Get the best money change rate; avoid the rip-offs!

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The same money change rate strategy applies to any place you wish to visit nowadays, provided the use of ATM’s is widely spread. This, of course will be the least of your worries on your Paris trip. ATM’s, as well as other opportunities to change money are everywhere.

The only question is how to make sure there is no snag when you do need to change money.

I should start by making a blanket statement: You will lose some money even with a seemingly great money change rate! Let’s face it, financial institutions are in the business of making money off of our money. The money change rate set-up is no exception.

With that in mind, whenever I change dollars to euros, my main concern is to minimize the amount of money I will be forced to leave on the table.

These days, that means my bank debit card. If you want to stay as close as possible to the prevailing money change rate and not have to pay unnecessary commission and fees, this is the way to go!

A word about commission and fees: Even with your debit/ATM card, you will be charged something. It may just be a fee for an ATM withdrawal not made strictly within your bank’s own system. I’m okay with that. After all, you’re paying for the convenience. It’s the obscene rip-offs that I object to.

Advantages of ATM/Debit Cards:

-The money change rate they offer you is reliably and comparatively low.

-You enjoy 24/7 service regardless of unusual bank office hours, holidays, strikes, etc.

-ATM’s can be found everywhere (airports, train stations, main tourism areas)

-In case of cash emergency, a friend or relative back home can make a deposit in your account and the money will be instantaneously available to you with no transfer fees.

-ATM’s help you sidestep the money change rate game by which currency exchange places present you with an attractive low rate, and then, sneak commission and fees in. Or vise versa, they attract you with a “no commission, no fee” guaranty and clubber you with a high rate, hoping you won’t notice.

One way some places take advantage of you is by only showing the lower “sell” rate. This rate is where the customer sells back local currency, presumably before leaving a country. That low rate benefits the merchants in more ways than one, because the lower they can set it, the less money they get to hand back to you. Moreover, if you are there to acquire local currency -not to surrender it- you’ll get drawn in by this seemingly low money change rate, which doesn’t apply to your transaction.

Before you know it, you’re leaving with the amount they put in your hands, really puzzled by how little cash you seem to have gotten back. So, be particularly cautious with any place that doesn’t show both money change rates (buy and sell).

ATM/Debit Card Precautions:

Choose a wider scope bank card with a Visa or Mastercard logo as opposed to your local bank’s ATM card which may not enjoy the same level of support once you’re out of the country.

ATM’s outside the US may only allow checking account transactions. Deposit your money accordingly.

Stick with a 4-digit PIN or get one if you must, and/or memorize the number of your letter-based PIN because ATM’s in Europe tend to have all-number pads (no letters displayed).

2 cards are better than 1, in case you lose one, or it gets eaten by the machine or stolen.

Keep your bank’s customer service phone number in a safe and separate place. If you lose your card and need to make that call, you probably won’t remember the phone number on your card by heart. Also, be aware that a U.S. toll free number usually does not work when you call from outside the U.S. I suppose they are not set up to accept and pay for your international call. Therefore, try to have a direct (non-toll free) number for your bank if you can.

It is a good practice to make a photocopy of all the important documents you travel with, including bankcards, passports, etc.

Be wary of maximum daily cash withdrawal amounts when relying on ATM’s on international trips. It’s worth checking into, although I have personally never had a problem because I just don’t have that much cash to withdraw in one lump. Lol... Caution: banks are increasingly charging a minimum of $5.00 per withdrawal, so keep an eye on that as well.

Credit Cards:

I usually travel with a couple of credit cards as well. They’re not nearly as good as debit cards for changing money because a credit card withdrawal by ATM or otherwise (bank teller) is a cash advance. That means you get charged loan interest rates on the amount you withdraw.

The best use of credit cards on your trip is for paying for hotels rooms, shopping, sit-down restaurants bills and that sort of thing. Note that if you pay off your credit balances at the end of each month, the interest on either cash advances or purchases could be rather insignificant. In terms of finding a good money change rate, that would make using your credit card a smart choice.

Credit Card Precautions:

Call your bank in advance or have a number you can call from outside the U.S. because it is not uncommon for banks to put a lock on your account, if they notice “unusual” activity. Charges you make during your trip easily fall in that category and may cause your bank to freeze your account. That has happened to me a few times. It’s annoying, but I understand the need for protection against fraudulent activity. Let your bank know you will be traveling.

Keep track of your credit limit and balance. It sounds like trivial advice, but if you happen to operate on a tight credit limit, a gap in the currency exchange could easily throw you over your limit. Leave some breathing room on your card.

You can find locations of ATM’s in Paris through Visa.com or Mastercard.com. AmericanExpress.com also offers useful information for their cardholders.

Cash:

If you MUST change cash, some of the places with the best money change rate I’ve seen in Paris are at Metro Anvers or Metro Blanche (Line 2), and Metro Pigalle (Line 2 or 12). These metro stations take you to Place Pigalle. Along the boulevard, in one of the city’s major tourist-filled areas, you’ll see many store signs for “Bureau de Change”. Just ask anyone if you don’t spot them as they are usually very small stores.

Another location that usually offers reasonable rates is inside the Galerie des Champs Elysées, at Metro George V. The Galerie is on the right side of the Avenue des Champs Elysées, if you come out of the metro facing the Arc de Triomphe.

Traveler’s Checks:

I don’t use them and have never considered them a way to get a good money change rate. With the exception of American Express who apparently waives certain fees for members, you can expect to pay hefty fees and/or commission, not to mention lousy rates.

One Sunday afternoon, my mother and I stopped at a Bureau de Change. She had some traveler’s checks in U.S. dollars and I thought I could find her a good exchange rate and she wouldn’t have to wait to go to the bank on Monday. Then, I saw how much they were about to extort from her. In mid-transaction, I jumped in and asked them to stop and give the traveler’s checks back!

If your main concern is theft prevention, then by all means get travelers checks because they do give great protection for your money. But avoid using them if you want reasonable money change rate.

Currency Exchange Machines:

This is a variety of ATM’s usually found in airports, train stations, tourist traps, etc. You can insert bills you’re trying to exchange and get the currency equivalent minus the amount you lose through the usually awful money change rate. They should not be a serious consideration if you’re looking to exchange more than a very small amount of money.

Whichever way you choose to change your money, a good rule of thumb is this: If you’re changing a large amount of money, mind the money change rate, not the transaction fee. If you’re changing a small amount of money (no more than a few hundred dollars), mind the fees and commission.

Finally, diversify! I carry a couple of ATM/debit cards, a couple of credit cards, some cash (not too much) in both currencies, and some small change in local currency. I might lose a couple of bucks on cash changing fees here and there, but that’s about it. Never had a problem!

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