Let’s face it, regardless of situation, finances are a big consideration for every trip. You need to pay for a trip, manage your cash while traveling, and consider bills back home. Here are some of the things that have worked for me over the years.
Travel Account: Over a decade ago I set up a separate travel account. This has two purposes. First, it helps me save and budget for a trip if the funds are separate and dedicated. Secondly, the account is not tied to anything else. If my travel debit card is lost, stolen or compromised while on a trip, it will be annoying and inconvenient but it won’t affect my direct deposit, my monthly bills or other necessities.
Credit / Debit Card: I travel with two credit cards and one debit card. None have foreign transaction fees and my debit card doesn’t have an ATM fee. The two credit cards are kept in different places and are different types (American Express and Visa). I have a photo of them or the account information written down in case there is a problem.
Cash: I keep my cash in at least two places. At the start of each day, I get out what I think I’ll need for the day and put it where I can access it easily. The rest of my cash is stored elsewhere where it won’t been seen when I am just buying a small purchase. I always have at least $100 of back up cash on me and sometimes I have an extra $100 worth of hard currency (Dollars or Euros) in case of an emergency. I usually don’t have this on me during the day. It is also worth doing some research prior to your trip in order to understand if it is a cashless or cash-based society. This has changed a bit with COVID, but as an example, Iceland has been mostly cashless for years. There is nothing you can’t do with a credit card. I even used it to pay for a porta potty. In contrast, Japan is a cash society. Credit cards are only used for large purchases and in some tourist areas. People pay their rent in cash and I paid cash for the dentist. Knowing this will obviously affect how much cash you need.
Local Currency: Nine times out of ten, I just plan to get local currency at the airport ATM. Then I head straight to a coffee shop or store in the airport to buy something and break a larger bill into change. Smaller bills are especially important if you are taking public transportation or a taxi from the airport. There are some locations or situations when you might want to have local currency before you arrive. Argentina and South Africa come to mind. But you also might consider it if you will be in a hurry when you land and know you need cash right away. On my last trip to Spain, a friend was meeting me in a small town. She had less than 2 hours to clear customs/immigration and catch a taxi to the bus station. We were concerned she may not have time to stop at an ATM and what she would do if the ATMs weren’t working. We made sure she had Euros before departing the US.
ATMs: If I can, I almost exclusively use bank ATMs. And while this is my primary method for getting cash, I try to not stop at an ATM more than once a week or so. Each ATM transaction leaves you a little vulnerable for theft if the machine has been tampered with or for a pick pocketer who sees where you put a large amount of cash.
Currency Conversion: Download a currency converter before you depart. But I also like to go old school and write out some round conversions on a note card. While this is less exact, I find this useful if I am in a crowded location and don’t want to pull out my phone, if I need to make a quick decision and just need a general round number.
Tipping: Research the tipping culture of your destination before traveling. And make sure to take tips into consideration for your budget before you leave. In the situation like a pre-booked tour, I will often bring envelops with me and put the tip in ahead of time so I have it ready and I don’t have to do math on the spot. I leave it unsealed so I can add (or subtract) based on the service / quality. When planning your budget don’t forget to think about sub-tips. If you have a tour, is there a guide and a driver? In Japan they don’t tip at all and in South Africa it is very much a part of the culture.
Haggling: Research if haggling is normal in the local culture. But also, never haggle away someone’s livelihood. In poorer countries, the equivalent of a dollar can make a huge difference to their quality of life. Don’t haggle over pennies.
Convivence vs Cost: Along the same lines, don’t just focus on the cost. Sometimes convivence is worth the extra expense. If you have limited time to see a location then as the old saying goes, “time is money.” If you can save 2 hours by spending an extra $10 or $20 then it might be worth it. (But on the flip side, more expensive does not always mean better quality.)
Back at Home: Either pay your bills or set them up for automatic payment while you are gone. This will alleviate both stress and late fees. It will also alleviate the need to get on sensitive bank websites from unsecure networks.
Track Expenses: Decide in advance if you want to track expenses. This can be helpful to make sure you are staying on budget and not going crazy. It can also help in order to budget for future trips. I always underestimate the amount of money I’ll spend on food and often forget to account for tips in my planning. I realized both after I began tracking my expenses. I use the splitwise app for tracking expenses regardless of if I am alone or with a group.
Save Currency: If currency can be used elsewhere (Euro) or I think I’ll be back (Japan or Korea) when I get home I put my left-over currency in an envelope, label it and put it with my travel stuff. If I think it is likely the currency will change before I return or I have such a small amount that inflation will make it unusable, I leave it as a tip or to someone on the street before departing.
Cross Body Bag: I am a huge fan of a cross body bag for keeping my valuables safe. It never leaves my body while out and about. Not when I am eating not when I go to the bathroom. It is where I keep my credit cards, cash, passport, and phone (I also keep a little toilet paper in it as well). It needs to have two sections so I can separate my cash and cards. The majority goes to the safer section with my passport. And what I am going to use that day goes in the more assessable section with my phone. If I want to have more things with me (book, umbrella, layers, water bottle) I carry a second day pack or tote bag. If this is lost or stolen there is nothing of value in it and it is a decoy for thieves. I don’t have a brand I recommend. I’ve used several over the years. Right now, I have a Tumi but that is only because the no-brand bag I used for years broke at the airport on my way to Belize. I had to get a replacement at the airport.
Travel Insurance: For bigger trips, I always get travel insurance. These days with delays and lost luggage it almost always pays for itself. I have used C&F Travel Insured International for years but there are lots of good companies out there.
Hard Currency: Keep a little bit of hard currency with you in case of an emergency. Based on the area of the world, this should either be US Dollars, Euro or Yen. You might lose some money in the transition, but it will probably be worth it if it is a true emergency.