Stupid Tip of the Day: When You Should Exchange Currency at the Airport

You likely raised an eyebrow when you read the headline of this article, as I loathe to exchange currency at the airport because of the currency exchange rate, commissions or fees — or, even worse, a combination thereof — which can add up to a costly sum of money…

Stupid Tip of the Day: When You Should Exchange Currency at the Airport

…so why would anyone even consider exchanging currency at the airport?

The answer is simple: there are times when I have found myself at an airport and need to pay for transportation to get to the hotel or resort property at which I am staying; and the entity does not accept credit cards or foreign currency; or perhaps I needed cash for some other basic product or service — like paying a fee for a visa as an example.

If I am not renting a car, I typically take public transportation, which usually does not cost that much one way. If the public transportation company does not accept credit cards, I will then go to a currency exchange booth at the airport and exchange perhaps ten dollars — depending on the minimum amount which the person behind the counter is willing to exchange.

Even if you are getting a shave of 20 percent by the time the currency exchange rate, commissions and fees are taken into account, you lose a whopping two dollars. Is two dollars really worth the time you will need to search out a better exchange rate somewhere else?

To be clear, plenty of ways exist to avoid having to exchange currency at the airport — including but not limited to:

  • Hiring a ride sharing service or taxi as transportation
  • Using public transportation services which accept forms of payment other than cash
  • Renting a car
  • Staying at a hotel or resort property close enough to the airport to offer a complimentary shuttle service
  • Exchanging your currency in your home country prior to traveling — if you can get a reasonably favorable rate
  • Using a card issued from your bank an an automated teller machine — but ensure you know what fees you will be paying prior to using it in a foreign country; and try not to use a debit card when possible, for if an error occurs or you unknowingly use a card skimming device, you are generally out of luck if money is taken out of your bank account
  • Use a banking product which charges you few or no fees when you need currency while traveling — such as Charles Schwab in the United States as one example

Summary

Different scenarios call for different methods of getting the most out of currency exchange, as no one method typically is best 100 percent of the time.

Once you have exchanged the minimum amount of currency at the airport and arrived at the hotel or resort property at which you are staying — and you are preferably well rested — head to a bank to exchange your currency. I have found that banks typically offer the best exchange rate; and often with little to no commission or fees.

The downside of using banks is that their operations are typically limited to business hours; sometimes you may have to wait in line for a while; and you may encounter a language barrier — but the savings are often worth the inconvenience.

Then again, I have seen currency exchange counters located in cities where the rate of exchange was almost on par with the best rates found via the Internet. Gaborone and Budapest are two cities which immediately come to my mind where I have experienced very good to excellent currency exchange rates at places other than banks.

With regards to exchanging currency at airports, be smart: know what is the prevailing currency exchange rate so that you can shop between competing currency exchange booths wisely — and never exchange more than the minimum currency needed to get you to where you are going and possibly get a bite to eat until you can get to a place where the currency exchange rate — preferably, with no fees or commission charged to you — is more favorable.

Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

11 thoughts on “Stupid Tip of the Day: When You Should Exchange Currency at the Airport”

  1. Steve says:

    The airport is absolutely the worst place to do any kind of business. My tip for converting currency in the UK is at the post office. They give a true exchange rate and never charge a commission. The UK post offices are open Monday through Saturday.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      That is an excellent tip when visiting the United Kingdom, Steve.

      Thank you for sharing that.

  2. Boraxo says:

    Except that the best airport rate is not simply 20% but more like $5 +10%. So really you are paying $10 to get $4.50, which probably won’t buy that taxi.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      That depends on where the currency is exchanged, Boraxo.

      I guess I have been fortunate that the times when I have exchanged a minimal amount at the airport — which is not often but only when necessary — I was not slammed with that bad of a deal.

  3. Barry says:

    Exchange rates at Japanese airports are the same as the local banks.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Interestingly, I have never attempted to exchange currency at the airport in Japan, Barry — but that is good to know.

      Thank you.

      1. Barry says:

        My wife is Japanese & still has a couple bank accounts and just about every time we go over we end up exchanging some money at the airport & bank and it is always close of not exactly the same.

  4. Gizmosdad says:

    Thanks for the article — it took me years to stop obsessing about getting the lowest possible exchange rate and instead I’ve learned to settle with something reasonable. I used to spend hours to save <$1 in exchange fees, but then I'd buy a 2 Liter bottle of coke from the hotel, which ended up costing me more than walking a few blocks and buying the coke from a local grocery store.
    I'm not advocating throwing away your money, and I usually avoid airport currency exchanges due to their high rates, but I also I try to balance the time I spend getting a good exchange rate with the discretionary spend I expect for a trip ..

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I completely agree with you, Gizmosdad.

      Thank you. What you wrote was exactly the point of this article — and then some.

  5. Jose velez says:

    I travel frequently to Europe and I always keep around 200 Euros when I leave. Also the best change at the airport is a ATM. ATM are usually the best exchange rate except in countries that have a black market with better rates (Brazil and Argentina had a large difference between the official rate and the street rate). Everything that I can will pay with credit card. Airport transportation I can use Uber (mexico I can use my AT&T phone for free). Europe AT&T rate is $10 a day or I can use my prepaid Glocalme router for Internet access for Uber

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Thank you for sharing that information, Jose velez.

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