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Wherever there’s money, there are complexities and danger. This is especially true for travelers converting currency. While just about every international traveler must undertake this task, most don’t see the inherent threats that come with it.
Before we dive into the monetary aspects of this discussion, be aware that there are places in the world that still have a deeply ingrained bartering culture. Knowing what’s valued in the places you visit is golden. I once paid for a couple of nights of lodging and food with a multitool and a military field jacket. Realize that things are valued differently in different places. Do your homework.
Travel forums and backpacker blogs will almost always have some valuable insights on this. Your skill sets can also be a commodity. If you’re good at fixing things, know your way around a computer, have a skilled trade, or just aren’t afraid of manual labor, that can pay for things in the third world. The main thing to realize is that you have to adjust what’s possible in your mind when you travel. You can’t get away with paying for a meal at Chipotle by fixing the manager’s Kia, but that might work in Chiapas at a roadside taco stand.
There will, however, be times when you’ll have to use some form of good old-fashioned currency, and this is where things can get a little bit complicated if you aren’t careful.
When it comes to the actual logistics of carrying money, I recommend adopting a three-tiered strategy.
Traveling with cash is an art. There are times and places where going cashless and utilizing only plastic might make more sense, but in most places cash is still king. A form of currency that has a value outside of a debit card terminal is the preferred option for most experienced travelers.
Above: A variety of tools can be carried discretely to protect not only yourself, but your valuables as well. This Waterproof Go Tube by Oscar Delta is one example.
The first question one needs to ask is: How much money can you legally carry with you, and is it worth carrying large cash amounts internationally? It’s a question that has different answers depending on where you’re traveling to and where you’re coming from.
If you’re carrying more than $10,000 U.S., or its equivalent in other currencies — cash, checks, money orders, any other monetary instrument, or any combination of these — you must declare every dollar that exceeds that sum. You will not have to pay duties or taxes, but you must declare it on the Customs Declaration Form.
Not declaring your currency can be a mistake, and one that you need to be aware of, as this is what makes your money “irregular” and can open you up to legal liabilities. Conversely, you should also be aware that any such declaration will have eyes on it that might not necessarily be friendly. It’s not unheard of for people in positions of authority at the Mexican border to act as spotters for local criminal elements that thrive on robbing tourists who declare large amounts of money.
Above: Faraday cage bag and waterproof cellphone pocket used for concealed cash carry under your clothes.
Is it worth exchanging your dollars for the local currency? In some places, you won’t have a choice. In other places, the dollar goes a long way.
If you do find yourself needing to exchange your currency, it may be tempting to utilize the conveniently placed currency exchange kiosks and ATMs at airports, but these options, more often than not, target the unsuspecting traveler. They boast some of the worst exchange rates in the industry.
While you’ll often see signs advertising “no commission or fees,” exchange companies will frequently make up the difference through manipulating the exchange rates. This is due, in large part, to the fact that businesses in airports usually have to negotiate a bidding process to set up shop and then contend with much higher overhead once established. Of course, in the end these costs are passed on to the customer. Foreign travelers are especially susceptible to these manipulations, as they generally don’t have a full grasp of the local economy.
The better course of action would be to do some research ahead of time and locate reputable money exchange options outside of the airport. When it comes to maximizing personal safety, it’s imperative that the traveler avoid money exchange businesses in highly trafficked tourist areas. Not only will they generally have unfavorable rates, but in many areas they’ll also be home to a thriving criminal ecosystem that preys on disoriented outsiders.
You may be able to exchange currency stateside, before you being travel. The problem with this is trying to find places carrying the specific currency for fair rates. Also, make yourself aware of the legal limits for bringing cash currency into a given country. If you do bring cash currency into a country, spread it out into multiple packets to reduce the visual/physical signature. Instead of dropping a brick or thick roll of bills into your check bag, break the money up into smaller amounts and place them in plain envelopes. Mark the envelopes with generic use-indicators, like “gas” and “food expenses,” to provide a narrative to anyone who might see it. Never place cash in your checked bag. Split it between a backpack, other carry-on, and your physical person.
Above: If you intend to exchange currency as part of your travel plan, make sure you know the current official exchange rates. Only exchange cash at reputable locations. Also be aware that U.S. dollars may be more desirable to locals than their own currency.
No matter where you choose to do business, never engage in a transaction without seeing a printout of the exchange rate you’re agreeing to and never lose sight of the money you hand over or the money you get back. Unscrupulous operators won’t shy away from bait-and-switch tactics that leave the unsuspecting customer with a fraction of what they exchanged. As with most things in life, always keep your eye on the prize.
Oftentimes, the most cost-effective option is to find an established internet currency exchange company, make arrangements online, and arrange to pick up your local currency when you arrive at your destination. As there’s less overhead involved, these online options will generally be more affordable than their physical counterparts.
Another option is to wire money to yourself and withdraw it at your destination. But these services aren’t available everywhere, and the fees for using them are all over the place. Wire transfer services are also a known hotbed for fraud and theft. If you go this route, do the math on exchange rates and fees, and make the best decision for your wallet. Many places around the world don’t have a discreet option for you to send money to yourself, and using this option may draw the attention of both local authorities and criminal elements.
Make sure to educate yourself on the local currency and the security features these bills might have to make sure the cash you’re getting is legit. I’ve seen high-level people with high-level skill sets get fooled by laser-printed cash, so trust me, learn to identify your money. A small portable black light might be good investment to look at bills closely. Don’t put all your faith in counterfeit markers. Criminals now know a few ways of treating the cash to make them non-reactive to ink and dyes. Know what it feels like, know what it looks like, and make sure you’re getting the real thing. There are also a couple of online resources you can use to get savvy on popular counterfeiting techniques. Check the websites below for more information:
Using prepaid cards and, in some cases, credit cards is another option — but these forms of payment come with their own risks.
A prepaid card is basically a debit card disconnected from any type of checking account. You can purchase them at stores or online — the latter is usually cheaper. You then sign up for service, load it with funds, and use it like a credit or debit card. They usually come with a few security features, depending on the company, like requiring a pin number and signature to complete a transaction. You can’t spend more than what’s loaded onto the card, making it a great option for people on a tight budget. The drawback to prepaid cards are the fees involved in using them internationally. But for the security they provide, and the security of being wholly detached from your personal financials, these make for a great option.
Above: Shielded wallets may be a good option to keep your credit/debit cards safe from radio frequency identification (RFID) scanners that can “lift” information off the chips and strips in your cards.
There are also general-purpose gift cards now offered by most major credit card companies. The biggest difference between the two reflects their permanence: Prepaid cards can be reloaded and used indefinitely, while gift cards can generally only be used until the dollar amount on them is exhausted. Look for cards offered by reputable, well-established companies. Some have hotlines or contact info specifically for customer support while travelling outside the United States. These tools can typically be found on the credit company’s website and should be researched before pre-paying anything.
Credit cards are also an option for worldwide travel. Visa and Mastercard are the two almost universal ones. Visa is what I use. The main consideration is to make sure you understand any international fees or restrictions that apply to card use outside of the U.S. Again, check the terms and conditions of your card to be sure. If you do plan on using a credit card overseas, call the company ahead of time and let them know what dates you’ll be out of the country and what country you’ll be in. This does two things, in terms of fraud protection.
The first is making sure your card doesn’t get shut off when you make your first purchase overseas. If you’re not a regular traveler and your credit card company suddenly sees a series of charges from Europe or Africa or South America, they may shut off your card automatically without your permission as a fraud-protection measure, inadvertently leaving you financially stranded. But if they know your travel plans ahead of time they’ll often put a note on your account to allow charges from that area.
The second reason you want them to know where you’ll be and when is that if your card does get cloned while you’re travelling, the company can spot actual fraud quickly. For example, let’s say you take a trip to South Africa. You notify your credit card company, so all your South African purchases go through without a hitch. But two days into your trip, your card number is used for a transaction in Belarus. The card company knowing your location and timeline can help separate legitimate transactions from fraud that occurs in real time during your trip.
Above: RFID blocking card protector are just some of the items seen here. The coins with embedded tools are made by @jollyrogerthree.
For the budget-conscious traveler, credit cards might not be the best option. When lost in the excitement and inherent confusion that comes with travel, people tend to go overboard with them and not factor in the fees involved with using them internationally. The risk of a card being cloned is also ever-present, and can be a nightmare to deal with when you’re thousands of miles from home. RFID-blocking sleeves or wallets can help mitigate remote cloning or mining of your data. But also be conscious of skimming units that can be installed over legitimate card readers at ATMs, gas pumps, and similar unmanned locations. Make sure to inspect any port you put you card into, and try to compare it against similar ones around you. Even less sophisticated are cameras or human surveillance, where your card might be photographed or even memorized by someone while you have it out in the open to use it.
Furthermore, losing a card when abroad can be a disaster, as getting a replacement card can be next to impossible while in another country. This being the case, credit cards will often be a last resort. All of this being said, should there be an emergency that requires a large expenditure, a credit card may be the only option. Also, in some cases I have been aware of, medical attention was withheld to some people till they produced a card to put the expenses on. Again, this should be an emergency-only option.
There are some alternate devices and apps, like Coin or Apple Pay, that can put an extra layer of separation between your financial accounts and the outside world. I haven’t seen many options out there that don’t suffer from glitches, bugs, or developmental issues, other than Coin. Apple Pay might work in some places, but large portions of the world are years or even decades behind these technologies. It all boils down to two things: having multiple, redundant payment options and being aware of the threats against you. The human element is always the weakest link in the security chain. So get educated on local and regional-specific risks at your destination and layer your financial security plan.
Above: Depending on where you travel to, you may be able to transact via payment apps. However, many countries have not caught up with the proliferation of this technology seen in the U.S.
Bribery is the act of offering someone money or something valuable in order to persuade them to do something for you (or not do something to you). It goes by many names in many different places. In Mexico for example, they call it mordida — literally a bite. For many in the western world, the option of bribing an authority figure might seem completely foreign and may even make them feel guilty.
Trust me, the world outside doesn’t care and the practice of “greasing the wheels” is common in most places. Locals know this, and it’s a good idea to do research about the places you’re traveling through to see if it could be an option. How will you know if it’s a situation that will call for it? Well, from my experience, the situation and the people involved will usually send you every single discreet message in the book to indicate that they’re open to it. From asking you to pay a fine right there, to telling you how much trouble you’re in without making any effort to actually arrest you.
Money carried for such purposes should be carried high on the body, like in a shirt pocket or jacket. If you’re driving, be sure to have said money in a place visible to any one speaking to you if you’re inside the car to keep movements from being misunderstood. Make people feel safe. Also, keep cameras and cellphones away from your hands, as some people out there are afraid of being recorded during such an event.
Smile, be polite. Ask how much it’ll cost to pay the fine on-site, take out the money you need, and set it on the seat next to you or in the vehicle’s registration papers to be handed over. Don’t show all of your money if you can help it — again, carry money and cards spread out on your person.
Note: Dollars will open more doors than pesos in some parts of Mexico. Keep the money destined for such things separate and in small denominations like fives, tens, and twenties. A thick stack of bills helps grease the gears on a psychological level.
Do your homework. Learn what value people give to the dollar where you’re traveling, and figure out if the country is an all-cash environment or a mix of electronic and cash. Carry payment options accordingly. Spread your cash and cards on your person, and if you do have a secure place that you’re staying in, you might want to leave a backup stash there in case your other options are taken.
For over a decade, Ed Calderon worked in the fields of counter-narcotics, organized crime investigation, and public safety in the northern-border region of Mexico. Learn more about his survival courses at edsmanifesto.com.