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Money options on your travels abroad

There are pluses and minuses to checks, credit cards and currency when you're traveling abroad. Here's a comparison.

February 27, 2011|By Jane Engle | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • If stolen, foreign currency cannot be replaced. Impractical to carry large amounts.
If stolen, foreign currency cannot be replaced. Impractical to carry large… (Andrea Comas / Reuters )

"Money alone sets all the world in motion," said Publilius Syrus, an ancient Latin writer known for aphorisms. But how do you set your money in motion when you travel? Whether check, card or currency, each method has its pluses and minuses. So it's best to take money in various forms, do some research and plan ahead. "The middle of a foreign country is not the place to figure out how to use your credit card at an ATM," said John Oldshue, partner at LowCards.com, a consumer website that compares credit cards.

ATM/debit card

Cost: Varies. Some cards assess foreign-transaction fees of 1% to 3%; some charge nothing. At ATMs, besides a usage fee, you may pay a currency-conversion or foreign-transaction fee of 1% to 3%.

Pros: Convenience. Many outlets have 24-hour access. .

Cons: Remote areas may lack ATMs or retailers who accept cards. Small stores and cafes may be cash only. Some train ticket machinesand kiosks in Europe that use "smart card" technology may not read magnetic-strip cards.

Tip: Do not withdraw funds at night from outlets in deserted areas or from a non-bank ATM.

Credit card

Cost: Varies. Some cards assess foreign-transaction fees of 1% to 3% when you make a purchase; some charge nothing. At ATMs, besides usage fees, you may pay currency-conversion fees of 1% to 3%, plus cash-advance interest rates of 20% or more.

Pros: Convenience. Accepted by many retailers. Round-the-clock access at ATMs. You may be able to get charge-backs on defective or undelivered purchases. Card can be replaced if lost or stolen.

Cons: Small stores and cafes may be cash only. Remote areas may lack ATMs or retailers who accept cards. Some train ticket machinesand kiosks in Europe that use "smart-card" technology may not read magnetic-strip cards. Cash advances are expensive.

Tip: Study fees before you go.

U.S. dollars

Cost: Free to take, but you'll owe a fee to exchange them. Retailers who accept them typically "round up" in their favor.

Pros: You don't have to learn a new currency. Merchants in some Latin American and Caribbean countries may prefer U.S. dollars.

Cons: Not accepted by many retailers. Can be expensive to exchange. If stolen, dollars cannot be replaced. Impractical to carry large amounts.

Tip: Carry a modest amount for emergencies and tips.

Foreign currency

Cost: You pay varying exchange rates, plus service fees to buy and exchange it. Either way, you lose money in the process.

Pros: Accepted by local retailers.

Cons: If stolen, it cannot be replaced. Impractical to carry large amounts.

Tip: Buy a modest amount, such as $100, in the U.S. to cover first-day expenses on arrival.

Traveler's checks

Cost: Service fees of 2% or so to purchase; may be waived in some instances.

Pros: Can be quickly replaced if lost or stolen. Low risk of identity theft and loss because they are not linked to checking accounts. Often available in foreign currencies.

Cons: Some retailers may not accept them. Outlets to cash or exchange them may be scarce and open for limited hours.

Tip: May be useful as emergency backup for an ATM or credit card.

Prepaid (cash) card

Cost: Varies. Initial fees can be up to 12% to load the card with cash; if you reload, you may pay again. Or you may face monthly fees of $4 to $10. If the card is in U.S. dollars, you may incur foreign-transaction fees.

Pros: Convenience. If lost or stolen, the funds can be replaced.

Cons: Fees can mount up. Remote areas may lack ATMs. Some retailers may not accept them.

Tip: Some parents buy cards for their children to control their spending.

jane.engle@latimes.com

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