As most folks know, pretty much every country in Central America has its own currency.  This can be frustrating if you don’t plan ahead and/or are bad at mental math.  These are a few tips to make sure you spend your money in the most efficient way possible.

1.     DON’T CARRY A LOT OF CASH – This is just basic travel savvy.  You should know that if you lose cash for whatever reason, you’re not getting it back.  Have a little cash on you, both in dollars and the local currency, a credit card and a photo ID (most places require photo ID to swipe a card).  And, don’t forget to have a back-up card hidden somewhere in case you lose the one you’re carrying.  If you do a lot of traveling, get a card that has no international transaction fees.

2.     DON’T USE THE MONEY EXCHANGE AT THE AIRPORT – These places are conveniently located so they can give you the worst exchange rate available.  For example, at the San José International Airport, the rate is about 460 colones to the dollar.  The actual exchange rate is closer to 540 colones to the dollar if you exchange at a bank.  That’s 15 cents on the dollar they’re taking from you just for the convenience of getting your currency exchanged at the airport.  The simple solution is to make an ATM withdrawal in the local currency in order to have some money when you exit the airport.  If you want to exchange dollars after that, any bank will give you a fair exchange rate.  All you need is your passport.

3.     TRY NOT TO SPEND DOLLARS IN THE STREET – Depending on where you are, you probably won’t get the best exchange rate if you spend dollars when you’re out and about.  Either get some local currency or use a credit card when possible.  But, rest assured that an American $20 bill is accepted almost anywhere in the world.

4.     EXCHANGE ALL LOCAL CURRENCY BEFORE LEAVING A COUNTRY – If you find yourself with a surplus of local currency right before you cross the border, go to a bank and exchange it for US dollars.  The reason is that even though Central America is small, neighboring countries usually don’t accept their neighbor’s currency.  And if they do, you probably will get a terrible exchange rate.

5.     PANAMA USES DOLLARS – One less thing to worry about.  It’s their official currency.  There are still a few “balboa” coins floating around, but don’t worry if you get some in your change.  The exchange rate is: $1 US = 1 balboa.  Piece of cake.

6.     KEEP TRACK OF PRICES – It’s painful sometimes, but any smart travel knows approximately how much he/she is paying in dollars.  Do the math and don’t pay more than you have to for stuff.  Don’t get me wrong, it can be confusing:

$20 US = 10,800 colones CR = 573 cordobas NIC = 457 lempira HON

Tourist areas are going to be more expensive, but make sure you’re getting the going rate.