Money Advice For Backpackers – When to Use Cash, Credit Cards and Traveler’s Checks
Do not put all your eggs in the same basket. Divide your cash, credit cards and travelers cheques in several locations e.g. in your daypack, backpack, money belt and wallet.
Research the most suitable way to carry money in your destination. It can be US dollars, traveler’s cheques, 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.
There are a lot of counterfeit bills around in some parts of the world. This has led some places to prefer bills from certain years, with certain print (e.g. USD with big print) and bills in good condition. Check what is advisable before you change your money.
It can be practical (though expensive) to get some of the 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 cannot find a place to change money you can try the big hotels.
If you for some reason get stranded with no cash whatsoever, calling mum or other family members is a good life savior. If there is a bank or just about any shop around there is a good chance that they will be able to transfer money with a money transfer agency.
Change a bit of cash in your home country so that you have enough local currency for a day or two. Having to find a place to change money after a 20 hour flight is tedious, even though usually there are several ATMs in airports.
Personal Experience – The Komodo Crisis
Try not to get stranded without money. A friend of mine was traveling overland in Indonesia to Komodo and was steadily running down on cash hoping that there were ATMs around. There were none and he was lucky to run into some people who could lend him some cash.
Check the expiry date of your credit card. You do not want it to expire in the middle of your trip. Also note that some credit cards mainly intended for younger people, (e.g. Maestro and Electron cards) may not work in all ATMs. These cards usually do not have relief printing on them and will not work in old fashion manual swipe machines. Check with your card issuer just to make sure.
Relying on one credit card only may be risky if you plan to use ATMs. Occasionally they get swallowed for seemingly no reason whatsoever. If you plan on having several cards with you it can be useful to make sure that they are on different networks e.g. on Cirrus and on 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 may be safer if your card is stolen.
If you have a special device or one-time codes for Internet banking bring them along if you plan on using your Internet bank.
Different brands are preferred in different countries, check before you go.
Keep track of which traveler’s cheques you have used (in a separate location from the cheques themselves).
Make sure your that your signature on the traveler’s cheques matches the one in your passport.
Bring the purchase record with you (in a separate location from the cheques), it is sometimes needed in order to cash the cheques and to claim a refund for stolen cheques.
Personal Experience – The Cambodian Cock-up
I was traveling in Cambodia and tried to cash my traveler’s cheque. I had gotten a new passport and had the bright idea of changing my signature. Only problem was, the signature on the cheques was my old one so they did not match. This made it close to impossible for me to cash my cheques in Cambodia.
Personal Experience – The Alice Springs ATM Adventure
A Friday afternoon 1997 in Alice Springs, Australia I was getting low on cash. I had $20 left and tried to withdraw cash from the one of the few ATMs in the outback. I inserted the credit card the way it is done in Sweden – with the magnetic stripe upwards. The card was swallowed by the machine and there I stood with just 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 quite different diet from the steak and umbrella drink life I was used to. For FedEx to get a new card to the middle of nowhere (i.e. Alice Springs) took five days.