By Rick Steves
Before you leave on your trip, you'll need to sort out a few details to ensure easy access to your funds in a way that won't cost you needless money or hassle. Use this money-specific to-do list to get your bucks in a row before you go.
What to Bring
I pack the following and keep it all safe in my money belt.
Debit card: Use this at cash machines (ATMs) to withdraw local cash.
Credit card: Handy for bigger purchases (at hotels, shops, restaurants, travel agencies, car-rental agencies, and so on), payment machines, and ordering online.
Backup card: Some travelers carry a third card (debit or credit; ideally from a different bank), in case one gets lost, demagnetized, eaten by a temperamental machine, or simply doesn't work.
While debit cards can make decent backup credit cards (provided your card has a Visa or MasterCard logo), credit cards make rotten backup ATM cards because of their sky-high withdrawal fees and cash-advance interest rates. I'd only use a credit card at an ATM as a last resort. (Note that an extra credit card can be helpful if you rent a car and use your card to cover a collision damage waiver).
Stash of cash: I carry $100–200 in US dollars as a cash backup. A stash of cash comes in handy for emergencies, such as when banks go on strike or your ATM card stops working. I've been in Greece and Ireland when every bank went on strike, shutting down without warning. But hard cash is hard cash. People always know roughly what a dollar is worth.
What NOT to bring: Foreign currency (unless you have some left from a previous visit).
For smooth use of your debit and credit cards overseas, make sure to:
Know your cards. Debit cards from any major US bank will work in any standard European bank's ATM (ideally, use a debit card with a Visa or MasterCard logo). As for credit cards, Visa and MasterCard are universal, American Express is less common, and Discover is unknown in Europe.
Check your cards' expiration dates. If your card will expire during or soon after your trip, get a new one.
Report your travel dates. Let your bank(s) know that you'll be using your debit and credit cards in Europe. Banks will want to know the countries you're visiting and the dates you'll be gone. Though some banks may tell you this step is unnecessary, it's best to alert them so they don't freeze your card if they detect unusual activity.
Know your PIN. Make sure you know the four-digit PIN for all of your cards, both debit and credit. Request it if you don't have one, as it may be required for some purchases in Europe. It's important to contact your bank well before your trip to request a PIN (if your bank says the PIN is only for cash withdrawals, ask for it anyway); allow time to receive this information by mail. Memorize your PIN by number rather than by letter, since you may encounter a keypad with only digits.
Adjust your ATM withdrawal limit. Find out how much you can take out daily and ask for a higher daily withdrawal limit if you want to get more cash at once. If your bank charges a flat fee per transaction (explained below), you'll save money by withdrawing larger amounts. I prefer a higher limit that allows me to take out more cash at each ATM stop; some travelers prefer to set a lower limit as a security measure, in case their card is stolen.
Note that European ATMs will withdraw funds only from checking accounts. Make sure your checking account balance is healthy before you go, or know how to use your bank's app to move funds. (You are unlikely to be able to dip into your savings account or transfer funds between accounts from a European ATM.) See my further tips for using ATMs in Europe.
Ask about fees. American travelers often discover they paid more for their trip than they thought they had, thanks to banks charging high fees for overseas transactions. For any purchase or withdrawal made with a card, you may be charged any or all of the following fees:
- A currency conversion fee (usually 1–3 percent of the whole amount)
- A Visa or MasterCard international transaction fee (1 percent; a few banks absorb this fee for you)
- For debit cards, a flat $2–5 transaction fee each time you use a foreign ATM (note that some major US banks partner with European bank chains, allowing you to use those ATMs with no fees at all — ask)
While these fees are legal, they're basically just a way for banks to wring a few more dollars out of their customers. Before you travel, ask your bank how much you'll pay in fees for debit-card cash withdrawals and credit-card charges.
If you're getting a bad deal, consider getting a new debit or credit card. Shop around. Some companies offer lower international fees than others — and some don't charge any at all. Reputable no-fee cards include those from Capital One, as well as Charles Schwab debit cards. Most credit unions and some airline loyalty cards have low-to-no international transaction fees. Bankrate has a good chart that compares major credit cards and their currency-conversion fees.