Worst Places to Exchange Travel Money

I’ve learned lessons getting ripped off when I exchange travel money at the worst possible places the hard way over the years.

My starkest memory was at Gatwick airport. Bad planning meant I arrived with £1000, needing US Dollars. Sure, the staff at the exchange desk were pleasant. That said, I boarded my flight with $980… at a time when the interbank rate was 1.15…

While undoubtedly the worst, there are other terrible places to get your travel money. They include high-street exchange booths, certain ATMs when you travel (the private ones) and hotel lobbies.

This travel money guide is not all doom and gloom.

After my coverage of the four worst places to exchange foreign currency, I’ll point you in the direction for getting the best possible rates.

Worst Places to Exchange Foreign Currency / Travel Money: My Top Picks

#1 – Never, Ever Change Travel Money at the Airport

Unless you are in an emergency situation, the airport is the single worst place to exchange your pounds for foreign currency. In fact, it is not even close. You’ll often be paying the equivalent of £10 to £15 for every pound you change.

Some of these booths are crafty.

They advertise ‘no fees’ or offer you the option to exchange any unused travel money back at a reduced rate.

Don’t be fooled, the spread between their buy and sell price is where the money is made. There are always emergencies, though if you can avoid exchanging money at any airport, then do so.

Airport money change desks offer terrible rates

#2 – High Street Bureau de Change Booths Offer Horrific Rates

The second worst place to exchange foreign currency are those booths squeezed between shops in tourist destinations around the world.

This includes those in UK high streets.

Just like the airport desks, the spread will kill any value you get. I still remember my amazing wife being furious when she got home and counted her money for a trip to Budapest after using one. These places pay for staff, their rent, and utilities – all for a trickle of passing traffic. They make it work by taking a chunk out of every transaction, at the expense of unwary travellers.

#3 – Travel Agent Money Exchange Desks Have Huge Spreads

Almost did not include retail location travel agents, since they are a dying breed these days.

Those remaining offer foreign exchange for your travel money and offer poor rates (though not as bad as the airport desks). Your friendly agent will be happy to recommend this service. Before you part with your pounds, compare their spread with your bank and the post office. If you are changing more than a few hundred, the savings will be considerable.

Don't change travel money on the high street

#4 – Changing at Your Hotel Gets the Worst Exchange Rate

Offering changing services for travel money is common at hotels.

Not just the big chains (who have known about this way of making a profit for years), but smaller independent hotels too.

Hotels do have the advantage of already having staff on hand, so your transactions are not paying for full-time employees at least. Again, the balance is between convenience / instant transactions, and the size of the spread between the buy and sell prices. Expect to pay 10%+, especially in popular tourist hotspots.

Honourable Mentions: More Worst Places to Get Foreign Currency Exchanged

I’m sure that anyone smart enough to find out the worst places to exchange pounds does not need to be told to avoid independent changers. This could be someone in a market, recommended as a trusted source by your tour guide, or a shop / restaurant. You have a double risk here. First, the rate you receive, second the risk of being ripped off with counterfeit notes, folded notes or simply robbed.

UK banks enrich themselves from unwary travellers all the time. I have an account with Lloyds, though NEVER use their cards abroad. They hit you with a foreign transaction fee on top of the horrible exchange rate. Check your bank before you travel!

My last mention is private ATMs (cash machines). These are the mobile / narrow models you find around tourist hotspots. Unlike those in or attached to banks, you pay a hefty fee on top of the bad exchange rate. If you are taking out small amounts, those fees can be 10% of your spend.

ATM Fees Abroad

Ending on a Positive: The Best Places to Exchange Travel Money

While I slated banks above, ordering your foreign currency in advance can get you decent rates at high street banks. Instead of the 10%+ at the worst places, I have seen the GBP / USD spread as low as 2%. The downside here is that you need to plan in advance, as walk-in rates are higher. Post office rates are not as good – but significantly better than Bureau de Change desks offer.

Switching to one of the new generation banks and spending on your card will also get you the best possible foreign exchange rates.

I love Revolut. You can switch between currencies at close to market rates, then spend directly in that currency while you travel. If nothing else, this significantly reduces the amount of cash you need to exchange using one of the traditional methods.

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