Ask LH: How Should I Organise My Cash When Travelling To The US?

Hey Lifehacker, I will be travelling to the US later in the year. I wondered if you have any advice about managing finances for a trip, particularly the use of travel credit and debit cards rather than my own cards, and the best way to plan ahead give the potential dip in the dollar predicted. Thanks, States I'll Be In

New York picture from Shutterstock

Dear SIBI,

In no particular order, these are our tips for how to organise your money if you're headed to the USA. (Most of them apply to any trip overseas, but there are a couple of US-specific nuances.)

  • While you will be able to pay for many things using credit or debit cards, make sure you have a reasonable supply of cash as well, including quite a few dollar bills — you'll need these for tipping. Cash also helps for really small purchases, or if your card doesn't work for some reason.
  • Take more than one card with you. That covers you if you lose a card, it gets stolen, your bank suddenly blocks it, or it just doesn't work for some reason. (If you're especially paranoid, keep the card in a different location to your main wallet.)
  • There's a lot to be said for using a separate travel card which you can preload with US currency. All the major banks offer these now; popular choices for Lifehacker readers have included the 28 Degrees MasterCard, the OzForex prepaid travel card and the Qantas Cash Card. The first advantage is that you can set your travel budget in advance and avoid overspending. The second is that you're not using your regular credit card, so if there is a problem or your details are misused, you won't have to cancel any regular payments on your normal credit card.
  • The other big selling point for these cards is that they are actually credited with US currency, so you won't pay conversion fees and you can potentially load them up a time when the exchange rate is healthier. That's still something of a gamble — currency movements are unpredictable. However, planning for your holiday by regularly setting aside money is a useful strategy in any case.
  • Make sure you notify your bank that you're going overseas — otherwise your transactions may be flagged as unusual and your card will be blocked.

Be sure to check out our broader guide on the top 10 things to remember when travelling to the USA. Enjoy your trip!

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    In my recent travels, I used the Citibank Savings account with a Visa Debit card. Main attraction there was having access to my own money, in AUD, but they give you free ATM and "normal" transaction usages in other countries, all you pay is the converted AUD amount, no added fees or what not.

      Yep. It is the ONLY product currently available in Australia which allows to withdraw cash at overseas ATMs without paying any flat fees or %-based currency conversion fees.

      Just so it is clear to other readers, this is the Citibank Plus transaction account (which pays no interest whatsoever) and not one of their savings accounts.

    After much research and use of different options... testing everything from transaction fees, service fees, reload fees, good vs bad exchange rates... the best option i (and many others online) have found, is...

    Citibank Savings Account for cash ATM withdrawals - there's no flat transaction fee, no % based fee and the exchange rate is simply at the prevailing Visa daily rate

    28degrees mastercard - for credit purchases - again no transaction fees and the exchange rate is at the daily rate.

    All the other banks credit/debit/travel cards, qantas cash etc.... from what i've found... all end up shafting you in one way or another - even if they say there are no transaction fees or reload fees... they end up having 2-3% embedded in the exchange rate.

      @gazmodo I agree 100%

      even if they say there are no transaction fees or reload fees... they end up having 2-3% embedded in the exchange rate

      Absolutely and I would not be surprised if Citibank end up doing a 'bait and switch' exercise and start 'loading up' their exchange rates as well.

      It is true they are not doing it right now, but given the nature of the banking institution Citibank is globally, I would not be surprised to see them pull a stunt like that and very quietly change the PDS for this account to allow them to do it.

      I suggest people check the PDS and make sure no such 'loading' has yet occurred before they embark on each overseas trip they plan to use their Citibank account for.

        I found a lot of places (in Hong Kong and Europe at least), actually gave you an option of paying in AUD when using EFTPOS/Credit. I never did that as I wasn't sure on the exchange rate to be used, but if I had of thought about it for more than 2 seconds I probably could have compared and decided what currency I would pay in to get the best FX rate.

          Based on my own experience (and that of many other frequent travellers), it is NEVER a good idea to get the merchant to convert to your local currency.
          If you want a simple demonstration of this, just look at the rates PayPal converts to AUD.

          Always, always (always!) pay in the local currency and source your own conversion mechanism.
          The ones which consistently get the best exchange rates are 28 degrees credit card for purchases and Citibank Plus for cash withdrawals.

          Have them both in your 'tool belt' whenever you travel overseas and you're laughing (or just Citibank Plus If you don't wanna use credit cards).

          K.I.S.S :)

      Confirmed this is definitely the way to go.

    @anguskidman There’s a lot to be said for using a separate travel card which you can preload with US currency. All the major banks offer these now; popular choices for Lifehacker readers have included the 28 Degrees MasterCard, the OzForex prepaid travel card and the Qantas Cash Card
    This bit can be slightly misleading for readers IMHO as the 28 Degrees Mastercard is a normal credit card and not a stored-value travel card.

    Two things to be aware of regarding it:

    1. It is no longer a good idea to 'pre-load' this card with money and then use it to withdraw cash at overseas ATMs as this mob DOES now charge a %-based cash advance fee (since about 6 months ago from memory). As one of the other commenters mentioned, the ONLY way now for Australians to withdraw local currency at overseas ATMs without paying any fees (other than ATM operator fees that are charged by the ATM owner) and at decent exchange rates is by using the Citibank Plus transaction account.

    2. As the 28 degrees is a credit card and not stored value travel card, it does not allow you to keep money in a foreign currency (e.g USD). This means that it will NOT offer protection from adverse movements in the AUD/USD exchange rate which I think was a major consideration for OP.

    Last edited 05/11/14 11:00 am

    For the USA we still use American Express traveller's cheques, take a few hundred in cash, along with Visa and Amex cards which are paid in full at the end of the cycle.

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