18 cheapest ways to get travel money

Foreign currency & overseas spending tips

cheapest ways to get travel money

The pound is fluctuating against the euro amidst coronavirus uncertainty, and with some overseas travel back on you might want to know if 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.

Overseas travel & coronavirus

The Foreign Office lifted travel restrictions for dozens of countries in early July. However, the warning's  now been reinstated for several countries. See our Coronavirus Travel Rights guide for full help and the latest on Covid-19 travel restrictions.

The tips below are still relevant if you're going abroad and looking to get the best deal on your travel money, but it's a fast-moving situation so be extra careful before you travel.

18 travel money savings, including...

  1. 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.

    Video player requires JavaScript enabled. You can watch this video here: https://youtu.be/ko_izNaIR50

    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. For more on the options Martin talks about in the video, see specialist credit cardsprepaid cards and travel cash below.

  2. 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 30 July 2019 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: £912 (see point 3)
    • Cash, via UK's cheapest bureau (pick up in London): £923 (see point 5)
    • Cash from M&S (non-cardholder): £933
    • Top prepaid card: £923
    • Using a debit card from hell: £972 (see point 8
    • Change at airport (Gatwick South Terminal, ICE Travel Money, not pre-ordered): £1,030

    Note that most airport bureaux are currently closed due to the coronavirus crisis so we've left the figures above from July 2019 to show the usual differences, which can be massive. The winners are simple – apply for a specialist overseas credit card, then use it every time you go.

  3. The top-pick credit cards abroad

    Specialist travel credit cards don't add sterling exchange fees, so they give near-perfect rates on spending abroad. Do note you'll usually be charged interest on cash withdrawals even if you pay off in full, although our top pick below is an exception to this rule – if you'll need to withdraw cash regularly, also consider a specialist debit card.

    • Current top pick: The Barclaycard Rewards card (22.9% rep APR) has no fees on spending or cash withdrawals overseas. And it also doesn't charge interest on spending OR overseas cash withdrawals as long as you repay IN FULL. Plus, it pays 0.25% cashback on spending worldwide.

    Full info and more options in our Top Travel Credit Cards guide.

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

    tropical island

    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 more than £100 and less than £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 the 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
  4. The CHEAPEST debit cards abroad

    It's possible to get a debit card that doesn't charge any fees on non-sterling transactions. You'll need to open a bank account, though you don't have to switch (and it may not be worth switching anyway as you'd be missing out on other bank account perks – see Best Bank Accounts).

    There is of course nothing stopping you from having a second (or third) bank account, so you can open one separately for travel and use it alongside your existing account.

    Starling Bank* and Virgin Money* are our current top picks. They both charge no overseas spending OR cash withdrawal fees when you use their debit cards worldwide.

    Check our main Travel Cards guide for more options.

    Specialist debit cards are good if...

    • You're happy to open a 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
    • You want Section 75 protection as there's none 
  5. Need cash? Compare top currency rates

    TravelMoneyMax

    Our TravelMoneyMax.com travel money comparison tool compares rates at about 30 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
  6. 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 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).

    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 current top pick Revolut gives perfect interbank rates on euros and dollars on weekdays, though it has a small mark-up at weekends.

    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
  7. Debit cards can be the worst way to spend abroad

    Let's make this plain: do not use the following cards for spending, particularly outside Europe. Following European regulations last year, they're not quite as diabolical as they once were – but any of the other methods in this guide still beat them handily.

    These debit 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. 

    Thankfully, regulations mean spending fees now CAN'T be charged for purchases made in euros in the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway (the European Economic Area/EEA). But the cards below continue to charge 50p-£1.50 for transactions in other countries and currencies – meaning it's still best to avoid them.

    DO YOU HAVE A DEBIT CARD FROM HELL?
    Bank of Scotland | Halifax | Lloyds | IF | 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.

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

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

    best currency to pay with

    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.

  9. Find out what your existing cards are charging

    A few 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 a few years ago, 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 card is listed in point 2). To help, we've built a How good is your current plastic? checker.

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

    don't change money at airport

    Note: Many airport bureaux are currently closed due the the coronavirus crisis, so you may not be able to change your cash at the airport – even more reason to plan ahead and sort your travel money before you go.

    It'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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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, including Santander, Tesco Bank and Virgin Money, 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.

  13. Can I go cashless and just use an ATM at the airport?

    It goes without saying that for safety, many like to have a wad of euros, dollars or lire in their overseas wallet before they jet off – in which case our TravelMoneyMax tool will do the job.

    However, it may be cheaper to travel cashless and simply withdraw money from an ATM at your destination airport with a top travel credit card. Do this and you'll benefit from near-perfect exchange rates (which'll beat the rates offered on exchanging cash in advance). 

    However, bear in mind that it may be difficult to avoid ATM fees in certain countries. From our experiences at MSE Towers, we've seen ATM fees in Vietnam, Thailand, India, the US and elsewhere – though going cashless may still work out cheaper than taking cash even after factoring in the odd ATM fee.

    Remember that if using a credit card overseas, almost all card providers will charge interest from the moment you make a cash withdrawal. To minimise this, pay off the balance IN FULL while abroad. Also see the point below in regards to the potential credit score impact of withdrawing cash on a credit card.

    It's also worth being aware that not all airports will have an ATM at arrivals. Others will have them but may charge fees or worse, not be in working order. If you do plan on travelling cashless, it may be worth researching the airport online before you go.

  14. 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 report. 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 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.

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

  15. 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 application 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.

  16. 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 60+ Overseas Travel Tips to make yours a happy holiday.

  17. Hiring a car abroad? You'll probably need a credit card

    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.

  18. Plus don't forget travel insurance

    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 £18 for an annual policy for an individual in Europe –don't leave home without it. Check out the top policies in the Cheap Travel Insurance guide.

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