Englishman Abroad: Paying for Things

It may come as a surprise to you, but everything comes at a price. A bit of careful planning can save a lot of pain, or at least inconvenience, at some point later, and make your stay a more pleasant one.

So firstly cash and cards. A friendly tour operator recommended a Revolut card which you load in your own currency by card or transfer. Then you can exchange any amount using the app on your mobile at the bank exchange rate at the time. Good rate, noticeably better than when I bought euros at home before leaving. It costs to have the card delivered if you don’t get the premium version (for a monthly fee) but frankly the basic is enough. I paid about £12 for the card and the convenience and security are worth it, and I recommend you only put a small amount on the card when you apply in case it goes missing in the post. I was able to easily load it again later in my stay as I needed to top-up. It effectively works through visa like a debit card with PIN and contactless so accepted everywhere I’ve been so far.

By the way, don’t expect pictures here – what do you want, photos of my credit card or me handing over hard-earned cash… really?

As for credit cards, look for one with decent rates and no commission. Check moneysupermarket.com or similar for what’s on offer. It’s best to apply early and use it at home to make sure everything is OK rather than finding out things haven’t gone through and having to resolve it while traveling. If you’re thinking if not getting a credit card, remember things like car hire need one for deposit. No card no car. As long as you pay the card off by the deadline you won’t have to pay interest or fees with most cards – check the small(ish) print of course. And don’t withdraw cash on a credit card as you’ll generally be charged an exorbitant rate of interest from day 1. Again, check the conditions, rates, and the smallprint. Check if there’s a limit to free cash withdrawals on a bank card or prepaid card – Revolut for example does limit this, in an effort to make up for the transaction fees the banks will charge them for ATM withdrawals – but then at least they’re upfront about it.

I’ve done a running tally of expenditure, so this will be outlined later on. But expect more outgoings at the start as you get settled in, get to know what you need and where to get it. Also think about the other end of the stay too – you may want to spend money on gifts and/or souvenirs to take back home and of course there’s always paying for your return trip to account for! You’ll probably have had to pay a deposit on accommodation in advance – for me it was a month’s rent, so make sure you have a receipt for this and make sure you arrange (maybe a week ahead) to collect it at the end, ideally before you leave. Because bank transactions cost businesses money and international transactions more-so, your landlord may want to give you the deposit in cash (mine did) so this might leave you with spending money at the end, but don’t count on it. And remember if you’re changing currency back to your home currency you may also lose out on the exchange rate. Do your homework and do what suits you best.

If you’ve paid in advance for something by card (or a generous relative does) , remember you may well need to present that card when collecting the goods, tickets, car, etc. or when checking into accommodation. So try to use your own card for things like this. Also, while you’re away you may need to still pay bills at home, e.g. your rent or credit card bills. Arrangements for this need to be set up before you leave, e.g. via an app on your mobile or other forms of online banking. Similarly some banks and card companies expect to be told when and where you’re traveling so they can monitor card use and potential fraud abroad. Check and take the time to do this well before you travel or you can have payments refused at awkward moments.

Don’t take a wad of cash with you and don’t be too obvious about the amount of cash you’re carrying or withdrawing at an ATM, especially in the early hours of the morning.

Offering to pay in cash seems to be a surprise to the staff in shops nowadays, but there will always be times cash is still the best option. Paying for meals and services by card but leaving a tip in small change is handy. Paying for everything in cash opens you up to tourist-spotting criminals who might target people who seem to have a lot of money on them. This is where charge cards, travel money cards and prepayment or bank transfers are worth looking into. Again see a reputable money advice website to find the best options available top you, and do this with plenty of time to spare before you leave. I found here in Tenerife that there were plenty of shops offering commission free exchange at the bank lending rate (the same as Revolut) of Euros to sterling, although I didn’t use any of them. I’m a bit of a cynic, so it’s probably also worth checking up on how to identify counterfeit notes.

In any case try to work out what you think might be your budget before you go, have different sources of funds (a little immediate cash, a card or preferably two, that you can use to pay or withdraw money. This is helpful because, from experience, you can lose a card (as I did once on a train in Italy along with travel documents) and need to pay for replacement documents or even just your regular bills.

Keeping track of my spending, in itself, has been an interesting and useful experience, because it puts into perspective both the cost of living and the value of any in-kind benefits like meals or accommodation.

The distribution of costs for me in the first month was approximately as follows. Rent was around 500€ at 42% of my month’s expenditure, followed by groceries around 250€ (21%), which was supplemented by a further 150€ of eating out, about 12.5%, and about 50€ on snacks, coffees etc. So after accommodation I spent around 450€ (38% for the month) on food and drink. This being the first month I bought some clothes to keep me going, which obviously isn’t going to be a monthly cost, but it was about 70€ (6%) and miscellaneous bits and pieces including things for cleaning, hooks for hanging clothes etc, added up to about 50€ (4%). The final significant cost was for travel, both the transfer from airport to apartment and local buses. These added up to nearly 125€, of which about 100€ (8%) was regular bus journeys. So adding up the first month it came to around 1000€, with 80% of that food and accommodation. Even if we count meals out and coffees etc as discretionary, that makes food and accommodation worth around 600€ per month if you can get an internship that includes these. If not, I’d suggest you budget for between 800 and 1000€ of expenditure each month, depending on where your internship is located. And of course on what you consider your ‘lifestyle essentials’. This might help when you’re considering any payment or ‘compensation’ package being offered, at least as ballpark figures.

Tips are useful to know about before you go, and especially before you use services like bars, cafes, restaurants, taxis, hairdressers, hotels … . Local guidebooks often provide some guidance on what’s expected, and from experience if you’re going (or staying) somewhere over a lengthy period it helps to tip regularly (daily for housekeeping for example) rather than wait until the end of your stay, and be reasonably generous early on, unless you have a reason not to of course! That aside, the rate of tips expected here seems small and you should put it into perspective. The hospitality industry in many countries relies on tips for staff on the ‘front line’ to supplement their wages. Put yourself in their position – remember what I said in a previous post about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, especially if trade is very seasonal and if service is particularly good – always be prepared to go the extra mile with tips when that’s what they’ve done for you.

You get back what you put in, one way or another!

Published by John Humphreys

Education and leisure industry professional with over 30 years' experience and a focus on delivering international experiences and employability development.

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