Money is the last thing you want to worry about on a romantic getaway, so it's important to do four things before you leave: set a budget; know your limits (checking account balance, limits on your credit cards); carefully consider the mix of cash, travelers checks, and credit cards you should take; and assemble emergency contact numbers should your wallet go missing. Arming yourselves in advance will allow you to forget about money and shop outdoor markets and chi-chi shops with equal ease.
What to Take?
Where you go determines what you should take. If you're visiting a destination where ATMs are not readily available, pack more cash and travelers checks. If ATMs are plentiful -- often the case in popular tourist spots -- take less cash to limit your liability if something happens, and withdraw money on an as-needed basis. The conversion surcharge (a percentage of your purchase or amount exchanged) will vary from one or two percent (generally on credit cards) to between five and ten percent (cash and travelers checks). There may also be flat fees for each purchase or conversion. A high fee may wipe out the advantages of a low exchange rate (percentage), especially for smaller amounts.
The advantage of using your bank debit or credit card to withdraw money overseas is that ATMs generally offer the best exchange rate available (close to the wholesale rate). How to find one? First, look at the back of your bank debit card or credit card for its network affiliations. For listings of cash machines around the world, click on the ATM Locator at www.mastercard.com (for Cirrus, Pulse, MasterCard, or Maestro network cards) or www.visa.com (for Visa, Plus, or Visa Electron cards).
Call your bank before heading out to ask about the service charge per withdrawal at your destination (it will likely be higher than at home), withdrawal limits per transaction or day, and whether you can use your PIN number without a problem.
Credit & Charge Cards
Be sure to take at least one credit or charge card. Two different ones -- American Express and a Visa or MasterCard, for example -- obviously double your options. A credit card not only offers an excellent exchange rate, it is essential for your shopping peace of mind. Unlike paying in cash, credit cards have a maximum cash liability (expenses you're responsible for if your card is used without your permission) and may also offer some measure of protection should the item you purchased with the card be lost, damaged, or stolen -- check with the issuer regarding their protection programs.
Credit cards may also have the added advantage of accruing rewards when used, and often offer handy services such as travel insurance or worldwide medical and legal referrals (call now -- you may have to register before you go). Of course, everything comes with a price: Conversion surcharges can range from one to two percent, and your card's issuing bank may tack on a few more points.
Cold, Hard Cash
Cash is the one form of payment you know every merchant will gladly accept. Perhaps the biggest drawback to converting money into the local denomination is the service fee, which can run as high as ten percent! The fee is either posted or absorbed into a less-than-stellar exchange rate (never believe a service that advertises "No fee!").
That said, you do need some cash in pocket for small purchases, on-the-go snacks, and getting around. Be careful: Foreign currency often feels like Monopoly money instead of your valuable hard-earned cash. Get a reality check and stay within your budget with these tips:
- Know the most current exchange rate before you go so that you can quickly figure out how much something costs; compare exchange rates and service fees once there; and tip appropriately. Exchange rates fluctuate from day to day, but check the newspaper or a site such as www.oanda.com/convert/classic for the latest numbers. Knot Note: To help curb frivolous spending, make a cheat sheet of common conversions ($25, $50, etc.) on an index card and keep it close to your wallet.
- Although it is generally cheaper to exchange money in the country of your destination, convert at least enough cash before you go so that you can get from the airport to your hotel (ask what it should cost when you make your reservation) and cover tips your first night. It pays to plan ahead because your plane may be delayed and exchange counters may be closed by the time you arrive. Convert extra cash if your first night and day fall on a Sunday or bank holiday (don't forget that other countries celebrate their own set of holidays) and ATMs are not readily available. You can often exchange money at your hotel, but the service fee can be exorbitant.
- If you don't have time to hit the bank before you leave, convert money at the airport (you should be there two hours before your flight anyway) or order it at www.americanexpress.com or www.chase.com (no exchange service fee on any amount and no delivery fee on orders of more than $500) to get it delivered to your home ahead of time.
- Determined to stay on budget? Look into getting a card with a preset spending limit that you designate (basically your travel budget). Like a debit card for your checking account, the cash value is stored in their system -- not on the card -- and you must have a PIN number to access your funds. You can even purchase two cards, so you're covered if you misplace one
Cash is irreplaceable. Travelers checks can be used like cash but -- drum roll, please
-- if the checks are lost or stolen, they can be refunded within 24 hours in most parts of the world. Sold in set amounts of dollars or foreign currencies, travelers checks never expire and can be exchanged for cash (when you use them, you'll also get any change in cash, usually the local currency).
The only drawbacks? There is usually a purchase fee of between one and four percent of the total amount. But American Express waives the fees for Gold and Platinum card holders, and AAA members can get American Express checks without a fee through their local AAA offices. Also, some vendors charge a small fee upon acceptance. Here's what you'll need to do:
1. Buy them online, over the phone, at your bank, credit union, or local AAA office. The percentage of your "fun money" budget that is in travelers checks depends on where you're going. However, cash is always easier for small purchases, local transportation, and tips. Compare terms at sites such as www.americanexpress.com and www.visa.com.
2. Sign each check before you leave the place where you buy them. You'll sign each again -- and record the date -- when you use the checks to purchase something. Checks are accepted based on the fact that the original signature matches the second signature. Knot Note: Ask for checks that can be used by either you or your new spouse for solo spending sprees.
3. Keep a record of the checks' serial numbers. Without them, they can't be refunded, and that's the whole point of buying them, right? In fact, make three copies: one to keep on you (but not in the same pocket or purse as the checks), one to stash in your hotel safe, and one to leave at home with a family member or friend. If they go missing, pick up the phone fast: most issuers offer toll-free or collect numbers that you can call (be sure to get that number before you leave and include it on all copies of your serial numbers). Reporting the numbers also allows the company to invalidate the missing checks.
Packing Your Wallet
What you don't take is almost as important as what you do, again to limit what you can potentially lose. This means leaving your Social Security card, checkbook, and all extraneous credit and membership cards you don't anticipate using safe at home. As for what you should take, here are the essentials:
- Debit/ATM card
- Credit card(s) with enough wiggle room to cover purchases and emergencies
- Local currency (including small bills) and enough U.S. dollars to cover your trip to the airport and back when you return to the States
- Travelers checks
- A photo ID such as a passport or driver's license
- Health insurance cards
- Frequent-flyer/hotel/car rental numbers
- Calling card with instructions
Last but not least: Make two photocopies of everything in your wallet and the instructions/contact numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen or you have a health emergency. Keep one copy in your hotel safe and leave one with a friend or family member at home.