Money Matters Overseas

(Second of two parts, jump to part 1)

In late August and early September of 2001 (yes, we were over there when it happened), we traveled in Europe for four weeks, visiting Austria, Italy, France and Germany. We went by car and spent two of the weeks in a cottage outside Gordes in Provence, the only lodging we reserved in advance.

I informed my wife that we should need only a few hundred dollars in American currency since I intended to use ATM cards and credit cards to get the best exchange rate and to avoid carrying around a lot of money. Ever doubtful, she insisted on packing two grand, “just to be sure.”

I had the last laugh, of course, since she returned with almost all of her $2,000. We even used our cards at the supermarkets in France. ATM machines were abundant.

We contacted our card providers before leaving to insure that we were not going to be surcharged, and we took only those cards that did not charge the fees.

One word of caution on ATM cards — make sure that you have two cards (they can be on the same bank). When a machine ate my card, it was a blessing to have my wife’s, which worked just fine.

We do not exchange money before departure because the rate is ridiculous. Immediately after arriving at the destination airport, we head for an ATM to get some cash for incidentals, but not much.

Cards are accepted at most restaurants, accommodations and gas stations. We actually needed very little cash. I am speaking of Europe, of course; the same will not always hold true in third-world countries.

Here’s another thing we found out in reserving our cottages and narrowboat in England for September. Unlike in the States, you will be surcharged for using a credit card. They would accept our debit card, however, and this I recommend since we used the credit card and not only got surcharged but did not get a very good exchange rate.

I hope this is of some help. After all, money does matter!


Sun City, CA

I have traveled to foreign countries frequently in the last 15 years and have the following considerations.

• I NEVER get money before I leave the U.S. The exchange rate is terrible.

• As soon as I arrive at the destination airport, I look for an ATM and get money there, using my bank ATM card (which is also Visa, Cirrus, etc., but which is NOT a credit card). If no ATM is available at the airport, my first task after reaching the hotel is to look for one. Often, the hotel will have one or more.

• Just in case, I carry American money with me that I can exchange at the hotel, although the commission/exchange rate will be high. I’ve never had to do this except in Russia in 1992 (no ATMs there at that time). The only place I had extreme trouble in finding an ATM was in Buenos Aires in 2000; fortunately, most places there that did not take credit cards would take American dollars.

• I use credit cards wherever possible. In fact, I take at least two different credit cards with me and carry them in separate places. The use of credit cards provides a good record of spending and makes carrying a lot of cash (in whatever currency) unnecessary.

• I get only the amount of local currency that I think I will spend, and I try to make it come out right. However, it is better to get a bit too much than too little. You can always pay for that last meal or souvenir in cash instead of using a credit card.

• If we have to take a taxi to the airport, I find out the price in advance and save out that amount of cash. Since most of the time we take tours and have to tip the tour director at the end, I tip the tour director in a combination of the rest of my local cash, American cash and even partly by personal check if I am running low on U.S. cash.

• I never return to the U.S. with foreign cash (except for a few coins for my grandchildren). I find some way to spend it before I leave the foreign country. The conversion exchange rate once you get home is even worse than before you start!

Fortunately, I’ve never had an ATM card eaten by a machine, although that happened to a friend in Prague in 1993. If I have a choice, and I’m not at the airport, I try to find an ATM associated with and located near a bank just in case that happens, so I would have someone to help!


Lincoln, NE

I take American Express 100-dollar travelers’ checks, three credit cards and dollars, especially one-dollar bills. When I arrive in a new country, I cash a travelers’ check at the airport. Trying to get foreign money in the U.S., even in New York, is too much of a hassle and not necessary.

I use credit cards in restaurants and for hotels. I always try to leave tips in the country’s currency, but dollars are just as welcome, I’ve found.

When making purchases, some shops prefer dollars; otherwise, I use local currency. I seldom buy anything costing over $100 but would use a credit card if I did. Shops will often accept travelers’ checks, but the exchange rate won’t be as good.

The most aggravating time I ever had with foreign currency was in Japan in 2002. I went to a small bank to cash a travelers’ check and in addition to having to show my passport I was asked all sorts of personal questions. I was beginning to think they would need my blood type when they said to wait. I was with a Japanese friend, luckily, or the translation would have been impossible.

We waited close to half an hour. When at last we were called back to the window, I was given huge bills — equivalent to our getting 100-dollar bills. I asked for smaller bills. Wow! Here came the same questions plus the forms to fill out and sign all over again. Of course, I just walked out. They were polite, but the red tape was a bit much for me.

On the other end was my experience in the ’70s cashing a travelers’ check in Izmir, Turkey. I was with a friend who lived there and we went to her bank. We were shown to the bank manager’s large and rather luxurious office. We were served tea and sweets and chatted away in English, and within minutes a white-gloved employee brought my Turkish money. Lovely!

It is important to know exchange rates so you have a clear idea of what you’re paying. I wear a small converter around my neck.

The WORST thing to do is to say, “How much is that in real money?” I’ve heard it asked several times and it is sickening.


New York, NY

My husband and I usually get $100 in foreign currency in advance so we will have enough money to tie us over for the cab fare and a small pittance until we can find a bank to exchange our dollars for local currency. However, we use a bit of caution.

We usually do this via our American Express Platinum Card. We did this via MasterCard and they charged for the advance of monies. Unfortunately, since we left the following day and did not return until after the account closed for the month, we had to pay a penalty for this advance of funds. I did call Chase and told them I thought it was incorrect to do this, but they said an advance is an advance, etc.

What we should have done was put a check in the mail for the advance of foreign funds to avoid any late charges or penalties. Unfortunately, we were unaware of this policy and thought we could do it on our return.


Denville, NJ

We find that ATMs, when they are available, are the very best way to get local money when overseas.

Using our debit card from the credit union, we’ve never had to pay a use fee. That fact alone makes ATMs cheaper than buying travelers’ checks. ATMs have the advantage of being available at all hours, thus avoiding the problems of holidays and closed banks, and normally they are widely and conveniently located.

Usually we’ll withdraw no more than the equivalent of $200 — being cautious about carrying a lot of cash, just as we are here at home.

We have tried to get foreign currency here at home prior to our trips and find it’s nearly impossible. Fifteen years ago it was a relatively easy task, when banks in Phoenix had departments dealing with foreign currency. Today we would have to either look for it at the airport or contact an international currency company in New York weeks prior to departure.

Having just returned from a 21-day trip to China and Tibet in May ’05, we found that travelers’ checks were easily exchanged at hotels (for a fee), but the easiest form of exchange was the good, old American $1 bill.

ATMs were in major city banks, but unless we had sufficient free time to walk, getting close to a bank when we needed money could be a problem. Naturally, Hong Kong was the easiest place to find an ATM as, literally, there was one on almost every street corner, nearly always in a glass-sided enclosure to keep patrons from being jostled by the crowds.

We find credit cards are useful only in larger establishments, as smaller restaurants and shops don’t accept them. Over the years, we’ve also experienced travelers’ checks’ not being accepted in small businesses.

We’ve used Visa, MasterCard and American Express in many countries, but we did find that the Discover Card was not accepted anywhere in China, as far as we could tell.


Tempe, AZ

We use the ATM at the airport. Usually $200 worth of the “coin of the realm” is enough to get started. It is a good idea to prepay a credit card with as much as you plan to spend in cash. This way, you avoid the cash-advance fee.

Use a credit card for hotel expenses and rental cars and for purchases in which you have the store ship items home for you (not a good idea, actually; carry it!).

Use cash as much as possible. Your credit card company will charge a fee to process anything in foreign currency.

Don’t rely on bank cards; often they are not recognized outside the U.S.


Heathrow, FL

My wife and I travel to Europe each year. We intentionally return from those trips with $50 to $100 worth of euros, mostly smaller bills and a few coins. We save those for use as starter money on our next trip. That way, we have cash available for tips, small purchases and transit until we locate a convenient ATM.

We also loan out our stash of euros to friends traveling to Europe. We ask them to bring us back a comparable amount of currency. That helps them get started and keeps them from getting stuck with euros as souvenirs. (We’ve even made a small profit over the years from this practice, because the dollar has weakened against the euro.)

We’ve used ATMs in Central and South America, Europe and Asia without any problems. Almost all of the ATMs had an English-language option. Our ATM card (technically a “check card”) has a Visa logo and is very widely accepted. We’ve been charged fees ($2 each) on only a couple of occasions. The exchange rates typically are excellent.

I strongly recommend that first-time travelers contact their banks before their trip to be sure they have the appropriate type of card and PIN for overseas use. Also, be sure to have a phone number to call if your card is lost or stolen.

Some ATMs issue only large bills (€50), which are not very useful for many transactions. The Deutsche Bank ATMs that I’ve used in Munich are my favorite, issuing a great mix of bill denominations.

Don’t forget to carry some U.S. dollars. A number of countries charge entry or exit fees that Americans (and sometimes others) must pay in U.S. dollars only.


Charlotte, NC

Having traveled overseas 25 times in the past nine years, I swear by ATMs. My companions have used travelers’ checks and banks — both time-consuming and more costly. My ATM provider charges only $1 per use (shop around for one with a reasonable fee). I’ve found that most big airports have ATMs.

On occasion, on my earlier trips, I obtained foreign currency from my bank ahead of time. I really don’t think it’s necessary. Also, a fee is involved.

I do believe in having some local money because many small places don’t take “plastic.” Also, using toilets in many countries requires coins.

I do use plastic for big purchases. However, I check to see if the shop is adding a fee for this on top of the purchase price.

At one ATM in Thailand the screen immediately showed “Welcome Rhonda L. Bartlett.” It is a small world.


Concord, CA