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Checks, Credit Cards,
ATM, Cashpoint, How, Much, Many, Centimes.

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Money and Foreign Exchange
in Western Europe

 Cash | Travelers' Checks | Exchange Rates
Where to Exchange? | Credit Cards | ATMs
How Much to Take | Calculating Cost
The Euro | Tipping
What to do with Your Leftover Coins?

TWEnJ's Currency Converter

Complete Listing of Ed and Julie's
Travel Tips and Planning Tools

by Ed Gehrlein and Harlan Hague

How much money to take? In dollars? Travelers' checks? Do ATMS use dollars? Are US credit cards accepted? Where do we get a good exchange rate? What's best?

There are as many answers to the last question as travelers. Here are the facts so you can decide what's best for you.

In a Nutshell ...

The European money system is about to undergo a major change. By the end of next February the euro will replace national currencies in  Germany, France, Italy, Finland, Holland, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Austria and Greece. If you'll be traveling there now or later, you should read our euro-primer.

We've got a lot of helpful information on handling your money in Europe, below and on the next page, but if you're in a hurry, here it is in brief:

Convert your money there, not here. Credit card for dinners, hotels and large purchases will usually get you the best rate, as long as you don't run month-to-month balances. Use your ATM (cash) card as much as possible to tap your checking account when you need foreign banknotes. Carry some US dollar-denominated (Sterling if British) travelers' checks for emergencies. Re-convert foreign bills and coins before leaving the country.

Here are the topics we'll cover in more detail:
Where to Exchange?, Cash, Travelers' Checks, Exchange Rates,
Credit and Cash Cards, ATMs, How Much to Take, Calculating Cost,
Tipping, What to do with Your Leftover Coins?, The Euro

Where to Exchange?

The most common money-related question we're asked is, "Where can we change dollars to (European currency) in the US?" Our answer is, "Lots of places, but why would you want to?"

Most travelers will not be surprised to learn that Italy has trillions of lire just waiting for them. The Swiss will be sure and have plenty of francs on hand when you arrive. smile.gif (93 bytes) More often than not, conversion in the US will cost you from 10-20% of your hard-earned dollars, vs. as little as 1% overseas.

We've found it best to convert dollars into a local currency after arriving in a country. We've never seen exchange rates in the US better than those in Europe. Often rates in the US are from 10-20% worse. If you have checked luggage, you'll often find an exchange window or ATM in the baggage area where you can change money while you wait for your bags.

Chase and OandA, among others, offer home delivery of foreign currency in the US. The typical exchange rate is worse than you can get in Europe, but if you feel you must have foreign currency ahead of time these may be the most cost-effective sources for many travelers. Do check the exchange rate and cost before you buy.

Rates at US airports are usually terrible. The same is typically true in smaller US towns and cities. In major US financial centers (e.g. NYC, Chicago, San Francisco) you may find some large banks or foreign exchange dealers offering rates close to what you can get overseas.

Avoid exchanging many dollars for a foreign currency of a third country. If you change dollars to francs in Amsterdam you'll take two exchange losses, going first from dollars to guilders, then from guilders to francs.

We find we get fair rates in most European banks, including airport banks windows. Most airports have at least one bank exchange window open every day, for as many hours as flights are scheduled. We've never been unable to exchange money at the airport on arrival.

In Switzerland we find most rail station ticket windows can exchange US dollars at a rate at least as good as the banks, and their hours are longer. American Express offices usually have good rates as well.

While rates in Europe are generally better than you'll get in the US, beware of rates in hotels, stores and hole-in-the-wall 'exchange' shops. Check the rate carefully; it's usually far from the going rate. Don't hesitate to ask; it's your money.

An American Express survey found the following rates typical:

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Bullet ATMs, 1-2%; (though note many card issuers are adding another 1-3%)
Bullet Banks, 2-4%;
Bullet 'Bureaux de Change' (exchange shops), 3-6%;
Bullet Hotels and shops, 6-11%.

Some travelers chafe at the exchange 'loss.' There's no reason to, as long as the cost is reasonable. Like any other retailer, a currency dealer (whether bank or other) has overhead, inventory cost, and the right to a fair profit for service provided.

Why more and more card issuing-banks are imposing added fees is another matter entirely. This is greed, having nothing to do with any legitimate cost. Many banks simply feel entitled to one to three percent of what you spend in Europe.


Cash, in the form of the local currency, always works. It's never over the limit, never broken, never closed for a holiday.

Always have on hand enough local currency to get you through at least one expensive day. Julie and Ed normally keep enough cash on hand to keep us going for two or three days. Be sure to save enough local currency for your last day in a country.

Dollars, whether in cash or traveler's checks,  are not routinely accepted for purchases in Europe. However, in an emergency you may be able to find someone who will accept them or exchange them, though likely at a poor exchange rate.

Dollars tucked safely away make a good emergency "stash", and remember to keep enough dollars on hand (in cash or travelers' checks) for routine and emergency needs during your return trip in the U.S. before reaching home.

Checks drawn on US bank accounts in dollars are rarely accepted in Europe. Some companies and associations, e.g. American Express and some airline clubs, will exchange dollar bank checks for local currency.

European banks tend to be open fewer hours than at home and enjoy more bank holidays. It pays to check on bank schedules and holidays when you arrive to avoid running out of cash on a Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend.

Travelers' Checks

Few of us can afford to lose money. Beyond a few days' supply of cash, keep the remainder of your liquid funds in the form of travelers' checks (TCs). The brand matters little, though American Express seems to have the highest recognition and reportedly is excellent in providing replacements for lost or stolen TCs.

We prefer to carry US dollar TCs, though they are available in other currencies as well. There may be a small advantage in usability to have TCs in the currency of the country you're visiting since, theoretically, you can use them almost anywhere. Harlan, though, on occasion has had difficulty spending French franc TCs in rural France. Other reports suggest such situations are not unusual.

It's lately been fashionable to pooh-pooh traveler's checks as 'old-fashioned'.
If your bank is now gouging you with an extra 2 or 3% charge for using your credit or ATM card overseas, think about getting along without your cards and use TCs and cash. Old fashioned they may be; they may also be better ... and cheaper!

Our thoughts on whether you should "bother" with TCs.

Most stores and restaurants will not accept US dollar TCs. Places that will accept them (typically expensive shops and many hotels) will likely give you an extremely poor rate, typically at least 10% worse than the bank rate. So change them incrementally at banks (or AMEX offices) as often as you need to replenish your supply of local currency.

There is a decided downside to TCs in foreign denominations. You'll usually buy them at a disadvantageous exchange rate in the US. If you have TCs left over at the end of your trip you'll take another exchange loss converting them back to dollars on your return.

Euro-denominated TCs have the same problem. Touted as advantageous because they can be used in 12 countries, you'll still have 'foreign' currency left over when you get home. As well, many merchants/services will not accept TCs in whatever currency; if they do, they may charge an extra fee. TCs are best changed at a bank or a branch of the issuer (e.g. American Express).

If, despite your best planning, you do have foreign denomination TCs left over, use this as a reason to take another trip. And, next time, get your TCs denominated in dollars so you can spend them at home on your return.

The same caution applies to cash. When entering a country buy only as much local currency as you expect to need, with perhaps a little cushion. If you buy too many guilders you'll take an exchange loss when you leave, or you'll take home a pocketful of expensive souvenirs. Note that you often cannot exchange small coins, so buy some nice chocolates at the border or airport.

The American Automobile Association, some credit unions and others sell TCs at no cost to members. (The normal charge is $1 per $100 of checks.) The exchange rate for TCs is usually the same as for cash, on occasion better, rarely worse. If you have AMEX TCs you can cash them for a good rate at any AMEX office.

Exchange Rates

You can find current rates from Traveling With Ed and Julie. You can also get your own customized cheat sheet(s) to take with you on your trip! As well, most large newspapers quote rates daily in the financial section.

These are usually inter-bank rates, based on transactions of $1,000,000 or more. Individual travelers will get a rate 2-4% less.

In some countries and at some dealers you'll find a commission or transaction charge on your receipt. This is common and in such cases the rate you'll get is usually closer to the inter-bank rate. If your exchange transaction includes no commission or fee the rate will probably be a bit further from the inter-bank rate.

More ...

Credit and Cash Cards | ATMs | How Much to Take?
Calculating Cost in $s | Other Resources | Tipping
What Will You Do With Your Leftover Foreign Coins?

Continued on Page 2

Other Financial Information to Help Plan Your Trip to Europe
Money and Exchange for Travelers to Europe
The Euro: A Primer for Travelers
A Trip Budget - How Much Will Your Vacation Cost?
About Foreign Currency Exchange Rates
What Will You Do With Your Leftover Foreign Coins?

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