At the time of publication, the countries in Central Europe using the euro as their currency are Austria, Germany, Slovenia and Slovakia. The other countries use their own currencies, which are easily convertible, stable and reliable. Major international currencies such as the euro and the US dollar are easy to exchange. Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic hope to convert to the euro in years to come. A useful internet site for calculating exchange rates is www.xe.com/ucc.
For security and flexibility, diversify your source of funds: carry an ATM card, a credit card and some cash.
Getting Your Tax Back
Sales tax applies to many goods and services in Europe; the amount – 10% to 20% – is already built into the price of the item. Luckily, when non-EU residents spend more than a certain amount (around €75) they can usually reclaim that tax when leaving the country. Note that none of this applies to EU residents. Even a US citizen living in London is not entitled to a rebate on items bought in Frankfurt. Conversely, an EU passport holder living in New York is.
Making a tax-back claim is straightforward:
- Check that the shop offers duty-free sales; often a sign will read 'Tax-Free Shopping'.
- When purchasing, ask the shop attendant for a tax-refund voucher, filled in with the correct amount and the date.
- Claim a refund directly at international airports (beware of very long lines), or have your claim documents stamped at ferry ports or border crossings and mailed back for a refund.
ATMs are widely available in cities and towns, including at transport arrival halls. Find a money machine before travel- ling to villages.
- Withdrawal fees are usually charged by both your domestic bank and the ATM operator.
- Check to see that there are no ancillary devices attached to the ATM and cover the key pad when entering your code to discourage theft.
- A few people report problems with their pin codes while abroad, so have a back-up card or plan.
Note that separate systems for processing the bill may be used for cash and charge, especially in the eastern countries. Announce that you intend to pay by card before requesting the cheque; once the bill arrives, it may be too late.
- Visa and MasterCard are commonly accepted at hotels, pensions, larger restaurants, train stations; occasionally accepted at smaller restaurants.
- American Express, Discover, Diners Club and others are accepted only rarely, at larger establishments.
Adding 5% to 10% to a bill for service is common across Europe.
International ATMs have eliminated the need for travellers cheques. Finding a place to cash these is difficult and commissions are generally high.
Western Union (www.westernunion.com) enables you to wire money to thousands of offices across the region. The sender will be given a code that they then communicate to you and you take to the nearest office, along with your passport, to receive your cash.
Travel Money Cards
In recent years prepaid cards – also called travel money cards, prepaid currency cards or cash passport cards – have become a popular way of carrying money.
These enable you to load a card with as much foreign currency as you want to spend. You then use it t o withdraw cash at ATMs – the money comes off the card and not out of your account – or to make direct purchases in the same way you would with a Visa or MasterCard. You can reload it via telephone or online.
Advantages of a prepaid card include the following:
- You avoid foreign exchange fees as the money you put on your card is converted into foreign currency at the moment you load it.
- You can control your outlay by only loading as much as you want to spend.
- If the card is stolen your losses are limited to the balance on the card – it’s not directly linked to your bank account.
- ATM withdrawal fees are lower.
- Americans and others who carry credit cards without embedded chips can use these cards (which have chips and PINs) for the many European purchases that require a card with a chip.
Against this you’ll need to weigh the costs. Fees are charged for buying the card and then every time you load it. ATM withdrawal fees also apply. You might also be charged a fee if you don’t use the card for a certain period of time or to redeem any unused currency. Note also that if the card has an expiry date, you’ll forfeit any money loaded onto the card after that date.
One source of Travel Money Cards is Travelex (www.travelex.com).