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The smartest ways to carry and spend your holiday money abroad

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Before you head off, it’s worth planning how you’ll carry and access money when you’re overseas. Source: Westpac

Our love affair with overseas travel shows no signs of easing up, with Aussies taking more than one million trips overseas in the 12 months to January 2018, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. That’s up six per cent for the same period the previous year. And older Aussies are the keenest travellers of all, making up to 80 per cent of all leisure travel purchases!

But before you head off, it’s worth planning how you’ll carry and access money when you’re overseas. Banks and travel companies change their product offerings and fees from time to time so the most cost-effective and safest ways of paying for your adventures may’ve changed since last time you went abroad.

Cash, debit, credit cards and travel money cards – there are pros and cons for each, which we’ve set out so you can decide which combination is right for you.


Cash is still king in many cities, and carrying a couple of days’ worth of the currency of your first destination makes it quicker and easier to grab a coffee or a cab upon your arrival. It also ensures you can give tips if you wish.

One of the easiest ways to sort out local currency before you go away is to order it online through your bank. Westpac, for example, allows you to lock in your foreign exchange rate at the time you order the currency, which means you can watch exchange rates and buy when its most favourable to you. You can pay using your debit or credit card, or via BPAY, then pick up the cash from your local branch. This service is available whether you’re a Westpac customer or not.

Adrian Pin, Westpac’s head of international needs, says it’s key to shop around before purchasing currency.

“That equally applies whether you’re at home or overseas. Don’t be afraid to ask for a better rate. Nearly everyone will negotiate to win your business,” he says.

Travelling with large amounts of cash, particularly large denomination notes, however, comes with some risks. It’s worth asking for a supply of smaller denomination notes that can be more readily broken when you need to use them. The smaller notes can be kept on your person separately from the larger-denomination notes so you’re not seen with a large wad of cash every time you want to buy a cool drink or a knick-knack.

Cash can also be easily stolen – warnings about pickpocketing are usually rife in any tourist hotspot – and isn’t replaceable so where possible, carry only what you need with you and leave most of your cash in your hotel safe or with hotel reception when out and about.

Don’t forget that if you plan to exchange your home currency for local currency when you’re away, you may have to hunt around to get the best exchange rate, which is rarely found in any popular ‘touristy’ street. Weekends, public holidays and festivals can sometimes make it tricky to access foreign banks where and when you need to too, so it’s always worth having a back-up option such as a credit or travel money card.

Debit and credit cards

Just as they provide convenience at home, debit and credit cards make covering larger outlays such as hotel bills, car rentals and restaurants convenient overseas.

It’s always advisable to notify your bank a week or so before you leave home that you’ll be using your card and accessing your accounts while overseas. Some banks allow you to do this through their online banking platform, or you can pop into your local branch.

Credit and debit cards are light and easy to carry, and can be replaced if they are lost or stolen.

You can also use your credit card to get cash advances from most ATMs in the world. It’s worth looking in to what your bank charges for overseas withdrawals and balance checks, however. Foreign transaction fees can add up over the course of your trip, so it pays to know in advance what fees and charges you’ll be up for.

One of the other issues with taking your debit or credit cards overseas is the risk they’ll be stolen and/or used fraudulently. In the worst-case scenario, your bank may need to cancel your card to prevent further misuse, which can be a hassle, particularly if you don’t have a back-up card.

According to Pin, the banks are continually improving mobile banking tools to make it easier for travellers. One feature is the ability to lock and unlock your card, rather than cancelling it.

“When you’re not sure if you’ve lost your credit card or just misplaced it in your luggage, the last thing you want to do is ring up the bank and cancel your card – particularly if you then find it ten minutes later in your pocket,” Pin says. 

“So now, you can just temporarily lock your card, and it prevents the card from being used until you unlock it again. It’s just a click of the button in the app.”

Many travellers like to take a couple of different cards from different banks – or, say, a Visa and MasterCard –  in case one brand of card is not accepted, or carry a pre-loaded travel money card as well to cover expenses until they’re able to use their bank card again.

Travel money cards

Travel money cards have been around for a while, and are ideal if you want to pre-load (and re-load) multiple currencies onto a single card at an exchange rate that’s locked in at the time you load the card.

Banks such as Westpac will issue you a spare card for use as a back-up in case of an emergency. Using travel money cards typically means you can avoid the foreign transaction fee you’d incur if you used your bank cards, because the travel money card is pre-loaded with the local currency.

One of the other benefits of using travel money cards is that they’re widely accepted – you can use them online or in ATMs and shops as you would a Visa or Mastercard.

And in some cases, you can save a stack on fees. Westpac for example, does not charge load or re-load fees, annual or ongoing fees for you to keep its travel money card active.

“There are some fees for some transactions, but largely it’s got the benefits and utility of a credit card, and it doesn’t carry the fee structure”, Pin says.

Not all banks waive these fees on their travel money cards, so it’s worth investigating this when you’re researching the best card for you.

One of the other disadvantages of using travel money cards is that they’re sometimes not accepted by smaller retailers overseas who prefer cash payment.

Many travellers choose to use a combination of these options to ensure they’ve got access to money as needed.

How do you carry your money when you travel? Cash, cards or both? 

* World Mastercard®, Mastercard® and the Mastercard brand mark are registered trademarks, and PayPass is a trademark of Mastercard International Incorporated.

* VISA is a registered trademark of Visa International Service Association and used under licence.

Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and for information purposes only. It does not take into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. It is not financial product advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any financial decision you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from an independent licensed financial services professional.

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