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For their vacation to Italy last year, Angela Feher and a friend from London had to figure out a workable way to share costs.
"We looked into PayPal, and it would’ve cost us a fee. And Venmo didn’t work," says Feher, communications manager at TripIt, a travel-planning app based in San Francisco.
Despite the rise of peer-to-peer apps to send money online free and easily, many options aren’t available or have usage restrictions outside the U.S., including Venmo, Zelle and Square’s Cash App. You’ll need different cost-effective strategies, an app or otherwise, to split meals and other expenses on international trips with one or more friends.
First, have the right cards and cash
Before leaving, consider payment options that won’t charge you for international use, and see if your traveling companions have these, too:
Credit cards with no foreign transaction fees. Most credit cards charge a fee, usually around 3% of the purchase amount, for transactions made in other countries and placed online from foreign merchants. See if you have or can get a card that keeps foreign purchases fee-free.
Debit cards with no foreign ATM fees. Since most U.S. banks don’t have ATMs abroad, it’s common to be charged a fee to get cash overseas. But some online banks have debit cards that don’t charge foreign transaction or ATM fees, and even reimburse you if an ATM operator does levy a charge.
Foreign currency. Your bank or credit union is likely the cheapest place to get hard currency for your travels, so visit a branch if that’s an option. Airport kiosks and foreign hotels typically don’t offer favorable exchange rates.
On her Italian getaway, Feher mostly paid for meals and activities with a travel credit card that didn’t charge foreign transaction fees; her friend typically used euros she picked up before leaving London.
Then, choose how to split costs
1. Rotate who pays
Trading off might be easiest. This worked best for Feher. She paid for the duo’s train tickets from Venice to Florence, for example, while her friend paid for a pasta-making class.
This strategy can work for large groups, too. Zarak Khan celebrated his 30th birthday with 13 friends in Barcelona for a week and they rotated who paid for meals, museum tickets and other things. One friend tracked all expenses and found that by week’s end, only one had to pay another $14 to make everything come out even.
With this strategy, "you give up a little bit in accuracy, but you gain a lot in overall happiness," says Khan, behavioral innovation director at Maritz, a company near St. Louis that designs and manages incentive, loyalty and travel programs grounded in behavioral science.
"You feel generous or you feel treated," Khan says. "Everyone wins."
2. Use one app to track, another to pay later
Check out a spending tracker for groups. Instead of keeping receipts or using spreadsheets, free and highly rated apps such as Splitwise and Splid keep IOUs organized by group and person. You can split expenses equally or customize the split, such as a situation where in a group of six one person pays 75% and another pays 25% for the group’s city tour. If you want to feel in control of your travel budget, an app that documents who owes what can be reassuring.
Reimburse back in the U.S. When you return, you can use Venmo, cash or another form of payment to square everyone up. This lets you avoid currency conversion fees.
3. Send money with an international transfer app
You may want a different app to settle with friends who live abroad. Some apps such as Wise (formerly TransferWise) and OFX send money online between currencies without the steep costs banks charge for international wire transfers.
» Learn more about the best ways to send money
4. Use an app’s splitting feature if available
Some apps let multiple people pay. Airbnb and Uber both offer this split feature, which can remove the question of who pays for certain accommodations or rides. While it won’t be an option for all expenses, it’s handy and worth keeping an eye out for.
Whatever way you and your friends cover costs, having a plan can make traveling with a partner or group a lot less stressful.
Kelly Soderlund, travel trends expert at travel site Hipmunk, notes how this can keep everyone happier.
"The last thing you want while traveling is to feel obligated to pick up bills for friends without them appreciating or acknowledging it," she says.