It is well known that the exchange rates offered by airport currency exchange windows are poor - see these stories from the BBC for example: Holidaymakers hit as pound falls (20 July 2018) and Tourist pound now down at close to just one dollar (14 Dec 2018).

I have been aware of this for a long time, and for the last 15-20 years of travel I have simply used my card at the nearest ATM when I arrive. I am therefore amazed that the windows manage to stay in business. Is there something else that these windows offer the traveller to make using them worthwhile and therefore keeping their business viable?

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    Anecdotally, I have used one at the airport when I have a handful of local currency I want to change back to my home currency before I leave the country. May 29, 2019 at 22:13
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    The masses are not as smart as you think. In my over 60 international travels, I have used those services just once, in Brazil. However for most people I think it a combination of convenience, ignorance, and lack of advance preparation. Those exchange rates are simply atrocious! May 29, 2019 at 22:20
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    1. Demand. 2. Supply. Politics sometimes pushes on one or the other, but fundamentally, they stay in business because there is a business to stay in.
    – choster
    May 29, 2019 at 23:05
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is a question about business feasibility, not travelling. May 30, 2019 at 7:39
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    Ultimately, it is a question about traveler behavior. The exchanges stay in business because there is demand for their services, even at the poor exchange rates, because travelers sometimes need them. May 30, 2019 at 22:06

5 Answers 5


Maybe some people end up with some spare cash when they leave a country for good. Their choices basically are:

  • Keep those bills as a souvenir.
  • Spend them in Duty Free.
  • Exchange them at the window to reclaim those money at least partially.

Since Duty Free's price policies rival those of exchange windows, it probably makes more sense to exchange your bills at airport's exchange rate.


How do convenience stores stay in business when they charge much higher prices than supermarkets? It's easy -- they are selling convenience.

Similarly, airport money exchange counters are convenient, especially for people who trust cash more than electronic transactions (if I'm carrying cash it can get stolen, but it can't be used to drain my bank account), or for people who don't have good credit cards with reasonable foreign transaction fees. And there are still many places in the world where cash is preferred or is the only thing accepted.

If you've ever gone thirsty on a hot summer day when surrounded by street vendors selling bottles of cold safe water for cash-only you'd understand.

(Note: my analogy of convenience stores may not be globally applicable. Here in the US they are corner shops selling a small selection of merchandise at high prices, but they are easy to get to, don't tend to have checkout lines, and are generally open 24 hours a day. Many are located at gas (petrol) stations.)

  • I'm confused. Aren't convenience stores the same as supermarkets? Both translate to "supermarkt" in my language. Why are they more convenient than supermarkets? Supermarkets are already pretty convenient in my opinion. Unless you mean the shops at petrol stations and such?
    – Belle
    Jul 12, 2019 at 9:26
  • In the US, supermarkets are large stores where people go to do their regular grocery shopping (and also sell other common things like soap and shampoo); "convenience stores" are small stores open 24 hours a day with limited selections, usually no fresh food except maybe doughnuts and hot dogs and the like, and charge much higher prices for the convenience of no checkout lines, easy locations, etc. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convenience_store
    – arp
    Jul 13, 2019 at 0:17
  • @Belle-Sophie added a note of explanation, thanks for pointing out that my analogy wasn't universally relevant.)
    – arp
    Jul 13, 2019 at 0:21

Using an ATM internationally may require some pre-planning that most people don't do. As a savvy traveler, you probably already know what your bank is going to charge you for an international withdrawal, but I don't think most people do. You may have notified your bank in advance that you're traveling, so that they don't suspect fraud when an international withdrawal comes up, but I'm sure many people don't know that they need to do this, or just forget to.

  • Besides ATM only supply you with bills and in some places (or if you do not know how to handle the machine) in bigger values. Face to face with someone in an exchange office you can require smaller change.
    – Willeke
    May 30, 2019 at 8:34
  • In some places, cough Thailand, ATMs universally charge $7usd per withdrawal for all foreign cards - this applies at airport and city - all ATMs in the country (welcome to competition). Combined with your own banks markup (sometimes 3% plus a fixed fee) to get some small money (<$50) for taxis, street food, 7/11 and tips its not completely a bad idea May 30, 2019 at 16:29
  • @MâttFrëëman This must be a relatively new thing. I didn't get stung an extra $7 a time last time I was in Thailand, though that was back in 2013.
    – Nick
    May 30, 2019 at 16:43
  • @Nick The Thai 200 baht foreign withdrawal fee has been in place for at least 10 years. Jul 12, 2019 at 6:18

Many (e.g. Travelex) also allow you to pre-book your cash for collection at the airport. The rates are much better (seemingly their own online rate, which, while not in the top 10 today, is quite reasonable). This provides a profit stream for the company, while for the user it provides convenience (you're hanging around there anyway) and peace of mind (collect potentially large sums of money somewhere secure).

Of course, the last minute travellers who don't (have time to) plan provide a good revenue stream for them, and it's a good idea to have some cash on arrival, though not as universally necessary as it was a few years ago.

  • The rate for Euros isn't too bad, but I checked the rate for a less-traded currency (GTQ) and their markup was nearly 10%.
    – The Photon
    May 30, 2019 at 16:27

They are convenient, well-branded, and trustworthy. Even an idiot (or first time traveler?) can easily get money there, whether or not they know the exchange rate is bad. A person with excess money may care more about the convenience than the poor exchange rate.

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