Carrying money on vacation is a balancing act between safety and utility. Making money difficult to access deters thieves, but when it comes time to pay for something, you still want to be able to get to it without stripping off clothes or playing hide-and-seek with a bag's hidden pockets. With that in mind, here are 10 tips for carrying money safely and elegantly when you travel.
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Divide money in different places
Even if you disregard all other advice about carrying money, take this tip to heart: Whenever possible, divvy up your travel cash and even credit cards into multiple safe spots. If you've got all your money in one place, it only takes one time for a thief to totally wipe you out. You can even apply this idea when you're out and about by keeping some money attached to your person and some in a bag you carry. That way, if your bag gets lost or snatched, you'll still have enough to get to a police station or back to your hotel.
Favor on-body storage
Under-clothing storage accessories have come a long way since neck pouches and money belts came onto the scene. Though those classics are still in favor, newer options include bra stashes, as well as long johns, underwear, and undershirts with built-in pockets for safe storage. On-body storage accessories are particularly useful if you're sleeping somewhere that doesn't have a secure place for cash and other valuables. Note that on-body storage isn't a good wallet alternative, since fishing around under your clothes for money advertises where you're hiding the goods. And lest you think a fanny pack is a substitute for a money belt, realize that it can actually make you more vulnerable to thievery since it marks you as a tourist.
Keep small bills handy
Changing or withdrawing large amounts of money minimizes the fees you'll pay to get local currency, but it also means you'll be traveling with far more cash—and larger bills—than you'd have on you at home. We've already talked about the virtues of dividing your money, but it's also wise to make smaller denominations of currency easily accessible. That way, you won't pull out the local equivalent of a $100-dollar bill while attempting to buy a 30-cent souvenir. You also won't have to reach down into your jeans to get more money from an under-clothing money pouch. Make money preparation part of your morning routine: As you're packing your bag, make sure you've got a variety of small bills and coins at the ready for purchases such as food, souvenirs, and attraction entry fees. Squirrel away larger bills in your under-clothing money pouch, or tuck them into a secure part of your wallet or bag.
Carry an anti-theft bag
If garbage-bag commercials have taught us anything, it's that some bags are tougher than others. The same goes for travel purses, backpacks, and bags—some, designed specifically for travel, have features such as cut-proof, steel-cable-reinforced shoulder straps; slash-proof fabric; and locking zippers. Since elements like these slow down thieves, they can do a decent job deterring opportunistic pickpockets. Anti-theft bags are available online from Pacsafe, Travelon, Magellan's, and other retailers. Consider your purchase an investment that might save you some money.
Trim your wallet
Are you going to need your library card when you're 6,000 miles from your local branch? Probably not. Before you leave, take the time to go through your wallet and take out everything except the necessities (a universal credit card and a backup, an identification card, an insurance card, etc.). Not only will it help you travel lighter, but if your wallet does get lost or stolen, you'll have less to replace.
Use a dummy wallet
If you're traveling in a place known for pickpocketings or muggings, consider getting a cheap wallet that looks just real enough to keep in your pocket or bag. Pad the wallet with some small bills and make it look more real by slipping in one or two of those sample credit cards you get with offers in the mail. A dummy wallet can stop pickpockets before they get to your real wallet. And in the scary and unlikely case of an actual mugging, it also gives you something to throw and run, buying you time to escape with your safety and your actual wallet.
Buy a travel wallet
In addition to a dummy version, you might also consider a wallet that you reserve specifically for travel. There's one simple reason for this: If you're the type of person whose day-to-day wallet is packed with cards—gym memberships, pre-paid coffee cards, frequent-buyer punch cards, and the like—the pockets are likely to be stretched out when you minimize the contents for travel. By having a travel-only wallet, your cards will have snug pockets that they can't slip out of accidentally. As an added bonus, you won't have to unpack and repack your day-to-day wallet; you can simply transfer what you need for your trip to your travel version.
Adapt to the local money culture
Being prepared to pay your way on vacation means different things depending on where you are. In a cash economy, you'll need to make sure to have a variety of bills and coins on hand at all times, but your credit cards will likely just collect dust. However, in much of Europe and parts of Asia, where automation is common and chip-and-PIN credit-card technology is standard, having a compatible credit card will come in very handy, especially if you find yourself at an unattended gas station late at night or a train station after-hours. Also keep in mind that in some countries, U.S. dollars are an official or unofficial secondary currency, so it's wise to keep a few greenbacks at the ready.
Use money alternatives
In high-traffic settings such as metro stations and close quarters like bus lines, it's nice to be able to forgo cash or credit-card transactions totally and rely instead on a multi-use ticket or other cash alternative. If you're in a city where the public-transportation system offers multi-use cards (for instance, London's Oyster card or San Francisco's Clipper card) or where you can buy a bunch of tickets at once (like a "carnet" on the Paris metro, which gets you 10 single-ride tickets for one discounted price), then take advantage. You'll reduce your chances of losing your wallet simply by retrieving and stowing it fewer times.
Stow valuables securely
Sometimes the best way to carry money is to not carry it at all. Hotels' in-room safes are generally pretty secure, and if you've got an item (or a wad of cash) you're particularly nervous about, check to see if the hotel has a safe-deposit box behind the desk. If you do use a hotel lockbox of any sort though, remember to retrieve your items when you leave. In the rush to pack up and depart, out of sight can easily mean out of mind—until you're on your way to the airport. If you're a forgetful type, leave a colorful note on top of your suitcase.