How to Get Rid of Foreign Currency Before You Come Home From an International Trip

One of the CIA travel recommendations leaked in a Wikileaks dump (“Classified Advice from the CIA Leaked on How to Travel Like a Spy [Hint: Don’t Fly United]”) was to try to dispose of Euros before returning home.

Apparently the record low amount of cash returned to the CIA at the end of a trip — or at least a record low for German travel, since the document was specifically tips for CIA travel to Frankfurt — was 52 euro cents.

While it’s not appropriate to convert CIA cash to personal use, there are plenty of ways for the rest of us to efficiently convert foreign currency back to our home currency (for most of us, US dollars).

I get foreign cash by taking it out from an ATM. You’ll get a bank’s conversion rate, rather than the premium charged by a money changer. Even if your bank charges foreign currency conversion fees on these withdrawals, that’s still a savings, though fortunately my bank does not (and if you’re a frequent international traveler, yours shouldn’t either).

To get rid of what’s left:

  • Pay your hotel bill on your way out of the hotel you know what’s left, pay any hotel folio balance with cash and leave the remainder on your credit card.

  • Add funds to your Starbucks card. In some – though not all – countries you can add funds in-store in the local currency. That will convert to the currency of the country your card is registered in.

  • Refill gas in your rental car. If you’ve rented a car, stop to refill gas on the way to the airport. You should do this anyway (unless your rarified rental car status gets you market price refill based on actual usage — this applies to about six of you). Pay in cash, refill to the amount of cash you’ve got left. And then do a separate transaction to get the tank full paid with a credit card.

  • Save the cash for your next trip. like to have cash on arrival and not have to dart for an ATM at the airport. So in any country, with any currency, that I’m likely to visit/use again I don’t turn back any excess cash before leaving. I keep Euros, Pounds, Baht, Pesos (of various nationalities), Dong, Dollars (of multiple kinds). Because I’ll use them all and in most cases within 18-24 months.

    That means I’m holding excess cash (I have more foreign currency in total in the form of cash than I do US dollars) and am therefore not earning a rate of return on it. So it may not be the most efficient. But I view it as a convenience premium to have that cash when I need it, to save myself two in-country transactions.

  • Bring it in to your bank. This is last ditch but you’re probably still going to do better than at the airport Travelex. There are a handful of more obscure currencies where I had some leftover, unlikely to use, and sitting in my home safe. Last year I brought a stack of small amounts of various currencies in to convert to cash and deposit into the bank. It wasn’t as efficient, but it was better than sitting uselessly at home.

I’m not at all a fan of the CIA recommendation, “Buy something in Duty Free, because you’re awesome and you deserve it!” Don’t spend money just because it’s in your pocket, foreign currency is real money it isn’t free and doesn’t make your purchases free.

What’s your foreign currency routine? How do you buy it, and do you convert it back to your home currency when you leave a country?

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