How to Protect Your Cash While Traveling Overseas

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One day in Cape Town, South Africa, travel expert and author Bailey Richert was robbed at an ATM machine. “I was surrounded by several men, who took my debit cards from me,” she says. “The next day, naturally, my accounts had been emptied.”

Tourist with wallet in back pocket
Traveling abroad? Don’t give your money away to strangers with sticky fingers. Image credit: Steve Buissinne.

“I called my bank to explain what happened, but from their end, it looked like I had simply withdrawn all my money. As absurd an act as that would be, it took a lot of convincing for them to return my funds.”

Handling money works differently when you visit a foreign country. Before taking a trip, put together a plan to keep you and your funds safe.

Notify your money people

It’s a good idea to carry a credit or debit card during your trip. While your bank may charge you a small currency conversion fee when you make a purchase, the exchange rate is still likely to be better than what you would receive by paying in cash.

So, advise your bank or credit card company of your travel plans. Otherwise, if you start using your card overseas, they might flag it as suspicious activity and freeze your account.

Be sure to give them a list of countries that are geographically near the one that you plan to visit. “You never know when you might have to make an unexpected detour to a neighboring country,” says Richert.

Learn their procedures for reporting and refunding a fraudulent purchase. Credit card companies are generally more willing than debit card companies — such as banks — to issue refunds, according to Richert, who points out that her Cape Town experience involved a debit card.

Notify your support network

Share your travel plans with at least one trusted friend, family member or colleague in the United States. Give them the ability to deposit funds into your bank account and to speak with your banker on your behalf.

“It is essential to take someone into your confidence in the U.S. before you depart,” says Richert. “Work with this person in the U.S. to discuss your back-up plan for getting emergency money.”

Put some cash in your wallet

If you plan on using credit/debit cards, find out in advance if they are likely to be accepted. There may be times when you can’t or don’t want to pay with a card, such as in rural areas where electricity and Internet access is relatively rare.

However, don’t let anyone see you with a large amount of money, including merchants. “Keep most of your money in small bills and coins,” says Richert. “Also, people in rural areas might not have the change you need.”

Avoid traveler’s checks

A traditional alternative to carrying cash, Richert advises the modern traveler against using them.

“Traveler’s checks are becoming an artifact of the travel past,” she says. “The number of retailers that accept then is declining, and the number of places accepting credit cards is increasing.”

You may also receive a less advantageous rate, or even be charged an exorbitant fee, when changing them into cash or using them to make direct purchases.

Exchange currencies carefully

The cost of trading dollars for foreign currency is constantly changing and varies from place to place. To get the best rate, wait until after you arrive in your country of destination. Your best bet is in crowded tourist location, where competition among money-changers keeps rates favorable.

While buying currency at your local bank in the U.S. may seem convenient, you won’t receive as good an exchange rate. The same goes for airports — if the price of airport food is high, imagine what the price of money will be.

Use your phone’s calculator to estimate how much purchasing an item would cost in both dollars and a foreign currency. It will protect you from unscrupulous vendors, as well as help you to shop smartly. There are also numerous apps that can do this for you.

Take care of emergencies

You never know when your source of travel funds will dry up. You may have an emergency, your bank could freeze your account, or someone might rob you. So, if you find yourself broke and need cash right away, try these options.

  • Ask your friend in the U.S. deposit money directly into your bank account.
  • Look for a nearby money transfer company — such as Western Union — and ask your friend to wire cash.
  • Your friend can also wire cash to a foreign bank, but that process might take several days.
  • PayPal offers a Mastercard debit card. “You can have friends send money to your Paypal account directly for you to use,” says Richert.

If none of the above is possible, contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate, which may have resources to assist you. For instance, your friend can wire funds directly to the State Department, which you collect at the embassy or consulate.


David Arv Bragi, profile picture

David Arv Bragi is a multidisciplinary journalist with experience in health, safety, personal finance, technology, arts and cultural topics. He is also a former team leader and volunteer in community/tower emergency response teams. He currently lives just outside of Bellingham, Washington.