By Catharine Hamm
10:30 AM EDT, April 28, 2014
Question: As the summer travel season approaches, what are your recommendations for the best way to get cash when one is overseas?
Answer: I'm putting my money on (sharp intake of breath here) using an automated teller machine abroad.
I'm holding my breath because discussions about money tactics can go from zero to "you're a blinking idiot" in less than two seconds.
The disagreements among travelers about using ATMs abroad stem from several factors, including which bank you're using, how much you're willing to pay for convenience and your tolerance for spending time on money matters when you should be spending it at the Louvre.
An ATM isn't the only way to get foreign currency, of course. If you want to leave home with some currency in your pocket (and you probably do), you may be able to order it from places you might expect to find it — your bank or another international exchange institution — and maybe some places you do not, such as the Auto Club, which has what it calls TipPaks of foreign currency in $100 denominations.
If you're seeking more common currencies such as euros or pounds? Easy breezy. Icelandic kronur or Costa Rican colons? Maybe a little more elusive. Translation: Don't wait until the day before you depart to go on a money hunt.
You often can get cash at an airport international exchange, either before you go or when you arrive.
The downside to having cash in your hot hand when you land is that the exchange rate isn't very good because you're paying for the convenience.
But never mind. You have swallowed hard, and you have some cash, but let's say you arrive at a destination, as I recently did, and discover that, holy smokes, Sydney, Australia, is way more expensive than you had anticipated. (CNN recently ranked it the fifth-most expensive city in the world.) You use your credit card for most of your big purchases (a credit card that doesn't charge a foreign transaction fee — and you can look at some of your choices at CardHub.com's http://www.lat.ms/1gRD67o), but you still need cash for the occasional cup of coffee, to tip the housekeeping staff and for cabs that don't take cards.
That's when the ATM can be your BFF. Using one means you don't have to find a bank, although those at a bank may be more secure.
But your financial friendship comes at a cost. You may have to pay a foreign transaction fee, which can range from 1% to 3%. And you may be assessed a fee if you're using an ATM that's not part of your bank's network.
You can find out how much you'll pay by going to your bank's website, which is easy or hard depending on the bank. I found Bank of America's notes about its 3% fee fairly easily. Not so with other banks, where finding the answer is the equivalent of breaking into Ft. Knox. You can also call, if you don't mind being in the first circle of call hell (limbo), which is what Dante would have branded it if they'd had phones in his day.
So here's the rub: Getting a credit card with no foreign transaction fee is easy: You just apply. But an ATM suggests you're in a committed banking relationship. I like what Rosemarie Clancy, editor in chief of RewardExpert.com, which explains the loyalty rewards landscape for travelers, said in an email: "I cringe when I have to go to an ATM in a foreign country. It's like going to the dentist. It's probably going to hurt."
How much it hurts depends on your bank (to see a list of banks that don't charge that ATM fee, go to Nerd Wallet's site at http://www.lat.ms/1tjqM4X) and on how often you travel. The more you go, the more you'll pay.
"If opening a bank account at a bank other than your own is necessary to obtain a [no-fee] debit card, then yes, you should go ahead and do it," Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of personal financial websites CardHub.com and WalletHub.com, said in an email.
For leisure travelers, changing banks or having a separate travel account may not be worth the hassle. You pay a price for taking the path of least resistance, and only you can say whether it's worth it.
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