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Does one really need to have some Euros before one actually arrives in Italy?

I'll be joining the Rick Steves Best of Italy tour in early April. I'm somewhat confused as to whether I ought to have some Euros on me even before I land at Milan's LIN airport.

I will not be staying in Milan for any length of time, as I plan to go directly from the airport to the train station to board a local train for Varenna. My hotel there has been booked for one night's stay, as I'll be arriving one day ahead of time before the actual tour begins (my credit card number was given, so I'll be charged that way).

Won't Varenna, in any case, even though a town, still have ATM's where my Mastercard debit card will work?

Also, will small restaurants, cafes, or groceries not accept a major credit card (or at least a debit card)?

Posted by
7735 posts

ATMs are everywhere in Italy as it is a much more cash-based society than the US. (The Italian word for ATM is "bancomat.") Credit cards are accepted at many places, but not as many as in the US.

The only reason to have euros on hand in advance is if you don't want to run the (small) risk that you can't get your ATM card to work once you're there. (You have alerted your banks and CC companies, right?)

Posted by
20632 posts

It is personal preference. But I always land with 100 euros just for the convenience factor for not having to find an ATM. Granted you may pay upwards to 10% fee to get Euro in the states but that is $10 for convenience. Others will land with nothing and hit the first ATM that they can find. Either way works.

Posted by
693 posts

Same as Frank. We have two kids and have made the 24 hour flight from Australia to Europe with them a few times. We just want to be able to walk straight to a cab with enough cash to get to our accommodation for a shower.

Posted by
5504 posts

Rick says: "Don’t buy foreign currency in advance. Some tourists just have to have euros or pounds in their pockets when they step off the airplane, but smart travelers don’t bother and know better than to get lousy stateside exchange rates. Wait until you arrive at your destination; I’ve never been to an airport in Europe that didn’t have plenty of ATMs."

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

Posted by
693 posts

Edgar is right about the rates. But with due respect to Rick.... he is not travelling with young kids.

For the sake of losing a few dollars on the exchange rate I am happy to march straight out to the cabs after a 24 hour flight!!

The real money to be saved is by purchasing supereconomy train tickets, getting a saving of a couple of hundred dollars by renting a car through Kemwel, travelling in shoulder season and not peak to reduce flight and accommodation costs, carefully checking accommodation and booking well in advance so you are not left scrambling for expensive places, making picnic lunches or grabbing a panini instead of sit down lunches every day etc etc......

Posted by
2235 posts

Hi Denny, my thought is the same as Frank and mph, except for the part about Australia and the two kids. You want to have enough euros in your hand for an initial drink, snack or your first transportation. I usually travel with 100 euros or so. Also, imagine you arrive and encounter some small problem, like a long line at the only ATM you come across, or the credit card machine at a ticket counter is out, or something like that. Probably won't happen, by why worry and take the chance. The bank where you have an account at home may have euros on hand, my small Wells Fargo branch does, or with a couple days notice can get them from their headquarters. Then at your first leisurely opportunity at the Milano airport or train station, or even Varenna, use your debit card to get something more, maybe 200 or 300 euros. I know you are going on an RS tour, which will cover your travel, hotel and some meals, at least after your first day, so your out-of-pocket expenses will likely be modest. Whenever you use an ATM, make sure it is bank-affiliated, rather than a free-standing money exchange company. I usually look for BNL, the major Italian bank, or Deutschbank, if I can find one. And obviously, deal with the money in private and keep your "stash" secure in your money belt, neck wallet, or whatever. Travel well Denny!

Posted by
11681 posts

I disagree with Rick on this one.

We are "smart travelers" and always arrive with €50 or so in our pocket. Airport ATM's can be the kind that charge horrible exchange rates ( like Heathrow). Or you could be setting yourself up for a stalker. The one person I know who has been robbed in Europe was followed from the Zurich airport ATM, where she withdrew around 500 CHF. She lost it all on the train, when the stalker managed to pick her waist pack and get the money ( no she did not use a money belt).

Since that experience ( I was with her) I have avoided airport ATM's and always arrive with a bit of cash. Usually we have cash left over from the previous trip. But if not, the bank exchange fee is minimal for the peace of mind (actually Chase charged very little when we were customers).

Varenna has, as I recall, one ATM, where you can withdraw euros. You can rely on credit cards if you wish, to get you there by trains from Malpensa. But personally, I would want some euros on arrival.

Posted by
30971 posts

Denny,

I also prefer to travel with €50-100 to use for meals, taxi or whatever until I get settled at my first stop. I always have money left over from previous trips so always have some on hand.

My memory is a bit hazy, but I believe there's a Bancomat in Varenna somewhere in the main piazza, close to the Church. The staff at your hotel will be able to direct you to the nearest one.

NO, small restaurants, cafes or groceries may not accept credit cards, and I've never seen one that would accept a debit card, so you'll need to have cash on hand. As mentioned in a previous reply, Italy is more of a "cash based" society.

Don't forget to notify each of your card issuers that you'll be travelling in Europe, so they don't "freeze" your cards when they detect transaction activity in Europe.

Posted by
291 posts

Whenever you use an ATM, make sure it is bank-affiliated, rather than a free-standing money exchange company.

NO, small restaurants, cafes or groceries may not accept credit cards, and I've never seen one that would accept a debit card, so you'll need to have cash on hand.

Airport ATM's can be the kind that charge horrible exchange rates ( like Heathrow). Or you could be setting yourself up for a stalker.

All of this really exceptionally useful, even though I have looked again and again at the RS Pre-planner booklet, as not all of that either sunk in or made complete sense to me.

I emailed my bank here (BECU, a credit union) as to where they would recommend I get Euros from, here in Seattle, and still have not had a response. I know you probably just can't walk into a bank and ask to exchange dollars from Euros.

The idea of a line at an ATM at the airport in a foreign country, with possibly strangers "on hand" with less than noble motives on their mind, is a sobering one. (I'm a 61-year-old Asian-American of slight build).

Posted by
3382 posts

We exchanged some money at our Seattle airport during our first trip to Europe - just so we could immediately buy train tickets with cash when we arrived. For each return trip, we bring back enough Euros to at least buy metro/tram tickets to leave an airport.

We don't remember anyone paying with credit cards when we were in the small local grocery stores in Italy. Some of the smaller restaurants also don't take credit cards. Personally, we don't want to use our credit card when we're traveling overseas; we just stop at ATMS every 3-4 days and store it in the moneybelt.

Posted by
11681 posts

Denny, I am a BECU member too. I use my BECU debit card to withdraw cash in Europe, after notifying them of my travel plans. But they would not sell me euros. For that, for the few that I want prior to arrival, I go to the Travelex store in Westlake Center, top floor. I hete the bad exchange rate there but am pleased to have cashin hand upon arrival. We generally take a taxi go our hotel, and pay cash for that. Then we go for a walk and find and ATM where we can withdraw several hundred euros. Since we arrive in daytime, this works for us. Our rule with ATMs in Italy is to only use ones attached to a bank, and only during banking hours.

Posted by
291 posts

Denny, I am a BECU member too. I use my BECU debit card to withdraw cash in Europe, after notifying them of my travel plans. But they would not sell me euros. For that, for the few that I want prior to arrival, I go to the Travelex store in Westlake Center, top floor.

Nice to know that BECU members travel, too! :)

The bad exchange rate is also a consideration. This thread is really valuable, as I "get it" now that credit cards are simply not used as much in Europe, and that periodic reliance on ATM's (debit cards rather than credit cards) to withdraw cash will be necessary to pay for things that RS does not cover. That was not clear to me from the pre-planning booklet. My friend who goes to Slovenia frequently was saying he used his CapitalOne credit card there all the time.

Still, I wonder if the machines that sell train tickets (to Varenna from Milan) would accept credit or debit cards...I find that here in the States I rarely use cash to pay for anything, as with my credit or debit card, I have a record of my purchases. Besides, I prefer not to be rummaging through my wallet for cash (I tend to drop things, or at least think that I am prone to).

My out-of-pocket expenses would be covered by a trust frund if they are charged to a credit card and not a debit card, which is why...

Posted by
660 posts

Try wells Fargo. They're pretty good at selling foreign exchange.

Posted by
2235 posts

Better to drop (and lose) a little cash, than to drop and lose a little credit card, no?
Also, many automated machines in Italy (train stations, gas stations, etc.) now only take "chip and pin" cards, which are not used much yet in the US. We will soon be converting, I understand. Do you have a chip and pin card Denny? I don't know if a debit card with a pin will work in those situations or not. However, if you find that a ticket machine either is not working or will not take your card, then your choice might be using a cash-only machine, or getting into a sometimes very long line for the staffed ticket counter. I have missed trains by being stuck in a long line.
Cash is often good. Also for gelato!

Posted by
552 posts

Just to help balance out the average a bit, let me add that I always use an airport ATM,... and also choose to do the transaction in the local language,... all with the intention of getting a head start on the immersion process.

Posted by
291 posts

However, if you find that a ticket machine either is not working or will not take your card, then your choice might be using a cash-only machine, or getting into a sometimes very long line for the staffed ticket counter.,

Larry, I don't have a chip-and-pin debit card, just one with what appears to a strip of (aluminum) foil.

This is getting more complicated than I thought. From what I understand, then: (1) automated machines** for buying train tickets may not accept American bank debit cards; while (2) ATMs, which are the source of the cash used to pay for restaurants, stores (small?), etc., will.

Posted by
291 posts

I'd recommend having some Euro with you when you arrive; there are ATMs everywhere but you can't guarantee they'll be working or the line week be short enough to zip through.

Maggie, you would know, as a resident, and this notwithstanding RS's advice (as I recall it--fuzzy now already) about not exchanging $$ for Euros until arrival. Or was that the advice of some travelers? I've already forgotten.

I'd still like to avoid Travelox. I'm not sure which bank()s) will exchange currency; I'll have to call around next week.

Small bills are best here, the "anything smaller" than a 50 or 20 happens a lot. If possible, also have some Euro COINS, the majority really hate having to break bills, even small, for a few coin purchase.

Again, something not mentioned by RS. I'm not sure what small purchases I will have, except for maybe a beverage as I am not really into shopping (souvenir items, made-in-Italy-only stuff, etc.). But definitely, with only half of lunches and no dinners covered by RS, I will be eating out, and at the very least, be buying, I'm assuming, deli-style things (panini?), and it doesn't sound that the proprietors will be either willing or happy to accept a bank card. I'm trying to pack almost everything I need so I won't have to run out looking for a nail clipper, cough drops, foot powder, eyeglass cleaner, etc.

Posted by
11613 posts

I usually take leftover euro (sometimes as little as 20) to get out of the airport. Are you sure your credit union can't order some euro for you? At my Ohio mom-and-pop bank, it takes 48-72 hours to get them. You pay the FedEx fee and perhaps some other charge or markup, but it's minimal. The best feature is that you can order the denominations you want (get 5. 10, and 20 notes) so you dot have to break a large bill for a coffee. You can buy train tickets from a staffed window with your credit card, but most taxis won't take cards.

If you can't order in advance, then get some euro from a bank-owned airport ATM.

Posted by
752 posts

This morning $1.08 equals 1 Euro. It's a good time to buy Euro from your bank. Be sure to ask your bank for the total cost of buying Euro. The bank will charge a fee for each Euro; find out what that fee is before you buy. The bank will remove the total cost from your Account.

Small businesses in Italy prefer cash. Even my budget hotels and B and Bs prefer cash. They may ask for my credit card at reservation, but then either prefer cash or give me the option of paying cash.

Then too I never have the mindset to go looking for an ATM in any international airport after I land. I always have enough Euro on me for several days support, enough for caffe' and pastries, snacks, meals, taxis, and payment if my lodging has notified me that they want cash payment at check-in. Some lodgings ask me to pay mid-way in my stay.

I like using an ATM inside a bank alcove. It may take a few days to locate a bank alcove ATM. In the meantime I have enough Euro to get to my lodging, eat, run around, eat some more, keep running. Having Euro on me enables me to move fast and easy into the life I live over there.

Posted by
291 posts

Small businesses in Italy prefer cash. Even my budget hotels and B and Bs prefer cash. They may ask for my credit card at reservation, but then either prefer cash or give me the option of paying cash.

Thanks, I didn't even think that the RS hotel in Varenna, for the day before the tour begins thee, even though they took my credit card #, may well indeed ask for cash, which, of course, is an inconvenience and runs counter to my strong preference to use my credit card on this trip.

In the meantime I have enough Euro to get to my lodging, eat, run around, eat some more, keep running. Having Euro on me enables me to move fast and easy into the life I live over there.

I'm getting to see the validity (and practicality) of having Euros on me before I even get to Italy as well as with me at all times.

My credit union will not help me to get dollars exchanged into Euros. It has also advised me that the owners of the ATM's may charge a fee, as well as the credit union's own foreign transaction fee (relatively low).

Posted by
5504 posts

Small businesses both domestic and foreign prefer cash because credit card transactions cost then transaction fees on the order of 3%. Some small not for profit charities will offer donors contributing online by credit card to pay the 3% transaction cost by "checking a box".

Another reason why some very small businesses are cash only is that credit card transactions leave a trail that their government can use for tax audits. Here in the States banks have a $10000 per day reporting rule.

I should also note that debit card transactions have a " swipe fee" that merchant pay. The Fed capped swipe fees at $0.21 per transaction (swipe). If a store imposes a minimum purchase amount of say $5.00, they are willing to pay a 4.2% transaction cost to get the $5.00 sale.

That said, while hotels/merchants may prefer cash, if the take cards "no transaction fee to the user" cards like Cap One Visa cost the user the least in terms of transaction cost assuming that you pay off your balance.

https://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/money/card-fees

Visa and MasterCard levy a 1 percent fee on international
transactions, and some banks that issue those cards also tack on a
currency conversion fee (additional 1–3 percent). These are similar to
the fees associated with using your debit card for ATM withdrawals.
So, how can a smart traveler avoid — or at least reduce — these fees?
Here are a few suggestions. Ask about fees. Banks are required to
break out international transaction fees as line-items on your
statement, helping you to see exactly what you’re paying. But by the
time you get your statement, it’s too late — so it’s smart to make a
call before your trip to get the whole story. Quiz your bank or
credit-card company about the specific fees that come with using their
card overseas.

Posted by
291 posts

This morning $1.08 equals 1 Euro. It's a good time to buy Euro from your bank. Be sure to ask your bank for the total cost of buying Euro. The bank will charge a fee for each Euro; find out what that fee is before you buy. The bank will remove the total cost from your Account.

I had forgotten about the fluctuating currency exchange rates. Thanks for reminding me! I am not sure that a commercial bank will allow me to buy Euros as I'm only a customer of my credit union, which does not deal in such transactions.

Posted by
635 posts

We outsmarted ourselves a couple of years ago when we flew to Munich. We had a four-hour stopover in Europe enroute, and we figured we'd be able to get Euros from an ATM there.

Unfortunately, the stopover was in Stockholm, and Sweden is not on the Euro.

Posted by
752 posts

There is another way to buy Euro if you can't use a bank account to pay for them. You can buy Euro with cash. In Chicago, my bank recommended

World'$ Money Exchange, Inc
203 N. LaSalle Street
Suite M-11 (mezzanine level)
Chicago
www.wmeinc.com

They charge the same fee as my bank. The only difference is they take cash as payment. Maybe there's an office near you.

Posted by
247 posts

Ken is correct, the ATM is just across the street from the church in Varenna. I was there in October and used that exact one with no problem. It is just a bit up the street from the church on the water side.

Posted by
8293 posts

At any rate, if the OP wishes he can arrive without euros and see how that works for him. Then he'll know for sure.

Posted by
291 posts

I just called a bank several blocks from where I live, and they will do a foreign currency exchange on the spot. Wells Fargo quoted $1.16 to the Euro plus a $7.50 transaction fee. Cash only. This sounds fair compared probably to the one other place I know in town, Travelex, which doesn't seem to have a very good reputation.

I just have to figure out how many Euros I will need for the first day before I arrive in Varenna.

Posted by
7686 posts

I am also on the side of having local currency in my pocket upon arrival. I always feel kind of brain fogged upon arrival and don't want to have to deal with an ATM right away.

I am glad you found a local bank and I would go with having about 100€. Tell them you do not want big bills so they should give you mostly 20's. I usually tell my bank how much I want in Euro or Pounds and they tell me how much it will be in dollars so you should not have to figure out the other way around, if that makes sense?

You may need money for the train in to Milan and then the train to Varenna altho you may be able to use a credit card for those tickets as mentioned above. You will need some money for food and snacks. I don't know if the bathrooms in the Milano Centrale station are pay toilets or not. If they are you will probably want to buy a water or a snack to get some change for the turnstile.

I am betting that if you are staying at the RS tour hotel the night before your tour they will accept a credit card. They will be used to having lots of Americans and lots of first time travelers. Usually they will also allow you to stay in the same room you will be in for the tour so you don't have to move. I usually ask when I check in if this is possible.

Posted by
4506 posts

Denny,

I like to arrive with at least €100 in case I need to pay a taxi upon arrival or to buy a snack or whatever...

By taking this much, I don't feel rushed to find an ATM for a couple of days, since I know I will be jet lagged...

I bank with Wells Fargo so I don't have to pay a fee when I exchange dollars to Euros.

By the way, I think $1.16 per Euro sounds reasonable to me.

Make sure you notify your bank /credit union of your travel plans (dates) & depending on how much you think you will be spending on you travels, you may want to increase your daily withdraw amount.

When I travel to Europe, I mostly pay in cash & only use my credit card for prolonged hotel stays or expensive purchases.

Have a wonderful trip!

EDIT: I didn't read every comment on this post before writing my response above...

After reading one of your last posts, I wanted to add another suggestion to this comment:

Larry, I don't have a chip-and-pin debit card, just one with what
appears to a strip of (aluminum) foil.

This is getting more complicated than I thought. From what I
understand, then: (1) automated machines** for buying train tickets
may not accept American bank debit cards; while (2) ATMs, which are
the source of the cash used to pay for restaurants, stores (small?),
etc., will.

Since your trip is a month away, you may want to consider opening a checking account at Wells Fargo & you will receive a debit card with a chip & pin.

Wells Fargo will charge you $5 for each debit transaction in Italy.

Since you will be joining your tour group in Varenna, you will only need to purchase the train tickets as follows:

  • Malpensa Express train ticket (€12) to Milano Centrale &
  • Train ticket to Varenna ( Varenna-Esino) ( currently €6.70)
  • You can purchase above tickets at the airport train ticket counter.

Hope this helps!

Posted by
291 posts

Since your trip is a month away, you may want to consider opening a checking account at Wells Fargo & you will receive a debit card with a chip & pin.

Yes, I could do that when I go to get some Euros (minimum 100 E, maybe even 200 E--it seems like it would be comparable to getting cash (Euros) from the ATM in Varenna.

That's something that I could do, although I've made do with just one bank account up until now. (Yesterday I got approved for a CapitalOne credit card, which has no foreign exchange transaction fees).

I am worried about whether or not my Mastercard debit card will work at the ATM's over there. I think RS stated that if it doesn't, one can fall back on a credit card (??).

I definitely need to give this (Wells Fargo chip-and-pin debit card) serious thought.

I'm getting "heady" just preparing for this trip, as I attend to what seem like numerous details (write down the name of the hotel in Varenna, for example--to my Nexus 7 tablet, that is.

Since you will be joining your tour group in Varenna, you will only need to purchase the train tickets as follows:
Malpensa Express train ticket (€12) to Milano Centrale &
Train ticket to Varenna ( Varenna-Esino) ( currently €6.70)
You can purchase above tickets at the airport train ticket counter.

Last night I checked for ways to get from the airport (but it's Linnate, not Malpensa, that Lufthansa flies to from Seattle), and it "appears" that there is a shuttle bus (5 E) every half hour to the train station (Milano Centrale?). I don't remember the name, now, which I'll need to find again, as I don't speak a word of Italian, and really don't want to be wandering around asking strangers.

All these responses have been incredibly helpful. I am so grateful for this forum and to the people who have posted comments!

Posted by
30971 posts

"Also, many automated machines in Italy (train stations, gas stations, etc.) now only take "chip and pin" cards, which are not used much yet in the US. "

When I was in Italy last September, I found that the automated Kiosks at rail stations processed my credit card using the "Chip & PIN" system every time. Although I suspect they will also work with the magnetic stripe cards, I don't know for sure as the machine seems to default to C&P if the card is equipped with that.

You shouldn't have any trouble using older magnetic stripe cards at attended locations, such as hotels, rail station ticket offices, etc.

"I don't know if the bathrooms in the Milano Centrale station are pay toilets,"

The WC's at Milano Centrale ARE pay-per-use. I can't remember if there are any WC's at track level, but there is a large facility one floor down from the tracks. With the tracks to your back, walk ahead into the next hall and then turn right. Look for a "moving sidewalk", go down one floor and then again turn right. The cost is €1. You'll have to pass through a gate which doesn't open for long, so as soon as you've dropped the coin in the turnstile, be prepared to move quickly!

If you want to stop for a snack, you could also stop at one of the restaurants and use the washrooms there. As I recall, the Roadhouse Grill is open there now so that's one possibility.

Posted by
291 posts

Ken,
I am assuming, then, that you a chip-and-pin credit card, and not a magnetic stripe one. Which bank is it?

Posted by
291 posts

Now, I am thinking that Wells Fargo is charging a lot for a FX transaction. If the current rate is $1.08 to the Euro, then they would be charging, in essence, $15.50 for 100 Euros, which is 15.5%. I have no idea how much, of course, an airport ATM would charge to get 100 Euros. Anyone have any idea the range of how much they would charge?

Posted by
30971 posts

Denny,

Yes, all my credit and debit cards are "Chip & PIN", and I have cards with a number of different financial institutions. Keep in mind that I'm from Canada and we've had C&P here for five years or more.

One other point to mention is that it's a good idea to take at least two debit / ATM cards if possible, in case you experience problems with one card. I've had that happen on one occasion, and fortunately I had a backup. My credit union had noticed the problems and they called me at about 03:00 one morning and asked what was happening with the cards (travelling with a cell phone was a big help on that occasion), and I explained the situation. If they hadn't been able to reach me, they likely would have "frozen" both cards so that would have been a problem. Not being able to obtain cash can have a big impact on a holiday!

Posted by
711 posts

We always take a couple hundred Euros in cash. It relieves the necessity of finding an ATM before you can do anything. Edgar is right about ATM's being easy to find at an airport but ***obviously Edgar has never had Bank of America drop the ball after being called to activate the card for overseas use and leave him with a useless piece of plastic.* ** If you can't afford to spend a few bucks extra to buy some currency before you leave, you really can't afford the trip anyhow.

Posted by
2235 posts

I have gotten euros from Wells Fargo and don't remember any transaction fee for buying euros at a branch (I really dislike bank fees, and avoid them in the extreme), but I am a longtime WF customer. That fee you were quoted might be for non-customers. Actually, it!s nice to know that there is some area where a bank offers an advantage over a credit union.

Posted by
7686 posts

Denny, I wanted to add that you can also take a taxi from Linate to Milano Centrale Station. I took a taxi last fall from a hotel near the Duomo to Linate and it was around 25€ BUT if was 430AM so there was NO traffic. That is another reason to have some cash on hand. There will be signs in the airport for taxis and you can just have Milano Centrale written on a post it note or a 3x5 card.

Posted by
4506 posts

Denny,

I am worried about whether or not my Mastercard debit card will work at the ATM's over there. I think RS stated that if it doesn't, one can fall back on a credit card (??).

  • As you know, you can use a debit card (attached to your checking
    account) to withdraw $ from an ATM with or without fees, however,
    do not use your credit card in an ATM because this will be treated as a 'Cash advance' & you will have to pay large added fees
    for this type of transaction.

  • I think what RS means is that you can always use your credit card for
    purchases (if you don't have cash) but not for small purchases... for
    example, you should have cash to buy a gelato ;-)

  • I agree with Ken in terms of taking 2 debit cards just in case you
    have issues with one of them.

  • I also take 2 credit cards (just in case),however I just use my
    'Marriott Reward' Visa by Chase Bank which does not charge
    international exchange fees.

  • Denny, Here is a post you may want to read to help you understand why
    your bank or any bank or exchange facility in the US will NOT give
    you the international exchange rate. Sam's ( from Green Bay)
    explanation (on 10/28/14) is excellent on this thread:
    https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/italy/euros-why-is-getting-in-us-bad-idea

  • Here is the website for the bus that will take you from Linate
    Airport to Milano Centrale:
    http://www.atm.it/en/AltriServizi/Trasporto/Pages/airbus.aspx

  • Yes, there are restrooms located on the same floor as the train tracks (as you are facing the tracks, go to the right & walk all the way to the end past the police office) at Milano Centrale & you will have to pay €1 coin. There is a change machine on the wall in front of the turnstile type door but it may be empty.

EDIT:

One more thing; if you use letters instead of #'s as your PIN for your debit card, make sure you know what letters correspond to what #'s as most ATM's in Europe only have #'s on the keys (without letters). Also your pin should be no longer than 4 digits.

Denny, why not call your bank or credit union & find out if you can use your debit card in Italy?

Didn't someone here say they have the same credit union debit card as you & they have used it Europe?

Posted by
5504 posts

The original post's headline topic ask about "NEED to have some Euros BEFORE" arriving. The Rick Steves Cash and Currency tip answers that question in the negaYuan Renminbitive. That said, a lot of tourist WANT to have some Euros in their pocket when their feet touch Eurozone ground. Nothing wrong with wanting the comfort of coin of the realm, its just not as monetarily efficient.

I do carry two ATM cards, bank and credit union, and two credit cards. I also carry a couple of hundred in US dollars. (Nice that USDs are the world's major reserve currency). In a crisis, it would be easy to exchange USDs for EUR, GBP and/or Krone at a markup cost. I have bought excess Czech Krone from a friend who returned just before we daparted and borrowed Chinese Yuan/Renminbi from another friend. But I have not needed to go out my way to pre-buy overpriced (compared to get on the ground ATM) foreign currency.

I will confess to not spending every Euro, Pound and Krone and have envelopes of funny money in hopes that I will return.

The bottom line tip is that you don't NEED Euros ahead of a trip, especially if you are on a prepaid guided trip. But if you want some Euros in hand as your feet touch the Continent, why not. Its your money even if you have to share some of it with Wells or some other American bank.

Posted by
291 posts

As you know, you can use a debit card (attached to your checking
account) to withdraw $ from an ATM with or without fees, however,
do not use your credit card in an ATM because this will be treated as a 'Cash advance' & you will have to pay large added fees for this type of transaction.

Priscilla,
Thanks for your detailed observations and comments. I'm a little hesitant about going to our local Wells Fargo Bank and opening up a debit/checking account, as--as can be seen from my comparison with our local credit union, BECU--it seems, by comparison, that Wells Fargo Bank--which also will sell Euros with an approximate 15% surcharge to non-members, demands fees for ATM withdrawals + POS purchases that are steep in comparison with BECU.

But I think it was Ken who explained that American debit or credit cards with the magnetic strip (such as what I have) don't always work in European automated machines. And you second him about taking two different sets of debit/credit cards. And the bottom line is that it would be awful to find oneself in a situation where, relying on just one debit card, especially the kind with a magnetic strip, even the ATM machine, not just an automated train ticket machine, will reject one's card...

And you reiterate the point that using one's credit card to get cash is not a good idea (at all).

So even if Wells Fargo doesn't issue the "European-style" debit/card, it would still be wise to have it in addition to my credit union cards.

Someone at BECU must know, as you point out, if their debit/credit cards will be accepted or where they will be accepted, although from what people have been saying is there's no certainty still that a particular machine will.

Posted by
291 posts

Denny, I am a BECU member too. I use my BECU debit card to withdraw cash in Europe, after notifying them of my travel plans. (Lola)

I'm not sure if she is saying that she has always been able to unfailingly use the BECU credit union debit card anywhere in Italy, without any hitches of any sort.

I wouldn't want any unpleasant surprises; BECU is not Bank of America or Chase.

Posted by
4506 posts

Denny,

Thanks for your detailed observations and comments. I'm a little hesitant about going to our local Wells Fargo Bank and opening up a debit/checking account, as--as can be seen from my comparison with our local credit union, BECU--it seems, by comparison, that Wells Fargo Bank--which also will sell Euros with an approximate 15% surcharge to non-members, demands fees for ATM withdrawals + POS purchases that are steep in comparison with BECU.

Regarding your comments above;

I only use my debit card to withdraw money (Euros in Italy) but not to pay for purchases or train tickets.

I pay cash for most of my purchases, including train tickets( from machines that take cash), & only use my CC to pay for big ticket items.

As Edgar mentioned, I also take a couple of hundred US dollars just in case.

Posted by
752 posts

When I use my debit card at a bank ATM in Italy, I get Euro matching the current conversion rate, today that would be the current $1.08. Then if my bank charges a transaction fee, I just make sure to withdraw the maximum possible from that ATM. On the west coast of Italy ATMs gave me 500 Euro, on the east coast the most I got was 250 Euro. Be sure that Euro withdrawals are within the USD max you are allowed here within 24 hours.

Posted by
10263 posts

Lots of comments here, both ways.
It seems that some travelers don't feel comfortable arriving in a foreign country with no cash.
One thought is: if you're spending $x,000 on a trip, how do you balance saving $50 bucks or so against erring on the side of caution (peace of mind)?
Different travelers have different travel styles and preferences.
The bad news is: after forty-some comments, in the end it's your trip and you get to decide.

Posted by
30971 posts

Denny,

Just to clarify regarding the types of cards.....

Your magnetic strip debit card may or may not work in automated ticket machines. You'll have to try it.

Your magnetic strip debit card should work fine for ATM withdrawals at Bancomats.

Posted by
291 posts

Your magnetic strip debit card should work fine for ATM withdrawals at Bancomats.

This is what I was most concerned about, Ken: not being able to get cash while over in Italy, a place where North Americans agree plastic cards are used less often than cash. With some cash, at least, I could still use the automated machines (other than ATM machines) as well as pay for small purchases including those made at cafes and stores.

That said, I'm still wondering whether two debit cards is a good idea.

Posted by
752 posts

My plastic Debit card has always worked at bank ATMs in Italy, and I have only one Debit card with me.

Posted by
291 posts

Thanks. RS doesn't say anything about two. I just applied and got approved for a credit card from CapitolOne. I am not sure I want to get more plastic (and statements and the like).

But if by plastic doesn't work, by chance...I'll have to call my credit union, and that will be not so nice.

Posted by
20632 posts

I am an old engineer by training. I like back up to back up so I carry three credit cards and two independent debit cards. In all our years of travel I have never had my primary credit or debit fail BUT there is always tomorrow. If you are solely dependent on a debit card for cash, then I think it is very prudent to carry at least two tied to different accounts. Second, I always both debit card within the first couple of days just to make sure both cards are working. Doesn't do much good to have a back up card that doesn't work.

As part of the backup mode, I also have the pin numbers for all credit cards. Cash advance on the credit card is the third, fourth, and fifth level of backup for cash.

Posted by
3263 posts

Wow! This thread has gotten very long and tangled.

My husband and I are longtime BECU members. We each have separate accounts which we both have access to...but we each have our own, not shared, BECU Visa credit cards and BECU Master Card debit cards. The CCs are not chip and pin. I do have a pin for my CC, but that is only for a dire emergency. I would never use it to get cash otherwise, and so far I have never had to.

We have traveled all over the UK and Europe, including all over Italy, with these cards and never had a problem with them, either paying for things with the Visa CC or getting cash with the MC DC/ATM card. We have never tried to use the debit/ATM cards to make a purchase, partly because it is not commonly done and not recommended and partly because cash is simply much easier.

There are no fees for using a debit card to get cash in Europe from the European ATM. There is a <1% transaction fee charged by BECU. On our latest trip in the fall, it ran about .8%. That added up to a whopping $26.50 for about $3310 cash.

When purchasing with the BECU Visa CC, it was exactly 1%. We do use the CC for larger purchases, but if you want to nitpick, it does cost a little more than paying with cash.

We have no other credit cards. We do have Visa ATM/Debit cards on a shared account at HFCU (Hughes Federal Credit Union) here in Tucson.

We use the HFCU DC/ATM card rarely in Europe because the withdrawal limit is only $400 and they absolutely will not raise it. We can get that amount on each card for a total of $800, but why bother when BECU gives me a limit of $1500 and I pay for the trips?

In practice, I usually withdraw €400 - €600 at a time.

Bottom line, your BECU cards should work just fine so long as you call BECU and tell them where you are going and when. I can even give you the "avoid the press 1, press 2" direct line if you want. They are the people who know the right answers, not just anyone you might talk to on the phone or in person at a BECU branch.

Posted by
291 posts

In practice, I usually withdraw €400 - €600 at a time.
Bottom line, your BECU cards should work just fine so long as you call BECU and tell them where you are going and when. I can even give you the "avoid the press 1, press 2" direct line if you want. They are the people who know the right answers, not just anyone you might talk to on the phone or in person at a BECU branch.

Yes, this thread has gotten long, but for me, whose experience with travel in Europe and with credit/debit cards is extremely limited, very very useful. I just don't want any unpleasant surprises...

I have already informed BECU through their site of my dates of travel. But it would still be nice to talk to a BECU representative over the phone, as people on this thread have pointed out that the magnetic strips plastic cards and the chip-and-pin ones are not always equally acceptable.

So if you could me the direct line...I'd be very appreciative...

Posted by
5504 posts

In practice, I usually withdraw €400 - €600 at a time.

Last year 600€ would have been a withdrawal of over $800 USD. My ATM daily limits are lower. Ask your financial institutions about your daily limit when you do the travel advisory. You can ask for a temporary increase in your daily limit. The down side of a high limit is unauthorized withdrawals can be bigger.

I should add that some ATMs have lower withdrawal limits than your daily limit. If I recall correctly the VCE cash machine would not discharge 300€. I had to settle for 200€.

Posted by
3263 posts

I was going to send this as a private message, but remembered that there were others who are also BECU members.

The number to use is (206) 439-5700. The first option is 9 for a lost or stolen card. Ignore it. The second one is 1 to reach an extension. Press 1. After a slight pause, you will be told to dial the extension. That number is 7457. It will get you to a real person faster than any other option I've tried.

And if you do have issues when in Europe, it works when the 800 number won't. Keep in mind that it is only staffed during normal business hours. That worked out fine when we were delayed getting back from Italy in November and had to have the dates extended for both our credit and debit cards. The time difference was in our favor.

There are other numbers to call in other situations for both credit and debit cards. The real person can tell what those are. They can also tell you what your debit cash limit is, which may be different from ours. You will have to translate that into € yourself so you know how much you can take out.

Something else I just remembered is that some ATMs might have their own limits on withdrawals. I hit that in Lisbon once and on Hydra on a Sunday. I then tried a lower amount and it worked fine.

And, you want any transaction done in Euros. Don't take the DCC (dynamic currency conversion) option. You won't get the best exchange rate for your money if you do.

Posted by
291 posts

Thanks!

Yeah, I forget about the daily withdrawal limits, which for me are already pretty low. I've got to contact BECU about this, right away.

This sounds like perhaps naive on my part, but I was actually not even thinking about bringing my cellphone, which is a very basic Verizon (Paylo) cellphone. I'm not even sure it works overseas, or how I would get it to work overseas...

Posted by
10263 posts

Recommend you check with Verizon to see if your US basic phone will work in Europe and what the cost would be.

Posted by
291 posts

Well, I hope I don't have to even bring it along. I have a friend who goes to Europe and he relies on his labtop only.

Posted by
11613 posts

I never use my Verizon phone overseas, I keep in touch via email to the US. I have an Italian cell phone because I travel for long periods at a time, but even that phone cost 30 euro or so and came with 5 or 10 minutes of calling time (I buy more time as I need it at tabacchi or at the carrier's stores).

Posted by
291 posts

I never use my Verizon phone overseas, I keep in touch via email to the US.

I am hoping to do the same. But in case my credit or debit card got stolen, lost, or didn't work (esp. the latter), I wonder how I'd contact my phone, i.e., whether emailing them would be better or phoning them (they have an emergency line, I believe), assuming I had a cellphone that could dial overseas.

Posted by
4506 posts

Denny,

Make sure you write the 'collect' phone numbers found in the back of each of your debit & credit card(s), in case you have any problems or if they are stolen or lost.

If you travel without a cell phone, you can always purchase a prepaid phone card in Italy for say €5 ( at a news-stand or tabacchi shop) and you can use a public phone to call your bank or credit union 'collect'.

I do not travel with a cell phone, but do buy a prepaid international phone card prior to my trip, & then I can call home from a public phone.

Since you are so worried that your debit card may not work in Italy, why not take a couple of hundred Euros with you.

Posted by
291 posts

Make sure you write the 'collect' phone numbers found in the back of each of your debit & credit card(s), in case you have any problems or if they are stolen or lost.

If you travel without a cell phone, you can always purchase a prepaid phone card in Italy for say €5 ( at a news-stand or tabacchi shop) and you can use a public phone to call your bank or credit union 'collect'.

Thanks, Priscilla. This sounds a lot easier than going out and buying a cellphone that can do overseas calls.

My credit union have 800 numbers to call. BECU in a private message has also given me a collect 909 number, though I'm not sure why they would want to accept collect calls from overseas, as well as an 888 number. I think it must be a good idea to have those numbers to contact one's bank, whatever comes up, for obvious reasons (one can't travel without either money or access to one's money).

I do tend to lose or misplace things easily, leaving a trail of things behind when I travel, so I'm just trying to be realistic and prepared for the worst, should it happen.

I also keep reading about RFID protection (or something like that), with people being able to "read" one's bank information without even having to actually see the cards (or steal them). I don't know if the danger of this is exaggerated or not.

Posted by
5504 posts

My credit union have 800 numbers to call.

Toll free 800 numbers don't work in Europe to call the US. That's why your credit card company gives you a number to call collect. Also a good reason to have a back up credit card(s). Keep your back up card in your security pouch.

http://www.howtocallabroad.com/qa/toll-free.html

Calling a toll free/freephone number from abroad Dialing a toll free
number from abroad may not work

Calls to a toll free (also known as freephone/freecall) number are
paid for by the receiver of the call, making them free for you, the
caller. However, when dialing such a number from another country, you
(the caller) will be charged international rates. So the call is no
longer free when dialed from abroad. This is the reason why some long
distance carriers/toll free number owners choose to block receiving
international calls and generally advise their international callers
to contact them on a regular telephone number.

Calls to a toll free number are not free when dialed from abroad

If the call goes through you will incur regular (or sometimes higher)
international charges. So, if the company/person you want to reach
also has a regular telephone number it is better to dial the latter
when calling from another country.

Posted by
20632 posts

Don't worry about RFID. It is mostly market hype to sell RFID protection equipment. Regular old fashion pick pockets are a greater risk.

Posted by
291 posts

Don't worry about RFID. It is mostly market hype to sell RFID protection equipment. Regular old fashion pick pockets are a greater risk.

Thanks. What a relief not to have one more worry added to all the others, for a newbie like myself.

Posted by
20632 posts

And the risk for a standard pickpocket is not that high, either.

Posted by
291 posts

Edgar,
I have put the article into my Pocket and probably should add it to My Documents, as there seems to be more there than meets the eye, so to speak. (Actually, it went over my head). I certainly hope I don't have to use it.

From another angle, and I just thought of this, what do people think of the idea of bringing hard currency (US$) to exchange once in Italy, of course, keeping this in one's money belt ALL THE TIME except when taking it out to exchange it for Euros? This would obviate the need to use an ATM. I'm not sure other a bank where one could do the exchange safely, but are the rates any better or any worse than using an ATM?

Posted by
2235 posts

Whenever I travel overseas, I always make and take one or two photocopies of the principal page of my passport and the front and back all credit and debit cards, and make sure everything copied is clear to read. Also an extra copy or two of the confirmation of my air ticket back to the States. This gives me my card numbers, phone numbers to call, etc. In addition, I take an old expired drivers license, even if I'm not planning to drive. Every once in a while a museum will ask me to leave an ID if I am checking my daypack or something else. I would prefer not to leave my passport, they've accepted a license and no one has ever looked so closely to see that I was giving them an expired license, and I suppose they wouldn't care anyway.

Posted by
752 posts

I have exchanged USD for Euro in Italy. Best place for this is Poste Italiane, the Italian Post Office. I got the current conversion rate. Must show your Passport to the clerk first.

Posted by
291 posts

I have exchanged USD for Euro in Italy. Best place for this is Poste Italiane, the Italian Post Office. I got the current conversion rate. Must show your Passport to the clerk first.

Wh-o-a!
I was thinking of not ever taking my passport out except going through security and customs at the airport.

Thanks, I won't try a bank then, if I do bring US$. I'm wondering if there would be a way somehow to keep the $ and passport in one's money belt until one arrives at the Poste Italiane and then (use the WC ?) find a way to take it out without having to unbuckle one's belt or unbutton one's shirt (neck wallet).

Posted by
291 posts

Whenever I travel overseas, I always make and take one or two photocopies of the principal page of my passport and the front and back all credit and debit cards, and make sure everything copied is clear to read. Also an extra copy or two of the confirmation of my air ticket back to the States. This gives me my card numbers, phone numbers to call, etc.

I have tried to do some of this by scanning the documents to my PC and then copying them to my Nexus 7 tablet. No crumpled papers...

Posted by
3263 posts

If you can find a place to exchange it, you will lose a lot of money doing an exchange of USD for EUR in Italy. Somebody please correct me if I'm wrong, but banks in Italy or all of Europe typically don't exchange (buy) dollars for EUR. Getting EUR from ATMs are definitely the cheapest way to go. Paying .8% vs. losing money on the exchange rate, AND possibly having to pay a service fee as well, is not good money management.

If you want to arrive with some EUR, there are places where you can exchange USD for EUR in Seattle. You will lose money there, too, but it might give you some peace of mind. The airport is one. I have also bought (which is what you are doing at a profit for the exchange bureau) foreign money at a little shop in Southcenter Mall (do they still call it that?). If they are still there, that is also an option. I'm sure there are other places around town.

I'm not sure why you think you can't use your BECU ATM card in the ATMs in Italy. As I said before, mine My BECU MasterCard debit/ATM card has worked perfectly in any ATM I have used in 16 countries from 2009 through 2014, including Italy. I do try to use only machines attached to banks and when the banks are open. If they have an off-the-street foyer, I prefer that.

You are going with a group. You surely won't be the only person doing this, and your tour guide will be able to tell you the best places to go to use an ATM.

In Europe, your debit/ATM card pulls money from your checking account. So naturally, you need to have money in that account for it to pull from. I "save" money in my BECU checking account for our trips and gradually build it up over time. I also transfer money into it either from my BECU savings or from my CU down here in Tucson. Your timing is a little short for the saving idea, but you have plenty of time to transfer money from your savings to your checking before you go.

Posted by
10263 posts

what do people think of the idea of bringing hard currency (US$) to
exchange once in Italy, of course, keeping this in one's money belt
ALL THE TIME except when taking it out to exchange it for Euros? This
would obviate the need to use an ATM.

Here's what Rick has to say abut that:
"Throughout Europe, ATMs are the standard way for travelers to get cash. European ATMs work like your hometown machine and always have English-language instructions. Using your debit card at an ATM takes dollars directly from your bank account at home and gives you foreign cash. You’ll pay fees, but you’ll still get a better rate than you would exchanging cash dollars at a bank. Ideally, use your debit card with a Visa or MasterCard logo to take money out of ATMs."

For more money tips from Rick:
http://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/money/cash-machine-atm-tips

Posted by
5504 posts

... scanning the [passport] documents to my PC and then copying them to my Nexus 7 table....

I scanned and emailed the PDF files to myself keeping the email in a "save" file of my email account. The data is somewhere in the "cloud", not in my device storage. If I lose the device (also a Nexus 7), the finder would need my email passport to read my information. That said, passport data isn't an identity theft issue. Hotels often make copies of your passport.

I should add that you can also email and save your credit card and bank cards telephone numbers, the call collect from Europe numbers.

Posted by
752 posts

You just need practice. Put your money belt between your tucked-in button-down shirt and your pants at the waistline. To get something out, just lift up the money belt slightly, and then tuck it back inside. Do that facing the counter and no one will see you. You can do this without looking down. Just know where you put things.

A neck wallet is deeper and narrow. I wear it long so I can tuck it inside my pants. I wear light scarves to hide the ribbons. I just go under my shirt, lift up the neck wallet to get what I need and then tuck it back down. I face the counter so no one sees me. They think I'm adjusting my waistband under my shirt.

Posted by
30971 posts

Denny,

Taking U.S. dollars and exchanging them in Europe is not the best practice (IMO), as the exchange rate and fees will likely be dreadful. Getting cash from an ATM is a much better deal.

Posted by
11573 posts

I agree, Ken: ATMs are always the best bet. We've used them at the airport and at banks with no problem but check with your financial institution to make sure they'll work before you go. At the same time, raise your maximum withdrawal amount, if needed/desired, and let them know when and where you'll be traveling so they can put a note on file. Same with credit cards.

We take photocopies - front and back - of our cards, airline reservations and front page of passports. Husband and I each have an ATM and credit card and so back up each other. They are only carried (Pacsafe or small pouch pinned under our waistbands) on days we think we may need them: otherwise they stay in the hotel safe with the passports. According to a different post, you've ordered a Pacsafe, right?

Yes, we've always had to produce our passports for copying when checking into Italian hotels. We also had to produce them when buying our Friends of the Uffizi passes in Florence so expect that you may be taking it out now and again. Nothing to worry about.

Yes, different ATMS will dispense maximums of varying amounts so if the first transaction is rejected, try a lower dollar amount.

We don't travel with phones (yet) as we just don't want to mess with them. Should we need to make an emergency call (i.e. a lost card) we'll bite the bullet and just pay the cost of doing so from the hotel. So far, so good. Yep, we're still very much Paper Map People but it works for us, and I use a mobile device for checking mail from free wifi spots - which more and more hotel rooms have.

No, not all businesses will take a credit card, and especially not for small purchases so always have cash on you. It won't apply as you're with a tour but we've had to pay cash at some small hotels we've booked. Anyway, our pouches are easy for us to access (but not so for someone else) and we'll often carry a small amount in a trouser pocket that wouldn't ruin the day if it was lifted. Again, so far, so good.

But most importantly, while it's wise to take the usual precautions the bigger issue is not to think that you have to stress about it all day, every day, every time you leave the hotel room. The small minority has has a bad experience - and many of those made that all too easy - and the majority have not. We keep the same wits about us abroad as we do in any large American city so it's really just second nature.