This guide explains the cheapest and most expensive ways to buy travel money. It can help save you money if you are thinking about going abroad and trying to work out the best way to spend while you’re there.
Where to get the best travel money exchange rates?
Commission charges when you buy foreign currency have mostly been phased out. Now most currency operators make money on the difference between the interbank exchange rate and the rate they actually give you.
So the best way to know if you’re getting a good deal is to compare the actual exchange rate you’re getting.
For each of the currency exchange locations below we have used the euro as an example – but where you see a location giving a bad rate (versus the benchmark interbank rate) for euros, you can be pretty much guaranteed you’ll get a bad rate on any other currency at that place too.
Here are the ways to get the most for your money when buying foreign currency, ranked best to worse.
(All exchange rate figures accessed on 31 May 2023.)
1. Currency cards – BEST RATE
Currency cards are debit card-style payment cards designed to be used while you are on holiday or travelling outside the UK to pay for goods and services, usually anywhere you see the Visa or Mastercard symbol. They either come as regular debit cards with travel money functions, or as a separate card that connects to your current account.
Currency cards offer some of the best exchange rates around, and are available from, for example, Starling, Monzo, Revolut, and Curresea.
The euro rates for Monzo and Starling are based on the Mastercard rate so are the same:
- £1 = €1.152 (vs €1.16 inter bank rate)
- On the (free) Curresea Essential plan the euro rate is:
- £1 = €1.152
- On the (paid for) Curresea Elite and Premium Plans the euro rate is:
- £1 = €1.163
- Ease: Currency cards are easy to apply for and usually arrive within a few days. If your bank already offers a travel card service as part of your account you may not even need to apply for a new card. Plus you don’t need to worry about changing up loads of cash before you go away.
- Safety: If you lose cash, it’s usually gone forever. If you lose your currency card you can cancel or freeze it in the app that comes with it to prevent anyone else using your holiday money.
- Virtual wallet: You can add most currency travel cards to your phone’s virtual wallet, so you can still pay if you only have your phone with you.
- Charges: Fees and charges to use your currency card abroad can vary significantly so it’s a good idea to compare different providers before you choose which one to go with. Be aware the card provider – typically either Visa or Mastercard – can add its own fees of 1% to 3% on top of transactions.
- ATM limits: Some card providers limit how much you can withdraw from an ATM in another currency, after which point more charges will kick in.
- No section 75 protection: Debit card payments and purchases are not covered by section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. But you might be able to make a claim for a refund under a voluntary scheme called ‘chargeback’.
2. Cash point abroad
Withdrawing cash from an ATM abroad can be a good option if you use one of the cards mentioned above, or a travel credit card. They are designed for use while travelling, so give the best rates on foreign exchange, and limit the fees and charges you pay while using them abroad. It is for this reason that cash point abroad is 2nd on this list.
Currensea, for example, as well as offering one of the best exchange rates, allows free ATM withdrawals of up to £500 using its Essential Card (2% fees over), and with its Premium Card (which costs £25 a year) you can make fee free ATM withdrawals up to £500 (1% over).
Just remember – if the ATM tells you a fee applies, always choose to be charged in the local currency of the country you’re in (this also applies to card purchases).
However beware – this is important – if you just take your normal debit card or credit card abroad you can expect high fees from both your bank and the ATM you withdraw cash from every time you use it.
For example, Barclays charges a 2.99% fee for using your standard debit card abroad when making purchases, withdrawing cash or for refunds.
So while you get a pretty decent exchange rate with Barclays (which uses the Visa rate), once the fee is added the real rate is much less. It works out as:
- Visa rate: £1 = €1.161 (vs €1.16 inter bank rate) before charges
- Barclays debit rate after 2.99% fee added £1 = €1.128
- Cheap if you use the right cards:Taking money out at an ATM abroad can be one of the cheapest ways to access cash if you use a card designed for travel that has fee-free options and a good exchange rate (see out Best Rated above).
- Don’t have to carry so much cash: Carrying huge wads of cash is a theft risk. Carrying a couple of cards (one for use and one for back up) is much safer.
- High costs if you use the wrong card: Avoid taking your regular debit or credit card abroad as to use it you will have to pay high fees.
- ATM limits: Some card providers limit how much you can withdraw from an ATM in another currency, after which point more charges will kick in.
3. Highstreet in the UK
UK highstreets offer a number of exchange rate options, from inside department stores like John Lewis, to specialist foreign exchange rate shops like No1 Currency. The rates will vary from place to place.
At No1 Currency, for example, the online rates are below, although the website says the in store rates may differ from what is advertised.
- £1 = €1.136 (vs €1.16 inter bank rate)
- £100 = €113.67
At John Lewis, on the same day the rate was a little lower.
- £1 = €1.133 (vs €1.16 inter bank rate)
- £100 = €113.38
At Marks & Spencer, the rate was:
- Click & Collect: £1 = €1.138 (vs €1.16 inter bank rate)
- £100 = €113.80
- In-store bureau de change: £1 = €1.119
- £100 = €111.90
At a TUI branch the rate was:
- £1 = €1.139 (vs €1.16 inter bank rate)
- £100 = €113.90
- Click and collect rates: No1 Currency for example gives you a better rate if you order online then pick up in store, rather than have your currency delivered.
- Perks: For example at John Lewis you can earn points when you pay for currency with your Partnership Credit Card.
- Delivery charges: No1 Currency only offers free delivery for orders of £800 or more. At John Lewis the minimum for free home delivery is over £500.
- Minimum orders online: John Lewis, for example, has a £250 minimum for online orders.
4. Online with a supermarket
Most supermarkets sell travel money these days and it can be a convenient way to pick up some currency while you do your weekly shop. You can buy on the day or order online to collect.
As an added bonus, supermarkets offer a better rate on foreign currency for their loyalty card holders, pushing supermarkets up the ranking in terms of rates.
- Standard rate: £1 = €1.130 (vs €1.16 interbank rate)
- £100 = €113
- Tesco Clubcard rate: €1.135
- £100 = €113.50
- £1 = €1.131 (vs €1.16 interbank rate)
- £100 = €113.17
- Sainsbury’s Nectar card rate: €1.1340
- £100 = €113.40
- Loyalty perks and points: Loyalty card holders get better exchange rates, plus you can earn loyalty points when you pay for the currency just like any other purchase.
- Convenience: Order online then pick up when you do your weekly shop.
- Minimum order amounts: For example Tesco has a minimum order amount of £400 worth of currency when you buy online, and a minimum of £500 to have a free home delivery. There is no minimum order amount for Sainsbury’s but a £4.99 fee to have currency bought online delivered at home.
5. Post office
The Post Office is a handy one-stop-shop for lots of holiday related things, from travel insurance to international driving permits, and including travel money. While the Post Office doesn’t offer the best rates on the market, it does have several other advantages that could make it a good option, especially if you are in a hurry.
- £1 = €1.116 (vs €1.16 inter bank rate)
- £100 = €111
- Rate increases: Order online for the best rates on every currency. The more you buy, the better the rate.
- Fast pick up service: You can pick up euros and US dollars from your nearest branch in as little as 2 hours, from selected branches. Order by 2pm (1pm Saturday) to collect the same day, from 2 hours later. Order after 2pm (1pm Saturday) to collect the next working day, from 11am. Or you can choose delivery to your home.
- Refund policy: Will refund 100% of the holiday money you bought if your trip abroad is cancelled
- Queuing: With a number of Post Offices closing, and banks shutting branches that force Post Offices to do more services with less, queues to get you travel money in person can be long.
- Limited currencies: Post Office in my experience don’t carry that much currency and only in a few of the most common types. Beware buying last minute – if you try to just pop in on the day to buy your currency without pre-ordering you may find they have run out, or don’t stock it.
- Buying limits: The minimum you can buy online of a currency is £400 worth, and the maximum is £2,500.
6. At the airport
The only times I have bought currency at the airport it has been out of desperation and from a lack of forward planning – and I have always regretted it. It is typically one of the most expensive (i.e. worst exchange rate) places to buy foreign currency.
But if you’re in a panic because you forgot to get out any cash before your trip, it is at least convenient to be able to grab some foreign currency before your flight.
Two of the most common foreign exchange kiosks you’ll find at UK and global airports are Travelex and Eurochange. The rates below are for their online services – rates in the airport are likely to be worse.
- £1 = €1.130 (vs €1.16 inter bank rate)
- £100 = €113
- £1 = €1.131 (vs €1.16 inter bank rate)
- £100 = €113.10
- Location: If in the rush to get away you forgot to pick up any currency, airport foreign exchange kiosks offer a last minute lifeline.
- Availability of currencies: Because of their location, currency kiosks in international airports tend to be well stocked in multiple currencies, even the less common ones.
- Switching currency: If you are visiting multiple countries on a trip but don’t want to carry large amounts of currency, changing up just what you need at each airport you pass through is an option.
- Expense: You will never get the best foreign exchange rate at an airport.
- Lack of comparison: Even if there is more than one currency store at the airport, they all tend to offer the same rates. Once you’re there you have no other options, you have to take what you can get.
7. Online with a bank
Buying travel money from your local bank might seem like the obvious choice, but surprisingly the rates on offer are likely among the worst you’ll get anywhere in the UK. However the limits on how much you can purchase can be higher (though you won’t get a better rate the more you buy so why bother?)
- £1 = €1.105 (vs €1.16 inter bank rate)
- £100 = €110.51
- £1 = €1.106 (vs €1.16 inter bank rate)
- £100 = €110.67
- High purchase limits: At Barclays, for example, you can order up to £5,000 per person within a 90-day period, and a maximum of £2,500 from that amount can be sent for home delivery to a single residential address.
- Fee free deliveries: HSBC, for example, offers fee-free deliveries on your travel money to HSBC Full and Cash Service branches or to your home. Other banks may charge.
- Limited to customers: You may find you have to be a customer. For example, you’ll need a Barclays debit card or Barclaycard to place your order for currency online there.
- Expensive: Among the worst rates for currency exchange you’ll find anywhere in the UK.
8. Bureau de change abroad – WORST RATE
Bureau de changes abroad are typically in tourist hotspots. And what do we know about tourist hotspots? Rife for pickpockets and overinflated prices. This is the attitude you should take to foreign currency shops in these locations.
One example that proves the ‘expensive option’ point is Ria Money Transfer & Currency Exchange, situated in the busy Plaza de Callao in central Madrid, Spain.
Ria’s exchange rate on 31 May 2023 was:
- £1.00 = €0.99 (vs €1.16 inter bank rate)
- £100 = €99
Convenient: If you really need cash while you’re abroad, maybe because you’re in a place where your cards are not widely accepted, a local bureau de change may be a lifeline – just expect to pay heavily for that life raft.
- Cost, cost, cost: Buying foreign currency from a currency shop or kiosk in a tourist hotspot (where you are most likely to find them) is an extremely expensive way of getting your hands on cash. Avoid if at all possible.
- Theft risk: Pickpockets may hang around bureau de change just like they hang around ATMs, because they know you have just withdrawn what is probably a large amount of money. Secure your cash hidden away before you leave the kiosk.
Is it still worth getting travel cash ahead of your holidays?
Yes. Absolutely. Cards aren’t accepted everywhere, as I found to my detriment when I arrived in Buenos Aires and tried to take out local currency on my credit card at the foreign exchange desk at the airport.
“Absolutely not possible”, I was told. A combination of a lack of provision to buy currency on credit card there, and the Argentinian peso being just too volatile for credit card providers to let you buy it on their service.
All I had in hard currency was US$100 in Argetininian pesos I had changed in the airport at Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, where I had just come from, and a US$100 bill. Luckily I’d pre-paid my Buenos Aires hotel in advance, and I could easily find restaurants that would accept my credit card. But taxis only took cash, so I spent a lot of time walking – thinking about how I should have brought more pesos with me.
We’ve answered some of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to travel money.
Yes, in most cases. Cash withdrawal fees will probably apply of around 3%, just like they would at home for taking cash out on a credit card, and these will be on top of any currency conversion fees.
Be aware though – in countries with a highly fluctuating exchange rate, like Argentina, you may not be able to buy foreign cash with your credit card (not even at the bureau de change at the airport, for example). You still may be able to pay for goods and services with your credit cards, but check how widely they are accepted before you travel.
Yes, on the whole. When buying travel money online, like with buying anything online, you’re best off sticking to well known brands, whether that be banks, supermarkets, or currency exchange stores.
A large institution or well known brand is less likely to go bust, and that is important because foreign exchange is not a regulated service. This means your cash is not protected if the company you tried to get your foreign currency from closes suddenly.
Yes. Most places that sell you travel money will buy it back from you. But just like when you’re swapping your pounds for foreign currency, when you swap it back you should compare the exchange rates on offer. As a general rule, a location that offers a good rate one way, offers a good rate the other way.
Travel money providers – from the currency shops and bureau de change, to the banks and supermarkets, anywhere basically that sells currency – make money by giving you slightly less than the central banks give them for the foreign money you want to buy.
For example, if a currency provider tells you they will give you €1.131 for every pound you give them, but the central bank rate for euros is €1.157 per pound, the difference is €0.026, which they pocket. This may not sound much, but multiplied over millions of transactions a year, it adds up.
Compare, compare, compare the single unit price – which means the £1 for a €1 rate, or whichever currency you choose, versus the interbank rate, which you can get by just Googling “1 GBP in EUR”.
Places that sell currency, online or in a shop, have to show you the exchange rate for that day. While it’s probably not practical to go traipsing around comparing shops, it’s easy enough to do so online. If you run up against minimum purchase amounts online, still go with the company providing the best rate but visit their location in person.
Also try not to get yourself in a position where you’re desperate to buy foreign currency, either at home or abroad. This means having enough cash on you in remote locations, and tourist hotspots, and before you travel (to avoid the airport currency shops).