while still having easy access to your money, and keep it safe while on the road?

  • Use a credit card for shorter trips. If you are going on a short holiday and cards are widely accepted at your destination, this is your best bet. You won’t have to worry about making a monthly payment while abroad. You can also check and query any suspect transactions once you’re back home if necessary.
  • Get a card that earns you points for more travel/hotels. If you are using a credit card, look for one that helps you earn points for travel and hotel rooms. There are plenty on the market – and if you live in the US you are in luck, there are lots of competitive options. You can earn points on almost anything to use on future flights, hotel bookings or car rental.  
  • Keep an eye on your card at all times. In the UK we are told never to leave our card out of our sight. In the US it is often taken away in a restaurant and charged behind the bar or counter. If that’s the case, go with it. It may not happen often, but cards can be cloned. You don’t want to risk being without a card on the other side of the world.
  • Let your bank know you’re going abroad. Not all card providers need to know any more and with some you can do it online. If you do need to advise them you’re going abroad or let them know that you are travelling extensively, give them a quick call before you leave.
  • Always have some cash on you. Even if you are planning to use a credit card, always carry some cash in the local currency. It’s particularly useful for small purchases and tips. It’s also necessary if cash is more prevalent where you’re going. Getting some in advance of arriving will save you the hassle of finding an ATM straight away.
  • Ask for smaller bills. Smaller bills are much more popular. You may find that local shops and restaurants don’t accept larger bills because they don’t have a float. Ask to change any larger bills into smaller ones at your hotel/hostel or in a local bank.
  • Bills must be in good condition. Local bills may be tattered but if you are in a country that uses US dollars (such as Ecuador or Cambodia), they will only accept bills in near-pristine condition. This is because they can’t walk into a bank and replace them like we can back home, so they have to make do with those they have. If you are taking some from home, make sure they are in good condition. You can refuse to accept bills that are torn or defaced; locals may try to pass them off knowing they can’t use them. If you accept it, you’re stuck with a useless bill.

Keeping your cash (and cards) safe

It doesn’t matter if you’re staying in a luxury hotel or a local hostel, you want to make sure you manage to keep your money safe. Avoid carrying too much. Instead, take what you need for the day before you head out. You can always cover larger purchases with a card if they come up unexpectedly – like a souvenir you can’t walk away from or a treat in a fancy restaurant.  

  • Use the lockers and safes. Most accommodation options will have a locker or a safe in your room or on site. Where they do, use them! Take the cash you need with you and leave the rest behind, including your back-up stash (see below). It’s also a good idea to carry a small padlock with you in case you need it for a hostel locker.
  • Split your money while on the move. This is especially important on travel days and when there is no locker option in your accommodation. Keep your money and cards in lots of different places. Split them across your bags, but make sure that they are with you at all times and aren’t ones you are putting in a hold. Keep some on you, either in a money belt, a wallet or your clothing. Socks and bras are excellent places to hide money.  
  • Don’t flash your cash. Keep small bills if you can so that you’re not flashing around large amounts of money. Figure out the local currency exchange either in advance or in the privacy of your room. Don’t do it out when you’re asked to pay. You risk attracting attention and getting robbed.

Exchange rates and how to get the best of them

All around the world, exchange rates are a way for people to make money off tourists. In an ideal world you will avoid them, but that’s not always possible. When you do need to use a cash exchange bureau, do you homework so you know what the going rate is so you can better manage your money. I recommend using an app such as XE Currency Converter. One useful tip: keep in mind that when an exchange place advertises ‘no commission’ it often means the exchange rate is pretty unfavourable.

  • Use ATMs. Ideally, you’ll have a travel or cash card that allows you to make ATM withdrawals without horrendous exchange rates. While you will have to pay a one-off fee each time, withdrawing the maximum and keeping it in a locker or safe will help keep costs down.
  • Avoid exchange booths. Small exchange booths, often found around shopping malls or markets, typically offer the worst rates around. Avoid, avoid, avoid!
  • Have some local cash before you arrive. The ATMs may not be working at the airport. Or if you arrive late at night they may be out of cash. Where it’s available, it’s also cheaper to get foreign currency before you leave home. It’ll be easier to shop around for a better rate, too.

Have a back-up plan

It’s always good to have other solutions in your back pocket, should you ever need to use them. These are mine:

  • Carry a few US dollars, British pounds or Euros. You don’t need much but they are hard currencies and gladly accepted everywhere. (Note, one exception is that it costs a lot more to exchange US dollars in Cuba.) If you find that you need to dip into your secret stash, you will be able to get your hands on some local currency if you need it urgently.
  • An additional debit/credit card. Whether you choose to use your own card or a travel cash card, carrying at least one other could be a lifesaver if you lose your main card. Remember to keep it separate and ideally locked away in your safe or locker. Alternatively, keep it in a separate bag when travelling. That way, if you lose one or have a bag stolen, the other will be safe.  
  • Option to have money wired to you. As a last resort, plan ahead and ask a family member or friend to wire you money in an emergency. This may not be the cheapest option, but if you have no access to your bank account or cards for any reason, it’s one that gets money to you quickly. Western Union and Xoom are two of the best-known ways to do this and can help get you out of a jam pretty fast.

However you choose to get, manage, and spend your money at your destination, shop around for the best deal and keep your cash and cards safe. Looking for tips on how to stay safe while travelling? Check out my 7 travel tips to help you stay safe on the road.

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