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4 replies
US cards beware in Europe: pin+chip
Don
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I post a lot on another travel forum that also covers money issues, and thought I’d pass along some of those tips to fellow Eurotrippers.

As more and more merchants in Europe adopt the pin+chip card technology, US cardholders with the older magnetic-strip debit and credit cards can face hassles trying to pay for things. Although merchants displaying Mastercard or Visa logos are, in theory, supposed to accept your card, in practice, they don’t always — because they don’t know how to handle it (improper training), don’t want to put forth the effort, or have been trained not to take them. An argument over merchant agreements doesn’t get your train ticket paid for when it’s arriving in … 4 minutes! What to do?

Plan ahead, and have cash as your backup plan. I have never encountered ATMs that would not take my US magnetic-strip cards with 4 digit PIN. Even if you show a waiter your card before ordering, and they assure you it’s fine, still you can be surprised at settle-up and have to dash out to get some cash.

Train kiosks usually take coins as well as cards. Hold on to change! They rarely take bills. Fortunately, European currencies come in larger amount coins. 1 and 2 Euro coins, 1 Pound coins, 10 and 20 Kroner coins — depending where you are, of course.

Get a 4 digit PIN for your credit card, in addition to your 4 digit ATM card PIN. Sometimes the card will be read but will require you to enter your PIN instead of signature.

Mastercard and Visa are the most widely-accepted cards in Europe. Amex… rarely. Diners… even less than Amex. Discover… they don’t have it in Europe at all.

Merchants in some countries or regions can tend to favor one brand over the other. Last several times in Bavaria, for some reason, nearly every place I went would not take Mastercard (called “Eurocard” there) — and would only take Visa. What to do? Have 1 of each — a Visa credit + Mastercard-branded debit card, or vice-versa.

Fees:

There are 3 potential fees on ATM transactions:
1. What your card issuing bank charges for you to use someone else’s ATM.
2. What someone else’s ATM charges you, a nonmember, to use it.
3. What the foreign network charges you, a non-network member, to make a transaction.

I’ve seen these range from $2 to $6 — each! That’s expensive money if not careful. What to do?

Ask your bank how much it will cost you to use your ATM and credit card overseas. You want 1% total or less. This is the base fee that MC and Visa charge on all foreign currency transactions. Some banks add another 1-4% on top of that; a very few will even “eat” the 1% to attract and keep high-spending international travelers.

Look for ATM networks that work with your card’s network(s) for free foreign withdrawals. Some even let you search friendly ATMs via online maps.

Having a MC or Visa logo on your debit card means you can use it just about anywhere in the world; but, if you’re out of network, or if your bank charges to use other ATMs, then you’ll still get hit with fees at the dispensing ATM. Shop around for cards well in advance of travel. Credit Unions, generally, have lower card fees.

Credit Card? Just beware the foreign currency transaction fee noted above. Try to get one 1% total or less. Oh, and have some cash as a backup-plan.

Don
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BTW, I like to have about $200 emergency cash on me — just in case… ATM or credit networks are down, a machine eats my card, ATMs are out of cash in remote locations on long holiday weekends — all of these have happened to me. The $200 could be travelers checks, but that adds more hassle and cost for you. And any major currency equivalent of $200 is fine. If I’ve got 100 Pounds leftover from last trip, 300 DKK, and 50 CHF for example, then no problem — any foreign currency can be exchanged at Travelex, Forex, and their competitors. Debit and credit is cheaper and more secure way to handle money in Europe, but just in case… have some emergency cash in your travel money belt.

I like the idea of PIN+chip. It’s more secure, but I can imagine it will take some time for US cards, and merchants, to catch up.

One final(?) thought… Always pay in the local currency price. Don’t accept the USD price they have pre-arranged — it is in the merchant’s favor, and you still will, in almost every case, get hit with the foreign currency fee anyway. If you’re in the UK, pay in Pounds. In Germany, Italy, Spain, et. al. pay in Euros. In Denmark, pay in Danish Kroner; etc.

oldlady
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I just spent a couple of days in Canada. Since the US and Canadian dollars are just about equal, I wasn’t even thinking about exchange rates and fees. I’m a plastic user at home and I put everything — lots of little things I’d use cash for in Europe — on the Mastercharge I use at home. The fees added up to over 5% plus I’m sure I lost on the exchange. Just using my other Mastercharge card would have saved A fair amount.

I’m definitely going to research the fees on every debit and credit card before I cross the border again.

Don
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That’s a good point OL. If you already have one or more cards with lower fees, then the simple act of using that one as much as possible can save the equivalent of a pint or 3 each day … (or ein Masse, en fadøl, etc) ….

Another tip:

Let your card-issuing bank or CU know ahead of time that you will be traveling in Europe and using your credit and debit cards there. In my experience, you have to name the countries, because CS can’t name 1 country in Europe if their lives depended on it! Remember to include connecting flight countries, in case you want to buy something in the airport.

If you forget to do this, then your card security will probably say they attempted to call you at a US number they have on file, and will proceed to cut off your card if you don’t call back the security number and allow the charges.

oldlady
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Quote:
Let your card-issuing bank or CU know ahead of time that you will be traveling in Europe and using your credit and debit cards there. In my experience, you have to name the countries, because CS can’t name 1 country in Europe if their lives depended on it! Remember to include connecting flight countries, in case you want to buy something in the airport.

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You need to know how to spell Latvia, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, anything more exotic than France, Germany and Italy when you call. You also need to call before you charge anything on-line or by phone (like train tickets or paid in advance hotel or hostel that you book directly) that will show up as a purchase made in a foreign country. A big issue: even if you’ve used this card in Europe before, you may have a problem using it this time if you don’t call.