Cash and carry: all you need to know about travel money

Credit and debit cards have modern flair, but cold, hard cash is still an international traveler’s best friend.

But how do you even get foreign currency these days? How much cash should you take? And whatever happened to travelers checks? We talked with currency expert Bruce Beattie, owner of Foreign Currency Exchange in Birmingham, who keeps close watch on travel money issues around the world.

QUESTION: Why would an international traveler need cash at all? Isn’t cash old-fashioned?

ANSWER: “Cash is still critical for emergencies and for smaller purchases where you can’t use a debit or credit card,” he says. “Have some foreign currency so if you arrive at an airport and can’t find an ATM, you have enough money for a taxi, train or a bottle of water at least.”

Q: But can’t I just use my debit or credit card abroad? I have one with no foreign transaction fees.

A: U.S. credit cards still do not work everywhere in the world or work in strange ways, he says. For instance, “Germany is still largely a cash country even though it is the biggest euro zone,” he says. “You can’t charge a cup of coffee there. They want cash for anything under $30, basically.”

Sometimes, even a no-fee credit card will register overseas as a cash advance, incurring fees. Sometimes, your credit card simply won’t work, even if it has chip and pin technology. Always take backup cards. And, of course, cash.

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