There are a lot of guides about how to travel. You should read them … if you have the time. But reading and doing are not the same. So these are my rules – not fool proof, mind you – for a hassle free (almost) adventure. Guys – pay attention.
Credit Cards: Most restaurants and hotels – even small ones accept Mastercard and Visa. Your credit card bank gives you a better exchange rate than the restaurant will, so take advantage. The toll roads – and there are many – also take credit cards. Plan ahead as you approach, because not all lanes accept credit cards … and you don’t want to try to back up. Gas stations will accept your card if there is an attendant, but the “pay at the pump” will not always do that. If one fails, try a different one. If the screen allows you to set your payment instead of simply sliding the card in, try that, too. The French cards have embedded circuits in them; the pumps will not recognize a card without it. Don’t wait till after dark to try to fill up.
Cash: The best rate for switching dollars to Euros is still your local ATM. Most Banks have them. Pull out 200 Euros or so at a time; your bank has an arrangement with a corresponding bank so you will get close to the interbank rate for the conversion, less 3% or so. You can also ask your bank before you go to be sure of how they will make the conversion … I have two banks: on charges 1%, the other 3%. But plan ahead so you don’t run out (because some restaurants don’t take cards… or they do not take foreign cards). There are very few major events where you actually need cash – but have some, anyway. The morning café and croissant usually call for cash. It’s a lot less hassle.
Travelers Checks: Used to be very important … not so much now. Carol looks at it as found money when we return, but if you’re friends with your bank, the Travelers checks are free, and it helps to have a backup plan. Most exchange places give you a slightly poorer rate of exchange – an extra fee for cashing the check – but it’s a backup, so don’t worry about it.
US Dollars: I usually travel with US dollars tucked away somewhere. There are some places that accept no cards, no Travelers Checks, and if you ignored my advice about planning ahead and getting Euros, US Dollars may be the only currency that’s recognizable – can you imagine walking into MacDonalds and trying to pay with Euros or Pounds? The French aren’t much different, but in a pinch – card got lost or stripe doesn’t work – you should be able to find somebody – a street “Change” booth – that will take them. Rate will not be very good, but your trying to have a god time – make the trade and take my advice – plan ahead, next time.
- Just arrived – Most European airports have free luggage carts. Many, but not all cabs, take credit cards – check before you sit down. All airports have exchange booths – rate is not as good as at a bank or from your ATM (but probably better than what your local US bank will give you … after they ask you “What’s a Euro?” – not all airports have ATMs.
- In Transit – If you’re hungry, the major airports have restaurants that often price in Euros, Swiss Franks, US Dollars, British Pounds, etc – don’t be afraid to ask. If you had a good time and expect to return to Europe, don’t convert excess Euros back to Dollars – keep them. At the rate the dollar is falling, it’s probably one of your better investments.
- ATM Card doesn’t work – Bummer. Try a different ATM, a different card. Some Credit cards will give you a loan through an ATM. It’s always a relief the first time you see cash coming out of a machine. Traveling with a second or spare ATM card doesn’t hurt. And you always have your cash and Travelers Check backup, right?
- Just leaving – I hope you had a great time. If you plan to return, keep the Euros. They’ll probably be worth more in a few years … if the EU doesn’t collapse. If you want to cash out, here’s how. Eat first or pick out somewhere that is going to accept your credit card. Airport delays can make a person hungry. Head to the Duty Free shop and buy more than you have – liquor, perfume, exotic food – all a bit cheaper than back home. Dump all your cash out and pay the difference with a credit card – the shops do it all the time; I’ve cashed out three different currencies in a single stop.
- On the airplane – if your airline is charging for drinks, it’s probably $5 or 5 Euro for a drink – they don’t do math well. Pick the right bills and give yourself a discount.
Those are the basics. The key … plan ahead. Know the exchange. You’ll do just fine.