Travel money – spending the last of your foreign currency


In the grand scale of things this is a pretty trivial matter, but it’s one that still causes a headache for many travellers at the end of a trip. You’re about to leave a country and your stash of local currency has dwindled down to a few grubby notes and a pocketful of heavy but worthless coins. How do you manage your travel money so that you leave the country with nothing more than a token few cents to add to your foreign coin collection?

Short changed

The failure to have the right money at the point of departure has led to more than one awkward moment for us. On a recent early morning flight from Reykjavik we had around 230 krone left – not enough it turns out even for the cheapest food option at the departure lounge cafe. The kind cashier, who had almost certainly woke up at 4am to begin her shift, waved us through cheerily with our cheese sandwich and overlooked our cash shortage.

Similarly the Albanian man taking our money on the shared taxi into Montenegro shouted at us a couple of times (I had foolishly saved exactly the right money for the bus according to the Lonely Planet guide, but had not accounted for inflation), and when he saw my empty pocket just muttered a few choice Albanian phrases (for which the LP guide was again of no use) and moved on.

Flash the cash

Other times I’ve turned up at the airport or railway station with too much money. It’s never a concern with US dollars or Euros as I know they will be used again before long. But when it’s a million Lao kip or a few hundred Uruguayan pesos it makes sense to spend them there and then.

Usually this surplus of cash occurs as a result of playing it safe when I’m unsure of the price of an airport transfer or the cost of departure tax. Rules and taxes change and it’s always a risk to spend your last cents/zloty/kwacha before arriving at the border.

So it’s quite understandable to have 20 dollars worth of money to blow while waiting to get on a plane/train. If travelling straight home it’s easy to buy a surprise gift that looks as though it involved a lot more thought and effort than it really did. I can testify that Tokyo airport is great for buying Japanese handicrafts in the £10 to £15 price range. If you’re hungry you can even revel in buying over-priced drinks and snacks without a second thought – in fact shelling out 98 hrivny is preferable to 75, as the problem of what to do with that last banknote is instantly solved.


Until the world adopts a single currency (not in my lifetime) the problem of managing the last bits of money in a country will not go away. The charity boxes found at some airports are one way to tackle this issue but are rarely found. So for the time being I guess I’ll keep on buying rubbish gifts and overpriced sandwiches. Most importantly I’ll continue to build my collection of random coins and, from the times when I’ve been particularly careless, banknotes.

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16 Responses to “Travel money – spending the last of your foreign currency”

  1. I checked my ‘shrapnel jar’, which has all sorts of change gleaned over 30 years, ‘in case I ever go there again’ … and I wonder if those francs, pesetas, lire, pfennigs, drachmas, schillings etc. might be worth something to a collector?

    August 15, 2012 at 9:55 am
    • Hang on to them Keith – they might come back into fashion shortly…

      August 15, 2012 at 10:05 am
  2. I’m always surprised at the lack of charity boxes, too. You’d think that charities could make a killing out of this, especially if a clearly trustworthy or well-known organisation.

    The euro is a great thing for travel as you can reuse money, but yes those obscure coins are a bit of a pain. It probably adds up to a huge overspend over the years.

    August 15, 2012 at 10:08 am
    • There’s a charity box in my local branch of Barclays … I usually put any coins in there when I change any notes I have left over back into sterling. If I didn’t bring any notes back, the coins just moulder in the shrapnel jar for ever & ever.

      August 15, 2012 at 10:12 pm
  3. Agree on the charity box sentiment : ) I usually stop at an airport’s W.H.Smith equivalent and buy something of everyday use I would have bought at home anyway. The list includes chewing gum, hand sanitizers, soap, neutral greetings cards, etc. And if you are travelling home, you can REALLY stock up – I am still finishing the hand sanitizer inventory made in Delhi back in January ; )

    August 15, 2012 at 11:20 am
  4. 1. Drinks/ food in the airport.
    2. (If seriously miscalculated) Some posh duty free booze.
    3. Stuff that I’ll use at home.
    4. Leave it on a table somewhere – someone might pick it up and be able to use it.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:50 pm
  5. After getting myself into some pretty crappy, and pointlessly difficult, situations, I now have a rule: with a day or two of the trip (or country) to go, always take out more than you think you’ll need. It’s better to have a few extra quid just in case. Better that than being stressed and trying to scrimp/budget too much. If you look at it, it doesn’t really matter if you have a tenner or so spare towards the very end, does it? You can save it for next time, keep it as a souvenir, spend it friviously, or give it away.

    August 15, 2012 at 4:01 pm
  6. Glad to see I’m not alone with this one. David’s suggestion about leaving on a table does remind me that we did once leave a very generous tip in an airport fast-food joint – must have been a (pleasant) shock for the waitress…
    Steve, good advice to take a bit more. I’ve used that principle too rarely but it does make for a more enjoyable last day, without doubt.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:26 pm
  7. What I do is that depending on the airport, we just go on a spending spree for the duty free shopping. You’d be surprised at how much chocolate/candy you can buy with your last couple of krona/euros.

    August 18, 2012 at 12:28 am
  8. I find the post almost comical, as I always desperately try and find items to purchase in the Airport using my last bit of change. It usually is something rubbish! Im all for having some charity box at the gate!

    August 19, 2012 at 5:11 pm
  9. I always forget about the change. I’m pretty good about getting rid of the bills, but I get back and open my wallet and find loads of coins I can’t use.

    August 21, 2012 at 12:17 am
  10. I noticed on my last flight the air hostesses coming around with charity envelopes to collect loose change. Good idea. Stupidly overpriced rubbish is usually what it ends with though yes!

    August 21, 2012 at 8:42 am
  11. Yenta #

    I had way too much Swedish kroner left recently and converted the bulk of it into American dollars at the Stockholm airport. Sure, you lose every time you change money, but I am really not a duty free shopper. The amount was $50. That left me with 5 Swedish kroner. I dumped that in the charity envelope on the plane when Icelandair asked for donations. If they can use it, well, I sure can’t.

    Sometimes I buy something in the airport, give them my leftover cash and then charge the balance.

    And, true to form, when I got home and cleaned out my travel purse, there was 1 Norwegian krone in the bottom. That seems always to happen no matter what I do. I went to Norway, Sweden and Latvia. I did dump all the Latvian Letts on the ferry that I took back to Stockholm.

    September 3, 2012 at 6:15 pm
  12. Lee #

    I like to keep some of the money left behind when traveling. I might go there again and it is handy to at least have some money on hand to go. Failing that it is nice to have a collection of notes and coins from different countries

    September 6, 2012 at 11:48 am
  13. honestly, i don’t mind keeping “leftover” money for souvenier :-) but just so there won’t be too much letfovers (especially coins), i spend the coins first then the smaller bills then change the rest back to dollars (if there’s still a lot)…

    October 8, 2012 at 8:53 pm
  14. Shahlo #

    That’s Uzbek Soum! For 800soum can buy a bottle of coce :)

    January 6, 2013 at 3:09 pm