A New Approach To Avoid Falling Victim To Airport Currency-Exchange Fees

Most people are well-aware that airport currency-exchange kiosks offer terrible exchange rates.  And while it’s easy to avoid those rates when buying foreign currency — by making a withdrawal from an ATM rather than swapping cash – there’s no great alternative for selling unused currency before returning home.  I usually end up stacking my bills and coins in front of a newsstand register and asking the clerk how many bags of M&Ms I can afford.

Of course, I try to avoid this situation by withdrawing money conservatively and charging most expenses to a credit card with no foreign transaction fee.  It’s never perfect, but I usually end up with only $10 or $20 of unspent currency, which I can rationalize blowing at the airport.

This weekend, however, I flew to Montreal for a friend’s bachelor party (for just 9,000 miles round-trip!) and the unthinkable happened: I won money at a casino.  I woke up with $360 Canadian dollars in my wallet and a flight to catch.  And that’s a lot of M&Ms, so I needed to figure out a way to convert my Canadian dollars into U.S. dollars without taking a big loss at the airport kiosks.  I suppose I could have just held onto the currency and used it on my next trip to Canada, but history suggests that there was a much higher chance that I would have lost or misplaced it.

So I decided to try a little experiment.  I’ve discussed my affinity for Starbucks before, and I wondered whether I could dispose of my Canadian cash at a fair exchange rate by loading it onto my Starbucks card.  At the time (according to xe.com), 1 Canadian dollar equaled .9727 American dollars, so I hoped to receive $97.27 for 100 Canadian dollars.  I walked into a Starbucks, handed the barista a $100 Canadian bill, and asked her to reload my card.  She obliged, albeit with a confused facial expression, and I checked the balance on the card as I exited: my balance had increased by exactly $97.27 – from $232.04 to $329.31.

Starbucks Card Balances

Before my flight, I put another $100 on my card (I had managed to spend the rest on my share of the hotel room).

If I had exchanged my Canadian currency at an airport kiosk, I would been charged 1.1121 Canadian dollars for every American dollar, which means that $100 Canadian dollars would have yielded just $89.92 American dollars, and that doesn’t even include the $4.95 “commission” on all transactions.

Airport Kiosk Exchange Rate Board

This was obviously an extreme example, and I appreciate the fact that loading hundreds of dollars onto a Starbucks card won’t appeal to everyone.  That said, I think it’s a very practical solution for anyone with a modest amount of unspent currency for a few reasons.  First, Starbucks are nearly as ubiquitous in major airports as currency-exchange kiosks, so they’re often just as convenient for last-minute currency disposal.  Second, you don’t even need to a Starbucks account to take advantage of these fair rates; you can simply purchase a gift card.  Third, a Starbucks card can be reloaded (or purchased) for just $5, and even if you only have a few dollars worth of currency left, you can presumably use it towards your reload and then charge the balance to a credit card.

So that’s my new approach to dealing with unused foreign currency.  Sorry Mars.

  • This is why you always go to a strip club after the casino. Then you don’t have to go around with enough money to buy coffee for half of Guatemala on your phone.

    Might be better long term value in your idea though, I like the innovation!

    • David


  • Pretty brilliant move. Never enough dollars on the Starbucks account.

    • David

      Haha, exactly!

  • askmrlee

    Extreme hack (in theory): In California, SBUX is required upon customer request to refund the card value if the balance on a gift card is less than $10. For C$100 get C$10 Starbucks cards which would be valued at US$9.73 each. Then cash out at a SBUX store in California. Does anyone else know if SBUX does this in other states? I’ve never tried a cross border SBUX card transaction so I don’t know if this would work. I.e. if SBUX could tell if the card was “foreign”.