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Traveling Abroad? Here’s the Scoop on Cash

Planning to use a foreign currency can open a world of unknowns for travelers. Here’s what you need to know to get the best deal before and after you leave.

Your bags are packed, plane tickets booked and neighbor Joe will feed the cat. If you got the best possible deal on foreign currency, you probably visited your bank sometime between buying your tickets and asking Joe for help. 

Planning an international trip with foreign currency can be a tricky proposition with a lot of variables. How much cash will you need? Where’s the best place to exchange currency? What do you do with leftover foreign currency? Consider these five cash questions. 

How much cash will I need?

How much foreign currency you need will depend on where you’re going, what you plan to do and your preferred method of payment. For most expenses, a credit card from a major provider is likely sufficient – especially for larger expenses like hotel costs, excursions or rental cars. No matter how you plan to pay, be sure to notify your bank or credit card provider about your travel dates and locations. This will help to avoid your transactions or ATM withdrawals being flagged as fraud. Just keep in mind, depending on your card’s terms, you may have to pay foreign transaction fees. For smaller purchases like airport transportation, quick meals, or small souvenirs, you may need to have a bit of cash on hand in case the merchant doesn’t have a card reader. 

“How much cash to carry and cash versus card is really a matter of personal preference,” said Carol Dunois, a business analyst for foreign exchange at PNC. “Some people like to have cash just for tips, while others prefer most of their spending to come from cash.” 

A good rule is to at least carry enough cash – in the local currency – to make it through an emergency need. Perhaps the restaurant’s card reader is broken or you need to hail a taxi at the last minute – you’ll want enough cash to cover that. 

With a little planning, ordering and acquiring foreign currency can be a stress-free and cost-effective component of a dream vacation abroad.

Carol Dunois

Where’s the best place to exchange currency before a trip?

There are many options for ordering or exchanging foreign currency before your trip including online bureaus, your bank or credit union, travel clubs and airport exchange kiosks. The key is to plan ahead. Airport kiosks might work in a pinch, but generally have higher exchange rates and fees, Dunois said. Ordering foreign currency from your bank or an online source will almost certainly yield a more competitive exchange rate, but it’s important to allow several (3-5) days for your currency to arrive. 

“The more notice you provide, the better – especially if you’re requesting a non-standard currency,” Dunois says. “Mother Nature isn’t always our friend and in order to ensure you have the currency and denominations you want, it’s best to place your order at least three to five days in advance.” 

Most banks will have easy access to standard currencies such as euros, pounds, Canadian dollars or yen. Less common currencies may take several days to ship. In many cases, PNC can have currency available at the branch the next business day if the order is placed before 2:00 p.m. 

How do I get the best deal on local currency during my trip?

Generally, the ATM is the best place to get local currency for the best rate when you’re abroad. If your debit card is from a major provider, like Visa or Mastercard, you should have access to ATMs in most vacation destinations. While you’ll likely pay a fee to use the ATM, it’s probably less than you’ll forfeit to exchange money at the airport kiosk, a hotel or travel bureau. 

Different denominations of currency

What do I do with leftover foreign currency after my vacation?

In most instances, your bank can buy back unused foreign currency at the most competitive rate, Dunois says. It’s important to note, though, that the buyback rate is not necessarily the same as the rate you originally paid to order currency. 

“That’s something that can catch people off guard,” Dunois says. “People think they’re going to buy and sell back at the same rate, but that’s just not the case because the rates change daily.” 

As with purchasing foreign currency, airport kiosks or travel bureaus also can buy back unused cash, but it’s important to compare rates to make sure you’re getting the best deal. 

What about traveler’s checks?

Once a common method of payment, traveler’s checks are no longer a favored currency for vacationers. According to Federal Reserve data, only $1.8 billion worth of non-bank traveler’s checks was circulating at the end of July – down from $8.4 billion at the same time in 1999.[1] Dunois says that while traveler’s checks are still an option for consumers who prefer them, many banks – including PNC – no longer offer them. Traveler’s checks are now harder to redeem with banks and not every location accepts them. Redeeming them likely will require working with the local Amex location. 

With a little planning, ordering and acquiring foreign currency can be a stress-free and cost-effective component of a dream vacation abroad – meaning you can worry less about cash and more about the perfect “thank-you” gift for Joe.



Learn more about foreign currency services at PNC »


Carol Dunois
Carol Dunois is a business analyst for foreign exchange at PNC.

There may be a minimum dollar amount of foreign currency you can purchase, depending on your bank and the currency you need. At PNC, those minimums are $100 for standard foreign currencies and $250 for non-standard currencies.

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Important Legal Disclosures and Information

1. Money Stock Measures, August 5, 1999 and Money Stock Measures, August 9, 2018 

These articles are for general information purposes only and are not intended to provide legal, tax, accounting or financial advice. PNC urges its customers to do independent research and to consult with financial and legal professionals before making any financial decisions.

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