Note from Starling: this post was originally published in May 2017, and has since been updated to include some extra app features that Jess was able to use on her latest trip abroad to Italy.

I’d like to think of myself as a seasoned traveller: over the years, there’s been a three month road trip to the US, annual visits to see family in Australia, week-long European holidays, and countless work trips.

And yet, while I nailed my packing technique, when it came to travel money, I just couldn’t get it right. No matter how much I planned, it inevitably worked out as expensive or inconvenient (or a combination of both).

Talking to friends and family, it seems most of us have been in a similar boat.

Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be organised...

I’ve tried prepaid travel cards, and while you might get competitive exchange rates, there can be some major downsides. Some of them charge ATM withdrawal fees, others have low limits on how much you can take out per month. And if you’re planning to hire a car abroad, many places won’t take a card that doesn’t have your name on it. Of course, this doesn’t go for all prepaids or apply in all places you visit, but the inconvenience of not knowing whether your card will be accepted can add an extra special layer of travel anxiety.

Live a little, and pay a lot

There’s been times I’ve winged it and decided to just take whatever’s in my wallet: a not-exactly-winning combo of debit and credit cards. There’s no doubt about it, this can be one of the worst methods of travel money.

Many banks charge a fixed fee for every spend, as well as a percentage for currency conversion. So that £2.50 coffee might suddenly be inflated to £3.50.

Plus, that spontaneous trip to Madrid seems like a fab idea right up until your card is declined post-patatas bravas because you forgot to tell your bank you were heading overseas and now you need to make umpteen overseas calls to fix the issue.

We’re all aware that getting foreign currency from an airport exchange bureau is not exactly one of the best deals you can get — but I’ve still been there, irrationally panicking that when I arrive to another country, every ATM will have stopped working, and therefore I must arrive with some cash. At these bureaus you’re typically paying a premium for the convenience of last minute or out of hours service and getting much worse exchange rates than if you’d organised yourself a little better. Never again.

Doing travel money right: using my Starling card and app

So imagine my relief when it came to planning my latest trip to Australia and I realised I wouldn’t have to cart myself to the Post Office or order a ‘specialist’ card with additional fees and charges. No, this time I could just rely on the Starling card already in my purse.

First stop: Dubai. A three hour layover called for a refuel and time to test out how the Starling card fared — so off to the Shake Shack we went. One Shack Stack and a root float order later and any lingering worries were dispelled. The payment went through without a hitch, the real-time notification popped up, and my card wasn’t blocked just because it was half way across the world. Phew.

Top tip: If there’s the option to pay in pounds as opposed to the local currency, the answer should be “no”. Always choose the local currency. Starling will often give you a better conversion rate than the merchant can offer you.

Finally, we arrived.

Now usually when I visit Australia, I use Contactless. I’ll amble round the trip and only really check to see what I’ve spent once I’m back in London. This time, there was no getting away with that. Starling’s notifications pop up as soon as you spend, with the exchange rate handily converted too (as long as you have wifi or roaming switched on).

However, random fact: if you’re visiting Perth, splitting the bill across cards in bars and restaurants isn’t the done thing. Cash is the order of the day if you’re out with friends and you want to split three ways. In this scenario, the fact that Starling has no ATM fees was a blessing. Sure, some ATM providers tried to sneak a charge in for taking cash out, but there were plenty of supermarkets that offered fee-free cashback (like in the UK).

Towards the end of the trip I decided to splurge on something special for myself.

Here’s where things get interesting and you can really see how much you can save. The Mastercard rate is usually one of the best mid-market rates, with no fee added by Starling; I did a comparison of what I spent versus what my old main bank account charges (2.99% currency conversion fee), and the difference was considerable — over the entire holiday I spent just over £1000, so saved £30 on fees (enough for a cheeky taxi home from the airport).

Let’s face it, I had a pretty good run. I came, I saw, I spent — but for the first time in a much more conscious way.

And what was also comforting was knowing if things did go awry – which can and has happened in the past with other banks – I had the support of the Starling customer team no matter the time of day or night, or how far away I was.

For instance, if I’d lost my card I could easily lock it in-app to deactivate it whilst I rooted through my suitcase and day bag (and of course unlock it again once I found it underneath my swimwear). If I’d lost my phone, I’d still have been able to contact the team via webchat too. So they could have invalidated my phone’s ability to access my Starling account but leave my card active for me to continue to use on holiday.

So will I be going back to my travel prepaids or winging it with an old credit card? Not any time soon. I’m off to Lisbon later this month and ready to take Starling out all over again.

16th October, 2017: I’m back! The Lisbon holiday went without a hitch, but for my recent trip to rural Italy I happened to leave my physical card in my other wallet back at the agriturismo (I know, who packs more than one wallet on a trip? Me, that’s who).

Initially, I’d locked my card in-app — thanks to the addition of extra security features in the Card section, but happily I knew I wouldn’t have to borrow money from friends throughout the day just because my card wasn’t with me As long as I had wifi or data roaming, I could enable or disable certain types of payments. For me that was lunch bought by switching on my mobile wallet (Apple Pay), and a pasta-making course paid for online, again with just a tap on the toggle in-app.

Being more conscious about how I handle my money every day has definitely changed the way travel now too — and it’s making these experiences all the more enjoyable.

Want more reasons to travel with Starling

Here’s some other key things you need to know:

  • You can pay money into your account wherever you are in the world with no “top-up” fees
  • If you have an overdraft, you can access this to help with holiday spend (interest rates apply)
  • There are handy tools to set and control your budget within your agreed overdraft limit
  • Your money is FSCS protected up to £85,000
  • There is 24/7 in-app support
  • We pay interest on your credit balance no matter where you are

And in case you missed it:

  • No fees for using your card abroad in an ATM
  • Charge the Mastercard rate on exchange — a fair midmarket rate that is usually one of the best in market (and there’s no extra fees from us on top)
  • No charges from us for using your card in shops abroad or if you’re shopping online from retailers across the world
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