Debit and credit cards
When traveling, my debit card is my main source for money, but I try to use it as few times as possible. Not just because I hate paying bank fees, but the fewer times I use my card, the less likely it will be hijacked by unseen card reading devices. Unfortunately, in some countries, cash machines ration the amount of cash they dispense, so using them frequently cannot be avoided. Also, some banks ration the amount of cash you can withdraw from a foreign cash machine in any given day, so it pays to check with your bank prior to departure and see what to expect, and maybe raise the daily limit.
One thing I’m sure to do is tell my bank and credit card companies what countries I plan to visit, and the dates of travel. This normally (but not always) prevents them refusing a debit or credit card when they get a request, for example, from Australia to cover a rental car. With my bank, their computer holds travel information for 90 days, so if traveling longer, I need to remind them of my plans. This is not always easy, nor convenient. Most US banks have a line dedicated to collect or trunk calls from out of the country, but you will need a land line for it to be truly free of charge; something less and less easy to come by. I usually end up just paying for the call on my mobile . Also, keep in mind that the bank’s phone number may differ depending on what country you call from, so ask your bank for the correct number for the country you are visiting.
Not all banks abroad will take an ATM or debit card from the US or UK regardless of if the machine shows the correct interbank symbol. When in Malaysia the Bank of Islam didn’t even go through the motions of conducting a transaction, it just spit the card back out and told me to take myself off. If you have trouble, try to find international banks like Scotia or HSBC, or larger national banks rather than locals. Before leaving, check with your bank, some US banks have agreements with foreign banks allowing users to withdraw cash without charge. For example, my bank has an agreement with Scotia in Canada, and Barclays in the UK to wave the $5 transaction fee on cash machine withdrawals. Another advantage of larger banks is that they often have security officers (and air conditioning!) at their machines.
A quick word on carrying credit cards and debit cards. When traveling, I bring one debit card for cash, tied to a bank account with my travel budget in it. I also carry two credit cards for extra-large purchases and emergencies, both tied to a separate bank and accounts. In general, it is easier to get reimbursed if your credit card is compromised rather than an ATM or Debit card. When dealing with overcharges, double charges, and other credit card fraud, it may not be simple with any card. Some travelers carry a couple of the top up credit cards with a fixed amount on, so if they are stolen, then they can only be used up to that amount, and there is no accidental credit extensions or links to bank accounts.
When in a city one credit card stays at the hotel, and the other two cards go with me. Likewise, if I lose my bag while out, I’ll still be able to pay my bills and get cash while sorting out new cards. I do make sure the long distance collect call (trunk) number for the banks are in my address book in my luggage. Additionally, this is good information to email to yourself (along with your scanned passport, visa, and driver’s license) for safe keeping. You don’t need to email your credit card numbers; they are not needed to stop a card. Check with your bank for what they do need, and set up a pin or security question if that will facilitate the process.
A recent security issue is the collecting of credit card information by thieves with hand held scanners. Evidently someone stands next to you and scans your card through your purse or wallet and walks away with your data. Supposedly, this has occurred fairly recently in the city where I live, though I have not seen much about it on travel sites. One way to protect yourself is to keep a piece of aluminum foil in the billfold with your cards. For example, you could wrap a spare business card in it. The single sheet of aluminum acts as a block to the scanner. I was at a trade show recently and picked up a demonstration metal business card that I now carry with my credit cards. It’s less fragile, but heavier. On the upside, the US is starting to come out of the dark ages, and with luck will soon abandon magnetic strip cards altogether and switch to chip containing ones like the rest of the world. Then this type of fraud will be a mute point.
In some countries, the risk of being mugged while out birding is greater than the risk of your valuables going missing from the hotel safe, so weight the options based on where you are and pack your daily needs accordingly. Check online sites like Bird Forum and Thorn Tree for current information regarding parks, trails, and incidents (see the Security section of this webpage). At a minimum I carry a color copy of my passport photo page, and some cash for daily needs, and leave all else in the hotel safe.
Cash and local currency
Although many travelers order money ahead from their home bank, I find the easiest place to get local currency is upon arrival at the airport. I admit, in many (but not all) countries this incurs extra fees and poor exchange rates relative to those I’ll get later at a cash machine, but to me, the convenience is worth the extra couple dollars. Having local currency makes your first negotiations with taxi drivers, hotels, and restaurants much less trouble, though an exchange rate calculator or app on your phone will help make sense of the rates while recovering from a flight induced coma. Getting cash at the airport becomes even more important if heading out into the bush immediately, or in a country where banks will be difficult to use. Note that in some countries, like Ghana for example, it is easier, faster, safer, and at a better rate, to exchange money in the airport behind security, than to go to a bank. Read up on the country in a travel guide or online to get a feel for how difficult local banks and cash machines are to use. Many tips are available in guidebooks and online discussion groups like Trip Adviser, Thorn Tree, and others.
For emergencies, I typically carry some US dollars (a few 100 dollar bills) or Euros in a money belt or other safe place out of sight. Be warned, some countries will only accept USD bills if they are in pristine condition. When collecting them at your bank, be sure to check each bill for tears, creases, and marks of any kind. In Central and South America, any sort of writing on the bill may render it useless. Also, keep in mind that large bills may be a problem in small towns. I’ll often bring at least some USD in smaller bills like twenties.
Travelers checks, the old stand by for trips abroad have fallen out of favor, largely because getting cash or paying for things with a debit card is so easy. Also, over the last few decades forgeries have become a real problem rendering legitimate travelers checks suspect. For this reason, I stick with only the more common brands, like American Express and Cooks (the former used to be more accepted in the Americas, not sure if this is still the case). Most upscale and many mid-range hotels in cities will still take travelers checks at a discount, if signed in their presence and with your passport. Presumably, to cover the risk and hassle of accepting them, exchange rates on travelers checks are typically the worst. Cashing them in smaller towns can be very problematic.
I have had hotels, after watching me sign multiple checks, refuse one of a series because the signatures are not close enough and they fear their bank will refuse it. How to get rid of a signed travelers check can be a problem. You can always bring it home and deposit it with your bank. An alternative is if you are cashing several checks at a money changer on another day, you can sometimes slip the offending one into the stack. Very often the teller won’t notice. My partner or I have done this a few times and never been hassled. Because cash machines are so ubiquitous, I go back and forth on whether travelers checks are worth the trouble. Generally, I find it easier to carry a few large USD bills for emergencies and leave it at that, but won’t dissuade anyone if that is what they prefer.
Money belts and purses
I wear a money belt generally when in transit, and in most cities. There are some countries where I wear it all the time, particularly if not with a group. I don’t use the over the shoulder type with a thin strap that can be seen, but one that wraps around my middle and lies flat against my stomach or in the small of my back. I place it below my trouser waistband so if my shirt rides up, it doesn’t show. It holds the bulk of my cash, passport, and cards, anything that I won’t be using in the short term. I keep my daily cash in an easy to reach pocket and try never to access the money belt in public. To date, I have never been mugged, though I have turned around and walked out of a few situations that just felt wrong. Trust your instincts. The idea is that if confronted, I want to be able to hand over cash quickly and not have to fumble for it and potentially alert the robber to any additional treasures. I have a friend who carries a “fake wallet” for just this purpose. Similarly, if paying for incidentals I don’t want to flash a bundle of cash around and become a potential target.
If a money belt feels unnecessary, purses, day-packs, and kangaroo pouches may work for you. Precautions should be taken particularly when walking on a busy street or standing in a crowded location. It is recommended to wear the day-pack, pouch, or purse in front of you to deter grabbers and slashers. Also, don’t put your valuables in the front/outside pocket, as this is the one most likely to be slashed or worked open by pickpockets. Though I haven’t owned one, some purse straps are modified to include a metal wire making them difficult to slash in drive-by grabs. I’m not sure if this is good or not, since there is a risk of being pulled off balance into traffic, but in theory, it works. I do try to carry over the shoulder bags on the side away from traffic, making them less of a target. I’ve been told that mens’ wallets are safer carried in front trouser pockets rather than in the rear pocket. This is better for your back too! I’ve also seen men put a large rubber band around their wallet, making it more resistant to removal.
And finally, I have a theory based on an encounter with a thief in Guatemala. Thieves tend to be men (but not always), and based on my experience working in a flower shop, men are attracted to the color red. When a thief opened my purse to grab something, he took the zipped red wallet (containing $5) rather than the zipped brown one containing much more. Since that day I have used a bright red zip bag for my day money, and a dull brown one for my valuables not in my belt. Who knows if this works, but as I said, it is a theory.