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How should your kid bring spending money on an overseas trip?

girl with parents at an airport
Pebbles brought a few Baht, a credit card and a debit card to Thailand. No stress!

Last summer, our then-16-year-old, Pebbles, went on a Girl Scouts trip to Thailand without us, and this summer, a number of her friends are going to Europe. As the credit card expert in my friend group, I’ve been fielding versions of this question lately: How will my kid pay for things on their overseas trip? Should they use a debit card? Should we set up a prepaid card for them? Should we order local currency from the bank?

So I found them some answers, and now I’ll share them with you.

When I first traveled as a young lass, the plan for bringing money on an overseas trip was obvious: We bought American Express travelers checks. For my junior year abroad in France, I signed a big stack of $100 checks, then hid them deep in my carry-on. Obviously, those days are gone.

Give the kid a credit card

When Pebbles went overseas last year, she already had a credit card with her name on it, both in card form and loaded into Apple Pay on her phone. I had made her an authorized user on my Southwest Priority Card because I wanted her to start growing her credit file.

I told her to use the credit card for any transactions she could, because I knew that credit cards generally offer a competitive exchange rate. Credit cards also have other advantages over cash and debit cards: If the kid loses the credit card, I can freeze that card with a quick call to the issuer and we won’t be responsible for any fraudulent charges. With cash, of course, if the kid loses their wallet or gets pick pocketed, it’s just gone. With a debit card, we can still freeze it if lost, but credit cards have stronger fraud protection than debit cards.

Which credit card to send overseas with your kid? The most important thing is to choose a card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee. Our Southwest Priority Card checked that box, but we could have also made her an authorized user of our Chase Sapphire Preferred card, our United Explorer card or our Marriott Bonvoy Bold card (no annual fee on that one, by the way).

Also give the kid an ATM card

When we visited Norway and Iceland last year, we needed no local currency at all, not even to ride the bus. In France, also in 2023, there were only a couple instances where I needed Euros. But in Thailand, Audrey had to pay cash for most of her purchases. To get the cash, she brought an ATM card. I knew that as long as she avoided using an ATM at the airport, she’d probably get an OK exchange rate this way. But I also knew we were going to have to pay a foreign fee for each withdrawal she made, because all our household bank and credit union accounts charge foreign transaction fees for ATM withdrawals. (If you’re willing to open a new account, there are some banks that don’t, including these which also don’t charge a monthly fee.) So I just told her to make as few transactions as possible.

What about a “prepaid debit?”

Personally, I didn’t want to give my teen a card with money loaded onto it. My teen is trustworthy and I knew she wouldn’t charge more than an agreed upon amount, and would reimburse me for what she did charge out of her own money. (Unless it was for some kind of emergency, she was spending her own money for incidentals on the trip.) I was concerned that a prepaid card might have fees, or that we might lose the balance if it’s lost, so it didn’t seem worth it to me.

For those who do want to give their kid a prepaid card, other parents recommend Revolut or Wise for international use.

Can my kid get her own credit card account?

Only if they are over 18. But if they are of age, they should definitely sign up for a credit card before they leave the country, ideally one with no foreign transaction fee. I haven’t used this card personally, but CapitalOne’s SavorOne Rewards for Students has no foreign fee and no annual fee. It does have a high APR (19.99-29.99), so make sure your kid isn’t planning to pay a balance on this.

In fact, if your student is studying abroad and you want to help them with expenses, having them use a credit card is a lot easier than trying to transfer money to them overseas. Of course, it only works if the student is responsible. If you want a firmer limit on the student’s spending during their year abroad, a friend whose kid is in college overseas recommended the Wise card.

Local currency

As I mentioned above, if local currency is needed, it’s best to get it at a bank ATM that is not at the airport. But what if they need money as soon as they land? What if they need to buy a subway ticket? What if they want gum?

Some people order some currency for their local bank so their kid will have some in advance. Personally, I’m too cheap to pay the higher exchange rate for that.

What I did instead: I posted on my local Buy Nothing group that I was looking for Thai Baht and would pay a competitive rate if anyone had anyone lying in a drawer from a previous trip. Sure enough, a neighbor had about $30 worth, which was perfect to get Pebbles started in Thailand. (Unfortunately, she also came home with about $30 worth of Baht, so now we’re ready to return the favor to the next person I meet … or ready for a mother/daughter trip to Thailand, which I would love so, so much.)

A sneaky thing to watch out for: dynamic currency conversion

Warn your kid about this (and beware yourself when traveling abroad): When you make a credit or debit transaction, or use an ATM card, the machine may offer you the opportunity to pay or withdraw in US Dollars instead of local currency. Always say no. This is called “dynamic currency conversion,” and it will cost you more. You may not see it right on your receipt, but your charge will be 5 to 7% more than if you had opted to pay in local currency. You’ve been warned.

This post contains a refer-a-friend link. If you sign up for a credit card using my link, I could get a bonus.