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4 Cheap Ways to Exchange Money Abroad (and 4 Expensive Ways)

Travelling abroad? Don’t squander your hard-earned cash by getting gouged on exchange rates and hefty service charges. Here are four of the most expensive ways to exchange money abroad, along with four cheap and convenient alternatives.

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Airport money exchange

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DO NOT exchange money at the airport

Every international airport has currency exchange booths lining the terminal walls. While they offer convenience, they offer little in terms of value. In fact, if you include fees and the margin baked into the exchange rate, you could be getting charged in excess of 10% on top of the spot market exchange rate.

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Hotel front desk

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DO NOT exchange money at your hotel

Same as airports, foreign exchange desks in hotels offer terrible value. While they’re convenient, they typically have a high margin built into the exchange rate and numerous hidden fees. Consider using them only in case of an emergency.

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Paying with a prepaid travel card

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DO NOT use prepaid travel cards

Prepaid travel cards come with annual fees, a fee for international transactions and an additional fee when withdrawing money from ATMs. For example, the BMO Prepaid Travel MasterCard charges a $6.95 annual fee, a 2.5% foreign transaction fee, plus a $5 out-of-country ATM fee, which is on top of the fee the ATM operator charges (usually around $3). If you take out $100 it could cost you as much $10.50, which is equivalent to 10.5%!

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Bank

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DO NOT exchange money at your retail bank branch

Buying U.S. dollars at your retail bank branch costs more than you might expect. Banks rarely break out their margin from the spot rate, making it hard to judge how much they’re charging you. However, estimates range from 2.5% to 4%, which is more than you need to pay.

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Girl travelling with credit card

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DO get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees

One of the cheapest and most convenient ways to exchange money while abroad is to use a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. You’ll get an exchange rate offered by Visa or MasterCard which is pretty close to the spot rate, and that’s it— 0% mark-up from the credit card issuing bank. There are only two credit cards in Canada that offer no foreign transaction fees, the Chase Marriott Visa card and the Chase Amazon Visa card.

Check out these 8 Ways to Travel for Free on Credit Card Rewards!

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Fan of credit cards

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DO get a credit card that subsidizes foreign transaction fees

The Rogers Platinum MasterCard offers 4% cashback on purchases made in a foreign currency. While it does charge a 2.5% foreign transaction fee, you end up netting 1.5% cash back on foreign purchases. Compare that with a rewards card that earns you 2% cash back and charges you a 2.5% foreign transaction fee, where you lose .5% on every foreign dollar you spend on purchases.

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Man exchanging money online

Image Credits: Brett Walther

DO exchange money online

There are some exceptionally competitive online currency exchange businesses in Canada. Knightsbridge, for example, offers conversion fees as low as .5% over the spot rate and guarantees it will beat any quote.

Check out these 8 Tips for Safe Online Shopping!

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Snowbirds on the beach

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DO join a travellers’ association

Believe it or not, sometimes membership pays! The Canadian Snowbird Association acts like a kind of currency exchange buying club, offering members super competitive exchange rates. In fact, if you’re away from home for an extended period of time, it can automatically withdraw funds from your Canadian account on the first business day of each month, exchange them to USD, and then automatically deposit those dollars into your USD account on the fifth business day of the month.

Marc Felgar is a credit card expert & insider. He is the CEO and founder of GreedyRates.ca, which helps Canadians find the best credit card through online comparison tools, filters, credit card reviews and the latest deals and offers in the marketplace.