It comes in an assortment of different shapes and sizes. Worldwide, $5.3 trillion of it is traded every single day, according to the Bank of International Settlements- that’s $220 billion per hour. Whether we like to admit it or not, money is a focal point of overland travel. Dollars, Pounds, Euros, Pesos, Dirhams, Rands, Kwanzas, Reals, Francs, Quetzals, Kunas, Shekels, Rupees, Yen, Dinars, Kyats, Kwachas, Meticals, Cordobas, Balboas, Riyals, to name a few. Or my personal favorite: the Dong.
Whichever currency you happen to be dealing with, there are a few pointers you should know about. All of these pointers originate from my own experience- things I’ve learned and even some mistakes I’ve made along the way. Here’s the deal: finance and economics make my skin crawl with boredom. Trust me, my college transcript grades in that very subject prove it. Finances just aren’t my jam. Also, money can be a bit awkward to talk about. Often, it’s a taboo subject. Many of us are taught from a young age not to ask how much people make or where the money came from. I get it, it’s crude. I’m an open book, though. I can tell you in a few sentences what my past looks like and what I did to get to where I am. I went to college for aviation, I managed airports for 8 years for local government agencies earning a regular paycheck while living a non-lavish lifestyle, all of which has allowed me to save the money required to pursue a childhood dream: Riding a motorcycle around the world.
Now that that’s out of the way let’s bite the bullet: Travel takes money, and money can be a complicated matter. I’ve been on the road for 26 months and have somehow stretched 72,000 miles across 57 countries without having to sell my body for gasoline. (That’s sarcasm, Mom). Along the way, I’ve learned a few tricks about pinching pennies, stretching my dollar, exchanging money, and reducing some of the stress associated with the whole process! I figured I’d share it here.
One of the primary considerations with money is keeping it safe. While I’m not inferring that it’s necessary nor am I trying to fear-monger about a roadside robbery, I recommend carrying two wallets. To me, it just wraps itself into the whole “don’t keep all your eggs in one basket” theory. I carry my “real” wallet, buried somewhere on my person and I take a “decoy” wallet which is my go-to for funds related to toll booths, gas stations, coffee, and snacks. Having a constant, conscientious awareness of the location of both wallets, at all times, has become borderline obsessive. Your wallet, when traveling, is your lifeline. I check, double check, and triple check my “wallet pockets” a few times an hour; even while riding. Keeping them in a zipped pocket is essential, in my opinion. I won’t buy motorcycle gear that doesn’t have zipper-pockets. I just won’t.
My “real” wallet is where I keep the “lump sum” of cash, each time I go to an ATM (we’ll talk about that later.) This is where my important stuff lives: a real ID, a debit card, and a credit card are stored here. For authenticity, my decoy wallet has some items with my name on it: an expired ID, a library card, and a couple of expired credit cards. Additionally, I almost always keep $20 USD (or the equivalent) of cash here. This is my spending wallet. Whenever I need more funds, I simply replenish it using my real wallet, which, remember, is filled occasionally at ATMs. Sounds like a lot of work? It really isn’t. Over the months and years it has become 2nd nature. It provides me with an additional layer of security and confidence in the event that if for whatever reason I must part ways with my wallet, I’m not stuck up sh*t creek without a paddle.
The second idea I utilize in regards to safety and security is mostly common sense-orientated.
I do my best only to use ATMs in well-lit, populated areas- this shouldn’t be news to anybody.
Trust me, the fear and anxiety about using ATMs in 3rd world countries is far more stressful to think about from home than it ever is in real life. I remember, before even arriving in Central America, always having these dramatic scenes playing out in my thoughts of people hiding in dark corners near ATMs, just ready to pounce. Insert eye roll: It’s not the case at all. I’ve traveled through some of the (statistically) most dangerous, murderous, gang-populated countries on earth with no issues, whatsoever.
Simply use common sense when selecting an ATM to withdraw from. Preferably, you should look for an ATM that is in an actual bank. There are two reasons for this: First, banks are always populated; there is always somebody else there, often a security guard. Second, the chances of the ATM being tampered with for the purpose of fraud, are far slimmer than a 3rd party ATM in the town park. Regardless, no matter where you are, always check the card reader for what seems to be loose plastic or “aftermarket” parts. What I mean by this is keeping your eye out for card skimmers. Card skimmers are devices that are designed to slip over the card reader to fraudulently record your card’s information. I have yet to find a card skimmer in real life, but it’s still worth your vigilance.
Banking: Learn from me! It took me almost 2 years before I smartened up and switched to a financial institution that didn’t charge ATM fees. Prior to the switch, I had a bank that rhymes with Smells Largo. Smells Largo is the most miserable financial institution on planet earth. Not only do they make you wait on hold, pressing numbers for 30 minutes before offering zero customer service about your money being inaccessible, they also slap their customers with $5 transaction fees for each “out of network” ATM withdrawal. Combine that with a $5 ATM terminal fee charged by the machine itself, and I was paying 10 bucks for each withdrawal! Often times, in Central and South America, these withdrawals are limited to only $100 USD. Do the math! My advice: Prior to travel, find a bank (there are many of them) that offer reimbursement on all ATM transactions. This part is painful to admit: If I had done this before, I’d have saved hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars of wasteful fees. That’s money that can go directly into your gas tank.
This suggestion is totally optional: Open up a 2nd bank account and keep some money in there, even if it’s only a few hundred dollars. I’m new at this, but I now have two separate accounts and carry two debit cards from different banks. I feel much better having money in two different accounts; just in the rare event that one is unusable, you’re again, not stuck up sh*t creek!
Akin to the topic of tires, engine oils, and helmet brands (which are always a fast track to the beginning of World War III in online forums,) there is no “right” credit card. There are boatloads of options out there for you: Some offer money back, some offer SkyMiles, some may give you a cheap watch that will likely break in 2 months. Whatever your interests are, there is probably a credit card that encourages your spending habits. Different strokes for different folks, right? My advice: Chose a card that does not charge foreign transaction fees when dealing with multiple currencies. Many companies will offer a direct match at the current exchange rate. Whatever your preference is, choose a card that works for you so that your inevitable spending will at least be incentivized.
Security in Technology
Most banks and credit card companies have apps that offer you direct access to monitoring your spending and your funds directly from your smartphone. Utilize these. In addition to these apps, many smartphones have the ability to “register” your credit cards into your phone. Android-based devices utilize “Google Pay,” while Apple products use “Apple Wallet.” What does this all mean? Once your credit cards are programmed into your phone, you can utilize your phone to pay for goods and services, wherever there is a contactless payment terminal. Is this absolutely necessary? Of course not, but it’s just another way to reduce risk through redundancy. Redundancy equals security.
Other Finance Apps:
I use an app called “XE Currency” to monitor current and up-to-date exchange rates. Some conversions are easy, and mental math is sufficient: Mexico, for example, where 20 pesos is approximately a dollar. Others, like… let’s say, the Vietnamese Dong, where 23,365.11 Dongs is equivalent to $1, make XE currency very handy. Splitting a bar tab in Patagonia? PayPal and Venmo are two secure and easy-to-use apps that make exchanging beer money between fellow travelers, easy and simple.
I genuinely hope this information is helpful. As always, I guarantee nothing I say to be “the right way,” it’s just my way. Want to keep up with my most recent whereabouts? The most up-to-date status on my shenanigans is posted on both Instagram and Facebook by searching @TimBurkePhoto.