International travel can be dangerous. We all think about our physical safety in Rio de Janeiro, but we must also take the time to think about our financial safety. The Brazilian Real is nearly at an all-time low, but you can still get ripped off. Here are a few ways to protect your purse.
(1) Buy Brazilian currency from your bank before you leave America.
Yes, most major bank brands sell foreign currency. If you will be in Brazil for longer than a week, you don’t need to buy enough currency for your whole trip, but you’ll want to buy at least enough for your first few meals as well as enough to get you safely to your accommodations. Compared to any currency exchange company, your American bank will likely offer a decent rate with a low fee. The challenge is that you can’t do this last-minute. It may take your bank a week to even get the money. So make sure you order your Brazilian Reais (plural spelling in Portuguese) well in advance.
(2) Never exchange currency in the airport.
This is just to piggyback on the first tip. There are several currency exchange stands (cambios) in the airport. One of two things will happen: Either (1) you will get a bad rate with no fees or (2) you’ll get a good rate with exorbitant fees. You can choose your poison, but I’d bet on getting your “reais” in America. Also, there are better cambios outside the airport. But do your research before you go to them. Read all the tips below and determine what’s right for you when it comes to converting your US Dollars to the Brazilian Real.
(3) Never use the ATM in the airport.
There are scammers at every turn and American cards are not as encrypted as our banks would have you to believe. Your card can be cloned in a few seconds by someone standing a few feet away. This has happened to people I know. And depending on who you bank with, it could take days or even weeks to get your money back. Don’t take the chances. If you go to an ATM, only go to the ones inside an actual bank branch to avoid hacking and robberies.
(4) Pay with cash whenever you can.
If you are buying souvenirs, food or anything from a street vendor, USE CASH. In my previous travel safety post, I recommended that you not carry large amounts of cash. So be mindful of what you intend to do each day. If you know you’re going to buy souvenirs, set a budget and carry that much cash. If you know you’re going to the beach and intend to rent an umbrella, buy a cocktail and maybe a snack– carry that much cash. See my previous travel safety post, there are tips for how to carry your money as well.
(5) Use a credit card with no international transaction fees.
Again, I recommend using cash whenever possible– especially with street vendors. But in some international cities, it is not wise to carry large amounts of cash. Rio de Janeiro is one of those cities. So when I make large/expensive purchases like fancy dinners, groceries, samba costumes (when possible– that’s usually a cash-only operation), shopping sprees, spa services at a hotel, etc– I tend to use my credit card. I know that I have purchase protection against fraud AND I won’t be charged any additional fees.
(6) Know your banks’ international fees and limits.
a) If you don’t have a credit card with no/low international fees, you should know exactly what your banks’ fees are. Some US banks (card issuers) charge an international fee just for regular card purchases. This can be as much as 10% markup for every swipe, plus a flat dollar amount. Do your research. b) Look into ATM fees. You may find that your bank only charges $5 plus 1% markup at ATMs. This may be a better option than going to the “cambios” if you get your max each time you go to the ATM. c) Some banks limit how much you can do when traveling internationally. So you should also know your daily purchase/withdrawal limit and be sure to convert that number to that day’s rate for the Brazilian Real before the transaction. I’ve seen people’s cards be frozen because they requested more money than their daily US limit. The ATM will not tell you that you’ve exceeded your limit when you punch in the numbers and get your cash. d) If you are unable to withdraw money or use your card, it may have been blocked because you exceeded some daily limit or the ATM is out of money. Yes, that happens in Rio.
(7) Determine prices before you accept any services or products.
Do not find yourself in an argument over money in another country. You will likely lose. Two things: (1) always keep track of what you order/request and most importantly (2) always ask how much things cost in advance. Caipirinhas are typically very cheap in Rio de Janeiro, but if you don’t ask how much before you order one on the beach you might pay double because they didn’t show you a menu. Plus most prices on the streets/beach can be haggled. I typically choose ubers over taxis because I know exactly how much the service will cost in advance. Also, happy hour prices are ONLY valid if you pay your bill DURING the actual happy hour (not after). AND executive lunch deals (lunch specials) in restaurants are only available if you sit alone. No one will tell you that, so ask your questions before you order anything!
(8) Research and arrange logistics in advance when possible.
Don’t buy a plane ticket and then just wing it when you arrive. You might find yourself in a dangerous situation. Last minute bookings can work in some cities, but I do not recommend this for international travel– especially in Rio de Janeiro. For the best prices, research and book travel and accommodations in advance. You don’t want to find yourself in a favela without a guide.
If you have friends in the city, try to arrange an airport pick up. Cab company kiosks in the airport will overcharge you. And cab drivers may take you the long way to earn more money. Also, if you want to see other neighborhoods in the north or west zone, look into what it takes to get there. Madureira is one of my favorite places to go in Rio, but it can be a long trip from Ipanema. Getting there for a reasonable price requires first the metro, then the commuter train and possibly a bus or cab after that. Research is your friend.
For more safety tips for Rio de Janeiro travel, click here.