Off to the airport tomorrow morning, but realised that you’ve forgotten your dollars, euros or tögrög? This probably means you’ll get fleeced at their airport, where the buy/sell spread on foreign currency can be anything up to 25%. “Zero commission”? Hah.
However, it turns out that if you order online for in-person pickup, even from a branch situated in an airport, you get a much better rate. To give an example: on my recent trip to the US, the rates at the Travelex at London Heathrow were Buy: 1.42; Sell: 1.81 (see the spread!). However, by ordering the previous evening online for pickup at that same branch, I got a Buy rate of 1.57, saving me £12 on a £120 purchase, which is 10%. Not to be sneezed at.
You do need to order the previous day to get this (presumably, at least for common currencies, this is to stop people ordering online while at the airport itself) but, at least for Travelex, it can be any time up to around 11pm.
This works for UK residents, and may work for residents of other countries too – YMMV.
 Mongolia, in case you were wondering.
I’ve always just used the nearest ATM, and have them bill my bank in whatever the local currency is, making my bank do the conversion (which they do at market rate + 1%, + 4,5 euro surcharge if I use my credit rather than (Maestro) debit card). My assumption being that this is likely a better deal than I’d get at a dedicated Currency Exchange outlet (Travelex or otherwise). Does this assumption not hold for UK banks?
Or just use your card abroad – works, too. Another tip in the UK is to go to post offices, they are commission free.
Actually, there are some German banks that won’t charge anything for using an ATM abroad other than a currency conversion fee in the area of 1%. I forgot when I used those rip-off currency exchange booths the last time…
Travel tip: go find a bank that will give you good conditions for using foreign-currency ATMs ;)
I’m not sure what rates you can get on a debit card. I’m fairly sure credit card companies charge something fairly steep. But also, there are times when cash is just useful.
Well, Travelex also claims it’s “commission free”; in the 90s, currency exchange places realised they got more business by saying they were “commission free”, but offering you substantially worse rates. So now they all do that.
If in the UK and you’ve not left it to the night before, this comparison site is pretty good:
@Chris: Commission free is not always the cheapest, they just adjust the exchange rate offered to compensate.
@Gijs: It depends significantly on the bank/card used. For the UK at least, the wrong debit card can be much more expensive than cash. However, use one of the ones recommended at http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/travel/cheap-travel-money and it’s much cheaper than cash.
UK Halifax Clarity credit card: no commission, and it uses the official Mastercard exchange rate (which is the one they use both ways, so it ought to be reasonable). There’s also no Halifax charge for using an ATM, but of course they start charging interest immediately. If you’re visiting somewhere like Ireland where they prohibit ATM charges, and if you pay off the balance as soon as you get home (don’t wait for a statement), you end up paying between somewhere under 0.5%, and can get your money wherever there’s an ATM. Partial balance repayments will repay cash advances first.
I’ve had no trouble using my US debit card to withdraw euros (or zlotys or krona). Bank charges a 1% fee, and I’ve never come across an ATM in Europe that charged me a fee for using it.
Interesting. I was unaware that these sorts of schenanighans were going on, though it’s not really surprising. (I’ve never had the good fortune to travel to a foreign country, unless you count Canada as “foreign”, which is a bit of a reach: culturally, it’s a good deal less foreign than, say, California. Also, we see Canadian coins in circulation here pretty frequently — more often than US fifty-cent pieces, I think.)