Travel money

Making sure you take enough money and get a good rate for your travel money can save you a lot. However, this needs to be organised in advance, or you could end up spending a lot more than is necessary. Be organised and try to work out in advance how much you’ll be spending whilst you’re out there. If you’re working, will your wages cover your living costs or will you need extra supplies?

South American currency
South American currency

Foreign currency

For starters, exchange some foreign currency before you go. The best deals are usually on the internet, so this cannot be left to the day before you travel. You need to allow time for delivery or to go and collect the money from the branch. Try and take as much cash as you can, but obviously, take a safe limit. You don’t want to be carrying thousands of pounds worth of currency in your pocket. Also, check how much your insurance policy covers for loss or theft of personal money. Just in case.

The best place to look for travel money advice is In the Spending Abroad section, you can find a foreign currency comparison tool. You type in the amount you need and in which currency, and it will tell you the best deals on offer on the high street or online. What’s more, it’s up to date and is based on the most recent exchange rates.

List of South American currencies:

  • Argentina – Argentine Peso AR$
  • Bolivia – Boliviano B$
  • Brazil – Real R$
  • Chile – Peso CH$
  • Colombia – Peso COL$
  • Ecuador – US Dollar US$
  • French Guiana – Euro €
  • Guiana – Guyaenese Dollar G$
  • Paraguay – Guarani ₲
  • Peru – (Nuevo) Sol S/
  • Suriname –Surinamese Dollar SR$
  • Uruguay – Uruguyan Peso $U
  • Venezuela – Bolivar Bs

Credit cards and pre-paid currency cards

You also need to consider how you will withdraw money once you are in South America. Using your debit card or some credit cards can be super expensive and will charge you a withdrawal fee as well as giving you a poor exchange rate.

Again, I would advise going on as they offer you the most up to date information about the best credit cards and travel prepaid cards to use when abroad. Offers and deals are changing all the time, so I cannot recommend a particular card company to go with.

The first time I went to South America I applied for the Sainsburys credit card. At the time, in 2012, they were offering a credit card with free withdrawals abroad and a good exchange rate. I had to pay £5 a month, but it still worked out as the best deal for me. I had it for the three months I was travelling and then cancelled it when I came home. If you do get a credit card, make sure you have a direct debit set up to pay it off every month. It’s difficult when you’re travelling to keep track of things like that and you don’t want to end up with costly fees for not paying the credit card off every month.

I now have a different credit card, which allows me free international transactions. I use it for over the counter or internet payments, but it’s expensive to withdraw from the ATM.

This time we went to South America, we have also been using a prepaid travel card. In the past we have used the Travelex Cash passport, which has always been good, particularly when travelling in Europe. In 2014 when we left though, the best deal we could find for cash cards was with Caxton. They offered free withdrawals and a good exchange rate.

Ecuador travel money advice

If you are going to Ecuador, the best option is to get a single-currency cash card, so in this case, a Dollar card. As far as I’m aware, you can only get single-currency cash cards in Dollars, Euros and Pound Sterling. At the moment, the British pound is really strong against the dollar so you get a very good rate. Travelling around Ecuador is super cheap for British people right now!

Argentina travel money advice

Now that we are in Argentina and using a different currency, we have switched to a multi-currency card. The rates are not fantastic but it’s probably the best we’ll get.

If you are going to Argentina, I would strongly recommend that you take as many dollars in cash as you can. Right now, the US dollar is in huge demand and there is a shortage. With huge inflation rates in the country at the moment, people are keen to keep their money safe in dollars. You can get fantastic rates on the dollar from buyers on the street offering you a blue market rate.  Yes, this is not exactly legal, but it’s happening all over the country. In Salta, you will pass about 15 or so guys on the main plaza offering to exchange your dollars. The rate will be much better than that offered in the banks. For more information about inflation and the dollar in Argentina, click here to to see an interesting article and video.

Travelling around and using different currencies

If you are travelling around various countries, you will, of course, be using different currencies. If you know where you are going before you go, I would suggest you get a bit of each currency before you go. For example, we took £200 worth of each country’s currency. This simply made things a lot easier and we were not rushing around trying to find a bank when we arrived somewhere new, or wondering how we were going to pay the taxi to find the bank. It’s worth it for peace of mind.

Alternatively make sure you have a supply of dollar notes on you. They can be accepted in most countries, but, of course, you may end up paying more when the guy is ‘working out’ the price in dollars for you. So make sure you haggle and don’t just accept the price given to you.

At the borders, there are always people offering to exchange your money, but you should be weary of the rate you are getting and make sure you aren’t being given fake notes. Especially as you are gringos, new to the country and unfamiliar with how things work, you are so much more vulnerable to getting ripped off.

Another reason to have cash handy before you enter the country is that ATMS can be harder to find in certain towns in South America. Furthermore, they are more likely to be out of order, or even, empty. We have often had to wait several hours for the bank to refill the machine. Particularly, when you are crossing borders, you will usually be travelling through small towns that may not have ATMS.

Staying safe with your travel money

My final piece of ‘money’ advice is on safety. This is mostly common sense, but you still see travelers not taking simple precautions. I know that it’s difficult when you are constantly on the move, you have your backpack on, and you’re tired, feeling a bit uncomfortable and very vulnerable in new surroundings. But still, try to consider some basic things:

  • Avoid carrying huge amounts of cash. Take only what is necessary.
  • Consider your insurance cover. Find out how much your travel insurance policy would cover for loss or theft of money. Also, do you have receipts/bank statements + police statement to prove the amount for which you are claiming?
  • Keep it out of sight. When carrying cash, cards, or anything valuable, keep it hidden. Spread it around your person. Don’t keep it all in one place, not even your money belt – muggers know about them and will demand you to show them. Keeping money in your socks or bra is a great place. We found out that in Ecuador, many locals keep their money in their armpits. Lovely.
  • Keep a note of your card numbers and account details (not your PIN) in a safe place. If there is someone trustworthy at home, even better to leave it with them. Should anything happen, it makes it a lot easier to contact your bank and cancel your cards.
  • Notify your bank of where you are going. This will avoid the chances of your card being blocked. I know that Natwest have an online tool that lets you notify them when you are going abroad for up to 3 months at a time.
  • Check your change. Don’t worry about holding up the queue of people behind you. Count your change and make sure you have paid the correct amount.
  • Be aware of fake notes. You can easily do a google search on how to identify fake notes in your chosen currency. I wouldn’t say it’s very common to receive fake notes, but it definitely happens. It’s worth knowing some basic tell-tale signs of fakes.

If you liked what you read, please leave a comment at the bottom of the page. Thank you! :) 

7 thoughts on “Travel money

    1. Hi Pippa, Thanks for visiting my site.
      Yes, I did go to Peru back in 2012. It is a fantastic country and so worth visiting! We started our trip by volunteering in a school for a month in the surf town of Huanchacho in the north (you can read about it here. Then we carried on south to Lima, Nazca, Arequipa, Cusco, Machu Picchu and then across Lake Titicaca into Bolivia.
      The only place we weren’t blown over by was Lima, as it’s a very busy, noisy city – it was also our first experience of S.America and was a massive culture shock! However, loads of people have said it’s an awesome city so we should probably give it another go sometime.
      Nazca has the fascinating Nazca lines in the desert; Arequipa is just beautiful, one of my favourite cities, and you can visit the incredible Colca Canyon & see Condors there; Cusco is super touristy but an interesting historical city and the place to go to begin your journey to Machu Picchu (doing the 5-day Salkantay hike is one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever done!); and then Lake Titicaca is just amazing with its floating islands.
      I will eventually get round to writing a section on Peru on The Mini Explorer, as well as Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile…as well as a hundred other things I have planned, so please do come back soon!
      If you have any questions or need any help planning your trip, I’m happy to help! 🙂

      1. Thanks so much for your reply! Interesting stuff to know 🙂 Basically, I have 3 weeks flying into Lima and I am torn about whether to do the Galapagos or the tourist track in Peru – nice problem to have ;). I love nature etc and also don’t want to feel like I am just on a tourist treadmill (as I have read that about Peru). Out of the two, which was your favourite? Your info on the Galapagos was incredible by the way!

        1. Oh wow, that is a real dilemma to have! Ah I’m not sure I could choose…
          I would say that both trips are super touristy, but despite this, I would still recommend them as ‘bucket list’ places to visit. Macchu Pichu and The Galápagos have been amongst the top (if not THE top) places I’ve ever been to.
          If you love nature though, I would say you MUST go to The Galápagos. There is just nowhere like it (it’s giving me goosebumps just thinking about it ha!). But you have to be ok with snorkelling – I met people who wouldn’t go in the sea, and I can’t think why they would bother going all that way?! Under the water is where it’s really special and it’s the best feeling in the world swimming with such beautiful magnificent sealife. There are plenty of tourists though, but we still were able to find places that were quiet enough and we even had the beach to ourselves (on Playa Baquerizo for example). Whatever you choose, you won’t be disappointed!
          I’m so glad you’re finding The Mini Explorer useful! Thanks for visiting 🙂

          1. Thanks so much! Yes it’s a really hard choice, limited by time and budget grr. I would definitely be up for snorkelling – maybe not scuba diving though 😉 Thanks for your information – it’s really helpful 🙂

  1. I have been looking in to the caxton fx card, however it doesn’t say it provides the currency needed for Latin America. I am travelling Brazil, Colombia Peru, equador, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay. Will i be able tp use it to withdraw the currencies needed? Also, Does this card charge you for withdrawals? Thank you, Steffi

    1. Hi Steffi, Thanks for getting in touch.
      The Caxton card is available as a Euro, Dollar or Global card. It’s not possible to get a card for each of the currencies of S.America – there are lots! We used the Dollar card in Ecuador and then the Global Card for the rest of the continent to withdraw money from the ATMs in each country. And no, the good thing is it doesn’t charge for withdrawals. Hope that helps! Have a great trip! 🙂

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