Save Up Before Your Trip
Save up for travel before you go! If I really understood how valuable the Euro/Dollar was in Latin America, I would have made much less silly purchases at home! For example, 1 pint of beer in Ireland can by 2 almuerzos (2 x 2 course lunches including juice) in Colombia. If you are lucky enough to be from a country with a strong currency, every Euro or Dollar goes really far!
Multiple Bank Accounts
Set up multiple bank accounts so that you have more than one credit/debit card. Keep these cards in different places. This covers you if you lose a card of if a card doesn’t work.
Avoid ATM Fees
Set up a bank account with no overseas ATM withdrawal fees. You will probably have to pay for a premium bank account for this feature but it will most likely be worth it and save you money.
Know Exchange Rates
Make sure that your bank account uses good exchange rates without premiums or extra fees. Your bank should exchange money at a rate as close as possible to real rates. XE.com is a good guide to see the most up to date real exchange rates. Use the XE.com mobile app to keep an eye on rates as you make day to day purchases.
Use a bank that has good mobile services that can be accessed online from your laptop or a phone. Ideally, you should be able to deactivate and reactivate your card from your phone. Being able to see when transactions are successful or unsuccessful in real time is a great feature to have when travelling.
Use Fee-Free ATMs
Try using ATMs at different banks until you find the one that doesn’t charge you a fee to withdraw cash (press ‘No’ when the ATM tells you that there will be a fee and asks you if you would like to proceed with the transaction). This will depend on your bank as it may be affiliated with a specific bank in the country that you are travelling in. I wrote an article about using an N26 bank account to avoid ATM fees – click here to read it.
Prepaid Debit Cards
Prepaid Debit Cards and Currency Cards are an option but remember that they are not banks and not regulated accordingly. Why use a currency card when you can use a bank with the same functionality? I have had bad experiences with one of the major currency cards due to mistakes with the display of information on the app (my account balance!) and poor customer service but they service as a good back up option to use with small amounts of money.
Pay in the Local Currency
If you are paying by card and the seller asks you if you would like to pay in Euro/Dollars or the local currency, always pay in the local currency. Sellers ask this in the hope that you use a foreign currency so that they can charge you a currency exchange fee.
Exchange cash at reputable currency exchanges. You will generally get worse rates at border crossing areas and at airports. Unless it’s your only option, avoid doing business with vendors on the street or guys at the border crossing with wads of cash in their hands!
Always Have Cash
Always keep cash on you but not too much. You only need enough for the day. Lots of Hostels / Hotels / Restaurants / Shops don’t accept cards or charge a percentage fee for using them. This is a balance between having enough to survive for a few days if you can’t use a card, and not having so much that it would be a disaster if you got robbed. Plan appropriately for trips to remote areas with no ATMs.
Break Big Notes
Break big notes when you have the opportunity so that you have smaller amounts for street vendors or people that don’t have change (or claim that they don’t have change).
Budget for Your Trip
Budget for your trip. This will be different depending on the country that you are in and the type of lifestyle that you want to maintain. I found my daily budget varying anywhere from €20 per day in cheaper countries to €50 per day in more expensive countries. The most expensive days will be when you do popular organised tours or activities in the more expensive countries and you can spend well over €50 on these days. I think that the cheapest day of my whole trip was about €7 in Máncora, Peru.
Prices & Haggling
Always shop around and check the prices of things (taxis, tours etc.) with your hostel, locals or other travellers so that you have an idea of what the price is. If the price is right, you don’t need to bargain. If they overstate the price, you know where to get to with haggling. Bargain or haggle when appropriate but don’t be shameless and waste time over tiny amounts.
Find out about the tipping culture and do as the locals do. In some countries it’s normal practice to display the tip on the bill and although it appears to be mandatory, it’s still optional and you don’t have to pay it if you have poor service. In other countries it’s not customary to tip as you would in the USA or even tip at all but you might still be convinced by the staff that you have to pay one, especially in tourist areas.
Keep US Dollars on you as this is the most universally accepted currency. In general you will get better value paying in the local currency. However, in some cases, you can save money if you pay in USD. For example, in Chile, you have to pay tax if you pay for accommodation in Chilean Pesos whereas if you pay in USD, you are exempt from the tax. This is probably because if you are a foreigner paying in a foreign currency you are not liable to pay tax. I’m guessing that Hotels/Hostels follow this law but in the most limited capacity possible i.e. only in cash and only in USD.
Use Referral Codes
Use referral codes from friends and share your referral codes with friends. Lots of services offer referral codes from banks like N26 to accommodation apps such as booking.com. Usually when used, both the person who shared the referral code, and the person who received and used it, receive a discount or cash payment.