Best Currency Card for Travel

UPDATED August 2019 

Often living in a small country at the end of the world is advantageous. But  not when you are looking for a great deal on cards to use when travelling.  Americans and Europeans have heaps of options for cash-back, point-hacks etc etc. New Zealand not so much. Until very, very recently we paid through the nose to spend our own money overseas. Finally there is a solution.

TL:DR No-fees, best exchange rate, multiple foreign currency virtual accounts -TransferWise 

Best Prepaid Card

Until August 2019 - all of the heavily promoted travel cards were very underwhelming with high  costs - usually in a very poor exchange rate.  Plus a very limited number of currencies are supported.

Heavily promoted in New Zealand as the "best" way to spend money overseas - I wanted to like them - but I was underwhelmed by the hidden costs of the standard bank offerings. The concept is great - a multi currency card which you can pre-load with a number of currencies. But are currency cards worth it?

Until Transferwise Launched in New Zealand in August 2019.

Transferwise - A Game Changer

Transferwise - although in some respects its a "normal" Platinum MasterCard which has some useful benefits (zero liability for mis-use for example, acceptance with zillions of merchants worldwide) it's actually a very different beast.

Transferwise's core business is cheap  currency transfers -  with your account you can add virtual local bank accounts in a number of different currencies apart from NZ$ (AUD,USD, EUR, GBP) and someone can pay into that account  in the local currency, just as they would if you had a local bank account in that country. You then convert from the foreign currency to NZ$ for a very low fee (0.488% for major currencies - higher for more exotic ones e.g 1.2% for NZD to Chinese Yuan).  All of the conversions is done at the "mid-market rate" - this is the rate quoted on sites like Google and - the rate that usually does NOT reflect the  rate your bank uses - they can use any rate they like (and do - typically 2- 6% worse than the mid-market rate).

Which brings me to my second point - Transferwise supports over 40 currencies: from UAE dirham to Ukrainian hrynia - you can carry balances in these currencies).  In contrast most other cards offer at best 10, and usually only 7. So if you want pre-purchase local currency for your next Asian  or Eastern European trip - you can do that!

So what is the catch - you cynics ask - me too! I've found one -  after the first NZ$350 withdrawn from ATMs you pay an additional 2% of withdrawals. That's  unfortunate - and pushes it back to the similar cost that my ASB debit card. But for credit card purchases overseas  - its a no-brainer!

Advantages of Travel Cards

  • they are separate from your normal debit/credit cards - and you should always have more than one way to pay when travelling - cards get lost or stolen frequently!
  • you can lock in an exchange rate before travel
  • you can budget in s supported foreign currency
  • you can average your exchange rate over a period of time by adding currency some months before travel
  • you can pre-purchase a range of currencies
  • some cards will give you airlines rewards or other perks

Disadvantages of Travel Cards

  • if you are travelling to countries that don't use the available currencies their conversion margins are high compared to a normal debit or credit card.
  • supported currencies for most cards are very limited.
  • its easy to end up paying double conversion fees if you inadvertently overspend an unsupported or supported currency
  • the exchange rate may improve after you buy a foreign currency
  • money can take up to 3 days to appear on your card from your bank account
  • they are debit cards (not credit ) so don't use them for pre-authorizations for rental cars and some hotels - your funds maybe unavailable for up to 30 days after you check out.

Should you travel with a Travel Card?

I used to say no - but Transferwise is a game-changer - for times when you can use a card to pay directly - it has the best exchange rates and fees going - by quite a long-shot. Its worth foregoing the points/miles/awards we often get from credit cards.   I'd choose to use it for countries where almost every shop takes a card e.g. Australia. Or where I can use a card online or in-person a lot:  Singapore, Thailand, UK, Western Europe.

If you are travelling to the rest of the developed world who don't use cards quite as much as we do, and do use a currency typically supported by travel cards e.g. UK, US, Western Europe - then having the exchange rate locked in for you - they may appeal.

If, like us, you are a little further off the beaten track (or going to the Pacific) then you often come back to old-fashioned cash. Cash of course can be had from an ATM - but the crazy-low limit of  $350/30 days  with Transferwise before a 2% fee kicks in is not very attractive.  I will probably still use my ASB Debit card for that - they recently dropped the $7.50 (!) fee for using an overseas ATM

Multi Currency Cards Comparison Exchange Rates

To make this comparison I compared exchange rates on a random date - the actual rate doesn't matter - it's the differences between the various cards which were interesting. All figures taken from the respective card's public websites. Note I can't really compare bank's credit or debit cards because they do not disclose the exchange rate they use - normally hiding behind the "the rate determined by MasterCard/Visa" plus their percentage.

Transferwise MasterCard 94.33 63.94 57.65 447 1973
Travelex MoneyCard MasterCard 92.76 63.02 56.10 435 (cash) 1884 (cash)
OneSmart - Air NZ MasterCard 91.44 62.01 55.82 n/a n/a
Loaded for Travel Visa 91.28 61.89 55.94 n/a 1881
Cash Passport Mastercard 91.49 62.04 55.27 n/a n/a
Qantas Cash Mastercard 91.53 62.04 55.87 n/a n/a

Multi Currency Cards Comparison in Detail

I've summarized the fees for all the available multiple currency cards available in New Zealand below.   If it was not for the 2% fee on overseas ATM withdrawals Transferwise would be a very clear winner.  As it is its definitely a winner for a card to be used for purchases in foeign currencies - whether you are travelling or just staying at home online shopping!

The ASB Visa Debit card is a good option for overseas ATM withdrawals now they have withdrawn (sorry...) their previously sky-high international fee.  Note if you'r travelling to Australia you'll also get the ATM machine's up-front charges waived if you use Commonwealth Bank machines (other NZ banks have similar deals with their Australian parent bank's machines).

TransferWise Mastercard Free 2% after NZ$350/30 days 2% after first NZ$350/30 days Free Free 0.37%-2.24% over bank mid-rate
Travelex Money Card MasterCard 1% or $10 whichever is greater Free 2.95% $4/month after 12 months inactivity $10 4% for non-supported currencies
OneSmart Air NZ MasterCard Free 3 free/month then $3 $2 $1 n/a as it doubles as your AirPoints card 2.5%
Loaded for Travel Visa $20 setup fee $2 $6 Free Free unknown
Cash Passport MasterCard Free $2.50 Free Free Free 5.95%
Qantas Cash MasterCard Free $2.50 Free Free Free 2.5%
ASB Debit Visa Free Free Free $5/6 months Free 2.1%

Travelex Cash Passport


Supported currencies NZD plus; AUD, USD,CAD, GBP, EUR, SGD, HKD, JPY

Onesmart - Air New Zealand

Mastercard issued by Travelex

Supported currencies: NZD plus AUD, USD, CAD, GBP, EUR, HKD, SGD, JPY

You earn 1 NZ Airpoint dollar per NZ$100 spent overseas - but you are paying for these in the poorer exchange rate.

Loaded for Travel

Visa and has a few more currencies Supported currencies: AUD, USD, CAD, GBP, EUR, HKD, SGD, JPY, Thai Baht, SA Rand

Cash Passport various banks including ANZ

Mastercard - issued by Travelex Supported currencies: AUD, USD,CAD, GBP, EUR, SGD, HKD, JPY

Qantas Cash

Mastercard issued by Qantas.

Supported currencies: AUD, USD,CAD, GBP, EUR, SGD, HKD, JPY

Earn 1 Qantas point for $2 spend.

So Are Currency Cards Worth It?

For overseas ATM withdrawals - NO - use your debit card instead (make sure the bank knows you are travelling).

For overseas purchases including card transactions when travelling TransferWise is well worth a look.


#Yes there are affiliate links in this post - but they won't cost you anything - in fact you get a free initial transfer as a thank you.

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  1. Charles McCool on June 27, 2017 at 12:45 am

    knowledge is power. Always nice to learn a bit more travel skills.

  2. Suzanne Fluhr on June 27, 2017 at 5:08 am

    Wow. I’m glad I don’t live in New Zealand. In the US, we have access to credit cards that charge no conversion nor transaction fees on foreign purchases. Our bank also refunds all ATM fees as long as we keep a minimum balance.

  3. Janice Chung on June 27, 2017 at 8:36 am

    In Canada there are very few cards that DON’T charge a fee to charge something in a foreign currency or to withdraw money. It’s quite a rip off. I basically do ATM withdrawals if I have to or use a Mastercard that doesn’t charge a fee.

    • Elisabeth Sowerbutts on June 27, 2017 at 8:52 am

      Yeah mostly we don’t need a credit card for purchases very much where we travel – but the ATM for cash is convenient – which is why its so annoying to be charged over US$5 per a withdrawal from most cards!

  4. SY on June 27, 2017 at 7:08 pm

    “but their benefits outweigh their advantages.” … that sentence somehow doesn’t make much sense 😉 Otherwise, great article. Greetings from Santiago and happy travels, SY

    • Elisabeth Sowerbutts on June 30, 2017 at 11:29 pm

      Hello my favourite proof reader!

  5. Rachel Heller on June 30, 2017 at 5:06 am

    I’m not from New Zealand, but I don’t see what the advantage is of currency cards over a plain old ATM card combined with a credit card. We use an ATM card to withdraw money when necessary, which can be cheap or expensive, depending on the country. Generally the fee is per transaction, so we try to take out a lot at once and not use the ATM often. Whenever possible, though, we pay for things with a credit card, which is quite cheap for us. Americans have lots more choices, but here in the Netherlands you can use a Flying Blue American Express card and get miles for it.

    • Elisabeth Sowerbutts on June 30, 2017 at 11:31 pm

      Credit cards aren’t much use where we’re going this year (The Silk Road) – and in most of asia you’re pay an extra 5% or more to cover fees. Also places like Thailand have low limits on ATM withdrawal -and up front fees from the ATM – which is super-annoying!

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