Credit cards are the best way to pay while traveling
On Sep 9, 2011, I withdrew 40 GBP from a Southern Railway ATM at the Brighton train station which offers “free cash withdrawals” (but, of course, your bank may charge a fee). How much did it end up costing me? I looked it up by logging into my credit union account online. The withdrawal amount was 64.46 USD, and there is a separate item showing a 1 USD “ATM Fee”. On this day, the interbank exchange rate was 63.91 USD for 40 GBP. Since I effectively paid 65.46 USD, that works out to a 2.4% premium.
Let’s take a look at the credit card purchases I’ve made recently. I’ve noticed that transactions generally post the day after the purchase. I used Oanda for calculating currency conversions.
Morrisons – grocery store / supermarket. Most recently I’ve been going here for food and basic essentials like shampoo (which I’ve started using again). I went to one in Brighton on 03/09/2011 at 19:24, where I spent £1.40 in cash; I went to one in Stratford on 12/09/2011 at 22:05, where I spent £11.07 by credit card (“W M MORRISONS PLC LONDON 309”). That became a $17.55 charge, and with the currency converter showing $17.58, it’s like a 0.2% gain.
La Tasca – a Spanish Tapas Restaurant & Bar on North Street, Brighton; charged at 14:23 on 08/09/11 (pretty sure that’s DD/MM/YY). I liked this place, and the food was a good value: for £5.95 I got to pick three dishes for my lunch. And just as important, the glass of water was totally free. (Other establishments charged me as much as £3 for water! Fancy glass-bottled stuff…) I requested they add a 10% tip to the amount they charge to my card; that added 60p. (By the way, here in the UK, people pronounce this as “sixty pee”… not “sixty pennies” or “sixty cents”, because we’re dealing with pounds and pence here, not dollars and cents. Conveniently, they seem to work the same way, other than having different value and names; it’s still 100p to the £.) Tips at restaurants are generally optional in the UK, which I think is cool. An extra tip should be readily accepted for good service, but it should never be expected. The £6.55 charged by La Tasca converted into $10.49 on my credit card bill (“LA TASCA BRIGHTON”). On this day, the interbank exchange rate was $10.46 for £6.55, so that works out to a 0.3% premium, which is within the margin of normal fluctuation to pretty much consider this to be 0%.
Bill’s Ltd – a cafe and restaurant on 100 North Road, Brighton, BN1 1YE; charged at 18:56 on 07/09/2011 (pretty sure that’s DD/MM/YYYY). I felt this place was overpriced and overrated, which tends to be the case for restaurants I select based on Yelp ratings. I took their “Supper Offer” for £9.95. Apparently my waitress’s name was Holly Cozens, indicated by the receipt. Their £9.95 charge converted into $15.94 on my credit card bill (“BILLS PRODUCE STOR BRIGHTON”). That would be $15.97 based on the interbank rate that day, which actually works out to 0.2% gain(!)… the exchange rate provided by the credit card (a Capital One card, if you’re curious), tends to be equal to the interbank exchange rate.
John’s Camping Int’l – East Sussex. £4.95 at 14:10 on 08/09/11 (“JOHNS CAMPING INT’L BRIGHTON”). Bought a new bag for my sleeping bag. $7.93 when the conversion calculator shows $7.91, so I look at it as a 0.3% premium.
Minor note: the bus I took in Brighton was able to gave me change. I paid £5 and got £3 in change, for a bus fare of £2. In some other places, buses don’t give change… Hong Kong comes to mind.