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How to save on travel money

Heading on a trip abroad? Don’t get stung on travel money! From bad exchange rates to sneaky fees, we take a look at how to get the best deal on foreign currency.

travel money

Whether you're holidaying away, studying abroad, or hoovering up online savings by paying in a different currency, poor exchange rates and hidden charges can quickly eat into your cash.

We've got the tips you need to cut your costs and make your money go further!

Got your travel insurance covered? If not, use our guide to finding the best travel insurance on a budget.

What's an exchange rate?

exchange rates

The exchange rate tells you how much you’ll get when you convert one currency into another. Rates can change massively from day to day (and even hour to hour), so you can never be exactly sure how much you're going to get.

There are two separate rates worth knowing about: selling (when you get your travel money) and buying (if you want to return unused cash). Some outlets also charge commission (their price for doing the conversion).

You can check out what the current rates are on all currencies at your local Post Office, travel agent, bank and exchange bureaux.

Understanding exchange rates

If 1 GBP buys you 1.5 USD, you’ll get one and a half US dollars for every pound you convert. So if you go in with £100, you would walk out with $150.

While that might sound like you’re getting extra cash, remember it boils down to how much things actually cost at your destination! A coffee might cost you £2.50 in the UK, but you might be charged $5 in the US for the same cup, so don't get too excited!

When you spend in a different currency on a credit or debit card, the bank uses its own rate to convert the price into pounds first, then adds on any charges.

What's the best way to take money on holiday?

When it comes to travelling, it can be difficult to know how you should transport your money. Is taking cash safe? Will you be charged for paying by card?

We've outlined some of the best options, as well as the hidden costs and things to watch out for, below.

Carrying cash

carrying cash on holiday
You might be tempted to exchange your cash before you fly to keep things simple, but it's worth knowing the pros and cons involved first!

Pros:

  • You’ve got cash in your hands as soon as you land
  • Which is handy for taxis, snacks or city taxes on arrival
  • It can make it easier to keep tabs on how much you're spending
  • There's no fees (other than commission when you buy it)
  • It's easier to haggle with cash.

Cons:

  • The exchange rate is fixed the day you convert
  • There may be extra charges if you pay for your currency with a credit card
  • It's easier to lose if you're fumbling around a lot
  • You might end up being the one having to fork out in cash-only situations
  • It can feel unsafe carrying too much cash around, and if you lose any, it's likely your travel insurance won't cover all of it (if any).

Whether you get it all at once or convert-as-you-go, shop around for the best rate. Remember that you might have less choice once you hit the airport/get abroad.

Watch out for any extra commission/charges – or, just as bad, 0% commission but a pants-poor rate of exchange.

Pre-paid cards

prepaid cards

Prepaid cards allow you to load money onto a card, either online or using an app (so you can top-up whenever you need). You can then spend on your card anywhere it’s accepted. Most prepaid cards are Visa or Mastercard, so this makes spending abroad pretty easy.

Pros: You'll be offered real-time or attractive rates, and cheaper than other cards

Con: Watch out for ATM withdrawal fees, additional spending fees or replacement cards

You can use most prepaid cards abroad without incurring any charges, but there are a couple of cards specifically designed for spending with foreign currencies:

  1. Revolut logoRevolut: The app is free but if you want a physical card it'll cost you £5, with no fees on spending or ATM withdrawals (up to £200/month and then it's a 2% charge). You can also use it to send or receive money by SMS, email or social media. Revolut uses ‘perfect interbank’ exchange rates - that's the same rate banks give each other - and supports any currency.
  2. WeSwap logoWeSwap (Mastercard): This service ‘swaps’ your currency with other people around the world at interbank rates (supporting 18 currencies). They charge 2% for swaps, but if you invite five friends, they say you’ll never have to pay. There's also no charges on spending, or withdrawals over £200, and they let you order cash that can be delivered to your home at no extras charge. 

For more info on how to get the most out of prepaid perks, check out our guide to prepaid cards for students.

Look after pre-paid cards as you would credit cards: if they’re lost or stolen, contact the provider pronto. 

Credit and debit cards

The tables below show how much you’ll be charged each time you use your card, along with rough costs for spending or withdrawing the equivalent of £50.

How each bank sets its exchange rate, the type of card and how long you take to repay could affect the overall cost, as could any ATM or retailer fees abroad. Always confirm the details for yourself!

Credit cards

These usually work out more expensive pound-for-pound, thanks to a whole raft of overseas charges added on each time you use your card.

Pros: You get the same Section 75 protection that you get in the UK on items costing £100 or more

Cons: ATM charges, transaction fees, commission and exchange rates. Keep an eye on interest added to any spending/withdrawals as well – always aim to repay in full when you're back on UK soil!

Credit card overseas charges:

BankForeign spending£50 spend could costWithdrawals£50 withdrawal could cost
Lloyds2.95%£1.482.95% + 3% cash fee (min. £3)£4.48
NatWest2.75%£1.382.75% + 3% cash fee (min. £3)£4.38
Santander2.95%£1.482.95% + 3% cash fee (min. £3)£4.48
HSBC2.99%£1.502.99% + 2.99% cash fee (min. £3)£4.50
Barclaycard2.99%£1.502.99%£1.50
Halifax2.95%£1.482.95% + 3% cash fee (min. £3)£4.48
The Halifax Clarity credit card has no fees on foreign spending or withdrawals. It can be trickier to get hold of, but worth checking out.

Debit cards

debit card

Most students have a debit card, making them an attractive option for carrying on holiday – but again, sneaky charges could bite you when you get home.

Debit card overseas charges:

BankForeign spending£50 spend could costWithdrawals£50 withdrawal could cost
Lloyds2.99% + £0.50£2.002.99% + £1.50 cash fee £3.00
NatWest2.75% (min. £1)£1.382.75% + 2% cash fee (min. £2, max. £5)£3.38
Santander2.75% + £1.25£2.632.75% + 1.5% cash fee (min. £1.99)£3.37
HSBC2.75%£1.382.75% + 2% cash fee (min. £1.75, max. £5)£3.13
2.75%£1.382.75% + £1.50 cash fee at non-Barclays machines£2.89
Halifax2.99% + £0.50£2.002.99% + £1.50 cash fee£3.00
The Monzo card allows you to spend abroad with no fees (using the Mastercard exchange rate). You can also withdraw up to £200 a month for free, after which there is a 3% charge.

6 tips for spending abroad

saving money for travelling

A few extra travel money tips from us to help ensure you get the most out of your trip...

  1. Consider splitting holiday money across cash and cards so you’ve got a back-up in case of loss or theft
  2. You can withdraw other currencies from some ATMs here in the UK, but you'll still have to pay any foreign transaction fees
  3. Let the bank know you’re going abroad. If they see any foreign transactions happening they could assume your cards have been stolen and block them...
  4. You may be offered the choice of paying in Sterling on your card while abroad: Don't be tricked! It usually works out much more expensive
  5. Don't let cards out of your sight when paying (for example, don't let a waiter walk off with your card in the handheld machine), and always check receipts carefully at the time the transaction is made
  6. Only ever withdraw cash with a credit card in a genuine emergency. As well as the extra fees for foreign use, you could start accruing interest straight away. Either way, it's a banker's bonus you shouldn't be paying for - ditch it! 
It's also worth noting that withdrawing cash with a credit card looks bad on your credit report. Find out more in our guide to checking and improving your credit rating.

It's all well and good saving on exchange rates, but what about the holiday itself - how do you save money on that? Check out our interview with Chelsea 'Travel' Dickenson, a woman who went on 10 holidays in a year for half as much as the average Brit's annual travel spend!

Got questions, quibbles or tips? Share 'em below - or just let us know how you get on!

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