Known for the Galapagos Islands, the highest capital city in the world and some of the best surf in South America, Ecuador is a popular destination for backpackers, nature lovers and thrill seekers. At the turn of the millennium, Ecuador's official currency switched over from the Sucre to the United States dollar – the most accessible currency in the world.
Here, we look at some of the best credit, travel and debit card to use on a holiday to Ecuador and South America.
Less expensive than neighbouring Brazil or Colombia, Ecuador is a budget South American holiday destination. This means you can travel through Ecuador on a shoestring budget. However, Ecuador can deliver a five-star experience as well – especially in Quito.
Hostel $5 - $10 per night
2 star hotel $10 - $50 per night
5 star hotel $50 - $150 per night
Empanadas $1 - $2
Ceviche $5 - $10
5 star restaurant $20 - $40 per dish
Walk around the old town free
Visit the balcony of the Basilica del Voto Nacional $1
Guided tour of Otavalo Marketplace with lunch $50
Exchange rate history
As Ecuador uses the American dollar, it's easy to see how much your Aussie dollars will get you when you exchange them. If you're concerned about currency fluctuations while you're away, you can lock in a rate using a travel money card. Travellers cheques let you do the same in many countries, but in Ecuador it's almost impossible to find a place to get them exchanged for cash.
Average annual exchange Australian Dollar (AUD) to US Dollar (USD)
*Exchange rates are accurate as of 3 September 2017
Should you take a travel card, debit card or credit card?
Although Visa and Mastercard travel, debit and credit cards are accepted in larger cities, such as Guayaquil, Quito, Esmeraldas and Manta, a lot of other places don't have card payment options. As a general rule, always plan to have cash as your first method of payment. Also note that while American Express cards are accepted in some places such as major hotels and retailers, using a Visa or a Mastercard card is a far safer bet.
A quick summary of travel money options for Ecuador
Travel money option
Prepaid travel money cards
US dollar is supported by all Australian travel cards
Lock-in exchange rates
Save on currency conversion fees on some cards
Let you make over the counter purchases and ATM withdrawals
Emergency card replacement
Some banks may charge ATM withdrawal fees
Debit cards for travel
International ATM withdrawal fee waiver on some cards
$0 account keeping fees if you deposit at least $2,000 per month
Unlimited free withdrawal at selected banks
Limited acceptance in Ecuador
International transaction fees still apply
Credit cards for travel
Features such as interest-free period and complimentary travel insurance
Withdrawing cash can be considered a "cash advance" and can charge you fees and high interests
Cannot be encashed in Ecuador
Greater payment flexibility
More difficult to manage expenses
Higher risk of theft
This table is a general summary of the travel money products in the market. Features and benefits can vary between cards.
How travel cards, credit cards, debit cards and cash work in Ecuador
Have a read of how travel cards, debit cards, credit cards, travellers cheques and cash work in Ecuador.
Using a travel prepaid card
Ecuador uses the US dollar, a currency supported by all travel cards issued in Australia. These cards allow you to avoid currency conversion fees and lock in a competitive exchange rate before your trip. Many also come with an additional, emergency card in case the first one is lost or stolen.A travel card can be used to make over-the-counter purchases and ATM withdrawals in Ecuador. If you're heading to the coastal towns of Ecuador, you will need to make ATM withdrawals so you can get cash in US dollars. Look for a travel card that doesn't charge a fee for international ATM withdrawals, such as the NAB Traveller Card, Travelex Travel Card or the Cash Passport Mastercard. Note that the Ecuadorian bank or ATM operator may still charge a fee when you withdraw cash. Also keep in mind that the currencies of other popular destinations in South America such as Colombia, Brazil, Peru and Argentina can not be loaded on any travel card at present. If Ecuador is just one stop on a bigger trip, you may want to consider one of the other types of travel money products as well.
Using a debit card
A debit card can be used to make over-the-counter purchases and cash withdrawals from ATMs. Like credit cards and travel cards, debit card transactions are protected against fraud and unauthorised transactions.
Debit cards are accepted by few merchants in Ecuador. The price of ATM withdrawals should be a significant factor in your comparison if you're looking to apply for a travel transaction account.
From the products we compare, the Citibank Plus Transaction Account provides free international ATM withdrawals and also doesn't charge a currency conversion fee. But you'll still pay the local ATM operator fee of about US$1.50.
Using a credit card
You can use a credit card to pay for flights and online bookings before or during your trip. Major retailers and restaurants in Ecuador also take cards. Credit cards should not be used for ATM withdrawals – In Ecuador or anywhere else for that matter. Cash advance fees and charges can eat up your available credit limit quickly. You can preload a credit card with your own money – something travellers do to avoid the cash advance interest rate (although cash advance fees may still apply). But some credit card features, such as fraud protection, may be void in this instance.
If you plan on using a credit card when you're in Ecuador, look for a card that doesn't charge for currency conversion or international ATM transactions, such as the Latitude 28° Global Platinum Mastercard. Preloading your own cash on this card allows you to avoid cash advance interest charges if you withdraw money, but you will still pay a cash advance fee for these types of transactions. Other no currency conversion fee credit cards include the Bankwest Platinum range of credit cards and the Coles Rewards Mastercard.
Using traveller's cheques
According to the American Express website, there are currently no locations in Ecuador where you can get your traveller's cheques cashed. You can easily get United States dollars by making ATM withdrawals when you arrive in the country.
Paying with cash in Ecuador
Cash is the main payment method used in Ecuador, which means you will need to have US notes and coins on hand to pay for things at most places. If you want to limit the amount of cash you have on hand (i.e. for security), make sure you have one or more cards that you can use to withdraw cash from ATMs throughout your trip.
Peter surfing the Ecuadorian coast
Peter recently backpacked across South America. He visited Colombia and travelled to the south of the continent. He started his trip in Esmeraldas, continued south to Guayaquil, Montanita and finally Quito before travelling to Peru. Peter spent one month in Ecuador in total.
What cards did you take with you?
Peter took a card with him to Ecuador. He has a St.George Vertigo Visa credit card.
Peter says he didn't expect to be able to use his debit and credit cards much in Ecuador. Excluding flights and one meal at a nice restaurant, every transaction on his trip was made in cash.
Hotels he stayed at (especially in places such as Esmeraldas, Atacames and Montanita) were also cash only. Meals and drinks and travel between towns and cities all had to be paid for using cash too. Peter says he didn't spent much time in the urban centres of Quito and Guayaquil, but he expects more businesses are setup to accept card payments in these places.
What about ATM withdrawals?
Peter says he regularly made ATM withdrawals in Ecuador as everything was cash only. He says he withdrew US$300 at a time from whichever ATM machine he could find. The most common ATMs he saw were operated by the Bank of Guayaquil. He used his St.George Visa debit card at these ATMs and both St.George and the ATM operator charged fees. He paid an international ATM withdrawal fee of $5 and a local ATM withdrawal fee of US$1.50 every time.
Do you have any travel money tips?
Plan ahead. The Internet in Ecuador is temperamental and Peter says it's hard to find a reliable connection (particularly on the coast). He recommends making sure you transfer money to your transaction account in advance so you can withdraw money when you need to.
Everything is negotiable. Peter says not to be afraid to ask for a better price if you feel you're being overcharged. Locals have been known to take advantage of travellers with a lack of knowledge from time to time.
South American countries use a range of different currencies. If you're travelling throughout the continent, exchanging money in Ecuador can be an issue outside the major cities. A bank is your best option. If you're travelling from Peru, Colombia or Brazil and you have sols, pesos or reals, you can exchange the money to US dollars at some restaurants and hotels. You may not pay a commission on the transaction, but the rate will be much worse than what you can get a bank. Note that it's not easy to exchange Aussie money for US dollars in Ecuador.
Finding cash and ATMs in Ecuador
Buying currency in Australia
Ecuador uses the United States dollar. You can easily exchange Australian to United States dollars before you leave the country. There are no restrictions to the amount of US dollars you can bring with you to Ecuador. These financial institutions can sell you United States dollars in Australia.
There are many ATMs in Ecuadorian cities and key tourist destinations. If you're concerned about getting a good rate when you exchange currencies, you may want to consider a card that offers free international ATM withdrawals. ATM withdrawals are subject to the Visa and Mastercard international exchange rate, which is often better than what you can get exchanging money in other ways.
Why you'll need a combination of travel money options
A combination of cards and cash is the best way to approach any overseas trip. You'll need cash for most transactions in Ecuador, especially if you're travelling down the coast. Credit cards are great for big ticket purchases and offer interest free days if you pay the balance in full, while a debit card or travel card is ideal for ATM withdrawals. Whichever combination of products you take with you to Ecuador, be sure to spread your budget across a few different cards and always have some cash for emergencies. Ecuador's switch to the US dollar in 2000 has made organising travel money easier for Australians. But if Ecuador is just one stop on a South American holiday, think about how you're going to spend money in other currencies during the rest of your trip. If you have a question about travel money for Ecuador, feel free to get in touch with us by using the form at the bottom of the page.
Get travel insurance quotes for your holiday in Ecuador
Jeremy Cabral is the chief operating officer and global head of publishing for Finder. He has written hundreds of comparisons covering everything from credit cards to travel money to Netflix TV shows. Jeremy has a Bachelor of Business (Marketing) from the University of Western Sydney.
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