How to manage your holiday money in Thailand

Travelling soon and wondering how to keep your travel money safe in Thailand? We’ve taken a hard look at all the ways we’ve carried travel money on past holidays and come up with some useful tips for the best travel money for Thailand.

Travelling with cash

travel-money-cashOn our first trip to Thailand, we took all our travel money in cash – Australian Dollars to be precise. While it was really convenient not to have to worry about cashing travellers’ cheques or finding automatic teller machines to dispense cash, it was a worry too.

I had bought myself a travel money belt which went under my clothes and was fairly inconspicuous. In there, I carried a few thousand dollars in Australian currency, our return airline tickets, our passports and a credit card in case of emergency. When we exchanged money, any 500 Bt and 1000 Bt notes would also go into the travel money belt for safe keeping. My wallet would  never have anything bigger than a 100 Bt note in it, in case it got stolen.

The travel money belt was great except when we wanted to go to the beach or swimming in the hotel pool. What do you do with it then? Our hotel rooms almost always had a room safe, but they’re only designed to keep honest people from stealing your money. Hotel staff always have an over-ride code. So we’d end up being creative and hiding the cash in the most unlikely places like toiletry bags, hoping it wouldn’t be discovered.

All in all, carrying lots of cash was a bad idea and one that was never used again. I worried about it for most of our holiday and especially I worried about how we would get more travel money if our cash was stolen.

Travel money cards

travel-money-debit-cardsOn our second trip to Thailand, we took a purpose-issued travel money card. These are a stored value card, usually issued by major banks or the like, that function like a debit card. You usually pay a fee to add funds to the card and there’s sometimes a fee to set up the card too. If you choose the wrong type of travel money card, you may also be paying a fee every time you withdraw funds as well as paying foreign exchange transaction fees. Get this one wrong and it can make your holiday a lot more expensive.

The card we chose to take was a “Load&Go Travel Card” issued by Australia Post, the government-owned postal service in Australia. This card can hold up to five different currencies (AUD, USD, NZD, GBP and EUR) and can be bought from any post office. We loaded up a few thousand AUD Dollars into the card and took only AUD$1000 in cash on this trip – which we changed immediately on arrival in Thailand.

The biggest advantage of travel money cards is that you can lock in your exchange rate before you travel and not be hit by rate fluctuations during your holiday. This would have been useful if we’d been able to charge the card with Thai Baht currency from the start, but that was not an option with any card we could find.

The biggest disadvantages of the travel money card were (1) there was a fee of 1.1% of the cash we loaded onto the card, (2) there was a flat fee of AUD$4 every time we used the card, so we ended up withdrawing at least $1000 each time to minimise the fees, and (3) there was a foreign currency exchange fee of 5% every time we withdrew Thai Baht from an ATM. As well as these fees, it would have been difficult to add more cash to the card if we ran out of funds mid-way through the holiday.

So we struggled through the second holiday this way, but vowed never to do it again. Besides, any unused cash on the card after your holiday is a pain to recover.

Travellers Cheques

amex-travellers-chequesAfter two bad experiences, for our third trip to Thailand we chose to take the old hoary stand-by … American Express Travellers Cheques. Buying these through Australia Post, we were able to avoid paying any fees or commissions, but again we had to take our money in either AUD$ or USD$. We chose to take $50 and $100 USD travellers’ cheques.

If you’ve never used travellers cheques, it’s helpful to know that they have some security features built in. You have to sign each cheque when you purchase them, then sign each cheque again when you cash them – the purchaser is supposed to see you sign the cheque and verify that the signatures match, but they sometimes don’t do this. The purchaser is also supposed to verify your identify when exchanging them, but they rarely do.

The great advantages of travellers cheques are (1) they are considered quite safe because they can be easily replaced if stolen, and (2) they are pretty widely accepted – not only by banks and money changers buy often by hotels too. Using Amex travellers cheques in US$ denominations usually guarantees a very good exchange rate too.

The main disadvantage of travellers cheques, at least for me, is keeping track of them. To make sure Amex will replace any cheques that are stolen, you have to keep meticulous records of every cheque you’ve cashed already and where it was cashed. That’s not my idea of a relaxing holiday.

It’s also worth knowing that while you might get a good exchange rate when cashing your travellers cheques, you will pay an “encashment fee” of 1-2% every time you cash a cheque.

Bank debit and credit cards

debit-cardsOn our last few trips to Thailand, we’ve been using purpose-issued Visa/Mastercard Debit cards that are linked to our bank account in Australia. These conveniently allow us to carry a card each, linked to the same account, and manage our holiday money carefully via the internet.

The way these work is to ask your bank for a separate debit card account linked to your main account. You then move a small amount of money – usually about $1000 for us – into this new account and use that card to withdraw money from an ATM in Thailand. We still pay a withdrawal fee and a foreign exchange fee, but we don’t pay any fees to load money into the card and we don’t have to worry about figuring out how much money we’ll need before we leave.

As we go around on our holiday, each time we withdraw cash using the card we jump online and transfer some more cash into the debit card account. We can use the card just like a credit card to pay hotel and restaurant bills (with minimal fees, by the way) and if it gets stolen or “jacked” (see below), we haven’t got much to lose.

“Jacking” or “skimming” of credit and debit cards can be a concern in Asia, although we’ve never encountered it in Thailand. What usually happens is that you use your card at an ATM where some clever bunny has installed a card “skimmer” which reads your card’s magnetic strip and captures your PIN number as you enter it. They clever bunnies then replicate your card and use your PIN to withdraw the rest of your money.

This method of carrying cash has worked well for us over a number of trips to Thailand, China, Cambodia and Malaysia in recent years.

Our preferred travel money

Travel money for Thailand needs some thinking
Travel money for Thailand needs some thinking

We now use a combination of different ways of carrying travel money and it works really well for us, minimising risk and fees and maximising access to our money when we need it most.

We always take some cash – as I mentioned earlier, about $1000 usually and in our home currency. We don’t exchange any money before we leave Australia as the rates here are always terrible compared to the rates when we get to Thailand. At the airport in Bangkok (or where ever we start our holiday), I usually exchange AUD$50 for Thai Baht (about 1500 Bt) to use for taxi fares and meals until we get settled into our hotel. If we’re staying in a major hotel we’ll exchange some more money at the hotel travel desk, as they usually offer very good rates.

As we travel around in Thailand, I try to carry about 2-3000 Bt in cash at any time so we have flexibility to buy things we really like or do exciting things. I will carry about 1000 Bt in small notes (20, 50 and 100 Bt) in my wallet to pay for taxis, tuk tuks, meals, bar tabs and the like. The other 2000 Bt or so will be tucked away in a money pocket or similar, out of the way.

The bulk of our holiday money will be in the bank in Australia. About $1000 will be sitting in a Visa Debit card account linked to my main bank account so I can use the card at an ATM to get more cash when I need it, and transfer more cash to the account within 24 hours if it’s getting low.

I use my Amex and Mastercard credit cards where ever possible to pay hotel bills, buy airline tickets and even pay for meals or tours because the fees are very low and I can settle up the bill when we get back from our holiday. I also get double award points for every dollar I spend overseas, although I have no idea why.

Got questions about travel money?

If you’d like to know more about how to manage your money while holidaying in Thailand, please ask us a question in the review/comments box below or send us a tweet on Twitter. For more information about managing your holiday money, see understand Thai Baht – exchanging money in Thailand.