While traveling in Argentina, it makes sense to have a variety of money alternatives. International credit cards are widely accepted, and foreign ATM cards work almost everywhere. Because ATMs are open 24 hours, many visitors prefer this alternative, but economic instability and occasional regulations that limit cash withdrawals for Argentines have made Argentine ATMs iffy at times; carry a cash reserve in U.S. dollars (rather than euros; though the European currency is gaining credibility, it’s not an everyday item, especially outside Buenos Aires). Argentine ATMs have recently imposed fees (about US$4) on each withdrawal, so it pays to make fewer withdrawals of larger amounts.
Travelers checks may be the safest way to carry money, since they’re refundable in case of loss or theft, but changing them outside Buenos Aires can be a frustrating experience even when stability reigns.
If carrying an emergency cash reserve, use an inconspicuous leg pouch or money belt—not the bulky kind that fits around the waist, which thieves or robbers easily recognize, but a zippered leather belt that looks like any other.
Banknotes exist in denominations of 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 pesos. Coins exist in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50 centavos, and one peso; one-centavo coins have nearly disappeared and most businesses generally round off prices to the nearest 5 or 10 centavos.
Counterfeiting of both U.S. and foreign currency appears to be increasing. Merchants will often refuse a U.S. banknote with the smallest tear or writing on it; at the same that they will accept any peso note that is not flagrantly trucho (bogus). On any Argentine banknote, look for the conspicuous watermark with the initials of the historical figure depicted on it—JSM for José de San Martín on the five-peso note, for instance.
For the most up-to-date exchange rates, consult the business section of your daily newspaper or an online currency converter such as www.oanda.com. The exchange rate is front-page news on virtually every Argentine daily. The best sources on exchange-rate trends are the financial dailies Ambito Financiero and Buenos Aires Económico.
ATMs, abundant and becoming universal except in a few remote areas, match the best bank rates and are accessible 24-7. Most ATMs, unfortunately, dispense large banknotes, often of Ar$100 and rarely smaller than Ar$50. One way around this problem is to punch in an odd amount, such as Ar$790, in order to ensure getting some smaller notes.
Many Argentine exchange houses, post offices, and other businesses are affiliated with Western Union, making it relatively straightforward to send or receive money from overseas. For a list of Western Union affiliates in Argentina, visit the company’s website (www.westernunion.com). The American Express Money Gram is another alternative; AmEx has a large headquarters in Retiro, Buenos Aires, and affiliates throughout the country.
In an emergency, it’s possible to forward money to U.S. citizens via the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires by establishing a Department of State trust account through its Overseas Citizens Services (Washington, D.C., tel. 202/647-5225); there is a US$20 service charge for setting up the account. It is possible to arrange this as a wire or overnight mail transfer through Western Union (tel. 800/325-6000 in the U.S.); for details, visit the State Department’s website (www.travel.state.gov).
Credit and Debit Cards
Credit cards have been common currency for many years, and in the aftermath of the 2002 peso crisis, when Argentines could not withdraw their savings, their use became even more widespread. Visa and MasterCard are most widely accepted, but there are inconsistencies—a significant number of businesses prefer American Express, sometimes to the exclusion of the others, or even Diner’s Club. Debit cards are also widely accepted, at least those with Visa or MasterCard affiliation, but some automatic readers consider them credit cards (making them impossible to use at places that do not accept credit cards).
There are possible drawbacks to using credit cards. During the 1990s boom years, Argentine merchants generally refrained from the recargo, a surcharge on credit card purchases, because of slow bank payments; many have reinstituted the recargo, which can be up to 10 percent. Note that hotels in particular may offer discounts for payments in cash.
Note that, in general, propinas (gratuities) may not be added to charged restaurant meals. Keep some cash, either dollars or pesos, for tips.
To deal with lost or stolen cards, the major international credit card companies have Buenos Aires representatives: American Express (Arenales 707, Retiro, tel. 011/4310-3000), Diner’s Club (tel. 0800/444-6464), MasterCard (0800/555-0507), and Visa (Avenida Corrientes 1437, 3rd floor, tel. 011/4379-3333).
Argentina imposes a 21 percent impuesto de valor agregado (IVA, value-added tax or VAT) on all goods and services, though this is normally included in the advertised price; if in doubt, ask ¿Incluye los impuestos?. Tax evasion is a national sport, though, and hotel owners often ignore the tax for cash payments.
Tourists, however, may request IVA refunds for purchases of Argentine products valued more than about US$25 from shops that display a “Global Refund” decal on their windows. Always double-check, however, that the decal is not out of date.
When making any such purchase, request an invoice and other appropriate forms. Then, on leaving the country, present these forms to Argentine customs; customs will then authorize payment to be cashed at Banco de la Nación branches at the main international airport at Ezeiza, Aeroparque Jorge Newbery (for flights to neighboring countries), or at Dársena Norte (for ferries to Uruguay). Refunds can also be assigned to your credit card.
At smaller border crossings, however, do not expect officials to be prepared to deal with tax refunds. Some crossings do not even have separate customs officials, but rather are staffed by the Gendarmería (Border Guards), a branch of the armed forces.
In restaurants with table service, a 10 percent gratuity is customary, but in smaller family-run eateries the practice is rare. Taxi drivers are customarily not tipped, but rounding off the fare to the next-highest convenient number is appropriate. Where there is no meter, this is not an issue.
Bargaining is not the way of life in Argentina that it is in some Latin American countries, but in flea or crafts markets the vendor may start at a higher price than he or she expects to receive—avoid insultingly low offers or such a high offer that the vendor will think you a fool. Depending on your language and bargaining skills, you should be able to achieve a compromise that satisfies everybody.
Even in some upscale Buenos Aires shops, prices for items like leather jackets may be open to negotiation.
Student discounts are relatively few, and prices are so low for most services that it’s rarely worth arguing the point. Students, though, may arrange discount international airfares.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition