Hola or Olá? Cash or card? Learn about the right travel money to use in South America
South America is made up of 12 different countries, each with different currencies. For example, Colombia has Colombian pesos, Argentina uses Argentinian pesos, Brazil the real and Peru the nuevo sol. We look at the cards which have the lowest fees to use over the counter and to withdraw from ATMs on your South American getaway.
What's in this South America travel money guide?
Compare travel money options for South America
How much money do I need to bring to South America?
From country to country and region to region, prices in Brazil are more expensive than Ecuador, Ibague (the 7th largest city in Colombia) is cheaper than Medellin (the 2nd biggest city in Colombia). You’ll find prices are varied in South America. Wherever your travel, the continent can be as expensive as you make it. Below you can find some budget prices for different countries in South America.
|Bogotá (Colombia)||Brasília (Brazil)||Lima (Peru)||Santiago (Chile)|
|Hostel dorm bed$10 per night||Hostel dorm bed$20 per night||Hostel dorm bed$10 per night||Hostel dorm$12 per night|
|Arepa con queso on the street$1.50||El Negro Food Truck. El Matanza (hot dog)$4.50||Ceviche pescado in a cheap restaurant$2 -$3||Empanada on the street$1|
|Bogota graffiti tour Free (donation based on satisfaction)||See the city from the top of the television tower Free||See the changing of the guards at the Presidential PalaceFree||Museo Histórico NacionalFree on Sundays and holidays|
*Prices are approximate and are subject to change.
Exchange rate history
|Year||Average annual exchange Australian Dollar (AUD) to US Dollar (USD)|
*Exchange rates are accurate as of 5 September 2017
Some of the major South American currencies include:
- Argentine peso
- Bolivian boliviano
- Brazilian real
- Chilean peso
- Colombian peso
- Peruvian nuevo sol
- Uruguayan peso
- Venezuelan bolivar
Travel card, debit card, or credit card?
Visa and Mastercard branded credit cards, debit cards and travel cards enjoy wide acceptance throughout the continent of South America. Merchants which have the facilities to accept card payments will accept both these card scheme brands, American Express is accepted in few places besides high-end businesses. Stick to a Visa or Mastercard product so you can make withdrawals and card payments in a variety of places.
Travel money options for South America at a glance
|Travel money option||Pros||Considerations|
|Debit cards for travel||
|Prepaid travel money cards||
|Credit cards for travel||
This table is a general summary of the travel money products in the market. Features and benefits can vary between cards.
How each travel money option works in South America
Credit cards provide a line of credit with limited interest free terms which can be used all over the world (American Express and Diners Club Cards in fewer places than Mastercard and Visa). Choose a credit card which doesn’t charge for currency conversion to save money on international transaction fees when travelling through South America. Bankwest Platinum cards won’t charge for international withdrawals as well as currency conversion. ATM withdrawals using your credit card are not advised if you’re concerned with saving money, as you’ll be charged high cash advance fees. But you can sometimes load a credit card with a positive balance to cut out cash advance fees and charges when used at an ATM. The card scheme anti-fraud guarantees don’t apply when you withdraw from an ATM using a credit card with a positive balance.
A travel friendly transaction account is a better travel money option for a trip to South America. By choosing a debit card which lets you transact in a foreign currency without paying for currency conversion, you can use the account over the counter in South America as you would in Australia for no extra cost. Most debit card providers apply a $5 charge for international ATM withdrawals. As well as no currency conversion fees, the Citibank Plus Transaction Account also waives the additional charge for international ATM withdrawals.
- Tip: Westpac cardholders (including St.George, BankSA and Bank of Melbourne cardholders) can avoid the international ATM withdrawal fee using ScotiaBank ATMs in Chile and Peru thanks to the Westpac Global Alliance.
Travel prepaid cards
No prepaid travel cards support the currencies of the South American countries, so these products shouldn’t be considered for a trip to the continent unless it doesn’t charge a currency conversion fee. Although you can load US Dollars onto these travel money products, acceptance is limited and you’ll pay to convert funds twice. Travel card providers apply a margin to the exchange rate when you convert funds and then a currency conversion fee applies when you spend in a currency not loaded on the card. While there are products which will waive the currency conversion fee, other fees apply when you withdraw cash or reload the card for example. Consider one of the other forms of travel money compared on this page for a trip to South America.
- Tip: The South American regions of French Guiana off the coast of Brazil and the Falkland Islands adjacent to Argentina use the euro and pound respectively. A travel card is suited to spend in these overseas departments of France and United Kingdom.
Don’t bother taking traveller’s cheques to South America. They’re difficult to cash and expensive, and no more secure than using a debit card (ATMs in South America are everywhere), credit card or prepaid travel card.
South America is one destination where you’re going to need to have a supply of cash for emergencies. Although you can use your card in more places now more than ever, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to access cash at any given moment, especially outside of major cities. Card payment facilities vary greatly depending on the location. You won’t have a problem with card acceptance and ATM withdrawals in the capital cities, especially in countries like Chile, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina for example. However, there are major tourist attractions, like the Amazon, where you’re going to need enough cash to last you for the entire leg of your trip.Back to top
What cards did you take with you? Why did you take these cards with you? Did you withdraw from ATMs? What were the ATM fees? Wil says he was taking out quite large amounts and stashing in a safe where he was staying. He withdrew the local currency most times, there were a couple of ATMs which gave him the option of withdrawing US Dollars, but these machines were only in places like airports of major banks. He says the withdrawal fee for U.S Dollars was $2.20 and then the operator fee, so he says he was getting charged about $5 Aussie for each withdrawal (plus the currency conversion fee). Were there any places where you had trouble using any of your cards? Will says when he was in Central America none of his cards worked in Cuba. He had to take a trip to the Canadian embassy to get money wired from Australia. He had USD$200 which covered him while he was waiting for money. He says outside cities, cash is pretty much the only way to pay, and within the cities too. If you’re making a smaller purchase, you’ll need cash. Will says he could use his card to pay for food at restaurants (cafeterias are cash only), when he went to supermarkets to buy staple goods and when he went to bars and clubs. What's your recommendation for travel money to take to South America? Will says he likes the security of a travel card and he wasn’t too upset paying the currency conversion fee when he used the ANZ Travel Card. He says it's good to have a couple of hundred dollars stashed in a secure spot as you can't always depend on ATMs in these areas. Do you have any travel money tips for South America? *Rates and fees used for example purposes only.
Interview with Will about travel money for South America Will spent almost four months climbing volcanoes, diving and bussing around Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Brazil. He started his trip in Central America visiting Mexico and Cuba.
What cards did you take with you?
Why did you take these cards with you?
Did you withdraw from ATMs? What were the ATM fees?
Wil says he was taking out quite large amounts and stashing in a safe where he was staying. He withdrew the local currency most times, there were a couple of ATMs which gave him the option of withdrawing US Dollars, but these machines were only in places like airports of major banks. He says the withdrawal fee for U.S Dollars was $2.20 and then the operator fee, so he says he was getting charged about $5 Aussie for each withdrawal (plus the currency conversion fee).
Were there any places where you had trouble using any of your cards?
Will says when he was in Central America none of his cards worked in Cuba. He had to take a trip to the Canadian embassy to get money wired from Australia. He had USD$200 which covered him while he was waiting for money. He says outside cities, cash is pretty much the only way to pay, and within the cities too. If you’re making a smaller purchase, you’ll need cash. Will says he could use his card to pay for food at restaurants (cafeterias are cash only), when he went to supermarkets to buy staple goods and when he went to bars and clubs.
What's your recommendation for travel money to take to South America?
Will says he likes the security of a travel card and he wasn’t too upset paying the currency conversion fee when he used the ANZ Travel Card. He says it's good to have a couple of hundred dollars stashed in a secure spot as you can't always depend on ATMs in these areas.
Do you have any travel money tips for South America?
*Rates and fees used for example purposes only.
Using ATMs in South America
Visa and Mastercard should work at all ATMs where you can see a Maestro, Cirrus, Mastercard or Visa logo on the front of the machine.
- Tip: Anecdotal evidence suggests that ATMs in the Amazon region of Brazil, some parts of Venezuela and Bolivia will not accept foreign debit cards. Ensure you have enough cash to last you the duration of your stay if you’re visiting these regions.
- Tip: Smaller towns in rural areas may not provide ATM facilities. Research your destination for advice from other travellers before you arrive. Always try to use ATMs attached to the side of a bank.
- Tip: ATMs will give you your money before your card, which can lead to instances of people leaving their card in the machine.
Exchanging cash in South America
ATM withdrawals are by far the most efficient way to get local currency in cash on your holiday. ATMs are located all throughout the continent. If you want to carry cash as an emergency backup, US Dollars are widely accepted and the choice of money if you can’t pay in the local currency. While the major exchange offices in shopping centres and in tourist locations will exchange Australian Dollars, but US Dollars are preferred.
Buying currency in Australia
It will be cheaper if you wait to exchange your money when you arrive. Rates on offer in Australia for South American currencies are worse than what you get get from local banks and money changers. If you do want to get money changed in Australia, it’s a good idea to get US Dollars if you can’t purchase specific South American currencies. Colombian Pesos, Bolivian Bolivianos and Venezuelan Bolívars may be hard to get in Australia. Consider these institutions if you want to purchase foreign cash:
|Brazil Reals||Chilean Pesos||US Dollars||Colombian Pesos||Argentine Pesos|
A quick guide to the Brazilian Real
Did you know?The Brazilian word for the national currency, 'real' means both real and royal and all Brazilian coins feature the Southern Cross!
Why you’ll need a combination of travel money options
It’s important to take a combination of travel money options wherever you go in the world, but this is especially true for a trip to South America. As we’ve seen with Will and his trouble with card acceptance in Cuba (not technically South America but his anecdote is still relevant), it’s important to have a combination of cards and cash to use a backup. Have US Dollars on hand to use in emergencies and a travel card or debit card and credit card combination to use when necessary.Back to top
Travel insurance for South America
South America is becoming an increasingly popular destination for Aussie travellers. And can you blame them? South America offers so much to travellers. The Andes, Cancun, Machu Picchu, and remnants of the Olmec, Aztec, Mayan and Incan empires are all must sees while travelling through Central and South America. But South America presents a unique set of risks for tourists. From contaminated food and water, to tropical disease, the are many things for tourists to be weary of, which is why there is travel insurance. Travel insurance can help to protect you agains t the unknown. Situations covered can include:
- Lost deposits
- Personal liability
- Emergency medial and dental
- Lost or stolen luggage
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