cheapest ways to get travel money

Cheap travel money tips

The cheapest ways to get foreign currency & spend overseas

With overseas travel back on, you're likely thinking whether you should buy currency now or wait. Either way, it's crucial to bag the top rates. Spend the wrong way abroad and you could be wasting ££s every time you shop. It's not just having the right card – it's also about knowing the tricks to help you get the most bang for your buck. We break down the four main options when it comes to spending abroad.

Sorting your currency is just one way to cut the cost of travel. Fail to be clever about your money elsewhere and you could wipe out all the gains you've made from paying the right way. See 60+ Overseas Travel Tips to make yours a happy holiday.

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Travel money need-to-knows

Here's six key points to help maximise the savings you can make on your upcoming holiday. Get this wrong and it can cost you large.

  • 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 can cost, in pounds (we assumed five €100 cash withdrawals and 20 transactions of €25 each on the cards).

    • Top prepaid card: £835
    • On a specialist credit card repaid in full: £836 
    • Cash, via UK's cheapest bureau (pick up in London): £844 
    • Change at airport: £857
    • Using a debit card from hell: £891

    The winners are clear – apply for a specialist overseas card, then use it every time you go.

    Below, we've got the full lowdown on travel credit cards, travel debit cards and prepaid cards – and cash, if that's your preference.

  • Many overseas hotels, shops and ATMs ask this when you pay by card. If you choose pounds, the retailer does the currency conversion – but rates can often be poor compared with letting your card do it – see Martin's euro analysis for how this worked for him on a European trip.

    If you've got a top overseas card, ALWAYS choose the local currency, as your card does the exchange and it's unbeatable.

    If you're using a bog-standard credit or debit card, it's touch and go. Sometimes the card machine will show you the 'non-sterling cash fee'. If this is under 2.5%, go with pounds. If it's over, pick the local currency.

  • Never just blindly spend abroad with ANY card – use our tool to find out what it'd cost you to pay with your existing plastic before slipping it into your suitcase. Then compare that to our top-pick travel cards which don't charge, so you're armed with the cheapest way to spend before you set off.

    Debit cards can be the worst way to spend abroad

    Let's make this plain: DO NOT USE THE 'DEBIT CARDS FROM HELL' BELOW FOR SPENDING OVERSEAS. Unless you're spending euros in the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway (the European Economic Area/EEA), the cards below charge 50p-£1.50 for transactions on top of their normal exchange rate charge. 

    Imagine you buy something for the equivalent of £5 in a shop in the USA. With the worst of these cards, it can end up costing £6.60 with the fee and charges.

    DO YOU HAVE A DEBIT CARD FROM HELL?
    Bank of Scotland | Cynergy Bank | Halifax | Lloyds | Intelligent Finance | TSB | Clydesdale/Yorkshire (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 in the tool above.

  • 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 GHIC/EHIC for emergency medical issues in Europe. See our guide on how to get or renew your free GHIC/EHIC card.

    • Driving licence & international driving permit. Check out when and why you need to take these in our full Driving Licence Renewal guide.

    • ESTA number for US travel. Check out our ESTA application guide.

    • Leftover currency. Left over from previous trips, good if you can't get to a cash machine right away.
  • Many car hire firms won't accept a debit or prepaid card when you come to pick up your car, and will instead need a credit card. As you'll usually be paying (or leaving the deposit) in the foreign currency, and this can be a substantial amount of money, a specialist overseas card is particularly good for this.

  • first aid

    Travel 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 – and with prices starting from £13 for a top-pick an annual policy for an individual in Europe – don't leave home without it. Check out the top policies in our Cheap Travel Insurance guide.

The best travel money options

Which type of travel money you should use depends on your preferences and circumstances. There are four main forms of payment that you should choose from before you go abroad:

Option 1: Top specialist credit cards

Normally if you spend on a credit card abroad, your card provider gets near-perfect rates but then adds a 3%-ish 'non-sterling exchange fee'. This means that every £100 worth of euros or dollars costs you £103, and some add even more fees on top.

Specialist credit cards don't add this, so you get the same rate the bank does. Yet ONLY do it if you set up a direct debit to repay IN FULL each month or the interest dwarfs the exchange rate gain. As with any credit card, you'll need to pass a credit check to get a travel credit card.

Travel credit cards are good if you want... Travel credit cards are bad if...

✔️ Near-perfect exchange rates

⚠️ You've a poor credit score (as you need to pass a credit check)
✔️ Section 75 protection

⚠️You won't have the discipline to repay IN FULL every month

These cards also give you Section 75 protection when you pay for something costing £100-£30,000, which means 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. See our Top Travel Credit Cards guide for full info and more options, though our top two picks are below.

Top travel credit cards for new cardholders 

A travel debit card could be cheaper. If you're happy opening a new app-only current account and loading funds before you go, you can get near-perfect exchange rates and up to 1% cashback on most spending worldwide. See top travel debit cards.


Halifax Clarity Mastercard

£20 cashback on a no-fee spending card with great feedback. The Halifax Clarity is a long-term top pick as it has no fees on overseas spending and low ATM interest. You don't get charged interest on spending abroad as long as you repay IN FULL, plus use the card anywhere in the first 90 days for £20 to be added to your card within six months. However, you'll pay interest if you make cash withdrawals (about 5p per £100 per day) – so try to minimise these.

- No fees on spending or ATM withdrawals overseas
- 19.94%-27.94% interest on cash withdrawals, charged daily until it's paid off

- £20 cashback on first spend in 90 days

- 19.9% rep APR

Check eligibility
Apply*




Barclaycard Rewards Visa
Near-perfect exchange rates and no cost to spend or withdraw cash, provided you repay in full. Plus there are a couple of perks – you get 0.25% cashback on almost all spending & it also gives five months free access to to Apple Music, Apple Arcade, Apple News+ and/or Apple TV+. Just diarise to cancel after the five months is up if you don't want to pay the subscription fee.

- No fees on spending or ATM withdrawals overseas
- No interest on cash withdrawals if paid IN FULL
- 0.25% cashback on most spending

- 22.9% rep APR

Check eligibility
Apply*

Important. Ensure you always repay IN FULL, preferably by direct debit, or the interest cost dwarfs any gain you get from the better rate. See all official APR examples.

Warning. Withdraw cash on a credit card and it's marked on your credit file

Withdrawing cash on some of the top specialist overseas credit cards is usually a cheap option. However it can have unintended consequences as it's recorded on your credit report. This isn't necessarily bad, 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 report, 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.

See withdrawing cash on a credit card for full information.

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Option 2: Top overseas debit cards

You can also get debit cards that don't charge non-sterling transaction fees. Here, you usually need to apply for a new bank account. Though unlike with the credit cards above, it's only a 'soft' credit check (provided you don't apply for an overdraft), which means it won't affect your creditworthiness. You can just use these as a secondary bank account without switching bank, but unlike a credit card, you will need to pre-load your account before using it, which some may find a pain.

Top travel debit cards




Chase Mastercard
Fee-free spending and cash withdrawals worldwide, plus activate 1% cashback for twelve months. In addition, Chase is a good choice if you're not sure whether you'll get the account as it will only do a 'soft' credit check to see if it wants you as a customer – so if you don't get it, other lenders won't be able to see you've applied and there'll be no permanent mark on your credit report. 

If you're thinking of switching to Chase, or using it as your main bank account, read our full Chase Review

- No fees on spending or at ATMs
- ATM limits: £700/mth

- 1% cashback on spending for one year, once activated in the app

Apply
starling bank card image

Starling Bank Mastercard
Fee-free spending and cash withdrawals anywhere in the world. Like the Chase account above, Starling only does a 'soft' credit check (unless you also apply for an overdraft) – so if you don't get it, there won't be a permanent mark on your credit report.

If you're thinking of switching to Starling, or using it as your main bank account, read our full Starling Review

- No fees on spending or at ATMs

- ATM limits: 6 per day, max £300/day

Apply*

For more information and the full list of debit card options, see Top travel debit cards. In summary...

Travel debit cards are good if... Travel debit cards are bad if...

✔️  You're happy to open a bank account to get one

⚠️ You switch from a better account to get one

✔️ You frequently withdraw cash, as there's no charges

⚠️You want Section 75 protection as there's none (though there is chargeback)

Option 3: Top prepaid travel cards

Here, you load with cash before you travel, then use it like a debit card. If you lose it, you can call the provider to block the card and protect your cash. You can choose to 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).

Prepaid travel cards are good if... Prepaid travel cards are bad if...

✔️  You want to lock in a rate

⚠️ You want the absolute best rates

✔️ You want to stick to a budget

⚠️You need to pay by credit card (for example, you need to hire a car)

✔️ You lose it/it's stolen (if you report it immediately) ⚠️ You want Section 75 protection, as there isn't any

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 pick is below, though see our full review and more options in Prepaid travel cards.

Top prepaid travel card




Revolut

(standard plan)
Perfect interbank rates (marginally higher than Mastercard/Visa rates) during the week, though watch out at weekends. You can exchange up to £1,000 per 30-day period with no charge on weekdays (UK time) – it charges 0.5% above this, and 1% at weekends. The card usually costs £4.99, plus you pay ATM fees on more than £200/mth.

- £4.99 card delivery fee
- Use interbank exchange rate Mon-Fri (i)
- First five/£200 of overseas ATM withdrawals fee-free per rolling month, 2% after (min £1)
- Can exchange 30 currencies in advance

- App-only

Apply*

(i) If you spend at weekends (UK time) it adds a 1% fee to its rates, unless you've locked in a rate on a weekday. There's an additional anytime 1% fee on Thai baht and Ukrainian hryvnia (so 2% at the weekend) and a 0.5% fee on amounts more than £1,000 in a single month.

Don't buy travel cash or load a prepaid card 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 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. Some card providers also treat loading a prepaid card using a credit card as a cash withdrawal. 

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

illustration

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Option 4: Cash

TravelMoneyMax

Our TravelMoneyMax travel money comparison tool compares rates at around 16 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... Getting cash is bad if...

✔️  You want to lock in a rate

⚠️ You want the absolute best rates

✔️ You want to stick to a budget

⚠️You need to pay by credit card and/or want Section 75 protection

✔️ You have a secure place to keep it ⚠️ It's stolen
  • Should I buy holiday money now?

    Martin recorded the video below in 2017, and while the info about Article 50 is no longer relevant, the rest still applies today.

    Martin Lewis should i buy holiday cash now
    Embedded YouTube Video

    In summary...

    Without a crystal ball, no one knows if the pound will be stronger or weaker in the future. Anyone who tells you otherwise is merely speculating.

    If you're concerned about currency volatility before you head away, you could choose to buy half now and half later. Do this and you'll be less affected by currency swings. 

    Whether you buy now or later, the key is to get the best possible rate at the time. 

  • Why can't I just change cash at the airport?

    Using an airport bureau is 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 around 30 bureaux.

    And getting a top rate here should usually beat relying on an unknown rate from a one-off local bureau once you're there.

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