Ah, the age old questions:  How much cash should I bring?  Should I exchange currency before I leave home?  Where should I exchange currency in the country I’m visiting?  Before continuing, please note that each tour, underneath the heading “What to Expect” has its own section concerning exchanging currency.

How much cash should I bring?

        Most travel experts will tell you not to bring a great deal of cash with you on your trip, either in your own currency or in foreign currency.  If you want to bring about $100 to $200, either in your own currency or as a converted amount of foreign currency, that should be enough to get you by for a while after reaching your international destination.  If you want to exchange a small amount of cash into euros, for instance, prior to traveling, it’s not a bad idea, given the fact that you will need to purchase things upon arrival, such as food, beverages, or transportation tickets.  Most major banks in your home country will carry enough foreign currency to allow for immediate exchanges, but if you are a U.S. citizen, keep in mind that the exchange rate at most banks in the United States is terrible, and some banks even charge a fee for this service.

Should I exchange currency before I leave home?

        As mentioned previously, exchanging a small amount of currency before leaving home isn’t a bad idea.  But you can also exchange a small amount of currency in the airport upon arrival and the exchange rate won’t be much worse than what a bank in the United States would offer you.  But do try to have some amount of cash on hand before leaving home.


Regarding Tours outside the United States

        In many countries (in Europe especially), the best exchange rate can be obtained by simply withdrawing money from a standard bank ATM using your debit card (not to be confused with your credit card).  For instance, let’s say you just arrived in Venice, Italy and you need some euros for the rest of your stay. Just go to a local bank which has an ATM machine (often in a small, enclosed lobby-style room) and withdraw the amount of money you want.  Nearly all standard ATM machines worldwide have the capacity to issue instructions in English, so English speakers should have no problem at all understanding how to use them.

        When we tell you to seek out standard bank ATM machines, we mean it.  Avoid the omnipresent stand-alone ATMs which are not part of a bank. Euronet, Moneybox, Travelex, and Cashzone are examples of independent ATM machines which have very unfavorable exchange rates.  If you have any questions at all while on tour, just ask your Tour Leader to point you the direction of a standard bank ATM. Now it’s true that your home-based bank, such as Wells Fargo, will charge a small fee ($5) for this transaction, but the European bank will not.  

        Here’s a perfect example of what we mean when we say that withdrawing money from a European or other foreign ATM machine is more cost-effective than exchanging the same money at your home bank in the United States:

        Let’s say you’ve just arrived in Italy and you’d like to withdraw 600 euros because you want to go shopping or you want to have a fancy dinner with your family at a high-priced restaurant.  You’ve found a standard bank ATM and you’re ready to withdraw your cash. The official exchange rate for that particular day is 1.173 dollars to one euro. You withdraw 600 euros and you notice on the receipt issued by the ATM machine that the listed exchange rate for this transaction was 1.184 dollars to one Euro. (yes, even European banks will want to make a little money off of your transactions). Now, when taking into account the $5 fee that Wells Fargo charged you for this transaction, the real exchange rate you just received was 1.1923 which isn’t that much higher than the listed exchange rate of 1.173.  To look at it another way, you just spent $715.40 to get those 600 euros. If you tried to do the exact same transaction at your local bank in the United States, it would cost you about $740, thus wasting 25 bucks.  

        But wait, why don’t I just use my VISA credit card for all my shopping and for the fancy dinner, you may ask?  That’s fine, but there’s usually a 3% foreign transaction fee (or higher) for these types of transactions. And there might even be an additional transaction fee from the store or restaurant in which you’re using your VISA card.  Dollar for dollar, withdrawing cash from a standard bank ATM in the country you’re visiting is the most cost-effective way to exchange currency.

        One notable exception to this rule is China.  There, it is actually more cost effective to go into the bank and exchange cash.  Using ATMs in China always incurs a 4 or 5 dollar fee, and there are strict limits on how much cash you can withdraw on a daily basis.  If you exchange cash in the bank itself via an actual bank teller, you’ll get an excellent exchange rate with little to no fee. The problem, of course, is that you would have to bring a large amount of cash from your home country with you in order to make this a worthwhile option.  And we strongly discourage people from carrying around large amounts of cash for obvious reasons.

Regarding Tours in the United States

        Now if you’re are coming from outside the United States to take one of our California tours, for instance, it might be a good idea to exchange a little more currency that you ordinarily would.  As indicated, banks in the United States have bad exchange rates. Okay, let’s rephrase this: banks in the United States have the worst exchange rates of any country on the planet. So if you’re from Shanghai, for example, and you’re planning to fly to Los Angeles to take one of our California tours, we actually recommend exchanging a higher amount before you depart your home country, say $300 or $400, to get more bang for your buck.

        One last issue you may be pondering:  If I keep withdrawing euros or yuan or pesos from ATM machines, how do I know I will actually utilize all of this foreign currency on my trip?  Won’t I have leftover currency that I won’t use? More often than not, the answer is yes. But if you plan on returning to this foreign destination anytime soon, then you’ll already have that “small amount of cash” that we recommend you have on hand while arriving at your international destination.  Euros are especially useful because they are accepted in 19 of the 28 countries of the European Union: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain.

        As there isn’t time in this modest article to explain the ins and outs of exchanging currency in every single country in the world, please note that this issue is explained under the “What to Expect” section of each and every tour that we offer.

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