“Do I need this triple shot of espresso before boarding a redeye?" "What do I need from Boots at Heathrow?" "I’m out of shampoo right? And body lotion?" "Ohhh, well. I could always use another wallet and I do have these euros leftover…”
Maybe this sounds familiar. How many times have you found yourself waiting to board a flight, looking down frustratedly at the foreign currency you didn’t spend while you were visiting? Since you know you'll lose a chunk of change to convert it back to U.S. dollars — or likely smallish amounts will just go completely to waste in a drawer — you come up with any reason, any need or any idea, to get rid of your leftover paper and coins. Who has a birthday coming up, right?
Here, travel experts share their best advice on what to do with foreign currency before hitching a flight back to the states.
1. Play by the $100 rule.
Unless you’re in a very rural, remote area in an unfamiliar country where you know credit cards aren’t accepted, more than likely, you don’t need too much cash handy — so start out on the right foot by exchanging just a small amount. Most travel experts recommend bringing anywhere from $100 to $300 in cash, depending on the duration of your stay abroad, and for all other expenses, use a credit card that doesn’t have foreign transaction fees. When you’re shopping at local vendors, popping out for coffee or need to buy an umbrella on the fly, that’s when you utilize your cash. For everything else? Use your chip card. Travel expert and representative from the Tenerife Bureau of Tourism, Sergio Barros, recommends playing by the $100 rule when it comes to leftovers: “If the amount is under the equivalent of $100 USD then I would just spend it at the airport on souvenirs,” he says. “If it's more than that, consider two options: Convert the money back to USD, or if its a currency you're sure you will be using again, then save it for your next trip.”
2. Wait until you're home to convert.
If you’re in the more-than-$100 camp and you want to get the most back out of your money (obvs!), then take the advice of Greg Geronemus, co-C.E.O. of smarTours, and be patient. Why? You’ll likely have a better exchange rate on your own soil than you will at an airport that jacks up prices for your so-called convenience. “Far too often, we hear about travelers feeling pressure to spend all of their leftover currency at the airport! Inevitably, those last-minute forced purchases become clutter in your home,” he explains. “One option is to convert it back into USD at the airport, but if you don't mind being a bit patient, you're better off converting it at your local bank when you're back home. Exchange rates at airports are never favorable, so if you can wait until you're home, we recommend it."
3. Use it before you get to the airport.
When you wake up in an anxious hurry to make it to the airport before boarding time (and enough time to get through security), you might not consider all of the opportunities you have to rid of your cash between check-out at the hotel and check-in for the flight. "For the foreign currency that we don’t intend to take home, we try to pay whatever outstanding balance on our hotel bill with it,” suggests travel agent, Greg Antonelle. Other ideas? Splurge and take a taxi to the airport so you don’t have to deal with schlepping your luggage on public transit, order room service for breakfast, or buy a round of coffees for the friendly hotel staff or housekeepers. Better yet, leave that cash as an all-important tip for housekeeping.
4. Consider other alternatives.
If you simply can’t find any way to spend the money and you don’t want to deal with exchanging, there are other options and uses for foreign currency. Many travel pros hang on to a buck here and there as a memento from the trip they just experienced — perhaps framing it as part of a shadow box of priceless memories. As Antonelle suggests, “When we have clients who are traveling internationally, we always recommend to them what we do when we travel abroad. We love keeping some of our leftover money as souvenirs,” he says. “It’s a fun keepsake and serves as a nice memory of our vacation. In addition, It is always nice to take some of the foreign currency home for family members as well.”
One last idea? Check with airport security to see if they have a donation bin to help those in need locally. That way, you know that cash will be spent for good — and not for an overpriced tank top that you really don't need.
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