‘Running out of money’ is a primal fear of mine, inherited directly from bootstrapping farmer forbearers on both sides, who survived the Depression and the ’80s, hard-wiring a rigid sense of precariousness into my work-toward-retirement parents.
So, the handling of funds while traveling is something I made sure I understood clearly, alleviating my constant concern (and allowing much better relations with my risk-tolerant business partner/husband).
- Don’t worry about exchanging dollars for pesos before arriving in Mexico — just be sure to have some cash with you, in the amount you feel safe carrying, including smaller bills that are easily broken at gas stations, restaurants and grocers. You’ll get change back in pesos; the rest you can get from an ATM (see below).
NOTE: Depending on how leveraged your need of services, you’ll be subject to a worse exchange rate (say, 17 pesos to the dollar, rather than the official rate of 21-22, at the time of this writing). This often happens at gas stations in remote spur locations or on relatively lonely stretches of Highway 1.
- Get an ATM card (if you don’t have one) and notify your bank that you’ll be using it abroad so they don’t lock down your account when your activity pops up on their grid. Also, look up the international locations of ATMs accepting your card type — usually Cirrus (Mastercard) or Plus+ (Visa).Regardless of your home bank’s ‘no-fee’ policy, each ATM will have its own fee per transaction ($2-8, in my experience). Get all you need in one fell swoop, so to speak. If prompted, select an increment in an amount pre-set by the ATM (the equivalent of choosing $10, $20, $50, etc in the States) — this indicates the size bills stocked in the machine and seems to be more important to note here in Mexico than at home.
If your request is rejected, try again — selecting a slightly smaller amount in the same bill increment determined above — as there may be an undisclosed limit per transaction for your card or set by the host bank. Repeat as necessary. Ours is capped at $400US/day/account.
You may find, as we did, that some bank chains (Bancomer) do not support your card type at all — which is a problem if you’re counting on cash, and that bank is the only game in town. You’ll know it’s not working when entering your PIN does not load your account. If you suspect user error, do ask bank personnel — they are likely familiar with the problem and may be able to direct you to another ATM nearby.
You will also find that small towns and even well-developed towns in more remote locations do not have ATMs. Or, they may have only one (Bocas del Toro, Panam) — which reliably runs out of money early on the days it’s filled. This requires you to get the inside scoop from locals and act accordingly. Just have cash with you when you arrive in a new location, and keep track of when you’ll need more, in case it requires a trip to a bigger town.
- Choose and open a credit card that does not charge foreign transaction fees — we have the CapitalOne Venture card — and use it when possible for bigger expenses: hotel stays or rentals, activities such as guided fishing or diving, fuel, and groceries in larger stores. This avoids the 3-5% transaction fee in the fine print of most domestic credit cards, which adds up when purchases range above $100.
Also notify your domestic cards of your travel dates, in case you have to use one of your regular cards in a pinch.
- Create a PayPal account before you travel, as some property owners and service vendors, especially small-business owners, will allow it — the online funds transfer expedites their processing of payment as handily as it does yours.
- Don’t be a gringo about wearing a ‘money belt’ or neck satchel beyond the border zone/airport. While widely recommended for stowing passports and cash, they’re not easy to get into at the point of sale and flag you as a nervous tourist immediately, which may lead to targeting of greater valuables.
Fumbling with ‘hidden’ wallets is also likely to garner more patronizing service from vendors and further isolate you from the culture you’re trying to enjoy. Just carry the cash you need for the outing or the day, and stash other funds inconspicuously in your luggage.
And a word about language: learn the numbers used frequently for commerce so you can understand the cashier when s/he gives your total, allowing you to find and make correct change without having to lean in and look at the screen or have him/her pick the correct bills from the wad you sheepishly hold out.
- And for that matter, please don’t carry your passport on your person. Again, while widely recommended, losing your passport is serious business — and it’s remarkably easy to do, since it’s not something you or the pockets of your clothing are used to having aboard.
I once had my passport, stuck securely in my back pants pocket, under a jacket and a backpack, switched by a talented pickpocket with the travel-sized toothpaste I had in my purse, soon after passing customs in a major international airport — literally, the only time I have my passport within reach. It was a warning well heeded.
In some areas, we’ve heard, a US Passport has some currency in the way of identity theft or forgery, so its best to stow it under maximum protection — hidden in a locked compartment, room or vehicle. We have had no trouble using standard ID (driver’s license), as we would in the States, while accessing our passports only when required.
In all, I’d say I have my genetic predisposition to fret about money under control 89% of the time. I’m still in charge of remembering where various funds are hidden and how they’re getting spent — my reciprocity to Ryan’s managing of money coming in each week. After 15 years of push and pull on this subject, we’ve finally seen our complimentary skills for what they are. And that’s something to take to the bank.