Travel Money Guide: South America - Travel cards | finder.com.au

Travel Money Guide: South America

Hola or Olá? Cash or card? Learn about the right travel money to use in South America

South America is made up of 12 different countries, each with different currencies. For example, Colombia has Colombian pesos, Argentina uses Argentinian pesos, Brazil the real and Peru the nuevo sol. We look at the cards which have the lowest fees to use over the counter and to withdraw from ATMs on your South American getaway.

Which option is right for your next trip?

Compare travel cards for South America

Rates last updated April 23rd, 2018
Name Product Foreign Currency Conversion Fee Overseas ATM Withdrawal Fee Overseas Cash Advance Fee Annual fee Product Description
Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®
0% of transaction value
$0
$10 or 5% of the transaction, whichever is greater
$0 annual fee for the first year ($89 thereafter)
Enjoy 40000
bonus miles after you spend on purchases in the first 90 days — that's enough to redeem for a $400 travel statement credit toward an eligible travel purchase.
Simmons Bank Visa® Platinum
2%
of transaction value
$0
The Simmons Bank Visa® Platinum Card offers multiple perks, including one of the lowest available APRs on the market.
Chase Sapphire Preferred® credit card
0% of transaction value
$0 annual fee for the first year ($95 thereafter)
Earn 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants.
BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card
0% of transaction value
$0
Ditch the restrictions of typical airline rewards cards. Any airline, any hotel, anytime. No blackout dates.

Compare up to 4 providers

How much money do I need to bring to South America?

From country to country and region to region, prices in Brazil are more expensive than Ecuador, Ibague (the 7th largest city in Colombia) is cheaper than Medellin (the 2nd biggest city in Colombia). You’ll find prices are varied in South America. Wherever your travel, the continent can be as expensive as you make it. Below you can find some budget prices for different countries in South America.

Bogotá (Colombia)Brasília (Brazil)Lima (Peru)Santiago (Chile)
to-sleepHostel dorm bed$10 per nightHostel dorm bed$20 per nightHostel dorm bed$10 per nightHostel dorm$12 per night
street foodArepa con queso on the street$1.50El Negro Food Truck. El Matanza (hot dog)$4.50Ceviche pescado in a cheap restaurant$2 -$3Empanada on the street$1
cameraBogota graffiti tour Free (donation based on satisfaction)See the city from the top of the television tower FreeSee the changing of the guards at the Presidential PalaceFreeMuseo Histórico NacionalFree on Sundays and holidays

*Prices are approximate and are subject to change.

Exchange rate history

YearAverage annual exchange Australian Dollar (AUD) to US Dollar (USD)
20121.035937
20130.967915
20140.902813
20150.752124
20160.727
20170.79615

*Exchange rates are accurate as of 5 September 2017

Some of the major South American currencies include:

  • Argentine peso
  • Bolivian boliviano
  • Brazilian real
  • Chilean peso
  • Colombian peso
  • Peruvian nuevo sol
  • Uruguayan peso
  • Venezuelan bolivar
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Travel card, debit card, or credit card?

Visa and Mastercard branded credit cards, debit cards and travel cards enjoy wide acceptance throughout the continent of South America. Merchants which have the facilities to accept card payments will accept both these card scheme brands, American Express is accepted in few places besides high-end businesses. Stick to a Visa or Mastercard product so you can make withdrawals and card payments in a variety of places.

Travel money options for South America at a glance

Travel money optionProsConsiderations
Debit cards for travel
  • No currency conversion and international ATM fees
  • Free global transfers between Australian and American Citibank accounts
  • Citibank Plus Transaction Account, a debit account currently offered on the US market, which waived the additional charge for international ATM withdrawals
Prepaid travel money cards
  • Locked-in exchange rates
  • No currency conversion fee
  • International ATM withdrawal fee waiver on some cards
  • Fees to consider such as local ATM, initial load, reload and inactivity fees
  • Does not support the currencies of South American countries
  • Acceptance is limited
  • Need to pay to convert funds
Credit cards for travel
  • Accepted everywhere
  • Contactless payment terminals are common
  • Features such as complimentary travel insurance and reward points earning
  • International ATM withdrawal fees are waived for Bankwest Platinum cards
  • Overseas ATM fees and currency conversion fees
Travellers cheques
  • Acceptance
  • Security
  • Can be costly with initial purchase charges
  • Not all merchants accept travellers cheques
Cash
  • Greater payment flexibility
  • Convenience
  • More difficult to manage expenses
  • Higher risk of theft

This table is a general summary of the travel money products in the market. Features and benefits can vary between cards.

How each travel money option works in South America

Credit cards

Credit cards provide a line of credit with limited interest free terms which can be used all over the world (American Express and Diners Club Cards in fewer places than Mastercard and Visa). Choose a credit card which doesn’t charge for currency conversion to save money on international transaction fees when travelling through South America. Bankwest Platinum cards won’t charge for international withdrawals as well as currency conversion. ATM withdrawals using your credit card are not advised if you’re concerned with saving money, as you’ll be charged high cash advance fees. But you can sometimes load a credit card with a positive balance to cut out cash advance fees and charges when used at an ATM. The card scheme anti-fraud guarantees don’t apply when you withdraw from an ATM using a credit card with a positive balance.

Debit cards

A travel friendly transaction account is a better travel money option for a trip to South America. By choosing a debit card which lets you transact in a foreign currency without paying for currency conversion, you can use the account over the counter in South America as you would in Australia for no extra cost. Most debit card providers apply a $5 charge for international ATM withdrawals. As well as no currency conversion fees, the Citibank Plus Transaction Account also waives the additional charge for international ATM withdrawals.

  • Tip: Westpac cardholders (including St.George, BankSA and Bank of Melbourne cardholders) can avoid the international ATM withdrawal fee using ScotiaBank ATMs in Chile and Peru thanks to the Westpac Global Alliance.

Travel prepaid cards

No prepaid travel cards support the currencies of the South American countries, so these products shouldn’t be considered for a trip to the continent unless it doesn’t charge a currency conversion fee. Although you can load US Dollars onto these travel money products, acceptance is limited and you’ll pay to convert funds twice. Travel card providers apply a margin to the exchange rate when you convert funds and then a currency conversion fee applies when you spend in a currency not loaded on the card. While there are products which will waive the currency conversion fee, other fees apply when you withdraw cash or reload the card for example. Consider one of the other forms of travel money compared on this page for a trip to South America.

  • Tip: The South American regions of French Guiana off the coast of Brazil and the Falkland Islands adjacent to Argentina use the euro and pound respectively. A travel card is suited to spend in these overseas departments of France and United Kingdom.

Traveller’s cheques

Don’t bother taking traveller’s cheques to South America. They’re difficult to cash and expensive, and no more secure than using a debit card (ATMs in South America are everywhere), credit card or prepaid travel card.

Cash

South America is one destination where you’re going to need to have a supply of cash for emergencies. Although you can use your card in more places now more than ever, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to access cash at any given moment, especially outside of major cities. Card payment facilities vary greatly depending on the location. You won’t have a problem with card acceptance and ATM withdrawals in the capital cities, especially in countries like Chile, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina for example. However, there are major tourist attractions, like the Amazon, where you’re going to need enough cash to last you for the entire leg of your trip.

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Interview with Will about travel money for South America

Will spent almost four months climbing volcanoes, diving and bussing around Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Brazil. He started his trip in Central America visiting Mexico and Cuba.

What cards did you take with you?

Why did you take these cards with you?

  • ANZ Travel Card. Will took the ANZ Travel Card because he wanted a dedicated travel account to use in South America which was separate from his savings. He says a travel card is useful because it’s not linked to your savings and it’s a safer way to withdraw money. Will says ANZ recommended he use their travel card to use in South America mainly because it has the worldwide acceptance of a Visa, it comes with a backup card with a separate PIN. Plus it comes with a decent customer support service, which he had to use when his main ANZ Travel Card was stolen. Will says he didn’t compare travel cards before he left, so he didn’t realise that ANZ charged him 3% of the transaction amount each time he made a purchase or a withdrawal using their travel card. This is in addition to whatever rate they gave him when he initially exchanged Australian Dollars to United States Dollars.
  • Access Select Visa Debit Card. Will says he also took the ANZ Access Select Visa Debit Card because it’s his everyday card in Australia. He says he can’t remember ever using this debit card, it kept it in his suitcase.

Did you withdraw from ATMs? What were the ATM fees?

Wil says he was taking out quite large amounts and stashing in a safe where he was staying. He withdrew the local currency most times, there were a couple of ATMs which gave him the option of withdrawing US Dollars, but these machines were only in places like airports of major banks. He says the withdrawal fee for U.S Dollars was $2.20 and then the operator fee, so he says he was getting charged about $5 Aussie for each withdrawal (plus the currency conversion fee).

Were there any places where you had trouble using any of your cards?

Will says when he was in Central America none of his cards worked in Cuba. He had to take a trip to the Canadian embassy to get money wired from Australia. He had USD$200 which covered him while he was waiting for money. He says outside cities, cash is pretty much the only way to pay, and within the cities too. If you’re making a smaller purchase, you’ll need cash. Will says he could use his card to pay for food at restaurants (cafeterias are cash only), when he went to supermarkets to buy staple goods and when he went to bars and clubs.

What’s your recommendation for travel money to take to South America?

Will says he likes the security of a travel card and he wasn’t too upset paying the currency conversion fee when he used the ANZ Travel Card. He says it’s good to have a couple of hundred dollars stashed in a secure spot as you can’t always depend on ATMs in these areas.

Do you have any travel money tips for South America?

  • Travel card identification. Will says if you take a travel card, you need to order it online and not from a branch, this way you’ll have your name on the front and it will be accepted in more places.
  • ATM withdrawals. He says be careful when withdrawing at ATMs. Although nothing happened to Will, he’d heard many stories of other travellers being held up when withdrawing cash. Furthermore, check your account balance regularly. Cards get skimmed quite frequently.
  • Cash. Will says make sure you have cash to use in emergencies.
  • Insurance. Will says you must be covered when you’re on holiday in South America, so consider a credit card that comes with complimentary travel insurance or look for separate insurance before you leave.
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Using ATMs in South America

Visa and Mastercard should work at all ATMs where you can see a Maestro, Cirrus, Mastercard or Visa logo on the front of the machine.

  • Tip: Anecdotal evidence suggests that ATMs in the Amazon region of Brazil, some parts of Venezuela and Bolivia will not accept foreign debit cards. Ensure you have enough cash to last you the duration of your stay if you’re visiting these regions.
  • Tip: Smaller towns in rural areas may not provide ATM facilities. Research your destination for advice from other travellers before you arrive. Always try to use ATMs attached to the side of a bank.
  • Tip: ATMs will give you your money before your card, which can lead to instances of people leaving their card in the machine.

Exchanging cash in South America

ATM withdrawals are by far the most efficient way to get local currency in cash on your holiday. ATMs are located all throughout the continent. If you want to carry cash as an emergency backup, US Dollars are widely accepted and the choice of money if you can’t pay in the local currency. While the major exchange offices in shopping centres and in tourist locations will exchange Australian Dollars, but US Dollars are preferred.

Buying currency in Australia

It will be cheaper if you wait to exchange your money when you arrive. Rates on offer in Australia for South American currencies are worse than what you get get from local banks and money changers. If you do want to get money changed in Australia, it’s a good idea to get US Dollars if you can’t purchase specific South American currencies. Colombian Pesos, Bolivian Bolivianos and Venezuelan Bolívars may be hard to get in Australia. Consider these institutions if you want to purchase foreign cash:

BankCurrencies
Brazil RealsChilean PesosUS DollarsColombian PesosArgentine Pesos
American ExpressYesYesYesNoNo
ANZYesYesYesYesNo
Australia PostNoNoYesNoNo
Commonwealth BankYesYesYesNoYes
NABYesYesYesNoYes
TravelexYesYesYesYesNo
WestpacNoNoYesNoNo
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A quick guide to the Brazilian Real

Did you know?

The Brazilian word for the national currency, ‘real’ means both real and royal and all Brazilian coins feature the Southern Cross!
south-america-banknotes

Why you’ll need a combination of travel money options

It’s important to take a combination of travel money options wherever you go in the world, but this is especially true for a trip to South America. As we’ve seen with Will and his trouble with card acceptance in Cuba (not technically South America but his anecdote is still relevant), it’s important to have a combination of cards and cash to use a backup. Have US Dollars on hand to use in emergencies and a travel card or debit card and credit card combination to use when necessary.

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Travel insurance for South America

South America is becoming an increasingly popular destination for Aussie travellers. And can you blame them? South America offers so much to travellers. The Andes, Cancun, Machu Picchu, and remnants of the Olmec, Aztec, Mayan and Incan empires are all must sees while travelling through Central and South America. But South America presents a unique set of risks for tourists. From contaminated food and water, to tropical disease, the are many things for tourists to be weary of, which is why there is travel insurance. Travel insurance can help to protect you agains t the unknown. Situations covered can include:

  • Repatriation
  • Lost deposits
  • Cancellations
  • Personal liability
  • Emergency medial and dental
  • Lost or stolen luggage

Details Features
Seven Corners Trip Protection Insurance
Seven Corners Trip Protection Insurance
Travel with a smile - protect your trip cost, your medical expenses, & your belongings.
  • Emergency Accident & Sickness Medical Expenses up to $250,000
  • Trip Cancellation – 100% of Trip Cost
  • Trip Interruption – up to 150% of Trip Cost
  • Political Evacuation - $20,000
  • Lost, Stolen or Damaged Baggage – up to $2,500
  • Emergency Medical Evacuation – up to $1 million
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Travelex Travel Max
Travelex Travel Max
TravelEx's most comprehensive protection plan for the comprehensive traveler. Offers optional Cancel For Any Reason upgrade.
  • Trip Cancellation - 100% of Insured Trip Cost
  • Trip Interruption - 150% of Insured Trip Cost
  • Trip Delay - $1000
  • Medical Expense Benefits - $100,000
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RoamRight Travel Insurance Essential
RoamRight Travel Insurance Essential
RoamRight’s Essential travel insurance package can be broken down into three critical parts: Trip Cancellation insurance, tourist health insurance, and baggage insurance.
  • Cancellation Cover - 100% Cost of Trip
  • Emergency Medical Expenses - $15,000
  • Emergency Evacuation and Repatriation - $150,000
  • Baggage and Personal Effects Cover - $750
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STA Travel Standard International
STA Travel Standard International
Get affordable cover for the essentials of options with STA's mid-level cover policy. This option will still provide up to $1500 in luggage cover and up to $100,000 in medical cover.
  • Trip Cancellation Cover - 100% of trip cost insured up to $10,000
  • Emergency Medical Expenses Cover - Up to $100,000
  • Baggage and Personal Effects - Up to $1,500
  • Trip Delay - Up to $500
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RoamRight Travel Insurance Preferred
RoamRight Travel Insurance Preferred
As the name implies, the Preferred package provides coverage for most trips and vacations.
  • Cancellation Cover - 100% Cost of Trip
  • Emergency Accident & Medical Expenses - $50,000
  • Emergency Evacuation and Repatriation - $500,000
  • Accidental Death and Dismemberment - $10,000
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Travelex Cancel for Any Reason
Travelex Cancel for Any Reason
Cancel For Any reason upgrade available with the Travel Max plan. Cancel for any reason - no questions asked.
  • Reimburses up to 75% of the insured trip cost
  • 100% cover if delayed to departure and loose at least 30%
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Atlas Travel
Atlas Travel
Provides customizable coverage for specific losses. Cover can be tailored to provide a balance between the basic essentials and premium cover.
  • Illness and Injury Cover - Up to $1 million
  • Emergency Medical Evacuation - Up to $1 million
  • Lost Checked Luggage - Up to $500
  • Travel Delay - $100/day up to 2 days
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Atlas Premium
Atlas Premium
Provides quality cover for a range of benefits with higher cover limits. Premium plan is perfect for travellers with health concerns looking for total protective cover.
  • Illness and Injury Cover - Up to $2 million
  • Emergency Medical Evacuation - Up to $1 million
  • Lost Checked Luggage - Up to $1,000
  • Travel Delay - $200/day up to 2 days
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Travelex Flight Insure Plus
Travelex Flight Insure Plus
Provides option to choose between different levels of flight insurance protection.
  • Flight Accident AD&D - Up to $1 Million
  • Baggage - $2,000
  • Medical Expense Benefits - $2,500
  • Medical Evacuation / Repatriation - $25,000
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STA Travel Explorer Plus
STA Travel Explorer Plus
Get premiere cover for a whole range of options with STA's premium policy. This option will still provide up to $100,000 in medical expense cover and up to $3,000 in cancellation cover.
  • Trip Cancellation Cover - $3,000
  • Emergency Medical Expenses Cover - Up to $100,000
  • Baggage and Personal Effects - Up to $2,500
  • Trip Delay - Up to $1,000
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Allianz Domestic Travel Insurance
Allianz Domestic Travel Insurance
Allianz Domestic Travel Insurance makes sure you are covered incase your planned trip unexpectedly goes awry.
  • Trip coverage - Depends on plan
  • Baggage coverage - Up to $1,000
  • 24-hour hotline assistance
  • Existing medical coverage - Up to $500,000
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Allianz International Travel Insurance
Allianz International Travel Insurance
If you frequently travel abroad and want extra coverage in case you get sick, injured, or need to cancel your trip, Allianz International Travel Insurance is the perfect solution.
  • Trip coverage - Depends on plan
  • Baggage coverage - Up to $1,000
  • 24-hour hotline assistance
  • Existing medical coverage - Up to $1,000,000
Go to site More info

South America is a largely unexplored land accessible to travellers now more than ever. If you have questions about the best way to take travel money to South America, get in touch with us using the question form below. Compare travel insurance for South America

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