How to manage your money in Asia
First published 2nd November, 2007
Questions about travel money are among the most popular topics on the Travelfish message board, with people regularly asking about the how's and where's of travel cash. Read on for suggestions about organising your money while on holiday and other money-related tips.
The best way to organise your money while travelling in Asia is to first become aware of the fees involved and then research the best card. Once you've got that sorted out, we'd say your very best strategy is to use an ATM card as your primary source of funds, with a combination of travellers checks and cash as secondary sources. Assuming you've done your research and have a low-fees card, this is the best combination of convenience, safety and cost.
Learn the lingo and save money
There are four main considerations of using money overseas. Commission rates, exchange rates, interest rates and transaction fees.
Can be either a percentage or a flat fee. Travellers Cheques will generally have a charge of 1-3% (up to 5-6%) on purchase in your home country, then another 1-2% when you exchange them into a foreign currency (sometimes you can cash them without a fee). Likewise buying and selling cash may have a commission attached, but more often the exchange is advertised as "No Commission" with the commission being hidden in a poor exchange rate.
What one currency is worth in another. Exchange rates vary tremendously, but the golden rule when it comes to buying cash, is to buy it in Asia. As an example on the day we wrote this (November 3, 2007) a very popular Australian Bank was offering to sell Thai Baht at a rate of 27.9812. An equally popular Thai bank is buying Australian dollars at 30.61875. The difference on a purchase of A$1,000 is substantial -- 27,981 baht vs 30,618 -- almost A$100.
Exchange rates also come into play if you're using a credit or debit card overseas. They'll be a straight conversion using an inter-bank rate, but then your financial provider may "load" the transaction adding anything from nothing to 3% of the transaction cost.
For the latest foreign currency exchange rates, visit xe.com here.
What your financial provider will charge you on cash advances and purchases made on your card. One way to avoid paying interest is to put your card in credit by loading it up with cash before you go. This often works, but some cards start charging interest on cash advances even if your card is still in credit! Check the small print!
Small, but they really add up. Generally in the $2-5 range per transaction and are particularly problematic in Vietnam where the largest single withdrawal from an ATM is around $125 -- meaning if you want $500 in cash, you'll need to withdraw $125 four times, costing you at a minimum $8 in fees. This is less of a problem in Cambodia where the single withdrawal limit is US$2,000!
The pros and cons
Cash is easy. Totally flexible and you don't even have to show your passport as ID to exchange cash like you do with a travellers check. But easy come easy go. Cash is also the riskiest way to carry large amounts of money. If lost or stolen, it's gone -- unlike travellers cheques which can be replaced.
Buy your cash in Asia. Compare exchange rates at a number of booths if possible, but don't waste time and money traipsing across town to save ten baht. Banks and booths typically give much better rates than hotels or other businesses. It's wise to exchange money at a licensed foreign exchange location -- while you may get a better rate on the street, you may get burned by a scam or wind up with obsolete or fraudulent notes -- weigh up the pros and cons.
Larger bills typically earn better rates at exchange booths, but having a few smaller bills on hand can be useful. Having a few hundred dollars cash stashed away is a smart way to be ready for an emergency.
The main advantage of travellers cheques is that they can be replaced if lost or stolen. The disadvantage is that there is often (though not always) a fee to both buy and cash them. Even so, think of this small expense as a type of travel insurance, guaranteeing that you'll be able to get cash in an emergency, when you'll need it most. Travellers checks are most commonly issued in US dollars, but other currencies are also becoming more widely accepted.
When buying travellers cheques, shop around and compare rates. If the cheques are offered commission free, take a close look at the exchange rate being offered. Ask about "no commission buy-back" where the provider will buy back any unused cheques without more fees. Also ask about outlets in your destination where the cheques can be exchanged free of charge. Purchase only large notes -- nothing smaller than US $100 -- otherwise you'll lose too much in fees.
Keeping a few hundred dollars in travellers checks is a smart back-up source of cash. If you lose your ATM card, there is a power outage, the ATM network is temporarily off line or out of cash, or you are in a remote area that does not have ATMs, travellers cheques can be a convenient alternative.
Credit and debit cards
Check carefully your cards terms and conditions. In particular check the small print regarding ATM transaction fees and currency conversion charges. Make sure your card has the Cirrus, Plus or Maestro symbol -- otherwise you may not be able to use it overseas.
If you're using your card to make ATM withdrawals, reduce your fees by making a few large withdrawals rather than lots of small ones (assuming you're comfortable walking around with a lot of cash).
Make sure you have a 4-digit ATM PIN code for your card, since 6-digit codes don't always work in Asia. The ATM keypads in Asia don't necessarily have letters either, so if your PIN code is word-based, be sure you know the corresponding numbers as well -- if you get stuck, use your mobile phone keypad to figure it out.
Let your bank know that you'll be travelling overseas, to prevent your account from being inadvertently shut off, and consider carrying a second ATM or credit card from a different account as a back up in case your primary card is lost or stolen.
When possible try to use your card only in an ATM machine that is inside (or attached to) a bank. That way if there is a problem with your card you may be able to get bank staff to assist.
Prepaid travel cards
Sort of like a custom debit card, you load the card with money before your trip, then use it just as you would a normal credit or debit card. Examples are Visa TravelMoney, MasterCard Traveller's Cash cards and the Post Office Travel Money Card. As with credit and debit cards, check the fees carefully.
Popular credit and debit cards
Nationwide Visa Debit Card: consistently gets very good reviews from UK-based Travelfish readers.
Capital One: A favourite among US users.
Wizard Clear Advantage MasterCard: For Australians, and has no fees for cash advances nor foreign ATM withdrawals.
American Express is by far the largest provider of Travellers cheques, but many travel companies and banks also offer them.
Sending and receiving cash
Sending money with Western Union is an almost instantaneous way to send money from your home country to a recipient overseas. In emergencies, this can be an ideal option, but the fees are very high.
Country specific advice
For all practical purposes the currency in Cambodia is the US dollar, with nearly all hotels, restaurants, tours and shops dealing in dollars. It is fun to bring a few crisp, clean, small denomination notes or a pad of 100 new $1 bills with you to Cambodia if you can. Small change is given in Cambodian currency, the riel, which is handy to have in your pocket for small transactions.
Never accept a torn US dollar note in Cambodia -- even the smallest tear or hole will make it close on impossible to exchange. Crisp new US$100 notes are definitely the way to go.
ATMs, like those of ANZ Royal Bank, dispense US dollars and are available in major tourist centres like Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang and Sihanoukville. Some ATMs also dispense riel, but usually only for holders of local accounts. ANZ Royal charges a $US2 fee per withdrawal on foreign cards.
Thai baht is also accepted in some places in Cambodia, but the exchange rates are typically not as favourable as the dollar.
While the official currency of Laos is the kip, most businesses operate using US dollars and Thai baht as well. Change may be given in kip or US dollars, depending on the amounts involved.
International-access ATMs are available in most major tourist centres in Laos now, but the low limit per withdrawal (700,000 kip at BCEL, up to 1,000,000 kip at Lao Development Bank) makes them an expensive way to access your cash. Because of this, it's a good idea to carry a higher percentage of cash (US dollars or Thai baht) or travellers checks while travelling in Laos.
Credit and debit cards are useful in Laos, particularly at higher-end businesses and you can get over-the-counter cash advances on these cards at banks and other businesses. Expect to pay a 3% surcharge on all credit and debit card transactions.
Singapore's currency is the Singapore dollar. With its highly developed economy, you can easily get by using your ATM card for cash withdrawals and credit card for larger purchases.
With Thailand's well-developed economy, you can expect to pay for everything using Thai Baht and nothing else, although some jewellery or tailor shops still quote prices in US dollars or Euros. Thailand has an extensive ATM network, with ATMs available even in even the remotest locations. Banks and currency exchange booths are also just about everywhere you'd want to go as well. All Thai ATMs charge 150B per withdrawal on foreign cards.
Although you can get by quite easily with US dollars in Vietnam, you'll probably get better prices paying in dong, and you will be expected to pay in dong for smaller purchases. ATMs are readily available, although the withdrawal limit per withdrawal of 2 million dong, or approximately US$125, is fairly low -- so watch those bank fees.
There are a few other money tips that will help make your trip go smoothly.
Getting change can be a challenge at restaurants and small shops, so break large bills whenever you get a chance. And while it doesn't happen often, paying with the smallest note possible at bars and restaurants, such as paying a 280 baht bill with three 100 baht notes rather than a 500 or 1000 baht note, will reduce your chance of not getting your full change back.
Most country's currency contains both local and Arabic numbers for easy identification. Bills are usually different colours and sizes for each denomination, with the larger the bill or coin, the greater the value.
Coins are still used in Thailand and Singapore, but are no longer used in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
If you're out on the town, just take out what you need for the evening and leave the remainder in the safe in your room or in whatever safety box is provided. Most reasonable guesthouses will offer some form of safe-keeping.
Finally, keep in mind that the Vietnamese dong, Cambodian riel, and Lao kip are next to worthless outside of their respective countries, so you'll want to spend what you've got or drop it in a donation box before you leave.
Here's a couple of links to useful threads on the messageboard regarding managing money while travelling in Asia.
Which cash/atm card?? My banks charges are too high!
What is a good credit card for travellers?
Got a tip to share? Be sure to add it to the Travelfish Forum here.
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