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In researching Vanuatu, we discovered that the number one thing for cruisers to do is to visit the Yasur Volcano on Tanna Island. The catch is that the customs office on Tanna is in Lenakel, on the west side, while the volcano and the protected anchorage of Port Resolution are on the east side. You could clear in on a different island, but then you have a beat into the SE winds to get to Tanna. Or, you can take our boat around the island to Lenakel, and then beat back around to Port Resolution. Or, take a car the several hour trip from Port Resolution to Lenakel, each way. Finally, you can advise Vanuatu authorities that you are coming in and would like to clear in at Port Resolution, and you can pay $6000 vatu (roughly $60 USD) to have an officer come to Port Resolution.
Guess which sounds best to us.
But it has another catch – there are no banks or ATMs in Port Resolution, and while you CAN pay the clear in fees in USD, the volcano tour is organized by the local village and must be paid in vatu. Thus, while in Vuda, I went off on an adventure with Cathie from Sandy Cheeks to try to find some Vatu.
If I ever used a currency exchange, it was probably at least 10 years ago. We got in line in Western Union and got to the teller.
“I need a passport and your itinerary.”
“Yes, your flight information.”
“We are on a sailboat.”
“How about our USCG documentation?”
That works. I had my passport, which I grabbed last minute, but I didn’t have documentation. An email to David was answered immediately, and I was able to forward it to our teller. Cathie didn’t have her passport, but thankfully the maximum cash you can get is $5,000 FJD (roughly $2,500 USD or $250,000 Vatu). My goal was to get around $100,000 vatu, so I could cover Cathie’s too.
Paperwork is sorted, I tell the teller how much we want and hand her my credit card. Oh, no. It has to be cash. Off to the ATM.
Cathie was smart and brought cash, but it’s in USD. I maxed out two withdrawals ($900 FJD each, or roughly $450 USD). Back in we go, handing over our cash. Lots of counting and calculations ensue, and after quite a few minutes we are informed that they don’t have enough vatu (we knew this might be a problem). So, I get some FJD back, and our first transaction is complete and we get $48,400 vatu between the two of us…not enough to get four adults up the volcano.
“What about some of your other branches, do they have more vatu?”
Our teller tells us to take a seat and she makes some calls. One of the staff comes out with a backpack and he’s going to run to the other branch for us to get more vatu. He brings plenty back and we are able to finish our transaction, with enough vatu for the volcano tour and any incidental spending we will need to do in Tanna.
Now, most of this was our fault – we didn’t know what we were doing and the staff was very helpful and patient to get us what we needed. But the conversion rate was OBSENE:
- USD: $400
- FJD: $787.25
- Vatu: $33,400
- Western Union conversion rate USD to VUV: 83.5
- XE exchange rate: 108
- Fees paid: roughly $98 USD (25%)
- USD pulled from my account: $891
- FJD: $1,800
- Vatu: $76,338
- Schwab conversion rate USD to FJD: 2.02
- XE exchange rate USD to FJD: 2.04
- Western Union conversion rate FJD to VUV: 42.41
- XE exchange rate FJD to VUV: 52.62
- Fees paid: roughly $184 USD (20%)
This exchange has really highlighted for us how AMAZING it is that we have Charles Schwab bank accounts. Most of the time when we need cash, we just pull from an ATM. We have no fees from Schwab, a minimal conversion fee, and all ATM fees are refunded.
In 2012, living in Houston, we withdrew money from an ATM twice. In the past 12 months, we pulled cash from ATMs TWENTY FIVE TIMES. Granted, Tonga is really behind the times with credit card machines. Pulling cash out of ATMs costs us virtually nothing. Using a credit card often results in a 2.5% to 5% fee from the merchant, so having cash is definitely better. We’ve gotten back over $200 USD from Schwab in refunded ATM fees over the past 2 years.
The are other major perks for the world traveler. There are no account fees whatsoever to have a Schwab checking account. Transfers can be made online instantly. The Schwab app allows us to deposit checks by simply taking a picture of them. Schwab has an international number to call 24/7 when you need some help.
Heres some other banking and financial tips we have:
This is our main credit card. We earn miles so that if needed, we have “free” flights back home. There are no foreign transaction fees. When we do fly home, we get an extra checked bag on United flights, plus we each get one lounge pass a year. Having miles in our back pocket means that it’s a lot easier for us to book a last minute flight halfway around the world.
We use Mint to track all of our expenses. Transactions can be automatically categorized, and we can get all kinds of cool graphs and charts about our spending in a few clicks!
You may not want to receive cash in a local currency, or in your home currency, so having a Paypal or Venmo account is always a good option.
When we sold our car in NZ, we got $3K NZD cash. We only had about a month left in NZ, so we paid for EVERYTHING in NZD but still ended up with some leftover. Fortunately this year we are spending a lot of time in places that associate closely with New Zealand. We were able to make some payments in NZD in Tonga. We were also able to trade with other cruisers to get USD or other currency in exchange for any extra we have.
We’ve never used them.
We have a back up credit card (Bank of America) but we don’t like using it because you can not set up your credit card to pay off in full every month. You can only set up a set amount to pay off.
On our departure checklist is to file travel notices with our banks. That means that before each passage, we log in to our bank accounts and set up a notice for as long as possible (three months for two accounts, one month for another).
While out and about, I make a note on my phone for how much cash I have been using for each transaction. Also on our departure checklist is to reconcile our cash accounts in Mint, so I log in and manually add our cash transactions. Mint has a handy box you can check that says “deduct from last ATM withdrawal”. If you’ve spent all your cash when you leave a country, all the ATM line items should be zero, because your cash expenditures have all been divided up (into groceries, dining, etc…).
Yet another learning experience under the belt!