On our South Pacific cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas we were sitting with another passenger who was not impressed that when he made a payment on his SeaPass account he only got USD$0.63 for each AUD$1.00 when the exchange rate that day was USD$0.74. I’ve also read a number of complaints from others on blogs and forums, with people questioning why this is and if Royal is taking a cut beyond the 3% exchange fee they publicise.
I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that there are factors that can influence it. For example, it is possible for Royal Caribbean to buy say AUD$100,000,000 at the start of the Australian season for a ship at an exchange rate of USD$0.63. They can then operate the entire season off the Australian dollars they purchased to start with, they then know exactly what their Australian budget is for the season and while there can be unexpected costs it allows them to know pretty close to exactly what their expenditure is going to be. This means they can plan for the season more cost effectively. It also means that for the duration of the cruise season the exchange rate when exchanging on board the ship is the rate that they purchased Australian currency at to start with. This means the exchange rate on board the ship remains the same and simplifies currency exchange for crew and passengers by allowing them to know exactly what it is for the entire season.
The downside of this is that since exchange rates fluctuate every day and passengers are getting more and more connected and savvy of these fluctuations, they feel like they are getting ripped off if they get a worse rate than what it is on the day. The question is, would they still complain if they got a better rate than the daily rate because Royal bought it at a high rate. The flip side is, if Royal buys when the exchange rate is low it does save them money and allows them to keep the cruise costs down (you may have noticed Australian cruises tend to be more expensive than most other places in part due to how expensive port taxes are here, so if they can reduce that cost by getting a better exchange rate they can reduce the cruise cost, same with food and other supplies).
So that is my theory on the exchange rate. I could be wrong as I am purely speculating, but many companies that operate internationally do trade currencies this way, so it would not surprise me.
How can you beat it?
It might be beneficial for Royal Caribbean, and it might keep your cruise costs down, but how can you get them down even further by beating the exchange rate? I’ll tell you what I do. Please note that this is not financial advice, it is not a sales pitch, I don’t get any kickbacks, and I’m not qualified to give financial advice so you should take anything I say with a grain of salt and assess the suitability of it to your own situation.
I use a QANTAS Cash travel card for most expenses inluding all on board expenses and then have a Westpac Platinum credit card as a backup. I’ve never found I need the backup if I plan out sufficiently in advance, but you never know so I have it safely with me just in case.
From the research I’ve done, I’ve found that almost every exchange including credit cards will charge you around 3% currency exchange fees, Royal Caribbean’s exchange fee is the same. The difference tends to come down to what other fees apply. If you purchase foreign cash at a Travelex for example you pay a $12 exchange fee regardless of how much cash you get, or if you have a loyalty card you can get it down to a $6 fee. On my Westpac credit card there is a $0.20 exchange fee in addition to the 3%.
The QANTAS cash travel card is the only method I’ve found that does not charge any kind of additional fee while also allowing you to obtain the current daily rate. It only charges the 3% currency exchange fee. You then have two choices with it, load Australian dollars onto it and then let Heritage Bank (the provider of the card facility) do the exchange for you each time you make a foreign purchase, or you can load funds directly into a foreign currency, eg USD.
You can load funds by bank transfer (the quickest way), BPay, or by debit card (an additional 1% fee applies to this one), and there are ways to get better rates. I find if you load directly into USD or any other currency you get a slightly better rate than if you let the bank do the exchange for you when you make a purchase. For example, looking at it today I can load USD at a rate of $0.74 if I load directly. If I make a purchase in USD using AUD though the rate is $0.73. I’ve observed this many times and it is usually around $0.01 difference to the rate. Not a lot, but it does add up if you are loading a fair amount of money.
Loading directly to a foreign currency also allows you to lock in an exchange rate. For example, you can see the rate is currently $0.74 and that is a lot better than it was a month ago at around $0.69 so you can load as much as you want at the current rate knowing that you got better value for your AUD. Just think if you loaded AUD$1000 before your cruise and locked in that rate, you would be getting an extra USD$50.
From time to time QANTAS also run promotions that allow you to get bonus frequent flyer points when you load, to save on the exchange rate when you load, to save on exchange fees when you load, and so on. So if you are savvy with it you can often get a pretty good deal and get much better rates than you would on board.
Using QANTAS Cash on your cruise
I set the QANTAS Cash travel card as my ship credit card. It is a MasterCard, it is just prepaid so there is no line of credit like on an actual credit card. This means any ship charges will go to my QANTAS Cash travel card. Since the ship charges are in USD, they are billed to my USD funds and there are no surprises. I know I have enough money, I know exactly what it costs and as a bonus, I earn 1 frequent flyer point per Australian dollar spent in a foreign currency.
So prior to our cruise I loaded AUD$1000 onto the QANTAS Cash travel card directly into USD. The rate wasn’t as good as it is at the moment, but after fees, I ended up with just over USD$700. I also loaded AUD$1000 onto the QANTAS Cash travel card as Australian dollars. The reasons I do this are twofold. The first is for backup, if I run out of USD then any further charges can be billed to the AUD funds and converted on the day, this did happen and I still ended up with a better rate than the ship’s rate. The second reason is in case there are charges in another currency. For example, South Pacific Francs in New Caledonia or Fijian Dollars in Fiji. AUD is my default currency which means that any charges in a currency that is not loaded or not supported by the QANTAS Cash travel card will be billed to the AUD funds. This saves me on exchange fees. How?
Well, every time you exchange currencies you pay the 3% exchange fee. So if I only loaded USD and paid the 3% fee, but then spent XPF in New Caledonia, I would then pay another 3% to convert the USD to XPF. Thus I would be spending around 6% of my XPF purchase on exchange fees. If I have AUD on the card though then I only pay the 3% to convert AUD to XPF, thus maintaining the lowest possible exchange fee. Depending on how you swing it if the value of my USD had gone up since I bought it then that might actually balance out the additional fee anyway, but personally I’d prefer to just save the extra money.
Obviously this is only practical in places where you can use a MasterCard, and if you need cash then that is another story. That said, you can withdraw cash from the QANTAS Cash travel card at any ATM that takes MasterCard around the world. The deal is the same as purchases, 3% exchange fee. The only difference is that there is an additional AUD$1.95 ATM withdrawal fee if you withdraw at a foreign ATM. Still the most cost effective way to get foreign cash that I’ve found. You can see the full list of fees on the QANTAS Cash website here.
One final thing to note is that in the fine print on the QANTAS Cash travel card terms, it cannot be used for gambling expenses. Not an issue for us since we don’t gamble, but if in doubt, don’t use it for anything related to the casino, use your backup card instead. The last thing you want is for your card to be suspended while you are away!