Those venturing abroad this summer with a pocket full of weak dollars are certainly going to pay more than they did during the last travel season -- but there are ways to minimize the hit to your bank account.
The dollar index, which measures the U.S. dollar against a basket of six other major currencies, is now down about 13% from the same point a year ago. But if you're willing to brave the higher costs of flying, fueling up the rental car and cross-border purchases, you can still try to get the best exchange rate and the lowest fees.
Each currency-swapping strategy has its pros and cons, but the key to exchanging cash the cheapest way -- whether with paper or plastic -- is to do it as few times as possible.
Some opt to change a large deal of cash at home to cover what they'll need on the trip -- quick and convenient, but the exchange rate is pricey. Others wait 'til they get off the plane and hit up currency centers at the airport or destination city. Still convenient, but the rate can be even less favorable.
There's also the traditional travelers check, which is safer to carry than cash because it can be replaced. However, this option has become less attractive as fewer restaurants and stores accept the alternative currency.
Another type of vacationer skips the exchange process almost entirely by relying mostly on credit, debit and ATM cards while abroad. Generally speaking, this is the cheapest strategy when it comes to exchange rates. That's because banks use an interbank rate while retail outlets lock in profits by tacking a commission percentage onto the basic rate.
But keep in mind that each swipe of the plastic also carries a fee of 1% to 3% on top of the typical fees you'd face at home, according to Consumer Reports. Those who use debit cards could face a dual fee -- one from the issuing bank and one from a card company like Visa (V), MasterCard (MA) or American Express (AXP). When using ATMs, there could be a penalty from your bank from going out-of-network abroad, as well as a fee from the company that operates the ATM.
Consumer Reports, which is published by the nonprofit Consumer Union, also warns about the long list of fees associated with prepaid debit or "travel money" cards. Such cards are meant to set a limit on the amount you'll spend abroad, but can charge fees for activation, withdrawals or for adding more cash to the card.
Fees vary from bank to bank, so it's important to call and find out what you'll be charged when spending abroad. The currency Web site XE.com offers several tools to calculate your specific bank or credit card.
If your bank is at the low end of the fee spectrum -- or doesn't charge a fee at all, like Capital One (COF) or Commerce Bank (CBSH) -- it will probably be cheapest to use an ATM abroad to acquire pocket money, and use your credit or debit card for big-ticket items like hotels, car rentals and expensive activities. (Capital One customers have another leg up, since the bank also absorbs the 1% fee issued by Visa or MasterCard.)
When using cards, you can also cut the number of fees by consolidating purchases. That means filling up the entire gas tank fully rather than half at a time; getting all your souvenirs at one shop; and buying a package of activities instead of each one individually. For instance, purchasing a museum pass from Paris' tourism bureau offers access to over 60 museums and monuments instead of paying an entrance fee for each attraction.
If you do opt to trade your dollars for another currency in person, it's better to do it at home than abroad. It reduces hassles since you won't have to wander around a new city comparing exchange rates without any cash. Rates at home also tend to be more favorable, Consumer Reports says.
It's also important to be realistic about how much you'll need to spend. Trade in enough to avoid a trip to another retail outlet abroad, especially if you're traveling outside of major cities where exchange centers and ATMs are scarce.
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