South America - best way to carry money cash/prepaid/debit?

Hi there,

Me and my boyfriend are going to South America in February (argentina, chile, bolivia and peru) over 6 months.

I was just wondering what the best way to carry money was.

I don’t want to be carrying huge amounts of cash around.. and will be travelling to countries that use different currencies.

I will be taking a debit card but understand that there are fees involved with each ATM transaction.

I don’t really understand how pre-paid travel cards work..!

Any help would be most appreciated!

Cheers, Joey

JoeyBellamy 09/01/14    MoneySouth America Link Report

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The best way I have found (and this has gone for every country) is to have a little bit of local currency ready for when you arrive (to pay for the initial taxi from the airport/meal/place to stay etc) just for a night or two. Then you can exchange your own currency for local once you are there (you generally get a better rate that way, although that isn’t always guaranteed) Then I use a debit card to take out a couple of weeks, maybe more worth of cash at a time depending on how long you are travelling for. Yes there are fees but if you minimize the trips to say once or twice a month they can be manageable. Just be sure to tell your bank where you will be before you leave and have some emergency cash too in case you need to call them to unfreeze your card! Then you can use a stashed credit card or two as an emergency back up if needed.

Pre paid cards work by ‘topping’ them up before you leave, just say with £100 for arguments sake, then you can use them just like any debit card in some ATMs around the world to draw out that £!00 when you need it. There are pros and cons to using them, but to be honest I have never found them to be worth it or useful.

Michael Huxley 11/01/14    Link Report

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  • I went to Argentina, Uruguay, Peru & Bolivia with a pre-paid travel card. Choose a pre-paid as for me I found it more easy to budget with, what was on there was purely travel money I didn’t have to account for direct debits etc that were going out whilst I was away & also for security if stolen it had no links to my main bank account.
    With regards to paying for things out there many places inc hotels won’t take debit cards as payment you need to have cash. Also be aware that not all ATMs out there, I think I found this in all countries, will accept your debit card, but I was generally able to find one which did after a few tries although the first time this happened it panicked me!
    Other things to be aware of smaller places may not have any ATMs in that town e.g Copacobana in Bolivia so worth researching this before you go so you are not left without. & at some border crossings you can only pay in cash for visas & there may not be an ATM in the border town as my poor American friends discovered as we crossed from Peru to Bolivia.
    Whilst it was fairly easy to change most South American currencies from one to another, nowhere would take my left over Uruguayian dollars. Hope that’s helpful.

    Sine85 11/01/14    Link Report

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    It’s also important to note that not all places/ATMs will except all types/brands of pre paid cards either. I’ve found you are much less likely to have trouble with major banks debit cards being useable than pre paid cards.

    Michael Huxley 12/01/14    Link Report

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  • If Argentina is one of your first destinations then bring cash dollars! Due to local uncertainties about the peso and limitations on the purchase of dollars a parallel system has come up: the ‘dollar blue’. If you exchange through the informal route you will get a substantially better rate. Just search on ‘dollar blue’ and you can find more up-to-date date information.

    Happy travels!

    The Wander Girl 11/01/14    Link Report

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  • In some Latin American countries, the atm will offer option of either USD or local. You may be better getting USD and changing some to local. Do not be surprised if when you go to any restuarant they will look at the bills for counterfeit (local ones) . Happened to me at La Paz airport. You will also find some countries will use either USD or local or may actually prefer USD as it is a strong currency. Chile is more western in outlook and has a strong economy and there the chilean peso should be used.
    Remember airport change kiosks tend to have the worst exchange rates. Take a charge card just in case but start with a bit of usd , You won’t know your costs for a while , just watch before you leave the country that you are not stuck with a lot of currency. While it may be possible to change them at border cities, you don’t want to be stuck with Bolivian currency in Argentina for example.
    Also the atm machine will read ur card and most likely offer the optionof transaction in English.
    You will really really like the Chileans.

    Buen viaje!

    Ian 11/01/14    Link Report

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  • I did South America last year with my girlfriend. Our trip lasted just over 8 months. What an amazing trip!!

    We found that to get money wasn’t a huge issue. We never carried a huge amount with us as it was easy to find an ATM at most places.

    Be careful with your valuables when traveling with bus between Peru, Equador and Colombia. Do not even leave it in a bag on the floor between your legs. These guys are experts! The managed to get a friends ipad out of it carry pouch which was in a locked bag between his legs.

    If you can help it, try to stay away from border towns. They tend to be a bit dodgy, but some are unavoidable.

    We traveled from Brazil to: Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil (again), Bolivia, Peru, Equador, Colombia, Panama.

    If you have any questions, please ask.

    Robert 27/01/14    Link Report

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    Hi Robert,
    I am travelling for 4 months to South America and doing similar places that you are doing: Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Bolivia and colombia.
    I was thinking to take some local currencies for each countries i am travelling and extra USD – or would you recommend to just get USD in Cash and change currencies while overseas?


    Elodie Levasseur 16/01/15    Link Report

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    Hello Elodie,
    As I said in the message above, you can find a place to withdraw most places. Most ATM’s allows you to withdraw local currency or USD. So we found that we didnt really need to have the local currency of the next country. We always just prioritized either checking into the hostel and then go on the hunt for an ATM as most hostels said it would be fine to find money first and then pay later.
    When you travel within a country make sure you always have some local money with you just incase of that unexpected breakdown or unplanned expenditure.
    Hope this helps, if you have any other questions please ask.

    Robert 16/01/15    Link Report

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    Hi Robert,
    Your information has been great thanks. Can you please give me a rough indication of your budget for 2 people for the 8 months?
    Many thanks, Bev

    Beverley 29/05/15    Link Report

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  • Hi there, I am in Argentina at the moment and will have been here for about 10 months. Before that I was in Ecuador for 5 months. And about 3 years ago, I went travelling for 3 months to Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile.
    I have always had a pre-paid cash card whilst out in South America. The first time I went, I had the Travelex one. This time, I’m using the Caxton card as it gave us better rates and no fees for using abroad. It’s worth looking into credit cards too. I have one that doesn’t charge me for international transactions, so i use it for internet payments and the occasional over-the-counter payment. The later is rare though, as few places in S.America use credit cards – or they will charge you to do so.
    I would suggest you have a bit of cash for each currency you will be using, so you are not searching for a cash machine when you arrive in the country. Cash machines are fewer and less reliable than you are probably used to – some run out of money or are out of order.
    I definitely agree about taking as many dollars in cash as you can to Argentina – you can get fantastic rates from the guys on the street offering you a blue rate. Dollars are in huge demand there at the moment!
    Hope that’s all helpful. I actually have a website TheMiniExplorer, too, and I just posted a page recently about advice on travel money,cash, cards and safety in South America. Please have a look if you want more information! Thanks :)

    theminiexplorer 16/06/15    Link Report

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