Should I exchange US $'s to Euro's prior to leaving the U.S?

Leaving for Italy in the next few weeks.

  1. Is it smart to exchange US dollars to Euro's prior to leaving the states or wait until I arrive in Italy?

Also, my debit card charges an outrageus amount for obtaining cash from foreign ATM's, etc. I would prefer to take enough cash with me to last a week. I will use my credit card for most purchases, services etc. but want to have cash in case retailers, vendors, taxis, tours, etc do not accept a credit card. So, my second question is...

  1. How much cash should I take with me to last a week? Again, assume I will use my credit card for all purchases/services (for those that accept a credit card).
Posted by Dave
Ventura, CA, USA
890 posts

J.S.-this has been covered recently here, you may find this link useful http://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/money/cash-tips
Generally speaking it's best to get cash there via bank ATM's, your situation with fees notwithstanding. Your bank can likely secure Euros for you so you have a small amount to arrive with, but there will be fees on that exchange too. It is very hard for anyone here to say how much cash you'll need in a given day.

Edit: J.S., here is a useful post from a similar question you had asked a while back, still good info. Have a great trip!
https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/to-the-north/exchange-rate

Posted by Larry
Elk Grove, CA, USA
6888 posts

No matter how you exchange dollars for Euros, or you use ATMs in Europe to obtain Euros, you will pay somehow someway unless you have an ATM card that charges no fees. There are a few. Schwab Bank has one of them. Usually, you can find bank ATMS (not non-bank ATMs like Travelex) at the exits of the entry airports. You can get cash there. Note also, that many credit cards charge foreign transaction fees for purchases as well although competition is forcing many to withdraw those fees. Our Chase Visa charges 3% on purchases in Europe (at least they did on our recent trip early last year).

Having Euros in your pocket when you land depends on your level of comfort. You can get Euros from large banks but once again, you can pay up to 5% for the transaction. We use our Schwab Bank ATM/Visa card and don't get charged anything on our trips.

Posted by Laura
Rick Steves' Europe
7386 posts

I'm wondering what is an "outrageous amount," but reiterate that every exchange involves fees or percentages that you can't compare well . We have found ATMs and credit cards to generally give better rates than other exchange services. Although I may have a few euros left over from the last trip, my main back-up plan is to take $200 cash in dollars, in my moneybelt, just in case there's some issue with machines working at the airport. I usually come home with all my $200.

Posted by Angela
Vancouver, Wa, USA
582 posts

Does your bank have any foreign partners where the ATM fees are likely to be less? If not, you might want to consider changing banks, or just having a second account that you use mainly for travel purposes (which is what I do). Credit unions usually give the best deal, with zero or low ATM fees, and the best conversion rates (mine charges 1%).

As far as how much money you need each day, that is going to depend on your spending habits. How many gelato and drinks you'll be indulging in each day, how many souvenirs and postcards you buy, small donations to churches you pop in to (they seriously have great artwork and are often worth a few euro to pop in and see), will you need cash for buses, are you going to grab a quick panini on the go for lunch, or at a more expensive sit down place that will be happy to take credit cards, and so on and so forth. Also, some hotels will charge less if you pay in cash...

Posted by Roberto
Fremont, CA, USA
5221 posts

Change bank.
I have Chase (which is not the best for foreign transactions) and all they charge for a foreign ATM w/d is a $5 per w/d. Most banks will also charge a 3% foreign transaction fee. So if you withdraw €250 ($350) , it will be a total of approx. $15 charge for that withdrawal. That is equivalent to a 4.3% commission, which is certainly less than what you will pay if you change your money in the US, whether at Amex or any local bank or a Travelex office at the airport.
There are Credit Unions that charge less than what Chase charges (lower ATM fee and no foreign transaction fee). I also have an Italian bank account, so I don't use my US atm card anymore.
If you want to have some money the moment you land, just for safety so that you don't have to look for an ATM at the airport and have enough money for the taxi, just exchange $50 or $100 before you leave.

Posted by Frank
Tresana, Highlands Ranch, CO, USA
12562 posts

Even if, in your opinion, your debit card charges an outrageous amounts (which I seriously doubt) for cash at an European ATM, it will still be much cheaper than obtain Euro from your bank or money exchanges in the US. Those fees are outrageous. The cheapest and most convenient way to obtain foreign currency ALWAYS will be a debit card at a bank owned, ATM in Europe - bar none !!!! My personal approach to carry in about 100 to 150 Euro (generally saved from a previous trip) to get through a day or so. Then depend on the debit card for the balance of the trip. We use cash about 98% of the time. Rarely use a credit card except the last day or two when managing Euro reserves so that we return home with 100 to 200 Euro for the next trip.

Posted by Douglas
Oak Park, Illinois
3117 posts

If the bank fees are less than 5% total, then that is pretty typical and not outrageous. European banks generally don't charge their own fee so it's only your bank to worry about. And you can't really easily find any exchange that charges less than 5% in fees and/or poor exchange rate.

If the fees are higher than 5% or you are willing to spend the time, open an account with one of the services listed here and in other similar threads. Or see if Wells Fargo (often cited as a decent deal on exchange rate), AAA or your own bank can exchange enough to limit your use of the ATM.

It can be really hard to guess how much cash you will need daily. But many places do not accept credit cards or won't for small purchases so you may need anywhere between 25-100 euro per day at a minimum depending on what you are doing and where you can't use your card.

Posted by David
Florence, AL, USA
2633 posts

Your local bank will eat you alive on foreign currency exchange. My Wells Fargo ATM used in Europe receives $5 service charges and a 3% discount--poor exchange rates.

Just look for a real bank ATM in the airport or train stations to get Euros. There are some imitation ATM's belonging to currency exchanges that will not return a good exchange rate.

When I go on such a trip, I take no more than $200 U.S. currency. I usually get money in 200 Euro lots, and I use credit cards any chance I get.

When I get close to leaving the countries using the Euro, I will spend my remaining currency trying to leave that country with none of their local money. I sent my wife the other day to McDonalds in the Prague Airport with $15 equivalent. She came back with no money and food that would cost $7 in the U.S. Oh, well, that's life.

Posted by Sandra
Illinois
313 posts

This last trip in 2013 i spent around $100 a day minimum for myself in Italia. Oddly a couple I know also spend $100 a day for two!
Yes, buy Euro here at home. I have enough Euro on me for food, some good stiff drinks, caffe', taxis, and several days' living so I have time to settle in, run around, freak out, and then think about finding an ATM inside a bank alcove.

Your local bank will use money from your account with them to buy the Euro. Your bank will explain that process.

Yes, you can exchange US dollars for Euro here in the US, but first ask your bank to recommend a reputable company that will exchange the cash. If none, then deposit the cash in your account if you are happy with your bank's procedure for buying Euro with money from your account.

Otherwise, you can exchange US dollars for Euro at Poste Italiane, the Italian Post Office, the very best place for this. Remember you will have to show your Passport before the exchange. I paid the same conversion rate at Poste Italiane that I paid at bank ATMs in Italy and paid here in the US for cash exchange. I'm referring to the amount of dollars it takes to make one Euro.

As for fees, i used two different Debit cards from the same bank here in the US at Italian bank ATMs. One Debit card charged a $5 fee for every withdrawal. The other Debit card charged No fee.

You said you already know the fee for using your debit card in Italia? Well be sure to ask your bank about fees attached to using your Credit Card for all your international purchases and services you want to make.

The only time I used a Credit Card in Italia was to reserve a room, and then I paid for the room with Euro cash so my Credit card was never charged. I did rely on obtaining Euro from bank ATMs with my Debit cards.

I meant to say 100 Euro Minimum. Actual range i spent on myself in Italia last year was 100 Euro to 150 Euro each day.

Posted by Jackie
Bett
92 posts

I like to have euros in hand when we land. My feeling is that I have enough things to figure out that I don't need to add looking for an ATM to the list. And what if the ATM isn't working, now you have to find another one, and a way to get out of the airport, how to buy a ticket and a myriad of other things, so getting the euro from a US source is my choice. I know some banks charge a lot but you might check with yours just to be sure. Our credit union charges $7 no matter how much you get and then just the exchange rate. I would check with your bank and maybe the ones of your family and friends if they would be willing to do you a favor. As for the credit card foreign transaction fees, we got the Capital One Venture card. They have no foreign transaction fees, they cover collision damage wavier fees if you are renting a car, and have a lost luggage reimbursement.

We are also trying to figure out how much to get. That's a challenge but I try to figure out all of the cash payments I know that I will have...tours, hotels that don't except credit or that discount for cash and then go from there. If we buy $1000 worth, that's only about 600E but a lot of cash to carry. It's a challenging question.

Posted by Zoe
Toledo, Ohio, US
5412 posts

I used to get euro for my entire trip from my bank before departing (I figured the euro wanted to go home and I was their escort). A few years ago I started to use my debit card at Bancomats, and only arrive with some euro left from the previous trip - enough to get to my hotel from the airport (€50 or so), check in and then find a Bancomat. Much less stress. Be sure to notify your bank and credit card companies that you will be using the card(s) in Europe to avoid a declined transaction for suspicious activity.

Posted by Roy
East Alabama
976 posts

A lot of folks say, don't worry about it, just wait until you get there and use your debit card. A lot of folks have never had a problem doing that. I have. It is callous and wrongheaded advice. There are few things more frustrating than to arrive in a foreign country on a weekend and be left stranded without funds until mid-day Monday because the ATM machine would not accept your card. Try scrambling for funds when that happens. It is no fun. It is better to play it safe and take enough euros or other currency for the country you are visiting to get you through the first day or two. One or two hundred euros, pounds or equivalent will carry you through until you have a chance to clear things up with the bank. Then you can use your card to get money as you need it.

Also, carry a second card with a different bank or credit union in case the first card is compromised. I had a problem once with a card from my credit union, where a helpful clerk had thanked me for notifying them by phone about my upcoming trip. That turned out to be a brushoff. The clerk never pulled up my records or made a notation. If she had, she would have noticed that the cu had canceled my card without notice a couple of months earlier because I had not used it during the previous 12 months. In that case, I was unable to do anything about it until I returned home. Fortunately, it was only a backup card; my regular bank card worked fine, so I was not in any danger of being stranded.

Posted by Kristen
Chicago
557 posts

I used to say just get Euro when you get there because ATMs are abundant. And I have never had a problem doing that. Everyone always says how expensive it is to get euro here. But I no longer think that is true. I have a friend leaving for Italy this month. She received euro from our Chase bank at an exchange rate of 1.45 dollar to 1 Euro. The exchange rate lately has been 1.35-1.39. No additional transaction fees. Pretty good deal in my opinion. I don't know if this is just our branch or it is a Chase Bank thing. So I am going to take advantage of this when I go to Italy next month.

I don't recommend taking a weeks worth of cash with you (in case you lose it). But contact your local banks and figure out how much it would be to get a couple of hundred Euro. And see if it is worth it to you.

Posted by Frank
Tresana, Highlands Ranch, CO, USA
12562 posts

That is still a 5 to 7% fee when the exchange rate with the debit card can be less that 1%. Spend a couple thousand in Europe and that is price of a very good meal with wine.

Posted by Roy
East Alabama
976 posts

Avoid the all or none approach to getting currency ahead of time. The exchange rate can be a big hit for someone taking out enough cash for a whole trip, but for 100 or 200 euros, pounds, etc., it is a few dollars more. Besides, after this trip, bring back enough euros to get started with when you return.

Posted by Kristen
Chicago
557 posts

For Chase, that is a better deal than using ATMs in Europe. I think Chase has the worst deal for using international ATMS. I have done the math. And have decided I should maybe get another bank for European travel.

That is why I said to do your own research with banks in your area. If you have a credit union or small bank that doesn't charge the fees that Chase does, it (EDIT: "It" means getting Euro ahead of time) might not be worth it to you.

Posted by Frank
Tresana, Highlands Ranch, CO, USA
12562 posts

Ok, what is the math for the Chase card at an European ATM? What you are suggesting is different than most everyone's experience.

Posted by Kristen
Chicago
557 posts

Chase charges $5 for a foreign ATM transaction fee, plus 3% of the transaction.
The exchange rate today is 1 Euro= 1.38 dollars.

If I take out 100 Euro today in an ATM, I am paying $138 +$5 + 3 percent of $138 which is $4. This equals $147.
If I take out 200 Euro today in an ATM, I am paying $276 +$5 + 3 percent of $276 which is $8. This equals $289.

Chase used an exchange rate of 1 Euro = 1.45 dollars but didn't charge any other fees.

Cost for 100 euro is $145 (2 dollars less than $147 so basically equal).
Cost for 200 euro is $290 (1 dollar more than $289 so basically equal)

Obviously as you talk about larger amounts, the ATM route becomes cheaper in the form of a single withdrawal. But I wasn't talking about large amounts. I was talking about small amounts for those who feel more comfortable going over with a little local currency in their pocket.

Here was my original point: I never bothered to look that hard into getting euro in the states because 1)I never had a problem at a European ATM and 2) I assumed it would be way more expensive. So I was very surprised to learn that for a small amount, there really wasn't a price difference. So why not get a little bit to cover me in case the ATM at the airport is broken or there is a long line, etc. That is why I recommended looking into local banks and your personal bank before assuming charges would be outrageous.

And I do not work for Chase or any bank. And maybe the person at the bank was new and did something incorrectly. I actually think their foreign transaction fees are annoying and am looking into switching banks or at least opening up a bank account somewhere else just for travel.

That's all I got. I am open to mathematical criticisms. Or any criticisms as long as they are polite :)

Posted by Douglas
Oak Park, Illinois
3117 posts

My bank has similar rates to Chase. I always take out the maximum I can each time, thereby keeping the total percentage under 5%. That is still better than exchanging currency itself.

Many people feel more comfortable taking a couple hundred euro with them to start. Nothing wrong with that because things can go wrong. And the extra cost for just 200 euro is negligible.

Posted by joanna_12
31 posts

Hi J.S.,
It's important to have some Euro's on hand when you arrive in Europe. If you have a layover or a change of planes anywhere on the Continent and want to buy small items like a snack, it's best to have some local currency.
I've been doing some research and found that Citibank (which used to have ATMS in a couple of major cities in Italy but have now pulled out entirely from that country) allows for ATM usage at non-Citibank ATMS fee free if you are a CitiGold client. Not sure of the foreign exchange rate given though.

Also, I asked at a Chase branch and they told me there is another branch in my city where I can purchase Euros prior to my trip.
These are a couple of options available.
Depending on your spend rate, it may be better to have Euros for a couple of days and then replenish at an Italian ATM. Carrying alot of cash around isn't very safe. Rome has alot of pick-pocketing. I'd start off with 100 Euros.

Joanna

Posted by David
Sacramento, CA, USA
295 posts

ahhhh one of the "fun topics"...

Be smart, take some Euros in your pocket. Many have never had an issue. Wonderful. Just like motorcycle riders...one's who have had an accident and those who will.

Now, highly experienced travlers who travel to certain cities with regularity may know the city/airport by the back of their hand and it will not be an issue. Drop me anyplace in London and I'll find a Barclays ATM within minutes (no fees with my bank) but that doesn't mean I still won't arrive in London without a couple hundred Pounds in my pocket. Doesn't sound like the Op fits that(knowns Europe like the bck of his hand)category.

So...your big trip to Europe...and you arrive, potentially jet lagged a wee bit, confused, trying to gather your surroundings with luggage in hand..and now your off to find (and distinguish) a bank owned ATM without outragous fees. Really? All to save a few bucks at most.

I'm not talking about converting out your entire trip before you leave but picking up 200 Euro to have on you upon arrival is small potatos..whether the fees ar $10 or $20.

Side story--in 2005 I took a small organized trip to Italy (Tuscany). The tour group (home town locals) were all advised to get a few Euros ahead of time...most listened, some didn't. We arrvied late on a Sunday evening in Frankfurt for a 2 hr layover before flying into Florence. It was great entertainment to listen to one couple scream bloody murder about being "ripped off" by a commercial airport money changer. Seems they wanted coffeee (real bad) and the local coffee stand/joint in our terminal wouldn't accept a US $100 bill for 3 Euros worth of coffee (vendor had a 10 euro min purchase for credit cards).

Posted by Barb
Central Florida
482 posts

Call your bank and just ask a few simple questions. Every bank has a different fee. My bank charges a flat rate of 15$ no matter how many euros I purchase. So, I would be better off getting more than less. In the grand scheme of things, a one-time purchase from my bank is not a big expense. We are getting some euros to get us started on our trip. Then, we will use banco mats in Italy. I learned on this site to use indoor ATM.s for safety and you may have to swipe your ATM card at the door to get access inside. (This is to protect you.)

Posted by christa
alameda, ca, usa
269 posts

I am planning my 4th international trip and like the previous 3 I will be ordering Euros from my bank before I leave. I have yet to use an ATM in a foreign country but I expect that on this trip I will have to as I'm starting in Austria and ending in Hungary, and will get my forints when I arrive there. I travel alone and absolutely do not want to de-plane and have to immediately start looking for an ATM, let alone dealing with the possibility of something going wrong and not having access to cash. For planning purposes I figure on 100 per day--pounds, euros or Canadian dollars--and use that for tickets, food and drink, taxis and on small purchases. Larger purchases I use my credit card. 100 has always been more than enough and I rarely use my cards.

Posted by Frank
Tresana, Highlands Ranch, CO, USA
12562 posts

You do what you are comfortable with but knowing that there are costs and compromises with every decision. Obtaining Euro in the US is the most expensive way to go. The cheapest and most convenient way to obtain local currency is always a debit card at a bank owned ATM - bar none. Debit cards and ATMs are as dependable in Europe as in the US. In nearly 15 years of travel in Europe I have never had an debit card fail. BUT, I still carry two debit cards tied to two different accounts just in case. Rarely used a credit card in Europe (personal preference) and take advantage of the discounts often offered for cash. Cash is easier and cleaner. Don't have to worry about the credit card working and easy to leave a tip.

Posted by Gail
San Francisco, California, United States
86 posts

I have 2 debit cards I use in Europe- Bank of America and a Wells Fargo Debit card tied to a "travel account". I can take out for free 2 cash transactions/month at any European bank - limit $310. Next trip I am going to try to get that limit raised. Great if you time a 2 week trip the first and last weeks of consecutive months as I did last year. I also use my BofA debit card with a daily limit of $900, which for the last 5 years I have used at BNP in France, Italy, Barclay's in UK and a bank in Germany, Deutsche perhaps, where I never had a fee at either end as BofA has an alliance with these banks and a few others worldwide.

However, I am currently in France, used BNP twice and noticed I have roughly a 3% fee charged by BNP each time. Will check with BofA upon return, but very surprised this has happened as they still list BNP as an alliance bank.

Posted by Bob
Jericho, NY
48 posts

I opened a Chase "Sapphire" credit card account before a recent trip to Europe. It has "chip" technology so it is safer, accepted more readily than other cards and easy to use, plus they do not charge fee for international transactions. I believe they were having a special promotion, waiving an annual fee.

Posted by Lee
Lakewood, Colorado
12813 posts

Bob, we've been discussing debit or ATM cards as a way of getting cash. You can get a credit card with "no" international fees, but that is only for POS transactions. If you use a credit card at an ATM, you'll get at least a "cash advance" fee, start paying interest immediately, and maybe still a get charge for the exchange rate.

The best exchange rate for euro over here is 5-5½%. Big banks charge 3% plus $5, which for the standard maximum withdrawal amount of $500 is 4%. If you withdraw less than $500, the rate goes up, but few people spend less than $500 on a trip to Europe, so taking out less doesn't make sense.

Posted by John
Seal Beach, CA, USA
26 posts

I've always had luck in finding bank ATMs conveniently located in the airport, train station, and practically every major intersection in Europe. They generally don't charge a fee and give you very close to current exchange rate. If you have time before leaving, get yourself an ATM card that doesn't charge foreign transaction or ATM fees. One I found that does this is Capital One High Yield Money Market Account with an ATM card issued for it. You can sign up and transfer money online. No ATM or foreign transaction fees! Don't buy Euros in the U.S. Banks will soak you with fees.

Posted by lisa
akron, ohio
145 posts

I just went to my bank this morning to inquire why my debit card was rejected after just one use during a trip to the UK a couple of weeks ago. I spoke with the branch manager. She informed me that due to the security firm they use, I believe it was Falcon, that my card would have been flagged and locked because you "can't connect travel dates with a debit card". She advised me to NEVER use a debit card while traveling internationally as it is too risky. When I asked her how I was suppose to get cash for small purchases she said to buy the foreign currency before I left the US. This advise is so opposite what I have always been told to do, both on this forum and others. I was so surprised to hear her say this, that I walked out wondering if I should get another bank!!

Posted by Frank
Tresana, Highlands Ranch, CO, USA
12562 posts

Lisa, Ed's is correct. Get another bank. That is crazy. I call both my credit union (primary card) and Bank One (back up) and they always link my travel dates to the card. I have heard such BS from your bank manager.

Posted by MarieB
120 posts

@Lisa-Akron

That is a shame that happened. Hopefully you had alternate cash flow - either Euro or another card. Yes, the advice given by Rick, staffers and travelers is to take some cash to get you through a day or two as well as a debit and credit card.

Perhaps before your next adventure, you can check out other banks for your "travel account." There are a lot who are now competing with the "no fees at all" cards. The most popular is Capital One. But google and you may come up with others for debit and credit.

Personally, I would never bring a debit card attached to my "home base" - one(s) that I would use for paying bills, shopping, etc . I think it is a wise idea to open a new account just for traveling abroad.

Posted by Douglas
Oak Park, Illinois
3117 posts

There have been some reports of some banks blocking debit/ATM cards for foreign travel or for travel in some specific countries. Usually it is for security reasons as those banks have had fraud problems in the past. But your situation seems to be a blanket ban on travel. That is a serious hassle to those that travel abroad. In future travels, you really would be best to get a different account and use the debit card for getting cash.

Posted by stan
Kansas City
681 posts

@ Lisa,
If you feel up to it, go back to the bank and speak to another manager, or call their main branch service dept, and ask them to recommend another bank that can provide you the service that you want.

Posted by lisa
akron, ohio
145 posts

Ed and Frank, yes, I agree, I do need another bank! Marie, luckily I did have another debit cart from another local bank and used it several times without a problem. Thanks for making me feel that I wasn't crazy today all of you!!!

Posted by Lee
Lakewood, Colorado
12813 posts

"She advised me to NEVER use a debit card while traveling "

What does she know? I always contact my bank and tell them when I will be using my debit/ATM card in Europe, and they have never said that I can't connect travel dates on a debit card. I've made 9 trips to Europe with only what I get from ATMs with a debit card and a few, less than 1 per trip, credit card purchases. I think using a debit card at a bank ATM is about as safe as you can get. Too many people here have reported having their credit card number stolen when using them at, for example, a restaurant.

When you use a debit card at an ATM, to get your own money, the bank makes only the exchange rate discount (3% or less) and the fee ($5 or less). When you use a credit card at a merchant, they make a fee (4% or more of the purchase) from the merchant, and most still charge you the exchange rate discount. Of course they want you to use the credit card; they make more money from the credit card. With my Chase card, they even waive the exchange rate discount to try to get me to use the credit card. But I think I would avoid using a debit card for a POS transaction (in fact, I only use crebit cards for major merchants, like DB).