The best 5 places to exchange money in Budapest

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As an adjunct lecturer, I heaved a sigh of relief as I rounded off all exercises pertaining to the just concluded academic session and began preparation for the holiday period. Since I have minimal responsibilities during the holidays, I was free to explore my hobby which was travelling across Europe to visit exciting spots. Being undecided on the city to spend my holiday, I cut out three pieces of paper on which I wrote the names of the cities I wish to visit.

On the first piece of paper, I wrote the city of Florence in Italy, on piece two Dubrovnik in Croatia and the last piece Budapest in Hungary. Rolling up the paper pieces into a ball, I placed them in a bowl and blindfolded myself wishing to be as impartial as possible. After rolling around the three balled paper pieces, I finally picked one. Still blindfolded, I straightened out the paper piece I picked and slowly opened the blindfold unsure of what city I had finally chosen.

Lo and behold, Budapest was the city staring back at me from the paper. Congratulating myself on a successful raffle draw, I began making a note of things I will need on the journey. The next step I undertook was to glean information as much as possible from the internet about my destination.

From the information returned from my internet search, one information stood out and that was the fact that despite Hungary (by extension Budapest) being part of the Eurozone, the country has not adopted the Euro as its official currency of use. Although the Euro was a legal tender, the Hungarian Forint remains the official and widespread currency used in the country. This information meant that I have to exchange my euro currency into forints and further research showed that it was better that I made the conversion at my destination rather than at home due to the fluctuating rates. Also, another factor that cropped up was the fact that conducting the exchange at the destination attracts favourable rates.

Armed with this information, I made a booking reservation for a hotel and reserved my flight seat for the journey. The day for departure arrived, I parked my belongings and headed for the airport to join my connecting flight to Budapest.    

Arriving in Budapest

A breathtaking picture of sunset over the Budapest Airport

Hailing a cab, I headed for my hotel and after a quick shower to relax my muscles; I hit the bed for a night rest since I had already eaten on the flight and was too tired to order room service. Waking up the next day, I unpacked my travel bag, did my morning chores and headed for the hotel reception. At the reception, I asked directions for the in-house restaurant where I took my breakfast.

After eating, I kindly asked the waiter for directions to places where I could exchange my euro to the forints; the local currency. With a smile, he sensed my quagmire and offered to serve as a guided tour since he was almost ending his shift. Thanking him, I ordered for a cup of espresso as I awaited his return.

Few minutes afterwards and true to his words he arrived having changed out of his uniform. He requested that we set out immediately to first visit one of popular thoroughfares and perhaps the most talked about street in Central Budapest i.e. the Vaci Street. He said this helps in accomplishing two goals; as it would serve both as a tourist attraction and due to the large number of shops we can carefully pick the place to exchange the euro currency to forints.   

Vaci Street, showing the busy street and beautiful architectural masterpieces
Image Credit: welovebudapest.com

Arriving at Vaci Street, my improvised tour guide explained that the currency exchange rate at many Budapest hotels is usually 10% lower than what is obtainable at licensed outlets. Curious about his explanation, I stopped him in track asking him to give a detailed explanation as the only information I got from my internet search was that due to the currency fluctuations and better rates, it is better to conduct the exchange on arrival at Budapest.

Finding a convenient spot, he said he will explain what he terms the five cardinal rules of currency exchange for tourists. Speaking further, he said he learnt these rules from his father; a sailor who explained these rules to him and he has also found them true from his journeys across Europe. With rapt attention, I listened to his rules. Comfortably sitting down, I remember the quote that travelling is the best form of education.

Changing money in Budapest: 6 must-know tips before you go out there

See the the list down below:

Tip #1: Avoid Exchanging Your Currencies on Arrival at Airport, Train Stations or Lodging Hotel

Reiterating his earlier point about the wide disparity obtainable in exchanging money at the hotel, he added that the airport and the train stations are also places to totally avoid if possible. Apart for the disparity, he explained that buying things at the airport attracts a premium in comparison to purchasing such in the town. However, if necessity dictates that the change of currency, the minimal amount possible should be exchanged.

Tip #2 Avoid the banks and ATMs like a plague

While the rates at hotels and banks might be a bit lower than what is obtainable in the town, the banks should be avoided at all cost. Under the illusion of being trustworthy and safe, the banks build hidden charges in to the exchange process. Thus, when the tourist deducts these charges from the lowered exchange rate, the tourist ends with a far lesser value for the service offered by the bank. Furthermore, when using ATMs, the exchange rate can only be calculated on receiving the payout.

Tip #3: Avoid using currency exchange outlets in tourist areas

He explained that the real estates in tourist areas housing international visitors attract a premium rent. By extension, businesses being housed in these locations factor this extra charge into the cost of doing business. Thus, exchange rate at such locations are always higher compared to that which is obtainable by walking a few blocks from these areas.  

Tip #4: Avoid the street guys offering mouthwatering rates

Standing by the roadsides at popular tourists’ attraction spots and walkways, these shady characters offer so many attractive propositions to tourists. Mingling with the crowds at these spots they eavesdrop on conversations and appear like an angel to confused tourists. Using a plethora of tricks and underhand tactics, these unscrupulous individuals subtly replace higher denomination currency bills with lower denominations which will result in the severe loss of huge sums in the transaction process. In extreme cases, these shady characters even give tourists fake currencies and lure them to clip joints to swindle them of their money.  

Tip #5: Avoid currency exchange spots that open non-stop and at late hours

My guide requested that I note the opening hours of the exchange outlets as we more across the town. He said that is the first red flag which should be noted before conducting business at any premise. Although, he explained that most genuine exchange outlets open at slightly late hours due to increasing number of tourist, they have a definite closing hour and do not conduct their business into the wee hours of the night. Explaining further, he said those outlets opening at wee hours prey on the fact that customers patronizing them at these hours have no choice making them charge exorbitant and extortionate rates which they cannot charge during the daytime.

Tip #6: Beware of the “No Commission” sign

He said when exchange outlets prominently display the “No Commission” it means there is no room for bargaining in the currency exchange transaction. The import of outlets that display a commission charge is that concessions can be made on the charge and the buy/sell exchange rate. Explaining further, he said the legally allowable charge is 0.5% of the amount exchanged up to a maximum exchange limit as allowed by the law.

To buttress his point, he brought out his notepad to show the intricacies involved. He said assuming there is this exchange point A that offers a buy and sell rate at 303/307. The meaning is that if a tourist wishes to sell 1 Euro they will pay 303 forints. Conversely, if the tourist wishes to convert his forints to euro, they will sell 1 Euro (the tourist will buy 1 Euro) for 307 forints.

Thus, if the tourist wishes to sell 50 Euros, the tourist will receive 15,150 forints. However, this amount will be multiplied with 0.005 (0.5% = 0.5/100) to charge a commission of 76 forints (0.005*15,150). Therefore, the final amount remitted to the tourist will be 15,074 forints.

Conversely, if the tourist approaches another outlet Point B offering an exchange of buy/sell at 290/320 with no commission, and the tourist wishes to sell the same 50 Euros, the final values will be 14,500 forints. The difference obtained from Outlet A that charges commission and Outlet B that charges no commission will be 574 forints (15,074 – 14,500) making the transaction favourable at Outlet A as opposed to B. He the difference might seem negligible in the example he used, if the amount to be exchanged is higher (800 Euros) the difference obtainable becomes more pronounced (9184, approximately 10,000 forints!).     

Grateful for his detailed explanation, I asked if serving as my guide wasn’t a bother to which he replied that his next schedule was more than thirty-six hours away. Confirming his availability, we headed on our currency exchange bargain hunting trip. Here are the best 5 places to exchange money in Budapest as discovered from my trip.

Exclusive Change Kft

From Vaci Street, my guide informed me that we will take a short walk to District V/VI to visit arguably the biggest and most widely distributed currency exchange in Budapest; Exclusive Change (Tips One to Five put into practice). With more 70 offices spread across the length and breadth of Budapest, my guide explained to me that Exclusive Change remains the favourite exchange among tourists. Apart from the currency exchange service, my guide explained that each of their numerous offices is capable of helping tourist withdraw transferred funds through Western Union in the advent the run out of cash during their stay in Budapest. Entering one of the outlets we were greeted with a courteous smile by one of their front desk representatives who explained to us the day’s spot exchange rate and urged us to do business with them. Getting carried away my guide nudged me by the side which reminded me that we were on a bargain hunt. We thanked the representative and made our way out of the office.

Store Front: Exclusive Exchange
Image Credit: David Drucker, Google Maps

Omika Currency Exchange

Entering the office outlet, we were met with a giant electronic display board showing the various currency and their exchange values to forints. On sighting the board, it showed a higher rate than the one quoted at the previous outlet. Approaching one of the representatives, we asked for explanations about their services which were happy provided. The dealer clincher in her explanation was the fact that they do not charge commissions on the quoted rate and that the spot exchange quoted on the electronic board is the true reflection of the service provided. Thanking her, my guide steered me out of the premise onto our next outlet.

Store Front: Omika Exchnage
Image Credit: Thomas Lee, Google Maps

Szervita téri pénzváltó Change office

Crossing the Danube River, we headed for our next destination the Szervita téri pénzváltó Change office. Entering the office outlet, we encountered a different ambient to the other outlets. Here, staffs were brisk and used fewer words unlike the other outlets visited. With the exchange counters behind walled cubicles, it gave the chance to only see the face of the operator. Navigating our way to the customer representative desk, she gave the highest exchange rate out of the outlets visited. However, the exchange rate came with a commission caveat. At 0.3% commission rate which we felt was fair enough we made our way out of the office outlet.

Store Front Szervita téri pénzváltó

Prima Change Penzvalto

With a catchy store front decoration, Prima Change welcomes customers to its office outlet. Walking into the outlet with friend cum guide we were handed leaflets both in English and Hungarian detailing the services provided at the outlet. Providing us a seat, the receptionist bade us to wait a few minutes as there was a little queue at the functioning exchange booths.

Store Front, Prima Change
Image Credit: Jessica Chang, Google Maps

She apologized for the delay explaining that some of the staffs have been excused to go for lunch while the others work to attend to the customers and that the office has long working hours. She notified us that the office will be open for business till 8 PM and this gladdened my heart meaning I could do other things not minding the time and still walk up to the outlet to make my exchange. We thanked her and promise to come back later in day since the outlet can be accessed at late hours compared to others that close by 5 PM.     

Money Exchange – The lowest commission

Walking a few blocks we got to our final destination; Money Exchange. With a waiting queue stretching almost to the door the Money Exchange outlet was a choice exchanger among customers. Walking up to the board we read that the outlet charges a significantly lower commission charge at 0.3% and has more variety of currencies for exchange compared to other outlets. Also, the outlet has extended working hours till 7 PM and the representative was also kind enough to assuage our feelings of a good customer care relations.

Store Front, Money Exchange Kiraly Utca
Image Credit: Daniel Kiani, Google Maps

Conclusion

Along the way we checked out other outlets, but the above listed outlets came out trumps in my evaluation. For intending tourist to Budapest, they are free to explore other outlets. However, this list of the best 5 places to exchange money in Budapest serves as the starting point in their quest to get a reasonable exchange rate for their currency.

At the end of the day, I sat down with my guide and thanked him profusely for the tour. I requested that we grad an early lunch together which he obliged. Over lunch, together we discussed the pros and cons of the outlets visited. Like a patient teacher, he walked me through the steps checking them against the tips he earlier gave.

Finally, I settled on Prima Change Penzvalto due the highest exchange rate on offer and the warm customer relations exhibited by their staff. Although the outlet charges a higher commission than the rest, this is offset by the higher exchange rate. As a last word of advice before my guide left, he reminded me that I endeavor to spend all the forints exchanged before I leave the country as the fluctuating rates might not be favourable outside their country. With this we parted hoping to see when he resumed duty the next day.    

Currency Converter by OANDA

In summary here is a side by side comparison of the outlet visited with their unique points

Exchange Outlet Address Phone Number Website Address and Google Map Address Unique Selling Points
Exclusive Change Kft Rákóczi út 38, 1072 Hungary +36 70 430 6486 https://exclusive.hu/en   https://goo.gl/maps/t9xUKS5rVa7bo7146 Opens 8AM – 10PM Large Number of Outlets  
Omika Currency Exchange Budapest, Bartók Béla út 16, 1111 Hungary +36 70 434 30 http://www.omika-change.atw.hu/   https://goo.gl/maps/gqn5otX9CKQKPkKr9 Opens 9AM – 5PM No Commission
IBLA Change Penzvalto Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út 5, 1065 Hungary +36 1 317 9564 http://www.iblachange.hu/   https://goo.gl/maps/1iscrD6HkXh6oLPWA Opens 8AM – 5PM 0.5% Commission  
Prima Change Penzvalto Budapest, Múzeum krt. 7, 1053 Hungary +36 1 612 9378 http://primachange.hu/   https://goo.gl/maps/J8zpHKNMd1fYTEzV8 Opens 8:30AM – 8PM Highest Exchange Rate
Money Exchange 1b Király utca, 1075 Hungary +36 1 788 1998 Not Available   https://goo.gl/maps/xc88Ck5K7UwE5Qdd9 Opens 9AM – 7PM 0.3% Commission  
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