Americans accustomed to plunking down a credit card to pay for everything from their morning cup of joe to their after-hours aperitif might be in for quite a surprise when traveling to many parts of the world where cash is still king.
Credit cards may only be accepted in the best of hotels and fanciest of restaurants; ATMs may be few and far between; and carrying a wad of cash in your wallet may make you a magnet for pickpockets.
"If it's a cash-based economy, chances are you're going to have to be very vigilant. Everybody knows you're going to be carrying cash," says Peggy Goldman, owner of Friendly Planet Travel, based in Jenkintown, Pa.
But there are still plenty of ways to stay safe when traveling in a cash-based economy.
The best place to begin your journey is online.
Almost 39 million Americans flew to international destinations in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. While Europe remains the perennial favorite, Asia, the Caribbean and Mexico have become hot spots, with more than 5 million visitors each. And the popularity of the Mideast and Africa are booming.
But unlike Western Europe, where credit cards and ATMss are ubiquitous, other regions can present interesting challenges.
The best place to learn about the country you plan to visit is at the travel website run by the U.S. State Department, which has detailed information about each foreign country, often highlighting financial matters.
There you'll learn that in places such as Peru and China, counterfeit currency is a growing problem, and that the ruble is the only legal currency in Russia, except at certain authorized retailers.
Scout your ATMs in advance
You can also check out Wells Fargo's website, which offers information on credit cards, cash and ATMs for several dozen nations. There you'll learn U.S. dollars in small denominations are accepted in Vietnamese cities, and that for safety's sake, ATMs should be used inside banks or other commercial establishments in countries including Mexico and South Africa, so you won't be so visible to criminals.
Safety issues aren't the only concern with ATMs. They may be a challenge to find outside bigger cities and towns; transaction fees may be costly; or they may only dispense small sums of cash or run out entirely.
"If the infrastructure of a country is dodgy, chances are so are the ATMs," says Jan Goodwin, a New York-based journalist who has covered wars and unrest in many of the world's hot spots.
"It's very important to find out ahead of time what's available at your destination," in terms of ATMs, says Ed Perkins, a contributing editor at SmarterTraveler.com. He suggests searching the Visa ATM locator and MasterCard ATM locator ahead of your travels to find out where ATMs are located in the countries you'll be visiting. That will tell you if the country has two ATMs or 2,000.
While travelers checks were once the mainstay of people traveling abroad, they're gradually falling out of favor. "Travelers checks are a pain in the neck," Goldman says. "Nobody likes them anymore."
In some places only banks and major hotels will accept them, and they may charge travelers a premium to cash them, says Bob Drumm, president of General Tours World Traveler, based in Keene, N.H.
'Control the visibility of cash'
So for many travelers, the best bet is bringing along cash. But that means travelers need to "control the visibility of cash," Drumm says.
Goodwin, whose recent vacations involved kayaking in Mongolia and Vietnam, travels to off-the-beaten-path destinations with several hundred dollars in cash, which she puts in a plain white envelope with a rubber band around it, and stores in a locked compartment of her backpack. "Authorities have never questioned it."
Other options for carrying cash include:
- Money belts and pouches.
- Zippered inner compartments of travel jackets or vests.
It can help to divide it up among various storage spots, and keep only a small amount at hand.
Goldman recommends storing the bulk of your cash in the in-room safe or the hotel's safety deposit box, and only carrying around a limited amount of money. Then if you're out shopping and find something you're dying to buy, go back and get the extra cash from your hotel.
Another way to limit your need for cash is to prepay for as much of the trip as possible before you leave home, Goldman says.
Goodwin recommends making sure the dollars you're carrying are relatively new. "Many Third World countries won't take notes older than 7 years old."
On the flip side, be familiar with the currency at your destination. "There's an awful lot of fake money on the market," she says.
The State Department website warns of Americans in Mexico being arrested for passing on counterfeit currency that they received as change, and in Colombia, "police officers" may approach travelers in the street and ask to examine their money to make sure it's not counterfeit. Then they flee with the cash.
Converting dollars into the local currency should be done at a reputable location, such as a bank, hotel or exchange office, Goldman says.
Ann Lombardi, a travel consultant with The Trip Chicks in Atlanta, says travelers need to be vigilant so they don't receive outdated bills rather than proper currency when exchanging money or making a purchase. They also need to make sure no one tries to slip them a different country's bills or coins. That currency may look similar to that of the country they're in, but it will be worth less -- if it's usable at all in their current location.
Along with knowing what the currency looks like, it's imperative to know the proper exchange rate to avoid getting ripped off. "It always amazes me how many American travelers still seem to stick their hands out and invite street vendors or store sales personnel to 'help themselves' to the correct payment amount," Lombardi says.
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