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How Much Money Should You Bring on Your Next Vacation?

Travel snags. Sitting at a ferry terminal is not a good way to spend your vacation

Travel snags. Sitting at a ferry terminal is not a good way to spend your vacation

Don't Get Stuck With Empty Pockets

Grabbing our backpacks, snorkeling equipment, beach towels, camera, water, and snacks, my husband Steve and I hurried off our cruise ship, jumped into a nearby taxi and drove to the Charlotte Amalie Ferry terminal in St. Thomas, USVI. Our planned destination: Trunk Bay National Park on the island of St. John, USVI.

We couldn't wait to go snorkeling in the pristine, aquamarine waters and relax on the sand. After a mere 20 steps from the ferry in Cruz Bay, St. John, we realized our predicament.

"Can you get out the money, while I find a taxi driver to take us to Trunk Bay?" my husband asked.

"What? I thought you had the money. I don't have any cash," I said, thinking he was joking.

"I'm not fooling around—please get out a $20 bill," he said.

All I could do was shake my head; I was completely speechless. Here we were stuck in St. John...unable to get to the state park and unable to get back to our cruise ship.

What started out as a wonderful day trip ended up being a travel nightmare. This is just one example of how I've learned the hard way how to handle money situations while on a trip far from home and my bank's ATM. (Find out how we got back to our cruise ship at the end of this article).

The beach at Trunk Bay, St. John, USVI

The beach at Trunk Bay, St. John, USVI

The Importance of Cash

One of the most important items to bring on a vacation is money. Remember, cash is king wherever you are. Whether you are in a big city or in an isolated wilderness area. If you have actual currency (and not necessarily US dollars) in your hands and in your pockets, you have greater leveraging power than if you wave a credit or debit card.

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Having enough cash on hand will give you access to spontaneous opportunities in either sightseeing or buying a local item that catches your eye. Or you may even decide to give away money to help a needy person. (See photo below for a picture of the gentleman I met in Rhodes, Greece. He was selling wilted flowers, but I bought some anyway, and his thankful smile and kind-sounding words in Greek, made them my best purchase that day).

Man selling flowers in Rhodes, Greece

Man selling flowers in Rhodes, Greece

Tips for Estimating Travel Cash

Bringing a sufficient amount of cash with you PRIOR to arriving at your vacation destination is ALWAYS easier than tracking down a bank or other financial institution in a foreign country.

For those who live in the United States, credit card use is extremely frequent for all types of transactions, whether it's for groceries, gas, restaurants, shops, and public transportation. This is not necessarily the case in other worldwide places. Many smaller retailers do not take credit cards or, if they do, place a service charge on top of the purchase.

Bring enough cash (both in your own currency and in whatever local currencies you might be needing) to last for your entire trip length.

Here's a list of things to consider:

  • Calculate the number of days of your trip and multiply by $50–$100 per person.
  • If you traveling independently (no meals included), estimate an additional $50–$75 per person per day for food and drink. (This amount could vary depending upon your final destination and your own personal preferences and budget).
  • What type of activities and expenses do you anticipate needing to pay for while on vacation (i.e., some tours, meals, and/or activities might have been prepaid)? Calculate the exact amount of all these expenses added together.
  • Are there any special purchases you intend to make while on travel? For example, you might want to buy a rug in Turkey, a Murano vase in Venice, etc. These very well might be done via credit card for security. Maybe you plan on buying a few gifts and souvenirs that are not as expensive and could be done with cash?
  • What type of tips and gratuities will be expected with any of your activities, tours, transfers, or excursions? (A typical range is 10% to 20% of the cost of the activity).
  • After calculating all of the above, add a 20% cushion to your final figure.

Make sure you have the safest way to carry your cash as possible. (i.e., money belt). If travelling with a companion, split up your money and your credit cards. See link below for some examples of travel gear.

A Few More Tips

  • Write down your credit card numbers and toll-free number to call in an emergency and keep that separate from your credit cards. This way you will facilitate communication with the credit card company in case of emergency.
  • Bring your own debit card. If you can figure out a foreign ATM and it accepts your card, you will be able to get cash in the local currency (less any service fees from your banking institution). Find out what your daily limit is for withdrawals BEFORE you leave for your trip. You don't want to be in another country (and different time zone) when you realize that you can only take out $250 per day, but need $700 immediately.
  • Either exchange your US dollars via a bank or currency exchange service before leaving home OR bring all your US dollars (in cash) to the airport and exchange all your money at the same time to get the best rate. I have personally used Travelex several times.
  • Consider bringing a PREPAID debit card filled with local currency (ONLY offered in Euros and Great Britain Pounds). This is a wonderful way to pay "cash" at a restaurant or shop without using your own credit card or carrying too many bills and coins. If you have money left over at the end of trip, you can also get it back.

How We Got Back...

After a few dazed moments, we started scouring our backpacks and pockets and did find enough change to take us back on the ferry to a different terminal on St. Thomas (closer to St. John so it was cheaper). However, that terminal was much farther away from our ship.

During the hour-long ferry ride, we ended up talking with a lady from Montana who was currently living and working in St. Thomas. Believe it or not, she ended up driving us almost an hour to the cruise dock. Sadly, I cannot remember her name now, but I will never forget her hospitality and kindness to travelers with empty pockets.

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