The United Kingdom — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — is a popular destinations for Americans. US citizens get an automatic visa for six months to drive over London Bridge, explore Stonehenge and sip tea by the Thames. But how do you pay for your adventures? Can you use US dollars, or should you exchange your money for the British pound? We’ll help you get the most out of your US dollar without spending too much on international transaction fees using credit cards, debit cards and cash.
What's in this guide?
- How much British pounds do I need for a trip to the UK?
- How the USD compares to the GBP
- What's the best way to take your travel money to the UK?
- How travel money works in the UK
- Compare travel credit cards
- A guide to deciphering pound sterling banknotes
- Finding travel insurance for your trip to the UK
- Cash pickup services in United Kingdom
How much British pounds do I need for a trip to the UK?
The UK is one of the most expensive places in Europe to travel. From transportation to hotels and food, you’ll find you’ll spend a lot more on the basics than in many other countries. If you’re looking to travel on a backpacker’s budget, plan for $60 or so per day, about $150 for midrange budget and $400 for you’re looking to live it up.
$30 per night
$80 per night
Boutique hotel room
$200 per night
$3.50 – $4.50
w/ glass of wine
in top restaurant w/ wine
|Top theatre ticket|
*Prices are approximate and are subject to change.
How the USD compares to the GBP
Since the housing crisis of 2007, the USD lost value against the GBP. But ever since the Brexit vote for the UK to leave the European Union in June 2016, the sterling pound has lost purchasing power. The rates are better than ever for US travelers, so lock in your rates with a travel money card or traveler’s checks.
What’s the best way to take your travel money to the UK?
Like the US, you can pay for most your your travel with a credit card. You’ll find that most major credit cards are accepted everywhere. Make the most of your money on your travels and find a card that offers travel rewards or a card that’ll waive foreign transaction fees.
It’s good to carry some cash for smaller purchases or to use for tips. You’ll easily find ATMs at banks, stores and gas stations — but try to only use your debit card. You’ll pay steep fees getting a cash advance from your credit cards.
Travel money options for UK at a glance
|Travel money option||Pros||Cons|
|Prepaid travel money cards|
This table is a general summary of the travel money products in the market. Features and benefits can vary between cards.
How travel money works in the UK
Using prepaid travel cards
The biggest benefit of travel cards is that you can load up to three currencies at once and lock in a favorable exchange rate. If you need more than one currency on your travels, you can save money on the 3% currency conversion fee you’ll pay with other credit and debit cards.
Where you save in the conversion rates you may pay in fees. You’ll pay fees each time you load the card, ATM withdrawals and sometimes even an inactivity fee.
- Tip: Banks that provide travel cards make money by applying a higher margin to the exchange rate. You can get a better rate using a debit card or credit card.
Using debit cards
A travel debit card could be a good travel money choice to take to the UK. You’ll have access to cash each time you come across an ATM, without carrying lots of cash on you all at once. Because you’re spending your own money, you avoid interest charges. The Citibank Plus waives the fee for international ATM withdrawals and doesn’t charge a monthly account keeping fee.
- Tip: A debit card can be used for in-store purchases, online and for ATM withdrawals in the UK.
Using credit cards
You won’t have any problems using a travel credit card in the UK. Most major credit cards are accepted, but you’ll find it hard to use your Diners Club, American Express or Discover cards at small businesses. Find yourself a credit card that waives foreign transaction fees and offers travel rewards. Carrying a credit card gives you the added benefit of travel insurance and discounts, depending on your provider. For added savings, take advantage of the interest-free period by paying your balance in full each month.
Cards that offer travel perks and waive fees often charge an annual fee, so make sure the fee is worth it before you bring it along on your travels. If you’re ever in a jam, credit cards also offer the ease of cash advances, though we don’t recommend it. You’ll pay high fees and interest rates apply the moment you get your money.
- Tip: It’s worth researching credit cards that offer travel benefit and rewards for things you’ll buy anyways like flights and hotel stays.
Compare travel credit cards
Case study: Interview with William Eve about UK travel money options
We interviewed Will, a finder.com user, about his latest trip to the UK. He told us about his experience using credit and travel money cards.
What credit cards, debit cards or travel money cards did you take with you?
- Cash Passport Mastercard
- British Airways Visa Signature® Card
Why did you take these cards?
Will traveled to France, Spain and the UK while on his trip, so he needed both euros and pounds. He brought his Cash Passport Mastercard so he could carry both currencies and lock in a strong exchange rate. For most of his other purchases he used hisBritish Airways Visa Signature® Card. He earns rewards for every dollar he spends — and there’s no foreign exchange fees.
Were there any places where your cards weren’t accepted?
Will found a few places where the Cash Passport travel card wasn’t accepted. Instead he used his British Airways card or he easily found an ATM to take out cash. There were a few small businesses that were cash only, but for the most part, he didn’t run into many problems using his credit card.
How much cash would you take on a three-week holiday?
Will says he was shocked at how expensive things were in the UK compared to other European countries. Will budgeted for $150 per day for a total of $3,000 over three weeks in the UK (including accommodation). Though he says he could have easily spent double this amount.
What money tips do you have to anyone traveling to this country?
Pay attention to how much you spend on food and alcohol. Will says eating out and drinking in London and other parts of the UK is extremely expensive. He gives this advice for keeping costs low: “Hunt out good pub meal bargains and shop at Tesco and Sainsbury’s for your other meals. Try to avoid drinking coffee out.”
Will also recommends AirBnB, especially if you’re traveling as a group. Hostel dorm beds were upward of £35 a night.
- Load your card with your choice of 6 available currencies: Euros, British pounds, Australian dollars, Japanese yen, Canadian dollars, and Mexican pesos
- Lock in your exchange rate
- Use your card abroad at millions of locations
A guide to deciphering pound sterling banknotes
The pound sterling is the official currency of the UK and is the fourth most traded currency in the world. One pound is subdivided into 100 pence and comes in denominations of £5, £10, £20 and £50 banknotes, issued by the Bank of England for over 300 years. All banknotes feature Queen Elizabeth II on the front.
|The current £5 banknote features Elizabeth Fry, who made her name fighting for improved living conditions for women in European jails.|
Issued on May 21, 2002.
|The back of the £10 banknote is Charles Darwin, the Victorian naturalist who developed the theory of evolution.|
Issued on November 7, 2000.
|The £20 banknote features the Scottish economist, Adam Smith with an illustration of ‘The division of labour in pin manufacturing’.|
Issued on March 13, 2007.
|The new-style £50 banknote entered circulation on November 2, 2011.|
The note features two Britons on the back — Matthew Boulton and James Watt with steam engine and Boulton’s Soho factory.
Case study: Roslyn’s experience
I visited the UK with friends in October 2018. I used my Quicksilver Capital One Visa just about everywhere because it has no foreign transaction fees and gives a flat cashback rate on everything. I also brought a few hundred dollars for small transaction amounts and exchanged it in the London Heathrow airport at a fair rate.
The only issue I encountered was the new scanning credit card machines. I’d made sure I had the newer chip-and-PIN card when I traveled to Japan, but I didn’t know the UK had already switched over to newer scanning chips. My card was declined at several places, like at Tesco supermarkets because it was a foreign card that could only be inserted or swiped.
If you’re going abroad, it’s helpful to get a solid cashback card with free foreign transactions that uses the most up-to-date payment style.
Cash pickup services in United Kingdom
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.
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