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Money Advice For Backpackers – When to Use Cash, Credit Cards and Traveler’s Checks
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Split your cash, credit cards and traveler’s checks in multiple locations, e.g. in daypack, backpack, money belt and wallet.
Search for the most convenient way to carry money to your destination. It can be US dollars, traveller’s checks, credit card, local currency, etc.
If you are on a tight budget, you can use your journal to keep track of your expenses by writing them down in the journal.
In some parts of the world there are many counterfeit bills. This has led some countries to prefer bills from certain years, with certain prints (eg large print USD) and bills in good condition. Check what is advisable before changing your money.
It can be practical (although expensive) to pick up some local currency (in small denominations) before you leave.
Try to break large bills in shops and restaurants, getting small bills can be difficult. If you can’t find a place to exchange money, you can try the big hotels.
If for some reason you are stuck without any money, calling your mom or other family members is a good life saver. If there’s a bank or almost any store around, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to transfer money with a money transfer agency.
Change some money in your country so you have enough local currency for a day or two. Finding a place to exchange money after a 20-hour flight is tedious, although there are usually several ATMs in airports.
Personal Experience – The Komodo Crisis
Try not to run out of money. A friend of mine was traveling overland in Indonesia to Komodo and kept running out of cash hoping there were ATMs around. There were none and he was lucky enough to come across a few people who could lend him money.
Check your credit card’s expiration date. You don’t want it to expire in the middle of your trip. Also note that some credit cards aimed mainly at young people (eg Maestro and Electron cards) may not work at all ATMs. These cards usually do not have relief printing on them and will not work in old fashioned manual machines. Check with your card issuer just to be sure.
Relying on just one credit card can be risky if you plan to use the ATM. Occasionally they are swallowed for no apparent reason. If you plan to have several cards with you, it may be useful to make sure they are on different networks eg. in Cirrus and PLUS.
You can also get prepaid cards where you store a certain amount of money and then withdraw your prepaid amount without any credit, which can be safer if your card is stolen.
If you have a special device or one-time codes for internet banking, bring them if you plan to use your internet bank.
Different brands are preferred in different countries, check before you go.
Keep track of the traveler’s checks you’ve used (in a separate place from the checks themselves).
Make sure your signature on traveller’s checks matches the one on your passport.
Bring the purchase record with you (in a separate place from the checks), sometimes needed to cash checks and claim a refund for stolen checks.
Personal Experience – The Cambodian Cock-up
I was traveling in Cambodia and tried to cash my traveler’s check. I had received a new passport and had the good idea to change my signature. The only problem was that the signature on the checks was the old one, so they didn’t match. This made it almost impossible for me to cash my checks in Cambodia.
Personal Experience – Alice Springs ATM Adventure
One Friday afternoon in 1997 in Alice Springs, Australia, I was running out of money. I had $20 left and tried to withdraw money from one of the few ATMs outside. I inserted the credit card the way it is done in Sweden – with the magnetic strip facing up. The card was swallowed by the machine and I was left with only a few dollars left. My hostel accepted credit and I found myself eating bananas, drinking tap water and comparing pasta prices for the next five days. A very different diet from the steak and umbrella drink life I was used to. It took five days for FedEx to get a new card in the middle of nowhere (ie Alice Springs).
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