Whether you're about to make a trip to the United States or have just recently returned from the United Kingdom, you can save money by doing some research in advance and by becoming familiar with the concept of exchange rates. While you will never get the exact exchange rate – banks and other exchange services always take a cut – if you know the day's exchange rate, you can see who's playing fair.
Finding Today's Exchange Rate
Exchange rates fluctuate constantly. The easiest way to find current rates is by looking online: Most major search engines and portals have a financial tool or financial page for this function. In the first currency box, type "GBP," "British pounds" or "pounds sterling"; in the second goes "USD," "United States dollars" or "U.S. dollars."
Where Can I Exchange GBP and USD?
As a general rule, there are three possible locations for exchanging money in your hometown: banks, bureaux de change and travel agencies. British pounds are a common currency that you can expect to find at most bureaux de change and travel agencies, but not all banks offer international currency. So always call ahead and, no matter what sort of money exchanger you're going to, inquire about their exchange rate and any exchange fees, sometimes called commissions. Also, ask whether the company has the currency on hand or needs to order it in. To get an accurate answer, you'll need to give them a sense of how much you plan to exchange. And for banks, ask whether you must have an account with them in order to buy or exchange foreign currency.
Making the Exchange
How you exchange pounds for dollars depends not only on the exchange rate and fees, but on how quickly you need to make the exchange. With banks and travel agencies in both the U.K. and the U.S., you might be able to make the exchange on the spot, or you might have to make a second trip to pick up the new currency – always call ahead to be sure. In some cases, travel agencies can deliver currency to your home or send it to the airport for pickup.
Keep in mind that you might need an account at the bank in question to make your exchange. At most travel agencies you don't have to be an established customer, but you might have to pay an extra fee when they buy back your British pounds. If you're in a big hurry or desperately short of cash, the quickest and easiest way to exchange your pounds for dollar is to visit the airport's bureau de change. Simply hand over the pounds and receive dollars in return. But in exchange for this quick convenience, you usually pay significantly higher fees, or get a worse exchange rate, than you'd receive at other establishments.
Because bureaux de change have cash on hand, their rates are typically the least favorable.
While cash is useful for taxi fares, tips and small purchases, it's also very easy to steal. Consider using travelers' checks instead -- they have tracking numbers and can be replaced if stolen.