Managing Money on the RoadWritten by Kathy Bell
Managing your money while on the road is one of the most important things you need to master if you hope to have that 'trip of a lifetime'. It's not always easy, but it's certainly much easier than it was in the day before automatic teller machines (ATMs) and credit cards. I once spoke to someone who traveled around the world in the mid 1970's and they had to go into the bank and go through a long, laborious process to confirm their identity every time they wanted to access money. We all know how difficult it can be dealing with our local bank, but consider what it would be like dealing with a small branch somewhere in Africa or South America.
Luckily, those days are behind us and we have a wider array of options available through modern technology. Unfortunately, technology can provide you with access to your money, but it can't protect you after you have it in your hot little hands. This article is focused on how to remain as safe as possible when accessing and carrying your money while traveling.
During a two year journey around the world I was faced with almost every money management scenario imaginable. I recall one time where I carried US$300 with me on a six day trek to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. The money was a deposit for an overland trip. The tour company did not accept any form of pre-payment as the funds were used directly by the staff managing the truck. Carrying this much money in such an environment is something that I would never do again and certainly would never recommend to anyone. All I can say is that you live and learn.
I feel that I'm especially qualified to talk on this subject due to the fact that I was mugged while traveling in South Africa. Luckily, I wasn't hurt and as a direct result of some of the tips I'll provide in this article I only lost about the equivalent of US$30. While this seemed an enormous lose at the time, it was nothing compared to what it could have been. On more than one occasion travelers have paid a terrible price for not managing their money safely and discretely. It can be a hard lesson to learn.
No matter where you choose to travel in the world you're going to be required to carry money, whether it's local currency, money from your homeland or both. It is also important to remember that when it comes to guarding your money, threats come from two very distinct sources. The first is your casual pickpocket, who is primarily an opportunist and more interested in taking what they can get without you even realizing it's gone. The second is your more calculated thief who is potentially more than happy and capable of using physical force to take what they want. I'll outline ways to protect yourself against both in the coming article.
Let's look at the issue of pick-pockets first. These opportunists have been around for as long as mankind has lived together. Let's be honest, it's easier to take than earn and some of these thieves have developed skills that are almost akin to a magician. So, the first tip is to carry your money in such a way as to make it very difficult for your average pick-pocket to get to it. The best was to do this is through the use of a money belt. These come in a wide variety of styles from your traditional belt that goes around your waist (under your cloths) to other styles that are more like necklaces that hang down under your shirt. There are even ones nowadays that attach to your ankle under your pants. However, I was never much of a fan of these since you will invariably travel to many warm, tropic countries where shorts are the main article of clothing you will wear.
Regardless of the type of money belt you choose, the important thing to remember is that 'one size fits all' doesn't really apply. Oh, you will be able to wear it, but if it's uncomfortable you're going to be in for one very long, uncomfortable trip. Take the time to find one that fits well and is made of suitable material to stand up to heavy wear and a lot of sweat. It can get very hot out there on the road!
The next piece of advice is to carry as little money on you as possible at all times. Only carry what you will realistically use for the day or outing that you're on. Everything else should be left safely back at the hostel or hotel. Most of these offer some type of secure place to store valuable, whether it be a safe or some other secure area. Why carry it around when you can have the piece of mind knowing it's safely stashed away. In conjunction with this, whatever you store whatever you do have to carry in separate places on your person. A pick-pocket isn't going to frisk you, so at worse you'll only lose part of what you have on you.
The next thing to ensure you guard yourself against is becoming a victim of violent crime. This is very different from taking protection against opportunist such as pick-pockets. These types of criminals can be much more calculating and dangerous. It is very important not to put yourself in the same type of situation as I did when I walked down a dark street while alone in South Africa. I often wonder what the outcome may have been if things had gone differently.
Your best line of defense is knowing what not to do. The most important thing is keeping your valuables out of sight. Flaunting any type of wealth makes you a target. Try to travel in groups as much as possible. A lone target is always preferable to a group. When you are traveling you are rarely along (unless you choose to be) so keep a friend nearby whenever possible. You should also avoid areas that your common sense tells you could be dangerous, such as dark streets, deserted beaches and the like. In the majority of cases when something goes wrong the victim knows they were taking a chance and were relying on the fact that nothing would happen. Sadly, things do happen far too often. Always think before you act and ask yourself the question: Is it worth the risk?
Now that we hopefully have some of the basics covered, let's look at some other situations that you will invariably find yourself in while traveling. The first is exchanging money. The first thing you should avoid is ever changing money on the street. There is no better way for every man and his dog to know exactly what you have on you. My tip is to always go inside of a bank or other financial institution to make the change. I've found that larger banks more often than not also offer the best exchange rates (excluding the Black Market, of course). But even in the event that this isn't the case, is it worth putting yourself at risk for the sake of a few extra cents? I don't think so.
In the modern world, you'll probably find yourself using ATM's more often than travelers checks. They are by far the most convenient and easy way to access your money. Unfortunately, thieves know this and use it to their advantage whenever possible. So, the first range of tips I have are more in relation to your demeanor than the actual ATM location. Firstly, act confident. Give the appearance that you know exactly what you're doing and things are business as usual. Criminals pick up on uncertainty like a shark smells blood – instant target. It also pays to keep an eye on your surroundings. Criminals avoid people who are too aware. If you look like you've got it together then the odds are they'll go in search of easier pickings. Finally, follow your instinct. If a situation looks wrong, keep walking. ATMs are like street corners – they're all over the place.
The next range of tips centers more on the actual ATM. Firstly, avoid ATMs that are situated on the corner of a building. This obstructs you view and someone could appear unexpectedly from nowhere. It is more prudent to select an ATM in the middle of a block that has good visibility in all direction. It's also wise to avoid using any ATMs at night. This may not always be possible, but remains good practice. Like it or not, freaks come out at night. Finally, whenever possible use ATMs that are inside of banks where you have some privacy. Ones with security guards or surveillance cameras are also ones that you may ideally go out of your way to access. Again, it is always better to be safe than sorry.
This leads us to actually using the ATM. Always remain aware of your surroundings during the entire transaction. Examine the ATM machine carefully if anything looks out of place or unusual, give it a miss. Card skimming has become a full time profession for many criminals and they can literally steal you blind without you even being aware of it. The adjacent photo is of an ATM machine that has been fitted with a skimming device. These are becoming more and more sophisticated every day, so if you have any doubt, move on. Another thing to remember is that if your card doesn't work, NEVER EVER accept help from strangers! This is an old scam that has stung far too many travelers. Finally, when you get your money, put it away immediately and ensure that no one is following you as you walk away. If you believe you are being followed, seek help (crowded restaurants, post offices, police station, etc.) immediately!
The next topic I want to talk about is using Debit and Credit Cards. The first thing you need to do is treat these exactly as you would cash. Keep them hidden away and if you don't think you will need them, leave it in the safe back at your hotel. However, if the situation does call for the use of some plastic, do not under any circumstances allow the merchant to leave your sight with your card. This provides too much opportunity for the card details to be copies for later use. This holds true for carbon copies as well. I can only imagine how often this has resulted in a huge bill appearing miraculously out of nowhere. The last piece of advice I have when it comes to using a Debit or Credit Card is to never make a copy of the card and leave it in your bag without blacking out the expiry date. Without this information the card is virtually impossible to use.
Unfortunately, even if you take every possible precaution, sometimes things do go wrong. In the event that you are a victim of crime, it is important to cooperate fully with police. In addition to this, at the first opportunity you should contact your nearest embassy or consulate (of which you hold a passport) for help.
Consular personnel are tasked with the obligation of providing assistance to any of their citizens who have been the victim of crime. They can be a good source of support and comfort in the event that you find yourself injured and alone. While you may view them as faceless bureaucrats, remember that they are your countrymen and will most times go out of their way to provide whatever help they can. In addition, they will also have a working knowledge of local laws and customs and can access people fluent in the local language if this is required.
In most cases you will never have a problem when you are on the road enjoying this amazing planet that we live on. Following the tips I've outlined above will further reduce the chances of anything happening. My last piece of advice is just to follow your common sense. It's your best friend while on the road.
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Kathy Bell is one of those rare people who not only loves to travel, but has literally made it a way of life. Over the course of several years, she has worked for AJ Hackett Bungy in Cairns, Australia (the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef); acted as a Tour Guide in Europe with the legendary Top Deck; and braved the wilds of Africa as a courier for an overland safari company. Oh, and she's also managed to visit all 7 of the world's continents in her "free time". As a 1st generation PlanetHopper!, Kathy has an absolute wealth of knowledge and experience to share with the PlanetHop! community.