Atlanta Airport currency exchange: Watch out for high fees


Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is a seriously big deal. Not only is it the busiest airport in the world, it’s also won an award that named it the most efficient. It’s so big that you may well find yourself spending some time there, even if you aren’t beginning or ending your trip in Atlanta: it’s a major hub.

You might think it’s the ideal place for you to get hold of your foreign currency. But hold on: while you certainly can exchange money at Atlanta Airport, you might not get the best deal there. Here’s some more information on what to look out for.

Where to exchange money at Atlanta Airport?

Being as big as it is, Atlanta Airport doesn’t have just one place you can exchange money. In fact, Travelex boasts 12 outlets there¹. There are stores at numerous concourses encompassing departures and arrivals.

But even though Atlanta Airport is unique in many ways, the currency exchange service you get from Travelex there is the same as everywhere else. Simply put, you can use Travelex in 2 ways²:

  • You can order your money online in advance, and collect it from one of the Travelex stores at the airport.
  • Or you can turn up at one of their stores and buy cash right there.

There’s a big potential advantage to ordering online. It means you can “lock in” the exchange rate you see when you order it. That exchange rate may well be better than the one you see at the store itself. They call the online rate their “best rate.”

You can also choose to get either cash or a pre-paid international money card. That’s handy if you’d rather go cashless - so long as your desired currency is supported³.

So, if you want Travelex’s “best” exchange rate, book it online. If you want the very best exchange rate of all, though, you’ll probably need to look elsewhere...

Should I exchange money in Atlanta Airport?

Take a look at that “best” exchange rate that Travelex offers online. Now compare it to the mid-market exchange rate. There may well be a big difference.

It’s one of those cliches that’s actually true: exchange rates at airports everywhere - not just in Atlanta - can be considered notoriously bad. People passing through an airport are a captive market: they don’t have a lot of other places they can go to get foreign currency, before they arrive at their destination. So, many people put up with the bad rates that airport currency exchangers provide.

But that’s old-fashioned thinking. There are many different ways you can pay for stuff abroad these days: you might not need to exchange any foreign cash at all. A few of the best ways you can do this are listed in the next section.

Before that, here are some tips on how to get a good deal.

Watch out for hidden fees in the exchange rate

A lot of providers offer “zero fees” or “no commission” on currency exchange products. But that probably won’t save you money - because of the exchange rate. Usually, “fee-free” simply means that the fee is concealed within an exchange rate that leaves you with far less foreign currency than you might have expected.

These exchange rates get a markup added on them. So what’s a rate without markup you might ask? The mid-market rate. This is the average of the current buy and sell rates between two currencies. By “marking up” the mid-market rate, currency exchangers are able to pocket the difference. So they’re still making money out of your transfer, even without a fixed fee.

Use a currency converter to check the airport exchange rate

For that reason, it’s always important to compare exchange rates to the real mid-market rate. Use an online currency converter, like those offered by Google, XE and Wise, to see if you’re really happy with the deal you’re being offered.

This is especially important at the airport, where the rate is likely to be even worse than on the high street.

What is the best place to exchange money?

As discussed above, probably not the airport... Here are some alternative ideas.

  • In Atlanta itself. OK, this is a pretty useless idea if you’re just at the airport to interchange. But if you’re actually staying in Atlanta, you might well be able to find better exchange rates in the city itself, rather than at the airport.
  • In your home or destination city. Likewise, you could well find a better deal if you plan to exchange your money overseas - once you’re in your destination city. Or do it at home before you go.
  • Online. As explained above, exchange rates can vary depending on whether you book online or go in person - online is generally better. So consider going online to book money for collection, in advance of your trip.
  • At an ATM. You might well find that you can get a significantly better deal simply by withdrawing cash with your debit card in a foreign ATM. There will be fees, but they often end up being cheaper than using a currency exchange service. What’s more, doing this means you don’t have to travel with a lot of cash.
  • Send money to a local bank account using Wise. If there’s someone you trust in your destination country - a good friend or a family member, for instance - you could consider sending them some money using a service like Wise, and then asking them to withdraw it when you’re there. That way, you’ll get the real mid-market exchange rate, with only a simple and low fee to pay. It’s an easy way to get a deal and you can be sure it’s truly good value.
  • Open a bank account. Heading away for a while? Then get a bank account or a Wise borderless multi-currency account, that offers 40+ currencies and mid-market rate on all conversions. You don’t want to be constantly searching for the best exchange rate. You can also get a Wise debit Mastercard, which you can use your USD balance to pay directly for goods and services.

A quick note about ATMs. It’s often better value to use an ATM than an exchange service, although you probably still won’t get the mid-market rate. Do watch out, though: if you’re given the choice, choose to pay in the foreign currency, not US dollars. If you choose US dollars, the machine will convert your money using dynamic currency conversion, or DCC - which gives a truly terrible exchange rate.

How to avoid paying high fees on your money exchange in Atlanta

There are a few points it’ll pay to remember however you end up getting your foreign currency.

  • Prepare in advance. The later you leave it, the greater the chance you’ll get stuck with a bad deal out of desperation. Spend a little time before your trip and decide on a plan.
  • Get a good deal on the exchange rate. Check an online currency converter and compare whatever deal you’re offered to the mid-market rate. If you’re offered a bad rate, don’t stand for it - keep looking.
  • Don’t get out more than you need. The thing to remember is, the more money you get out, the more you lose out on a bad exchange rate. So try and exchange as little foreign cash as possible.

Enjoy your time at Atlanta Airport - it’s an amazing place. It would be a shame for your time there to be overshadowed by a bad deal on currency exchange.

All sources checked 24. November 2018


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