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Spending Euros--Dealing With Money In Europe

Revised October 25, 2010

The death of Osama Bin Laden has, oddly, made travel to Europe a bit less expensive. But despite the nudge lower, the cost of travel through Europe is still prohibitive with a Euro costing almost $1.50 US. But if you begin your planning in advance and shop carefully for rooms and airfare, you can still find 3-star rooms around $120 and put together a trip to Europe that won't cost much more than a trip to New York or San Francisco, excluding airfare. The key is to begin early and to use a website like Orbitz to lock in the rate in US dollars, so that if the value of the dollar declines any further, you still have the hotel set at the reserved rate. If this is your one chance to head to Europe, take it; there is nothing to guarantee that the dollar will strengthen against the Euro any time soon.

If you are use to spending about $100 per night in the US, you'll want to find rooms at about 65 Euros per night in Europe. In very touristy cities, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam or Prague, this can be hard to do, but if you stay in European bed and breakfasts, you can often find places in your budget, often getting a nice taste of local culture along the way. One of the ways we were able to stretch our lodging budget on the last trip was to find "zimmer frei" locations in s small towns where rooms were often only 60 Euros per night (about $80 US) and using the savings to finance rooms in bigger cities. For more advice on ways to save on lodging, visit our page on hotels and lodging. I'll stress that my favorite way to travel in Europe over the summer was in campgrounds where a couple or family can stay for about $20 to $30 per night if you have a tent with you. If you travel like Europeans do and stay in accommodations Europeans use, you'll hold your travel and sleeping costs down.

Another solution is to rent a house or flat for a few weeks, where you can go to local markets, make your own meals enjoying the unique foods of the region you pick and get to know your neighbors.

You can also save some money by locking in room rates in dollars. If you go to a website like Orbitz, some of the hotel rates are quoted in US Dollars instead of Euros. If you book a room at the US DOLLAR rate, even if the dollar drops further, your price is locked in....the room will not change price (if you make your living in USD; exchange rates will still affect other travelers). If you book a room at the Euro rate, if the value of the dollar drops further, the room becomes more expensive.

To hedge against further drops in the value of the US Dollar, you many also want to consider investing in Euros now. There are a number of foreign exchange operations that will let you buy Euros in the US or Canada and pick them up in Europe. For that to be profitable, you should be planning to spend more than a few weeks in Europe and have enough funds available to exchange to justify the time and expense of taking such a step. The foreign exchange market is governed by some basic rules that makes it easy to understand but it is a very volatile market. Be cautious before you use the FOREX route to keep costs down on your next European vacation.

One of your biggest worries may be how to convert your dollars to Euros and having enough money with you to travel comfortably and safely. If you have carefully used your credit cards in the past and can travel with American Express, VISA or Mastercard debit and credit cards, you will not have many problems spending your money as Euros in most EU nations. Unfortunately, just as the exchange rate has dropped for the dollar, meaning it takes a few more dollars to purchase meals and hotel rooms, credit card companies have added a fee for paying European merchants in the local currency while giving you your bill in US dollars. With all of this in mind, the very best way to pay for your trip is by putting money in your checking account and withdrawing that money through an ATM; you may even want to consider a home equity loan as an alternative to credit cards. The first thing you should do as you budget for your trip is to find out what the dollar is worth in Euros.

As you do your vacation planning, one of the best places to find current exchange rates is at XE.com. It has accurate information on conversion to any currency in the world and clearly displays the relationship of the dollar to the Euro.

Keep in mind as you track rates, that events can trigger rapid changes in prices, so the data is a good indicator but not a guarantee of what exchange rates will be. When you know the rate, you need to decide if you want to convert some dollars to Euros before you leave for Europe.

On our first trip to Europe, we ordered French francs at our bank and had about $400 worth of francs with us when we landed at the Charles DeGaulle airport. Our US bank collected a service fee for delivering the money to our local branch in addition to the profit they made on the exchange rate. With our limited experience, it seemed comforting to know that we didn't have to do our first exchange transaction with someone who didn't speak English. You may want to call ahead to the point of international departure to check for the hours of operation of the currency exchanges.

On the second trip, we planned to get Euros at the Seattle airport (most airports have exchange offices in their international terminals). Unfortunately, the company that had been providing that service in Seattle was not in operation when we got there. So we flew into Amsterdam with nothing but US dollars. Once we were there, however, we were helped by friendly, English-speaking agents who quickly converted our dollars to Euros. On our last trip, we waited to get cash until we arrived at the airport in Germany and found rates were lower than the rates at SFO or LAX.

If you want to do your first exchange to Euros in the US, you may be able to do it at your local bank. Ask them to give you an estimate of the cost before you put in an order and then compare it with online currency conversion businesses. One of the biggest companies is www.travelex.com. A search on Google will give you the names of many other sites, but you should note that many of them operate to assist investors who are trying to profit off the changes in exchange rate rather than making small exchanges for travelers.

American Express sells foreign currencies through some of its local travel offices. Get the details through their website. If you are not an American Express cardholder (which is a very good card to have for your trip to Europe), you can still function effectively as you travel. You will probably save money if you convert a bit of cash at the airport and then do you major transactions using a debit card while you are in Europe. Please note the comments below about needing pin numbers for credit and debit cards in Europe.

Once you arrive in Europe, you will find exchange bureaus in most international airports and throughout large cities. You may want to compare rates before you exchange a large amount of money because the variation in fees may be significant. There are exchange bureaus throughout most countries but as you get into more remote locations, you will generally find that the exchange rate is much less favorable.

We generally found the most convenient process was to get a small amount of cash at the

Europe for Less (120x600)

How Much Money to Bring

There is no need to arrive in Europe with a large amount of cash. For security's sake...carry enough to handle the cash transactions you will make during a day but no more. Pickpocketing is a common crime in some European countries including France, Italy and the Netherlands. The more cash you carry, the greater your loss will be if you are a victim of a pickpocketer. Because it is so easy to get money from ATMs and so many businesses accept American Express, Mastercard and VISA, you really don't need large amounts of cash. In Italy, hotel operators and innkeepers may want you to pay in cash, but you can stop by an ATM to get the cash you need just as you are about to check out.

But with new charges on credit cards for foreign transactions, which currently are 2 to 3% of every cash advance or purchase (in addition to other fees), you may want to change the way you get cash and pay bills. We comfortably used our credit cards last time and considererd the 3% cash advance fee somewhat reasonable to reduce the risks of pickpocketing or other thefts. But the foreign transaction fee raises the cost of getting money on your credit card in Europe (or any foreign country) to a minimum of 6% (cash advance fees are usually a minimum of $5 but may be more) when you combine cash advance and foreign transactions fees. If you are gone for a few weeks and pay the bill when you get home, you are using the money at an effective annual interest rate of more than 70%. Also, be sure you know what the minimum cash advance fee is---for some cards the minimum is as high as $10; if you take out $100 on that card and pay it back in one month you are paying a transaction fee that is the equivalent of 120% interest plus you'll get charged interest on that money from the day it is taken out of the ATM machine. The foreign transaction fee of 3% is added to those other charges on most cards.

Visa reports on its website that merchants are now doing the currency conversion. If you read the fine print of your card agreement, this means that you may get charged by the merchant for converting to US or Canadian dollars and still be charged the foreign transaction fee by your credit card company. Again, this is a reason to try to do transactions using local currency obtained through an ATM machines. But follow VISA's advice to keep your transaction receipts. It will allow you to prove payment and is helpful when passing through customs on the way home.

The best way to use a credit card which has transaction and cash advance fees is to pay as many bills as possible directly to the merchant with the credit card and, when cash is necessary, make withdrawals, with a debit card. Currently, banks are not charging the foreign conversion fees on their debit or ATM cards; they are only charging a fee for using a foreign ATM and those fees are significantly lower..

In order to access cash through an ATM, you have a few basic choices.

Which Credit Cards Should You Carry?

Using credit cards and understanding foreign transaction fees

The Discover Card has not spread across the Atlantic so leave that card at home.

Mastercard and VISA are popular throughout western Europe and are generally accepted at most hotels and restaurants. Also, most major retailers accept these cards. My husband signed up for a new Visa Card because it had no foreign transaction fees for the first six months. I upgraded my MasterCard to one that awarded miles for purchases.

American Express has offices in most tourist cities in Europe and can help you with a variety of travel and money issues. It is also possible to access cash from many ATMs and from AmEx offices. Again, if you use your credit carefully, there are many other benefits that come with an American Express Card so you may want to get one if you don't already have one.

Whichever cards you carry, make a list that includes the telephone numbers for the cards you are carrying and put them in a place away from your cards. If you have divided cards with your spouse, give them your card numbers and keep their card numbers. Don't put any other information on the list besides phone numbers.

On many travel discussion boards, people have described problems they had with VISA cards in late July and August 2006 because they did not have a pin number for transactions. Because we knew we might need to use our cards at ATMs we made sure we had pin numbers for the cards. We did not need to use the pin number anywhere in the early summer of 2006 but we may have been a few weeks ahead of the change. Make your life easy and be sure to have PIN numbers for all the cards you carry with you.

Finding ATM Machines

Most banks have an ATM outside the building which is the easiest place to get cash. Keep track of how much cash you have and as you get low, stop by an ATM and get more.

We had little problem finding ATMs throughout Europe. Finding a parking spot near them was a little tougher. One evening in Belgium, I spotted a bank with a ATM machine but couldn't find a nearby parking space. About 5 blocks away, I finally was able to park and hiked to the bank and back. Even the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia provided easy access to bank ATMs though we were surprised that some of the rest stops along the main highways in the Czech Republic didn't have ATM machines. We drove from the German border to Prague and our hotel before we were able to find an ATM machine to get Korunas.

Unless it is an emergency, only use ATM machines at banks. They are easy to find and usually available when you need cash. There may be security issues and additional charges if you use machines provided by other companies.

Travelers' Checks

You may be tempted to get travelers' checks to use in Europe but they are not very popular with merchants who are geared up to accept credit cards. Issues of security (counterfeit checks are not uncommon) have made it difficult to find merchants who will accept them, so that it tends to be more convenient to travel with credit cards. But if you don't have credit or debit cards or are reluctant to use your credit cards, Travelers' checks are much safer than carrying cash. Even though merchants may not prefer them, you can get cash for your American Express travelers' checks at American Express offices and some banks. If you are traveling in major cities, AmEx offices are easy to find. Smaller towns are less likely to have American Express offices so if you are relying on travelers' checks for your trip, be sure to get cash in big cities or double-check that there will be a place to cash your travelers' checks in the next town you visit.

If you do choose to use travelers' checks, be sure that you have a list of the check numbers stored away from the checks themselves--in your partner's security pouch or in a secret compartment in your luggage.

Keeping Your Money Safe

Though neck pouches and money belts don't make great fashion statements and can be uncomfortable on hot sticky days, they are a must if you are travelling in popular tourist destinations. Shortly after we checked into our hotel in Paris, another traveler arrived at the front desk reporting that his wallet had been stolen in the subway and was concerned that he had no way to pay for his room. With a neck pouch or money belt, you can secure extra cash and credit cards so that you have only a small amount of spending money in your wallet or purse.

If you are travelling with your partner or spouse, don't carry both copies of the credit cards issued on an account. In the event that one spouse loses his/her wallet or security pouch and each partner is carrying all of their joint credit cards, both cards are cancelled and you may have no back up cards. The best way to deal with joint credit card accounts is to determine how many cards you want to carry on the trip and then select half of the cards in one partner's name and take the other half in the other partner's name. Leave the duplicates at home in a safe place or in your safety deposit box.

Many hotels offer in room safes that allow you to store your passport and extra credit securely in your room. Others provide safes in the lobby to hold valuables. We found them convenient and easy to use in most hotels. Be sure to know the number you set for your in-room safe and remember to get any thing you put in safe storage before you leave the hotel.

Purses, Wallets and Fanny Packs

There are hundreds of stories about pickpockets and the skills they have developed. Ask anyone who has travelled to Europe and they are likely to tell you a story about someone they met who confronted a pickpocket. On our first trip, we encountered a traveler at our hotel in Paris and a fellow camper in Rome who had most of their money and all of their credit cards stolen from them. In Prague, a young man grabbed me by the waist in a way that appeared to be joking but could have been a theft if I hadn't clutched my camera. So be warned to be alert to your surroundings and use some extra caution. Also, remember to limit the risk by keeping only one credit card and a small amount of cash available for easy access. Keep the rest buried in your money belt or security wallet or leave them in the hotel safe.

One of the wonderful things about Europe is that others are also watching out for you. When locals realize that you are a North American (and they usually figure that out quickly by you clothing and your words), they often will warn you of any suspicious characters they observe. Just as I know of people who had property stolen, I can tell you of multiple times when a stranger on the street pointed out a potential threat and suggested I put away a valuable camera or keep a tighter grip on my purse.

One of the easiest ways to lose a purse to a thief is to have a purse with a strap connected by clips that are easily opened or with a strap that is thin and can easily be cut. As you shop for a purse, find one with a sturdy strap that is firmly sewn to the body of the purse. Make sure that the purse zips shut, or better yet, zips shut and has a flap that also latches shut. An open purse is an invitation to agile hands to take what they can find.

Fanny packs are incredibly convenient, especially if you are carrying film and sunscreen, but are a dead giveaway that you are a foreigner and probably American. If you are wearing one, the pack should be visible to you at all times (not behind you as the name suggests). To make it more secure, run the belt through the belt loops of your pants or use a short shoe lace to tie the main compartment to a belt loop.

There are stories of thieves who get what they are after by deftly slicing open the bottom of a purse or fanny pack in a crowded setting and grabbing things of value. So if you are wearing a fanny pack, store the most valuable things you are carrying (your wallet, memory cards for your digital camera and the like) in the small pocket closest to your body (be sure the fanny pack you select for the trip has a small inner pocket). If you are carrying a purse you should select one with a small inner pocket where you can secure your wallet and expensive items. I found it was convenient to have a small wallet that I tied to an inside zipper of my fanny pack or purse believing it protected me from a thief who might slit the bottom of the purse or fanny pack and also prevented me from inadvertantly leaving my wallet behind in the flurry of tourist activity.

If you are not carrying a purse or fanny pack, be careful about where you put your wallet. There's a reason the crime is known as pickpocketing and good thieves can even empty deep pockets in the bustle and commotion of a crowded bus or subway. A zippered pocket is a better choice. A back pocket is a challenge to "grab me if you can," so don't put your wallet in the back...keep it a pocket you can see, ideally one that zips or buttons...and again, only store what you really need for the day's activities.

A comfortable way to wear a money pouch

The small "neck" pouch made to conceal money under a shirt or blouse is not very comfortable on hot days and often the strap that holds the pouch makes a less than fashionable statement about your "foreigness." A more convenient way to wear a "neck pouch" if you are a woman, is to shorten the strap and then loop it around a bra strap. I adjusted the strap so that the pouch conveniently hung inside my pants or skirt. It was easier to get to when I really needed to get something out but because it wasn't dangling on my chest/abdomen, I could wear knit shirts and not look "bumpy."

For specific questions about using credit cards during your travels, contact your credit card company. For general advice, contact us at info@eurfirst.com.