From the top of the Empire State building to the theme parks in Florida and over to the picturesque West Coast and unrivalled casinos of Las Vegas, the adventures really are unlimited in the USA - but adventures in America don't exactly come cheap, especially with the fluxuating exchange rate against the Australian dollar.
If you're not sure what the best way to book your local activities, pay for your meals and have other money questions for your upcoming USA trip, look no further. With options like travel-friendly debit and credit cards, pre-paid travel money cards and cold hard cash available, we compare your travel money options for the USA in this guide.
There's an old saying first coined in the Reader's Digest, once you're finished packing your suitcase, take out half the clothes and take double the money. Ultimately, how you take your money is up to you. Someone couch-surfing in San Francisco will have a different budget to someone on a New York shopping holiday.
Hostel $30 - $60 per night
Hotel / Motel $150 per night
5 star hotel / Superior suite $350 per night
Food truck $5 - $10
Restaurant $20 - $40
5 Michelin Star Restaurant $50 a plate
Free festivals year round in American cities
Guggenheim Museum $25
Broadway Musical $200 - $300
*Prices are approximate and subject to change
Exchange rate history
Australian and United States Dollars currencies are no longer at parity. In recent times the value of the dollar has returned to pre-GFC levels.
Average annual exchange Australian Dollar (AUD) to US Dollar (USD)
*Exchange rates are accurate as of 4 September 2017
You'll find most Americans rely on their credit card or debit card to make purchases as much as cash. There are times when you'll need to pay cash. For example, paying for a drink at a small bar or buying a hotdog from a food truck might require cash. However, like Australia, most merchants in American cities are set up with the infrastructure for card, contactless and mobile payments. Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Diners Club cards are widely accepted.
Travel money options for USA at a glance
Travel money option
Debit cards for travel
No currency conversion, international ATM, or account keeping fees
Free global transfers between Australian and American Citibank accounts
Assistance opening an account if you're travelling through the US for an extended period
There are only a couple of travel friendly debit accounts offered on the US market
Prepaid travel money cards
Locked-in exchange rates
No currency conversion fees
International ATM withdrawal fee waiver on some cards
Fees to consider such as local ATM, initial load, reload and inactivity fees
Credit cards for travel
Contactless payment terminals are common
Overseas ATM fees and currency conversion fees may apply
Can be costly with initial purchase charges
Many merchants don't accept traveller's cheques
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 money products work in the United States
Using prepaid travel cards
All Australian travel money card issuers allow you to load and spend in USD. The main advantage of these cards is you can lock in an exchange rate when you convert AUD to USD and spend without paying the extra 3% for currency conversion. Although Visa, Mastercard and American Express are accepted everywhere (if the merchant can accept a credit card they can also accept a travel card), not all of them have your name printed on the front, which may cause the merchant to reject them. Compare these cards by the fees. For example, some travel cards waive the international ATM withdrawal fee or have partner alliances in the US. There's also the initial load fee, the reload fee and inactivity fees to think about too.
Using debit cards
You can use any Mastercard or Visa branded debit card in the United States, there are only a couple of travel friendly debit accounts currently on the market, one being the Citibank Plus Transaction Account. Citibank Plus cardholders won't pay for currency conversion, international ATM fees, account keeping fees and Citibank offers free global transfers between Australian and American Citibank accounts. You can avoid local ATM withdrawal fees by using Citibank ATMs in the United States. The Visa exchange rate applies to foreign currency transactions with this account. This rate is as close to the market rate you can get using a travel product overseas. Westpac cardholders (St.George, Westpac, Bank of Melbourne and BankSA) can avoid the local ATM operator fee by using their card at Bank of America ATMs.
Using credit cards
America is a society of credit, and credit cards. There are no issues with Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Diners Club card acceptance. Contactless payment terminals are common at places like Walmart, Target, Kmart and the vast majority of major retailers. The currency conversion fee is the main charge to avoid when you're looking at travel-friendly credit cards. The international ATM fee is another common fee; however, due to the extra charges which come with a cash advance, you should avoid using your credit card to make cash withdrawals. Bankwest Platinum Cards and the Latitude 28° Global Platinum Mastercard are examples of credit card accounts which waive the fee for currency conversion. Depending on your card provider, you can avoid some cash advance fees by loading your credit card with your own money (keeping a positive balance), but you forego anti-fraud guarantees when you spend your own money on your credit card.
Traveller's cheques were once a staple for any overseas trip. In recent times, card acceptance and security have made these travel money products a burden.
Paying with cash in the USA and tipping etiquette
Dollar bills can give you the impression your wallet is fatter than it actually is. And although you can get by using your card for most purchases, there are times when you're going to need cash. The USA has a culture of tipping, it's a substitute for low wages. You'll often need cash to tip, especially if you're at a bar, restaurant, club or hotel.
Tip: ATM fees can be avoided by using a card from Citibank or the Westpac Group. Citibank are a global institution with roots in the United States and Westpac have a global ATM alliance with the Bank of America. Use this information as a rule of thumb when you're tipping in the United States. There are no rules about how much or little you should tip, but be aware. Many service staff in the United States are underpaid and rely on tips to supplement their income. You don't have to tip big, but don't be stingy unless you've received genuinely bad service.RestaurantWaiters should get anywhere between 15% - 20% of your bill. Some restaurants will add tips onto the final bill (more common in tourist areas), if this is the case, you don't need to leave an additional tip.
How much should I tip?How much should I tip?
Drinks are pretty cheap. It's good form to tip $1 per drink. You may even get a free one from the bartender if you tip a $5.
Tip the porter $2 - $5 for a big bag and an extra $1 for every other bag. Tip housekeepers anywhere from $5 - $10 a day.
10% - 20% of the fare
The barista making your coffee doesn't necessarily need a tip unless he or she has done something special.
Australia Post. Jeremy says he took the Australia Post Load&Go Prepaid Travel Money Card as his main source of funds when in the States. He says he took this card with him because it has low ATM withdrawal fee, and he was using this travel card to withdraw cash often.
Bankwest. He says he took the Bankwest Platinum Qantas Mastercard with him to the United States because it allowed him to earn Qantas Points when he made a purchase on the card, and it does not charge a cross currency conversion fee. Jeremy says that this is pretty key, because usually when you take a rewards product overseas, the value of the rewards is eaten up by the currency conversion fee - so the rewards are worth nothing. That isn't the case with this card.
American Express. The American Express Velocity Platinum Card was his backup credit card. Jeremy says he liked the fact he could have earned Velocity Points and well as Qantas Points and the Velocity Platinum gave him two points per dollar spent overseas.
Were there any places where you had trouble using any of your cards?
Jeremy says he tried to buy a 4G Verizon Wireless device and they only accepted U.S. Credit cards. He went to Walgreens supermarket and bought a prepaid credit card so he could then use it to pay for the internet connection. Jeremy says using credit cards over the counter for general purchases were never an issue.
How much cash would you take with you on a three week holiday?
Jeremy says It really depends on the person - so there's no hard and fast rule about how much money to take with you. For him, when he travels for business, his expenses are mainly food. Jeremy budgeted $50-$75 per day to cover breakfast, lunch, dinner and coffee in between. He says generally the cost of food is more expensive in Australia, but it depends on where you eat.
Jeremy's travel money tips for travelling to the United States
Jeremy recommends taking a combination of travel money options to the United States, or anywhere in the world for that matter.
Rewards credit card. Bankwest Qantas Platinum is the only card that earns qantas points and has a 0% foreign transaction fee.
Travel debit card. Use the Citibank Plus Transaction account and be treated like a customer with Citibank branches in the U.S. and globally. Avoid having the delays associated with loading funds onto a prepaid travel card. Jeremy says he ran out of time to apply for this one for his trip, but he will definitely apply before he next goes overseas.
Travel money card. Good to have another card that isn't attached to a credit line or savings account.
Cash. He always arrives in a country with $250 cash in local currency for cabs and emergencies.
A guide to deciphering American banknotes - The Greenback
Have you ever found yourself in the country with a wad of foreign cash? It can be all too easy to give a fifty instead of a five. Don't get ripped off. Familiarise yourself with American banknotes before you leave.
Buying currency in Australia
If you're like Jeremy and you like to have American dollars when you arrive, you have a number of choices for getting cash changed on Australia. Look at your bank and look at foreign exchange providers such as Travelex or Australia Post. Australia Post also has convenient locations at major Australian airports, you can order your cash online and pick it up before you jump on the plane. Have a look at the following providers if you want to buy USD before you leave.
There's no restriction on the amount of foreign currency or U.S dollars you can bring into the US. You must declare your cash at customs if you're taking more than $10,000 USD or the foreign currency equivalent
Tip: Make sure you've applied for your United States ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) before you leave Australia. This will cost you $14 and you can pay by a Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Diners or Discover credit card.
Why you'll need a combination of travel money options
Use a combination of travel money products which don't charge for currency conversion and have low or no international ATM withdrawal fees. A travel card or debit card used in conjunction with a travel friendly credit card will give you a cost effective way to make both over the counter purchases and ATM withdrawals in the USA. It's important to have more than one way to access your money when you're abroad. Travel to the United States is exciting, don't make it stressful by limiting your options. By doing a little research before you go, you can save on fees which can easily add up to the cost of a night out or souvenir for a loved one. You'll find card payments are the norm in the USA, the currency conversion fee may not seem like much, but giving almost $10 for every $300 you spend or withdraw to your bank isn't just unnecessary, it's criminal. Compare travel money options and apply for a card you can use to spend for less in America to avoid throwing money at your bank while you're visiting the United States of America.
Get travel insurance quotes for your holiday in USA
Travel and the USA are synonymous. Whether it be Route 66 or coastal highways of California, it is hard to think of a US holiday and not picture a car (probably a convertible red Mustang) tearing down the highway. While the USA is a pretty safe travel destination, accidents can happen anywhere. Worse still, medical care in the US can be prohibitively expensive. Don't leave yourself holding the bag for out of pocket medical expenses. Protect yourself financially with travel insurance. Travel insurance can cover you for:
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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