Last Thursday, long queues stretched outside the UK's foreign exchange bureaux, as holidaymakers queued to swap their pounds before the referendum result on Friday. It wasn't a bad idea. Markets had almost completely discounted any chance of a vote to Leave, and in the ensuing panic sterling dived from above €1.302 to as low as €1.20-odds. But if you didn't join the scrum, there's no need to panic. You see, while those who were pictured queuing outside the high-street forex shops might have got their timing right, they probably didn't get a particularly good deal.
Exchange rates from high-street providers are notoriously low. This Wednesday, even as the spot exchange rate (which you can find on various websites, such as XE.com) recovered to above €1.21, some of the biggest names in the commercial FX market remained uncompetitive. The Post Office offered an online rate of €1.179, Eurochange €1.177, Asda Money €1.166, NatWest €1.156 and Travelex €1.144. In other words, at the spot rate £500 would buy you €604.50. If you exchanged the same money at Travelex you'd leave with just €572 in your pocket.
The queuing masses would have been better off seeking an alternative.A comparison site such as MoneySavingExpert's TravelMoneyMax tool can help to find the cheapest providers in your area. At a glance, a number of providers in central London offer rates of up to €1.196, whereby £500 would buy you €597.75. Another option is to opt for a pre-paid currency card.
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It's possible to load up these cards before you travel, then use them like a debit card to spend or withdraw cash as you wish. They also lock in the exchange rate at the time of purchase, so you don't have to worry about fluctuations while you're away. However, if you missed out on the pre-result highs in sterling, you may want to consider a global currency card. These differ slightly in that you load them with pounds, and the currency conversion happens on the day you spend. So if you're confident of a recovery in the pound, this could be a better option.
Finally, if you're not due to travel in the next couple of weeks, you may be better off applying for a travel-friendly credit card. Look for a card that doesn't impose transaction and withdrawal charges, or add commission to the exchange rate. A popular option is the Halifax Clarity Credit Card, which charges no fees and offers low interest charges on cash withdrawals (roughly £1.50 per month per £100, says MoneySavingExpert.com).
Alternatively, the Creation Everyday Card has the lowest ATM interest charges. If you're willing to switch to your current account, similar debit cards are also available although check that the benefits trump your existing set-up before taking the plunge.
Natalie joined MoneyWeek in March 2015. Prior to that she worked as a reporter for The Lawyer, and a researcher/writer for legal careers publication the Chambers Student Guide.
She has an undergraduate degree in Politics with Media from the University of East Anglia, and a Master’s degree in International Conflict Studies from King’s College, London.
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