Planning well under way and a picture emerging of how I might spend my time in Oaxaca, the question of obtaining pesos begins nagging. We all know what to do, assuming there’s nothing left from the last trip. We hit an ATM in the terminal in baggage claim or on the way to “ground transportation” on arrival at our destination. However, this time, with several unknowns, like will there be an ATM airside between flights, will things go as smoothly in Mexico as during previous travels, and most importantly, with 2 breakfast-time hours to kill in the airport in Guadalajara, and 2 more in Mexico City, I figure looking for cash may be secondary to finding a good cup of coffee, immediately.
Next morning: Online search “buy foreign currency”. For 1440 pesos, $100 US, foreignmoney.com will convert at a rate of .0697 with an e-check, or .0724 with a credit card. The rate on xe.com at the moment is .0647. Including $10 shipping, by e-check the total will be $110.34, by credit card $114.20. Without knowing more, I’d be inclined to use the credit card option but I’ll investigate e-check, and also look at other sites before making a decision. There’s plenty of time, I like the idea of having some spendable money in my pocket on arrival and I’m pretty sure I’ll never find the pesos packed away somewhere from that Christmas trip to Alamos a decade or more ago, which may be no good now anyway. Bookmark foreignmoney.com. Remember to call my bank to compare.
A couple of days later, back to the money. My shiny new Lonely Planet guide tells me that good ATM rates are often negated by local bank charges to use the ATM, making exchanging currency more attractive. And, it tells me, casas de cambio charge pretty much the same rates as the banks, with fewer formalities involved. And longer hours. So while I kind of like the idea of pesos arriving in my mailbox, I may just wait until I get to Guadalajara, get breakfast and taxi cash there between flights and work the rest out when I stop moving. I always carry several hundreds tucked away for emergencies and also have always brought them home again, where they live in my wallet for months while I use my AAdvantage credit card for everything. Maybe this time I’ll go wild, exchange them and spend them.
A couple of weeks later and still thinking about cash and ATMs. When I travel I generally use my Capital One no-foreign-currency-conversion-fee credit card for the big stuff. But we know getting cash using a credit card is definitely not no fee, only for a dire emergency, and all this planning is to avert emergencies of the money kind. I have 2 debit/ATM cards for my 2 checking accounts, one local and another from where I used to live that I’ve used plenty, all over the world for 20+ years, 1% fee at any ATM, anywhere. I’m not thrilled with the local bank on several counts, and they charge a 3% foreign currency conversion fee, not good.
What should arrive in my in-box but a note from my favorite no-fee credit card, would I like to open a no-fee checking account? I immediately wonder if the Capital One 360 debit card is also no-fee for foreign currency transactions, like the credit card. I couldn’t find the answer on their website so I called. Instead of my local bank’s 3% fee, the nice young man tells me the only fee is the MasterCard 1%. I’m pleased, so immediately open a Capital One checking account. It won’t save me much this trip, to an inexpensive locale for only 3 weeks, but it will be a test run in a place I suspect I’ll use cash for almost everything.
Two days later. My ATM/debit card for the new account arrived today from Capital One. If you pay attention to such things, you know about the tussle that’s been going on in banking circles between magnetic strip cards in the U.S. and the chip & pin type used in most of the rest of the world. My new card has a chip, not completely surprising but, furthermore, it seems to be enabled for use with a pin for purchases, rather than the bogus-halfway-chip-and-signature variety US banks have been trying to palm off on us unsuspecting Americans. All signs point to it being the real deal and this may be the best part of my decision to change banks, even better than saving 2 pennies a dollar on foreign currency access.
Time flies and now, just 3 weeks from departure, I decided today is the day to make a decision about, not if but where, I’ll buy myself pesos for that early morning latte on arrival in Guadalajara. I checked foreignmoney.com again and the rate was .0662, plus $10 shipping. Travelex, notoriously expensive but for comparison purposes, was .0667, plus $10 shipping, not too bad. I’m a believer in shopping locally so I also called my bank and was given a rate of .0608, the best rate, but before $17 in fees were added. Comfort level now comes into play and I decided to order from my bank. On arrival at my branch, as I placed my order at the teller’s window, I discovered the rate was .0682 and write it off to bad luck and a rate change in the time it took me to get to the bank. I ordered $300 in pesos, 4400 of them plus fees, for a total of 317.11.
Back home, I checked the rates on the 2 online sources and found there had, in fact, been no rate change and it appeared my bank had just ripped me off to the tune of $33. I called and explained to Cheryl that I wanted to cancel the order and why. She asked that I let her investigate the discrepancy and would call me back. Fine. A couple of minutes passed, phone rang, Cheryl explained that whoever gave me the rate on the phone was mistaken and that she’s cancelled the order, with apologies.
Checking the 2 remaining contenders online, and preferring to use a credit card rather than give an unknown company, foreign money.com, my checking account details for a lower rate, I found that for 4500 pesos (Travelex had rounded up from 4400), the difference is $2 and change. Travelex, the name I know, got the order, to be delivered to my door by UPS in 5 days. I have faith.
The bottom line, including delivery, for 4500 Mexican Pesos:
ForeignMoney.com: $307.92 @ .0662
Travelex.com: $310.39 @ .0667
My local bank: $323.90 @ .0682
The rate for the same day on XE.com was .0597, whose rate I’m never quite sure how to use, but likely closer to the ATM rate, but not including fees imposed by the card-issuing institution and the local bank. The entire exercise above was for the sake of curiosity and convenience.
Update: Wednesday morning as promised, just after 9:00 am, UPS delivered 4500 pesos to my door in denominations of 20, 50, 100 and 200. I’d never ordered currency in advance before, and it cost something for the convenience, of course. Using an ATM is rarely a problem on arrival in a foreign land but I like the feeling of having one less thing to think about.
It would be nice to have phone service. I don’t need data, will be using my tablet with the free wifi where I’ll be staying, but I like to know people can reach me. No one ever seems to need to reach me but I like knowing they can. It’s for me, not them. My usual is my cheap Indian phone and a local sim card. I’ve looked online and, thinking a card for Mexico would be cheap, find they aren’t really. If I wait and get one after I arrive, I’m as sure as I can be that it will be cheap. But then I have a Mexican phone number, not so useful for incoming calls from home.
As I ponder the possibilities, a thread pops up on Fodor’s forum giving a link to a June 16th NY Times Frugal Traveler article about how to get the phone service we need when we travel at a decent price. There’s mention of add-ons from our own providers. I check Verizon’s site and, miracle of miracles, for $10 a month with my prepaid plan, I can get my unlimited talk & text service expanded to include Canada and Mexico. AND it can be started and stopped anytime. AND it’ll be my same old phone number. It still remains to be seen if it’ll actually work, but I’m comfortable enough with the information that I won’t be thinking about it again until I attempt to add it before blast-off. And isn’t that what planning is for, so we don’t have to think about it again? The back-up plan will be a local sim card, purchased after arrival and installed in the cheap phone I’ve been using on the road for years.
Later. I don’t know if I read it wrong or if it’s changed since I read it, but now less than a month out and proceeding to add Mexico to my prepaid Verizon account for the period I’ll be there, Verizon’s webpage tells me “call any mobile or landline number in Mexico and Canada from the US.” That seems to say that I can’t call either to the US or to another phone in Mexico while I’m in Mexico. So now what seemed to be a solution appears to be no solution at all. I’ll take my puny Indian phone with me and if I can buy a sim card there, I will, if not, fallback position, email only.
Half an hour later. Marcelo tells me on the Trip Advisor Oaxaca forum that I should buy a Telcel “Amigo” prepaid sim at the airport, maybe something to do between planes in Guadalajara or Mexico City, or maybe not. As my brilliant assumptions for this trip fall by the wayside, I notice myself getting more relaxed and worrying less about the details. Maybe that’s what they mean about Mexico, and “mañana” is beginning to have it’s way with me, even before I leave home.
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.org
You know the phrase, “don’t leave home without it.” While I do have an American Express card that I always leave home without, for me the phrase refers to a book. When I travel I want a book with me at all times, to save me from the near-death experience of boredom, in all its forms, that can strike when we least expect it. A book, to me, means paper in my hands. I do have emergency reading material on my tablet but I’ve yet to need it. I buy paperbacks online from remainder sites like Daedalus (salebooks.com) and used ones from Amazon, often 1 penny plus 3.95 shipping. My bookcase is full of them and on the first day of planning, I picked out 4 and set them aside. Those choices may change, or I might add 1 or 2. They fit nicely in the bottom of my suitcase and are generally gone by the time I head home, swapped or donated or left where I stayed, for someone else who needs a book.
And speaking of paperbacks, I’ve come to the conclusion lately that I may have something of a paper fetish, most of my life’s occupations involving the stuff in one way or another. Wallpaper hanger, printing photos in my darkroom, picture framing, library cataloger and while traveling, visiting paper making workshops, galleries, bookshops, libraries…it never ends. Though I can’t explain it, I know we all feel affinities.
Remaining items on the “To Do” list
Online travel alerts - credit & debit cards
USPS.com - hold mail
Library - return books
Print lists & pack
Bank - cash
When next you hear from me, I’ll have returned home from Oaxaca. I have no idea how my report will begin or end and what adventures I’ll report. I have high hopes, though, and look forward to telling the tale and showing you my own pictures, my favorite part. If you like what you read and see, maybe the next step will be a gathering of TravelGumbozos (that’s Spanish), a nice mole negro in front of each of us and at least one bottle of mezcal on the table. How lucky could we get!
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