Unless you’re on an all-inclusive package holiday, chances are you’ll be spending money day in, day out during your trip. There are lots of different ways to spend—each of which will impact on just how far your money goes.
The best way to organise your money while on the road is to first find out the various fees involved in accessing your money in Southeast Asia. We’d say your best strategy is to use an ATM card as your primary source of funds, with cash and possibly a few travellers cheques as secondary sources. Assuming you’ve done your research and have a low-fee card, this is likely to be the best combination of convenience, safety and cost.
Commission rates, exchange rates, interest rates and transaction fees all add up.
These 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 (though sometimes you can cash them without a fee). Likewise, buying and selling cash may have a commission attached, but often the exchange is advertised as “no commission”; in fact, the commission is hidden within a poorer exchange rate—sometimes there may be a commission and a bad exchange rate, so do shop around.
Exchange rates are what one currency is worth in another. Currency kiosks will always list two rates for each countries, the “buy” and the “sell” rate. The difference between the two (the “spread”) is how they make their money. They sell the currency to you for less than what they paid for it. For small amounts of money, the difference between two kiosks is often a trivial amount of money, but these trivial amounts do add up.
Exchange rates vary tremendously, but the golden rule when it comes to buying foreign currency is to buy it in Southeast Asia. As an example, on the day we wrote this (in 2017) a popular Australian bank was selling Thai baht at a rate of 24.35 to the Australian dollar. An equally popular Thai bank was buying Australian dollars at 25.36. The difference on a purchase of A$1,000 was more than 1,000 baht (24,350 versus 25,360 baht).
In the case of US dollars, there are normally three exchange rates: one for small notes, another for those of medium value and a third for $100 notes, with the latter the best rate. If you’re travelling with US dollars in cash, only take new 100 dollar bills. If you’re travelling to Cambodia or Burma, bringing some small bills to be used for small purchases in lieu of local currency is a good idea. When you are stocking up on US dollars in your home country, ask for new bills as some older denominations can be very difficult to exchange.
Exchange rates also come into play if you’re using a credit or debit card overseas. There will be a straight conversion using an inter-bank rate, but then your own financial provider may “load” the transaction, adding anything from nothing to 3% (or more) of the transaction cost. On top of this, while often illegal, many stores and international airlines (we’re talking to you KLM and AirAsia) add on a processing surcharge that can range from 1% right up to 7% to 10% (hi KLM and AirAsia!).
On some occasions you may be offered a discount for using a credit card, but we’ve encountered this infrequently and when we have, it has only been for using American Express.
For a benchmark on the latest foreign currency exchange rates, visit xe.com.
Interest rates are what your financial provider charges you on cash advances and purchases made on your card. One way to avoid paying interest is to load cash onto your card before you go. This often works, but some cards start charging interest on cash advances even if your card is still in credit. As banks have no shame whatsoever, always check the small print!
Transaction fees levied at ATMs can really add up. Generally they are around $2 to $5 per transaction, and they are particularly problematic in countries where the largest single withdrawal from an ATM is low (say $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 can be as high as US$2,000.
These charges may be levelled by the local bank and also by your bank at home. In both cases they are often a flat rate, meaning making small regular withdrawals of say $50 a pop is a very expensive way to access your money.
Cold hard cash is easy and totally flexible. You don’t even have to show your passport as ID to exchange cash as you do with a travellers cheque. But cash is also the riskiest way to carry large amounts of money. If lost or stolen, it’s gone—unlike travellers cheques, which can often be replaced.
Buy your cash once you are in Southeast Asia. Compare exchange rates at a number of booths if possible, but don’t waste time and money traipsing across town to save 10 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.
Try to avoid exchanging esoteric and volatile currencies outside that country’s borders. You’ll generally get a far better rate exchanging Indonesian rupiah cash for US dollars in Indonesia than you will in Tokyo, Paris or Lima. Also beware of double changing. For instance if you arrive in Thailand with euros and for whatever reason want to change them into US dollars, the exchange kiosk will require that you change them to Thai baht first, and they’ll charge you on both transactions.
When changing your money at a money changer, always count your money by hand, in front of the money changer. Never let them take a portion of money back from you after you have counted it, as this is often a ruse to steal a few notes via a sleight of hand. Always be the last to touch and count all of your money. Always.
Larger bills typically earn better rates at exchange booths, but having a few smaller bills on hand can be useful. Having a couple of hundred dollar notes stashed away is a smart way to be ready for an emergency.
While not as frequently used as in the past, 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, and that you need an exchange office or bank to be able to 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 cheques are most commonly issued in US dollars, but other currencies are also available.
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 offline or out of cash, or you are in a remote area that does not have ATMs, travellers cheques can be a reliable alternative.
Credit and debit cards
A piece of plastic is handy to carry, but check the terms and conditions of your card carefully. 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).
The ATM keypads in Asia don’t necessarily have letters, so if your PIN code is word-based, be sure you know the corresponding numbers as well—if you get stuck, if you have one, 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 suspended. 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.
There is also significant risk of skimming at ATMs. Skimming is where a scanner is installed onto the machine which steals the data off your card along with your pin number, allowing thieves to steal money from your account. Where possible use ATMs at bank branches rather than those at minimarts and retail outlets (where security may be more of an issue). Give the scanner (the slot you insert your card in) to make sure it is firmly connected to the rest of the machine and always shield your hand when inputting your pin number.
Prepaid travel cards
These are 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. As with credit and debit cards, check the fees carefully. American Express is by far the largest provider of travellers cheques, but many travel companies and banks also offer them.
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.
The official currency is the kyat (pronounced chat), but US$ and, near the Thai border, Thai baht, can also be used for moderately sized transactions. Once rare, ATMs are now relatively common in Burma—certainly in most tourist centres anyway. Likewise, needing to make use of the black market to exchange money has dwindled off. What has remained an issue is with regard to US$100 bills—they need to be new and pristine to be acceptable with the moneychangers, so keep that in mind when organising your money beforehand. Always count your money carefully before leaving a money-changing office.
While the official Cambodian currency is the riel, for all practical purposes the currency in use is the US dollar. Nearly all hotels, restaurants, tours and shops deal in dollars. Make sure any US dollar notes you bring in are pristine—even the smallest tear, smudge or hole will make it close on impossible to exchange. Don't accept any in your change, either. It is fun (kind of) 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 riel, which is handy to have in your pocket for small transactions.
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 US$2 fee per withdrawal on foreign cards, and your bank at home may add extra charges.
The official currency of Laos is the kip, but 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, but the low limit per withdrawal (700,000 kip at BCEL, up to 1,000,000 kip at Lao Development Bank) makes them a very expensive way to access your cash. Because of this, it’s a good idea to carry a higher portion of cash (US dollars or Thai baht) or travellers cheques when travelling in Laos than elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Credit and debit cards are useful in Laos, particularly at higher-end businesses. 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.
Malaysia’s national currency is the Ringgit. As with its northern and southern neighbours, you will be expected to use the national currency for all of your cash transactions. ATMS are everywhere, but, as with Indonesia, skimming is a serious problem in Malaysia, so be sure to check the ATM carefully before using it and always shield your hand before entering your pin number.
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 a 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 ATM network that reaches into even the most remote locations. Banks and currency exchange booths are also just about everywhere you’d want to go as well. All Thai ATMs charge at least 150 baht 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.
A few other tips may help 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 1,000 baht note, will reduce your chance of not getting your full change back.
Most country’s currency features both local and Arabic numerals 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 commonly used in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, but are no longer used in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Burma.
If you’re out on the town, just take what you need for the evening and leave the remainder in the your room—in a safety box, if there is one. Most reasonable guesthouses will offer some form of safe-keeping, at reception if not in the rooms.
Finally, keep in mind that the Vietnamese dong, Cambodian riel, Lao kip and Burmese kyat are next to worthless outside of their respective countries. Spend what you’ve got or drop it in a donation box before you leave.
Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.