Spanish for travel

The Never Ending Struggle for Change

Humor, Travel Commentary, Travel Tips

Small bills while traveling

In the developing world they lack many things like clean water, infrastructure, stable governments and pizza delivery. But the one thing as a foreigner that drives me crazy is a lack of small bills or change.

It is usually incumbent upon the customer to supply correct change at all transactions. Even at the best restaurants that cater to tourists or ticket windows at famous attractions they keep only a smattering of coins.

As a result, acquiring small bills is a game. I relentlessly hoard small bills like a Glenn Beck devotee hoards gold and rice.

Virtually every transaction in a 3rd world country starts with me giving the merchant/waiter/ticket-taker a bill and before they even look at it, they say, “Do you have change?” I always present the largest reasonable bill I have. If I buy a bottle of water for 10 pesos, I’ll present a 100 note. If I buy a corona and tamale for 40 pesos, I’ll present a 200 note. In this way, I get the maximum amount of change without creating too much angst for the merchant and looking like a rich foreign jerk.

One thing I have learned is that McDonalds always has the GDP of the country you are in stashed away in each cash register. Sometimes I will take an unbreakable, mint-condition bill fresh from the ATM and buy french fries. I will get back in line and buy a chocolate shake with another large bill. By using two different transactions, I get a stash of small bills. McDonalds McBank: I’m Lovin’ It!

Even with the best hoarding, I sometimes find myself having to hand over a 100 note to a taxi driver after a ride for 60. “No change,” they always say, expecting to keep the rest. “No problem. I have change,” I lie so that they will hand the bill back. I dramatically hold up the bill and say, “I’ll be back. I will go find change,” and take off walking towards nearby shops. Magically, this act creates exact change in the pocket of the driver, who usually peels it off the top of a brick of cash he has been hoarding.

How a typical transaction works in developing countries

I go into a small shop to buy a bottle of water. The price is 30 rupees. I hand the merchant a 100 rupee note. He looks at it and immediately says, “No change?”

I shrug my shoulders. The merchant then looks at the bill again, like I just handed him a 100,000 USD note. He then opens a cigar box and rummages around noisily, dramatically checks his empty wallet and pats around his various pockets in a gesture to show that he has no money. He then blurts out in his native language something to the random guys and employees in the shop. Everyone opens their wallet and peers deep inside, turning it upside down and dramatically dumping it signaling that they have no change.

Small bills Cartoon

At this time one of three things happens:

  1. Reluctantly, a random guy in the shop, maybe even a fellow customer, has change and gives it to the merchant. (I always wonder how this works, if there are ever disputes days later when he tries to get paid back.)

  2. The merchant gives my bill to a random boy in the shop, probably his youngest son or an intern, and sends him running for change. This must be very insulting. You know you are the low end of the totem pole when you have to fetch coffee, clean up on aisle 4 and get change for foreigners. The boy returns after an extended absence with change.

  3. After the merchant badgers everyone in his native tongue and asks me three more times for small bills, he reluctantly, with an air of profound defeat, reaches into his pocket and pulls out a brick of cash with notes in every denomination. Money in foreign countries usually has different sizes and colors for different denominations so the stack of money  looks like the sedimentary layers of rock in Utah canyons. From this he provides change.

When I get the change, I then reach into my pocket and retrieve a stack of small bills and begin triumphantly organizing the money I just won.

Do you also hoard bills?

What annoys you about travel?

Follow me on Social Media as I travel the world scavenging for coins and small bills

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Currently living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~

23 thoughts on “The Never Ending Struggle for Change”

  1. Foreign currency always gets me! One of my pet peeves is Canada. Many of their smaller denominations are now in the form of coins. The biggest problem I have with that is when you try to exchange your “left over” money at the end of the trip, they don’t take back coins. Usually, the last few days of my trips are spent exacerbating merchants with transactions conducted exclusively in coins. Sometimes I don’t mind getting coins, like a few years ago, we went to Croatia before they joined the Euro. I hoarded their coins and bills because now they are out of circulation. I doubt it will be worth anything until my great, great, great, great (you get the idea) grandkids have great, great, great grandkids. And probably not even then.

    • Sounds like you have the opposite problem in Canada. I like to always keep a few coins from each country I visit, but I always end up finding stashes of small bills and coins in assorted pockets when I get home. Sometimes I play the game too well.

  2. We’ve frequently encountered the “no change” problem, most often with taxi drivers. Just a few days ago in Istanbul when we insisted upon getting change it came in a mix of $US and Euros. Still, in the end it was only about $1 short so we could live with that.
    McBank is a great tip! Thanks.

    • With McBank, you not only get change, but french fries and a milkshake too! Great deal.

      I think taxi/tuk tuk/auto rickshaw drivers are the worst. The service has already been rendered so you have to figure out payment somehow.

      When you are in Egypt, make sure the taxi driver understand payment will be in Egyptian pounds, not British pounds.

  3. Too funny! I totally forgot about having to hoard small bills while traveling in third-world countries. Totally frustrating, I agree, but realizing how we take all those small things for granted at home and learning to deal with it in clever ways is part of the charm, too. I love your tip of getting out of the cab to go find change. I will definitely be trying that one!

  4. Going to Canada is always strange for me; I rarely get a bill smaller than a 10!

    By the way, you’ve been chosen as one of today’s nine blogs in That’s So Jacob’s Ninth Month Blog Challenge (! I challenge you to find nine blogs you find interesting and give them a comment to brighten their day…well, eight other blogs and mine 🙂 Copy this message in your comment and enjoy your new blog friends!

  5. I don’t really hoard change but you just made me realise the importance of having small change when overseas! Haha! I shall try your method next time a taxi claims not to have change – look for those golden arches! Hehe..😆

  6. Nowhere was this more of an issue than in Peru. It became a quest of similar proportions to searching for a new continent.

  7. After this popular post, there are going to be taxis all over the world wondering why everyone comes back to them with the same line!

  8. I hoard small bills during travel regardless developed or developing countries, perhaps that’s because of my living experience in a third world country 😀 In Indonesia, they offered you candies to replace the change. Terrible! I hope by now it changes.

    • Oh yeah, I’ve gotten candies on several occasions. I made sure and had a stack of rupiah in Indonesia, but I felt like taxi drivers were more honest there and change wasn’t quite as scarce.

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