Back on 15 February 2016, one day after I quit my 9-to-5 job and one week before taking a one-way flight to Bangkok with nothing but a backpack, I made the following question in a travel related Facebook group:
“How do you handle money in long-term backpacking? Do you take enough cash? Do you use credit cards? MoneyTransfer? Any comment will be very appreciated.”
Ah, that rookie feeling of the unknown. I look at this question with a bit of nostalgia, And here is what I would have answered the inexperienced me today, after 10 months of backpacking and another year and a half of digital nomadism:
- Take cash for some of your initial expenses, such as buses and maybe water. Depending on the country, $100 go a LONG way.
- Don’t exchange everything in the airport. The rates are always more expensive there. Actually, even the booths outside border control already have better rates than the ones inside. And for any airport exchanging, do it in the local airport. At the time of my 1st travels, a London airport was selling Thai baht at 42.3 per £1, while at the Bangkok airport, 47.5 per £1 was among the expensive rates. It’s always going to be cheaper in the city, though. Everyone of the 9 countries followed the same pattern.
- You’ll be fine paying quite a few things by card. Just let your bank know first that international expenses from faraway places are expected.
- Also, most of your chunkiest expenses, such as hostels, can be paid online.
- There are ATMs everywhere. The fee varies. In Thailand, it was £5 per withdrawal, so you want to take the maximum they let, which is about 600 THB. In Malaysia, 7Eleven fee is ridiculously low, it’s just 1 MYR (about 0.20€).
- If you’re really a planning queen, don’t mind some extra bureaucracy, and want to save every penny you can, you’ll be interested to know that some banks offer products where your international ATM withdrawals are free of charge. I didn’t do it, if you’re wondering. Some of the banks I found were for US residents only, and others required you to leave £20,000 untouched on the bank account, otherwise the fees would be higher. I didn’t know for how long I was going, even if I had this amount.
- I never needed to use Money Transfer, Western Union or any other similar service. Which is great, given the amount of scams that can these services are famous for attracting (from Nigerian princes to the beautiful loft rental scam). But many people use them, and it’s completely fine.
- But it is wise to have a second card, be it credit or just debit. At some point I didn’t recognize an expense in my bank statement, and calling my bank from overseas, I learned that the alternative would have to be them blocking my card and sending me another one. Now, if you’re backpacking, you just can’t wait 7-20 days for a letter to arrive at a hostel – because you need to move on with your trip, and because you need access to your money in the meantime. I ended up activating areas of my brain I never knee existed, to be able to remember that expense and avoid the fraud claim. But had it been really fraud, I’d be in trouble.
And I also kept note of ALL. MY. EXPENSES. Yes. This became as finance control and became mostly a very interesting way of remembering the dishes I ate, the places where I was, and what I did each day.
In the end, you’ll be more and more comfortable to play by ear and see what works better for you. For me, anything that spares me from walking around with a money pouch strapped around my waist or tucked among my luggage is a good method.
Safe travels, and see you around the world! 🤙🌏🎒
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