Getting the best exchange rates when travelling can often be difficult. But it doesn’t need to be. Read on to learn about exchange rates and how to find the best deal.
Exchange Rates – Cash, Cards or Travellers Cheques?
We’ve all faced this question. We’re travelling to a new destination. We’ve looked up the exchange rate on xe.com and we’ve checked to see if our bank cards will work in that country.
But should we use our cards? Or should we pay cash when travelling abroad?
For a lot of travel destinations, the answer, contrary to popular belief, is no. And this is because using a bank card and accessing ATM’s will see us screwed. Most often we’ll be a little worse off but sometimes we’ll be really disadvantaged if we pay with cards abroad (i.e. 50% or more).
Let’s take three (3) example countries I’ve personally travelled in the last couple of years and look at the official (i.e. xe.com) interbank exchange rates and compare them to the actual (i.e. black market) rates. And in doing so I’ll hopefully teach you how to pay like a baller with an inch thick wallet while your friends all panic about ‘how expensive everything is.’
Example One – Exchange Rates In Iran
So, you’re an infidel from one of those fascist Western countries and your cards don’t work. And that’s a good thing because it means you’ll carry cash! Because nobody excepts travellers cheques and the official rate when I was there meant nothing – as in, nobody had even heard of it!
If you’re from one of the very few countries whose cards work in Iran (yes, some do!) you still shouldn’t use your cards and you should take $USD.
When I was in Iran the official exchange rate was about 42,000:1 on the $USD. Calculated in the un-official ‘toman’ where the locals drop 3 decimal places it was 42:1 on the $USD. The un-offical real rate given by every single bank and exchange house the length and breadth of Iran was actually upwards of 128,500:1 $USD (128.5:1) or more than three (3) times as much.
Instant baller status
Example Two – Exchange Rates In Cuba
Having found myself in Cuba during 2021, I was a little concerned when I got there and saw the prices. I mean, 500CUP for an entrée at a cheap local takeaway joint with an exchange rate of 24:1 on the $USD? F*ck, that’s more expensive than Switzerland. And unlike Switzerland the Cuban food has about a 50:50 chance of giving you gastro.
To put it into further perspective, a dinner for two with drinks at a ‘nice’ restaurant won’t leave much (if any) change from 10,000CUP. And at the official rate of 24:1 will set you back more than $400 USD.
Once you learn to access Cuba’s full black market exchange rates, you quickly realise why the Government and any establishment associated with the Cuban Government, won’t accept CUP and will only take $USD or €uro.
That’s right folks, the Cuban Government doesn’t want to be paid in Cuban currency.
Instead of the ‘official rate’ of 24:1 the actual rate when I was in Cuba was closer to 110:1. Or more than four and a half (4.5x) times the offical rate. I’ve since been informed the rate has gone up further still with inflation. And not by a little, but by a lot!
It’s no wonder I was accessing black market cash for diplomats stationed there, as they were struggling to make ends meet with the official rate and their ‘paltry’ government salaries of $100k $USD or more.
Example Three – Exchange Rates In Argentina
I will cry for you Argentina. When I first visited Argentina over a decade ago the exchange rate was around 2.5:1 on the $USD. It’s now around 300:1 on the $USD.
If in Argentina you decide to use your foreign card to access an ATM you may in rare circumstances find one that doesn’t charge you a ridiculous transaction fee. Or that doesn’t limit you to withdrawing less cash than it costs to buy a decent steak dinner. But you will definitely get the official government imposed exchange rate of (currently at the time of writing) 112:1 on the $USD.
Let’s say instead of using your card you take cash to Argentina in the form of perfect condition $100USD bills. Exchange houses will give you the current dollar blue rate (currently around 300:1) and any local friends you have here will likely give you more.
Heck, even if you forgo taking cash and instead decide you want to electronically transfer cash as you need it to Argentina, you can use Western Union like an ATM in Argentina.
Western Union is everywhere in Argentina. And Western Union transfers money at or around the dolar blue rate.
If you’re Australian for instance, it’s actually cheaper to transfer cash to yourself through Western Union than it is to pay bank fees to buy USD cash in Australia and exchange it in Argentina for Pesos.
Exchange Rates | Conclusion
Your ‘travel’ oriented credit card can lose you much more than its weight in gold. Always carry cash alongside your travel cards, even after you’ve verified they will work in your intended destination.
Carry cash as a backup and ask a local, for example your AirBnB host, when you arrive into a new country what the official and unofficial exchange rates are. You’ll quickly find that if there is a ‘real’ exchange rate operating alongside the ‘official’ exchange rate everyone knows what it is and will tell you.
Finding out that there is an unofficial rate of currency exchange could in fact cut your travel costs in half (or more).