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I, a European, plan on visiting North and South America (Mexico, Peru) for a few weeks, and I wonder what's the best way to use my money over there. I want to lose the least of it to fees or conversion.

My money is in a bank account and I have a debit card. Do I convert in my home country and carry cash? Do I convert (through my card) in the airport on arrival? Are there better places over the country where I can get, e.g., Mexican pesos, from my European bank account? Can I use my card, if the place accepts it, without paying any fees?

Basically I would appreciate a summary of what's the most practical and beneficial way of using the money, I'm assuming I will need some cash hence the need to convert EUR from my bank account to, e.g., MEX cash, at some point.

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    The answer may vary a lot depending on the bank and the type of account and/or card as this can have a big influence on fees they charge.
    – jcaron
    Mar 7 at 8:16
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    I recommend you to exchange some cash in your local bank before the trip, enough for a hotel night and the meals for a day, and then replenish in local ATMs that have a agreements with your bank as they usually have the lower conversion fee, just be sure to let your bank handle the conversion fee.
    – Rafael
    Mar 7 at 20:14
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    Another thought: if you are planning to fly through the US, cash is at risk of being confiscated because of an utterly bizarre US legal mechanism called "civil forfeiture"
    – Hilmar
    Mar 8 at 12:24
  • @Hilmar: Of what use is that information unless you're a drug dealer? Mar 8 at 14:29
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    @RobertHarvey: Civil forfeiture at airport is unfortunately very real . DHS has seized billions of dollar from completely innocent people . This apparently is perfectly legal and there is no need to proof any wrongdoing at all. See ij.org/report/jetway-robbery
    – Hilmar
    Mar 9 at 21:36

3 Answers 3

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  1. Carrying large amounts of cash in Central or South America is generally not a great idea. Depends a bit on where exactly you are going but I recommend against carrying any more than you immediately need. Replenish at local ATMs.
  2. Best form of payment is a credit card that charges no international transaction fee. Always pay in local currency. Use whenever possible. Only use cash if there is no other way.
  3. Talk to your bank or research conditions of your debit card. What fees do they charge, what ATM networks do they support, do they charge extra for international use and currency conversion, etc.
  4. Do some research on which ATMs are popular where you are planning to go and what the typical fees are

If the fees of your current providers are excessive, consider getting a better checking account and/or credit card. These are typically available at 0 cost to you. Some larger banks have international partners (example Bank of America) some smaller banks offer fee refunds, etc.

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    OTOH do check that's you'll actually have decent access to ATMs if you're not going to be in large towns Mar 7 at 14:57
  • @ChrisH-UK fair point. But then again: ATM's are fairly ubiquitous these days. Going to places that have no ATM access requires extra planning anyway.
    – Hilmar
    Mar 7 at 20:48
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    I'm thinking of the sort of trip where all the transfers are included meaning no detours, but not everything can be charged to credit cards - but my long-haul travel was all wildlife trips so to pretty remote places Mar 7 at 21:19
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    @Hilmar The ATMs are ubiquitous however the always seem to be out of order. On my recent trip to Peru, I had to take a 3 hours bus trip to the next town since all the ATMs in the current town were down. Mar 8 at 19:53
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@Hilmar has a nice answer, but I think it should be completed with two additional points:

  1. Before you travel, check if you need to notify your bank you travel in South America. Some banks blocks by default many countries, as anti-thief measure. Just a notification (countries and period [keep it longer, in case of problem]).

  2. The more cards you have the best it is. Or just use ATM and get enough cash (if you go in small villages). I had a lot of bad experiences where you cannot use some European cards on some banks. It is nothing really wrong, just change bank. (really it happened also within Europe).

US dollars are often accepted (warning for the "tourist prices"). And have an idea on which transportation you will use from airports. It may be difficult to pay with large notes local buses or public transportation. ATM at airports may be busy (but use them, avoid exchange offices inside the arrival only zone). Maybe a quick breakfast/lunch (after ATM break) may give you changes (coins and small notes).

In general (not only for South America). Keep one or two notes in a pocket. Use them in crowded space (or unsafe places), instead of using the wallet.

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    Keep one or two notes in a pocket. Use them in crowded space (or unsafe places), instead of using the wallet. When I travelled more I carried a sacrificial wallet: Mainly low denomination notes, but quite a few, perhaps with something more useful tucked in if I thought I might need it. Add a couple of useless cards (like expired library cards) and it feels like a real wallet. I also keep a low limit credit card; if I'm expecting to need a credit card somewhere risky, that's the accessible one but there's another card tucked away Mar 7 at 15:00
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    Definitely notify your bank! Possibly in writing (i.e. via email) and/or multiple times ("just to confirm, I will be travelling..."). My mom had a bank repeatedly lock her card when she was travelling in a single European country, despite being notified that the travel will be occurring. We'd jump through the hoops to get it unlocked, it'd work once, then the next time she tried to buy gas, surprise: it'd be locked again. (Needless to say, she got rid of that bank as soon as she got home, but that was months later.)
    – Martha
    Mar 7 at 16:48
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    With (some) banks you go online and change the location where you are/will be yourself, and for the period you need it.
    – Willeke
    Mar 7 at 17:47
  • while it's always good to call (they may even have advice), I suspect anecdotally that buying something at the local airport helps hint banks' systems to travel too
    – ti7
    Mar 7 at 18:47
  • Not sure how much extra they charge for "tourists", but on my one trip to Mexico City from the US, I can say that I've never felt richer than I felt on that trip - everything seemed way less expensive than I would've expected (though initially it looked more expensive since pesos and and dollars use the same $ symbol, but they were at an ~11:1 exchange rate at the time.) Can't speak for Peru, or using euros in either country, but I imagine it's similar. Mar 7 at 20:31
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I live in Mexico, so I will add a couple of local observations in addition to the excellent answers by Hilmar and Giacomo Catenazzi.

While Credit Cards are definitely safer and easier to use in the malls and chain stores, if you're in the markets or local stores you'll need cash. That said, I would recommend you only withdraw what cash you need that day, leave the rest in the bank. If you find something to buy and don't have the cash, they'll almost always be willing to hold the item while you find an ATM and withdraw the cash (they'll be selling to you for more than they'd sell to a local anyway).

While you might get away with handing over a US $10 or $20 note and have it accepted, you're almost certainly not going to have anyone accept any Euro notes. Many banks here don't even exchange foreign currency. There are exchange houses around, however these only exchange between USD and MXN. The situation may be different in tourist spots (Cancun or Cabo) or Mexico City.

Additionally, Credit Cards here are almost always signature required. Very very few places have chip & PIN available (in fact, I'm not sure I can recall EVER using chip & PIN here). If your CC does not have a signature strip they may not be willing to accept it.

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  • Everyone we met on our recent trip to Cancun and surrounding touristy areas were more than willing to accept USD, especially for tips. Can't vouch for Euros.
    – FreeMan
    Mar 8 at 19:08

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