God, Send Me an ATM
Using the currency in Morocco—the Moroccan dirham—was my first experience using foreign currency. In comparison to America's collection of silver, brown, or green long-dead presidents, Moroccan currency was beautiful. I thought it was amazing to have money with so many different colors, patterns, and sizes, but getting that pretty money proved to be problematic.
In 2017, 10 dirhams was equal to about $1, which proved to really stretch the value of the American dollar. However, it didn't matter how affordable living expenses were when I couldn't even get the cash in the first place.
But what about your credit card? one may ask. Sure, there were places that accepted credit/debit cards, but having cash was easier than having to whip my card out 5 times a day for 10 days. Cash made it easier to split meals, shop in the markets, and allowed me to avoid my bank's 30% charge with every foreign swipe. I was praying to god to give me access to viable currency, a feat which shouldn't be that difficult, but alas, it was a struggle.
There are many ways to go about the "I need acceptable money to survive in this country" issue.
You can exchange at your American bank, exchange at the airport, get a new card exclusively for travel, use your normal credit/debit card abroad, open up a Moroccan bank account . . . the possibilities are (almost) endless because money really does make the world go 'round. Some options are more practical than others, and it really depends on your situation, but let me tell you what I did:
I dislike using airport exchanges because they charge a high rate. Actually, I dislike using private exchanges in general because most of their rates are high, or at least higher than I wanted them to be. Instead, I chose to use my American bank card to get Moroccan bills out of Moroccan ATMs. Even though my American bank account charges $5 every time I used a foreign ATM, that still amounted to less than an exchange desk would have charged me.
But the ATM gods were not on my side.
Every time I looked for an ATM, I struck out. The ones in the airport weren't working, there weren't any at the shopping center, there weren't any near the university, and so forth. In fact, it took a couple of days for me to get my hands on an ATM, a random one we found outside of a tiny mall on the outskirts of a market (and that one ran out of money after 3 uses).
Despite a reasonable amount of ATMs growing wild around the cities—usually near banks and sometimes near shopping centers and hotels—most of the ones I encountered were broken or empty. Maybe the gods didn't deem me worthy, or maybe I just had some bad luck, but trying getting my hands on an ATM was absolutely anxiety inducing.
That is why whenever I found a functional ATM I praised the money gods and made sure to take out enough cash to last me (ideally) the entire trip. In the end, I had to use an ATM 2 or 3 times over the course of 10 days because of unexpected expenses and being worried I'd run out of money. It wasn't an ideal scenario, but I felt pinned into a corner every step of the way.
But a bank? I didn't think of that!
Just when I thought the money gods were trying to ruin my chances of buying dinner, tipping my van driver, or purchasing that souvenir camel, I found myself unexpectedly exchanging money at a bank. Yes, it was an actual, physical bank with tellers, fluorescent lights, and a bowl of stale candy on the back table.
You see, when an ATM once again refused to function, I entered the bank that it was attached to. To my surprise, the bank did currency exchanges! To my knowledge they did not charge an exchange rate, and if they did, it wasn't high enough for me to remember. This exchange situation was probably the smoothest I had over the entire trip, especially because they could give me smaller bills and coins (which came in handy because many businesses—especially in the markets—did not have change for large bills).
But, hey, at the end of the day I had just enough cash in pocket that my stress proved to be very unnecessary.