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Travel money guide October 2021
Compare fees, convenience, rewards and more between three key payment methods.
Traveling overseas involves a lot of planning — and that includes your money.
What is travel money?
Travel money, for lack of a better term, essentially means the options of credit cards, debit cards, prepaid cards and foreign currency — all designed for travel and foreign transactions. Each form of travel money has different pros and cons, so you’ll want to compare and contrast before choosing which’ll be best for you and your itinerary.
Compare travel money options
Compare the fees, convenience, rewards and more between prepaid travel cards, credit cards, debit cards and foreign currency while planning how you’re going to pay for food, souvenirs and other goods on your next trip.
|Prepaid travel card||Credit card||Debit card||Foreign cash|
|Foreign transaction fees||No||Sometimes||Sometimes||No|
|Currency exchange fees||Yes — but the rate is locked in||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|ATM withdrawal fees||Sometimes||Sometimes||Not usually||N/A|
|Currency load fee||Yes||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Instant reload (no delay)||Yes||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Worldwide acceptance||Yes||Yes — except for select countries, like Cuba and North Korea||Yes||Yes|
|Chip & pin protection||Yes||Yes||Yes||N/A|
|Emergency card replacement||Yes||Yes||No||N/A|
|Frequent flyer benefits||No||Yes||No||No|
|Promotional interest rates (0% purchases, 0% balance transfers)||No||Yes||No||N/A|
How to decide which type of travel money is best for you?
Prepaid travel cards, credit cards and debit cards can all be effective ways to pay while you’re traveling. In fact, a combination of the three might be the safest and most convenient way to have all your bases covered. But the travel money you should embrace as your primary payment method depends on your situation:
Pick a prepaid travel card if…
- You’re on a strict budget. A prepaid travel card can help ensure you don’t overspend, since you can only spend what you’ve already loaded onto the card.
- You want to lock in an exchange rate. Avoid unpleasant surprises by knowing exactly how much your US dollars are worth from the get-go.
Pick a credit card if…
- You travel frequently and want to earn rewards. Whether you’re a hotel fiend, a frequent flyer or just love earning cash back, a travel credit card can be the gift that keeps on giving — as long as you keep spending. Just make sure you have a plan for paying your balance in time.
- You want a safety net in case of emergencies. Even if it isn’t your primary payment method, keeping a travel credit card in your back pocket can help cover any unexpected expenses.
Pick a debit card if…
- You plan on frequenting ATMs. If you like the feeling of cold, hard cash in your hands — or will be shopping at markets that only accept cash — you should consider a travel debit card that comes with zero ATM fees.
- You want direct access to your checking account. A travel debit card can be more convenient than a prepaid travel card, since you don’t need to preload money. It’s also ideal if you want to avoid racking up a credit card bill.
Prepaid travel money cards
Prepaid travel money cards are great for budgeting, since you can only spend what’s already on the card — but that could actually be a drawback in the event of an emergency.
- Lock in exchange rates. These cares allow you to lock in rates so you won’t be surprised by the fluctuating value of your US dollars.
- Earn cashback. Select cards like the Prepaid Travel Card by Mastercard can earn you some rewards.
- Use it worldwide. Most prepaid travel cards are either Visa or Mastercard, which are widely accepted.
- Fees. you may have to pay for loading, reloading, currency conversion, withdrawing cash and more.
- ATM withdrawal limits. you may have to pay extra for withdrawing larger amounts of money.
- Not great for emergencies. since you only have a finite amount of cash you may need another source of money in case you run out.
Compare prepaid travel money cards
If you’re leaning toward a prepaid travel money card, compare some of our favorites before signing up.
We update our data regularly, but information can change between updates. Confirm details with the provider you're interested in before making a decision.
Travel credit cards
Browse travel credit cards to find an option with perks that match your travel style — just make sure you have a plan to pay it off.
- Access to credit. Credit access comes in handy for emergencies.
- Rewards. Earning cash back lets you have something to look forward to when you come home.
- Extras. Some cards come with complimentary travel insurance, purchase protection and concierge services.
- Availability. Some travel credit cards are banned in countries like Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan and Syria due to economic sanctions.
- Lack of access to cash. You could be charged with hefty fees for using a travel credit card when you withdraw cash at an ATM.
- Inactivity fee. Some card issuers will charge you a monthly fee if you don’t use the prepaid card frequently enough.
Travel debit cards
Many travel debit cards waive foreign transaction fees and ATM withdrawal fees, setting you up for an easy breeze experience — as long as you don’t overdraw your checking account.
- Fewer fees. Withdraw cash and buy all the souvenirs you want without getting dinged for it.
- ATM availability worldwide. Choose a travel debit card that’s compatible with the highest number of ATMs.
- Fraud protection. Your bank can help with damage control if your card is lost or stolen.
- No cushion for emergencies. If you make large purchases, they could drain your account, which may lead to overdraft fees.
- Long card replacement wait. If you lose your card it may take up to two weeks to get a new one.
Traveler’s checks were once a widely used form of travel money, but they’re going the way of the dinosaur. You can weigh up whether they’re worth your time below — but we’d advise looking elsewhere.
- Secure.Traveler’s checks are an extremely secure method to spend money overseas.
- Safe. They can be easily replaced if lost or stolen.
- Initial cost. You might be charged a purchasing fee when you first pick up your traveler’s check.
- Acceptance. Traveler’s checks aren’t accepted as widely as other payment methods.
- Can be bulky and awkward to carry. Plus, you’ll have to go to the effort of getting them cashed rather than having immediate access to your cash like you would with a card.
Holding a certain amount of foreign cash provides you with convenience and payment flexibility. Some stops on your destination may be cash-only and having extra on you can provide a smooth transition to wherever your destination may be.
Knowing how the dollar has performed against foreign currency in the past few years and months will enable you to get the best exchange rate for your foreign exchange transaction. Our travel money guides will inform you on some of the ways to access cash and ATMs worldwide.
Is it safe to travel with cash?
Yes! In fact, it’s usually safer to travel with some cash than none at all — though you don’t need to take large sums along with you. To keep your cash safe while traveling, avoid keeping it all in one place. Instead, divide it between your suitcase, purse and other safe places so that if some gets stolen you still have backup cash.
Keep in mind that carrying more than $10,000 at a time could actually be a headache, since you’ll need to declare it on your customs form to explain why you’re traveling with so much money.
5 places to do a foreign currency exchange
The best place to exchange your foreign currency is at your bank or credit union BEFORE you travel.
- Bank. Call your local branch beforehand to see if their services line up with what you need. Most nationwide banks, like PNC, offer competitive rates and no transaction fees.
- Credit unions. Similar to banks, credit unions generally offer competitive exchange rates and limited or no transaction fees.
- Debit card. You should be able to withdraw cash from an international ATM with decent exchange rates and fees ranging from 1% to 3%.
- Airport kiosk. After disembarking from the plane, you can exchange your currency at the airport. But fees are high and exchange rates will be less-than-favorable.
- Currency exchange store. You can find exchange stories in most international cities, but again, the fees will be working against you.
But if you’re already in a foreign destination, your best bet is to use a travel debit card to withdraw funds at an ATM.
Airport kiosks and currency exchange stores should only be used as a last resort.
Destination money guides
For your next international trip, plan ahead by knowing how much to bring, and which travel money option is best for you. Choose your destination to get the full guide:
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