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While traveling through the islands of the South Pacific, we were moving from Fiji to Port Resolution on Tanna Island, where there was not an ATM available. We needed cash to be able to clear formalities and pay for things in Port Resolution, so for the first time in my life, I went to use a currency exchange.
My friend Cathie needed Vatu too, so she came with me. We got in line in Western Union and talk 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 in Tanna.
“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 OBSCENE:
- 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%)
Schwab Bank for Travelers
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 from other banks are refunded.
In 2012, living in Houston, we withdrew money from an ATM twice. In the past 12 months in the South Pacific, 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.
Don’t have a Schwab account? Get $100 by opening an account.
Heres some other banking and financial tips we have:
Chase United Mileage Plus Credit Card
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.
Backup Credit Cards
We have a backup 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!