Managing money while travelling

Graeme’s Travel SOS is all about how best to handle his finances while travelling.

Managing money while travelling

Kay O’Sullivan is no accidental tourist. More than a decade ago, she decided to combine two of her favourite things – journalism and travel – and become a travel writer. Since then, she has written about travel for numerous papers, magazines and on the internet, both here and internationally.

Graeme’s Travel SOS is all about how best to handle his finances while travelling – and would like to know if travellers cheques are still a ‘thing’.

Q. Graeme
What’s the best way to manage and access my money while travelling overseas? Can I use my debit card or do I need a credit card? Can you still get travellers’ cheques and how easy is it to make cash withdrawals?

A. Ah, travellers cheques … those where the days, my friend.

I carried a stash of travellers cheques with me on my first overseas trip in the early 70s. I remember strapping them round my waist in a money belt, so terrified that I would lose them and do a George Orwell and be down and out (of cash) in Paris and London. Credit cards existed way back then – actor Karl Malden never left home without his – but I was a student and students couldn’t get a credit card. In fact, my parents didn’t have one, although they did have a strong credit rating. (They were children of the Great Depression and believed in saving for what they wanted – something of a novel concept today.)

Travellers cheques still exist, so someone must be using them, but I put them in the public phone category. Time and technology has passed by both. I’ve just got back from Europe and can’t recall seeing either a public phone booth or signs saying, “We accept travellers cheques”.

Plastic rules the day and the world of travel, especially since the advent of the ‘travel card’. By that I mean a card on which you can load different currencies for use overseas. But convenience comes with a price tag. In the case of travel cards, in the form of fees – lots of them.

Fees vary depending on the card, but here’s a quick run down of what you can be charged when using a travel card: buying the card, loading money, withdrawing money, not using the account, getting a replacement card, using the card in Australia rather than overseas. And I’m sure there are more – we’re dealing with banks and we know how they turn a profit.

For a couple of trips through Asia and Europe several years ago, I did use a specific traveller’s card that I bought and, on which, loaded money, but it didn’t work for me. It might have been me, but I found it wasn’t always accepted in shops or hotels – despite it having the Visa badge – and nor could I always withdraw money from international ATMs. So I ditched it, but not without a struggle. There was, however, an upside. I had US dollars in the account and by the time I figured out how to close the account – that involved loads of internet time and hours ricocheting from one person to another on the phone – our dollar had dived and the difference covered the exit fee I was required to pay for having my money returned to me.

So now I use my normal credit and bank debit cards. Better the devil I know. They’re manageable for me and easily traceable for the bank, which is my main concern in this age of relentless internet fraud. And apart from that little windfall of $10 or so mentioned above, I believe juggling currencies to try to avoid currency fluctuations is a job for professionals. I’m more likely to save money by spending my time researching good, cheap places to eat, drink and stay.

I’m extremely concerned about security and you should be too. Here’s how to make sure your money is safe when travelling:

  • For starters, tell the bank what you are doing and for how long. (If you change sim cards on your phone let them know what number you are using and also your email address so you are contactable at all times in case purchases or withdrawals need to be verified.)
  • Keep the cards separate. I keep one in my day bag and the other locked in a safe in the room.
  • If I need to transfer funds, I do it on my iPad, which has a pin number – never on a public computer even at a good hotel.
  • I insist on watching waiters and shop assistants scan my cards when I am paying for goods or services.
  • When I withdraw money from international ATMs, I always do so in busy areas and during the day with my hand covering my pin.
  • I never use the dedicated credit card to get cash, as it attracts a higher rate than a normal debit card.
  • For ease and convenience, and so you are not grappling with your wallet or purse in a crowd, buy currency at your own bank before you leave.

And one final tip, buy a small stash of American dollars in low denominations even if you are not travelling to the US. The greenback talks all languages.

For those who are interested in the fine print of travel cards, visit

Do you have a travel question for Kay? If so, send it to



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    23rd Sep 2017
    This is exactly what we do except we have a separate debit card which we use only for holidays and is kept seperate from our main bank account. It is with another bank and we transfer money into it before we leave. The fees and conversion rates are not that high. Also take credit card and always inform the bank. Taking cash with you is a very good idea
    23rd Sep 2017
    All good advice, as a regular traveller I follow most of the above, although I have never thought of having 2 cards, I don't actually have a credit card only a visa debit card, which I mostly use when I am overseas, the part that you should take particular notice of is letting you financial institution know you are going overseas, this saved me recently when someone in the US tried to use my details for a Uber ride and several purchases at an apple shop, I have no idea how they got my details, they didn't have my physical card, fortunately my bank contacted me and didn't process the use of my card. There was one issue that happened a couple of times in Europe to someone we were travelling with and that was with a preloaded card, many places don't recognise them, a lot of places did so not real sure why some do and some don't.
    23rd Sep 2017
    And if travelling as a couple, suggest you have separate cards ( ie. Not linked) that way if a card is lost/stolen you have the other card to get by on. Friends had their card snatched and it left them with zero access to money as both their cards were for the one account.
    23rd Sep 2017
    28 Degrees Mastercard is handy overseas. You can apply on line and there are no transaction fees overseas. Its a Melbourne based company. I loaded my own money onto it and it worked perfectly. On the other hand my credit card which I used before I went to London was compromised to the tune of $2,800 but fortunately Bankwest were onto it. This occurred probably about 2 months after I returned.
    23rd Sep 2017
    I used my card only for paying accommodation and pre-booking tours
    23rd Sep 2017
    I used my card only for paying accommodation and pre-booking tours
    23rd Sep 2017
    Get a Cash Passport Card,load up different currencies if you need to.All ATMs in UK do NOT charge a fee for transactions also some in Europe.
    When buying anything ALWAYS opt for the Local Currency option that saves you Money.

    23rd Sep 2017
    Thoroughly agree with that rob101. We also used a Cash Passport card throughout Europe and USA and always worked well. Even used it to draw cash in some countries without any problems at all. We used our Visa for some hotel bookings and day tours. Another precaution not mentioned so far is to make sure all your cards are shielded from scanning. You can buy special pockets and wallets nowadays in every travel shop. They are quite cheap and very effective. One can't be too careful today
    23rd Sep 2017
    Rob, you have an extremely simplistic view of these cards. There's more to them than your post indicates.

    There are fees charged by your card issuer for using ATMs, no matter what currency you withdraw in. The ATM may not charge you, but your card issuer will.

    Not all establishments accept the prepaid cash passports WITHOUT YOUR NAME ON IT.

    I got caught out in London Heathrow. After I'd booked and paid for the car hire here at home with my prepaid cash card, I wasn't advised that I needed to have a 'Credit' card with my name on it when I arrived to collect the car, just the card I paid the deposit on. They had to take a swipe of my card for the excess charges, etc which drop off after around 10 days. I was held up at the office for around 3 hours before they accepted that I didn't have an Australian 'Credit' card (as no bank will give pensioners a Credit card if they didn't have one before they retired). I was loath to use my Visa Debit card from my bank as I knew that I didn't have much in funds on that card, as my prepaid card had most of the funds on it.

    If you have a cash passport, before you leave Australia, change the main currency to the one you'll be using when you arrive, and when you change countries, change the currency, eg UK to Ireland, Europe, then back to the UK before you come home, then to AUD.

    There are only 3 cards that I've found that actually have your name on them. They are: Virgin Velocity, QANTAS & ANZ cards.

    I don't know much about the QANTAS card.

    The Virgin one has your name & membership # on one side and the other side (if you requested a global wallet facility when you applied for your membership) has the rest of the Visa information on it, including the signature panel. You can request a supplementary card ($10) before you decide to travel overseas.

    The ANZ one costs $11 when you apply for it unless you're an ANZ account holder. If you apply on line, then your name will be printed on it, but if you go into the branch you'll get one without your name on it. They also automatically issue 2 cards.

    For safety, if you have 2 cards, have one with you and the second with your travelling partner, and theirs with yours. Then if you lose your wallet, then the spare one with your travelling partner can be used. Always inform the card issuer that you've lost the original card. Some will let you suspend the card when you log into your account.

    If you want to be extra cautious, purchase one of those RFID cases from any good travel store, including the Reject Shop. Put your cards into the case, and have your wallet just for cash purposes. Then if someone wants to take you wallet, then all they're going to get is your funds, not your cards or ID.

    If you decide to withdraw cash, do so with great caution, and split the cash into several smaller lots as soon as possible. NEVER leave any valuables at your accommodation, even if there's a safe provided in your room.

    Use cash in preference to cards.

    Always keep a diary of your spending, then you know where it's all going.

    If you're going to the UK, go to and purchase an Oyster card, like the Opal cards in NSW or the Myki cards in Melbourne. This card is reloadable, and you can use it the next time you visit London, too. The credit doesn't run out.

    This information is not to be taken as financial advice. Always do your own research.
    23rd Sep 2017
    While fees for using banking facilities overseas are unavoidable, and expected I found using my banks alliance' banks enabled ne to get funds from my savings account in OZ. For instance my bank, Westpac, has 'alliances' with Westpac (in NZ), Bank of America (in USA), Barkleys bank (in UK) and Deutcher Bank (in Europe). I could use my savings account card at these banks ATMs the same as using a Westpac ATM in Oz without paying a transaction fee (apart from a foreign exchange fee). Too easy. Visa and MasterCard are useful when making larger purchases like accommodation and travel without extravagant fees.
    23rd Sep 2017
    Yes Suzi That's because they are simple!
    23rd Sep 2017
    Avoid pre loaded travel cards like the plague. Horrendously expensive from start to finish with lousy exchange rates and fees for everything.
    A 28 degree credit card for payments and a Citibank debit card for ATM withdrawals is the best way, IMHO, to go plus a few hundred U$ dollars cash for emergencies.
    Try to book and pay for as much as possible with your 28 degree card before you go.
    26th Sep 2017
    The 28 degree card is still a Credit card. If you don't have a Credit card before you go into retirement, and lose your 'normal' income, then you most probably won't ever be able to get one. I've been knocked back from several banks, even though I have savings with them, as they say that I don't have an income - just the pension.
    23rd Sep 2017
    I have seen a few mentions here of a card called 28 degrees Iv'e never heard of this product, is it allied to a bank?
    23rd Sep 2017
    We went to England/ France / England in May 2017 for just over a month. It was our first time overseas. Like Graeme who asked the question, we were somewhat unsure about managing funds.
    After a heap of research, we chose what we thought and hoped would work for us. It did.
    We decided on a travel card. All the banks, and our travel agent offered them. They all appeared to be the same product. They weren’t. They all had variations – sometimes slight, sometimes a bit more nasty – in their terms, conditions and charges.
    We chose to use the NAB travel card. We walked into our local (regional Vic) branch and were immediately issued with the card – no charge. We put a hundred pounds on it. Don’t remember whether there was a requirement to put money on it before we took it, or we just decided to do it. I think it was discretionary though. Probably a confirmation of whether it cost to load didn’t.
    I don’t bank with NAB, so I saw this as an attractive separation of accounts. The NAB bank employee told me that I didn’t need to bank NAB. I could transfer money from our own bank account, if I chose to do so. The only difference was that NAB bank transfers took effect immediately; other bank transfers took a couple of days. The exchange rates were reasonable, and itemised in the brochure (standard - based on the standard daily conversion rate of ?? – I no longer remember). I went home and played with it, to make sure it worked smoothly for me. It didn’t. I could foresee issues when we needed money transferred in a hurry. From this we worked out the best arrangement for us: We bought some bank notes - Euros and English pounds from our bank. (I believe the post office also offers this service too.) Charges varied a little from bank to bank. This was just so we had enough to live on when we arrived. As we landed at Heathrow, we each had ½ the pounds we had bought in our wallets. The Euros were tucked away safely elsewhere. This was something that helped a lot, while we found our feet. Ditto for the Euros when we headed to France.
    I opened an NAB account specifically for this trip. The money in that account did transfer immediately. It worked really, really well. The only glitch was when I forgot the pin number of the travel card. Not good, as my husband wasn’t with me when the PIN arrived. He’s good at remembering them, I’m not. It was not a happy realisation. A free call from a London phone box, to the NAB help line number on the card sorted it for us. Awesome service.
    We could have paid zero ATM fees, as there was a hole in the wall, owned by a bank, around the corner off Trafalgar square, where we withdrew money the first time. There was no fee on that one. Instead, we chose to use Sainbury’s ATM, less than 100m away. It was off the busy street, private, and close to the shop’s security guard. We felt more comfortable. In the scheme of things, the 10 pounds or less – 5 wk total - we chose to pay was more than ok with us. Our card was never refused at any venue we attended in either country. Other than the ATM fees we knowingly chose, no fees were charged for usage in either country. We didn’t withdraw money from any ATM in France – we used what we purchased in Aus. and our travel card. We always used the local currency, if asked.
    We never carried more than about 300 in cash. I kept most of it in my purse, along with the bankcard - RFID protected. We never had more than about 3-400 on the travel card (always kept in an RFID wallet, in the front jeans pocket of my husband). We always had more than enough in the NAB account we opened up, and was able to top up from our real bank account as we chose, via our tablet and internet banking inc. Dongle, which took a couple of days to get to our new NAB account. The idea was that it was unlikely we’d lose more than 300 maximum at any time. Not fun - but not devastating. Limited funds could be hacked (unlikely anyway) from the NAB account. We also carried a bankcard with a zero balance with us....for just in case the travel card was lost/stolen/blocked. We let our banks know when we would be o/seas, and to which countries we were going.
    The only time this card will cost us really, is if we use it in Aus. They will slug us here to use it. We knew that when we got it. We will continue to use it – but only o/seas, and zero it out overseas nearer the expiry date, with another one waiting to take its place. If we decide not to travel o/seas again, we will use it online shopping. There is very little remaining on it at the moment anyway...because we kept very little on it towards the end of our holiday, transferring minimally, if needed. Perhaps 20-50 max. of each currency.
    Maybe we were extremely lucky, but it all worked like a dream, so we won’t be changing a thing next time. Maybe it wouldn’t suit others, but it was exactly right for us.
    Hopefully, Graeme will appreciate the thoughts of the people who have contributed here in good faith, cherry-picking the bits he likes, and tossing the bits that don’t suit him. Graeme then needs do a heap of his own research to ensure he is comfortable with the decisions he eventually makes to manage his funds. Everyone’s circumstances, destinations, finances and holidays are different. What worked so well for us, might be absolutely rubbish to someone else! Good luck though.
    26th Sep 2017
    Just one word of caution in regards to using GBP cash in the UK. There are some establishments in Scotland & Northern Ireland that don't accept English bank notes. They ask you to withdraw funds (still GBP) from a local ATM and use their country's notes in their establishments.

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