People tend to spend so much energy on finding a destination, booking travel, packing, getting someone to watch their place while they’re gone et cetera that they overlook the pesky question of how to get at their cash whilst away. They then cobble together a last minute plan but most of these solutions are less than ideal.
Credit cards are invaluable while travelling. Not only are they convenient but many of them protect your purchases, give you perks like travel medical and car rental insurance, and allow you to earn points. Unfortunately, almost all Canadian credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee over and above the exchange rate conversion. The standard fee is 2.5-3.0%. That means that every $1000 you charge on your card while you are out of the country will cost you an extra $25. On a long or expensive trip you could easily be paying hundreds of dollars on these fees.
US FUNDS CREDIT CARDS
To get a credit card in another country, you have to be a resident of that country. However, in Canada, you can get a Canadian-based US funds credit card. It sounds confusing but basically it is a credit card that you charge to and pay off in US funds. Frequent travellers to the US would benefit from this type of card. Be careful because if you accidentally use it in Canada, your purchase will be converted into US dollars and you’ll have to pay it off in US cash.
I don’t travel frequently to the US but I do go on a ski holiday in Maine every year and make the odd other trip down. I charge my $2000 ski holiday to my US MasterCard. Then I head over to the currency conversion business (CCB) with the best rate in the city and convert my Canadian dollars to US to match the amount I have put on my card. Then I head over to Bank of Montreal with my US cash and pay off my credit card. I only pay the conversion rate on the day that I change my money at the CCB. Doing this saves me $50/year in foreign transaction fees just on that one purchase. With a minimum of $1000 US in purchases per year, my credit card waives the annual fee.
If you travel to non-US destinations that informally use US currency, be careful. Even if you are quoted in US funds, the transaction will likely be converted from US to the local currency BEFORE being charged to your card. So if you are quoted a hotel in Vietnam at $25 US, you could pay $25 US cash and call it a day. But if you charge that to your credit card, the seller will manually convert $25 US to the equivalent amount of Vietnamese Dong on the day of purchase. There is no advantage to using your US credit card because the transaction will show up as a purchase in Vietnamese Dong. Your US credit card will then convert that to US funds and add 2.5-3.0% extra.
CANADIAN FUNDS CREDIT CARDS
A regular Canadian credit card is the most convenient card to travel with. But you have to find a way to avoid that pesky foreign transaction fee. Your options are limited. In fact, you could count your options on one hand and still probably have enough fingers to flash a peace sign. Rogers has a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. I don’t deal with Rogers so this is of little use to me. However, Chase Manhattan does not charge foreign transaction fees and they offer an Amazon Visa and a Marriott Rewards Visa card in Canada. The Amazon Visa has no annual fee and earns points for Amazon purchases. The Marriott card has a $120 annual fee waived in the first year and significant perks like 30 000 bonus points when signing up as well a coupon for one free night.
If you stay at Marriott hotels even occasionally, the Marriott card is a great deal, especially in the first year. It is rated as best value for money on most credit comparison sites these days. I am visiting Barbados in April and I have opted for the Amazon Visa.
People freak out about carrying cash but frankly I don’t think it is as risky as people say. Obviously, you have to keep your cash hidden and on your person (or in a safe) and you can’t forget about it. I don’t advise walking around with 3 grand in your pocket but if you are planning a trip where most of your costs are borne up front and you won’t make a lot of purchases on site (for example, going to an all-inclusive resort or a long weekend away), carrying around $500 in cash is not a big deal.
These are a ridiculous hassle, please don’t use them. In 1980, they were a great idea. In 2016, not so much. No matter who you are, you have other, much better, options.
You can use your debit card in most places but not all. Do not assume that your debit card will work where you are going.
Discount, no-fee banks such as ING or PC Financial are great when you’re at home. When travelling, maybe not so much. Look on the back of your debit/credit card. You want to see “Plus” and “Interac” symbols. Go to your bank before you leave and ask them to set up a 4 digit pin. Even if you already have a 4 digit pin, go to your bank. Ask them how to access funds. Don’t be surprised if they can’t tell you how to do this in far flung destinations or maybe even Europe. Know that in many places, you have to enter a 4 digit (numerical) pin to access money from an ATM. If your debit pin is five digits or a secret word that makes sense to you, you will be out of luck.
Every time you withdraw money with your debit card, you will likely be charged about $5. This is another pesky fee that must be eliminated. No matter where you bank, go to Scotiabank and open an account. Make it one that has the least amount of fees, preferably none. If you are a student, your fees should be nil. Pay particular attention to how many free withdrawals you can make in a month. Put a bunch of money into the account and ask the bank teller for the brochure on “Global ATM Alliance”. If the teller doesn’t know what the hell you are talking about, ask one of their colleagues for it or check it out here.
What is Global ATM Alliance, you ask? It is a wonderful partnership that Scotiabank has forged with other banks around the world. When you withdraw money from a partner bank machine, the fees are waived. Partner banks include Barclays, BNP Paribas and Deutschebank. Consulting your brochure, you’ll know to withdraw money in Germany or Spain or somewhere before getting to Austria. No Global ATM Alliance there :-( You’re also on your own in most of Africa and Asia.
If you have multiple accounts at the bank, make sure your chosen account is the one that comes up first when you stick your card into the ABM because you usually only have access to the first account when abroad. Know what it is called (usually chequing even if it is not a chequing account). Test out withdrawing money a few times before you travel.
Not all countries have partner banks but you can save a lot of money by using the Global Alliance banks as much as possible. If you do have to use a non-Global Alliance bank, try to minimize the number of withdrawals by taking out more money in a single transaction. To save yourself frustration, bring the brochure with you or write down the partner banks in the countries you will be in and take that with you.
NOTE: There is a TD bank account that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees on any withdrawals at any bank anywhere in the world. Pretty awesome! The catch? You have to constantly maintain a $5000.00 balance in the account, earning practically no interest, to qualify. Not so awesome…
ALWAYS BE PREPARED
Also know that foreign machines do have a tendency to eat debit/credit cards. It is essential that you have different ways to access funds. I recommend 3 or even better 4. In some places, like Vietnam, it is impossible or virtually impossible to get money with a debit card. You need a credit card. Even that can be tricky.
The best scenario is:
- Scotiabank account set up to get funds at Global Alliance banks.
- Second bank account at some other bank in case of emergency.
- Amazon Visa or Marriott Visa with no foreign transaction fees.
- Some type of MasterCard in case of emergency.
AMEX is a great card with lots of perks but is the least accepted of the three big cards. Do not count on being able to use AMEX anywhere. Visa and MasterCard go by different names in different places. Look for the Visa/Mastercard symbol and you should be good.
Quote of the day comes from an infrequent but favourite blogger of mine. Thea’s a British single parent who travelled the world for 4 years with her kid son before settling in Bali. Son is now 14 years old. She blogs at escapeartistes.com
Teen boys do strange things to the domestic economy… Food-shopping and cooking become a delicate balance between battling middleaged spread and meeting the gobsmacking energy requirements of a slender teen with a turbo-charged metabolism who’s shooting up a centimetre or more each week.
The art, for the record, is finding high-cal snacks you can keep in the house WITHOUT being tempted to consume them yourself. In our case, these are: honey-roast peanuts, ginger ale, ginger biscuits, Nutella and sliced bread. We started, of course, with healthier options – cheese cubes, almonds and cashews. Shortly thereafter, I burst out of my jeans.