Jun 072019

One of my earliest memories of wanting to travel and explore the world was being fascinated with all the currencies of the world. Growing up in a smallish town in the American midwest we saw lots of Canadian currency and especially Canadian coins…and that was exotic.

I remember then seeing Japanese coins – some with the centre hollowed out, and thinking they were the coolest thing ever. I think when the Euro was launched I was more sad for the disappearance of national currencies than I was when the Schengen Zone meant the virtual disappearance of individual passport stamps (still unique for each country, but only barely so.)

So, once I started traveling, I took a particular interest in the finance and currency aspect – not just because my undergraduate degree was in international finance (maybe a question of which was the causal factor for which) and learning to manage foreign exchange on my trips in the most expeditious and beneficial way.

My earliest trip was to the Soviet Union, and I remember carrying hundreds of dollars in travelers checks, and having to figure out how to exchange them at official Soviet exchange bureaus. For my first few trips, mainly to Europe, travelers checks were still the way to go (do they even still exist?!) but gradually, over time, I’ve come up with a list of tips and tricks that may help other travelers get the best from your foreign exchange experience. So, here are my six tips!

Banknotes of Iraq

Tip 1: Never use airport exchange booths to get foreign currency

So, I know it’s tempting. You’re at the airport, wondering how you’re going to get cash to hit the ground running when you arrive in a foreign country. You see a both across from the gate where you can exchange currency, and decide this will help you be more prepared when you land.

The problem? They’re going to charge you 5-20% for the service, often in the form of a commission of 1-3% plus a really terrible exchange rate called the buy/sell rate which can have a gap of 5-15% – that’s profit that goes straight to the exchange operator!

Ok, so maybe it’s just better in advance to go to your local bank and withdraw some foreign currency. While this is often a better strategy, it’s still likely to set you back a minimum of 5-10% to do it this way.

So what’s the answer? Use your ATM/debit card in an cash machine upon arrival. 98% of the foreign airports I’ve arrived at have ATMs and work with my card. The benefit of this is that you get the exact rate being published, sometimes with a small up-charge from your bank. A tip for Americans: use a credit union! Most credit unions charge only 1-2% at most for foreign ATM withdrawals. Does’t 1-2% sound much better than 5-20%?

There’s one time I’ve used my bank in advance, and that was to get Australian Dollars for a trip to Tuvalu where I wouldn’t pass through Australia first. Why? Because there’s not a single ATM on Tuvalu, and banks aren’t great about exchanging foreign currency.

Other places you may consider getting currency in advance are some African countries where the ATMs may not work on arrival. In these countries it’s definitely best to bring some cash with you in advance, which leads me to the next tip…

Old Banknotes of Zimbabwe – Ten TRILLION Dollars!

Tip 2: Always carry a small stash of small US Dollar and Euro bills

Why US Dollars and Euros? Because there’s pretty much no country on this blue marble of ours where you can’t exchange them…and often if you’re desperate you can just spend them outright.

Especially in Africa, almost everyone involved in any sort of commerce (think taxi drivers on arrival) know the exchange rate of their currency to the Dollar and Euro, and will almost always accept them if you get in a bind.

Now, I’m not advocating being that ugly tourist who thinks you can spend US Dollars and Euros in every country, but when you get in a bit of a bind because the ATM doesn’t work on arrival…it’s a great back-up plan!

Why US Dollars AND Euros? Because some places like one much more than the other. In Cuba, you’ll get a terrible exchange rate for Dollars, but a much better one for Europe. Same with the majority of Africa.

If you’re headed to the South Pacific, it’s not a bad plan to have some Australian Dollars as well – they’re often even easier to exchange than US Dollars.

Remember: small notes are important! Lots of $1 and $5 bills and €5 and €10 euro notes will get you out of lots of binds. New/crisp notes preferred! However, if you have major expenses (like paying tour operators) they may prefer large notes…ALWAYS make sure these are the latest edition of the bill – especially for US$100 bills!

Transnistria Ruble Banknotes

Tip 3: Use a credit card whenever you can

When you’re spending cash abroad, the trick is having the right amount so you don’t get killed on the exchange rate in both directions. You can’t redeposit foreign currency in the ATM, so you’ll have to use a less advantageous method to get it back to a more usable currency…meaning the 5-20% hit we talked about above.

You can avoid all this by taking out minimal cash for smaller transactions and using your credit card for anything substantial. Credit cards almost always get the exact market rate, costing you nothing in foreign exchange fees!

In the US, there are a ton of credit cards that have zero foreign exchange fee, meaning you get the exact market rate on every transaction. Some US credit cards still have fees of 1-3% on foreign charges, but that’s still better than taking out cash most of the time. Try to get a card with no fee and you’ll have the best possible world. My personal favourites are the Chase Sapphire Reserve and American Express Platinum Card. (I receive no commission from these links.)

Belarus Ruble Banknotes

Tip 4: Use the last of your currency towards your hotel bill

This is one of my personal favourite tips, and one that few people seem to practice. So ok, you got stuck with a bit more cash than you thought you’d need, and it looks like you’ll take a big hit converting it back to your home currency.

First, figure out how much you need to get you to your transport, be it the airport, train station (don’t forget to leave some for snacks!), or even a bus. Then, figure out if you want to save some notes as souvenirs (so you can make cool collages like in this post) and then…figure out what’s left.

When you check out of your hotel, tell them you want to pay part in cash (getting rid of your leftover so you don’t pay a fee on it) and then pay the rest with credit card. You’ve just used up your excess currency at no additional cost to you while still leaving just enough for transport out and souvenirs! Wait…transport out?!

Pakistani Rupee Banknotes

Tip 5: Use ride-sharing apps like Uber and Careem for local transportation

Ok, so I know this one is a little controversial. Some people think these big companies are putting the little guy out of business and taking advantage of drivers. Not looking for a philosophical debate, but these apps do have a lot of advantages in saving you money.

First, as mentioned above, since they’re linked to your credit card they’re a great way to get to the airport/bus/train without having to save too much foreign currency to ensure you can cover your ride. Just open the app, and your ride out of the country is covered!

It’s also great for local transport, because not using cash minimizes the chance taxi drivers will take advantage of you – either through the “so sorry, no change” scam or trying to slip you counterfeit bills as change. Taxis are notorious for taking advantage of confused visitors, so Uber helps ensure you have a driver who’s vetted for safety…and a dispute mechanism should something go wrong!

They’re also great when you first arrive the country, since there’s no need to get cash in advance to pay your taxi from the airport. You can just call the ride share with the app and focus on finding a cash machine to get cash when you get to your lodging.

South Sudan Pound Banknotes

Tip 6: Familiarize yourself with the currency in advance

Yeah, I know this sounds super obvious, but you’d be amazed how many times I’ve arrived somewhere and seen foreign visitors trying to figure out the currency situation. A few of my favourite examples:

Zimbabwe is notoriously tricky. In the past, the hardest part was figuring out if prices were in the billions or trillions of dollars. Now, it’s managing the tricky balance between using US Dollars and Zimbabwe Bond Notes (which are virtually useless).

This brings me to the point of black market/unofficial exchange rates. When you draw down money from the ATM like I suggested above you’ll only get the official exchange rate. There are some countries where the rate on the black market is significantly better, meaning if you exchange cash on the street you’ll get a much better rate than you “officially” get.

Now, I’m not (necessarily) advocating this: it’s usually the case because it’s illegal to do, and doing so has the potential to get you in a lot of trouble or even arrested. My main point here is to note than in some places you’ll get 10-20% more exchanging on the street or even 100%+ more in some situations. The difference, however, is often tied to the risk of doing so, so be very aware. My main point here is to highlight that these black market / unofficial / parallel exchange rates do exist and you should be aware.

Other things to be aware of? Countries who don’t have their own currency and use the currency of another country – usually US Dollars (Ecuador, Panama), Euros (Kosovo), or Australian Dollars (Tuvalu).

Also: some countries have runaway inflation, so keep up to date on the current rates to avoid getting cheated. I like xe.com for checking live rates – I find them extremely accurate and a great source of up-to-date information.

Republic of Somaliland Banknotes

So those are six of my favourite tips for saving a bit of money when traveling and being smart managing your foreign exchange. Any tips that I missed that you’ve found really helpful?

Jun 022019

One of the greatest things about travel is getting yourself into unfamiliar and new situations and the thrill you feel when you overcome challenges and discover new experiences. Getting out there, pushing yourself, and going beyond your comfort zone can be a fantastic experience, but it’s not without risks.

Novice international travellers often ask me the same questions when I’m going somewhere they’ve heard about on the news: “aren’t you afraid to go there?” or maybe “I heard they don’t like us there.” Sometimes it’s “I would never go there, it’s too dangerous.” – Statements often based on little more than what they’ve seen on the tv.

Those of us who’ve visited places known/thought to be a bit less safe and secure know they can often be some of the most rewarding travel experiences, but only if you’ve done your proper research! That isn’t to say that you should be afraid and not go to these places, but to do so without being properly prepared would be foolish.

I made it to every country without having a single major security incident (well, except the local “bad guys” who torched a bunch of police cars in Pakistan to block the highway…) but a few incidents have happened in the last year which highlighted to me that maybe I’ve let my guard down a little too much, and not followed my own advice.

This, combined with a friend recently going missing in a country with serious security concerns made me think this would be a good time to remind readers of some good tips you should always keep in mind when traveling, especially to less safe and secure places.

Tip 1: Always tell someone where you’re going

I mean this seems obvious, right? Even when you run to the store to pick up some milk you usually tell your partner, kids, etc. that you’re going to the store. But it’s surprising how easily we forget this one when we’re traveling.

Especially those of us who are single and not always great at “planning” our trips forget to let someone know where exactly we’re going. Maybe it’s because we think they’ll think we’re bragging, or maybe we think they won’t know where it is so won’t be interested anyways, or maybe we just don’t stop to think.

Simply letting someone know where you’ll be going (country, cities, hotels, sites, etc.) can come in really handy if you go missing and need to be tracked down. Knowing is half the battle…

Tip 2: Make sure your contact knows when to expect you back

Sort of the obvious follow up to the first tip, but it’s important that your contact person know not only where you’re going, but when they can expect you back. Nobody wants to be alerting the police, government, family and friends until they’re relatively certain that something is up.

This applies not to just the trip (“I’m going to Afghanistan for a week”) but also to riskier parts of the trip. Maybe the capital is secure, but you’re taking a trip out to the countryside to see something? Tell someone what time you expect to be back – make sure to account for inevitable delays in some countries when doing this. “Should be back in 4-6 hours, but could be 12 with traffic so wouldn’t worry until then.”

It would also be helpful to tell them who to call and when. This is something I should have done recently traveling in a border region where I was detained for nearly 12 hours. Fortunately, they let me keep my phone and I did send messages to people….but had they taken my phone…

Tip 3: Travel with a trusted guide

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve showed up somewhere, unable to find a guide in advance, and trusted who the hotel found for me. High-end hotels with international clientel are usually pretty good sources for trustworthy guides, but there’s no guarantee.

Better still, talk to your friends who’ve been where you’re considering going. Ask who they used for a guide. Did they trust them? Did they feel the person was safe and had a good understanding of the local situation? If they were driving, how was the driving? It’s a luxury, but was the car in good repair? (Or reasonable repair depending on destination…)

…and when you get back, share! There’s nothing like first-hand experience to know who you should trust in less secure places, and we owe it to each other to share our experiences. One small caveat: many of these guides are barely eking out a living in these places. Make sure to step back and look at the situation rationally before trashing a guide online.

Tip 4: Leave contact information – hotels, cell, etc

So, let’s assume something does go wrong. You don’t come back when you said you would. Nobody could get ahold of you. You’re not responding on social media. What now?

In the case of my friend who recently went missing, the biggest challenge has been not knowing who to contact. If we had the phone number of their guide or driver, that would be an amazing place to start. Not using a guide or driver? Share the phone number for the hotels where you plan to be.

Maybe you’ve booked a tour? Share the phone number for the tour company with someone back home. The point is pretty simple: in the off chance that something does go wrong, knowing not just where and when you were but also how to get in touch with someone who may be able to help you is priceless.

Also: it doesn’t hurt to register in advance with your country’s Foreign Office / State Department / etc. Letting them know where you are is important if things go south fast: these are the people you’ll likely rely on for evacuation if things get bad quickly, so make sure they can reach you!

Tip 5: Split up your finances

Somehow, I made it to every country without a financial incident worse than getting cheated out of $5 or so by a taxi driver in the days before Uber seemed to be everywhere. 196 countries, and never had any money lost or stolen.

That all changed in an instant last year when I went out for a run in Stockholm, stopped for coffee afterwards, and somewhere between the coffeeshop and hotel I lost my wallet.

The streets were pretty empty, so I’m pretty positive it fell out of my running shorts (maybe at the coffeeshop, maybe walking) as opposed to being pickpocketed, but the end result was the same: I had no money, no credit cards, no anything.

Fortunately, I was at a big work conference, and coworkers were able to spot me cash for a few days, and AmEx was then able to wire me lots of cash to pay my bills before leaving. Had I been traveling alone, who knows what I would have done? I guess I could still have hunkered down hungry until AmEx got me some cash, but it would have been much less comfortable.

So, do yourself a favour: leave some cash and a couple of credit cards in your hotel safe. That way, if things do go missing, you at least have some backup. This is especially important if you’re going to be going to busy or crowded places like a market or public transit where pickpockets like to operate.

This is also helpful if you’re crossing rural areas where opportunistic “checkpoints” operate and try and shake you down. They may find some of your cash and cards, but if you split it up your chances of leaving with at least some of it are much better.

Tip 6: Check your social media

This is one I never really thought much about until recently, and I suspect you’ve probably not thought too much about it either unless it’s happened to you.

However, now that the US and some other countries have begun requiring visa applicants to list their social media accounts on visa applications you should probably have a look at your social media and see what’s on there that might get you declined. You don’t even have to have “done” something wrong to run afoul of this one – it’s all about perception.

In my case, I was entering a sensitive region and when the authorities stopped us at the border they asked us to have a seat for a while. Turns out, what was going on out of sight was a combing of my social media accounts and what they found they didn’t like. No, I’m not a journalist, spy, or other sort of troublemaker, but when they find out you’ve done graduate research in “sanctions theory” …well…if you’re a country under sanctions you might decide you don’t want this person visiting! Makes no difference I’ve never worked in this area professionally, it’s all about perception.

So, do yourself a favour if you travel a lot: have a look at your social media and have a good think how it might appear to others. This will also be helpful advice if you’re applying for jobs…

Tip 7: The women, children, and old people rule

I’ve heard this one quite a lot, but whenever I share it with even well-traveled friends I’m amazed how many of them haven’t heard it.

The reason it’s called the “woman, children, and old people rule” is really quite simple. If you’re in a location known to have security issues, and something doesn’t feel quite right, have a look around.

Do you see women in the streets? Children? How about old people and senior citizens? They’re usually the first to disappear from the streets when security goes south: partly because they’ve seen enough to know when to get out of the way, and partly because these are populations who know well enough to shelter when there’s possible violence brewing.

The opposite, however, does not hold true. Just because you see women, children, and old people in the street is no guarantee of safety. However, if you don’t see them, but you see plenty of what are known as “fighting-aged males” – getting the hell out of there is often good advice.

Tip 8: Take primary responsibility for your own safety and security

Fortunately, this might be the only one that gets easier the longer you’ve been traveling, but you have primary responsibility for your own safety and security: don’t assume it’s someone else’s job to take care of you!

The reason I say this is the one that might get easier is that one of the biggest mistakes people make in this regard is getting intoxicated and having a little too much fun. Sure, this is a great way to let you relax and meet new people, but it’s also a way to lower inhibitions and make you much more inclined to taking risks…or in an extreme case, end up unconscious and the victim of crime or violence.

This also goes hand in hand with taking responsibility for your physical safety when it comes to health. Are you entering a malaria zone? Make sure you’re taking prophylactics if your doctor recommends it. Make sure you get all your jabs or vaccinations in advance to protect yourself from everything from Yellow Fever to Typhoid…nobody wants to catch these nasty diseases.

This also includes sexual health. If you’re putting yourself in intimate situations with other people (who, let’s face it, you’ll likely never see again) it’s your responsibility to look out for yourself. Knowledge is power, and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…if there even is a cure. In this vein, if you’re not familiar with it, make sure to educate yourself on Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) if you’re the type who likes to get extra friendly with locals or other travellers. HIV is highly preventable now if you’re informed and prepared.

Tip 9: Do your research

One of the greatest things about the internet is the amount of information that is out there that you can use to inform your travels. Just be careful, however, that you vet your sources. Don’t just go running into the middle of a war zone because one fringe blogger told you that it was safe and ok to do that. Use a bit of common sense!

There are so many good sources of safety and security information out there. Start with your government’s foreign office / state department site. These tend to be extremely on the conservative side, but they do a good job of laying out all the risks of traveling to a given location. I personally use these as a starting point, and then supplement with additional more nuanced information.

One of my favourite sites for places that are in a state of conflict is Live Map. It does a great job of aggregating news sources and showing you all the safety incidents in a country over the previous weeks – all displayed nicely on a map. It’s also great for countries with active conflicts where the “safety line” might change dramatically from day to day. They have especially awesome maps of Ukraine, Syria, Libya…and even Washington, D.C.

Tip 10: Travel during the day, be awake and alert

This one is pretty easy to follow, but we’re all guilty of breaking it. Maybe you’re behind schedule and trying to make up time. Maybe you found a bus/train/flight in the middle of the night that was super cheap, or maybe you’re just a night owl.

The end result is the same: crime tends to occur much more regularly at night when the criminals have the element of surprise and a much higher prospect of escape. No matter how vigilant you are, it’s always riskier being out on the roads at night.

Another downside of travel at night is drivers who are often not alert – both your own and the other guy on the road. That’s not to mention drunk drivers. I’ve had several situations lately with a driver late at night who was practically falling asleep at the wheel and I definitely shouldn’t have been in their car.

So, those are ten tips you can use on all of your travels to increase your chances of returning home safely in one piece with all your belongings! My goal with this post is definitely not to scare you away from traveling – get out there and enjoy these amazing and vibrant places. Equipped with this knowledge you’ll not only enjoy your trip more, you’ll be safer while doing it!

What did I miss? Other great advice for fellow travelers?