What format to take your travel money?

Money matters when travelling

I’ve travelled in countries where my bank cards were unlikely to work and cash was the preferred payment method.  This can be the case in central Asia, parts of China and all of Iran.

Before I departed for my last travels I was anxious about how much money to take, how would I keep it safe, what if I lost my bank cards?  On and on my anxiety went.  As it turned out, everything  was fine.  I had enough and when I needed more I could get it.

That’s not to say it’s not an area of pre-trip preparation that should be taken lightly, but just like getting your visas organised there’s little point stressing.

Some of the cash I took on my overland trip

Getting the best FX rates

If you’re needing to take a large sum of one currency with you, it’s worth shopping around for the best rate before you leave.  If you can, make the journey to a bureau de change in a large city.  We’ve used an FX bureau based in Covent Garden, London. Using this bureau meant an increase of £400 when changing $10,000 USD! This more than paid the cost of the train ticket, in fact, it paid it ten times over.  Many of these companies offer a postal service, but to date, I’ve not used the service.

Money Saving Expert gives a range of information regarding the options available for travel money and it’s worth spending a bit of time investigating the options.  We found out about the bureau in Covent Garden, London via the information on Money Saving Expert.

Getting the right denomination

Lower denomination notes can be worth a lower exchange rate in many countries, but it’s worth bringing some smaller notes, $1, $5, $10 for times when you either don’t want to change much money – for example you may be passing through somewhere for a day and don’t need much spending money, or you’re in a place where the only place to change money gives a bad rate – but you need money to tide you over until you can get a better rate.  Unlikely these sorts of places will take $1 though, but $1 are good for tips.

Getting the right age of notes

Although the US Dollar is always legal tender sadly, much of the world only take takes post-2006 aged dollars and only good quality ones.  If you get older notes or damaged notes pre-departure, change them.

If you are given older notes  en route – perhaps as change when you hand over $100 but only want to change $50 –  and it’s pre-2006  ask for another note, as you could well be stuck with that $50 for the entire trip.

Don’t accept badly damaged notes that are of a higher denomination, either as change or as part of the FX transaction. I hand them back and ask for different ones.  They’d do the same to you so don’t be embarrassed about this.

Check notes carefully as it’s easy to get fobbed off with dodgy notes.  I’ve changed money in all sorts of places, all around the world and the ONE place I got ripped off was at Gatwick Airport in the UK.  Luckily I realised before I departed. I always make a point of counting the money out there and then.  Don’t be shy, it’s what other people do.

Using bank cards

Check with your bank what the charges are.  They can add up. If you have the time and inclination (and you’re travelling for a reasonable amount of time) it might be worth setting up an account with a bank that doesn’t charge fees for cash withdrawals abroad.  Although I sometimes wonder if this saving is just reflected in a lower rate.

Emergency cash

It’s prudent to keep some emergency cash in a key currency or currencies (eg: USD, GBP, Euro) stashed somewhere safe – or at least away from your main stash of money. I always travel with 2 credit cards and two bank debit cards and I keep a set of each in different parts of my bag.

Inform your bank you’re travelling

Do make sure you tell your bank the countries you’re going to. A few years ago I had to make a very expensive call back to England from Vietnam  because I didn’t do this and they stopped all my cards!

How much cash to take?

The company you’re travelling with should give you information about how much money you might need and in what format to bring it as it’s dependent on where you’re travelling, and for how long.

It’s likely you will be expected to bring your kitty payment in cash, usually US Dollars, to give to the crew upon arrival.  The kitty amount forms a significant part of your trip.  It can be used to pay for accommodation, truck costs, food, paying for local guides etc. so it’s important you bring the amount and denomination that’s required.

As for spending money, well…only you can be the judge of this but take guidance from the trip notes.



Much of the information and advice expressed on this website is the personal opinion of the writer. If you choose to follow any advice you do so at your own risk with no recourse to the writer or Adventures in Overland.