Travel Q&A: Exchanging dollars for euros

by Penny Walker
The Arizona Republic

Q: My wife and I are traveling to southern Italy. We are renting an apartment, and a portion of the payment needs to be in euros (cash). What is the least expensive way to exchange U.S. dollars to euros?

– D.P.J., Scottsdale

A: ATMs are usually the best bet. I like to get a little money changed here at a bank or AAA office just to have some currency in my pocket, but the bulk of the cash I need on a trip comes from the ATM (using a debit card, not a cash advance with a credit card).

Plan ahead if you’ll need to visit the ATM over several days to get enough to pay your lodging bill (because of daily withdrawal limits).

Check with your bank about exchange fees with its ATM (and whether your debit card will work overseas). While you have the customer rep on the phone, tell him or her the dates you’ll be in Italy so the bank knows not to put a fraud hold on your account when Italian withdrawals start showing up.

Do the same with any credit cards you plan to use there, and ask your credit-card company about foreign-transaction fees. That fee – which is in addition to any losses you take in the exchange rate – can vary by card; Capitol One is one of the few companies that charges none.

And always have a backup plan. My Wells Fargo debit card never once worked in Peru. It was a crash course in budget travel – which turned out to be a good thing – but I’m very glad my friend was there to lend me the $35 country-exit fee required in cash at the airport. (This is why I now travel with a single $100 bill hidden in my stuff. It can save you in a pinch.)

My next trip was to Italy, and I made sure to bring debit cards from both Wells Fargo and USAA, just in case. Both worked. You just never know.

Speaking of Wells Fargo: Heard of credit cards that use a chip and a PIN? Travelers to Europe will be familiar with these. Most registers there have switched to this technology, which replaces the less-secure magnetic strip on our credit cards here. You still can use U.S. credit cards in most stores there, but it can take longer and some clerks get cranky when they have to pull out the old carbon-paper, ka-chunk ka-chunk slide apparatus. Unattended payment sites, such as gas pumps and ticket kiosks, most often require the microchip card, leaving some American travelers in the lurch.

Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase have announced that they will start offering a chip credit card to some customers in a test run, bringing us a step closer to technology prevalent in Europe and growing in use elsewhere around the world. In the meantime, magnetic-strip credit cards, ATM cards and cash will keep you in gelato and pasta aplenty.

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