Currency Exchange: What You Use Matters

currency exchange
craigfinlay/Flickr

To International travelers, the name Travelex should sound familiar. They are the largest airport currency exchange operator in the world. But a recent currency exchange study comparing the cost of using Travelex, some of the largest U.S. banks and credit cards revealed what experts already knew.

CardHub’s 2013 Currency Exchange Study compared the cost of the currency exchange services offered by 15 of the largest banks in the U.S. as well as Visa, MasterCard and Travelex. The study proved that using a no foreign fee credit card is the way to go on spending internationally. Banks charge an average of exchange rate of 7.1% and Travelex charges 15.5%.

Worried about using a credit card outside of the U.S.? Don’t be. Credit cards also provide fraud protection for just that reason.

“Even if a consumer uses a credit card with foreign fees – the average foreign transaction fee is 2.24%, according to CardHub’s latest Credit Card Landscape Report – he’ll still save 4.86% on currency conversion relative to the services offered by banks and 13.26% compared to airport currency exchange providers,” said CardHub CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou in a HeraldOnline report.

The best banks for currency conversion? The CardHub study indicates Northern Trust and Harris Bank lead the pack as they did in the 2012 and 2011 editions of the study while U.S. Bank and SunTrust hold the bottom two spots. On average though, banks are better than Travelex, saving an average 8.4%.Still, many travelers do not feel like they are fully packed for an international trip without some local currency from the country they are visiting. They want to arrive with local cash for a cab, food or supplies they may not have been able to bring on the plane.

“It’s just one of those things that have been traditionally recommended,” says Papadimitriou. “But with the banking system becoming increasingly digital, it makes sense that the easiest way to buy things in a foreign currency is with plastic.”

Credit cards are good. No foreign fee cards are better. Still, some cash will probably be necessary along the way tipping or making purchases in places that do not take cards. With that in mind, Papadimitriou recommends a debit card with low international ATM withdrawal fees but warns travelers to avoid dynamic currency conversion, when a merchant offers to convert your purchase total from the native currency to U.S. dollars.

It might seem as though that merchant in Venice is trying to be help make sense of how much a purchase really costs, in our own currency, but “they could be looking for an excuse to apply a high exchange rate and squeeze a bit more money out of you. It’s best not to find out, especially when you can use your phone or a small pocket calculator to make quick conversions and better understand how much things cost,” says Papadimitriou.

As long as we’re talking about financial security when traveling, what about pickpockets? Well, the days of those villains are ending. In this video we see that all it takes now is a smartphone to steal your credit card information.

Electronic Pickpocketers 'Steal' Credit Cards Using NFC

The Day I Was Mistaken For A Terrorist

For some reason, people sometimes mistake me for a terrorist. Once I got interrogated by an air marshal for merely looking out a window, and the following year in London I totally freaked out several people on a bus.

The second incident was, I suppose, partially my fault. I boarded a city bus with a large suitcase, which I put on the luggage rack. Since the rack was right next to the door, I moved a little away from it so I wouldn’t be in the way.

For a couple of minutes I stood there, keeping an eye on my bag and not listening to the buzz of voices around me. One conversation, however, began to get my attention.

“I just don’t think it looks right,” a worried woman’s voice said.

“Well, then mention it to the driver,” a man said.

“I don’t want to make a fuss,” the woman replied.

“Look, you’re worried about it just sitting there. You don’t see the owner. So go up to the driver and mention it,” the man said. He didn’t sound worried himself. Instead he sounded a bit condescending.

I turned to them.”Are you talking about my bag?” I asked.

A wave of relief washed over the woman’s face.

“Yes!” she cried. “I didn’t see you put it down and nobody was standing around it, and I got very worried.”

“Don’t worry, no bomb in it, just a bunch of dirty clothes,” I said. Then I turned to the man next to her. “But you didn’t seem worried.”

He shrugged. “Nobody would need a bag that big to blow up a bus.”

I laughed. “Well maybe I’m a really inefficient bomber and I don’t know how to mix explosives correctly.”

“Oh no,” he dismissed that idea. “That is a huge bag. If it was filled with explosives you could barely lift it.”

I studied them for a moment and said, “So how do you know I’m really not a terrorist? All you have is my word.”

They looked back at me – middle-aged, middle-class, white me. The woman suddenly looked embarrassed. The man looked defiant.

“You don’t fit the profile,” he said.

“Remember Timothy McVeigh?” I asked.

He waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “The right wing loons in your country rarely do such things. Most terrorists look nothing like you.”

I smiled at him. “Who’s to say I’m not a right-wing loon?”

“WOULD YOU PLEASE STOP THIS CONVERSATION?!!!” A woman squawked from a few rows back.

“Sorry ma’am. This was all hypothetical,” I said.

She immediately looked relieved, just like the first woman. All it took was a reassuring word from a complete stranger – a light-skinned, well-spoken stranger.

She, too, had missed the point.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Scammer Found Selling Fake Bomb Detectors To Airports

bomb detectorsA British court has found a man guilty of selling fake bomb detectors to Iraq and Georgia, the BBC reports. James McCormick, 56, of Langport, Somerset, was found guilty of fraud after making a fortune from detectors he knew didn’t work.

He’s estimated to have made some $76 million from the worthless devices, which were modeled after a novelty golf ball finder. In his sales pitches he claimed they could be set to find anything from bombs to money to drugs. Researchers found no scientific basis for his claims.

Both nations that bought the devices have serious problems with terrorism, and adventure travelers that venture to these places were put in danger by McCormick’s greed. In Georgia last year, someone put a bomb under the car of an Israeli embassy staffer, and bombings in Iraq are a frequent occurrence.

The BBC says the devices are still at use at “some” checkpoints. When I was traveling in Iraq in October 2012, I saw them in use at every checkpoint I passed through, including the checkpoints to Baghdad airport. Many people already knew they didn’t work; yet they were still used to “scan” every vehicle. Senior Iraqi officials were bribed to use government funds (i.e. U.S. taxpayer dollars) to buy the devices. Three of these officials are now serving prison terms.

McCormick lulled the Iraqi police and army into a false sense of security and endangered the lives of everyone in Iraq, including myself. To say this makes me angry doesn’t even come close to what I feel towards this scumbag, and it makes me wonder about the other “security devices” we rely on. Last year the TSA removed backscatter x-ray body scanners from some airports for fear of cancer risks and replaced them with less harmful millimeter-wave scanners. The effectiveness of x-ray scanners has also been questioned.

I’m glad to see McCormick is finally facing justice, but I think he’s been found guilty of the wrong thing. He didn’t perpetrate fraud; he aided and abetted terrorism. He should spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement, kept company only by graphic photos of Iraq’s bombing victims.

[Photo courtesy Avon and Somerset Police]

Staying Safe On The Road: Tips For Traveling

travel warningAs the tragedy in Boston earlier this week has taught us, travel to any location can involve unexpected danger. The incident served to illustrate that travelers visiting any location should be sure that their trip planning involves basic travel precautions both standard and new.

Warren Chang, Vice President and General Manager of Fly.com, has helped us develop this list of travel precautions.

Pre-Travel

  • Read State Department travel alerts and warnings. Remember that alerts relate to short-term events and warnings are more long-term concerns. While warnings and alerts are issued countrywide, it may not necessarily mean that an entire area is unsafe for travel.
  • Inform the State Department of your travel itinerary via the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program when you are traveling internationally.
  • Consider planning your trip with a travel agency or tour company if you are visiting a foreign country where you do not speak the language or if your travel has many destinations.
  • Remember to refill your prescriptions and other medical necessities pre-trip.
  • Activate your phone for international calling and data, or purchase a pre-paid phone for travel.
  • Consider travel or medical insurance for overseas visits, if necessary.
  • Make a copy of your passport and travel documents, leaving them in your hotel room or a reliable party back home.

During Your Trip:

  • Keep one ATM and one credit card in the hotel safe in case robbery occurs while out and about.
  • Avoid wearing flashy jewels or designer clothing, or clothing that overtly brands you as an American traveling overseas.
  • Keep money in a safe place – back pockets and dangling purses are easy targets for pickpockets.
  • Abide by all local customs and traditions, as appropriate.
  • Know where the local consulate or embassy is, and have a plan for a meeting place in case of an emergency.
  • Arrange tours and activities through the hotel concierge. These vendors are vetted for guaranteed pricing and can at times be more reliable than on-the-street finds.
  • Chang suggests avoiding use of the “do not disturb” light on your hotel room door in dangerous areas. “This may sound a bit paranoid (if not neurotic), but I chose not to use the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign at night so that in the event that terrorists are looking to capture hostages, I would not have an LED light or big sign on the doorknob indicating that the room was occupied.”

Have any tips of your own? Leave them in the comments below.

[Image Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office]

Louvre Shut Due To Violent Gang Of Pickpockets

Louvre
The Louvre temporarily closed on Wednesday due to a strike protesting trouble with violent pickpockets.

The Guardian reports more than a hundred staff walked out on Wednesday in protest over “increasingly aggressive” gangs of pickpockets that harass both visitors and staff. Staff members who have tried to stop the criminals have been kicked and spat at. The strikers are demanding extra security.

The popular art museum in Paris is now open again, according to the Louvre’s website, but the problem isn’t solved. With the influx of art aficionados, there will be an understratum of the criminal element.

Pickpocketing is a serious problem in many parts of Europe. While I’ve lived in Europe for more than a decade, I’ve never been a victim. Perhaps it’s because I used to live in New York City and learned to pay attention. I’m a frequent passenger on both the Madrid Metro and the London Underground, both notorious hotspots for pickpocketing. I always keep my wallet in my front pocket with my thumb hooked into that pocket and my fingers resting on the outside of my pants touching my wallet. Sure, that signals where my wallet is, but good luck trying to get it.

Pickpockets often target families with small children because the parents are distracted. When I’m in the Metro with my wife and little boy, my wife watches the kid while I watch them, with my hand on my wallet the entire time. Nobody has ever managed to rob us.

So if you’re planning a trip to the Louvre, or to Europe, or to New York City, pack your street smarts along with your guidebook.

Do you have any other tricks to foil pickpockets? Share them in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy Benh Lieu Song]