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Sunseekers, don’t get burnt on your currency

Foreign exchange is plagued by low rates and high fees. We reveal the best ways to convert cash

Melanie Wright Published: 22 June 2014

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A  pre-paid currency card gives families cheaper access to their holiday funds (Yuri Arcus/Getty)

BRITONS exchanging money abroad risk wiping out any gains from the strong pound if they fail to check the true cost of their overseas transactions.

Sterling continued its rally last week, although it fell back from its peak after lower-than-expected inflation figures for May were announced on Tuesday. At the end of the week, the pound was trading at $1.70 against the dollar and €1.25 against the euro.

Holidaymakers heading to America and changing £500 into dollars could pocket an extra $103 (£62) compared with 11 months ago, according to the currency exchange firm Travelex. Those visiting Europe will gain an extra £36 (€45) on every £500 exchanged.

 

Pay the wrong way while abroad, though, and you could end up hundreds of pounds out of pocket. Here we look at some of the cheapest ways to spend and move money overseas.

Credit and debit cards

Credit cards that are specifically designed for overseas use are by far the cheapest option.

For example, last week £2,000 would have bought €2,502 with the Halifax Clarity credit card, which has no fees worldwide, at an exchange rate of €1.251. In comparison, £2,000 would have bought just €2,243 — €138 less — at the rate of €1.182 on the Thomson site money4travel.com.

Spending the same amount on dollars would have got $3,398 at an exchange rate of $1.699 with the Halifax card, against $3,244 at $1.622 with Thomson, a difference of $154.

Good alternative cards to the Halifax Clarity include the Post Office Platinum and the Capital One Classic Extra.

Beware of using other credit and debit cards, because the charges may be extortionate. Most add a “foreign load fee” of up to 2.99% on spending and some add a fixed fee — £1.50 and £1 respectively at Halifax and Lloyds on top of their 2.75% and 2.99% load fees.

There is also a cash machine withdrawal charge — typically 2% or a minimum of £2 for debit cards, and 3% with a £3 minimum for credit cards.

 

Remember that you will usually be charged interest on the amount you have withdrawn as well as the cash withdrawal charge, even if you clear the balance in full that month.

Andrew Hagger of moneycomms.co.uk, an analyst, said: “Drawing £100 currency equivalent from an overseas ATM costs far more than some people realise — for example, with a Lloyds bank or TSB debit card you’ll pay £4.99 on top in charges and with an Asda credit card it’s £7.99.”

Watch out for “dynamic currency conversion”, where foreign retailers or ATMs offer the option of paying in sterling rather than the local currency.

Hagger said: “This gives the retailer the opportunity to use a poor local bank exchange rate, which could see you paying well over the odds. The golden rule is always to pay in the local currency of the country you’re visiting.”

Pre-paid cards

A pre-paid currency card allows travellers to load money in advance for purchases and cash withdrawals. Although often advertised as fee-free, a margin will be charged on the exchange rate.

Last week Ukash launched what it claims is the best-value pre-paid currency card. It is available in euros and dollars and has no sign-up, transaction or ATM withdrawal fees.

If a traveller had loaded £2,000 onto the euro card last week, they would have €2,476 to spend. In comparison, the AA’s pre-paid card would have offered just €2,372, a difference of €104 or about £83. The maximum single load possible on the Ukash card is £2,000.

FairFX’s pre-paid cards, which are available in euros, dollars and sterling, are also competitive. Loading £2,000 onto its euro card would have bought €2,461 to spend last week. There are no foreign loading fees, but there is a €1.50 and $2 charge for cash withdrawals.

 

For those who spend large amounts of money overseas, Centtrip has a card that can be loaded with 14 different currencies and has no margin on the exchange rate.

Users must choose an annual load limit, starting at £10,000, but this full limit does not have to be spent. The minimum load is £250.

There is a one-off 0.5% charge depending on the load limit chosen — for £10,000 this would be £50. Last week, converting £10,000 gave €12,496 with Centtrip, or €12,433 after the fee. The same amount on the FairFX currency card would have provided €12,305, €128 (£103) less.

Transferring money

If you want to move money overseas, perhaps because you are buying a home or are sending a gift, avoid the eye-watering charges levied by banks. Instead, use a foreign- exchange specialist or peer-to-peer currency provider.

The panel (left) explains how peer-to-peer lenders, such as Midpoint, TransferWise and Currencyfair, work. The downside is that they do not offer the opportunity to lock into favourable exchange rates and move money later.

This locking-in can be done through exchange specialists such as World First — which provides Times Currency Services — Moneycorp and HiFX.

World First does not charge fees for personal currency transfers and typically has a 1% currency margin. Moneycorp charges £9 for express payments, which take from 0-2 days, and £5 for standard payments taking 2-4 days. HiFX has a £9 transfer charge if you are transferring less than £3,000 and no fee for sums above this.

Peer-to-peer providers

Peer-to-peer websites allow travellers to exchange money directly with another user, cutting out the middleman — normally a bank — and providing a better exchange rate and lower costs.

Costs
Transferwise.com has a 0.5% fee, so last week £2,000 would have raised €2,846 after this had been deducted.

Midpoint.com charges £10 for each transaction up to £2,000, and a percentage from 0.3%-0.5% on higher amounts. Transferring £2,000 last week with Midpoint, with the £10 fee on top, would have brought in €2,498.

Currencyfair.com, which has more than 50,000 registered users, charges 0.15% of the total amount exchanged plus a £3 fixed transfer fee.

In the event that no customers offer a competitive exchange rate, it will step in at a typical charge of 0.4%-0.5%. Last week, converting £2,000 into euros would have got €2,486, given the £3 fixed transfer fee and an exchange rate margin of about 0.25%.

Risks
Transferring money through a peer-to-peer provider is no riskier than through other online foreign exchange firms, but check that any company you deal with is authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) or an equivalent watchdog. This means they are required to abide by strict governance and risk management procedures. Currencyfair is regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland; Midpoint and Transferwise are regulated by the FCA.

In all three cases, customers’ funds are kept in segregated accounts, so if any of the companies run into financial difficulties, the money is ring-fenced.