Travel money: How to get the best exchange rates on your holiday currency and top ways to pay abroad

Quick change: Exchange rates fluctuate frequently (Simon Calder)
Quick change: Exchange rates fluctuate frequently (Simon Calder)

At sterling’s 21st-century peak in 2008, £1 was worth over US$2 on the foreign exchanges. During the calamitous premiership of Liz Truss in October 2022, the pound sank almost to parity (£1=$1) against the American dollar.

The UK currency has recovered slightly, but is still only worth $1.27 or so. Sterling’s fall is mirrored against other currencies that are locked to the US$, including UAE dirhams and the dollars used in many Caribbean islands.

Shortly after the euro was introduced at the start of 2002, sterling was riding high: worth €1.65. Today it has shed almost 50 cents to around €1.17. Against the Swiss franc, the pound has fared even worse – losing half its value in 15 years, corresponding to a doubling of prices for British travellers in the Alpine confederatiion.

Given the erosion in the value of the pound, you should avoid further losses by managing your holiday finances well. If you leave it to the last moment and change money at the airport on your way out, you will be wasting your cash – which would be much better spent at your destination. In addition, the pandemic accelerated changes in how travellers transact, with contactless payment increasingly the norm.

These are the key questions and answers on holiday money.

Using a credit or debit card

This is a fast and easy method of paying your way, whether with a physical card or a card on a phone. We are now in an age when cards are used for the most minor transactions. Crucially, though, you could be losing a slice of cash every time you use your normal UK bank card abroad.

For most mainstream UK credit and debit cards, banks charge just under 3 per cent (usually 2.95 or 2.99 per cent) as a “foreign currency transaction fee”. Adding almost £3 to a £100 purchase represents free money for them at your expense.

Some also impose an additional “cash advance fee” – sometimes a flat £1.50 or a percentage of up to 5 per cent – for withdrawals from an ATM.

Check your card provider’s policy – which should be easily visible online – and if necessary get a new card specifically for overseas use.

How can I dodge the card fees?

If you are a First Direct customer, your Mastercard debit card is fee-free abroad. For other travellers who seek a simple solution, apply for a Halifax Clarity credit card and use it purely for spending overseas; it does not add transaction fees.

Online firms such as Revolut may offer a better exchange rate. Along with low-cost providers Monzo, Starling Bank and others, Revolut holders can expect fee-free cash withdrawals (usually subject to a monthly limit).

HSBC has an interesting Global Money account, available to most active UK current account holders. Using the bank’s mobile banking app (select “International Services” then “Global Money”) you can create an account that allows you to keep funds in up to 18 currencies, and spend abroad without transaction fees.

Note that an increasing number of ATMs apply their own, local transaction fees – typically €5 in Mediterranean nations. You should be warned of this before you commit to a withdrawal.

Is it best to take a credit or debit card?

Credit cards have several advantages over debit cards. UK-issued cards are covered by Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974, which makes the card provider jointly liable with the merchant for any purchases over £100. That means any goods you buy with the card must be of reasonable quality.

You are also protected against financial failure of a travel provider, whether an airline, tour operator or hotel – though if you book through an agent the legal position is cloudier.

A credit card also gives you something of a cushion; money does not leave the account immediately, and if you pay off the bill in full every month you should not face interest charges.

Debit cards may incur even higher charges for spending abroad. For example TSB adds a £1 “non-pounds purchase fee” outside the EU to its 2.99 per cent transaction fee for purchases made on a debit card. That inexpensive £16 Turkish lunch bill becomes £17.50 using a TSB debit card, increasing the cost by 9 per cent.

Check before you use your normal debit card abroad – unless you are with First Direct, whose debit cards are fee-free.

The Chase debit card makes an interesting offer: no fees plus 1 per cent cash back, though this applies only for the first year, with a maximum of £15 back per month.

Debit-card purchases are covered by the banks’ voluntary chargeback scheme, which does not offer the same degree of protection as credit cards.

Beware of Dynamic Currency Conversion

“Would you like to pay in sterling?” the waiter asks innocently. He is hoping that you will choose pounds, thereby boosting the restaurant’s profits. Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) means the merchant and a bank give you a terrible rate of exchange and split the profit – typically a margin of 5 to 6 per cent – between them.

Restaurants, shops and hotels are allowed to offer the “opportunity” so long as they make it clear that the cardholder has a choice, and cite the rate of exchange that will be used.

The EU-funded European Consumer Organisation, known as BEUC, adds: “It is almost impossible for a consumer to make an informed decision when presented with the DCC option, because of various ‘nudging’ strategies put in place by the DCC service providers and merchants.”

Always choose to pay with local currency, not “GBP”.

Could I face unexpected charges abroad?

Yes, depending on the location. In the UK it is illegal to charge extra for paying with a credit card, but that does not apply elsewhere.

A European Union law bans credit-card fees for EU citizens, but of course those do not apply to British travellers; charges for UK cardholders appear standard in Denmark.

Credit-card surcharges are also permitted in Australia, so long as they reflect the vendor’s costs of processing the payment. In New Zealand, fees are also common – though Consumer NZ says “anything higher than a 2.5 per cent credit card surcharge, or a 1 per cent contactless debit card charge could be excessive”.

Watch out for the ‘hold’ on a credit card

All kinds of enterprises, from car-rental firms to hoteliers concerned about your possible thirst for the contents of the minibar, demand a credit card. Without one, you might be asked for a hefty cash deposit – or simply refused service. This is because the firm wants to reserve the right to extract additional funds if you “go rogue” in some way.

If, after you have checked in the car or checked out of the hotel, they find that you have run up a charge, they want to claim it back – and the easiest way to do that is to demand “pre-authorisation” up to a certain amount.

They will exercise a “hold”, which means reserving a chunk of capacity – perhaps as much as £1,000 – from your account for contingencies.

This money will not leave your account (unless there has been some financial chicanery on your part), but it does limit your freedom of financial movement.

Pre-paid cards

These are cards which you load with currency – usually sterling, euros or dollars – and use to pay for goods and services, or to withdraw cash from ATMs. On longer trips, you can keep topping them up online from your bank account, making them good for globetrotting tourists and gap-year adventurers.

You can also hold multiple currencies on the same account; FairFX offers up to 20.

But do your homework. The key components you need to compare start with the initial fee. Some providers waive this, but often make up for it with higher charges elsewhere. Paying a fee now may actually save you more in the longer term.

Next, do you have to pay a “loading” fee to put money on the card? If so, this could prove expensive. Some companies demand 3 per cent of all the money you put on your account. Is there a flat rate or a percentage charge for using the thing?

Lastly, how quickly do your funds erode if you don’t use the card for a while? The depletion of value over time is a very useful income stream for the prepaid card issuer.

Should I take cash?

Obtaining local currency locks you into an exchange rate, and therefore you can calculate precisely how much a cup of coffee or a night’s stay costs in sterling. Cash also says less about you than plastic, eliminating the risk of credit-card fraud.

Should I take out currency in the UK or abroad?

Many people use their credit or debit cards to withdraw cash abroad. But on top of any fees added by your card provider, many operators of ATMs abroad charge you for the privilege, known as a Direct Access Fee (DAF).

Providing a fully stocked ATM on a Greek island, with all the security and maintenance issues involved, is an expensive business, they point out – and the transaction fee reflects this reality.

So buying ahead of your trip is a good plan.

Where can I find the best rates in the UK?

Foreign currency is the ultimate commodity: the euros or dollars you get cheap from a backstreet bureau de change are worth exactly the same as the notes you might buy, expensively, at your high street bank.

The best way to compare rates is to frame the question right: “how many euros will you give me for £300?” or “I need $500, how much will that cost me in sterling?”.

On your local high street, don’t expect much from banks – which now appear to regard changing money as a faff, and often restrict it to existing customers.

Travel agents often offer more competitive rates. And the Post Office is worth checking, particularly for commission-free small transactions – for example buying £20 of Turkish lira to tide you over until you can find the best local deal after arrival.

But you are almost certain to get a better deal if you shop around online through companies such as Travelex and Moneycorp, and pick up the foreign currency at an airport or ferry port.

For the best deals, it helps to be in London. Search Thomas Exchange Global for some of the best rates. You can pay online and pick up the cash at a Thomas Exchange bureau.

Currency Online Group, based at Waterloo station, offers highly competitive rates if you pay in advance and pick up from its office. Outside working hours, the UK’s first cash-to-cash foreign exchange ATM is located in the Excess Baggage office on the concourse; it offers reasonable rates for euros and dollars from 7am to 11pm, seven days a week.

Better still, take a stroll along Britain’s finest foreign-currency artery: Queensway in London W2. Within a few hundred metres, there are two dozen bureaux de change. It takes 10 minutes to compare rates, and with lots of tourists selling euros or dollars for sterling, there’s a willingness to turn a quick profit.

All of this applies only to the major currencies: the euro and dollar, and also the Swiss franc, Canadian and Australian dollars, plus the UAE dinar. You might also want to buy in advance for Scandinavian currencies or New Zealand dollars (weak competition at the destination means rates are rarely good).

But just about every other currency counts as “exotic”, and for these locations the rule is: wait until you get to the country in question. Take clean Bank of England £20 notes (with a few £5 and £10 notes in case you need to change smaller amounts towards the end of your stay).

Turkish currency

The usual advice for European holidays – buy euros in the UK at the best rate you can find – does not apply to for the Turkish lira.

First rule: do not change in large quantities in Britain; you will get a much better rate in Turkey. If you like to have a modest amount of foreign currency for incidentals when you arrive, then as mentioned above, you could go to your local Post Office and change £20 or so into Turkish lira. You won’t get a great rate of exchange, but it will be better than your departure airport. And it is commission-free, which is handy for small transactions like this.

Once at your destination in Turkey, you will soon be able to identify the bureau de change with the best rates for sterling. Even in small towns, there are change opportunities; ask at the tourist office or a travel agency.

Change reasonably small quantities in case there is another sudden collapse of the lira. Little and often is the best way.

When you shop around, note that some places charge commission and some don’t. The sensible question to compare rates is: “How many Turkish lira will you give me for £100?”