However you travel, be it by land, sea or air, you need money. More money than you would probably need for the same amount of time at home following your daily life. There is always the unexpected to deal with — The Emergency Fund — and money to pay to get around, pay for hotels, and such.

Here are some of my observations after my latest foray into foreign territory where the European-wide cash card/debit card I carry was fed into the wrong slot of a ticket vending machine and promptly swallowed up along with all my Euros.

A lot of people advise credit cards for travel. This is usually because the conversion rates can be more favorable. There are, however, transaction fees on many cards as well as the exchange conversion rate. Some cards do not charge for transactions in the same currency which makes traveling around Europe a lot cheaper if you are European. Credit cards are also favored because, even with the charges incurred, they cost less to use than old fashioned travelers cheques.

Be warned, not everywhere takes credit cards or debit cards if they are not issued in that country — this applies to automatic petrol stations in Italy and some shops, restaurants and hotels — cash withdrawals are more expensive when you withdraw from ATM’s and attract higher interest than other transactions.

I had paid off my credit card before going on this trip and had certain expenses earmarked for its use — the first night in Vienna and the last two nights in Venice and travel around Venice. Note to self — ask for a credit line increase before I go away next time.

I had my other bank’s cash card/debit card with me to pay tolls, car hire surcharges and fuel for the road trips and other incidentals.

My spending money was on the card that got eaten.

Yes, we did have some cash with us.

Travelex offer prepaid currency passports. I found this very useful when I first came to Portugal. You obtain the card, which is linked to your passport for identification purposes, and load it before you leave.

Travelex advertise that they offer the best market rate available to exchange and provide a live tracking service to back this up at major offices. You receive a PIN number when the purchase is completed and this card acts like a credit card and can be used just like a Visa Card or Master Card. These cards are valid for a year and can be topped up by cash at airport kiosks or via their website.

Note to travelers from the USA — most of Europe now uses chip and PIN — if you do not have a chip and PIN card, ask your bank for one.

It is always wise to tell your bank if you are going abroad and you are going to be using your card/s overseas — otherwise you may find a block placed on your account for unusual pattern of usage.

There is one advantage with travelers checks — they guarantee to replace them if they are lost or stolen within 24 hours — but you pay for this in the transaction costs and the exchange rate.

I think I got the theory right about splitting between cards and cash — what I did not do was split my funds more equally and for a multi-destination holiday. I think that is vital.

Know your bank’s policy on replacing lost or stolen cards while abroad — and what details they need to replace them — especially if you are on another continent.  A replacement cash passport was sent to me by DHL in 48 hours after it was broken. My Portuguese bank could not get me a new one in under ten working days — we are still counting.

Find out if your bank has agencies in the country you are traveling to and get contact numbers if possible. Find out what is needed identification and information wise to get your card replaced and or access to your account.

Each bank is different.

Check your travel insurance policy — some policies offer stolen or lost money transfers in emergencies.

If you travel a lot it might pay to get specialist travel insurance and to choose your credit cards with this in mind.

If all else fails you have Moneygram and Western Union! If you have online banking and know your codes you can even wire yourself the money — otherwise you need a friend.


  1. Outstanding advice, Nicola! It can be scary traveling without easy access to emergency funds.

    How, exactly does chip and PIN work? Does that little metal area on the front of the card get read by a machine? Do you swipe card’s magnetic stripe during that sort of transaction or is that no longer necessary?

    1. A chip embedded in your debit or credit card. Chip technology uses “sophisticated processing” to identify genuine cards and makes counterfeiting more complex and expensive. The technology checks the PIN you entered in the keypad against the PIN held on the chip. This is used to verify your identity instead of someone checking your signature on a receipt.

      Make sure that nobody sees you entering your PIN and ensure you get a receipt to check against your statement later. This is the weakness of the system – and probably why some countries are a little slower to embrace Chip and Pin. it is easy by the use of security cameras, mirrors etc to see people entering their pin numbers which opens the system up to wide spread abuse. There was a group of criminals operating in some petrol stations that were photographing the customers when they were entering their numbers and then had another member taking the cards from back pockets etc before they got to the car.

      I have never had to swipe my chip and pin cards – they still have the magnetic stripe in case I encounter an older machine – but even though in live in a very rural area in Portugal the banking system is very up to date. I have not seen an old fashioned machine to place my card in while they swipe the quadruple copies for years.

      1. Very cool!

        Is the Travelex card like a reloadable debit card? I’m not quite understanding how your passport is linked to it. Is that safe?

        1. Yes the Travelex card is a pre-loaded chip and pin credit/debit card – I got mine at the airport so my application was linked to my passport for ID purposes – I understand now you can buy from their other outlets and can order on line with other forms of ID. I got mine in the early days – it is a relative newcomer to the market.

          1. Here’s what I’m not getting. You buy the card at the airport and how does it get linked to your passport? Is that done in store or over the phone or internet? Travelex sounds like a great idea and I wonder if it will ever come over here?

            — (two minutes pass using The Google) —

            Ah, I did some internets checking and maybe I’m misunderstanding that the name of the card includes “passport” and it isn’t actually linking to your actual separate passport — or is it?

            Anyway… the passport feature now appears dead for USA users:

            IMPORTANT NOTICE – Travelex is no longer selling or reloading the Cash Passport product in the USA. All Cash Passport cards sold in the USA on or before February 15, 2013 are no longer reloadable online or in our retail stores and will not be valid/useable for any transactions after April 30, 2013.


  2. If you buy the card at the airport it gets linked as your passport and passport number are used as ID to obtain the card and if you phone them you can be asked for your passport number or provide a photocopy of your passport if you need the card reissuing abroad. When my cash passport got demagnetized by my mobile phone and refused to work I ordered a replacement – I had to give my passport number over the phone and scan it in and email it to them before they would issue a replacement card.

    If you buy in another way – ie on line they use other forms of ID as well

    I think some of the USA banks now offer a similar service – they wanted in on the action! or it could be a chip and pin issue …….. a quick look on the google does not reveal any bank in the USA using the system – I maybe using the wrong search parameters

    It is still alive and well in the UK

    1. It’s pretty odd how we live in a world economy — yet there is so much fragmentation between payment services. So much is lost in translation… of foreign transaction fees! SMILE!

  3. The thing about a world economy is that everyone involved wants their piece of the action. Changing money for use abroad is a lot like flying abroad these days where you pay a tax each time you take off and land, money moving around the world does the same – which is why the prepaid cards are winning the race. I see Travel Ex now have a global one !

    1. Yes, I thought Travelex could be purchased in the USA for use afar, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. There’s no “dollar” exchange I can find on their website.

      Chip and Sign in the USA is poor imitation of Chip and PIN — and it’s really only good abroad in limited ways.

  4. It obviously used to be available – might be interesting to find out why it no longer is. Either the USA banks did not like it and all agreed to withdraw from the scheme – or maybe it was loss making for Travel Ex themselves?

Comments are closed.