Money Matters Overseas — a follow-up

Having traveled abroad over 33 times in the past 13 years, I heartily concurred and empathized with the preponderance of opinions expressed in the October ’05 issue regarding money.

ITN asked readers to share how they deal with money and making purchases overseas (anywhere outside of North America and the Caribbean). Several reponses were printed in the October and November issues. Here are a few more.

If you have anything to add, write to Money Matters, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail (include the mailing address at which you receive ITN).

On my trips I always take 50 to 100 new (or nearly crisp) U.S. one-dollar bills and use them almost exclusively. I have visited only two or three countries where I had difficulty using U.S. currency. The one-dollar bills are very useful for tips, street food and small purchases in markets, etc.

For larger purchases I use my USAA MasterCard, which has only a 1% add-on. I also canceled both of my MBNA Visa and M/C cards since they upped their surcharge.

Debit cards are okay, and I carry one in case of an emergency.

The use of credit cards at an ATM is a no-no, for me. I tried this once in Lindos on the island of Rhodes and meant to get 2,000 Greek drachmas. I was unfamiliar with the machine and pressed too many zeros and received the equivalent of US$980. I left for Turkey the following day, and the banks in Turkey were very reluctant to exchange Greek money. It took me a week to get it all changed, and I lost over 30% of my funds. When I arrived home I paid the bill in full, but, the way the bank handled the transaction, it took a full three months to pay off the fees and finance charges.

I have not used a travelers’ check in over 10 years. I found them very difficult to cash, and often American Express offices or banks were not open whenever I arrived at one to cash a check. Usually, there was a fee charged when I did finally find a bank that would cash them. So, to me, they were impractical and expensive. However, if you are worried about security, travelers’ checks cannot be beaten for security.

I rarely get any foreign currency other than 30 to 50 dollars’ worth. I find that it is difficult to change any remaining foreign currency back to U.S. currency. I was able to change some Egyptian money back to U.S. currency at an exchange booth at the Los Angeles airport, but the rate was horribly disadvantageous.

On a recent trip to Colombia, U.S. currency was accepted, but nearly every bill was scrutinized in detail as there are so many excellent counterfeit bills of every denomination in circulation.

I hesitate to relate the following, but I have been to several countries wherein establishments would accept a Visa Card or MasterCard but would not take, or would charge extra if I attempted to use, an American Express card. I had three or four merchants tell me that they would prefer to take my personal check rather than have me insist on using my AmEx card. Therefore, I have not used it during foreign travel for over 12 years.

Finally, I would recommend that travelers notify the banks which issued their credit cards to say that they will be traveling abroad and name precisely which countries they’re visiting. I was in a group where one woman did not notify her bank, and when a charge came in from a distant country the bank canceled the card for her protection. They had checked her charge record and she had never been out of her home state. It took several long-distance phone calls and four days until the problem was resolved.

Oceanside, CA

Here’s another reminder about using ATMs overseas. Be sure to actually memorize your 4-digit PIN rather than remembering the number by using a familiar word the code spells out in letters.

In the U.S., both numbers and English letters are displayed on ATM keypads, but this is not the case in other countries. It can take quite a while, as happened to me, to work out that a PIN code like “DEAR” in the U.S. must be keyed in as “3327” overseas.

Memphis, TN

My husband, who is a native Egyptian, and I visited his family in suburban Cairo during April and May 2005.

We arrived in Cairo carrying American Express Travelers Cheques. Ali and I visited no fewer than 12 Cairo banks, trying to convert the checks into the local currency. We were unsuccessful. No explanation was given to us.

Finally, a teller at one bank suggested that we visit the American Express office downtown. We took his advice and finally had enough Egyptian pounds to see us through our stay.

I am wondering if any other ITN reader has had a similar experience.

Geneva, NY

I took a trip to Tahiti in September ’05. While all the businesses in Papeete accepted MasterCard, the ATMs would not give cash to someone using a MasterCard unless it was a French MasterCard. There are three banks in Tahiti and I went to all of them and was told that I could not get cash from my bank debit card nor a cash advance from my MasterCard.

Visa cards worked without any problem.

Huntington Beach, CA

One suggestion I have for those of you who like to acquire foreign currencies before a trip is to keep tabs on your friends who travel!

I don’t let anyone leave home without telling them not to bother trying to exchange their leftover currency back into dollars. I tell them I will be DELIGHTED to buy it from them when they return. Since they generally lose money when a bank buys it back, and it’s a pain to handle it logistically, everyone is delighted to know that they have a reliable means of getting rid of it.

We’ve used different methods of figuring out the price. If they have an ATM slip, we use that, or sometimes we just use whatever the price is on any of the currency-conversion websites.

This way, I have local currency in my pocket when I leave home. I think it’s a win-win situation for everyone!

Meriden, CT

I would emphasize the use of credit union credit cards, since they don’t charge the extra transaction fee. I find they are particularly useful when paying a large deposit for a booking overseas, such as hiring a canal boat.

Almost everyone should be eligible to get one (they usually have no annual fee). Use your mileage card in the States and the credit union card only when you are abroad.

Also, don’t get stuck with a currency which is useless here. Convert it back to dollars or some other more fungible currency before you leave the country. For instance, Mongolian money is so much wallpaper over here.

Belmont, CA

In a letter on page 54 of the September ’05 issue, a reader states that anyone can have an account at USAA Federal Savings Bank. I logged into their website ( and then phoned USAA and found that a credit card is available to all but that their insurance is restricted to military personnel and those connected to them.

We did determine that this card does indeed charge 1% on transactions overseas, not the 2% now added by other banks.

Tucson, AZ

My experiences overseas with money are much like those of the first writer in the October ’05 issue (page 47). I never get money before leaving; the exchange rate is terrible. I take cash and get $100 or so changed at the airport upon arrival.

Before leaving, I print out the official exchange rate for a reference point (don’t expect to come anywhere close to it anyplace). There are many websites for this. I then look around as I’m traveling to get a feel for the rates, but I don’t spent much time at this. The difference between the highest and lowest rates available anywhere is usually a dollar or two per $100!

Travelers’ checks are not welcomed much of anywhere anymore.

ATMs may or may not work for you overseas.

I have found that American Express is not welcomed or used in many places in Europe now. I was told by a merchant in Denmark that Visa and MasterCard use a central clearing house, so merchants can send the charges all in together and the clearing house will do the sorting, but AmEx has to be sent in separately from the others and it’s too much trouble.

Incidentally, I have never notified my credit card people that I was going to be overseas and have never had any trouble at all using them.

I really don’t go to a lot of trouble with the money thing overseas. In so-called third-world countries, they’ll almost always just take U.S. currency. For larger purchases I use a credit card, and since I usually don’t spend a fortune while I’m overseas, the charges usually don’t amount to very much extra.

Dallas, TX