I have a passion for travel and overindulge frequently. I love to spoil myself. So I fly off to foreign lands quite often. Because I travel so much, trading my hard-earned greenbacks for some exotic locale’s version of the dollar has become second nature for me. But on a recent trip with friends, all who’d never been out of the country before, the naivete of newbie travellers when it comes to currency exchange struck home.
I remember my first trip to Thailand. My running partner Dave and I scored a free trip to Hong Kong (uh, a bribe from a prospective business client) and figured we’d double down and head to Bangkok for a few days. Obviously we needed baht, so loaded up on Thai currency at the airport. And every day after blowing our wad the night before at the bars in Patpong, we’d stop at the hotel’s currency exchange desk and get more of the funny money. We got handfuls of their money for small stacks of ours, and everything in Thailand was cheap. Thinking back, I now shake my head at the memory and mutter, “geeeze!”
Probably the worst place you can exchange money in any country in the world is at the airport. (Wait. Wrong. Exchanging money at home before your trip will guarantee you an even lower rate.) Sure you’ll need some to get to your hotel, tip the bell hop, maybe grab a bite to eat. So go ahead and pick a bit up at the airport. Like maybe $20 worth. Then, in town, go find a place offering a decent rate. That wouldn’t be your hotel. The second worst place to exchange money is your hotel. The rate they will give you is far below what you’ll be able to get pretty much anywhere within a five minute walk. But again, there are emergencies, small shortages, and sometimes even laziness that make using your hotels currency exchange desk okay. Just don’t get too accustomed to the convenience.
Since those early days of travel for me, I’ve become an exchange rate fanatic. Scoring a favorable rate is like making money. Finding the place that has the best rates is better than finding the perfect restaurant, or the bar with the best martini.
But really, how important is finding a good rate? Does it make that much of a difference? Between the rate you’ll get at the airport or your hotel and a top exchange place is town: most definitely. Between a place with great rates and a place with so-so rates, maybe not. On a $1,000 trade between the airport and a good exchange place you’re probably looking at a $25 difference in Bangkok. And a $15 difference between a good and so-so rate booth. Not big bucks. And maybe not worth your consideration. But the difference thrown into the pot for dinner one night could mean dining at a nice restaurant instead of chowing down at a run of the mill, blandly cooked Thai food joint. If you’re going drop $5,000 during your trip . . . now we’re talking some real money to win or lose on the exchange rate wheel of fortune.
As much of a fan of great rates that I am, sometimes the chase just doesn’t male sense. It can be like driving ten miles out of your way to fill up your tank with gas at 2 cents cheaper than a closer station. The cost to get there is more than the savings. Spending an hour of your holiday time crisscrossing the city to get to the most favorable exchange rate booth is not a good use of time, either. But small detours, or hitting the great exchange rate place when it is near a planned destination, can pay off.
Each country has its own quirks when it comes to exchange rates, too. The rates in Hong Kong are pretty stable; they don’t change much from day to day. When you find a place with good rates, you may as well just cash in your whole wad and get it over with.
Exchanging money in Bali is a lot like playing Russian roulette. Except in this case instead of one, there’s about eight bullets in the gun. Walk the streets in Kuta and you’ll see advertisement sandwich boards touting incredibly great rates. That’s to sucker you into some small dive. And the advertised rate is what you’ll get. What you’ll also get is a 99.9% chance of being ripped off. The guys manning these places are pros with fast fingers. Invariably that fat wad of rupiah will be short a few bills when you get your hands on it, no matter how carefully you watched them count it out (if they get mad when you start recounting – as you should – that’s a quick hint that they pocketed some bills). Bali also has this weird fascination over the date on your dollars. The exchange rate you receive varies greatly depending on the year and serial number on your bills. And don’t even try and exchange a bill that is marked, worn, or torn.
In Thailand the rates fluctuate greatly (well, okay, by a few percentage points) daily. Not a bad idea to get an idea if the rates are swinging up or down before you head off on your trip. You may want to cash in big time at the beginning of your trip if the rates are headed down, or cash your bucks in as you go if they are becoming more favorable as the days pass. Generally you’ll get better rates in Bangkok than in the outlying areas. So it may be worth your time to exchange most of your cash in the Big Mango before heading up to Chiang Mai or down to Phuket.
In Bangkok, the best place to exchange your money is the main branch of Super Rich in the Pratunam area. It is located across from Central World, just past the Big C, and down a small soi to your right. I don’t recall seeing street signs, but the soi you want is Ratchadamri Road Soi 1. The real Super Rich has orange awnings, while across the street is a fake Super Rich with green awnings (and bad rates). The real Super Rich is on your right. If you head down the wrong soi, there’s also a Super Rich on the left hand side (this’d be one soi before the one you want). Almost back to back with the main branch, the rates here are not as good. Don’t ya love Thailand?
Generally, though the rates are never as good as at their main branch, any Super Rich will offer better rates than their nearby competitors. The place I always use when needed on Khaosan Road is consistently the best in the area and it wasn’t until my last trip that I realized it was a Super Rich booth, lacking the vivid orange signage customary for the business.
What you exchange can play as big a role as where you exchange it. In Thailand, and most other countries, you’ll get a better rate for $100 bills than smaller bills. On a $1,000 trade, this can be as much as a $35 difference in Bangkok. Traveler checks always exchange at a better rate, but then there is a fee to cash them in, too. So your corresponding rate takes a quick dive. I know lots of people fall into the ‘traveler checks are safe’ school of thought, I don’t find them as convenient as cash. Having never been ripped off or lost my money on a trip, I prefer to travel with greenbacks.
Some prefer to use an ATM, getting cash from the machine when they need it. That can get costly quickly. In Thailand, the ATM’s charge you a 150 baht fee for their use. Your bank may also tack on a foreign currency exchange fee adding several more dollars to your cost. ATMs are convenient, but pricey to use as an exchange booth.
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