When traveling overseas something that never ceases to surprise me is how unwisely people change their money for the local currency. To my surprise, this is often true for travelers who are on a budget : They carefully look for reasonably-priced accommodation, are cautious when selecting a restaurant but, strangely enough, do not seem to apply the same level of scrutiny when buying local money. This is too bad because some savings can be made and is still a domain where some basic rules apply. Let’s review some of those rules :
1/ Avoid changing money at the last moment when you have zero currencies left. Instead try to shop around. This is easier in large cities as exchange offices tend to be grouped together in the downtown section or in tourists areas. Usually the largest, most luxurious offices are the ones you want to avoid. More often than not you get the best exchange rates in the “tiny-tiny one-person” operations.
2/ In the same vein avoid changing your money upon arrival at the airport. The exchange rate is never good and only change a small amount for transportation from your place of arrival or when you arrive at a time when everything is closed.
3/ NO Western Union. Western union gained recognition as one place where you could send money to friends and family overseas. I do not do that so it may still very well be a very good choice for that. For buying local currencies however it is a no-brainer. In my 25 years of traveling all over the world I have NEVER found one instance when Western Union had the best exchange rate. In fact, when visiting large cities it is now often that WU is the absolute worst choice. Let me give you a recent example : In my trip to Poland earlier this month, I exchanged money for the local polish currency (zlotys) in both Krakow and Warsaw. Comparing the WU exchange rates with three or four other foreign currency exchange offices, the difference was between 25 and 27 percent higher !!!. This is a HUGE difference especially if you change money for the duration of your stay. In my case I calculated that, had i used WU in the three instances when I bought the local currency it would have costed me the equivalent of TWO hotel nights in Krakow or more than 50%of the total cost of all my lunches during my 8 days stay in Poland !!!
Of course,there might be some instances when you do not have a choice of exchange offices (like in some remote locations in Asia or Africa for example). But for those traveling in Europe or other developed touristy places, you should always find several options.
4/ Finally, don’t be a “typical tourist” and pay NO attention to the “zero commission ” sign that you see nowadays in most currency exchange places.Yes, you read me correctly ! When you change your own currency against the local one, the ONLY THING that matters is how much you get in the end .Whether they bill a commission, a fee or just include all of their margins in the rate, at the end of the day, only the amount you get is important, not the name attached to it.In fact charging a small commission makes sense since it is a way for an exchange office to discourage people from changing tiny amounts and depriving in the process their biggest clients to get money in small notes. Indeed, regardless of the currency, getting your local currency only in BIG notes (equivalent to $50 notes (or more)) to pay for local transportation, meals in poor countries is never practical.
And as already mentioned in this blog , NEVER keep your money in only ONE place.
Safe travels !