8 Money and Wallet Tips for International Travelers

Much of the following advice given about money has been learned through the school of hard knocks. I recently provided these tips to a friend who doesn’t have much experience with international travel. Then it occurred to me the list might be helpful for some of you and your friends. Especially since everyone is trying to take off to parts unknown post-Covid. 

This article is specifically focused on money and wallet travel tips. Other articles might focus on transportation tips, etc.

1. Physical Wallet

Leave it at home. For men, the front pocket isn’t safe. Mike was robbed as we got onto the metro in Madrid and thieves got his wallet out of his front pants pocket. All will need abroad is a little local cash, the eWallet on your phone, and 1 physical credit card in case their contactless reader is down. If you have a travel companion, they should have a different physical card to minimize the impact if your card is lost or stolen.

2. Identification

You will need a passport, of course, but leave the driver’s license at home unless you plan to drive abroad. Since we have global entry, I walk around with that ID in case anyone cares. Technically, you should have your passport, but we usually leave it in the hotel. Losing it is too big a pain.

When we got robbed in Madrid we were on our way to pick up our rental car but Mike’s license was stolen. Fortunately, the car rental company already had his number and I had my license tucked safely down my shirt. Otherwise, we would not have been able to rent the car as planned for our three-week vacation.

3. Cash

Don’t bother getting any US or foreign currency before you travel. Only bring, maybe $100 US just for comfort. Just figure on using one of your two ATM cards in the airport just after you exit baggage claim/customs. Before your trip, try to determine how cash-centric your destination is. Europe, for example, is almost entirely contactless since the pandemic. Cash still works there, is seldom needed, but can work in a pinch if you are having IT problems.

4. Credit Cards

You will want at least 2 different cards and you need to understand the card benefits, usage fees, and limitations prior to taking your trip. Have your account number and issuer phone number secure but available to report a lost or stolen card to get a replacement and prevent charges from being run up.

If you are traveling with a friend or a spouse be sure to carry credit cards from different banks and accounts. Many people have multiple cards on the same account, those don’t count as additional cards because as soon as one of them is compromised none of them are usable. So, each person should carry no more than 2 cards from different accounts.

5. Lost/Stolen Credit Cards

While you can replace a card abroad, it can sometimes be difficult for the card to get to you, especially if you plan to move every few days. One really cool feature we found about the eWallets was that they automatically updated with the new card info by the vendor. I will restate it more simply: I lost my card, reported it, it was canceled, *and* the replacement card was loaded into my eWallet so I could start using it immediately!

Another note on credit cards, it is helpful to bring cards that have no foreign transaction fees. You’ll need to check with your credit card issuer for that information. Additionally, using your wallet on your phone touchless is much more secure than handing your credit card to someone. The transaction is fully encrypted.

6. ATM Cards

You want 2 different ATM cards for your group in case one of the related banks decides to limit your access or perhaps your daily withdrawal limit. It’s a good idea to ask your banks what they charge for foreign withdrawals, what are the daily limits, how you can locate a working machine, and if you need to provide them with travel plans so that they don’t consider the transaction fraudulent. Fraud is ‘no bueno’ since you may not get your card back from the machine. My worst fear is that the machine will eat my card. I’m always relieved when my card comes back out.

7. ATM Machines

Exercise the same caution when withdrawing funds. Don’t be flashy. I prefer to get money just before I return to my hotel so thieves don’t have time to follow me around. The machine will offer to convert the withdrawal into dollars (i.e. your home currency). Don’t do it. The conversion rates are usually awful. Your home bank will give you the best rate.

8. eWallet

Most of the world is ahead of the US in payment processing. Most things in Europe and a lot of Asia are touchless and take Apple pay or Google wallet. Set up your cards in your Apple or Google wallet before you leave home, you won’t need to carry any cards with you on the street. Be sure they work before you leave. (Use them at the grocery store to check). Nearly all payments in Europe can be done with your Apple or Google wallet. In restaurants, the server will come to you with the machine and you just need to tap your phone or credit card. 

Do you have any other wallet or money advice for our readers?

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  1. All good advice. I’ll take your advice on the eWallet method. You can never have too many backup options.

    As for carrying the wallet in your front pocket. It works well for me perhaps because my travel wallet is not made of slippery leather but instead grippy nylon cordura. It is one of those velcro wallets that went out of style in the 1990s 🙂 Even a thief on a bus with one of those sticky claws in Naples was unable to pull it out.

    A couple of things to add about cash. Cuz I’m still old school.

    – emptying your wallet just before leaving the country: I used to try to spend all my cash before crossing the border, all the way down to coins. But these days I don’t bother unless there’s over $100 in cash because I’ve found that I almost always go back and having a little local currency is convenient for the next visit because you don’t have to seek an ATM immediately.

    -obsolete currency: … but the risk of taking currency home is that the issuing country might discontinue the currency before your return. You can still exchange that old currency though sometimes it requires going to a special bank in a large city. I don’t mind the financial adventure though and the challenge of doing something that locals claim is impossible can be literally rewarding.

    -prying eyes: In developing countries some kibitzers are pretty nosy about your wallet. Even though I’m in the habit of opening my wallet towards be, I’ve had guys crane their necks to get a glimpse of the “enormous” wad of cash in my wallet. So now I just stuff a few small bills in my pocket and never expose the big bills in public.

    -change minimization: Unlike in the USA where cashiers have no problem breaking a $20 for a $3 purchase, in some countries cashiers don’t like to give back more change than your purchase. This is especially common in central and eastern Europe . Handing over a fiver for a three dollar purchase is expected. If all you have is a twenty then ask nicely first whether they can break a big bill. Usually the courtesy will be returned.

    – change scams: Before you hand over your cash, compute about how much change to expect and what that will look like. Think “I’m handing over a yellow hundred and should get at least two blue twenties back in change”. Also say how much you are handing (“Here is one hundred”). Though the vast majority of cashiers are honest, some will try to short change you.

    -ATM change: In wealthy countries ATMs might dispense a minimum of high value notes. For example if you withdraw EUR 500, you might end up with 5 * EUR100 notes which can be hard to spend on small stuff. You can usually force such ATMs to break at least one of those hundreds by withdrawing a little less like EUR 490.

    ATM machine choice: I never use the “independent” ATMs because they often charge the worst fees and use “dark patterns” to fool you into falling for the “convert to dollars” scam. ATMs hosted by large banks are usually better. Best is to check with your local bank before you travel for their advice on which bank ATMs to use: that often saves even more transaction fees.

  2. On a trip to Argentina, a few years ago, we were glad we had some US money with us because the only place we could exchange to the local currency was through the small hotel where we were staying. They were having an ATM strike (people who filled the machines) and no one could get cash.

    Another funny story was I was out on the sidewalk when Jerry was clandestinely getting money out of his money belt under his shirt – turned towards the wall of the building, inside an overhang. I saw a lady walking by and said “Look at that man, that’s disgusting!” She thought he was urinating in the corner of the building. 😳

  3. Your comment is so funny. Something I didn’t put in the article is of course to research the countries you are visiting. It is quite well known the Argentina has inflation and currency issues so you must bring USD. There are also various countries that use US dollars.

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