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How to save on travel money

Scored 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.

Whether you’re holidaying away, studying abroad, or hoovering up online savings by paying in a different currency – poor 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!

What’s an exchange rate?

 The exchange rate tells you how much you’ll get when you convert one currency into another. Rates can change quicker than a runway model backstage, so what you actually get can vary from day to day.

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 – or try sites such as TravelMoneyMax.com to stack up the offers.

Reading the rates

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

While that sounds like you’re getting extra cash in this example, 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!

Which options have fewer fees?

As well as scouting for the best rates, it’s also important to keep an eye on transaction fees and the other hidden costs we’ve outlined below.

Carrying cash


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 will be handy for taxis, snacks or getting change for the loos
  • Can be easier to keep tabs on how much you’re spending
  • No fees (other than commission when you buy it)
  • It’s easier to haggle with cash.

Cons:


  • Exchange rate is fixed the day you convert
  • There may be extra charges if you pay for your currency with a credit card
  • Easier to lose if you’re fumbling around a lot
  • You might end up being the one to fork out in cash-only situations if you’re the only one carrying notes/change
  • 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 rates (you might have less choice once you hit the airport/get abroad).

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

Pre-paid cards

 Prepaid cards work by loading 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.

Pro: 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 (Mastercard): 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 (supports 16 currencies). They charge between 1% and 2% for swaps, depending how quickly you need the money, 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.

Credit and debit cards

We’ve listed overseas card charges for the top 6 student banks right here to help you work out if you’re getting a raw deal.

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.

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

Con: 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:

Bank Foreign spending £50 spend could cost Withdrawals £50 withdrawal could cost
2.95% £1.48 2.95% + 3% cash fee (min. £3) £4.48
2.75% £1.38 2.75% + 3% cash fee (min. £3) £4.38
2.95% £1.48 2.95% + 3% cash fee (min. £3) £4.48
2.99% £1.50 2.99% + 2.99% cash fee (min. £3) £4.50
2.99% £1.50 2.99% £1.50
2.95% £1.48 2.95% + 3% cash fee (min. £3) £4.48

Debit cards

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:

Bank Foreign spending £50 spend could cost Withdrawals £50 withdrawal could cost
2.99% + £1 £2.50 2.99% + 1.5% cash fee (min. £2, max. £4.50) £3.50
2.75% (min. £1) £1.38 2.75% + 2% cash fee (min. £2, max. £5) £3.38
2.75% + £1.25 £2.63 2.75% + 1.5% cash fee (min. £1.99) £3.37
2.75% £1.38 2.75% + 2% cash fee (min. £1.75, max. £5) £3.13
2.99% £1.50 2.99% + £1.50 cash fee at non-Barclay’s machines £3.00
2.75% + £1.50 £2.88 2.75% + £1.50 cash fee £2.88

6 travel money tips

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!

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