According to one recent survey, almost 20 per cent of us have experienced money problems while travelling, from losing our money or a credit card (or having them stolen), to experiencing debit or credit card fraud.
In fact, there are many things you can do to protect your money while travelling, and most of them just require a healthy dose of basic common sense and very little planning in advance.
Some of these tips won’t be an option for you depending on where you live or the kind of trip you’re embarking on. Others may sound unnecessary or impractical to you. That’s OK. The important thing is that you pick the combination that works best for you.
Once we’ve established that, the following tips should help you keep your money safe while travelling:
1) Carry at least two credit or debit cards
Two cards should be enough to be on the safe side if you are travelling short-term, or as a couple or with close friends, since they will carry their own cards and you can always turn to them for help.
If you are travelling mid- to long-term, my advice would be to actually bring not two but three debit or credit cards. That’s what I did in my latest multi-month trip around Southeast Asia, and guess what: I lost one of the cards after just a few days into my trip (I talked about it towards the end of this post). Had I not brought three cards with me, I’d have had to face over four months of travelling with just one card. Not something I’d ever want to do. Would you?
2) Bring an emergency fund in Euros and/or US Dollars
Regarding your emergency fund, the amount can depend on your preferences. Some people like to make it roughly the price of a flight back home, in case worse comes to worst. This is probably not necessary nowadays, especially if you have travel insurance (and you really should!). In any case, your emergency fund should be a significant amount, say in the 300-600 US dollars range, which can go a long way in many parts of the world.
Try to bring fairly new Euro or US dollar notes, and keep them in good condition during the trip (avoid creases and folded corners), as it is sometimes harder, if not impossible, to exchange bank notes in bad condition, or you may be offered worse exchange rates for them.
Finally, at least half of your emergency fund should be in small denomination bills, such as 20 euros/dollars and less. These are more practical if you ever need to exchange just a small amount of cash, or make small payments such as visa on arrival fees.
3) Always keep your different payment options separate
This one’s pretty obvious, but always worth reminding. If you have two credit cards, carry one with you, and leave the other one at your guesthouse/hotel safe. If there’s no safe and you can securely lock your luggage you could hide it there. If you bring three cards, you could leave one at your accommodation, and carry the other two with you, but separately in your wallet, money belt/pouch or daypack.
Same with your cash. If it’s safe, leave a big chunk of it (however much you’re comfortable with) at your accommodation, and bring with you the rest. Of that, put in your wallet only what you think you’ll need for the day, and keep the rest in your money belt/pouch and/or daypack, which brings me to the next point:
4) Use a money belt or pouch
There really is no reason not to. They are cheap and handy, some of them even water-resistant/proof, and you’re going to need at least one other place to carry your cards and money (not to mention passport and such) in addition to your wallet. I imagine most potential thieves around the world have heard about money belts by now, but it’s still another place to carry money and important stuff in addition to your clothes and daypack.
5) Check your credit or debit cards’ conditions and fees before the trip
Ask your bank if your cards need to be activated to be used abroad, since many cards are set by default to be locked at the very first attempt of a transaction in another country. I’ve seen it happen to friends a few times, and it’s not fun.
Also, ask your bank to inform you on the fees you’ll be charged for using your card abroad, particularly for ATM withdrawals. Usually debit cards charge a smaller fee than credit cards, but I’m not sure if that’s always the case.
Finally, check your daily and monthly limits for credit and cash withdrawals, and increase or decrease if required, although nowadays it’s easy to do that on the move thanks to online banking.
6) Apply for a credit or debit card without foreign transaction fees
Some banks offer credit cards with no fees for cash withdrawals abroad. Depending on where you live, they can be easier or harder to get, but they are well worth considering. If you are travelling long term and you don’t want to carry a lot of money on you (I don’t), you’ll have to rely on ATM withdrawals mostly and fees can add up pretty quickly, as I’ve sadly found myself.
7) Get a prepaid or virtual debit card
These are really handy, and give you greater peace of mind than traditional cards, since they are debit only, and you decide how much funds to load and when. A good strategy is to load only small amounts each time (say 200-300 euros/dollars), so that you don’t risk losing too much should anybody get hold of your card details. Or you can load a bigger amount just before making a big online purchase, such as a plane ticket.
Although these cards come in many different flavors, they are, for all (ok, most) intents and purposes, like regular debit cards. Some are truly virtual in that they are not issued in plastic, and can only be used online. Others are issued in plastic, and can be used in ATMs and shops as well. Others can be loaded with different foreign currencies at locked exchange rates (which may or may not be a good idea, I’m not sure). Some need to be linked to a regular credit card, and some don’t and are linked to your bank account instead. There are even some of these virtual cards that don’t charge any fees for foreign transactions.
There is a whole range of prepaid and virtual cards available, and they are so secure and handy that I’m surprised not more people use them. Of course, you’ll have to see which options are available in your country, but I definitely recommend getting a virtual debit card, not just for travel, but for all sorts of online purchases.
8) Activate text message alerts for your credit and debit cards
Depending on your card and bank, there may be a small fee attached to this service, but I think it’s usually worth the money. Whenever a transaction is made with your card, you’ll receive a text message alert on your phone.
In my experience, these alerts don’t work so well sometimes, but the good news is they seem to err on the side of caution. For instance, several times in SE Asia I got false alarms for ATM withdrawals that I started but couldn’t complete due to connection errors and others. At first I was worried that my bank account or card could have been wrongly debited, but I soon discovered this never was the case. And at least I could check it immediately by logging in on my bank account.
One of these alerts also saved me from being double-charged by a hotel I had paid in advance during the booking process. I don’t think the hotel did it on purpose, but as soon as I got the alert I went to the reception desk and was able to get a cash refund on the spot.
9) Use PayPal to make reservations, and link your account to a virtual debit card
Did you know that some of the major online booking sites like Agoda accept payments with PayPal? This is certainly handy as you don’t have to give out your credit or debit card details online to make a reservation. But if you want an extra layer of security, just link your Paypal account to a virtual card that you load with small amount of cash as you require it (see above), and pay your reservations with PayPal.
10) Always do your online transactions through a VPN connection while travelling
Many of the Wi-Fi networks you will encounter during your travel are extremely insecure, for a lot of reasons. You certainly don’t want to do any of your online banking or booking arrangements without securing your connection with a VPN service. I wrote about this not long ago, so I won’t repeat myself here.
11) If you have to change money, take some basic precautions
As you may have noticed by now, when I travel I prefer to use online payment options and withdraw cash from ATMs than to exchange money. Firstly, it minimizes the amount of cash you carry around. Secondly, ATMs usually give better rates than exchange counters.
Sooner or later, though, you’re bound to need to exchange some money. Depending on where you go, and no matter how reputable the exchange counter may look, it’s always a good idea to check the exchange rates advertised. For this, there are several apps available, but XE.com is the granddaddy of them all. In addition, other apps like Trail Wallet will instantly convert your expenses to your currency of choice, while allowing you to keep track of your budget.
Finally, be wary of abusive fees and some of the usual scams, and always count your money carefully before leaving the counter.
12) Keep with you at all times the emergency contact numbers of your bank or credit card company
And not just in your phone’s contact directory, for obvious reasons. Write the numbers down on a piece of paper and keep it with you in a different place than your cards (again, obvious). That way, you can make the emergency phone call to have your card locked as soon as you notice its disappearance. A few minutes can make a whole lot of difference for your finances.
You can also keep handy an online list of important phone numbers and other details by sending an email with the list to yourself, or uploading it to your Dropbox account. Be smart about it, though. Don’t use any obviously related words on the email subject line or body text, or in the file name if that’s the case, and upload the list in jpeg format to make it non-searchable.
There you go! My twelve tips to travel safely with your money. Hopefully, you’ll have found here some useful advice you hadn’t heard before about how to keep your money safe while travelling.
Do you have any other money tips for travellers that have worked for you? Share them in the comments section below!