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Lesson learned: bring cash

I, like most RS forum people, don't usually bother to get local currency beforehand. This past trip to Mexico, I had the time and got a good deal from my bank. I'm glad I did and have now changed my philosophy: get $100 of local currency before leaving. Despite the fact that I informed my bank and credit card of the dates and locations for my trip; my ATM card was denied at the airport. I tried 2 other machines: same story. Finally, in the taxi, leaving the airport, I got a fraud alert text. Found an ATM later and got cash with no other issues, but it was a bit stressful.

Posted by
4686 posts

I always bring a few hundred dollars USD (my home currency) to change in case my ATM card doesn't work - and my credit cards won't work to get me into town from the airport and I MUST have cash. Every major airport I've arrived in has had some sort of currency exchange desk (with a terrible exchange rate and/or fees). But I've never needed to use it, so I don't care about the terrible rate. I figure the chance that my ATM card won't work AND my credit cards can't be used to pay for travel into town AND I can't find anywhere to change my USD at the airport is really, really low.

On the other hand, if I get local currency ahead of time, I am GUARANTEED to pay a fee to get it, even though I almost certainly won't need it ahead of time.

Posted by
6543 posts

I always carry two loaded ATM cards and numerous credit cards. I try to use the credit cards anytime I can and use relatively little cash out of the ATMs.

Posted by
2329 posts

More likely a system problem than a “Mexico” issue. But, nonetheless, one of the reasons I always arrive with foreign currency, at least $100 worth. The fee issue has been beaten to death on this forum, so, yes I’m paying for that peace of mind. Probably the royal sum of $10-15...

Posted by
160 posts

Credit unions usually do not charge a fee for euros (or pesos). I always have some cash in the local currency. I would never use an airport ATM . Might be ok,might not. I always get cash from ATM,s connected to a bank preferably during business hours . I travel alone and like to build in some redundancy and follow routines that work for me. I also have 2 checking accounts with my credit union so I have 2 debit cards for backup.. Actually carrying more euros than usual for upcoming trip.bought before the exchange rate went up for dollars to euros.

Posted by
2546 posts

"And that’s why Mexico isn’t in Europe."
I have arrived in cities in Italy, Spain, and Greece to system wide ATM failures resulting in no ability to get euros at the airport. After those experiences, I always bring the equivalent of USD100 (or at least enough to get me to my hotel) with me in local currency. And that is not even including the times that my former bank's fraud concerns kept me from being able to get cash even though I had informed the bank of my travel plans.

Posted by
12099 posts

I always have Euro or GBP when I land, be it in Paris CDG or FRA or in London, all left over from the last trip. Therefore, cash in the local currency is on me ready to be used if need be.

Posted by
132 posts

We always carry some local currency with us. I know we pay a premium, but as someone else said the cost is minimal on a trip. However, we are risk adverse, so having some cash is always a good idea from our perspective.

It is also a matter of time. Why stop and look for a cash machine at an airport after a trip? We can focus on arriving at our destination after a long and tiring trip without having to do one more thing.

Posted by
5497 posts

I use the RS back up plan of: More than one bank debit/ATM card and cash (US dollars). ( I also have at least two credit cards, a Cap One Visa and a Mastercard.) To date I haven't had to test the back up to obtaining local cash.

https://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/money/cash-tips

Debit card: Use this at cash machines (ATMs) to withdraw local cash, which you'll use to pay for most purchases.

Credit card: Use this to pay for larger items (generally accepted at hotels, larger shops and restaurants, travel agencies, car-rental
agencies, and so on). Although Europe's card readers use a
chip-and-PIN system that differs from the one used in the US, it
shouldn't cause much hassle.

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.

US dollars: I carry $100–200 as a backup. While you won't use it for day-to-day purchases, American cash in your money belt comes in
handy for emergencies, such as when banks go on strike or your ATM
card stops working.

Posted by
7680 posts

Thanks for posting your experience amd I’m glad it worked out.

I’ve had my credit union debit card declined at an ATM/Cashpoint in London. I had gone in to do the travel notification and it still was declined. Fortunately I had added my brother on as a contact and he was able to call and get it straightened out for me.

I do carry 2 debits and 2 credit cards...

Posted by
995 posts

I always acquire a small amount of local currency before I leave if at all possible. For me, it's worth the $5 fee at the bank to have some currency in hand. Not every taxi takes around the world takes credit cards. Not every taxi driver in every country will take the US dollar.

We've done enough traveling by now that we almost always come home with some currency of the country we just visited. We only have to hit a bank ahead of time if we're traveling someplace new that doesn't take US dollars or the currency of a place we've previously visited. (We can easily do a trip to to the EU, because we always seem to come home with a few Euros.)

But this is a comfort issue for me. I realize that everyone is different.

Posted by
6171 posts

I agree with Andrew and Kaeleku. I'd rather bring $100 in USD than buying local currency - serves the same purpose as a fallback plan but less costly. In worst case, you can use an exchange bureau at the airport given the small chance that multiple ATMs fail. I've been to Mexico few times and always make sure to have some leftover pesos for next time.

Posted by
17653 posts

On my last trip to Germany, my partner didn't remember that she had changed her PIN since the last trip. Consequently, her ATM card wouldn't work, and she couldn't get any euro from the ATMs (fortunately I had plenty in my account and enough daily withdrawal to get us by). She also had some USD with her. She tried bank after bank without success; nobody wanted to change USD. Lesson: the days when the USD was in demand are gone. Count on using euro.

I'd rather bring $100 in USD than buying local currency - serves the
same purpose as a fallback plan but less costly.

Less costly?!! If you do find someone to exchange USD, it will probably be at a far less favorable rate than at your local bank (mine charges 5% over).

Posted by
4686 posts

Lee:

On my last trip to Germany, my partner didn't remember that she had changed her PIN since the last trip. Consequently, her ATM card wouldn't work, and she couldn't get any euro from the ATMs (fortunately I had plenty in my account and enough daily withdrawal to get us by). She also had some USD with her. She tried bank after bank without success; nobody wanted to change USD. Lesson: the days when the USD was in demand are gone. Count on using euro.

Going to a German bank would never have occurred to me - I would never expect a bank to change USD. Instead, I'd seek out a currency exchange place that caters to tourists - less common these days but still around, especially at airports.

Less costly?!! If you do find someone to exchange USD, it will probably be at a far less favorable rate than at your local bank (mine charges 5% over).

But those of us who take USD to Europe take it as a contingency, to be exchanged only as a last resort. So far, I've never needed to do it, at least not in many years since I started using my ATM card. On the other hand, if you buy Euros ahead of time, you guarantee you pay a fee for them, no matter what.

Posted by
12099 posts

When you land, decide then to take a taxi that has the Visa logo on it, you don't have any local currency, the Euro, and at the end of the ride, you give the driver the credit card. He says he wants cash because his credit hand machine is out of order.

Then what? Is he telling the truth? Maybe but who knows? He insists on your giving him cash. What next? Argue with the guy that you were deceived by the Visa logo on his cab? This is in France, Italy, Spain, etc and the cabbie is not so adept at English. Most likely, the guy with his limited English will just clamp down and insist on cash.

Posted by
4686 posts

I've never taken an airport taxi in Europe, Fred. But in that case, if I knew I had no cash and had to use my credit card and the cabbie didn't speak English? I'd show him my visa card and my empty wallet. Seems pretty easy to communicate that I have no euros. If his visa machine was truly out of order, I assume he'd tell me then or not take me.

Posted by
12099 posts

That was the one time I took a taxi from the hotel in Paris to CDG. The logo was on the cab, got in but cabbie didn't know if I had cash or not (I did anyway). We reached the airport, gave him the credit card, He says his hand held card machine didn't work. Not being fluent in French, I didn't argue, no use anyway. If this had taken place in Germany, I would have argued. So, I gave him the cash which obviously had not been my intention.

This type of behaviour where the clerk, cashier, waiter, etc says they want cash because their hand machine for card payment is not working, I've run into a couple times before, also in France. This cabbie was not the first guy pulling this. In the past when it did happen, I had a fluent French speaker with me who put up an argument with the waiter, ( it went back and forth), and told him to call his supervisor. The supervisor showed up and tried the card with the machine. It accepted the credit card, transaction went though.

Why? Because in this case the waiter didn't know how to use the machine with an US magnet stripe credit card. This was in 1999. So, he took the easy way out by telling us the machine was out of order and to pay in cash.

Posted by
17653 posts

Going to a German bank would never have occurred to me - I would never expect a bank to change
USD. Instead, I'd seek out a currency exchange place that caters to tourists.

"caters to tourists"?

We spent most of our time in small towns that don't cater to tourists. I saw ATMs and banks. I never saw a currency exchange place. I don't think there were any. Except at arrival and departure, we were never anywhere near airports.

But those of us who take USD to Europe take it as a contingency, to be exchanged only as a last resort.

I take along euro, left over from the last trip, as my contingency. I got it at 1% from an ATM (for 1% it's not worth the effort to get a no fee ATM card). I've checked the airport exchange places vs the Interbank rate online, and they charge over 10%.

Posted by
7143 posts

cynthia, thank you for posting this. This happened to us at the Naples airport. Always took Euros with us on previous trips but this forum convinced me, in 2006, to just get them at the airport.
My cards wouldn’t work at Naples airport ATM. Luckily, we had used the same private hire car the year before and while being driven to Sorrento I spoke to the owner by phone (the driver’s phone), he remembered us well and liked us and told us no problem not paying. We could pay whenever convenient as we were staying for a week. He then offered to lend us money! Such a nice man.
It was a Sat and we had to wait til Mon to contact our bank (long story). Although telling BofA twice before leaving, they had no record of it. It got sorted but it was a very unpleasant, time consuming, stressful experience.
I went back to always taking Euros with me. I either get them from my bank or use leftover from previous trip.
I would never take USD with me for reasons other posters already mentioned.

Posted by
4686 posts

Lee:

We spent most of our time in small towns that don't cater to tourists. I saw ATMs and banks. I never saw a currency exchange place. I don't think there were any. Except at arrival and departure, we were never anywhere near airports.

How did you get to Germany then? I assume you flew to Europe. I would have for one at the larger train stations too. But it sounds like you didn't try to change USD at an airport or train station because you thought you might change it at a German bank?

I take along euro, left over from the last trip, as my contingency. I got it at 1% from an ATM. I've checked the airport exchange places vs the Interbank rate online, and they charge over 10%.

I don't care if they charge 20%. It's a contingency I'll probably never need to use.

Posted by
12099 posts

In the days of yesteryear ie, the 1970s , 1980s, when Travelers Checks were in use, I almost always went to a bank in Germany to cash them, say a twenty or a fifty dollar Am Ex TC...all sorts of banks in Germany, ...Sparkasse, Commerzbank, Volksbank, Landessparkasse, Berliner Bank, Dresdener Bank (They charged the highest commission), Handelsbank, etc, etc. There was always a certain teller handling this exchange transaction.

Posted by
4820 posts

Something not yet mentioned, but worthy of notice, is changes in Banks and CC policies regarding fraud protection. Many laud the necessity to notify your bank or CC, and while some do still accept notification, it plays a much smaller roll in fraud protection than in the past. With the advent of the EMV chip, during a transaction it is known if your card is present (not numbers punched in or a skimmed magnetic scan) so many banks have automated or improved the algorithms that detect fraud, a note in an account just does not play a role. Instead, they will likely let a "card present" transaction go through, regardless of location, or will text or call your phone for verification. If you do not carry your phone or have text capability, you could have issues whether you notified the bank or not.

I ceased contacting banks about 4 years ago, travel often including Europe 1-3 times a year...have not yet had a problem, or at least not one where I was able to use a back-up card.

Still, yes, as noted in the RS advice, always carry some cash, local if you have it, USD if not.

Posted by
326 posts

Question- Dont you pay a fee regardless whether you buy from your bank in the USA ahead of time- or use the ATM at the airport on arrival?? What is the difference??

Posted by
3277 posts

Demi,

Depending on your bank, you may or may not pay a fee when you use the ATM. You always pay a fee when you exchange cash at your local bank (the fee may be buried in the inflated exchange rate your bank uses for exchange).

My main bank, one of the bigger ones, charges about 10% to get foreign currency at the branch. This is because they have costs associated with acquiring the actual cash, the time the tellers work to handle the cash, and so on. They also charge $5 per ATM transaction plus 5% when you get cash from an ATM in Europe. So, even with those fees, you save money by getting your cash from an ATM in Europe provided you get more than US$100 at a time to lessen the impact of the $5 fee. Many banks charge a smaller percentage and smaller fees for the ATM option which would make getting cash at your destination even better than getting it at home.

My other bank charges ZERO fees for getting cash from ATMs. If I use them to get my currency from an ATM at my destination, I save 10% over getting it at home.

So yes there is a difference, but it really depends on your bank and what they charge for each option.

Posted by
3318 posts

In addition to bringing cash so one will have it upon landing, it's a good idea to keep a fair amount of cash on one's person at all times and not rely solely on credit cards. In Venice a card reader would not read my card but I was able to pay with cash. Twenty minutes later same card worked as it should. In Paris none of our cards were "recognized" at dinner so we paid with cash. A satellite was "out of position". All the cards worked the next day. Technology is great when it works, but cash, in our experience, has never been refused.

Posted by
6 posts

While this isn't the cheapest way, I like to bring in my change jar a week or so before my trip to my bank, then convert to the currency to where I am going. It's my tradition to kick off the pre-trip week, get excited to hold some of that foreign currency before the trip, and it's there in case an ATM doesn't work when I arrive, when my flight is behind when I arrive (which came in handy once already), etc. Doesn't work for everyone.

Posted by
17653 posts

If I use them to get my currency from an ATM at my destination, I save 10% over getting it at home.

Mark, you need to do more research. Right now Oanda is showing $1.21484 as the Interbank rate. Wells Fargo is charging $1.2737 per euro online and I'm pretty sure it's the same price over the counter at the bank. That's 4.8% over at Wells, not 10%.. If you use your bank, which you said is 5% + $5 ($5 is 1% on a $500 withdrawal), you would pay 6%. Cash here from WF wins!

Actually, your bank probably charges 3% + $5 from an ATM over there (most big banks do, WF does), for ~4%.

Update: I just got back from a trip to Wells Fargo. The posted exchange rate there is $1.2737 (same as online), for customers only. Well Fargo now charges $5 with 0% for ATM withdrawals over there and 3% for POS transactions with a credit card.

Posted by
5497 posts

Wells Fargo is charging $1.2737 per euro online and I'm pretty sure it's the same price over the counter at the bank.

https://www.foreignexchangeservices.com/FES/paint.html?_x=Dj97gEil52F9nbtls5IGbRTu41x2fM4N

EURO(EUR) 100 $127.37

Subtotal $127.37

Shipping and Handling Fee $15.00

Order Total (USD) $142.37

I would wonder about Well Fargo's generosity in not charging a fee for in bank RX transactions.
https://www.foreignexchangeservices.com/FES/rate/rate.html?_x=ywSACMw9EalM16MSOlaEBRvwzpj9GSze

The rates for ordering foreign currency banknotes in the store or on
the phone are similar
to the rates below but may not be the same.

Posted by
3277 posts

Lee,

I said "my bank", not "Wells Fargo". :-)

And I quoted what their price offset was that day as well as what their foreign ATM fees are currently for the basic account they offer. The percentage over or under when you purchase physical Euros varies with the direction the Euro is moving against the dollar and updates more often when the rate moves in a direction favorable to the bank. It has been as low as 7% in a volatile market, but hovers close to 10% (always in their favor). They never charge a delivery fee to get any currency delivered to your local branch. I guess that is a minor plus.

I choose not to use my bank for any foreign exchange purposes.

Oh, and the local Wells branch will not sell Foreign anything to me since I don't have an account with them.

Posted by
17653 posts

The Wells Fargo branch in Lakewood (not a main branch) carries euro, pound, and pesos. There is no shipping charge for them at the bank counter. The exchange rate listed at the bank is the same as the exchange rate shown online. If you wanted something else, there would be a shipping charge, I think. The main branch, downtown, probably carries other currencies, thus no shipping charge on them.

When I ordered Czech Koruna in 2012, they were shipped from the downtown Denver branch to a suburban branch. I think I paid a shipping charge, but it was not $15 (more like $5, as I remember). But that was in 2012. Policies change all the time.

Posted by
3136 posts

Cynthia, curious, how many digits is your pin #?

While I haven't been to Mexico since 1988, I do know that my bank recommends a 4 digit pin for ATM usage internationally. In fact, my bank only offers 4 digit pin #s. I have NEVER had my ATM card rejected by a cash machine anywhere outside of the US including UK, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Turkey, Greece, Spain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada and Japan.

Posted by
3367 posts

We always bring some Euros from a past trip or acquire some ahead of time. We just don’t like to have to make any money decisions or transactions while we’re a bit foggy with jet lag.

Posted by
607 posts

Cash is king. Always a good idea to have some local currency in your wallet, so when you land you don't have search for an ATM.

Just use XE.com or Oanda or some internet currency converter to get the "spot" or "interbank" rate (this is the best rate that big banks and big money traders use when they are trading millions of dollars with each other) and then call around or search online for your home city currency exchanges to do rate comparisons. Personally I find that an exchange rate that is within about 2% of the "spot" rate to be reasonable. By shopping around, I have found a local currency exchange (VBCE in Vancouver or Richmond) which is much cheaper than the currency rates offered at any local bank. PS. Also avoid commissions or fees if you can.

Posted by
407 posts

I prefer to have about 100 euro when I land in Europe. In the past I obtained them from my bank, but now I follow the advice from this forum...save some from a current trip for a future trip. Getting foreign currency from my local bank is expensive, not just with regard to the exchange rate, but also the $10.00 fee they charge in addition to postage because the currency is sent to them from one of their other branches. Unfortunately, I didn't ask enough questions the one and only time I did this, but I learned my lesson.