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I haven’t paid an ATM fee or a foreign transaction fee in years. Hand my hard-earned money over to a bank, when I could be treating myself to pisco sours and pedicures? No thanks!

As promised in my recent Peru Planning post, here is an update to the Managing Money Abroad post that I wrote back in 2011. Amazingly very little about my system has changed since — I put a lot of hours back then into researching the best cards and accounts, and it really paid off. While the account information that I provide here will be most useful to my US-based readers, there are tips in here that will be useful for those of any nationality.

Indonesian Rupiah

Debit Cards

Thank god for Charles Schwab. It is the only bank I know of that charges no international ATM fees, and even reverses the one the ATM itself charges you! This gives me the freedom to take out small amounts of local currency as needed, rather than be forced to withdraw massive sums to minimize charges. There are no fees, their customer service is outstanding, and I really can’t fathom why a US traveler would carry anything else. I do have an account at TD Bank, which also used to offer the same free international withdrawals. Since they have changed their policies I only keep this account as a backup should I lose access to my Schwab account for any reason on the road.

Credit Cards

I hold out hope that I’ll be able to use my credit cards more often in South America than I could in Southeast Asia, so that I can build reward points. My primary credit card is my Capital One Venture card. I earn flexible travel reward points that really are easy to redeem thanks to the “Purchase Eraser” system, and there is no foreign transaction fee. I do pay a $69 annual fee, but considering in the first year I snagged a free flight to Hawaii worth $560 and the second year I eliminated $200 in flights from the Philippines from my bill, I think it’s well worth it.

While it has been good to me I am cancelling my SPG AMEX since the redemption values aren’t as good in South America as they are in Southeast Asia and the first annual fee is coming up. I’m replacing it with Citibank’s American Airlines card, for which I will earn a 30,000 mile signup bonus after I meet the mere $1,000 spend minimum. It does have a foreign transaction fee so it will be my backup card and I plan to meet the spend minimum with US-based, pre-trip purchases.

Not to go all Miss Responsibility on you, but I just want to emphasize that this reward chasing game is only beneficial if you are able to pay your credit card off in full every single month — I have all mine set to online statements and to auto pay so I don’t get confused when traveling.

Cayman Currency

Cash

I will enter Peru with a small amount of US currency tucked away as always, in case of emergencies. But in general I always avoid changing currency — the ATM gives better rates.

When I am lucky enough to travel with another person or two for a while I always suggest a “shared expenses” envelope. We all put the same amount of cash in the envelope and use it to pay for joint meals, cab rides, and other minor expenses. This eliminates the exhausting process of trying to keep mental tabs on who’s turn it is to pay, or the nit-picky one of splitting everything right down the middle. I’ve used this system several times and I can’t recommend it more.

What’s that I just heard? Someone calling out from the back and asking about traveler’s checks? I’m going to just move along and pretend that never happened. Traveler’s checks are dead.

Keeping Track

On the road I use Mint to monitor my bank accounts and Trail Wallet to track my daily spending. Splitwise is another great app for when you’re traveling as a couple or group. Trail Wallet let’s me set a daily budget for myself, make my own categories, and make entries in both a home and local and currency. Taking note of every sol I spend will not only help me write posts about my daily budget like I did for Honduras and the Philippines, but also help keep realize when I’m splurging too much on smoothies or when I have wiggle room in my budget for the VIP bus seats.

How do you manage your money abroad?

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41 Comments...
  • Rika | Cubicle Throwdown
    September 16 2013

    Great resource, as usual! Traveling short(ish)-term I find it easier to give myself a daily budget. I’m old school and usually keep track of what I’m spending in my daily agenda. Living abroad on an inconsistent income has been a whole new challenge for me, but the best thing I did was get a local bank account – as a Canadian there are literally no cards available to us like your glorious American Schwab ones!!
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..“So, like, what do you eat in Honduras?”

    • Alex
      September 19 2013

      Luckily thanks to Schwab I didn’t have to worry about doing that for Thailand, because you need to show a work permit to do so! But I agree that is definitely helpful to do as a long term expat. And I’m with you…. for four years of University I tracked every cent of my spending in a notebook! Only recently have I upgraded to the iPhone 🙂

  • Bonnie Toth
    September 16 2013

    Excellent blog, Alex! Great information…

    • Alex
      September 19 2013

      Thanks Bonnie! I find it can be really difficult to find people willing to share what actual accounts they use. Hopefully this is helpful!

  • memographer
    September 16 2013

    Great tips, Alex! I also schedule my bill pay accounts for a couple months in advance… Just in case 🙂
    memographer recently posted..Prague: The Magical Capital of Europe

    • Alex
      September 19 2013

      That’s another good tip! I don’t have any bills (no mortgage, no rent, no car!) so luckily I don’t have to worry about that. Just my credit cards 🙂

  • TammyOnTheMove
    September 16 2013

    I seriously need to get myself a credit card that collects airmiles. I am flying so much and it is such a waste that I am not making the most of it. Your post finally gave me the much needed nudge-next time I am in the UK I will sort this out! 🙂
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Capture the colour competition 2013

    • Alex
      September 19 2013

      Glad to hear that Tammy! I was definitely intimidated by it for a long time and I too am pained to think of the miles I could have had — so much potential wasted! Now that I’m playing the game, I really am hooked.

  • Chris
    September 17 2013

    I’m so glad you made the point about Travelers Cheques. Long dead, except perhaps in deepest, darkest Africa…

    Charles Schwab sounds awesome, but I’ve found no equivalent as an Australian.

    We get around it using a 28 degrees Mastercard and loading it up with our own money. It has no international fees, and that way we can withdraw cash at any time without getting slugged exorbitant interest.
    Chris recently posted..Southern Bohemia: Český Krumlov

    • Alex
      September 19 2013

      Sounds like an awesome suggestion for non-American travelers! Thanks for sharing that, Chris!

  • Sarah Somewhere
    September 17 2013

    I can also vouch for the 28 Degrees Mastercard for Aussies! No rewards, but no fees, internationally or locally, and as far as we know it’s the only one available! Great tips Alex 🙂
    Sarah Somewhere recently posted..The Fire That Burns

    • Alex
      September 19 2013

      Nice to hear of a solution I can recommend to my friends! I wonder if it is available in other countries as well.

  • Aoife
    September 18 2013

    I live in the UK, but still extremely useful tips. The keeping track apps are a great idea; will download those for use. Thanks!

    • Alex
      September 19 2013

      Glad this was useful even to a non-US reader! Enjoy!

  • Shaun
    September 18 2013

    This is just a great overall skill to have. Nomadic, semi-nomadic or regularly employed. Every dollar you spend is one you’ll never get back.

    Do you keep an emergency fund?

    • Alex
      September 19 2013

      Hey Shaun! I don’t keep a specific, separate emergency fun but I definitely have a large cushion in my checking account. Also I am quite blessed in that I have several safety nets — I have parents and other family who would be happy to take me in rent free for a while if I was even struck by disaster.

  • Aunt Karen
    September 24 2013

    Hi Sweetie–I am actually staying up to catch up with you. Been super busy, but not like you. This is an incredible post. What a great job. Maybe we aren’t related after all. You are very savvy, as always!

    • Alex
      September 25 2013

      Always glad to hear you are reading! I am crazy busy right now… I need some Florida time!

  • Great info Alex. I’ve put a few of those articles together already and you got it straight to the point!
    Sebastian @ Off-The-Path.com recently posted..WARUM BANGKOK EINEN LÄNGEREN STOPOVER WERT IST

    • Alex
      October 18 2013

      Thanks Sebastian! I wanted to share the exact accounts/cards I use, as I find so many people leave that pertinent info out. Hopefully it is helpful to those starting out.

  • Sofie
    April 17 2014

    People from the States have such a head start when it comes to all this stuff. I don’t think banks in Belgium even realize that there are people that travel out there. Nothing is being done here to facilitate traveling and spending money abroad…
    Same goes for airline programs:/
    Sofie recently posted..Why the Camp Nou Experience isn’t just for football fans

    • Alex
      April 17 2014

      Well Sofie, to be honest I don’t think they do it for our benefit, they do it for theirs 🙂 I don’t know if you saw my post on my disaster with Citibank, but these cards are sometimes a struggle to reap rewards from! However I am grateful the opportunities are out there.

      Also, airline-based frequent flyer programs are open to anyone from any country! You should definitely be collecting points while you fly! 🙂

      • Sofiet
        April 17 2014

        Yups, I saw that one and even commented on it;-)

        I know they don’t do it for us, but what I wanted to say is that they seem unaware that there really is a market for this.

        I’m collecting points when I fly, but I was more referring to earning points with travel cards (sorry if I wasn’t clear there). American cards give you a lot of bonus points if you can get to that minimum spending when the maximum amount on a Belgian card, I think, is 2,000 points.
        Banks over here also don’t really over mile saving as part of a credit card ‘package’. The credit card I have for personal use is one from Brussels Airlines.
        Sofiet recently posted..In search of the light: Fishermen in The Gambia

        • Alex
          April 18 2014

          Ah, yes we can earn a lot using credit cards. I was very stung by that last experience but I am still going to try again!

  • Jessica
    November 3 2014

    Does anyone know of a Canadian credit card or bank that offers the same no international fees as the ones discussed here?

    • Alex
      November 4 2014

      Hey Jessica, I hope someone can chime in with a better answer but as far as I know there isn’t one 🙁 Best of luck!

  • Mindy
    November 5 2014

    We are going to have to look into Charles Schwab immediately. Just moved to Japan and was (falsely) informed that I would be able to waive my foreign transaction fees, given that we will be here for at least three years. Thank you so much for all of this information. Just discovered your site and I’ve been glued to it for the past hour! About to go buy the underwater casing you recommend too!
    Mindy recently posted..Surfers and Serial Killers

    • Alex
      November 7 2014

      So glad to hear that, Mindy! I don’t know what I’d do without my Schwab. It gives me so much flexibility… and steals zero of my money!

  • Vanessa
    December 29 2014

    Just stumbled across your site when looking for things to pack for Hawaii and oh-la-la its so cool to read about another independent traveller also from NYC 🙂 (native New Yorker here too hehe) I loved TD bank living abroad in Asia and Europe because they waived the foreign exchange fees but not their ATM fees. So Charles Schwab is it as goods you say it is? Like really refund you the ATM fees from any ATM in the USA and abroad?

    • Alex
      December 29 2014

      I literally LOVE Charles Schwab and have not had a single complaint since I started banking with them! Refunded ATM fees, real person at the other end of the phone… the only downside I could think of would be that they don’t have many physical banking locations if that matters to you (it doesn’t to me, I do everything online and deposit checks into my TD account. Speaking of which…)

      I also use TD Bank and years ago they also used to waive ATM fees for all accounts. I was bummed when they stopped but switched to a higher level account (which requires me to have a minimum amount in my checking in order for it to be fee-free) so they also still refund. You should ask at your local branch and see if you can switch!

      • Vanessa
        December 29 2014

        Wow that was a fast reply thank you!

        So I did go for it and that was extremely seamless and painless banking experience I have ever had. I love not going to physical locations, everything should be done online or over a phone. Oh I am aware of that with TD but currently I don’t have the ability to do so or I would totally! I am always traveling so it is hard to keep funds there. I wish I had known about Charles Schwab back when living abroad could of save tons of ATM fees! (shakes fists at Japan and London…)

        Do they give you a debit card with the chip in it though? Since the USA is the only 3rd world country when it comes to that.

        • Alex
          December 30 2014

          No chip, but hasn’t been a problem for me so far. Congrats on the switch! Enjoy… I know you will 🙂

  • Angela
    February 6 2015

    This was awesome. I love Mint and Trail Wallet. Thanks Alex!

    • Alex
      February 9 2015

      I live off those two apps. Amazing! Glad this post was helpful Angela 🙂

  • Aria
    May 5 2015

    Just signed up for the Capital One Venture thanks to your recommendation! Do you have tips on maximizing the value of the card/rewards? I don’t spend a ton of money

    • Alex
      May 5 2015

      Hey Aria! I hope you signed up when there was a big sign up bonus 🙂 That’s the key! I sign up for cards when I have a big purchase coming up, which helps, and I just put absolutely EVERYTHING on my card and never pay cash unless absolutely necessary. Also, if I’m trying to meat a sign up bonus spend minimum, I might buy products I use (like my Lush Shampoo, for example) in bulk for the whole year ahead. Hope that helps!

  • I literally ended up using the same two cards… CS is amazing I lost my card a total of 4 times and every time they got it back to me efficiently. They are excellent. Awesome post.

    • Alex
      May 28 2015

      Thanks Dani! Lots of research went into this system!

  • I love the idea of a money sharing envelope! Such a simple idea, but I’ve never thought of it. Will definitely suggest this next time I have a travel buddy.

    • Alex
      June 6 2015

      It makes life SO easy. Any time I’ve ever suggested the idea, my travel companions fall wildly in love with it. So simple, so life changing!

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