Travel money guide for South America | finder.com

Travel money guide: South America

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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 highlight cards with the lowest fees that you can use over the counter and make withdrawals from ATMs on your South American getaway.

Compare travel cards for South America

Updated July 19th, 2018
Name Product Currency Conversion Fee Annual Fee APR (Annual Percentage Rate) for Purchases
None
$195
16.74% variable
Enjoy unique excursions, privileged access to exclusive events and insider opportunities.
None
$495
16.74% variable
Mastercard Black Card members receive an annual $100 air travel credit toward flight-related purchases including airline tickets, baggage fees, upgrades and more.
None
$0
16.74%, 22.49% or 25.49% variable
Get 4% points back on dining, 3% on travel, 2% on Uber rides and online shopping and 1% on other purchases, and redeem points for Uber credits, gift cards or cash back.
None
$0
16.74% to 24.74% variable
20,000 online bonus points offer. Ditch the restrictions of typical airline rewards cards. Any airline, any hotel, anytime. No blackout dates.
None
$0
14.74%, 18.74% or 24.74% variable
Earn unlimited 1.5% cash rewards on purchases. See Rates and Fees
None
$0 annual fee for the first year ($95 thereafter)
14.74%, 21.24% or 24.74% variable
Earn 50,000 bonus miles once after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening.
None
$0 annual fee for the first year ($95 thereafter)
17.74% to 24.74% variable
Earn 50,000 points when you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of your account opening, and an additional 30,000 points when you spend a total of $30,000 on purchases within the first year of your account opening.
None
$95
17.74% to 24.74% variable
Earn unlimited 2 points for every $1 spent on travel and dining purchases and 1.5 points for every $1 spent on all other purchases.
None
$450
17.74% to 24.74% variable
Earn 50,000 BONUS POINTS after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening* — that's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
None
$550
None (Charge Card)
Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel and 5X points on eligible hotels booked on amextravel.com.
None
$995
16.74% variable
Earn points every time you spend. Luxury Card enhances your purchasing power by providing you with one (1) point for every one dollar ($1) you spend. Every purchase gets you closer to the rewards you want.
None
$450
17.74% to 24.74% variable
Enjoy United Club membership, Premier Access® travel services, free checked bags, plus earn miles on every purchase.
None
$75
16.74% to 24.74% variable
Buy one ticket, get one for just the taxes and fees ($0 fare plus taxes and fees from just $22) after you make $1,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of your account opening. There are no blackout dates.
None
$195
17.49% to 26.49% variable
Earn 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) and 35,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new card in your first 3 months.

Compare up to 4 providers

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

    It depends on what country you travel to in South American. Prices in Brazil are more expensive than Ecuador, and Ibague (the 7th largest city in Colombia) is cheaper than Medellin (the 2nd biggest city in Colombia).

    Wherever your travel, the continent can be as expensive or cheap 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 night
    Hostel dorm bed
    $20 per night
    Hostel dorm bed
    $10 per night
    Hostel dorm
    $12 per night
    street foodArepa con queso on the street
    $1.50
    El Negro Food Truck. El Matanza (hot dog)
    $4.50
    Ceviche pescado in a cheap restaurant
    $2 -$3
    Empanada on the street
    $1
    cameraBogota graffiti tour
    Free (donation based on satisfaction)
    See the city from the top of the television tower
    Free
    See the changing of the guards at the Presidential Palace
    Free
    Museo Histórico Nacional
    Free on Sundays and holidays

    *Prices are approximate and are subject to change.

    What are the major South American currencies?

    • 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?

    Credit cards, debit cards and travel cards are widely accepted in South America. You’ll have no problem using your Visa or Mastercard at any business that can accept credit cards, however, American Express is typically only accepted at high-end businesses.

    Stick to a Visa or Mastercard so you can make withdrawals and payments in a variety of places.

    Travel money options for South America at a glance

    Travel money optionProsConsiderations
    Debit cards
    • Security with chip and PIN
    • Direct access to money
    • Save on overseas ATM fee when you withdraw
    • $0 account keeping fees if you deposit the minimum requirement
    • Unlimited free withdrawals at selected banks
     

    • Currency conversion and international ATM fees
    Prepaid travel money cards
    • Protected by PIN & chip
    • Multiple supported currencies
    • Emergency card replacement and backup cards
    • Accepted worldwide
    • Ideal for managing your travel budget
    • Most prepaid travel money cards won’t let you load any South American currency
    • May charge currency conversion fees, ATM withdrawal fees and local ATM operator fee
    Credit cards
    • Some credit cards waive overseas ATM fee
    • Protected by PIN & chip
    • Accepted worldwide
    • Features such as complimentary travel insurance and reward points earning
    • Cash advance fees
    • Higher spending limit that could make budgeting difficult
    Travelers checks
    • Acceptance
    • Security
    • Can be costly with initial purchase charges
    • Not all merchants accept travelers checks
    Cash
    • Greater payment flexibility
    • Convenience
    • 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

    Debit cards

    A travel friendly debit card that waives international ATM fees or foreign transaction fees is a smart travel money option for a trip to South America. Look for a debit card provider that is part of the Global ATM Alliance because you’ll be able to avoid currency conversion fees — Barclay Bank and Bank of America are members.

    If you’re planning on using a debit card that doesn’t waive ATM fees, take out the maximum amount of money so you don’t have to make as money withdrawals.

    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. Although you can load US Dollars onto these travel money products, acceptance is limited and you’ll pay to convert funds twice.

    • 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, so you could use a travel card to spend in either destination with no problem.

    Credit cards

    Look for a credit card designed for travel that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees to save money on international purchases when traveling through South America. Skip ATM withdrawals using your credit card because you’ll be charged high cash advance fees.

    If you’re a frequent traveler, use a rewards credit card that pays miles for each dollar you spend. This way you can maximize rewards and use those miles towards the purchase of your next flight.
    Travel rewards credit cards

    Traveler’s checks

    Don’t bother taking traveler’s checks to South America. They’re difficult to cash and can be expensive. Also, it is 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 cash in case of an 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.

    Where debit and credit cards are accepted can vary greatly depending on the location. You won’t have a problem with a card 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?

    • Luxury Card Mastercard® Gold Card™. Will took his Gold Card because he wanted a dedicated credit card to use in South America. This credit card has 0% foreign currency conversion fees, plus a slew of travel perks. On top of that, Mastercard has a dedicated concierge program that could help him with travel plans and attractions in South America if he needed assistance.
    • Capital One 360 debit card. Will says he also took the Capital One debit card because it’s his everyday card. Besides using the card to make withdrawals, he says he hardly used it on the trip.

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

    Wil says he was taking out large amounts of local currency and stashing it in a safe where he was staying. There were also 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 USD was $2.20 and then the operator fee, so he says he was getting charged about $5 for each withdrawal — plus the currency conversion fee.

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

    He says cash is pretty much the only way to pay in remote areas outside of major cities, especially for smaller purchases. He did use his card to pay for food at restaurants (cafeterias are cash only), at supermarkets and at bars and clubs.

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

    Will says he likes having a dedicated credit card for travel and a debit card as a back up. He recommends having a couple of hundred dollars stashed in a secure spot as you can’t always depend on ATMs.

    Do you have any travel money tips for South America?

    • ATM withdrawals. He says be careful when withdrawing at ATMs. Although nothing happened to Will, he’d heard many stories of other travelers being held up when withdrawing cash. And check your account balance regularly, cards get skimmed quite frequently.
    • Cash. Will says make sure you have cash to use in emergencies.
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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. Always try to use ATMs attached to the side of a bank.

    • Tip: ATMs in the Amazon region of Brazil, some parts of Venezuela and Bolivia may not accept foreign debit cards. Make sure you have enough cash to last you the duration of your stay if you’re visiting these regions.

    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 if you can’t pay in the local currency.

    Buying currency for South America

    It’ll be cheaper if you wait to exchange your money when you arrive compared to converting currency with banks in the US. However, you could always consider using an online money transfer service to send money to your destination and pick it up when you arrive. This option makes getting foreign currency extremely convenient for travelers.

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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. Having a combination of cards and cash to use as a backup is necessary to ensure you won’t run into any spending roadblocks on your vacation.

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    Travel insurance for South America

    From contaminated food and water, to tropical disease, there are many things for tourists to be weary of when traveling to South America. Travel insurance can help to protect you against the unknown.

    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
    Go to site More info
    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
    Go to site More info
    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
    Go to site More info
    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
    Go to site More info
    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
    Go to site More info
    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%
    Go to site More info
    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
    Go to site More info
    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
    Go to site More info
    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
    Go to site More info
    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
    Go to site More info
    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
    Go to site More info
    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
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