Credit Cards And Money On The Road

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How I manage my money while traveling

You know the rule – if you desperately need something to work – that's the time it flat out won't.

Prepaid travel cards in my experience, fall directly into this category. I don't know if its something about it being your own money but I have both a prepaid master-card and a visa and outside of the major western countries at time, either or BOTH of them have often just flat out not worked.

It can be really stressful being without money but I never ever EVER assume that my prepaid cards are going to just work. NEVER.

Everywhere from the Philippines to Costa Rica either one or both will just not work at the ATM. The drama seems mostly to be that the card isn't recognized, and the error can be anything from declined to the machine just won't work with that card. The challenge of travelling money wise is of course that you don't want to be carrying large sums of cash but if you get to Guatemala and your card won't work the chances of it not working in Honduras, Nicaragua or Costa Rica seem to be elevated.

What Do I Do For Money?

My rule of thumb is that I never run out of cash. I have a set amount that I'm happy to carry (and only you can set this amount) and when I get even remotely close to that I get more cash. I work on the principle that if I loose a hundred dollars, that's only $100 dollars and while it will sting I still have cards to get more. If I loose cards that's a bigger drama. I'm trying to transfer money out, cancel cards and make sure I can cope over the next few weeks until that card can be replaced.

BIG Tip!

IF you do loose or have your card stolen, log into your online banking immediately and transfer a good chunk of that money to your secondary card. Once you cancel your card you often can't access that money until it is replaced, so even if its a credit card and you don't have a debit balance, most banks will allow you to either BPay another credit card or transfer that money to a savings account as a cash advance. See if you can do this before you go away. We use NAB in Australia and I can do it on their app or online banking with a prompt that it will be treated as a cash advance, but ANZ won't let me. It tells me you can't pay a credit card with another credit card. So check what you can do on your app or mobile banking before you go!

As an example, Brad got his wallet pick-pocketed in Santiago in Chile once and I immediately got on phone banking (this was before internet banking) and transferred the full balance of his card into our savings account which served two purposes:

  1. it maxed out his card which would mean it couldn't be used &
  2. it moved all that credit balance into our personal account so we still had access to it.

Once his card was replaced I just transferred it back. YES it cost us some cash advance fees and probably some interest as it was a few weeks before we could get another card, but the alternative was not having access to that money.

What Cards Do I Carry?

I carry:

  • A Qantas prepaid Master-Card
  • A Virgin prepaid Visa Card (both of these are also my frequent flyer cards which is really handy)
  • An Amex & Visa (true credit cards) that is attached to my personal savings account &
  • A ING direct flexi card.

My Qantas and Virgin cards are multi currency and I love them both, however if anything is not going to work its always those. I'm assuming that somehow because they aren't issued by a bank that has something to do with it so I make sure I always have appropriate travel notifications in place for my Visa/Amex so that I can always use those if need be.

The beauty of the Visa/Amex combination is that I can cancel my Amex for example and still have my visa attached to the same account. Perfect! So if I loose one, I still have the other card that uses the same account.

Weirdly as its not accepted a lot of places at home, but for ATM's my Amex is by far the most reliable. Like 50% more reliable than anything else. So strange for a card that no-one takes in restaurants or cafes, or if they do it costs you $5 to use the damn thing – its SUPER reliable in ATM's and it never gets cut off. I love that thing!

Currency Exchanges

I always try to temper any advice I give with the usual “what works for me might not work for you” and “make your own decisions”. This one however I'm going to flat out say NEVER use currency exchanges unless you are happy with being smacked for exchange rates.

I lent some money to a friend a few years ago and she paid me back in cash. Not too much of a drama and I was going away so the day before my trip when I realised I still had that cash stashed in the safe (who ever goes to the bank anymore?) I thought I would take it and just change it in Australia at the airport before I left. I was going to New Zealand so I figured the exchange rate would be a bit worse than if I had ordered NZD but it wouldn't be too bad.

I could not have been more wrong.

OMG I can't remember the exact exchange rate at the time but $1 AUD was $0.93c NZD for example and they wanted to give me 77c . I”m not daft and I now these places have to make money but over the $1000 I had that would have been over $150 difference. That was not going to happen.

The only exception to this is West Africa. I had times in West Africa (where you have to carry cash as there are no ATM's) that at a border the USD would be worth 9000 Sierra Leonean Leone and we would get 9200 or even 9300 just because they wanted USD. That, however is not the norm. Currency exchanges are just money rorts! Don't get sucked into using them unless its an emergency.

BIG Tip!

Bali is possibly the only exception to the currency exchange rule. They are typically not too bad on the exchange rate however: ALWAYS COUNT THE MONEY AFTER THEY HAVE AND NEVER LET THEM TOUCH IT AGAIN!

They are the masters of slight of hand. They offer a great rate and then when they are counting it out, slip a few bigger notes away and because you've seen them count it, you don't realise until later.

Let them count it out, insist on counting it yourself at the counter in front of them (don't let them try and move you on) and if it isn't correct DO NOT LET THEM HANDLE IT AGAIN. Count it out in front of them but insist they keeps their hands away. They will then act very contrite and hand over the extra money but DO NOT LET THEM RECOUNT IT as they will just do it again!

My Advice:

So my advice is to:

  • always have an actual bank issued credit card with you. More than one if you can,
  • split your cards between your bags and
  • always split your cash up too.
  • NEVER trust that your prepaid card or debit card is going to work. Always keep an actual credit card with you.

Jenny Marsden - Charge The Globe
About the author

Meet Jenny, a passionate Australian travel blogger who has explored 103 countries to date. With over 30 years of travel experience, Jenny has a wealth of knowledge to share with her readers about the cultures, landscapes, and people she has encountered on her journeys. She's always battling unfashionably frizzy hair and you will never catch Jenny in anything but comfortable shoes. Learn more about Jenny and her travels.


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