Exploring foreign lands is always exciting. But one thing that is sure to put a damper on a holiday is losing your money or having it stolen. While you could decide to travel without cash, it may be easier said than done. Many holiday destinations are still cash economies, and even though there might be some ATMs and card machines about, chances are slim that you will be able to go totally cashless. Still, there are ways to carry your money safely while travelling.

Carrying cash and cards

It’s vital that you don’t keep all your cards in one place (namely your purse or wallet). If you do and it gets stolen, you will lose all the cash you have on you as well as all your cards. The best thing to do is to keep your main wallet and your valuable items in the hotel safe. In this you should keep the the bulk of your cash and most of your cards.

In another smaller wallet, put the cash you think you will need for the day and one card (ideally, a travel card) that you can keep for emergencies or unexpected larger purchases. See how this system works for you, and experiment with how much cash you need for a day's expenses. This method is great if you have a daily budget as it will help you keep to that limit.


Even if you decide to minimise the amount of cash you travel with, it’s still important to have some set aside for emergencies. Keeping cash on you is especially important if you're heading to rural or developing destinations where electricity and therefore ATMs are not a guarantee.  

Another important factor to consider when it comes to cash is to ensure that you do your research on which currencies are used at your destination. It might mean that you need more than just the local currency. There are many places in the world where you need US dollars in addition to the local currency (specifically in Southeast Asia). And you need to ensure that your dollars are absolutely perfect, as notes that are torn, folded or written on will be rejected.  

Be wise about where you exchange money. Airports charge a premium, and you are bound to be ripped off on the street or in backpacker type establishments. Exchanging cash at hotels should also be only for emergencies. Ideally, you should exchange money at an accredited trader in South Africa before you leave, or, failing that, a legit exchange bureau at your destination. Remember, if you are taking cash into a country, there are limits to how much you can bring in, so know what that limit is for your chosen destination.

Prepaid travel cards

Credit and debit cards are not the only alternatives to cash. You also have the option of pre-loaded travel cards (sometimes called cash passports) that you can get in a number of different currencies. You use these much like you would a debit card (in fact, they have many of the same benefits). They also tend to have very low fees, making these a cost-effective option.   

It can sometimes be tricky to get back the remaining balance on your card after your trip, so make sure you understand the conditions before you apply for one. Still, if you want to carry a card with you when you travel, prepaid travel cards are definitely a good option. If this card gets stolen, you will lose some money (and a portion of your travel budget). But if your credit card gets stolen, the consequences could be a lot more costly. 

Credit cards

While you need to be careful when travelling with your credit card, there are also some benefits to this option. When renting a car, for example, it’s often necessary to have a credit card. Of course, you’ll have to keep tabs on your cards at all times – never let a card out of your sight. If someone tells you that it’s necessary for them to take your card to a machine somewhere else, rather pay them from your ‘daily allowance’ cash stash. If you plan on using your credit card overseas, make sure you let your bank know that you will be doing so, or they might block your card (thinking that it has been stolen). Also, keep in mind that drawing cash from an ATM abroad with your credit card can be quite costly.

Debit cards

Debit cards are generally a good option as they usually have lower fees than credit cards overall. As with credit cards, however, you will need to notify your bank that you would like to use it overseas. Something to keep in mind is that you will actually get charged twice if you use a debit card to withdraw cash: once by the banks whose ATM you use and once by your bank in South Africa. This means that your international transactions can add up quickly. To keep these transaction costs to a minimum, withdraw large amounts of money at a time at an ATM close to your hotel or, if you can, swipe for purchases instead.

Travellers cheques

Over the years, travellers cheques have lost their appeal. This is because ATMs are more prolific than ever before, and because fewer places accept traveller’s cheques. The process of changing cheques can also be quite laborious. They do, however, have one main advantage: they are widely accepted by banks and exchange bureaus across the world, and as long as you have all the right documentation, you can generally get them replaced if somebody steals them or you misplace them accidentally.

Become familiar with foreign ATM keypads

Be extra vigilant with your money, cards and belongings while you travel. You also need to be scrupulous when withdrawing money. Take a close look at any ATM keypad. Is it the same as what you’re used to - the numbers might not be set out in the same way as in South Africa? If not, how do you punch in the pin? Don’t make the mistake of typing in the wrong pin because you didn’t take a proper look at the pad. Trying to communicate to someone that your card has been swallowed could turn into a long and futile game of charades. 

Keep important numbers on your phone

Always keep a list of emergency numbers handy when you travel. You should have numbers for the local police (or tourist police), that country’s South African embassy, and the international extension to cancel your card. The last one is important to have because the sooner you can cancel your card, the better your chances of stopping a thief from using your card.   

With these measures in place, you can really relax and enjoy your travels while taking comfort in the knowledge that you have done everything to safeguard your money. For more travel-related money tips, see these articles on cheap destinations and reducing the cost of your travels. Alternatively, sign up for our Money Mailer, the money newsletter in which we dispense all kinds of useful money tips.

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