Random Travel Tips – Part #6: Cash and Credit

Valle de Bravo      You’re headed out the door to another country. You doublecheck to make sure you have your passport, your ticket, and other essentials.  You feel your pockets; do you have money?  Is it enough?  What is the exchange rate?  Does it matter?  Will your credit cards work?  These are important questions!

My companera always reminds me of the decades that I would travel across the United States with hardly a dollar in my pocket, especially when I’m routinely squirreling away money when I go overseas.  I’ve made the point before, but I’ll make it again:  always carry “Maverick” money.  For those who remember the old, but ageless, television series, “Maverick,” starring James Garner and various others, he and his brother always followed a lesson taught by their father and sewed a $100 gold coin into their jackets for emergencies.  Of course, they were gamblers, but all travel is a gamble isn’t it really?  Gamble is a euphemism for adventure and uncertainty.  So, “Wade’s Rule” is carry enough to handle what you feel might be emergencies, and then hide some more.  Stuff happens on the road.

Once upon a time, guides claimed that in certain cities the best exchange rates existed at the airport.  That’s rarely true, but, regardless, either hit the ATM or exchange some cash at one of the first opportunities you have for $50 or $100, even before leaving customs.  You will absolutely need local currency, and you cannot be sure if you can get it before hitting the street.  Swallow hard, pay what you have to pay, and make sure you have some street money.

It helps to know a little something about the exchange rate, regardless of whether you are about to take a haircut.  Sometimes the numbers are daunting.  I stepped off the plane at Entebbe, Uganda, and hit the machine for 100s of thousands, having forgotten to check, and then realized once in Kampala that I was carrying the equivalent of $25 USD.  Whoops!

If you are depending on an ATM, know the PIN on your credit cards.  I don’t, which is stupid, but I don’t do online banking either, except when I can’t avoid it.  I do know my PIN on my bank card and that works.  I listened to a woman on the arrival concourse in Mexico City angrily calling her bank somewhere in the US to make sure her card works.  If you have a chip in your cards, you no longer need to call banks ahead of time.  Some banks don’t tell you this, but it’s true.  In the London Underground the ticket machines do not work on a credit card without a chip, but if you stand in line, the workers will manually run it to top off your Oyster card.

If you are exchanging cash, money changers are the best bet in Honduras, rather than banks.  Same for India and Argentina.  These alternatives are based on access and convenience coupled with local information.

If you are counting on credit cards, keep in mind that in many countries, American Express is a card for the rich in high end precincts, so you will need both a Mastercard and a Visa with you, because, believe it or not, some businesses only take one and not the other.  Never only carry one credit card.  You can never tell which one might not work.  Mainly, don’t assume outside of fancyville that any business will accept anything but cash.

Face the facts.  Most of you will not convert whatever foreign currency is in your pockets as you return home, because the exchange rates are so terrible.  I get that, but don’t assume that your local bank will necessarily convert it for you.  Many won’t, and some that do will charge you more than it’s worth.  I’ve given up.  I keep a certain amount of pounds, euros, Canadian dollars, and US greenbacks with me always, but I also have a couple of boxes at home with envelopes marked by country where I keep whatever local currency is still in my pockets when I return.

Exchange rates and leftover money are part of the price to pay for foreign travel.  Why gamble when it is already such an adventure.


Breathing in Mexico City

Mexico City     My family loves Mexico, especially Mexico City, one of the absolutely great cities of the world.  Christmas time often finds us here or somewhere in Mexico.  It’s a great place for the holidays.  When we drive or fly here, we feel we are part of a caravan from Estados Unidos, as millions cross the border loaded with presents for family and friends.  People in Mexico like this holiday, and we like being in Mexico with them for the same reasons.

We often debate owning a place in Mexico City.  Maybe going in with some friends?  Who knows?  We debate that less, because the pleasures and excitement of the city are offset by the fact that too many of our tribe have trouble breathing and all of our eyes burn.

I know the feeling well.  This used to happen to me in Denver in the 1970s when we opened our office there.  Then it would take several days each trip to balance being at a mile-high altitude and the impact of the inversion that trapped the pollution mainly from automobile exhaust in the area below the mountains.  Mexico City, founded in the valley created by volcanoes, has the same issues on steroids with 75% of the pollution experts say created by the vehicles that burn fuel less purely in combustion engines given the roughly mile-high altitude here as well creating more ozone and carbon monoxide. This is multiplied by 20 million people in Mexico City, dwarfing Denver more than 40 years ago and now.

Mexico City has made progress.  When we were last here a couple of years ago, cars were only allowed to drive into the city on alternate days based on whether their licenses were odd or even, and later were banned on Saturdays completely.  It made a difference, but we learn now that subsequent studies have found that the Saturday ban had no impact on pollution.

What has most impressed me is the improvement in the bus transportation system since our last visit.  There are separate lanes.  They have built more stops and are running triple accordion-like buses that are packed to the gills, supplementing the always crowded subway system.  Fuel standards for trucks and heavy vehicles have been increased.  The newly elected President was a former mayor of Mexico City when many of these reforms were introduced and styles himself as an environmentalist in addition to being a populist on the left, so there’s great hope there as well.

But cars continue to the be the problem and progress has slowed according to most reports in recent years.  As one reporter wrote, “The potential impact on public health is hard to overstate: Recently, researchers identified a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and suicide in people exposed daily to high concentrations of ozone and fine particulate matter.”

We soldier on with our love for the city, walking miles and miles along bustling streets and beautiful avenues.  We don’t live here and can’t.  We worry about those who do.