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November 12, 2011


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When I travel abroad I usually get the best deal by getting Euros in advance from my bank at home before leaving.

Then at my destination, I can shop around for the best rate for currency exchange.

The airport currency exchanges are very convenient and thus, you pay for that convenience. You pay a lot more for food at the airport and you will generally pay a lot more for currency exchange.

Last time I checked, the Capital One Venture Rewards Card has no foreign transaction fee when used abroad.

Predicting currency fluctuations is very difficult. Your time is better spent enjoying the amazing food and gelato.

Have a great adventure in Italy!

I always use my credit card (no fee) and debit card (no fee). Don't worry about the rate if you use any type of bank card - you will get what is going rate. You could try to time exchange rates, but I would rather enjoy the vacation. Travelers checks are useless these days, to much of a hassle, cash is fine - but I never use it home, and therefore don't carry it when I travel.

I spent many years in Brazil and mostly exchanged with a debit card and credit card. I never bought money ahead. Euros may be easier to find in the USA than the Brazilian Real. You can probably find a ATM machine at the airport when you arrive in Europe. I did have use of a Visa credit card from my credit union that did not charge a foreign exchange fee.

I would carry more than one credit/debit card. I would also make sure that both you and your spouse were carrying a card that the other is not carrying.

You could have some cash and/or travelers checks as a backup. However, travelers checks are difficult to exchange. The reason they are guaranteed is that the merchant does not receive the money if they accept stolen travelers checks. So merchants are unwilling to accept them without all kinds of documentation. The kind of documentation that you likely would lose along with your travelers checks.

Yes I agree--I'd just bring a small amount of cash Euros from my bank here (for buying small things where they won't take credit cards), but for all other spending I'd simply use a major credit card, one that doesn't charge extra for the foreign exchange. The exchange rate that the credit card companies use is probably the best you'd get anywhere. Be sure to call your card company before you leave and tell them you're going on the trip , otherwise they may deny your charges because they think it's fraud.

It's also simple to bring some cash in dollars. Some tourist destinations & individuals such as tour guides or people selling at markets are happy to take american dollars "as is". Dollars are also very easy to exchange at your destination--just walk into any bank. I like this option since it's hard to tell ahead of time how much cash Euros you will need. Nothing is worse than getting stuck with cash Euros when you get back to the states, because your US bank typically will charge you a flat amount to exchange them on top of the exchange rate so you won't get the full value. Or it tempts you to spend all your remaining Euros before you leave just to get rid of them--not very frugal!

Also, like mb says, do not ever bring travelers checks! To Europe or anywhere. My experience has been that if you find any stores and hotels that will take them (most won't), it will not only be a major hassle taking lots of time but they'll charge you an exorbitant exchange rate that they make up on the spot. And they'll often also request to view & write all your personal identification like your passport number & local hotel room on the checks---a massive security risk to you.

I have always just used my ATM card to get the maximum out of the machine, and then split the cash with my traveling companion so that I wasn't carrying such a large sum all by myself. Most purchases I paid for in cash, but anything large would be put on a credit card. I never change money before I go.

My wife and I went to Italy on our honeymoon this past May. We used our Capital One card for nearly everything we could since it has no foreign transaction fee, as another reader already mentioned. We brought our debit cards and another credit card as backups just in case. We also exchanged a small amount of money at our bank before we left, which was good so we could grab some food and catch a train or taxi from the airport. Many banks in the US will exchange currencies for its customers for free.

We also brought a good amount of dollars with us to exchange as needed. Don't carry it all together; keep some in each of your wallets, some in your bags in case any of them are lost or stolen. We found that some banks in Italy had good exchange rates, but the best consistently was the post office. Avoid the airport or the little money exchanging kiosks...they either had terrible exchange rates or great teaser exchange rates with outrageous service fees.

Try to plan out your cash expenditures as best you can. You'll typically have a fixed service fee with any exchange, so larger exchanges less frequently are better than making many small ones.

We booked and paid for our hotels and train tickets ahead of time. This saves quite a bit of money (10-20 Euros a night for hotels and about 50% for train tickets) and means fewer things you have to worry about paying for when you're there.

Don't feel like you have to spend every last penny that you exchange. We had a small amount of Euros left over, mostly coins, which I keep on my office desk as a nice reminder of a great trip :). Have a great time!

When I went to Italy with my family, I found it was easier (and the best rates) to change my money here at home. Do not use your cards at every individual shop, store, restaurant, etc...but rather pull money from your debit card from a bank over there. Also, tell your bank where you are going and they can raise your limit and, if you're lucky, they will reverse the fees charged to you--my bank did.

Also, go to the Termini and purchase the Euro pass--it was 25 Euros and gave you three days unlimited use on the Termini and public transportation as well as free enterance into 2 places of your choice. We went to the Coloesseo - no charge, and did not have to wait in the line. If you go to the Vatican, keep this in mind--no short-shorts, no tank tops, no mini-skirts. Keep shoulders and "cleavage" covered. No muscle shirts and nothing of "tacky" taste

Now, BEWARE of the pick-pockets. No joking. I carried a cross body purse and kept it in front of me on the termini, unfortunately, they got my husband's wallet, fortunately, I had ALL the money and documents.

Have a wonderful time!

For the first point, I would recommend trying to convert some money into cash. You can go to one of the banks over there in Italy to try and get he best rate. Here are the true interbank rates, the rate you should get should be somewhere near this rate, +/- 3% I have found that if you want to focus on getting the best rate it usually helps to convert amounts larger than $500 when dealing with money exchange kiosks.

If you're using a credit card anywhere in Europe be aware that they are gradually switching to cards that require a chip and pin. It may not be as widespread in Italy yet but it may make sense to ask your card vendor about getting a 'chip and pin' or 'smartcard' for use in Europe in advance.

Some European ATMs (and phones) only have numbers. So if your pin is a word and you remember it by the word then be sure to memorize the number in advance. And I thik sometimes they even flip the numbers around so they're upside down. That threw me off since I remember my number by the pattern.

Don't worry about the fluctuations in the Euro currency exchange. It doesn't go up and down very fast and European debt won't impact that significantly. It will probably be a few cents more or less than it is now, so just assume that its variable to some degree.

I would echo Jim's concern about the acceptance of your credit card. I have found that my MasterCard was always accepted and yet my AMEX card was usually declined. The other thing you need to do is to inform your card provider of the dates you will be overseas otherwise they could assume that your card had been stolen and was being misused in which case and their fraud control unit could put a hold on its use until they have contacted you.

If Venice is on your itinerary be prepared to find that it's horribly overcrowded these days since the big cruise ships have it on their itinerary. The Cinque Terre is a great place to visit but we found Capri and Sorrento to be clogged with tourists and very disappointing.

+1 to Capital One. They have no foreign transaction fee on any of their cards, and the rates are fair. I've never had a problem with it in Canada or Europe. Of course, you need to let them know about your travel plans in advance.

Old Limey, I agree that Cinque Terre was a must visit. However two of the five towns (Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare) were subject to devastating landslides and floods a few weeks ago at the end of October. So it will be a while before those two lovely towns are back to normal. (You can read more at savevernazza dot com) So if I were the OP and considering a trip to Cinque Terre anytime soon, I would look into Corniglia, Riomaggiore, or Manarola. (I wouldn't discourage anyone from visiting the area though -- any influx of tourist dollars there would I'm sure be very appreciated!)

My husband and I spent 3 months in Italy & France this past summer. We used a Capital One card (no fees) and there is a partner bank with Bank of America that charges no ATM fees for withdrawals. In France it was called BNP, in Italy I think it was called BNP Paribas? So we did not pay exchange fees while we were there except for the few cash Euros we exchanged at the end. In Paris, chip and pin seems to be the predominant technology, but as long as there is a human cashier you can still use a magnetic swipe credit card (some unmanned ticket machines won't work with US cards though). In Italy, we did not have any issue using our magnetic swipe cards.

Personally we were not too concerned about any currency exchange rates; since it was something that was mostly out of our control we chose not to let thoughts of currency speculation interfere with planning the fun parts of our trip. :) Have a wonderful time in Italy!

I'm italian, living in italy. Don't change your money at airports here or your hotel because they have horrible rates. But you can change money in any bank, they are safe and work with daily rates.
Don't worry about the financial situation here. To us who live here it seems mainly politics for now and no real effects on our lives. Life is as it has always been in our beautiful country, hope you'll have a great time...CIAO

I'm an American traveling through Europe right now. As far as credit cards, either the aforementioned Capital One card, or the Chase Sapphire Preferred (which I am using here now). Occasionally, some automated machines only want chip-and-pin, but those tend to be off the beaten path.

As far as cash, just use your ATM card after you get here. Make sure you choose to withdraw in Euros rather than dollars so you don't get screwed by the local bank for 2.5%. There is absolutely no need for traveler's checks or changing money ahead of time unless you are over 80 years old and can't work an ATM.

Capital One card is the way to go. Most pin and chips accept the "old" system. Just say credit to the cashier and they will process is appropriately and you will sign the paper like usual. I use the Capital One MTV card, it is a cash rewards card with 5% off entertainment and 2% off dining. Exactly the things you spend money on while vacationing.

I was just in Italy during September. I changed Euros at home and that worked out very well. But after I changed into Euros after watching the rates fluctuate over the past several months and picking the time to exchange, the value of the Euro went down a few percent. So you really cannot time exchange rates.

I agree not to bring travelers checks, it will end up being more of a hassle. I heard that taking out money at the ATM can give a good rate using your bank card although I did not personally try this.

Be careful about pickpockets, we put all our valuables into the pockets that are in the center of our backpack, we normally found that after taking the train in Rome the outer zippers were opened so even though we really tried to be careful by holding our backpack closely there were still people (never saw them) who must have opened the outer zippers and found nothing. It would be a bad idea to keep your passport, wallet, money in the outer pockets.

Cinque Terre was very nice, although the trains to get there even from Florence were not direct and very slow. We took trains from Cinque Terre to Venice and that took 6 hours because of the slow connections. You can still hike the walk across the five lands but the coastal section from Manarola to Corniglia is closed so you have to hike higher along the mountain which offers an even better view although there is more elevation.

We saw some protests when in Rome, it seems that there is a protest every day. Don't worry about it too much.


Thanks for all of the advice! This is why i love reading this blog, you all offer some great tips. I used to live in italy back in 2004, but i am much more aware of financial decisions now than i was 8 years ago in college and i wasn't sure what has changed.

I agree cinque terre is my favorite, and we had planned on going as we are avid hikers, but the recent and numerous floods have changed our plans. I think we will be doing a day trip to san gimignano instead. Our plans are florence 5 days, venice 2 days, overnight train to croatia for 3 to visit my college roommate who is now a missionary over there. Hopefully the crowds won't be too numerous since it is the off season.

After reading the advice, i will call my bank and ask them to raise my daily limit pn my visa backed debit card. This will be our primary source of use. It is too late to get a new credit card with no foreign transaction fee, so i will call the two other cards we have(discover, and delta rewards) and ask them if they have fee. I wonder if its worth it to call chase freedom and ask for the foreign transaction fee to be waived? That is normally my preferred card.

We are renting an apartment and need euro's asap when we get there to pay. We were unable to pay before hand since we went through My local bank is too small to do currency Exchanges, so we will try to find a bank on our walk from bus terminal to apartment to exchange money. From my memory of living overthere, a few banks should be available along the main roads we take.

Petra: glad to hear recent financial and political events havent made any unusual impact on everyday or tourist life.

Thanks again everyone! I'll keep posted on the comments incase there are any further insights.

Also thank you to those who commented that exchange rates don't change drastically in short time periods, that is helpful to know i dont need to wait it out.

The best way to save as much money as you can is to try and plan out how much euro you will need for most of your vacation, and exchange your money in the airport here in the U.S. Besides the cash you bring, the best way to save would be to set up a card you can use as a debit or credit card there; the only problem with this is that a lot of places in Europe dont have card machines to use, it's very inconvenient, but because these places have such small shops and restaurants, owners don't like to have to pay the fee charged each time the device is used. Although ATM's in Italy will charge you a lot (sometimes 3 euro) to take out cash, you can research which banks won't charge you anything, there usually are a few, and then make sure those are the only banks you use if you do need to take out more cash. As a side note, if you haven't been to Europe before, plan on spending about %30 more than you initially thought you would.

It looks like you've gotten some good advice, so I'll just try to cover some things that weren't covered.

1. AmEx is useless. It is not accepted everywhere you want to be. See also: Discover. If a place accepts credit cards, Visa.

2. Make sure you and your husband carry CCs/DCs attached to different accounts. Because if you both have cards attached to the same account and the account gets shut down for some reason, you're stuck.

3. ATMs are pretty much the same all around the world and there's usually an "English" button. The ones that look the safest are usually around a bank.

4. Tell your husband to keep his wallet in the front pocket. The pickpockets are talented, so stay aware of your surroundings.

5. Ask travel savvy friends/family if they have any euros you can borrow. People who travel usually have some laying around (or maybe this is just my family?) and it's nice if you want to get a snack before you leave the airport.

We've done both - buying Euro in US before heading abroad and using ATM's.

The fee was lower when exchanging in advance, but the risk of carrying three weeks worth of spending money was a little unnerving. I find it easier to withdraw as we go.

A more crucial piece of advice is to use a money belt for your valuables.

And don't worry about Venice being crowded with tourists. It has always been crowded. You will enjoy it anyway. San Gimignano has the world's best gelato.

@ Kim,

San Gimignano has a great gelato place and is very nice in the early mornings and evenings after dark. During the day there are busloads of day tourists which totally jam the narrow streets of this medieval town. I remember being elbow to elbow with a number of drunken Russians and it was not pleasant at all. If you can stay at a farm house in Tuscany as we did, it was very nice.

5 days in Florence is a long time, but with a day trip to Pisa, that may be fine.

Have a great trip.


Mike: do you have name of gelato place?

Amber thaks for tip about husbands front pocket.

I used to live in florence way back in 2004, so 5 days will be a great trip down memory lane. We like to take it slow:) 2 day trips will break it up.

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