With the Greek economy in crisis, travelers to the country face an uncertain situation. Although they aren't under the same limitation as locals, who can withdraw only 60 euros a day from ATMs, many travelers have found the money machines empty. Others arrived in the country with armloads of cash, just in case. The predicament raises an intriguing question: How do travelers pay for goods and services in countries with limited or unstable financial infrastructure? Keep the following tips in mind when traveling in places such as Cambodia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.
The local currency may not be the only one, or the best one.
In Japan it's the yen, in Mexico it's the peso, and so on in many places around the globe -- but not everywhere. In Cambodia, for example, the U.S. dollar is used more often than the Cambodian riel. The Thai baht is common in the western part of the country and travelers may also come across the Vietnamese dong.
In Zimbabwe, an official currency was effectively abandoned in 2009 and will no longer be legal tender by the end of September. Meanwhile, as many as nine different currencies are in use every day, although the U.S. dollar, South African rand, and Botswanan pula are the most common. Be reluctant to accept change in unfamiliar bills. This complicates budget calculations and makes tourists easy targets for anyone passing along counterfeit currency.
Exchange rates are malleable.
In many places the exchange rate floats but generally hovers within a small range (a simple online search provides the details). This makes planning a budget relatively easy. But in countries where multiple currencies are in use, or the financial infrastructure is weak, the "official" exchange rate means little.
For example, a common and accepted practice in Cambodia is for merchants to round the exchange rate down and give customers 4,000 riel to the U.S. dollar in change, despite an official exchange rate that's closer to 4,100 or 4,200 riel. On the flip side, a 5,000-riel item can be bought with $1 plus 1,000 riel.
In Venezuela, there are four exchange rates: three official -- with the two lowest used only for the official importing of certain items -- and one black market. Hotels may be able to help travelers get the black market rate (the best deal) by accepting a PayPal payment or bank transfer (to a foreign bank account) and handing back Venezuelan bolivars. The front desk also may be willing to overcharge slightly for a room and return the difference in the local currency.
Pay with exact change whenever possible.
In countries where multiple currencies trade hands, tourists can be fleeced by local merchants making change for a cash purchase. Shopping with small bills in all accepted currencies can help limit losses. Tourists also should be primed to do some quick math and try to stay abreast of multiple exchange rates.
Liquidity of small-value coins or bills can be another issue (i.e., there aren't enough). For some time in Zimbabwe, small change was given in the form of candy, condoms, or cellphone minutes. In many countries, providers of cheap goods and services such as street food or taxi rides often lack change for large bills, whether in U.S. dollars or the local currency. Travelers should make a point of breaking $50 or $100 bills (sometimes even $20 bills) into smaller denominations at banks or hotels before setting out for the day.
U.S. dollars are generally a good option.
In most countries with limited financial systems, the U.S. dollar is one of the best and easiest ways to pay. In Cambodia and Zimbabwe, for example, tourists will see prices listed in U.S. dollars. ATMs in Cambodia dispense dollars almost exclusively, as do some in Zimbabwe. But it's not so simple.
For starters, make sure the greenbacks are crisp and new. Merchants may not accept bills that were printed more than a few years ago, and even the slightest marking or tear is enough to invalidate the bill in the eyes of locals. Expect bills from ATMs to be in good condition, but when getting change in U.S. currency, make sure to check the bills' condition and date before accepting them.
Carrying large quantities of cash isn't the safest option, but don't bother with traveler's checks. Some merchants just won't accept them anymore, and the associated fees are often higher than those connected with an ATM withdrawal. When possible, prepay for accommodations through a travel agent or secure online booking. Stash daily spending money in an easy-to-access but securely placed wallet and use a hidden money pouch or inner jacket pocket for the rest of the bills. Storing money in a hotel room safe is another option -- at least, it could be at a well-known chain or luxury hotel where you feel comfortable about trusting the management.
Consider all the options for exchanging money.
Exchanging a cache of crisp, new U.S. dollars is rarely difficult. There are often companies, banks, and even individuals waiting at ports of entry offering this service for a small fee. Hotels and banks often offer the best exchange rates and street vendors the worst. Better exchange rates also might be given for larger bills. In the absence of cash, ATMs are a good option, especially if you have a checking account that reimburses foreign ATM fees (Charles Schwab, for example, and some premium accounts at larger banks).
Getting cash sometimes requires more roundabout means. Kyle Stewart,* a travel editor at Upgrd.com, said he and his wife found few options for getting cash in Myanmar in 2012. The Stewarts used a local travel agency that had rigged its Internet connection so it appeared to be located in Thailand. The agency charged their debit card and handed back cash -- minus a 10 percent commission. Today, ATMs are available.
* An earlier version of this story misidentified the Upgrd.com travel editor who went to Myanmar in 2012. It was Kyle Stewart, not Matt Klint.