ATMs are widespread. Credit-card use varies by country; Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted. For security and flexibility, diversify your source of funds. Carry an ATM card, credit card and cash.
- Most countries in Western Europe have international ATMs allowing you to withdraw cash directly from your home account. This is the most common way European travellers access their money.
- Always have a back-up option, however, as some travellers have reported glitches with ATMs in various countries, even when their card worked elsewhere across Western Europe. In some remote villages, ATMs might be scarce too.
- When you withdraw money from an ATM the amounts are converted and dispensed in local currency but there will be fees. Ask your bank for details.
- Don't forget your normal security procedures: cover the keypad when entering your PIN and make sure there are no unusual devices (which might copy your card's information) attached to the machine.
- If your card disappears and the screen goes blank before you've even entered your PIN, don't enter it – especially if a 'helpful' bystander tells you to do so. If you can't retrieve your card, call your bank's emergency number as soon as possible.
Minimising ATM Charges
When you withdraw cash from an ATM overseas there are several ways you can get hit. Firstly, most banks add a hidden 2.75% loading to what's called the 'Visa/MasterCard wholesale' or 'interbank' exchange rate. In short, they're giving you a worse exchange rate than strictly necessary. Additionally, some banks charge their customers a cash withdrawal fee (usually 2% with a minimum €2 or more). If you're really unlucky, the bank at the foreign end might charge you as well. Triple whammy. If you use a credit card in ATMs you'll also pay interest – usually quite high – on the cash withdrawn.
If your bank levies fees, then making larger, less frequent withdrawals is better. It's also worth seeing if your bank has reciprocal agreements with banks where you are going that minimise ATM fees.
Nothing beats cash for convenience…or risk. If you lose it, it's gone forever and very few travel insurers will come to your rescue. Those that do will limit the amount to somewhere around €300 or £200.
If flying into Western Europe from elsewhere, you'll find ATMs and currency exchanges in the arrivals area of the airport. There is no reason to get local currency before arriving in Western Europe, especially as exchange rates in your home country are likely to be abysmal.
- Credit cards are often necessary for major purchases such as air or rail tickets, and offer a lifeline in certain emergencies.
- Visa and MasterCard are much more widely accepted in Europe than Amex and Diners Club.
- There are regional differences in the general acceptability of credit cards. In the UK, for example, you can usually flash your plastic in the most humble of budget restaurants; in Germany some restaurants don't take credit cards. Cards are not widely accepted off the beaten track.
- As with ATM cards, banks have loaded up credit cards with hidden charges for foreign purchases. Cash withdrawals on a credit card are almost always a much worse idea than using an ATM card due to the fees and high interest rates. Plus, purchases in different currencies are likely to draw various conversion surcharges that are simply there to add to the bank's profit. These can run up to 5% or more. Check before leaving home.
The euro is the official currency used in 19 of the 28 EU states: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, the Republic of Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain. Denmark, the UK, Switzerland and Sweden have held out against adopting the euro for political reasons.
The euro is divided into 100 cents and has the same value in all EU member countries. There are seven euro notes (€5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200 and €500) and eight euro coins (€1 and €2, then €0.01, €0.02, €0.05, €0.10, €0.20 and €0.50). One side is standard for all euro coins and the other side bears a national emblem of participating countries. Some countries, such as the Netherlands, don't use €0.01 and €0.02 coins.
For current exchange rates see www.xe.com.
In an emergency, it's quicker and easier to have money wired via Western Union (www.westernunion.com) or MoneyGram (www.moneygram.com) but it can be quite costly.
- In general, US dollars and UK pounds are the easiest currencies to exchange in Western Europe.
- Get rid of Scottish and Northern Ireland banknotes before leaving the UK; nobody outside it will touch them.
- Most airports, central train stations, big hotels and many border posts have banking facilities outside regular business hours, at times on a 24-hour basis.
- Post offices in Western Europe often perform banking tasks, tend to be open longer hours and outnumber banks in remote places.
- The best exchange rates are usually at banks. Bureaux de change usually – but not always – offer worse rates or charge higher commissions. Hotels are almost always the worst places to change money.
Adding another 5% to 10% to a bill at a restaurant or cafe for good service is common across Western Europe, although tipping is never expected.
Travellers cheques are rarely used.
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 to 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.
One source of travel money cards is Travelex (www.travelex.com).
Advantages of a prepaid card:
- You avoid foreign-exchange fees as the money you put on the 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.
- Security: if it's stolen your losses are limited to the balance on the card as it's not directly linked to your bank account.
- Lower ATM-withdrawal fees.
- Americans and others who carry credit cards without embedded chips (or whose chip-and-PIN cards don't work in Europe) can use these cards (which have chips and PINs) for the many European purchases that require such cards. Train ticket-vending machines in the Netherlands are an example.
Against these 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.
- If the card has an expiry date, you'll forfeit any money loaded on to the card after that date.