Our tips on how to deal with money exchange, withdrawals, ATMs, foreign currencies, etc., when travelling abroad.
HOW TO DEAL WITH MONEY ABROAD
Before travelling abroad, one important matter you will have to take into consideration is how to deal with money in every single country you are going to visit. The more countries you are going to touch, the more currencies you will see and handle, and your mind will be getting closer to blow after all the rate exchange conversions!
First of all, don’t forget to inform your bank you are going to use your card in determinate countries, in order to avoid to get it blocked; second of all, always bring a good amount of cash with you, preferably US Dollars or Euros, especially if you are going to less developed areas where ATMs and cards are not part of daily routine.
During our 6 months in Southeast Asia we never got robbed, never got threatened nor intimidated. We have been overpriced a few times, but sometimes you have no choice and there’s no reason to argue over 10,000 Dong (less than 0.50$). Be careful, particularly at airports and train/bus stations: taxi and tuk-tuk drivers wait all the time for new comers and sometimes try to rip you off. Always agree the price before getting on a vehicle, to avoid bad surprises.
We heard stories of some people unaware of prices in a new country, having no clue they were paying 5-10 times more than normal price! If it seems too high, ask the next, and if everybody says the same well, that’s the ride price, unless you are up for a walk with your backpack on your shoulders.
To avoid finding yourself with no money left in case of theft, loss or sudden medical expenses, it’s indispensable to get a reliable travel insurance that’s got your back in any situation: get your quote here.
Here’s how we prepared for it and our experience in each country we visited in Southeast Asia:
CAMBODIA – 1$=4,000 RIEL
We left Italy with enough Euro cash to face the very first days in Thailand. Since we were going straight to Cambodia 2 days later, we didn’t need to withdraw in Bangkok, we just changed some 50€ at the official change at Hua Lamphong train station (scroll down for specific info about Thailand). Once at the Thai/Cambodia border at Poipet, USD are the best choice. In these countries, US Dollars are the most used international currency, so you will find prices in $ pretty much at every border. Of course, option n.1 is to pay with local money, but the 2nd best is always USD cash. Otherwise you will have to change Euros, or withdraw some more, which will result in additional fees.
We had read about Cambodian border fees, about 30$, so we brought with us some spare USD we had from Ambra’s last trip to Boston. So, Ambra paid her 30$ Visa straight cash, while Edo paid something like 20USD+400THB, making it 32$. (It doesn’t matter how you are going to split the due amount, they just want the bloody money in any form!). Poipet is a very busy land border, if you need an ATM you will easily find one.
In Cambodia, US Dollars are not far from being an official currency. Literally everybody accepts them, applying a rate change of 1$=4,000KHR (Cambodian Riel). Actually some locals even prefer them as they don’t take US coins but round it up. You can pay in $ even at official sites as Angkor (40$ for the 3-day pass). Thinking back about our trip in Cambodia, actually there were very few circumstances in which we needed Cambodian money as the only accepted. The reason you would need KHR is for small purchases, for examples at markets, where 10,000 Riel would cost you 3$ instead of 2.50$, and for tuk-tuks and taxis, where they will get greedier if they see USD.
So, as we had finished Dollars and couldn’t find any ATM working with our credit cards in Siem Reap, we had to change some Euro cash at some guy’s grocery store, not exactly what you would call an official exchange bureau: we were given 210$ for 200€! Highest commission ever, but we had no choice since we wanted to catch the Angkor beauty at dawn.
In Cambodia we moved around mostly with buses and boats, paying tickets both with Dollars and Riels. At the marvellous Coconut Beach Bungalows in Koh Rong, being a small island with just a few resorts around, we paid everything $ cash. And to get our 3-month Vietnam Visa at the embassy in Sihanoukville, we paid 55$ cash again.
VIETNAM – 1$=22,000 DONG
Vietnam is were we started using our credit cards, we kept our remaining USD for further needs (we didn’t want to change them again!). Edo had an English account with British Pounds, just to have a little more fun with calculations!
The main problem in Vietnam is that most of ATMs allow to withdraw only 2,000,000 VND (Vietnamese Dong), which sounds like a lot but translates in just 65£/80€/90$ (this was when UK was still in the EU and 1£ was 1.40€). In two weeks time, from Ho Chi Minh to DaNang we had to withdraw several times, and it was a 5£ fee every time.
We bought some train tickets online, which is possible only on some non-Vietnamese websites who accept foreign credit cards as amt.12go.asia, they charge a couple of Dollars for the service. We managed to use them again at Nha Trang, one of the most touristy locations in the whole country, to buy the tickets for VinpearLand.
In Dalat, we got our train tickets to travel from Nha Trang to DaNang at the train station, after having ordered them online. We had to withdraw a couple of times with some heavy fees (both from Vietnamese and our British bank).
Once in DaNang we looked around and finally found our dear HSBC branch, which allowed us to withdraw 5,800,000 VND in one transaction. We tried a few times in local banks such as Techcom Bank, and had to wait almost an hour to withdraw 5,000,000 at once. There probably are some ways to get even up to 10,000,000 or more, but we believe it’s not that easy and immediate as at the ATM.
During our stay in DaNang, some working here and there allowed us to be paid straight in VND, which was ideal for us.
If you have cash to change, the best way is to walk around the markets and touristic areas, you will always find someone offering fair changes, way better than at any bank or travel agencies. In DaNang and generally Vietnam, local cash is a must for everyday purchases; but if you happen to be in a non-Vietnamese business, they will accept cards as well, from restaurants to hostels.
Before leaving DaNang to head North, we made sure we had some USD left, always handy when you cross land-borders. Of course, in Hanoi there’s no need to worry, you can find help everywhere. We paid our Halong Bay cruise tickets straight at the guesthouse in Hanoi where we had bought them.
In the northern provinces such as Cao Bang, Ha Giang, it is harder to find ATMs, so take the necessary amount of Dong with you. Our last stop before Laos was SaPa: another tourism hub which means getting money is fairly easy, and dollars flow everywhere.
LAOS – 1$=8,000 KIP
At the Vietnam/Laos border at Tay Trang, we paid 30$ cash each for Visas, plus some small fees in Laotian Kips. There even was a woman just on the side of the police office changing Vietnamese Dongs into Laotian Kips and viceversa!
Having enough USD with us, we managed to help two French girls who had no more cash with them (it’s almost impossible to find ATMs at such remote border zones!). They paid us back in Kip, so we had a good base for the first days.
1$ is about 8,000 Laotian Kip, we had a new conversion to keep in mind after 4 months of Vietnamese Dong. We soon learned that Laos’ poverty doesn’t translate automatically in cheap prices, on the contrary Laotian are just learning now that tourists are a big source of income and unfortunately they always try to overprice you. For example, renting a motorbike was 120,000 VND normally back in Vietnam, about 6$, and it was 120,000 LAK too, about 15$! Our boat ticket on Mekong river from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai, was 220,000 Kip, 28$.
This currency exchange “inflation” makes it harder to use USD around, differently than from Cambodia.
THAILAND – 1$=35 BAHT
Finally, we got back to Thailand, where we didn’t need to buy any visa. Back to our beloved Thai Baht, with a nice 1€=39baht change that makes it ridiculously cheap. Rooms for 300baht, bikes for 200, delicious pad-thai for 40, street-food for 10baht, a dream!
In Bangkok we treated ourselves after sleeping in simple hostels for a while: we got a 3-star hotel room for 23$ a night (800THB)!
As we stayed in Thailand for a couple of weeks, we withdrew with our cards a few times, normally between 8,000-10,000 THB (200-250€). We found a few banks that would let us take out 8,000 bahts max., but still a higher limit than in Vietnam.
The best advice is always to follow the locals! If you become friend with some local you can ask them to go to the market together for example, where you will know the real prices. We shared our last stage from Laos to Thailand with a Thai girl who helped us a lot understanding boat+bus+border timetables and policies!
When you have to visit around, motorbikes are always the best investment you can do, or get a bicycle if you don’t feel safe enough driving in some crazy streets. If you are not alone, sharing the taxi fare with your friends will result in some good deals.
A few remainders for a safe trip: be aware of where you use your credit card, always check your bank account after you use it, double check conversion rates when you exchange currencies, don’t show off big amounts of cash in front of people, don’t keep all your money in the same place, do not leave your belongings in shared hostel rooms.
And never leave home without a travel insurance, you never know what can happen and it’s not nice being without medical coverage when so far from home! Get your quote here.
Keep your wallet and phone safe and firmly in your hands, some thieves hit and run while on their motorbikes. When they ask you “first time in Thailand/Vietnam?” always answer no and walk away from what could be a potential rip-off.
One last tip about bargaining: the price they tell you is normally at least double if not three times higher than the real one, the one for non-tourists. Don’t be scared to offer less, being polite with a nice smile, they are always keen on some pay-2-get-3 offer or 50% discount.
You are now ready to take off, SAFE TRAVELS!
HOTELS – WHERE TO STAY AND BOOK IN SOUTHEAST ASIA:
- Mind Executive Suites, Bangkok: modern suites, cheap prices, close to BTS skyway, with an amazing rooftop swimming pool!
- Coconut Beach Bungalows, Koh Rong: enjoy your private tropical beach in this gorgeous Cambodian island!
- Diamond Sea Hotel, Da Nang: sublime seaview from your room with balcony, plus a big rooftop swimming pool at floor 20.
TRANSPORTS – HOW TO BOOK TICKETS IN SOUTHEAST ASIA:
Other than at the stations, it’s possible to book online to make you sure you find available tickets. We recommend two websites we use regularly, both simple and reliable, with e-mail ticketing:
ASSICURAZIONE DI VIAGGIO:
Never leave home without a reliable travel insurance. Even if you trust yourself, you can’t always trust others. Better safe than sorry! Get your quote here.