(Photo: iStock)
(Photo: iStock)

Travelling abroad? Here is how to stay away from the airport foreign exchange counter

Some banks’ multi-currency cards allow you to lock in the price of the forex at the time of buying

The question I get to hear a lot, from frequent and infrequent international travellers both, is what they should do to get the best prices on foreign exchange. My usual response to them is to ask if it is just the price that they cared for, or also the security of their money. Usually, the answer changes after.

I’ve been on the road abroad for about 15 years now, and my own behaviour, for work as well as pleasure travel, has changed over the years. Back then, the options I used to have was to either travel with cash or travellers’ cheques. Now, there is a plethora of options, and travellers’ cheques don’t usually figure among them.

The options available to today’s travellers include credit cards, cash, prepaid forex cards, and withdrawing cash from ATMs abroad. Since security is of prime importance, I advise people to put most of their transactions on a plastic mode, such as credit cards. Credit cards are still the most secure forms of transaction abroad because they allow you to spend first and pay later, and block the card if required. In these cases, the liability is assumed by the bank, and you do not have to pay for transactions not made by you. Most business travellers are actually handed out corporate credit cards by their employers and asked to spend on the card itself. Most major expenses such as hotels and big meals then can be paid for with a credit card.

The byproduct of spending on credit cards is that you end up paying about 3.5% more as the markup on the card. Cards such as Citi Prestige and Amex Platinum offer more reward points to their card members to offset this cost. Other cards such as HDFC Diners Black and Infinia offer lower markup rates at about 2% to their customers. When paying by credit card abroad, don’t choose the Dynamic Currency Conversion option, where the vendor shows you an Indian rupee rate for the purchase. It is usually higher than the price you would pay in the international currency.

The next best mode of payment after credit cards is the prepaid forex card. Almost every bank in India offers a multi-currency forex card now, and these cards allow you to lock-in the price of the forex at the time of buying. So, you are protected from future rise in the rate of the currency. As an added benefit, most banks allow you to keep the same card and load multiple currencies on it, which helps because you don’t need to do paperwork again and again. Once abroad, you can withdraw cash from ATMs (fees apply) or just spend from the card itself.

There are also newer takes being developed on the forex card concept now. A new card in the market, called Niyo Global Card, allows you to load the money on the card in Indian rupees, and it converts it to the required currency at the time of your spending at a very fine markup. The card works in over 150 countries, and you can even use your remaining cash in India directly with the card. This means you get to commit the forex rate at the time of your transaction. The company makes money on the money you store with them in Indian rupees, usually called the float.

If you are old-school and won’t leave your home without some forex already on hand, you are better off using a website such as Bookmyforex.com, which usually provides you the finest rate and also do home delivery of forex.

Otherwise, you can also withdraw on arriving in the other country, at the airport or in the city. You would have to pay a withdrawal fees for the ATM, but you can choose to withdraw as much as you need rather than all in one go and then risk losing the cash. Frequent travellers could choose to open an IndusInd Bank account and acquire the World Exclusive Debit Card, where the bank claims to charge zero cross-currency markup fees. It could save you 3-4% on your conversions. Checking on your bank account may not be a bad idea. For instance, Citibank was offering zero foreign exchange markup last year on debit cards, and RBL Bank is doing so till September 2019, on a promotional basis of course.

The one option I totally advise against, out of personal experience too, is the conversion at the airport. The markup at the airport foreign exchange counter are usually the highest around the world, and if you have not managed to carry foreign exchange before leaving home, you are better off withdrawing from the ATM in the other country than exchange at the airport.

Elevate Your Travel is a column for the business travellers by a business traveller.

Ajay Awtaney is founder and editor of Livefromalounge.com, an Indian aviation website.

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