Megan has over 6 years experience in the travel and foreign exchange industry. With a passion for travel, Megan is continually looking for more "off the beaten track" destinations to explore.
South America is the ultimate destination for backpackers, adventurers and explorers. But, at the same time, it is also a destination that can be intimidating and daunting, especially for first time travelers to the continent.
Several years ago I packed my bag and headed out on my big O.E to South America. I learnt pretty quickly, that it’s a massive, culturally diverse continent, which has a reputation for crime, and well, it is very different to our New Zealand way of life. But, with a bit of research and planning, I found that you can navigate your way around with ease.
My trip across South America took 6 months, and there was A LOT I learnt about foreign exchange on my way. To help with your adventure, I’ve shared my learnings, and tips and tricks on how best to handle your travel money while you’re away.
KNOW THE LOCAL CURRENCY
There are 12 countries and 3 major territories that make up the continent of South America, and there are 14 different currencies used across them. It is important to familiarise yourself with the different currencies you will need, as it is best to use the local currency of each country.
As you can see from the above table, only the Argentine Peso, Brazilian Real, Chilean Peso, Colombian Peso and US Dollar are available to be purchased at Travel Money NZ - either from any of our stores, or through our website. The currencies for Bolivia, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela are more difficult to get outside of their borders, so it is advised to rather take US dollars or Euros with you, and exchange those into the local currency when you arrive.
If you are only travelling to only one South American country, it is easy enough to research your destination and know if you need cash while there, if your bank cards will work, or if ATMs are readily available. But, if you are visiting multiple countries on your trip, it can get a little more complicated. So, that is why I recommend - no matter which country you are visiting - the following travel money tips for your South American holiday.
DON’T RELY ON YOUR BANK PLASTIC
Cash is king in most countries in South America, but it is a good idea to have a variety of travel money options available to you.
You may find it is easier in some countries than in others to withdraw cash at ATMs - in Brazil, ATMs are easy to find, but some may not accept foreign bank cards; in Argentina you may find ATMs unreliable as they often run out of money, especially on weekends; and in Colombia, using a foreign bank card at a local ATM will come with extremely high fees.
And, you may find it harder still to use your New Zealand bank debit or credit card to pay for goods or services. In Argentina, credit cards are widely accepted - except, some places may only accept one kind - Visa, MasterCard or AMEX, but not all three. In Bolivia, only high end restaurants and hotels tend to accept credit cards, and in Colombia, you will need to show photo ID if you are using your credit card for over-the-counter payments.
So to avoid being caught out - either without money, or being charged out the wazoo to use your foreign bank card - it is a really good idea to have a variety of ways to access your money. If you have a variety of cash (local and USD) on you, as well as a travel money card and your own bank cards (for emergencies), you can withdraw money just when you need it, or when ATMs are available, and keep the rest of your travel funds safe on your card. With Travel Money NZ’s Multi-Currency Cash PassportTM, you can preload Kiwi dollars or US dollars (depending where you're heading), and draw money out at the exchange rate available that day.
SMALL AMOUNTS OF LOCAL CURRENCY
When you exchange US dollars or Euros into the local currency, I recommend trying not to exchange more than you might need while you are in that country. The reasons are two-fold. Firstly, it's safer - you won't be carrying too much money on you at one time, so if anything should happen to you or your cash, it won't be the end of your holiday.
Secondly, it can be difficult to exchange one currency into another - for example, if you go to Argentina and then Chile, you may have a hard time exchanging leftover Argentine Pesos into Chilean Pesos, so you may land up stuck with a currency you can't use. So, you can try avoid this by not exchanging too much money into ARS in the first place.
But, if you do have leftover currency, you will find it easier to exchange it back into US dollars prior to going to another country or returning to New Zealand. At Travel Money NZ, we are able to buy back any leftover US dollars, Argentine Pesos, Brazilian Reals, Chilean Pesos and Colombian Pesos. Just ask your local store for today's Buy Rate.
USING AND EXCHANGING FOREIGN CURRENCY
In most South American countries you should find it relatively easy to exchange USD into the local currency at registered money exchange bureaus, called cambio, or at banks. Some countries have a strong foreign exchange black market too, and while these money changers may offer you a better rate of exchange, they also come with a higher risk for scams, like giving you fraudulent notes, or setting you up to be ripped off.
If you take US dollars with you, you need to ensure that the notes you are given when you exchange money are in pristine condition. If they are torn or damaged, you may have a hard time exchanging them for local currency or you may find that vendors won't accept them if you use USD for payment. Also, remember that if you pay in USD, you will get change back in the local currency.
TOP TIPS FOR EACH COUNTRY
- Argentina is 1 of 4 South American countries that charge Australian citizens a reciprocity fee to enter their country (this fee being merely an entrance fee for entering their territory). A fee of US$100 must be paid prior to arriving in Argentina, so have a read on the Argentine Migration website for details!
- Only upscale establishments (hotels and restaurants) tend to accept credit cards for payment, so don't be surprised if a shop owner directs you to the nearest ATM to withdraw cash if you try to pay them with your foreign bank card
- ATMs are easy to find in Brazil, even in small villages, but you may find that some do not accept foreign bank cards, and for security reasons they often close from 10pm to 6am, or limit the maximum amount you can withdraw at night time
- If you are venturing into more rural areas, you should have larger banknotes broken up into smaller notes for you, otherwise you may struggle to get change for your purchases
- The Colombian Peso is the only currency that will be accepted in Colombia, and if you need to exchange money you will need to visit an official exchange bank, as regular banks won't exchange foreign currency
- Besides Euros, Peruvian Nuevo Sols and Colombian Pesos, it is difficult to exchange foreign currency in Ecuador, so it’s recommend having one of these currencies on you to exchange for the local currency
- You can change foreign currency at hotels and banks while in Guyana, but you will likely find the best rate of exchange at cambio's
- The Paraguayan Guarani is subdivided into 100 centimos, but due to inflation centimos are no longer in use
- In the Miraflores District of Lima, the men standing in the street wearing blue jackets are legit money changers
- ATMs from the Republic Bank tend to accept the most international bank cards, so look out for them if you need more cash
- ATMs marked with the green 'Banred' or blue 'Redbrou' logos serve all major international banking networks, but they do tend to have a US$300 daily withdrawal limit per card
- In Venezuela the black market trade for foreign currency is rife, and you can get a rate up to two times better than the official market rate. You can ask your hotel for details of a recommended money trader so you can get the best, and safest, deal
South America may be large, and it may be daunting, but remember that others have travelled there before, and you can use their experience to plan your experience. With just a little bit of Googling and online research, you can easily get an idea of whether or not you will be able to use your bank card, or if you will be able to find an ATM in Copacabana or Montevideo.
But, if all else fails, you can follow the tips above - take multiple travel money options with you so you always have a backup option, take some US dollars with you to exchange into local currency when you arrive, and be aware of scams, illegal black markets and fraudulent banknotes. This way you can keep your money safe, keep yourself safe and still enjoy the treasure trove that is South America.
If you need to organise some US dollars, or one of the South American currencies available at Travel Money NZ, our FXperts are available instore 7 days a week, or you can order your currency through our website 24-7, and then just pick it up from your nearest store when it’s ready! To find your nearest store, just enter your postcode or suburb into our store finder tool, and voila! We're there, ready to help you!
This blog is provided for information only and does not take into consideration your objectives, financial situation or needs. You should consider whether the information and suggestions contained in any blog entry are appropriate for you, having regard to your own objectives, financial situation and needs. While we take reasonable care in providing the blog, we give no warranties or representations that it is complete or accurate, or is appropriate for you. We are not liable for any loss caused, whether due to negligence or otherwise, arising from use of, or reliance on, the information and/or suggestions contained in this blog. Disclaimer: The Multi-currency Cash Passport™ (“Cash Passport”) is an unsecured debt security issued by Travelex Card Services Limited, a member of the Travelex group. Cash Passport is not guaranteed by any member of the Travelex group or any other entity. Before you make a decision to acquire a Cash Passport, we recommend you to read the Product Disclosure Statement which is available free of charge at www.cashpassport.co.nz.