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Exchange Cash vs Using Cards

Hello everyone,

I am planning a trip to multiple countries in Europe after the pandemic is over.

I want to know if it is more convenience to exchange for cash or using cards.

I would like to hear your experience on whether you prefer to use cash or using cards in Europe.
And if you need cash, where did you go to exchange cash?
What are your pain points when using foreign currency abroad during your travels?

Posted by
5317 posts

First, here is a whole bunch of info on Money.... https://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/money

Exchanging cash usually is not a way to go, other than having a couple hundred as an emergency stash (though I no longer carry one). Any pocket cash needed is withdrawn from an ATM, using my Debit/ATM card.

Your biggest issue is not knowing if your cards will function as planned, so having backups is vital.

I Travel with two Debit/ATM cards, both of which I know work in Europe, and at least two Credit Cards, both with chips, one with a PIN, that is PIN priority. I also have Google Pay on my phone.

I used to withdraw cash, from my Checking account at an ATM, and use that primarily, but now use a credit card for nearly everything, depending on the Country.

Posted by
2935 posts

First, I never exchange cash for cash in Europe. I might do this in some other countries, but not European ones unless it was an emergency.

I use my ATM card to obtain European cash from a bank ATM machine. Preferably during business hours, in case anything goes wrong with the transaction. I use cash for small day to day expenses, like coffee, or a snack or other low value items. Since my bank charges a transaction fee for use outside the country (there are other cards that dont), I usually take out a fairly large amount (up to my bank's limit, if the ATM will allow it), so I don't need to frequently hunt down ATMs. Aside from the small daily amount I keep in my purse, the remainder stays in the hotel room safe or my money belt.

Everything else- hotels, travel tickets, restaurants, tourist site entry tickets - gets put on one of my credit cards.

If you look at the travel tips section, there is information on money matters. And if you use the search bar, you can search for other threads (there are many) on cash or card.

Posted by
12513 posts

Ellie, which countries are you planning on visiting?

But without knowing that, we haven't exchanged US $$ for the local currency after we've arrived, and I think it's increasingly difficult/expensive to do that. What you really don't want to do is to convert US $$ at European airport exchange offices with big fees to do so.

We've gotten our local currency from ATMs. We've also used credit cards (Visa or Mastercard) where accepted. They are more often accepted than AmericanExpress or some others. I'd reference the advice from the two posters ahead of me but the most important thing is not to take US $$ to Europe and THEN try to convert them.

Posted by
4998 posts

Credit cards are used more and more often, in stores, restaurants, and even for museum entrance.

Cash, retrieved from an ATM, is still handy for short taxi rides, which don’t happen that often, and for buying at a market from individual food stalls, which happens often on all our trips.

Posted by
3775 posts

Hi Ellie,

I use my ATM card or Capital One card at the ATM’s to obtain Euros. I also bring a credit card with me but only use it to pay hotels; I pay with Euros at restaurants, etc. and usually I have purchased my train tickets ahead of time on-line.

I bring any leftover Euros from previous trips to use the first day I’m in Europe. I don’t like to use or be searching for an ATM machine when I have jet lag. If I don’t have Euros from a previous trip, I do buy a few hundred from our bank at home ahead of time, It costs a bit more, but it’s worth it to me.

Posted by
3775 posts

I should also mention that I store those Euros and my cards in my money belt. I wouldn’t want to lose either of them! 😊👍

Posted by
2048 posts

We also take money out of the ATM but we generally charge everything we can. Many entrance tickets and pre-arranged private tours are purchased before we leave. The last time we tried to change US$ was at a bank in Berlin about 8 years ago. They wouldn’t change it cause we weren’t customers and they told us no bank would if you didn’t have an account. That was the last time we brought US money with us. We also bring home euros from each trip to have when we arrive at our new destination. If we are in a non-euro country we use the first ATM we see. Some countries in Scandinavia have gone cashless so you may not have a choice.

Posted by
2206 posts

Understand: One does n ot "exchange cash". One buys the local currency, for a fee. Which can be upwards of 10% depending on where it is done, and can then be a similar amount to "exchange" leftover currency back into your original currency on your way out.

Whereas, getting your cash from an appropriate bank-owned ATM that is simply accessing your account for the withdrawal, is essentially free. The local money comes at the market conversion rates set by the banks, with a minimal fee off anywhere from .2 to 1%, depending on your bank's set-up. In most places there is no fee for using the ATM, and if you have the right bank, they have no ATM charges for you at their end. ,If your bank charges a foreign transaction fee of 3% for this find another bank, just as you would find another bank to issue a credit card if they have this fee.

Posted by
1947 posts

What are your pain points when using foreign currency abroad during your travels?
Fees. Foreign transaction fees. ATM operator fees. ATM transaction fees. All on top of currency conversion fees.

As my trips have gotten longer and span more countries, I have switched to cards (debit and credit cards) that minimize foreign travel fees: credit cards that don't charge foreign transaction fees and ATM/debit cards that don't charge fees in worldwide ATMs and even rebate the fees of the ATM operator.

Before each trip, I also search for ATMs (try a Google map search for "bancomat" in many European countries) near my hotel or at my arrival train station with the lowest fees.

I've linked a couple of articles that you can read that provide more details and recommend some cards.

Posted by
9821 posts

In 2019, the last time I spent any time in Europe--about 6 months--I spent the equivalent of about $100 in cash. The rest was on credit cards.

In some places, cash wasn't accepted. Cards or electronic payment only. This was mostly Scandinavia but also in London.

Posted by
18919 posts

It is unfortunately the case that more and more bank ATMs charge fees of their own unless you're a customer of that bank or a partner bank. This practice varies from country to country (French bank ATMs being pretty much no-fee the last time I was there), but I've always been able to find ATMs that didn't charge me a fee. However, a visitor on a short trip might reasonably decide his time is worth more than his money, and not spend much extra effort trying to avoid a fee. If you primarily pay for things with a credit card, you won't need to withdraw much cash from ATMs and the fees will not amount to all that much money.

Apologies if I've overlooked it, but I don't think anyone has mentioned the practice of "dynamic currency conversion" (aka "DCC") in this thread. DCC is a very, very bad deal for the traveler. Many merchants (hotels, restaurants and shops--and even one museum I encountered) as well as ATMs will offer you the opportunity to record the transaction in US dollars rather than the local currency. Do not do that! If you choose that option, the merchant or ATM gets to decide what exchange rate will be used--and you can be 100% sure it will not be in your favor. You always want to conduct transactions in the local currency, because the rate used by your credit card company--or the bank whose ATM card you use--will be much better for you and very close to the interbank rate.

DCC is a huge money-maker for merchants; some will try to slip it past you. Keep control of the handheld card reader so you are the one making the choice of currency. I've had to fight with servers in restaurants and hotel clerks about it. No, I am not going to pay an extra 7% (or whatever) for that meal or that room! I have learned to pay for my hotel room the night before I'm going to check out so the desk staff cannot take advantage of my rush to get to the train station by pretending not to know how to cancel a DCC transaction. That's not a fun experience.

Posted by
2916 posts

we haven't exchanged US $$ for the local currency after we've arrived, and I think it's increasingly difficult/expensive to do that.

Is that even possible anymore, at least at banks? My impression is that banks won't deal with you for anything if you're not a customer of theirs. The last time I tried to use a bank in France was to exchange a travelers check I had foolishly bought. They told me to try at the post office.

Posted by
3480 posts

It's always good to have backup cash in case your credit cards don't work. And they do fail on occasion. One time in Paris at a nice restaurant with a fairly large dinner bill none of our cards would work. Next day they all worked fine. One time in Venice we had to try several to get one to work for vaporetto passes. Half an hour later they all were usable. Technology is great when it works, but it doesn't always operate as it should. Simple fact of life. Better to have some cash and not need it than the other way around.

There are many different opinions on the subject of how to obtain cash. The least expensive way of getting local currency is from an ATM at your destination. Having said that, however, it's always a good idea, just my opinion, to have some local currency in hand when you land. Getting two hundred Pounds, Euros or whatever from your local bank will cost you a little more, but it eliminates the hassle of trying to find a machine, the stress of hoping it works (they do occasionally malfunction), and doing it all while somewhat jet lagged. To me the small amount extra it cost to have money in hand when arriving is money well spent, and the extra cost relative to the overall cost of the trip is really not that much.

Regardless, be sure to notify your bank and credit card companies that you will be traveling. Otherwise they may see a foreign transaction, suspect fraud, and shut down access to your cards.

Posted by
5317 posts

Regardless, be sure to notify your bank and credit card companies that you will be traveling. Otherwise they may see a foreign transaction, suspect fraud, and shut down access to your cards.

This is one tactic that has, and continues to change. I used to religiously notify cards of travel, but in the last several trips have not even bothered. The reason is that the reaction of those I spoke with ranged from "sure...but not needed" to "I will note it, but you might get a call to verify", to "If we have a question on a transaction, we will text or call"

In my experience, with the chip technology, they know if the card is present. The assumption is then that you are with the card, otherwise you will report the card stolen. On my Chip and PIN card, they never question a "card present" transaction if the PIN is used (Of course, yeah, the US and Chip and PIN, that whole fiasco) In my dozen or so trips since I stopped calling, never had a case where a card was blocked, or even a call about a transaction.

The only fraud notifications I have ever received have been cases where the card is not present, maybe 4 times in 10 years?

However, if it is your first time traveling, sure, call, there are probably other questions you should ask.

Posted by
9821 posts

Most card/bank apps will let you submit travel notices without calling.

You might also want to update your chip cards to be able to "tap" and pay.

Posted by
1947 posts

One of my travelcards has done away with the "notify us of your travel plans" thing. Now, they just contact me if they see an unusual transaction. Which doesn't always go smoothly, when I'm traveling in Europe. {Or before a trip, trying to buy ballet tickets for the Bolshoi in Moscow before they sell out .... speaking from experience .... which looks to their systems like a fraudulent transaction. I had to use a different card for that purchase - a card that wasn't quite so ... suspicious.)

Posted by
3480 posts

Paul is correct in that things are changing with regard to notifying them before you travel. And it seems no two entities do things the same way. On some of the statements we receive there is a reminder to notify them; on others there is nothing noted about it. That being the case, it will not hurt to notify them. And, as someone mentioned, they may be able clarify any questions you may have.

Posted by
17984 posts

Wow! I should have replied to this question when it was originally posed (2 days ago). Others have added so many issues to the original question. But here goes.

  1. Not every bank has waved the travel notification requirement. I bank with Wells Fargo, and I recently tried to use my ATM card for a cash W/D card in another state without notifying them that I would be doing so (long story), and the transaction was denied. So, unless your bank has specifically notified you not to tell them you will be traveling, you'd better do it.
  2. I have never had anyone try to use dynamic conversion on me with a credit card. But then, the haven't had much chance; in eleven trips to Europe since 2000, I have probably used my credit card less than eleven times (mostly for purchases at department stores, once or twice at a Bahn ticket counter when the automats weren't available). The only time I saw DCC offered was at an ATM in Würzburg.
  3. Don't even think about exchanging currency, even in an emergency. It might work in an airport with a currency exchange counter, but not in the rest of Europe. On my last trip, my partner had forgotten she had changed her PIN and forgotten what she changed it to, so her ATM card wouldn't work. She had some American currency and spent three weeks futilely trying to get stores to accept it or banks to exchange it.
  4. Same goes for a cash reserve. Having it in US$ is probably worthless. If you don't have a few hundred dollars in local currency from you last trip, at least set aside that much from you first ATM withdrawal as a reserve.
  5. As for using credit cards for accommodations, unless you just have to stay in overpriced In-ter-na-tion-al hotels, which accept cards, stay in small Mom & Pop establishments and pay cash. Small places like this don't generally have the equipment needed to accept plastic and they are much less expensive (and a better cultural experience). They operate on a much smaller margin and don't have the extra profit needed to pay the interchange fees. This might not be true in all European countries, but I've travel mostly in German speaking areas and studied it extensively for where I have traveled, and I've found that you will save money by staying in these places, and they usually accept only cash.
  6. The same goes for using third-party booking websites. Booking websites only offer the most expensive properties in a town, those that make big enough profits to afford the 15% that booking website take. Except for major towns, there are always a lot of smaller, less expensive places that don't use booking websites. You can often save half or more by finding these places.
Posted by
21216 posts

With the advent of the euro, using foreign currency for most of Europe is pretty easy. The old days of carrying lots of cash and/or traveler's cheques is last century. Actually handling money isn't much different than at home. However, you do need to be prepared, psychologically, for your credit cards and/or debit not to work. The first time we were totally dependent on plastic we had allowed cash to get low and the debit card did not work at the ATM. HUGE panic !!! A very nervous 30 minutes or so until we found another ATM -- and the card worked fine. Just recently we were in Amsterdam and none of our cards worked in an ATM. Just fine at the next one. We have had credit cards and debits rejected from time to time but always worked later. So don't panic. It happens. I was told by one bank official that at least once a month or so they routine shut their systems down for a couple of hours for maintenance and upgrades. They do it around 2 to 4 am US which could 10, 11 am in Europe.

This is our pattern --- I know it is overkill but am an old engineer who likes back up to back up.

1. We bury a 100 Euro deep in the sock as absolute back up. Try to keep 100 to 300 euro most of the time for routine expenses. Look for an ATM when we get down to a hundred.

2. Carry two debit cards tied to two independent accounts. -- Will test both cards within the first day or two of arrival
3. Carry four credits cards including pin numbers for all cards. In extreme emergency can use credit cards to obtain cash advances. An expensive way to obtain local currency but in an emergency it works.

4. Carry the bank phone numbers (non-800) and all card numbers on paper buried in suitcase and in phone in the event that any card is lost or stolen and we need to reach the card issuer. Those numbers are encoded so not a threat if the list is discovered.

5. Split cash and cards between the two of us and always have everything on us in the money belts including passports.

For the last 15 years or more we have traveled totally with plastic and have never had a problem other than a few times when a card would not work at that moment. But always worked later. The only pain point with using cash is that you need to be alert with the exchange and count your change careful and especially the coins. Europe makes heavier use of larger coins -- 1, 2, 5 euro coins. So if you are handed a hand full of coins -- spread them out and count. And if you hand someone a 20 or 50 euro note -- call it to their attention -- "This is a 50? Right !!" We have rarely had problems with short change but there are reports of someone taking your 50 and claiming you only gave them a 20 that is in their hand because the 50 went under the table when you were not looking. So I am slow handing over cash and like to point to the numbers on the note.

You will be fine.

PS Lee above raised an good point. You can often get a 5 to 10% discount if paying in cash. If staying more than one night I will ask at check-in. BUT --- be sure to ask for a receipt for cash -- just in case. Had it happen once and still don't know if it was a scam or honest mistake. It was a four night stay and they offered a discount so I said I would pay the next day in cash. Did so. On the third day a different desk clerk asked about the payment and I said I had already paid. He seemed confused. Bought the receipt back, he found his copy in the receipt book and said something about a posting error. Really ???? Get and keep the copy.

Posted by
17984 posts

Europe makes heavier use of larger coins -- 1, 2, 5 euro coins.

If you ever get a 5 euro coin you will have either:
1. A counterfeit, or
2. Possibly a rare, very valuable collectors item.

There is no 5 euro coin, only 1 and 2 euro coins.

From Wikipedia,

The 2 euro coin (€2) is the highest-value euro coin and has been used since the introduction of the euro (in its cash form) in 2002.

Germany used to have a 5 mark coin, and it was something special. It was nearly the size and weight of a US silver dollar, maybe even a bit larger and heavier. You really felt you had some money in our pocket when you had one of them. I saved one before the switch.

Posted by
2157 posts

I travel solo, so I like to be prepared and arrive with some cash that my bank gets for me before I leave home. After that I use my debit card, though I tend to use my credit card for most purchases there are times when paying with cash just makes sense--like at the flea/antiques markets.

Any time I am going to a country that has a currency that does not easily compare to US dollars (Hungary comes to mind with the forint) I print out a conversion chart from the Coin Mill www.coinmill.com. There are times I want to know what something REALLY costs, like a souvenir, so it's good for that and to get generally familiar with the rate. The only time I have had issues was in Hungary--a store would not accept a forint bill with a torn edge, and another time a liquor store undoubtedly knew I was a tourist and gave me an out of circulation bill in my change--only worth about $7.00, and I kept as a souvenir since I didn't have time to visit a bank to exchange.

Posted by
17984 posts

That certainly is a danger of using cash - getting "bad" cash in return.

I know there is a practically worthless Italian coin that looks very much like a 2 euro coin and is often given to unsuspecting tourists.

On the other hand, I also know of more than one case of someone using their credit card to make a purchase or pay for a meal in this country or abroad and then having spurious charges show up on their card. Make sure that credit card is never out of your sight.

Posted by
21216 posts

Alright Lee, I yield on the 5 euro coin. For some reason I thought I had seen 5 euro coins but obviously not. But the point is that in Europe you will receive more coins since they have and use a 1 and 2 euro coins. We have never received bad money in return but we make a point of obviously looking at our change very carefully. Personally I would like to see the US dump the dollar bill. Save a lot of money over the years.

Posted by
17984 posts

in Europe you will receive more coins since they have and use [a] 1 and 2 euro coins

Amen to that, Frank. I love their 1 and 2 euro coins. I often find myself with $5 or $6 in euro coins with no more weight than the US change I normally carry around. For the same weight as 5 quarters ($1.25, 25 gm) I can have three 2€ coins at 24 gm, worth $3.60. I often find myself making small payments out of the coins in my pocket, rather than having to get out my wallet - like it used to be here in the 50s.

Speaking of which, why the opposition to using a $1 coin rather than the $1 bill, and getting rid of those useless pennies and nickels? When I was 5 or 6 yo, the penny was worth what a dime is now, and the dime was worth the dollar is now. We didn't need no half-penny (equivalent to a nickel today) nor a deci-penny (equivalent to a penny today), so why do we need them now. And the dime (equivalent to a dollar today) was a coin, not a paper note. If we got rid of the penny and the nickel, it would free up space in the cash register for our new $1 and $2 coins.

And I also like the "final price" rule in most European states, where the price of everything including, well, everything, like taxes at a store and taxes and tips (what a scam) in restaurants are in the stated price. Since most places other than grocery stores price everything to the nearest 10 euro-cent, until I started staying Ferienwohnungen (vacation apartments) and shopping for groceries, I never saw any of the copper euro coins (1, 2, and 5 cent).

Posted by
3139 posts

@Frank
We still can’t even get rid of pennies, and you think it would be sensible to get rid of $1 bills? Dreamer!

Posted by
5981 posts

Lee, my recollection was that the last time doing away with pennies was proposed, the mining lobby and the people invested in them, lobbied their favorite congress members to prevent getting rid of coins.

Posted by
17984 posts

Then replacing little pennies and nickels with big $1 and $2 coins ought to be right up their alley.

Maybe to get acceptance for the $1 coin we could put Robt. E. Lee on it. (We already tried a Reagan dollar coin, but it was just commemorative so no one spends them.)

Posted by
21216 posts

I was thinking of dollars coins that are in common circulations. Beside the large old silver dollars coins, I think it is only Susan B Anthony and Sacagawea in circulation. There have been other dollar coins authorized, such as the presidential series, but mainly sold to collectors. There should a plan to slowly withdraw paper dollars and introduce a dollar coin in general circulation. It would take some time. But then my cousin would call it a commie plot to take over the US.