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15 cheapest ways to get travel money

Foreign exchange and travel cash tips & tricks

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Helen S | Edited by Johanna

Updated May 2016


Spend the wrong way abroad, and you could be wasting ££s every time you shop. Specialist cards allow you to get perfect rates every time you spend overseas.

But it's not just having the right card. There are a host of other tools, tips and tricks that we've designed to help you get the most bang for your buck. Here are our top tips...

Warning: your holiday can cost £100 more if you spend the wrong way

Ultimately, when abroad you want to pay for only what you buy, yet by doing it the wrong way many also pay for paying, too. Here's how much spending €1,000 actually cost, in pounds, when we made comparisons on 17 Dec 2015 using our Travel Money Comparison tool (we assumed five €100 cash withdrawals, and 20 transactions on the cards).

  • On a specialist credit card repaid in full: £724 (see point 2)
  • Cash, via UK's cheapest bureau (pick up in London): £733 (see point 3)
  • Cash from the Post Office: £748
  • Using a debit card from hell (Halifax in this case): £781 (see point 6)
  • Change at airport (Heathrow T1 Travelex, not pre-ordered): £829

As you can see, the differences can be massive, yet the winners are simple. Apply for a specialist overseas credit card, then use it every time you go.

The top pick credit cards abroad

None of the following cards add a sterling exchange fee, so all give near-perfect rates. However Mastercard’s rates tend to be slightly better than Visa, so we prioritise those.

  • Overall winner: Halifax Clarity Mastercard* as it has no fees and low interest charges (18.9% rep APR) and is widely accepted.
  • Top for cash withdrawals: Creation Everyday* as it has the lowest ATM interest charges (12.9% rep APR).
  • Top easy-to-get: Aqua Reward Mastercard* primarily only use this to spend as its 34.9% rep APR is charged on cash withdrawals even if you clear in full. Though the boon is it's designed for those with poor credit and gives 0.5% cashback on spending.
  • Other top cards: These include Post Office* (Mastercard), Saga (Visa) & Nationwide's Select* (Visa - for its customers only).

Always repay IN FULL to minimise the 18.9%, 12.9%, 34.9%, 15.9%, 17.8%, 11.9% & 15.9% rep APRs. You can find more information about these cards, and other top options in the Cheap Travel Cards guide.To find which you are most likely to be accepted for, use our overseas credit card eligibility calc which shows your odds for each of the top cards.

To make this work, ensure you always repay IN FULL, preferably by direct debit, or the interest cost dwarfs any gain you get from the better rate.
Palm trees with cards

You also get Section 75 protection

On top of giving you the top rates when spending abroad, specialist overseas credit cards also give you Section 75 protection.

Pay for something costing £100 to £30,000 on a credit card and the card firm's jointly liable with the retailer if things go wrong. This is useful abroad, as taking things back is tough. It's also good protection when buying from overseas websites. For more, read our Section 75 guide.

Credit cards are good if...

  • You want the best spending rates
  • You want Section 75 protection
  • You've a decent credit score

Credit cards are bad if...

  • Your credit score's poor
  • You won't repay in full every month

Need cash? Compare the best currency rates

Travel money MaximiserOur travel money comparison tool compares rates at about 40 online bureaux and orders them by how much currency you'll actually get after all fees and charges.

Though beware, pay a UK bureau by credit (not debit) card and it counts as a cash withdrawal, so there's a fee and interest even if you fully repay – best to always use a debit card or cash to buy.

Getting cash is good if...

  • You want to lock in a rate
  • You want to stick to a budget
  • You have a secure place to keep it

Getting cash is bad if...

  • You want the absolute best rates
  • You need to pay by credit card
  • You want Section 75 protection
  • It's stolen

If you want to lock in a rate or stick to a set budget, try a specialist overseas prepaid card

Here, you load with cash before you travel, then use it like a debit card. If you lose it, your cash is protected. You get the rate on the day you load/buy, not when you spend, so currency fluctuations may mean you get a worse deal (or better one).

However, there are a few places that don't accept them – car hire firms and pay-at-pump petrol stations are the major ones, but there are a few others to watch out for.

Our top picks are Revolut and WeSwap as they both have decent exchange rates and low, or no, fees.

For more info and other top picks, see Cheap Prepaid Travel Cards.

Prepaid cards are good if...

  • You want to lock in a rate
  • You want to stick to a budget
  • You lose it/it's stolen

Prepaid cards are bad if...

  • You want the absolute best rates
  • You need to hire a car
  • You want Section 75 protection as there's none

The CHEAPEST debit card abroad

We prefer cheap credit cards, as it's a big schlep to change your entire bank just so you can get one that's cheaper to use abroad. Plus, if you're fed up with your own bank and want to switch, there are better incentives – you can get £100 just for switching or up to 5% interest (see Top Bank Accounts).

Yet if free overseas spending is what you want, the Norwich & Peterborough Gold Classic current account is the only one that's open to all and has a load-free worldwide debit card. The card also has no ATM fees. You'll need a min £5,000 kept in it, or pay in £500 per month or there's a £5 monthly fee.

If you really want this card but only want to use it for spending abroad, you can open the account, then put £500 in by standing order each month, and then have a standing order returning it to your main current account.

Or, if you'll travel only in Europe, the Metro Bank current account charges no foreign exchange loading or cash withdrawal fees on its debit card. In the rest of the world, it charges a 1.9% load fee and £1 for ATM withdrawals. You have to open this account in a branch; they're located around London and southeast England.

Check our main Travel Cards guide to find the top bank accounts with no charges for foreign currency.

Specialist debit cards are good if...

  • You're happy to change bank account to get one
  • You want to make cash withdrawals as there's no charge

Specialist debit cards are bad if...

  • You switched from a better account to get one
  • Or if you want to switch but pick a travel debit card instead of one of the more profitable debit cards available
  • You want Section 75 protection as there's none

Debit cards can be the worst way to spend abroad

Eight debit cards (everyday bank cards) are our cards FROM HELL. Not only do they add a load and an ATM fee, they also charge up to £1.50 EVERY time you spend on them.

So, say you spend £5 on the card. After loading and spending fees, it can cost £6.65, which soon adds up over a holiday.

Bank of Scotland | Halifax | IF | Lloyds | Santander
TSB | NatWest/RBS (hell for small spends)

ANY other card, including credit cards (if repaid IN FULL), is cheaper to spend on than these. See full Debit Cards From Hell info or check your card's fees abroad.

If they ask 'Do you want to pay in pounds or euros?' – say EUROS

When paying on a card abroad, you're often asked if you want the transaction to be in pounds or the local currency.

Currency symbols

As a general rule, never pay in pounds – that means the overseas store/bank is doing the conversion, and rates are awful. For a full explanation of how this 'dynamic' currency conversion works, see Martin's 'Using plastic overseas? Always pay in euros?' blog.

Find out what your existing cards are charging

A couple of years ago, banks and credit card providers didn't have to show a statement breakdown of what they were charging you when you used your card abroad. This all changed at the start of 2014, causing some confusion, with some people thinking they were only now starting to pay, though it's actually always been the case on all but a few cards.

So find out how much the cards you already have charge for use abroad – as you may not have the time to switch before your holiday – and make sure you use the cheapest (the best cards are listed in point 10). To help, we've built a How good is your current plastic? checker.

Don't change your cash at the airport (or at least order ahead if you're last-minute)

Plane and papersIt's the easy option, but it's such a waste. Airport and ferry port rates are usually dismal, as they know they're the last port of call and you're a captive customer.

Far better that you use TravelMoneyMax before you go or, if you've left it too late, at least order in advance online to pick up at the airport to get better rates.

Is it better to change my cash once I get to my destination?

In general you don’t get a better rate changing your pounds to euros, dollars, lira or dong once you’re in that country than you do here. Yet that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few local bureaux overseas that may give tip-top rates.

The problem is there's no way of knowing until you’re there, and as rates vary every day, once you're there, comparing to what was available back home is tough.

Therefore we suggest for safety you sort it before you go (if you can - some currencies, like the Lao kip, aren't available outside the country). The big advantage of that is you can use the TravelMoneyMax travel cash comparison to find the best rate from 40 bureaux.

And getting the best of British should usually beat relying on an unknown rate from a one-off local bureau once you’re there.

Don't buy travel cash with a credit card

If you're buying currency at a bureau de change, or online through TravelMoneyMax, there’s a hidden charge you could fall foul of if you're using a credit card.

Buying currency is counted as a cash withdrawal, so you could face a myriad fees, including cash withdrawal fees, interest, or even a fee for using a credit card charged by the money changer.

Therefore, if you're buying currency, ALWAYS use a debit card, which isn't allowed to charge this fee, or withdraw cash and pay with that instead.

If you're getting cash while you're overseas at an ATM, you're best off using a specialist credit card as this way you minimise fees – though you'll pay interest.

Withdrawing cash on a credit card could hurt your credit score

Withdrawing cash on some of the top specialist overseas credit cards is a MoneySaving thing to do. But, it can have unintended consequences.

If you withdraw cash on a credit card, it's recorded on your credit file. This isn't necessarily bad, in itself, but if you applied for a loan or other credit card soon after, the new lender might see it as a sign that you've no cash in your current account and you're so desperate for cash, you're willing to pay high interest to get it.

In isolation, the negative effect of withdrawing cash is minor and shouldn't be the root cause of a rejection. But if it's combined with other negatives on your credit record, it doesn't look good.

To be safe, if you've an important credit application, like a mortgage, to make - it's probably worth avoiding withdrawing cash on your credit card for the few months before the application.

You can read our short guide for more information about withdrawing cash on a credit card and its effect on your credit file.

What's in your overseas wallet?

Are you part of the 'overseas wallet or purse' club? Martin's pioneered this, and it's a clever way to make sure you're prepared on holiday. His rationale is that there are some things you only need when abroad:

  • Specialist overseas plastic. These tend to be pretty poor for UK use, so leave it in your overseas wallet until you go away.
  • Free EHIC for emergency medical issues in Europe. See our guide on how to get or renew your free EHIC card
  • Driving licence & international driving permit. Check out when and why you need to take these, plus see our full Driving Licence Renewal guide.
  • ESTA number for US travel. Check out our ESTA guide.
  • Leftover currency. Left over from previous trips, good if you can't get to a cash machine right away.

Check out what else is in Martin's overseas travel wallet.

It's not just about the travel money

You need to be savvy with more than just travel cash. Fail to be clever about your money elsewhere and you could wipe out all the gains you've made from paying the right way.

So, whether you're chilling in Chile or roaming in Rome, there are loads of hidden tricks to save cash and ensure you're Havana great holiday.

We've a guide to help you find the cheapest flights, get free maps on your phone, find the best plane seats and more. Read the 50+ Overseas Travel Tips to make yours a happy holiday.

Plus don't forget travel insurance

First Aid BoxTravel insurance is as important to your trip as getting currency, yet many go abroad without it.

A decent travel insurance policy will pay medical bills for you if you have an accident or fall ill – most countries charge for medical care, and some charge a lot. It will also cover you for cancellation, lost or stolen baggage, and for legal expenses should you get into trouble overseas.

It's a travel essential – don't leave home without it. Check out the top policies in the Cheap Travel Insurance guide.