Travel money: Find the best currency exchange rates

Here’s how to get the most Euros, Dollars and more for your Pounds when you’re getting travel cash for your holiday.

The last time I went overseas the bulk of my spending was with my credit card (a fee-free one naturally), but from giving a tip through to buying from street vendors, not everywhere took cards. So it’s well worth taking some cash with you, and here’s how you can get the best exchange rates.

Ignore “0% commission” signs

One of the most misleading signs on the high street is the one that says “0% commission”. It makes you think that you’re not getting charged anything to change your cash – but you will be. Rather than add a commission on top of your swap, the bureau de change will simply set their own exchange rate! You can read more about this in my “Why 0% currency commission is a lie” article.

Why 0% currency commission is a lie

Don’t get travel money at the airport

Since bureaus and banks are allowed to set their own exchange rates, it makes sense that the worst rates around will be at the airport. Once you’re there, and particularly once you’re through security, there is nowhere else you could go to get travel money than the bureaus in the departure lounge. 

The only workaround if you really have left it too late to go elsewhere is you can order in advance online to collect at the airport, and you will get a better rate than just walking up to the booth. You will often need three or four hours notice though.

Compare for the best exchange rates

Instead of just popping to your bank or the Post Office as many do, it’s better to compare all the different rates available in your area. The tool I use for this is Money Saving Expert’s Travel Money Max. You can choose between collection, delivery and even airport collection, and you’ll be shown the best rates.

Your choice will increase massively if you live in London, but you’ll still get a decent range of options elsewhere. Do check whether you need to order in advance to get the rate you see – some will charge you a worse rate if you don’t.

Get John Lewis to price match

As with other things John Lewis sells in its department stores you can price match on travel money too. It’ll only match high street bureaus, and you’ll need to show the rate you’ve found elsewhere – that could be online, over the phone or “those displayed in a bureau”. For the latter, I assume a photo would suffice as I’m not sure how else you’d prove it.

It’s not perfect though. The price matching is only available in person, and not all John Lewis stores have a bureau de change.

You can order online and click and collect from most Waitrose stores. However, there’s no guarantee it’ll be the best rate, though it certainly been competitive each time I’ve looked. Plus there’s a minimum online order value of £500. That’s a lot of currency to be carrying around when the best rates are on specialist debit and credit cards.

> Find out which John Lewis stores have a bureau de change

Don’t use a credit card to swap your cash

Once you know where you’ll get your cash, you want to avoid any extra charges on your swap. This means paying with cash or a debit card. That’s because using a credit card is what’s known as a “cash advance”. With this you’re effectively taking money off your card as cash and then using the cash to make the transaction – even if you don’t actually get your hands on any physical notes and coins to hand over.

Get a specialist card for extra cash machine withdrawals overseas

Don’t take too much cash with you. Apart from the risks of losing it, if don’t spend all of it you’ll get a poor rate when you try to swap it back to sterling. So instead I’d recommend you only take out enough to cover essentials for the first few days – depending on the infrastructure at your destination of course. Then, if you need more cash, you can use an ATM.

Though some of these will have local fees set by the bank you use, you won’t have any charges on the exchange rate at all if you use a specialist card such as Tandem or Starling.

The best travel debit and credit cards to use abroad

3 thoughts on “Travel money: Find the best currency exchange rates

  1. I use Revolut.

    The beauty is that it’s effectively a prepaid card that I can load with whatever I want before I travel.
    The exchange rates are the IBL rate, so the same as Starling.
    You can lock/unlock the card from your phone, so no worries if it’s lost/stolen. It also tells you instantly how much you’ve just paid in actual GBP’s.

    Also, if you use it to withdraw cash abroad, you are charged just 2% fee, but you still get the IBL rate.
    So currently the Travel Ex website is quoting £92.07 for 100 Euros. With Revolut it would be £89.94. They only allow you to withdraw £200/month FREE – after that there’s a 2% charge, but even WITH the charge, it’s still cheaper than TravelEx! This is dependent on you using a Free Cashpoint of course – like in the UK, some abroad will charge a local fee, although you could use a bank to avoid that. But it has the advantage of not needing to guess how much you need before travelling, or travelling with a large amount of cash on your person.

  2. Not all credit cards treat foreign currency purchases as a cash advance – eg Marks and Spencer, Tesco. Plus with them you have the advantage of the related loyalty schemes if they matter to you.

    1. But am I right in thinking, you only won’t get charged for foreign currency purchase with M&S card if you buy your currency from M&S as opposed to any other provider?

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