You Can Be a Savvy International Spender Even if Foreign Exchange is a Foreign Language

Consider using a mix of credit cards, debit cards and cash when traveling abroad this summer.

Don Milne May 30, 2019

One of the highly anticipated movies of the summer is Men In Black: International, the fourth installment in the popular MIB franchise. The heroes in the movie use leading edge tools to protect the earth from out-of-this world invaders.

This summer you may find yourself starring in your own version of MIB: International, but in your case, “MIB” stands for “Money In Bank.” Each year about 80 million Americans travel outside the country and spend a total of $135 billion, or roughly $3,000 per couple.

In prior generations, a popular form of currency for international trips was traveler’s cheques. Those have, for the most part, gone the way of Blockbusters and Blackberries. The proliferation of ATM networks that work world-wide have made traveler’s cheques unnecessary and in many parts of the world they are no longer accepted.

Today, for the most part, you can leave your Money In Bank when you travel to most popular travel destinations. Consider applying this three-prong approach to your discretionary spending abroad.

International Travel Spending Option #1: Credit Card

First, check to see if your credit card provider charges a foreign exchange fee, so you don’t have any surprises when your bill arrives. One downside of relying too much on your credit card is that you may overspend, since the money is not coming directly from your “Money In Bank.” For that reason, it is smart to also carry a debit card.

International Travel Spending Option #2: Debit Card

This is a good choice for keeping spending within your budget since the funds are taken from your Money In Bank. However, guarding against fraud or theft is a bigger concern with debit cards than credit cards. If your debit card is fraudulently used, you are out the money until it can be researched and restored.

You may not want to be shorthanded in your Money In Bank while this happens and you are out of the country. Try to use your debit card at locations where you don’t think fraud or theft will be a concern.

International Travel Spending Option #3: Cash

Some merchants won’t accept a credit card or a debit card, so you’ll want to have some local currency on hand.

While you can exchange U.S. banknotes for foreign currency using a credit or debit card at an airport, hotel or ATM, you will pay a premium for this convenience. There are several reasons you should consider purchasing your foreign currency before you leave on a trip:

  • Less stress: Having cash on hand allows you to avoid airport currency kiosks, which can be a logistical challenge when watching bags and being in an unfamiliar location.
  • Fees: Exchanging currency, especially in popular tourist areas, can be expensive, with high fees and poor exchange rates.  
  • Safety: This consideration should not be underestimated. Purchasing foreign currency in a bank branch before you leave means you won’t be observed in a public location overseas exchanging a large amount of money.
  • Convenience: You can purchase currency in advance and when you return, you can bring back any remaining notes and exchange them back to U.S. dollars.

You can order the most popular foreign currencies (cash, no coins) immediately at select Zions Bank locations or online anytime. Or buy and sell foreign currency for around 80 currencies at any Zions Bank branch location for receipt in two to four business days.

Use the Zions Bank Currency Exchange Rate Calculator to calculate the conversion of foreign currency to U.S. dollars (and vice-versa) as well as the cost to buy a specific amount of foreign currency with U.S. dollars. You can also find a list of locations and the currencies that each one keeps on hand.

The Zions Bank Foreign Currency Table offers up-to-date exchange rates for around 80 currencies, from the Australian Dollar to the Zloty.

A word of caution: Tourists often stand out like a MIB alien, and thieves are on the lookout for an easy target. Keep your cards and cash in a safe place and keep a backup card in a separate location in the unlikely event your purse or wallet is stolen.

With these modern financial tools, you should be ready for your own MIB: International adventure.  You may not save the world from charging fiends, but you may save your Money In Bank from unnecessary fees and charges.

Don Milne is Financial Literacy manager for Zions Bank.

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