It's possible to live and travel quite inexpensively if you do as Thais do—eat in small, neighborhood restaurants, use buses, and stay at non-air-conditioned hotels. Traveling this way, two people could easily get by on $30 a day or less. Once you start enjoying a little luxury, prices can jump as much as you let them. Imported items are heavily taxed.
Resort areas and Bangkok are much pricier than other parts of the country.
Prices throughout this guide are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
ATMs and Banks
Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you'll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank.
PIN numbers with more than four digits are not recognized at ATMs in many countries. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.
Thankfully, over the last few years, ATMs have sprouted like mushrooms around the country. Only smaller towns don't yet have them, and even that is changing. Most ATMs accept foreign bank cards; all pay in baht. As of this writing, most Thai ATMs do not charge any extra fees, but your home bank may well add extra fees for using a foreign bank and/or converting foreign currency. Do contact your bank and ask about this before leaving to avoid any nasty billing surprises. Some Thai ATMs take Cirrus, some take Plus, some take both.
It's a good idea to inform your credit-card company and the bank that issues your ATM card before you travel, especially if you don't travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you're prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you're abroad) if your card is lost, but you're better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank's number is usually printed on your card.
If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you'll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it's usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there's a problem), note that some credit-card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they're in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won't be any surprises when you get the bill.
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether or not he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you'll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Dynamic currency conversion programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don't always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn't an option.
Credit cards are almost always accepted at upper-end hotels, resorts, boutique stores, and shopping malls, and that list is slowly expanding. Expect to pay a 2% to 4% service charge. It is illegal, but that's what everyone does.
Reporting Lost Cards
American Express (800/528-4800. www.americanexpress.com.)
Diners Club. 800/234-6377 in the U.S.; 303/799-1504 collect from abroad. www.dinersclub.com.
MasterCard. 800/622-7747 in the U.S.; 636/722-7111 collect from abroad. www.mastercard.com.
Visa. 800/847-2911 in the U.S.; 410/581-9994 collect from abroad. www.visa.com.
All your money and credit cards have just been stolen. These days, this isn't a predicament that should destroy your vacation. First, report the theft of the credit cards. Then get any traveler's checks you were carrying replaced.
Western Union. Western Union sends money almost anywhere. Have someone back home order a transfer online, over the phone, or at one of the company's offices. 800/325-6000. www.westernunion.com.
Overseas Citizens Services. The U.S. State Department's Overseas Citizens Services can wire money to any U.S. consulate or embassy abroad for a fee of $30. Just have someone back home wire money or send a money order or cashier's check to the state department, which will then disburse the funds. 888/407-4747.
Currency and Exchange
The basic unit of currency is the baht. There are 100 satang to one baht. Baht come in six different bills, each a different color: B10, brown; B20, green; B50, blue; B100, red; B500, purple; and B1,000, beige. Coins in use are 25 satang, 50 satang, B1, B2, B5, and B10. The B10 coin has a gold-color center surrounded by silver.
Major hotels will convert traveler's checks and major currencies into baht, though exchange rates are better at banks and authorized money changers. The rate tends to be better in any larger city than up-country, and is better in Thailand than in the United States.
At this writing, B30.5 = US$1.
Google does currency conversion. Just type in the amount you want to convert and an explanation of how you want it converted (e.g., "14 Swiss francs in dollars"), and then voilà. www.google.com.
Oanda.com. Oanda.com allows you to print out a handy table with the current day's conversion rates. www.oanda.com.
XE.com is a good currency conversion Web site. www.xe.com.
Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there's some kind of huge, hidden fee. (Oh. that's right. The sign didn't say no fee.) And as for rates, you're almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank.
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