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A Practical Guide to Managing Your Money While in Europe

Updated: November 28, 2015

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Natalie LaRosa Kelly – Author of this article

There are many places where you need to use cash (bills or coins) in Europe.  So, you might begin to wonder how are you going to pay for drinks, souvenirs, entrance fee, subway tickets or anything else. The next few paragraphs contain my suggestions to help you spend money in Europe with ease. I’ll discuss using credit cards in Europe as well as debit cards, ATM machines, exchanging money, traveler’s checks and more.

Debit Cards

This is the best way to get cold hard cash while traveling in Europe!  There are ATM machines everywhere and you treat them just like those here in the United States.  Simply insert your card, type in your PIN code, and choose the cash amount. The machine makes some noise and then spits out cash in the currency of that country. Cool right?  A few years ago I traveled to Europe with my family.   My Dad could not get over the fact that all he had to do was put in his debit card (the one he got from his bank in the States) and out came different currency. I’m pretty sure he’s still fascinated about it to this day.

Even though this is the best way to get cash while traveling in Europe there is one drawback to using your debit card at ATM machines… the banks that own the ATM machines are out to make a little profit and usually charge a small fee for using the ATM machine.  It’s just like if you use Bank of America here in the US and got money from an ATM machine at a Wachovia Bank. To minimize the fees I suggest making a few large withdraws instead of a lot of little ones.  Check with your bank to see if they have a partner bank overseas. You can often withdraw money from these ATMs at no charge. Many ATM machines in Europe don’t give you a receipt, so don’t worry too much about that. However, if it is important that you keep a record of your transactions, write down some information or check your transactions online with your bank. By the way, an ATM machine is called Bankomat in most of Europe.

Points to consider when choosing a debit card:

  • Make sure it has a hologram logo (Visa is best). People have had trouble with cards that don’t have the hologram. A lot of the time the cards that don’t have the hologram are only ATM cards and not debit cards. You need a debit card! Contact you bank if you’re not sure what type of card you have.
  • Often students under the age of eighteen are issued ATM cards by their bank. These often draw money from a savings account. Here in the USA these ATM cards work without a hitch.  But in Europe they seldom work!  Don’t bring such a card to Europe…it will just take up space in your money belt and get you no cash!
  • Make photocopies of your debit card as well as your credit card, passport and other important documents. Stick one copy in the bottom of your suitcase or moneybelt and leave another copy at home.
  • Try out your debit card at several ATM machines to make sure it works before leaving the country.
  • Notify your bank that you will be using your card abroad. Most banks will put a hold on the card until you call to make sure there are no fraudulent charges.

Credit Cards

Credit cards are a good thing to have when you are traveling in Europe. They are easy to carry and most businesses accept them.  Credit cards also provide peace of mind.  If for some reason you don’t have cash your credit card will serve as a back up.

Before you “charge it” there are a few things you should know.

  • First of all Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted cards in Europe. This is mostly because they have partnered with European companies. If you take another kind of credit card (such as an American Express or Discover) it is a good idea to have a Visa or MasterCard as a backup, just in case.
  • Second, you should call your credit card company and notify them that you will be traveling out of your “normal spending region.”  Tell them how long you will be gone and in what countries you plan to visit.  If your credit card shows up in their “system” as being used to make purchases out of your normal spending region the credit card company will call your home telephone.  If the credit card company can’t get in touch with you they will most likely block future charges to the card until they personally speak with you.  They will not take a family member’s word for it that you are somewhere in the Swiss Alps. Last summer I forgot to call my credit card company to tell them I was going to be in Paris. When they called my home to make sure it was me that had just purchased a pair of shoes (that I could not live without, of course) I was not there, I was in Paris!  However they blocked future purchases on that card even though my mom told them I was indeed in Paris.  Luckily, I got an email from my mom telling me what happened and I called the company to straighten everything out.
  • If you have never purchased anything with your credit card while traveling abroad it is a good idea to find out how your credit card company assesses fees and converts exchange rates.  Most credit card companies have caught on to the fact that more people are using credit cards while traveling and are beginning to charge a fee or commission. You could call them or look for the information on your credit card company’s website.
  • It’s a good idea to make photocopies of your credit cards to leave with someone at home and to keep with you in Europe. If something happens, like your credit card gets stolen, then you’ll have all of the information on the photocopy of the card.
  • Maybe most importantly, make sure your credit card is activated and working before you leave the country. Don’t just get it in the mail and stick it in your money belt. Avoid the hassle of trying to deal with that on your tip when you should be having loads of fun.
  • You may also want to read David’s article: Credit Cards: What a Necessary Pain and Pre-Paid debit cards and their outrageous fees.

Changing money in Europe

Taking United States Dollars or traveler’s checks and exchanging them for local currency is a thing of the past.  Don’t do it!  It is time consuming and expensive! But, if you really want to do it this way be sure you go to a bank, not a currency exchange place in the airport or on the street.  Rates are usually posted on the outside window or at the teller’s window.  There is one rate if you are buying their money (the higher of the two posted rates) and one rate listed if you are selling them your money (the lower of the two rates).  As a rule of thumb, the actual “official” exchange rate is considered to be halfway between the two figures.   If you choose this method you will get the worst exchange rate and be charged a commission to boot!  Don’t do it, but if you must…go to a bank.  Banks usually charge flat fees or fees ranging anywhere from 2% to 10%.

Traveler’s Checks

Once upon a time, before ATM machines,  traveler’s checks were probably the safest and best way to get local currency in Europe. However today they are a hassle and most people carry them only in case of an emergency. You can get them at your local bank, AAA and a few other places.  Traveler’s checks have bad exchange rates along with high fees. Like I mentioned before, the ATM machine and debit card combinations are the best!

Often we are asked, “should I get some euros or local currency before I go on the tour?”  It is not a necessity and I usually don’t because the dollar is weaker than the Euro, your bank at home will charge a fee and commission to order the foreign currency and the exchange rate is never good. Wait until you get to Europe, then get your cash from an ATM machine and go celebrate!

You can look up current currency exchange rates on the web at: http://www.oanda.com/.

I hope this addressed everything you need to know about spending money in Europe.  If not, please send David an email at: david@davidmcguffin.com.

-Natalie LaRosa Kelly
a former Exploring Europe guide

About the Author

David McGuffin established David McGuffin’s Exploring Europe, Inc. in 2001 to formally offer European tours. Since then, he has taken several thousand satisfied customers on memorable and educational tours to Europe.

  1. Susan Reply

    The debit card is definitely the way to go. Even the smallest of towns have ATM machines. Don’t forget your money belt!

  2. Laurie Jernigan Reply

    When making a purchase in Europe, and they offer to bill your credit card in US dollars, DON’T DO IT! They charge you more of an exchange rate than your credit card company does, and you still get the charge from your credit card company too! The voice of experience speaketh!!!

    • davidmcguffin Reply

      Yes, I agree with Laurie. This happens very often in Ireland. the merchant swipes your debit/credit card and you must choose to accept the rate in USD (the default) or in Euro.

      When choosing the USD option, the merchant’s bank displays a higher exchange rate and charges a fee. This make the total cost at least 3% higher than the going euro to dollar rate at the moment.

  3. Ramona McGee Reply

    Have you experienced any problems using the US Credit Card for payment which does not have a chip?

  4. Asa Jernigan Reply

    We had a problem with the credit card not having a chip when we tried to buy train tickets at the Amsterdam airport. We ran into that a couple of times in the Netherlands but had no problems anywhere else. We were told that the chip would be required by the summer of 2012 throughout the EU.

  5. Laurie Jernigan Reply

    When making copies of your credit or debit cards, make sure to copy the FRONT & BACK! The back of the card have useful information like the phone number of the credit card company.

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