An Essential Guide to Changing Money for International Travelers

Changing money at airports and hotels is fast and easy, but it’s not the best way to exchange currency. Foreign exchange transactions should be planned in advance. Here are some money changing tips that will help you get the best rate while keeping your money safe.


The streets of Hong Kong are full of money changers, and they generally offer much better exchange rates than the exchange rates offered by hotels or the money changers at the airport. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

Travel Tips

When calculating how much cash you are going to need on an overseas trip, don’t just consider the total amount of money that you anticipate needing.

Also consider what denominations you will require for various kinds of transactions, including small purchases and tips.

If you are traveling to the United States, for example, you might need to tip someone or make a small purchase, and it would be very awkward if you only had a US$100 bill in your wallet.

Not only would that be far more than you would want to tip someone (and it would be unseemly to ask someone for change).

There is another problem. US$100 notes are NOT in general circulation in most parts of the country, and many businesses will not accept them – or only accept them with great reluctance.

The most commonly used bills are US$1, US$5, US$10, and US$20 notes. US$100 notes are rarely used in consumer transactions.

There are three reasons why many businesses are reluctant to accept US$100 notes:

  • US$100 notes are the most commonly forged currency on the globe, and many businesses are therefore reluctant to accept them;
  • Not everyone staffing a cash register at a small business is expert at how to spot forgeries;
  • Cashiers – even in large department stores – do not always have sufficient cash in their cash registers to make change for small purchases paid for with large bills – especially early in the day or at the beginning of a shift.

Paying Taxi Drivers

The taxi rank at Hong Kong International Airport. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

If you are going to be taking taxis, keep in mind that taxi drivers in most countries don’t carry large amounts of cash.

In Hong Kong, for example, they are not required to carry more than HK$100’s worth of change (roughly US$12).

If you are traveling from Hong Kong International Airport to Central on Hong Kong Island, the fare would be roughly HK$250.

You might get away with paying with a HK$500 note on a lengthy trip like that, but don’t count on it. Better to ask for the driver if he will accept it before getting into his vehicle.

Unscrupulous Taxi Drivers

A taxi driver in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

In somecountries, taxi drivers will often claim that they don’t have enough cash to make change, and it is hard to know for sure if they are telling you the truth or just trying to take advantage of you.

Few things can be as frustrating for an overseas traveler as trying to pay for a taxi fare and being told by the driver that he doesn’t have change.

So always make sure to carry small notes (but not smaller than the equivalent of US$1).

Keep in mind that some currencies – such as Indonesian rupiah and Japanese yen – have multiple zeros for even small amounts.

So what might seem like a lot of money to you might actually be a very small sum.

  • One US dollar equals roughly 111 Japanese yen and a breathtaking 14,580 Indonesian rupiah!

Tipping on Arrival

Many hotels near the airport offer a free shuttle service, but you might want to tip the shuttle bus driver. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

Make sure to have a stash of US$1 and US$5 notes (or the equivalent) for tipping porters, bellhops, and shuttle bus drivers upon arrival.

At many airports in the United States, you might need small bills to rent luggage carts, which are not always free as in Asia, Europe, and other places.

If you are paying by credit card, you can always tip electronically, and machines are increasingly programmed to calculate the amount of the tip for you based on the percentage value you wish to tip.

In the United States, they are often set at 15%, 18%, and 20%.

But keep in mind that staff in restaurants often prefer cash to electronic tips. And if you do tip in cash, paper money is preferred.

Tipping customs vary not only from country to country, but also, sometimes, from region to region within the same country.

New Yorkers, for example, tend to tip more generously than people in other parts of the United States. And people in Manhattan tend to tip more generously than people in the outer boroughs of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island, and Queens.

In some countries tipping has not yet caught on. Japan and Singapore are key examples of countries where tips are not usually expected.

But there are exceptions. While having a foot massage at Changi International Airport in Singapore, the therapist brought up the issue, giving me an idea of how much I should tip him.

In many other countries, there is a service charge, usually of 10%. Even so, many people tip small change, round up the bill to the nearest multiple of 10, or give a tip of 5% to 10% on top of the service charge.

  • When in doubt, ask a local.

Where (Not) to Change Money

A money exchange outlet in Hong Kong. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

Avoid changing money at airports or hotels as they will usually offer the least favourable exchange rate. If there is no alternative, change as little money as possible.

The reason is simple: money changers in town usually offer the most favourable exchange rates.

On a recent trip to Bangkok, I discovered that money changers in town offered a 20% better exchange than the money changers at the airport!

The only problem with money exchangers in town is that they will often try to give you the largest denomination possible, and this can be problematic.

In Hong Kong, for example, they will often refuse to exchange less than the equivalent of US$100. They do this for THEIR convenience, not yours …

The problem is that arriving in the United States with a stash of US$100 notes is a recipe for frustration.

If you are changing money before leaving home, try to get them to give you some small notes (the equivalent of US$1, US$5, US$10, and US$20) in the foreign currency.

  • Be leery of money changers that approach you at airports or train stations or in the street. They might be peddling counterfeit bills.

Withdrawing Currency from ATMs

A Citibank ATM in Hong Kong. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

Don’t assume you can make withdrawals from overseas ATMs. In Hong Kong, for example, the Monetary Authority requires that travelers get authorization from their banks to withdraw funds from overseas ATMs.

It is a simple process and can be done at an ATM of the the account-holder’s bank, but it should be done in Hong Kong and not overseas. In other words, do it before leaving home.

Be careful about withdrawing money from a partner bank’s ATM in a foreign country, as you might be hit by a double-whammy: your own bank and the bank whose machine you are using could BOTH charge you a fee, and fees can be hefty.

Be equally careful of withdrawing cash from an overseas ATM of your own bank. Citibank US, for example, charges a flat US$25 fee on all withdrawals from Citibank ATMs in other countries.

  • If you MUST make a withdrawal from an ATM with a hefty fee, make sure it’s a large one to make it worth your while.

Money Tips for Solo Travelers …

Solo travelers should be extra careful with money because they are more likely to be singled out by thieves than travelers traveling as a group.

Jumia Travel is Africa’s No. 1 hotel booking website. It offers the following tips (modified) …

Carry Limited Cash

Don’t carry too much cash when you go out sightseeing. If you’re staying at a hotel, leave some of your cash in the safe of your hotel room.

Divide and Hide

Don’t put all of your cash in the same place. You should put some of your cash in your wallet and some of your cash in a separate pouch or hiding place such as a money pouch under your clothing.

The same goes with credit cards. Ideally, you should have more than one of them, and don’t keep both (or all) of them in the same place.

Don’t Advertise Yourself to Thieves

If you walk around with a camera strung around your neck and a map in your hand, it is like broadcasting to pickpockets that you are an easy target.

Try to blend in as much as possible. Don’t rummage through notes in public or talk loudly about how much money you are carrying.

Don’t Be Naive

Be especially careful at airports, train stations, and tourist attractions.

Try to have enough money on hand to cover your taxi fare to your destination, and make sure to have a few notes for tips and small purchases in easily accessible areas.

Keep the rest of your money somewhere else. The last thing you want to do with flash a thick wad of bills within sight of a pickpocket.

Use creative stashing methods

There lots of creative ways of hiding cash or credit cards when traveling abroad. You can put them in an eyeglass case, between the pages of a book, inside socks, or inside a toiletry kit.

Before You Leave Home …

Try to become familiar with the currency in your travel destination before leaving home. Consider printing out a photo of coins and notes and review it on you flight overseas.

Come up with an easy way to remember the exchange rate – something simple such as dividing by four or dropping one or more digits. Don’t obsess with the exact amount. A rough idea is good enough.

Create a quick reference chart that you can keep in your pocket. This is better than using your calculator as it will be less likely to attract attention.

Check with your bank to make sure you will be able to withdraw cash from ATMs in the countries you are going to visit and find out what the service charge will be.

You might want to notify your bank that you will be traveling. Sometimes a transaction in a country that you haven’t visited recently will arouse a suspicion of fraud, causing your bank to put a block on your account.

That happened to me while visiting Bali, and it took several long and expensive phone calls to get my card unblocked.

The information in this post should not be considered legal advice. Make sure to do your own due diligence.

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