Exchange rates are awful – but there are ways to ensure you maximise your spending power, says Martin Lewis
The big summer getaway is in full swing, yet the pound is still in the doldrums. Awful exchange rates and continued Brexit and political uncertainty causes currency fluctuations. There’s little you can do about that, but whether you want euros, dollars, ringgits or dong, you can ensure you don’t pay more than you need to, to pay abroad.
As I write this £500 buys just €560 at the best rates, compared to €590 back in March and €715 before the EU referendum in June 2016. Against the dollar £500 gets $630 now versus $670 in March. And it’s a similar story against many other currencies.
1. The easiest and cheapest way to spend abroad is specialist plastic. These can take at least a week to arrive, so sort it sooner rather than later.
Spend abroad on plastic and it adds a “non sterling exchange fee” of 3 per cent-ish, meaning £100 of euros costs you £103 and there’re cash withdrawal fees on top. Yet specialist cards don’t do that. These give you the same near perfect rates the banks get every time you spend in any country. So just pocket one and take it abroad.
Top for cheap spending, reliability and a free £20 is the halifax.co.uk. Clarity gives near-perfect rates on spending everywhere, plus apply before 29 August, and spend on it within 90 days and you get £20 cashback. Just ensure you pay it off in full every month to avoid interest on your spending.
It’s better to spend than withdraw cash, as for cash you pay 19.9 per cent rep APR interest on withdrawals even if you clear it in full (roughly £1.50 per £100/month), but even with that usually it beats most bureaux de change.
Key though, is will you get it? To find out use the eligibility calculator at www.mse.me/overseaseligibility.
For cheap spending and cash withdrawals, plus no credit check look at the debit card from app-only starlingbank.com. It has no overseas fees on spending and withdrawals (max £300/day cash). Plus there’s only a limited credit check (unless you want an overdraft) so the vast majority of people can get it. It’s a current account, but you don’t need to switch to it. Just add cash to it and use it only for overseas spending.
As for which is best, it’s a tough call. I’d probably just hedge for Halifax for three reasons:
1. The £20 cashback.
2. It’s been a top pick for years. Starling is new-ish, and we’ve seen similar debit cards, which were cheap for a while to lure people in, before costs were raised.
3. With Halifax as it’s a credit card you get Section 75 protection, meaning if you buy things that cost £100-plus the card firm’s legally liable. So if you bring it home, and it breaks, you can ask your card firm to sort it rather than taking it back. Starling is a debit card so doesn’t have this. Then again, it’s a fine call. Starling is easier to get, has got a great app, pays a tiny bit of interest when you’re in credit, and is not a credit card, which some don’t trust themselves with.
2. Want travel cash – find the best in 2 minutes. Never leave it to the airport to get cash. You’re a captive customer and rates are hideous. It can cost nearly £1,075 to get €1,000 at the airport (not pre-ordered) compared to £870 via the cheapest online bureau and less if you spend on the cheapest overseas card.
Ignore spiel such as “commission free”– they just load the cost into the exchange rate. Instead simply ask how many dollars, euros or whatever you’ll get for your cash after all fees. Use an online travel money comparison site like www.travelmoneymax.com, it’s the easiest way.
3. Beware the overseas debit cards from hell. Some debit cards not only add 3 per cent-ish to the exchange rate, and charge ATM fees, they also add charges every time you use them overseas – so a £5 glass of wine could cost £6.40 a time.
Halifax, Lloyds, Bank of Scotland charges 50p per transaction and Santander takes £1.25 per transaction.
A few others just charge a minimum exchange fee, so they’re just as bad on smaller transactions, although are less of an issue on bigger ones (but they still charge an exchange fee, unlike specialist cards): NatWest/RBS has a minimum £1 per spend and Clydesdale/Yorkshire is a minimum £1.50 per spend.
Any other card, including a credit card (provided it is repaid in full), is cheaper to spend on than these.
4. Buy Euros now or wait? With Brexit delayed until Halloween (at the earliest) and much political uncertainty, many going away in the next few months ask “should I buy euros now or wait?”
The answer is I don’t know and anyone who says they know what’ll happen is a liar. Currency moves are unpredictable, like raindrops down a windscreen, there’s no way to know the path it’ll take.
If you’re worried, hedge your bets and buy half now and for the rest, use the best specialist credit cards once there (as they give you the rate on the day you spend).
If really worried ask yourself, “Would I be content with today’s rate?” If so and your real fear is rates plummeting, making your holiday unaffordable, play safe and buy more now.
5. Always pay in the foreign currency, not pounds. If paying on plastic and they ask whether you want to pay in pounds or euros (or the local currency of where you are) PAY IN EUROS. To remember just think “when in Rome, do what the Romans do.”
This way your card does the exchange rate, if not they do it and it’s usually worse (even than normal cards). Recently, I saw an ATM convert €1,000 to £1,050 via picking “pay in pounds”.
Martin Lewis is the Founder and Chair of MoneySavingExpert.com. To join the 13 million people who get his free Money Tips weekly email, go to www.moneysavingexpert.com/latesttip