I was recently roaming through LAX trying to spend my last dollars. I’m not sure why I felt compelled to spend it as I’ll likely return to the US in the next 18 months. But I couldn’t possibly bear the thought of having a few dollars in change, burning a hole in my wallet. On my hunt to spend, I bypassed the overpriced I LA merchandise, glossy coffee-table books and moisturisers, then the bakery caught my eye. Specifically a white chocolate and oatmeal cookie costing $4.90. However as it was late at night and they were locking up, it turns out they didn’t have the capability to take my cash and it was card only. When I explained I hadn’t really wanted the cookie, I was just trying to spend the cash, the sales assistant looked at me as if I was crazy. But isn’t this an airport? Isn’t this what everyone is doing with their last remaining local coins? I then decided to wait 10 minutes for her colleague with the cash register key to return from the toilet. No way was I putting that cookie on credit card! In the end, I handed over my remaining nickels and sad to say, the cookie wasn’t even that good anyway.
The point of all this rambling is that it got me thinking about traveling and money. Decades ago I traveled with ‘traveler’s cheques’. Remember those? In fact American Express was built on the success of traveler’s cheques, although now the Amex card reigns supreme. You could buy them in advance of your trip and the idea was that the money was secure. If your travelers cheques got stolen, you could replace them. I’d always travel with traveler’s cheques wedged into my wallet, although they weren’t accepted in all hotels, shops and restaurants. In which case, you’d have to find somewhere to cash them, which always turned to a bit of a faff. That said, it was always a massive result when you found a traveler’s cheque lurking in the bottom of your backpack. To this day I still travel with a ‘lucky’ traveler’s cheque that I’ve had for about 20 years!
Unlike nowadays where I assume I’ll just get cash on arrival at the ATM, procuring local currency was a pre-holiday ritual. If you were going somewhere particularly exotic, you might have to order it in advance to be delivered to your local bank (remember local banks?). You may then find yourself quizzed by the bank teller, ‘ooh i’ve heard India is amazing, lucky you’. In the old days, remaining cash was always rationed at the end of the holiday. As long as you had enough to transport you to the airport and buy some water, you were ok. There was never any talk of using your cash card/credit card – either you couldn’t find a machine to use it in or you were so fearful of going deeper into the overdraft and incurring exorbitant cash advance charges! I remember backpacking through Europe when I was 18 and spending our last night in Amsterdam. We had spent all our cash and traveler’s cheques but couldn’t face the idea of using our credit card to withdraw a cash advance. Instead we had enough money for one Mars bar, which we split between the two of us for our finale dinner.
At home I house all my foreign change in my own personal ‘bureau de change’, a medicine cabinet bought in Tokyo. If I’m returning to an exotic destination, whose change hasn’t left one of the dusty drawers in a while, I consider it a win if I remember to pack it. Prior to a recent trip to Australia, I delightedly scraped together about AUD 20 from my bureau de change. Annoyingly I think I came back with about 25 AUD which means I’ll just have to return Down Under and spend it.
Increasingly, there are cities where you can get away with having little to no cash. I live in Singapore and am so used to tapping my card left right and centre for goods and services. It makes me worry how people are tipping. I know that some card readers give you the option to add tip but I’m sure many servers would rather have cash direct in their pocket. I also wonder how beggars and buskers are managing to get paid if people are carrying around less change?
I’m no money expert but I’ll leave you with a few tips. As my dad always says, never ever change your money in a hotel. Nor for that matter, an airport. Try to order your currency in advance. If you do use a card, a credit card is often better than a debit card. You can buy prepaid currency cards although I’ve yet to test these out. If anyone can share some good advice, please leave in the comments!
*After I published this post, a friend kindly pointed out that you shouldn’t try to spend your cash in the airport. You should always give it to charity, whether that is in boxes at the airport or envelopes on the plane. He’s absolutely right, sometimes we just need a reminder!