Gone are the days when we would trek to a high street travel agent to visit its in-store bureau de change to pick up hundreds – or even thousands – of pounds worth of weird and wonderful currency, then hit the skies with bulging pockets. Whilst physical bureaux de changes still have their place in the market, they are now by no means the only option available to facilitate overseas spending.
This article will help resolve the eternal tourists’ question – do I travel with cash, with credit/debit card, or with a mixture of the two? Of course, the main driving factor behind this decision depends on rates of cash/card acceptance in your destination of choice, and the practicalities of using either cash or card in-destination.
Below is a brief guide to cash/card acceptance in major tourist destinations by continent. Note that the situation can change, and acceptance can be spotty from location to location. So it’s always imperative to have access to a means of cash, even if you don’t arrive with wads of notes on hand. Note that in all cases – but particularly true of non-EU destinations – it is important that you inform your bank/card issuer of your travel plans. Doing so will reduce the risk of card transaction blockages, and will facilitate a smooth spending experience.
In any destination, it is unwise to carry large amounts of cash on your person. Taking out as much money as you need for the day and storing the rest in a private hotel room safe is the way to go.
Travel Money in Africa
It is possible to get by without cash in the main tourists destinations and resorts of Egypt, but it might not be entirely practical. Although cards are widely accepted at major hotels and chain-brand shops and restaurants, smaller establishments of all types may insist on cash only. Occasionally, ATMs may run out of money, may be out of order, or may be difficult to find.
We therefore recommend that when taking a trip to Egypt, you should expect to undertake the majority of your transactions in cash. Unlike some other African currencies, the Egyptian Pound can be obtained both inside and outside Egypt, meaning you can obtain and travel with your money before you arrive in Egypt. This becomes more complicated in its North African neighbours…
Morocco & Tunisia
Both the Moroccan Dirham and the Tunisian Dinar are ‘closed’ currencies, meaning that local currency cash cannot be imported to or exported from either of these countries. This is further complicated by the fact that the cash vs. card debate follows similar rules to Egypt – cards are widely accepted at major outlets, but less so at small businesses. It is therefore necessary to get your hands on cash in Morocco and Tunisia, but care must be taken when making the exchange (or using your card to withdraw local currency from ATMs).
In-person cash exchanges should only take place at official bureaux de changes, with can be found in airports and resort/town centres, or in a bank. Note that both of these establishments will usually only accept Bank of England sterling notes (no Scottish, Ulster, Gibraltar, etc.), and may not be up to speed on changes in sterling currency – for example, there are reports that the new 2020 £20.00 note is not yet accepted, whilst the ‘new’ £5.00 and £10.00 notes also experienced this problem, when they were first put into circulation. As far as ATMs go, prepare for occasional money shortages, power outages, or a scarcity of safe and workable machines. ATMs situated inside – or built into the wall of – banks are your best and most reliable bet.
Cards are widely accepted throughout the main tourist centres – and beyond – in South Africa, so you should have no problem getting by with your cards, supplemented by just a little cash for smaller purchases. However, South Africa is unfortunately associated with high levels of personal and financial crime, meaning that even when travelling with cards only, they should be treated the same as cash. Do not be put off travelling to South Africa on this basis alone – common sense precautions such as storing your cards/cash securely help to alleviate this problem. In the case of ATM withdrawals, be cautious to your surroundings, and choose ATMs located within or adjacent to banks only, for the best and safest experience. Never withdraw or carry large sums of cash in South Africa.
Travel Money in Asia
Card acceptance across the man major urban centres of China is exceptionally widespread and advanced. In fact, locals have gone one step further, and increasingly rely upon mobile apps to make payments. However, this is generally only useful for those travelling with Chinese-issued cards. Although some progress has been made, acceptance of international debit and credit cards across China is low and patchy, so foreign travellers are advised to rely on cash, which is almost universally accepted.
Cards are accepted widely across the main tourist hubs of Indonesia (including Bali), yet as is wise in most ‘developing’ countries, it is advisable to also be prepared to access cash, in the event that smaller retailers do not accept cards. ATMs are easily accessible within such tourist hubs, yet may be extremely scarce in more rural or less developed areas – so plan ahead if you intend to explore Indonesia beyond its popular tourist draws.
You need cash in India, full stop. As with many other developing countries, card acceptance is theoretically possible, yet service can vary from place to place, or from retailer to retailer. However, similarly to Morocco and Tunisia, the currency of India (Indian Rupee) is a closed currency, prohibiting the import/export of large sums. Similarly again to Morocco and Tunisia, the exchange of travel money upon arrival should be undertaken only at reputable bureaux de changes and banks, and the same advice applies for the usage of ATMs.
Surprisingly for a super-advanced nation, Japan remains a very cash-driven society. Although cards are indeed relatively widely accepted (with the usual concerns relating to smaller retailers),local Japanese themselves have not yet made the widespread switch to mostly card-based transactions. For a hassle free trip to Japan, plan to rely mostly on cash. Although common sense should always prevail, visitors to Japan should feel more comfortable carrying slightly larger sums of cash on their person, than in other destinations throughout Asia and beyond.
Thailand is the usual Asian mixed bag in terms of cash versus cards. Across its major cities and popular tourist sites, a card will suffice for many transactions. However, the usual advice applies regarding the lesser likelihood of card acceptance in smaller shops and establishments. As with many other countries, card acceptance and ATM availability declines in more rural / less visited areas of Thailand.
Within the large cities and popular coastal resorts of Turkey, you can get by just fine with cards, provided that you keep smaller sums on hand for usage in smaller establishments, which may only accept (or prefer) cash. If in doubt, check with the vendor as to whether they accept cards, before consuming a product or service (such as a restaurant meal). ATMs are abundant across urban and tourist sites. For the more intrepid travellers, acceptance of cards and/or the availability of ATMs inevitably declines within more rural/less-travelled Turkish destinations.
United Arab Emirates
Cards are widely accepted across UAE, so you can use a card with complete confidence. Keep small sums of cash on hand for the payment of taxis (which don’t all accept cards), as well as for purchases in small grocery shops. Aside from that, the decision is entirely personal, and both cash and card will see you through with very little hassle.
Travel Money in Australia (the continent)
In Australia and New Zealand, card acceptance is exceptionally widespread, and cards are good to go in all but the most remote parts – even then, don’t be surprised to see portable card machines in operation.
However, as in the UK, there are some circumstances where cash is more practical to use, or may be the only available method of payment. Think along the lines of very small purchases, and/or in very small independent retailers.
If you are lucky enough to venture to the numerous other island nations on the continent of Australia, be aware that the levels of economic and technological development in these nations varies greatly – so check local spending customs before you arrive.
Cash or Card in Europe?
For such a big continent – and one so important to the global tourism trade – relatively few words need to be said regarding the acceptance of cards across Europe. The vast majority of major tourist cities and resorts have a similar set-up to the UK and Australia – you can absolutely get by without cash, albeit with some of the small exceptions referred to throughout this article.
However, be mindful that not all parts of Europe enjoy the same level of economic and technological development. Whilst it may be practical to hop around Berlin using just a card, you may run into difficulties in smaller and/or more rural destinations – including those in very highly developed countries.
Note that in the former Yugoslavia region, there still remains to this day a degree of distrust towards banking mechanisms – so it’s best to have easy access to cash there. The general rule of thumb for Europe is to expect that your card will be accepted, but to prepare to pay in cash, just in case.
What About North America?
In all but the most remote regions of the USA and Canada, cards are very widely accepted – with the usual caveats relating to the capability and/or preferences of smaller retailers. You may wish to carry small bill denominations for paying for tips (link to tips article) and small sundries, and you will not struggle to find an appropriate ATM in the main urban and tourist centres of the USA and Canada.
However, the entire continent of North America is exceptionally diverse, including in economic and technological developments. Across Mexico and the Caribbean nations, acceptance of cards can vary widely. As ever, have a plan to access cash, even if you prefer to load most of your expenditure onto a debit/credit card.
And Finally, South America
As a large continent spanning 12 countries, South America is an economically diverse region, which in turn has a general impact upon each nation’s spending habits. What is common and acceptable in one country may be considered unusual in its neighbour.
One of the main draws for South American tourism – Brazil – follows the common theme found throughout this article: cards are widely accepted in the main urban and tourist centres, but less so in rural areas, whilst smaller retailers in any region may not accept cards at all. So, it’s wise to have some Brazilian Reals on hand.
As the most developed countries of South America (classified as exhibiting ‘very high’ levels of human development – higher than a number of European countries), you would imagine that card acceptance in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay would be ubiquitous. However, even in those highly-developed nations, it is more than possible that you may encounter a cash-only transaction, especially in smaller establishments and/or less-visited areas.
The Conclusion to the Cash or Card Debate
With a few notable exceptions, debit/credit cards are accepted in almost all major tourist destination areas worldwide. But keep the following things in mind:
- In some destinations, you may meet a variety of economic and cultural barriers when attempting to get by using only debit/credit cards
- In most popular destinations, a card will suffice – but it is strongly advised that this is supplemented by cash – either on hand, or from an ATM
- The wealth or technological advancement of a country does not necessarily mean that relying on a debit/credit card is easier. There are large retailers in Japan which are reluctant to accept cards, yet remote Indian restaurants which will happily accept your plastic
- Cash is often necessary for small transactions in small retailers – wherever you are in the world
- Even when travelling in a destination where ‘cash is king’, it is always unwise to venture out in public with large amounts of cash on your person
- Some currencies are ‘closed’ and can’t be obtained prior to arrival
- Inform your bank of your travel intentions for hassle-free overseas spending, and considering taking a ‘back up’ card from a different issuing bank, in the event of any card blockages
- Whether carrying cash or cards – or both – be sure to check the latest deals on travel money and travel cards, including bank accounts and credit cards which specialise in overseas spending