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Where Is the Best Place to Exchange Foreign Currency?

With progress against the coronavirus in many parts of the world, you may be considering traveling once again. But before you head off to the airport to catch a flight abroad, find out where to receive the best exchange rate for your money.

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Some travelers prefer trading their U.S. dollars for euros or other currencies at their local bank so they have cash to tip taxi drivers or porters at the airport or buy a coffee or lunch. People who are traveling to more than one country with different currencies will find that planning ahead saves you the headache of exchanging money often.

The most expensive, yet most convenient and easily accessible, spots to exchange money include train stations, airports, hotels and tourist areas.

Here are the best places to exchange your money into the local currency before and after your vacation.

Best Place to Exchange Currency Before and After Traveling

The fees may only be a few dollars, but they can add up quickly, especially if you are traveling for more than a few days. Head to your bank or credit union before you leave to avoid paying ATM transaction costs. You may even receive a better exchange rate.

Credit unions and banks will exchange your dollars into a foreign currency before and after your trip when you have a checking or savings account with them. You won’t face trying to spend your remaining euros before the end of your trip and can convert them back to dollars when you get home.

Some banks such as Citibank and Bank of America may not charge a fee and will provide options such as conducting the transaction online or even mailing you the currency. If you need amounts of $1,000 or more, most banks require you to pick up the currency in person at a branch.

You can check out the exchange rates online and see which bank is offering the best one.

It’s a good idea to call your local bank first to see whether they have the currency you are seeking. Not all branches exchange currency, and exchange rates between banks can vary greatly, says Vaneesha Boney Dutra, an associate professor of finance at the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver.

“Don’t expect to get the exchange rate you saw when you Googled it, as banks add a profit margin to these transactions, which will reduce the actual amount of foreign currency you will receive per U.S. dollar,” she says.

How to Exchange Currency

Start by checking with your bank online to see whether the currency you are seeking to exchange is available. If you’re traveling to a country that has restrictions on its currency for political or economic issues, your bank may not be able to access the currency. Currency from many African and Eastern European countries can only be exchanged at those countries’ banks and ATMs.

  • Contact a bank or credit union to make sure it has the currency or will accept foreign currency, and check what the fees are.
  • Find exchange rates through your bank, credit union or websites such as https://www.xe.com/.
  • Check the bank’s exchange rate to make sure it’s fair.
  • Arrange for pickup or delivery.

“The saying ‘cash is king’ certainly holds when traveling abroad,” Dutra says. “When you land in Medellin, your taxi driver is going to want Colombian pesos. You will find commerce while abroad fairly manageable if you carry foreign currency and a credit card with favorable travel terms.”

Where Else Can You Exchange?

After you’ve reached your destination, it’s a good idea to obtain more cash to pay for shopping and meals at mom-and-pop locales.

Using your bank’s ATM, or an ATM in its network, and exchange providers like Travelex are common options. Another option is to use companies such as Wise, which specializes in currency transfers and offers a debit card. The company allows you to keep more than 40 currencies in your account, so if you travel frequently, you can switch to whatever currency you need, says Nicholas Lembo, head of growth for the Americas at Wise.

Check whether your credit or debit card provider offers additional security features like sending a text message when a transaction is done or requiring additional authorizations when the value of a transaction is higher than normal, says Dirk Schrader, global vice president, security research at New Net Technologies, a provider of cybersecurity and compliance software.

Banks typically charge either a flat fee or a percentage, such as 1% to 3% of the amount you take out at an ATM in foreign currency. Determine your bank or credit union’s policy on reimbursing ATM fees so you can plan ahead.

Download your bank’s app ahead of time to help you locate nearby ATMs. Consider taking out a larger amount of cash if your bank charges a higher fee. If you use an ATM that is outside your bank’s network, plan on paying extra fees.

Places to Avoid Exchanging Currency

The worst places to exchange your money for another currency are at airport kiosks, hotels and tourist centers, since the conversion rates are usually not in your favor.

Be aware of current exchange rates, especially if you cannot locate a local ATM, says Arica Tomlinson, a category sourcing leader at GE Healthcare in Milwaukee.

“During a trip to Prague, I attempted to exchange some of my U.S. dollars for the local currency,” she says. “For my $100, the currency exchange representative offered me the equivalent to $50 worth of koruna. After my protestations, they offered me an improved rate, but I took my money to a local bank for exchange instead.”

If you have to exchange money in another country, plan on paying extra service fees and more for the exchange spread, the rate the business will give you when you are selling your U.S. dollars to them, says Derek Horstmeyer, a finance professor at George Mason University. The exchange spread could be 1% to 2%, he says.

Always be careful using mobile apps to transfer money in foreign countries, particularly apps that rely on texts, since there is the added risk of a potentially untrusted mobile infrastructure, says Sounil Yu, chief information security officer and head of research at JupiterOne, a Morrisville, North Carolina-based provider for cyber asset management and governance. “This is especially true if you are in the Eastern bloc or certain countries in Asia. Also, make sure that you don’t download country-specific mobile applications for financial services, as that comes with additional unknown risks. In my opinion, airports are the worst place to exchange money, and banks are the best.”

Alternatives to Exchanging Currency

Using your credit cards for purchases, prepaid cards or even U.S. dollars can be good alternatives to exchanging currency. Even smaller businesses that are at a street food night market or festival will take electronic payments, and other countries such as Mexico or French Polynesia will accept the U.S. dollar.

Your credit card company may also offer good exchange rates – check with it beforehand to see what the rates are. Paying for hotels, restaurants and rental cars with credit cards is often your best bet since they also offer protection on your purchases and additional reward points for transactions at various businesses.

It can be a good strategy to inform your credit card company about your trip when you ask about additional security features, Schrader says.

“Credit card or debit card details are stolen in milliseconds, using compromised ATMs or contactless readers, so a precaution can also be to reduce the limits on your cards for the period of travel, or even apply for an additional card just for the travel,” he says.

Many credit or debit cards provide a 0% foreign transaction fee and are a good option to pay for dinner or museum or sporting event tickets.

Using mobile payment providers such as Google Pay, Android Pay or Apple Pay also can help prevent fraud while you are traveling.

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