From the rad street food to those souvenirs you can’t live without, you won’t get very far if you don’t know how to pay for things in a foreign country.
You know the drill here in America. You want to buy something, you check the price tag, and you pull out your debit or credit card…maybe not so much while living abroad. But don’t worry! We have the tips you need to make sure you are getting the best deal and won’t end up losing money — because we all love saving money.
Looking for affordable ways to travel the world?
Check out how volunteering to teach English to kids works!
Follow along with this little checklist to make sure you are prepared to buy alllll the things no matter where you are traveling.
- Tell Your Bank
- Use Cash
- The Deal With ATMs
- What About Converting Cash?
Tell Your Bank
You don’t want your accounts to be frozen because you didn’t tell your bank you’d be traveling abroad. We’ll get to using your credit cards or debit cards abroad in just a minute, but before you even leave, tell your bank. Let them know how long you’ll be gone and what countries you’ll be visiting. Oh and don’t forget the countries you may have layovers in!
Many banks freeze your account to protect you from fraud, but if they are expecting you to make purchases in another country you shouldn't have any problems with that.
Also, make sure your bank or branch is acceptable overseas. Some banks are local, meaning your card will be declined if you try to pay for something while in China.
Pst: That's one of the things you should do before leaving the country, but there are a few more!
You may buy everything with plastic at home, but cash is almost always the way to go while abroad. Your favorite little fruit stand is not going to have a card reader and even in fancy retail stores or malls, you may be charged an international fee because you will be using an American card, so avoid that fee by just paying with cash. Also, foreign money is so pretty — colorful, different sizes, different languages — it’s fun!
That being said, still bring your debit or credit cards for a couple reasons. You can use them to pull out money from an ATM and buy train tickets online. Credit cards are also good to use in an emergency. But for the day to day purchases (like coconut ice cream in Thailand or finds from a Russian flea market, cash is the way to go).
We have more guidelines on when to use cash and when to use cards here.
The Deal With ATMs
You can bring cash to convert over to the local currency, but that would mean traveling with a lot of cash…it’s just easier to use an ATM once you arrive in your country.
Just so you know though, you will be charged a fee each time you pull out money so I’d suggest making a larger withdrawal to last you longer instead of going to the ATM every week.
We have more tips on how to use an international ATM right here.
What About Converting Cash?
If you do bring American dollars to use while abroad, that can work. You can go to a bank or money changer to get those bills into the local currency. Make sure the bills you bring are newer and in great shape (no tears or rips) or the local bank or money changer might not take them.
Also, some of these places will require a passport or a copy of it so be prepared. There's also a fee to exchange your money, so be prepared for that. You're not usually saving money on fees to do exchanging vs ATM.
There can be problems with exchanging cash so be careful!
Head’s up for those of you who want to save some money…oh, isn’t that everyone?
Learning how to bargain in your country is a huge way to save some serious cash. The first tip is to decide whether or not you can bargain — it would be rude to haggle down the price at a fixed price store, but outdoor markets are usually free game. Decide how much you want to pay for something and see if you can haggle things down to meet your price. Just remember — you can always raise your price, but you can’t ever go lower.
To get you started, we have bargaining tips for our volunteers living in China right here and the key to getting a great price at this amazing leather shop in the Dominican Republic.
Ready to come put these tips to use while you travel the world?
And if you really want to put your bargaining skills to the test, think about volunteering with ILP in China!