Pretrip Money Checklist for Travelers

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.

Credit card: You'll use your credit card for purchases both big (hotels, advance tickets) and small (little shops, food stands). Some European businesses have gone cashless, making a card your only payment option. A "tap-to-pay" or "contactless" card is widely accepted and simple to use.

Debit card: Use this at ATMs to withdraw a small amount of local cash. Wait until you arrive to get local currency (European airports have plenty of ATMs); if you buy local currency before your trip, you'll pay bad stateside exchange rates. While most transactions are by card these days, cash can help you out of a jam if your card randomly doesn't work and can be useful to pay for things like tips and local guides.

Backup card: Some travelers carry a third card (debit or credit; ideally from a different bank) in case one gets lost or simply doesn't work. While debit cards can serve as backup credit cards (provided your card has a Visa or Mastercard logo), credit cards make rotten backup debit 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 US cash: I carry $100–200 in US dollars as a cash backup, which comes in handy in an emergency (for example, if your debit card gets eaten by the machine). I've been on the Ring Road in Iceland when the internet went down; the cashier happily accepted my $20 bill in exchange for lunch. 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) or prepaid cash cards

Pretrip Checklist

For smooth use of your debit and credit cards, make sure to:

Know your cards. For credit cards, Visa and MasterCard are universal, while American Express and Discover are less common. US debit cards with a Visa or MasterCard logo will work in any European ATM.

Go "contactless." Get comfortable using contactless pay options. Check to see if you already have — or can get — a tap-to-pay version of your credit card (look on the card for the tap-to-pay symbol — four curved lines), and consider setting up your smartphone for contactless payment. Both options are widely used in Europe and are more secure than a physical credit card.

Check your cards' expiration dates. If your card will expire during or soon after your trip, get a new one.

Know your PIN. Make sure you know the four-digit PIN for each of your cards, both debit and credit. Request it if you don't have one, as it may be required for some purchases. Allow time to receive the information by mail — it's not always possible to obtain your PIN online or by phone.

Adjust your ATM withdrawal limit. Find out how much you can take out daily and ask for a higher daily 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 making fewer withdrawals. I prefer a higher limit that allows me to take out more cash all at once; some travelers prefer to set a lower limit as a security measure.

Note that European ATMs will withdraw funds only from checking accounts, not savings accounts. Make sure your checking account balance is healthy before you go or plan to use your bank's app to move funds. (You are unlikely to be able to transfer funds between accounts from a European ATM.) See my further tips for using ATMs in Europe.

Find out 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:

  1. A currency conversion fee (usually 1–3 percent of the whole amount)
  2. A Visa or MasterCard international transaction fee (less than 1 percent; a few banks absorb this fee for you)
  3. 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 card. Shop around; you can compare credit cards' foreign transaction fees on Bankrate. 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.