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Good, bad and ugly of currency exchange

If you're not careful, currency conversion fees can cost more than you expect. To get the best bang for your U.S. dollar abroad, update your knowledge of currency exchange.

According to Douglas Stallings, senior editor for Fodor's Travel, travelers need to be aware of currency exchange options abroad because of costs. "Many options carry extraordinary hidden fees, and some places are just more difficult to negotiate since they are more cash-based than the typical American is used to," Stallings says.

In lieu of foreign currency exchange desks at airports and major hotels, there are more convenient and cheaper ways to exchange currency, Stallings says. While some desks advertise "no-fee" exchanges, they still build in a hefty profit by offering a high rate.

Before your next trip, take a look at the best and worst methods of currency exchange by following Bankrate's "thumbs-up" or "thumbs-down" rating:

Currency exchange methodsRating
Credit cardThumbs up
Debit cardThumbs up
Prepaid cardNeutral
Airport or hotel exchange deskThumbs down
Dynamic currency conversionThumbs down
Traveler's checksThumbs down
Cash advanceThumbs down
Credit card: Thumbs up

Credit cards offer some of the lowest currency exchange rates. Card companies base their exchange rates on wholesale prices offered to bigger institutions, so you're bound to get a fair rate. Foreign transaction fees are a different story.

"Most people have multiple credit cards, and each could have a different fee structure. You can save money on fees by making some calls before you go and knowing which cards to use," says Tom Meyers, editor in chief of, a guide to budget travel in Europe.

Some major card companies have eliminated foreign transaction fees on all of their cards. Others are just offering a few cards without foreign fees.

In addition to cards without fees, think about getting a card with the latest technology. Maria Brusilovsky, spokeswoman for Travelex Currency Services, says chip and PIN technology is now the preferred way of making credit card and debit card transactions in Europe, and some vendors only accept chip and PIN cards.

The "chip" refers to a microchip embedded into the card to secure account information. The "PIN" refers to a personal identification number that the cardholder enters to authorize payment.

Heads up: With or without chip and PIN, alert your card company that you'll be traveling. Otherwise, it may freeze your card, thinking it's been stolen.

Debit card: Thumbs up

Using your debit card at ATMs is one recommended way to get cash when traveling abroad. "We consider the ATM to be the best choice in terms of convenience, exchange rates and fees," Meyers says.

Fees vary by institution. Some charge a flat rate, others charge a percentage, and still others charge both, Meyers says. To save money, keep ATM trips to a minimum.

"If your bank charges a flat rate for the withdrawal, you should certainly minimize your trips to the ATM by withdrawing larger sums each time you go," Meyers says.

And do your homework. Stallings says if you take money out of a bank that has a relationship with your bank, you may be able to avoid some fees.

Heads up: Meyers advises to call your bank before you go to ask about fee structures for ATM withdrawals. Each bank has its own fees for ATM debit card withdrawals.

Prepaid card: Neutral

Prepaid cards for foreign use are becoming more widespread. For example, one major card company has started to offer prepaid cards free of the typical recurring fees. It also snubs foreign transaction fees, and it charges the same rate as its regular credit card when converting currency.

Another company offers a prepaid chip and PIN card, which allows travelers to load up on euros or pounds and use it like a debit card. They can be a good option for Americans traveling without a card using chip and PIN technology.

Stallings says one upside to chip and PIN prepaid debit cards is they can be used in an automated payment machine to buy train tickets and to pay at unstaffed gas pumps and highway toll booths in Europe. You lock in the exchange rate at the time you load or reload it.

Prepaid cards are also convenient and safe since they reduce the need to carry as much currency and because a PIN is usually required to take out funds, Stallings says.

Heads up: Stallings warns that some prepaid debit cards can come with substantial fees, may not be usable everywhere and can leave you without funds if stolen. He advises to read the fine print before purchasing.

Airport or hotel exchange desk: Thumbs down

Airport exchange desks have some of the highest currency exchange rates, which means you pay more in dollars for conversion.

Meyers of recommends walking straight past the currency exchange counter upon arrival or in the airport baggage claim area. "These companies pay a lot of money to rent those spaces, and they make it up through service fees and lousy exchange rates," he says.

Airport exchange desks depend on their convenience to make money. You'll be better off finding an ATM in the airport and using your debit card to get cash.

Hotel exchange desks are just as pricey but for a different reason. "The hotels that still offer this service usually give awful exchange rates because the entire process is a hassle for them," Meyers says.

Heads up: Don't be duped by the sign at the currency exchange counter claiming "no fees, no commissions." Meyers says they'll make their money through higher exchange rates, even if they don't charge you a direct fee.

Dynamic currency conversion: Thumbs down

Some credit card companies give U.S. consumers the option of paying in U.S. dollars or the local currency during a transaction abroad. It's called dynamic currency conversion. If you're not careful, dynamic currency conversion could cost you big time.

"Primarily in Europe, dynamic currency conversion allows your credit card purchase to be charged in your home currency. While this seems convenient, it is one of the worst deals in travel and should always be avoided," Fodor's Stallings says.

According to Meyers, it's always better to pay in the local currency when traveling. "The local bank there will convert it back into euros, and then your U.S.-based bank will convert it again into dollars. This adds an extra conversion, which is good for the banks but not for you," says Meyers.

The extra conversion means you will pay more in fees. "You basically pay twice for every dynamic currency conversion transaction -- once to your own bank for the privilege of using your card abroad and once to the company processing the transaction," Stallings says.

Heads up: According to Stallings, you should insist that your transaction be charged in the local currency or just pay in cash.

Traveler's checks: Thumbs down

Sales of traveler's checks are in decline as travelers adopt new technology and more convenient methods of payment, says Brusilovsky of Travelex Currency Services. According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, traveler's checks peaked in the 1990s but have declined in use ever since. At their peak, there were more than $9 billion in traveler's checks outstanding. Now, there are only about $4 billion.

But they can still provide a safety net, Meyers says. "Many businesses abroad still accept traveler's checks, if they're made out in euros," he says. But, if they are made out in dollars, you'll need to convert them at a bank or currency counter, which can mean a fee or a lousy conversion rate.

Heads up: A few hundred dollars in traveler's checks can be a good emergency fund if you have any trouble with your cards or lose your wallet, Meyers says.

Cash advance: Thumbs down

Getting a cash advance on your credit card is an easy way to break the bank, whether you're abroad or in the U.S.

Your card might offer a fair currency exchange rate, but the interest rate on cash advances can be high. Cash-advance interest rates are more than 20 percent on some cards, and the interest starts accruing as soon as you take out the advance. For example, one bank's reward card has a cash advance annual percentage rate, or APR, of 24.9 percent. There's also a fee tacked on for taking out the advance.

"Before you leave, call your bank and ask what it charges for cash advances abroad," Meyers says.

Heads up: If you're in a bind, it might be worthwhile to take a cash advance. Just make sure to pay it off before the interest has time to accrue.

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