Category Archives: The Basics

Money in South America

One of the questions we’ve found a lot of people asking before they go on a trip is “what’s the best way to take money abroad?” For a trip in South America ATMs are plentiful, except for a few, more remote places, so we’d advise using a debit card. Hopefully in this blog we can provide some useful advice as to why, based on our experiences. 

Worried about taking a card abroad

A prepaid cash card is an alternative that some travellers use to access their money abroad. Whilst they can be a useful backup we’d advise against them as your main access to money for a few reasons.

  • There are often quite a few fees involved in using a prepaid card abroad. Yes debit cards have them to, but they can be the same or lower than prepaid cards.
  • They can’t always be used for all types of transaction.
  • They have to be reloaded with money when you run out, which may not be as straight forward or cheap as it seems at first. Some cards can take up to five days to move the money around and charge you a percentage fee.
  • They come loaded either with your home currency, US Dollars or another currency that your provider offers. This means that you can suffer from bad exchange rates, especially if you’re travelling through multiple countries.


Before you leave

There are several important things you should do before you leave your home country.

  • Work out which debit card has the lowest fees abroad
  • Get some US Dollars (USD)
  • Get some of the local currency of the first country you’ll be visiting. Or even each one you plan on visiting.
  • Tell your bank you’re going abroad and let them know which countries.
  • Make sure you have a reserve way of accessing money, another debit, credit or prepaid cash card.


Where to get the foreign currencies

Use the internet to look up the best foreign currency exchange office in your local area. If Google can’t help you out, ask some friends or go on a message board. We’ve found it’s often easier to get some foreign currency before you head abroad. It’ll also give you peace of mind that you’re not at some dodgy street vendor’s mercy. For people heading through London we’d definitely recommend Thomas Exchange Global on the Strand. You can order the money online through their website and it’ll be there when you turn up. They offer excellent exchange rates on commonly used currencies and pretty good rates on the more obscure ones.


Debit Cards

If you’re going to take a debit card (we suggest you do) then head on over to London and set up an account with Metrobank. When we first opened our accounts with them they offered free withdrawals abroad. They do now charge £1 per ATM withdrawal or transaction (outside of Europe). This is still far lower than any of the other UK banks, and there aren’t any confusing percentage fees that keep adding up either. For example Lloyds charge an additional 1.5-2.99% non-sterling transaction fee on top of a flat fee, so on one of my transactions i was charged a total of £7.89 on a £150 transaction. Nearly £8 versus £1 is a no brainer really… Of course if you’re not based in the UK, Google the best cards for travel in your country.



You should always have some USD on you. As the worlds base trading currency its easy to exchange pretty much anywhere in the world with good rates. After the USD then the Euro is probably the second best to have on you. Not only is the USD easy to exchange but in lots of countries, especially in tourist hotspots you can usually pay for a lot of things just with it without having to exchange to the local currency first. If you run out then many countries, especially in South America allow you to withdraw USD straight from ATM’s. As a rule your USD will be more useful in poorer countries or those experiencing economic instability.


ATM’s abroad

Withdrawing cash from ATM’s abroad isn’t of course as straight forward as in your home country and they react differently to different cards, so offering advice on which banks to use in various countries may not of course be helpful. The best thing to do is ask other travellers and use various machines until you work out which one is the best for your cards. Things to take into account are whether the ATM is going to add an additional fee on top of the one you’re already paying your bank and the maximum it’ll let you withdraw. There’s no point in saving a small amount of money on one withdrawal if you have to make three withdrawals instead of one from a different bank.


Let your bank know.

We’ve found a lot of people actually argued against this as they informed their bank they were heading abroad, only to find their cards blocked anyway. This is of course a worst case scenario which is why you should always have some local currency on you. With Metro Bank we have never experienced any problems with using it in over 20 countries. When you ring them up let them know your dates of travel (you can leave it open ended) and which countries you’re likely to be visiting. Lloyds did stop one of my transactions but sent me a text which would allow me to use the card unrestricted in that country if i replied by text. Annoying but i can’t complain too much for them being cautious and it only delayed me by 5 minutes.


Using your debit/credit card for payments.

We’ve only paid with card a couple of times as often there are hefty percentage costs for paying with your card abroad. It’s also worth remembering that some places only accept Visa or Mastercard, not both. If you set up a MetroBank account you’ll receive a Mastercard Debit card. Occasionally this can cause a headache as most people are only used to seeing a Mastercard Credit card and will try and charge you a higher credit card transaction rate. Just let them know it’s debit.


What if my card gets cloned or stolen.

This a worry to everyone, and worse when you consider you could be thousands of miles from home. As long as you’re always safety conscious and keep your main card and your backup separate then the worst this should be is a headache without stranding you abroad. Card cloning is probably a bigger problem is your home country than in South America. In the UK we’re used to ATM’s dotted outside all along the high street.  In South America you’re more likely to find them inside a bank with a couple of security guards in constant attendance. This makes it much more difficult for crooks to set up a system to copy your card.

Some country advice



We’ve found that Peruvian ATM’s don’t seem to charge for withdrawals as a rule. The maximum we can withdraw at one time in 700 PEN, equivalent to £150 GBP. ATM’s are usually found inside banks, if the bank is closed there will be a door accessed by scanning your card through a reader. If you’re worried about doing this, just wait for someone else to open the door on the way out. USD are easily exchanged, can be withdrawn from ATM’s and can be used to pay for tours and transportation such as planes and intercity busses.


Chilean ATM’s did charge us for withdrawals as a rule, but did allow us to take out fairly large amounts in one go. The USD isn’t as accepted as readily as elsewhere in South America due to the strength of Chile’s economy. In especially touristy spots such as San Pedro de Atacama or Torres del Paine national park USD can be used to pay for most tours and activities, just ask.


Some Bolivian ATM’s charged us but not all, other nationalities had different experiences. Your money will go a long way in Bolivia so you won’t be making lots of withdrawals. If you have a lot of USD then chances are you’ll never have to go near an ATM anyway, just exchange it for Bolivianos. Some places actually prefer you to pay in USD but be aware that the exchange rates can be pretty bad.


At the time of writing Argentina has been experiencing a period of economic unrest. As such they have introduced numerous sanctions to try and stabilise their economy. These are aimed at their own citizens but affect  tourists just as much. If you’re really interested there are lots of economics articles that will explain it much better than i can. The point is you can’t withdraw much in one go from ATM’s and it’ll probably cost you a fair bit. Don’t be worried though as there is a black market for USD as Argentineans try and ride out the crisis. The Blue Dollar rate will save you 30% or more on your trip to Argentina. Take as many USD as you are comfortable taking and exchange them for the much better Blue Dollar rate on the street. If you run out of USD, pop into Chile or Uruguay to withdraw more. Be aware that the Blue Dollar trade is illegal but exists in a grey zone. As long as the police don’t physically see you exchanging the money they don’t care. They want dollars over pesos as much as anyone else.


We didn’t spend much time in Uruguay, only visiting Colonia. However the shops and cafes there allowed us to pay in USD, Euro, Argentine pesos as well as the local currency. We only tried one ATM and it did charge us quite a bit, but this may not be the rule.


Again we only visited Paraguay briefly. From what we understand the USD is easily accepted. We weren’t charged for our ATM withdrawal and we could withdraw USD. As with Bolivia your money will go a long way. We withdrew £40 for our day in Paraguay, we still had over £30 at the end of the day.


Brazil gave us the most hassle when it came to withdrawals. Some ATM’s won’t allow you to withdraw cash. I don’t mean some banks i mean some specific machines. The best thing to do is to try every machine in each bank you visit, when you find one that works remember which one it was. Santander didn’t charge us for withdrawals. The USD is best exchanged into the local currency in cities but tours in more touristy areas can be paid for with it.


You can usually withdraw between 300,000 and 600,000 COP in one go from an ATM (£75-£150) BancoColombia ATM’s were really easy to use and didn’t charge us any additional fees. They also allowed us to withdraw the upper amount of 600,000 COP. The ATM’s are nearly always inside a bank or a lobby for use after hours. These lobbies always have excellent air conditioning, great for cooling off when you’re out and about!

How Much Should You Save and Budget for South America?

Expanding on my first blog on How to Budget for Backpacking and Long-term Travel, I thought it would be good to provide some more detail on how much we budgeted for our trip in South America….

Loosely we used the £1000/$1600 a month rule as a basis

With an outward flight booked just before the start of March, we at least wanted to last until Christmas, 10 months later. So using the rule above,  £10,000* each sounded like a good total to save.

*It took 2 years of scrimping but we got there!

In more detail…

Once we browsed a bookstore we used the following prices as daily spends (all in US dollars, correct as of Sept 2013). We used these as a further basis for our budget…we took the comfortable (upper) daily budgets then we planned for a month in each country …


  Total for 30 days
Argentina $50 (Basic) $80 (comfortable) $2,400
Bolivia $15 $28 $840
Brazil $55 $85 $2,550
Chile $40 $60 $1,800
Colombia $50 $90 $2,700
Ecuador $25 $40 $1,200
The Guianas $65 $90 n/a*
Paraguay $30 $50 $1,500
Peru $25 $35 $1,050
Uruguay $30 $50 $1,500
Venezuela $60 $70 $2,100
Grand Total $16,140/£9,595


*Not on our itinerary.

So here the £1,000 a month rule works out pretty well…

However given that we hope to stay for longer and also get to Central America we will be trying to stick to the basic budget when actually travelling. For the last two months this basic budget has been going pretty well….Brazil during Carnival was a real test…but we are just about sticking to it.

Not saved as much as you’ve hoped/or want to stay longer?

Seems simple but spend less time in the more expensive countries and like us stay longer in Peru and Bolivia! In the end we settled for 2 weeks in Brazil as opposed to 1 month – this saved us an awful lot of money but meant we had to be super organised and keep our plans concise.

Hope this table is helpful to start planning your trip!

5 Tips: How to Budget for Backpacking and Long-term Travel

It’s a fairly common question that most backpackers will ask or at least google when they begin planning a trip but you’d be surprised how difficult it is to know how much to save. Here are our top tips for budgeting…

1. Always over estimate

Sounds obvious but it is way better to have too much money for your stay than too little. If you have a little extra it means you can splash out once in a while or do an expensive activity you’ve always wanted to do. For us it was a scuba diving course in Koh Tao.

Lauren Young 189

2. Use the £1000 a month rule

When we were travelling through multiple countries in 6 months we used the rule above. Whilst during a month in Australia we spent a quite a bit more than £1000, what we saved during our two months in South East Asia, meant it averaged out. So if you are travelling through multiple countries that vary in how expensive they are, this can sometimes be a fairly straightforward way to get started.

3. Spend an afternoon in a bookstore or library. The Internet can be a minefield of opinions on budgets.

It would be very expensive (and not to mention it would weigh a lot!) to buy a travel guide for every destination on the average backpackers itinerary. However we found it very useful, when initially planning a trip, to browse the travel guides and maybe take a few handy snaps or notes on your iPhone…ssshhh we know it’s frowned upon. Travel guides generally have a section near the front or the front of each country section that will give you an average daily spend. Often this daily spend is in the form of a basic, comfortable and luxury budget. Find out the “comfortable’ or midrange daily spend and times it by the number of days you hope to spend there, and if you keep yourself frugal you should be covered for most of the stuff you want to do!

This isn’t a bookstore, it’s just a random book shelf in a hostel…in case you had forgotten what a book looks like…

4. Have a separate budget for extras

On this trip the Inca Trail and scuba diving are the must do activities. When we started planning we kept these separate in the budget to insure we would be able to them. I.e. we had an extra £500 for the Inca Trail set aside. In writing this I’ve realised we should probably also have some money separated for a flight home…we don’t…so it’s probably also a good idea to budget for this if you don’t have all your flights booked from the beginning! Either that or get yourself deported…but that’s really not recommended!

5. Keep an eye on the news

If a country isn’t doing too well financially, any prices listed in guide books in the local currency may become useless. Thankfully the daily budgets mentioned above are usually listed in US dollars so they are fairly safe to plan from. However with Argentina we found all the prices listed for activities were completely wrong due to inflation. On the flip-side keeping an eye on the news meant we quickly became aware of the blue dollar that has saved us a lot of money.

Oh and one more…

Don’t forget to budget for insurance, flights, immunisations, anti-malarials, and your kit and rucksack etc. Again keep this separate if you can, as all this can add up quickly! As for the travel kit – speak to friends and ex-backpackers as they may well have gear you can borrow.


The Ultimate Packing List

Like many we spent days, no probably months, deciding what to pack for our year long trip. In South America there will be multiple climates so here is the final list of what we packed. We will amend as we go, in case there is anything we realise we have forgotten, but hopefully this should help a few of you get on your way…


  • 2 Digital SLRs – Canon 700D + 450D
  • Spare batteries for both cameras
  • Lens cleaner brush
  • Tamron 80-300m Lens
  • Canon 50m Lens
  • Gorilla Pod tripod
  • 2 laptops – Macbook Air 11inch + Acer C720 Chromebook
  • 2 Western Digital Passport Drives 2GB + 1GB
  • 2 eReaders – Amazon Kindle Paperwhites
  • Travel speaker – Veho Bluetooth Speaker
  • External batteries – Muvi Pebble + Jelly Bean
  • 2 mobile phones – Iphone 5 and Nexus 4

Chargers + Cables

  • Both chargers for the laptops
  • Kindles and Nexus 4 use the same charger so you only need one!
  • IPhone 5 charger
  • Muji World Travel Adapter with USB charger – allowed us to leave most of the 3-pin UK plugs at home i.e. for iPhone 5, Kindle etc.
  • 2 Canon battery chargers – unfortunately those models do not use the same charger!
  • Headphone splitter
  • 2 sets of headphones


Other Essentials

  • 2 Osprey Farpoint 55 Rucksacks
  • 2 Ebag packing cubes – great for all the small things, cables or underwear etc.
  • Head torch
  • Pocket torch
  • Extendable padlock – great for securing your bag to things
  • 2 additional padlocks each – one for the day bag and one for the main rucksack
  • 2 cash stashes – put a large denomination note in it and clip somewhere to clothing just in case (Lauren recommends your bra strap!)
  • Small notebook
  • 2 pens
  • 2 pencils
  • Pencil Sharper
  • Rubber
  • 1 copy of Rough Guide South America on a Budget – we have it on the Kindle too but wanted a hard copy to thumb
  • Inflatable neck cushion
  • Money belt or even better try Clever Travel Companion underwear
  • 2 dirty laundry bags (one each of course!)
  • Pack Mate compression bags (a vital space saver!)
  • 2 cotton sleeping bag liners
  • Roll of Gaffa Tape



  • 3 Lush Shampoo Bars – should be enough for a year
  • 2 bars of Neutrogena Facial Soap – Lauren cant live without!
  • Small bottle of body wash – hotels tend to give you more little bottles so you shouldn’t run out!
  • L’Oreal Extraordinary Hair Oil – you only need a tiny amount so it meant we could leave the conditioner at home!
  • Face Moisturizer
  • 3 Muji 100ml Travel Containers – most products come in ridiculous packing so decant products into these to loose the bulk!
  • Tooth Paste
  • 2 toothbrushes
  • 2 toothbrush covers – great for sticking your toothbrush in your bag on flights etc.
  • 2 roll-on deodorants
  • 1 comb
  • 1 hairbrush
  • 2 bottles of Nivea sun cream
  • Mini bottle of antibacterial gel
  • 4 small zip seal sandwich bags – so many uses!
  • 2 wash bags – so we can split items between the 2 of us
  • 2 face towels
  • Mini pack of cotton buds
  • Hair bands and hair clips
  • Muji travel sewing kit (so tiny!)
  • Insect repellent – we went for 100% DEET
  • LifeVenture Bite Click Relief
  • Small medical kit – we choose to make our own as was cheaper and easier.
  • Anti-malarials
  • Mooncup – essential for the ladies! Google for more info.
  • 2 travel towels – not all hotels and hostels supply them.
  • 1 bottle of multi purpose wash – useful when you need to hand wash things!
  • Face wipes/wipes for long coach journeys

Medical Kit

  • Painkillers
  • Anti-diarrhea tabs
  • Plasters
  • Tape bandage
  • Dressings
  • Safety pins
  • Anti-septic cream


Clothes (Lauren)

  • Walking boots
  • Walking sandals
  • Flip-flops
  • 6 pairs of socks + one thick pair
  • 10 pairs of pants
  • 2 bras + 1 travel bra (essential for sleeping on buses etc, Iain cant live without his!)
  • Swimming Costumes – 2 Bikinis
  • Sarong – useful when you don’t have a beach towel and can be used as picnic blanket, scarf etc
  • 4 vest tops
  • 4 t-shirt tops/tops with shoulders
  • 2 long sleeved shirts
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 2 pairs of chino trousers
  • 2 dresses – one short, one maxi
  • Skirt
  • Leggings
  • Light jumper
  • Cashmere mix black V-neck – can be layered under my fleece
  • Hooded micro fleece
  • Woolen hat and gloves
  • Fleece buff (neck scarf thing)
  • Light scarf, pashmina – lots of uses, especially handy if your shoulders burn easily!
  • Merino Thermals (Lauren gets cold easily so lots of layers is a must!)
  • Waterproof
  • Clever travel companion underwear – has pockets sewn in for valuables, highly recommend!)
  • Sunglasses!!!

Clothes (Iain)

  • 3 T-shirts
  • Polo shirt
  • 3 shirts long sleeved
  • Pair of chinos
  • 2 pairs of convertible trousers
  • ¾ length shorts
  • Swimming trunks
  • Thermals
  • Micro Fleece
  • Soft shell jacket
  • 9 pairs of socks
  • 9 boxers
  • Waterproof
  • Gloves and Hat
  • Buff
  • Walking Boots
  • Walking Sandals
  • Flip-flops



Lets face it ladies, most of the time it will be too hot to wear it so just bring the basics!

  • Light powder (probably could of left this at home)
  • Concealer
  • Mini bronzer/blush
  • Waterproof mascara
  • 3 eye pencils, black, bronze and gold – bronze and gold double up as eye shadow
  • 2 lip balms – Vaseline Aloe Vera (lots of uses), and small roll on one for my pocket

*As we travel we will be reviewing some of the above mentioned products so look out on our product reviews page.

Things we packed last time that we left at home this time…

  • 2 sleeping bags – we used them for 2 weeks in New Zealand but could have easily done without them. Not regretting leaving them behind yet…
  • 2 mosquito nets – used them once last time. They fell down half way through the night and we didn’t bother again. If we need them this time I’m sure we can acquire them.
  • Books – invest in a Kindle!!! Books in English are expensive abroad and you can only carry so many!


Long Term Backpacker Travel Insurance

If any of you have started looking at your options for long term travel insurance, you will have found that it’s a little trickier than you first think.

First of all its worth pointing out that annual travel insurance policies will not cover you for long term travel – most have a stipulation that any single trip can only be up to 90 days in length.

Secondly the insurance companies that you would usually turn to for your two-week holidays, in our experience will quote ridiculous figures for any trips over a few months in length. For example when budgeting for a year long trip we were quoted figures of £1000+ each! Needless to say this was not an option.

An additional problem some of you might also relate to is that we needed a policy we could extend. When purchasing insurance most companies need to know you start and end date for travel. Most also require you to begin and end your journey in your home country. If like us you do not know when or where you will finish your journey, or might perhaps have already started travelling then you might want to consider some of the options below.

*Please note these are only suggestions and should be used as a guide only. We would recommend you do your own additional research and always read the full policy before purchasing to ensure its right for your circumstances.

World Wide Insure

  •  This is the company we chose in the end. We paid £620 (£310 each) for a 10 month policy that can be extended during the policy period. They also insure those who have already commenced travel.

World Nomads

Navigator Travel

 True Traveller

*Planning on doing activities and sports…always check what’s covered first!! Each company above varies so read up on each policy.

If like us you found the options above lacked the required amount of gadget cover then this policy might also be worth considering.


  • A £400 item limit on our policy failed to cover our cameras or laptops so we paid this company an additional £100 approx. to ensure we were covered.

We have (thankfully!) never had to claim on any of the policies above so unfortunately we are unable to comment on this aspect. However we hope you find the information above useful.