Getting ready for a biggie trip to Europe (or anywhere!) can be a lot to think about, and sometimes getting your “money stuff” sorted can be the last thing on your mind. Using debit and credit cards in Italy — and buying anything in a foreign currency — does have some nuances though, and our intel could save you a euro or two (hundred!). If you’re already hip to this stuff, it’ll confirm you’re on the right track.
Since our team lives and works both in and out of Italy, we have a unique perspective on traveling there with bank cards, credit cards and cash and are able to advise our clients on what will work for them (and we understand what they find ultra-frustrating too!).
Technology changes so quickly these days, so what you read on the interwebs or did on your trip five years ago might not be the thing you want to do right now.
We don’t want you inadvertently padding your bank’s coffers when you don’t have to — that gives us a sad face 🙁
Read on so we can help you travel right, and keep that money tight.
Money Tip 1: Have 50 euro in cash on you
I recommend that you exchange enough money at home so that you have 50 euro per person in cash when you land in Italy. This way you don’t have to worry about feeling hassled trying to track down an ATM as soon as you arrive. Sometimes they are out of money (ya know, ‘cause you’re in Italy) and have huge line-ups too — not a very relaxing way to start your trip.
Money Tip 2: Get the best exchange rate
Try to avoid using the money exchange places you see in airports and in major cities. They almost never have a good exchange rate and they almost always charge a fee on top of the exchange. #notworthit
Money Tip 3: Using credit cards in Italy — avoid fees
Beware of: The Foreign Transaction Fee
Foreign travelers get hammered with two fees you need to know about. The first nasty fee is called a foreign transaction fee, which is a nice way of saying you’ll be gouged about 3% for using your credit card in a foreign currency. That fee can really add up. For example, if you charge $5,000 on your credit card, you’ll pay $145 just in foreign transaction fees. That’s a nice hotel room in Rome!
This can be avoided by using a card that doesn’t charge that fee. For Americans, none of Capital One’s cards charge foreign transaction fees when traveling overseas. Other cards that don’t are the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Preferred cards, the Chase Ink Business Preferred card, the American Express Platinum card, the Citi ThankYou Premier card, and some Discover cards. Americans are spoiled for choice, and I think Chris Guillebeau is a smart man to follow for these sorts of things. If you’re based in the States, Google him for advice on the best cards to get.
Non-Americans can Google the phrase “no foreign transaction fee credit cards” and then just add their country. In Canada, the Home Trust Preferred Visa card, the Scotiabank Passport Visa card, the Rogers Platinum MasterCard and the Fido MasterCard don’t charge fees for using them abroad (or have cash back programs that offset the fee). In Australia, check out the 28 Degrees Mastercard. British citizens have quite a lot of choice, like the Halifax Clarity Credit Card.
Credit cards do have other attractive features (like travel rewards!) as well, which can sometimes outweigh the money you save on foreign transaction fees. So if you’ve found a card that is great for travel rewards but charges a foreign transaction fee, be sure to figure out what’s more important to you and where you’ll save most in the end.
Hot tip: If you’re an American, you’re in luck. Charles Schwab refunds all ATM fees charged by foreign banks each month and charges neither a foreign withdrawal fee nor a currency conversion fee. If you can get it, this is a great card!
Beware of: The Dynamic Currency Conversion Fee
The second fee to watch for is called a dynamic currency conversion fee. This one is a doozy. Luckily it can easily be avoided, and should be, since it can amount to up to 10% of your transaction! Isn’t that just bonkers?
Often when you use your credit card abroad, you’ll be asked whether you would like to be charged in your home currency. This is the dynamic conversion fee at work. Always refuse this option in the store or restaurant where you’re paying — you’ll be prompted on the pin pad. This “courtesy” seems convenient, but it’s a gouge. The merchant can (and often will) give you an unfavorable exchange, their bank can charge you a convenience fee, and your bank can also add a fee. Ouch! Just say no!
Money Tip 4: Use a credit card where possible
Now that you know how to sidestep the avoidable fees, try to use your credit card wherever possible. Why? Credit card companies offer the best exchange rate. If it’s possible for you, I recommend traveling with two different credit cards — one that you keep on you, and one that you keep in your room. That way, if anything should happen and you lose a card, you have a back-up.
Money Tip 5: Using debit cards in Italy — the next best thing
You won’t be able to use your credit card everywhere in Italy — most restaurants and larger hotels accept them now, but not all room rentals do, and smaller shops may not either.
The problem with debit cards is that you can end up wasting a lot of your hard-earned travel money paying out the nose in ATM fees, which can cost you $5 a withdrawal on average.
There are ways to get around this. For example, if your bank is a member of the Global ATM Alliance, you can avoid ATM fees by using another member bank’s ATM. In Italy, the Global ATM Alliance member bank is called Bnl Banca Nazionale del Lavoro. Internationally, banks like Bank of America, Scotiabank, Deutsche Bank and Barclay’s, among others, belong to the Global ATM Alliance.
Save yourself some dough and open an account with a member bank. Then, find out where the nearest Bnl Banca Nazionale del Lavoro is in the cities you’ll be visiting in Italy and plan to do all of your ATM banking there. Just Google the phrase “Bnl Banca Nazionale del Lavoro” and the city’s name, and you should get a list of your options along with a Google Map.
Of course this is a lot of extra hassle and you might just want to eat the fees! In that case, take out as much as you can at a time from the handiest ATM in an effort to limit the number of withdrawals you have to make.
Hot tip: Make sure you’re aware of your daily limit, and raise it if needed before you leave home.
Remember, these are the nitty-gritty details, and they are not worth losing sleep over! No one wants to spend a ton of vacation time searching for banks to save five bucks. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your own peace of mind is learn to embrace the gouge.
You’re on holiday after all, and being a penny pincher can drain your vital life force (and your travel partner’s too!). Know when to take a chill pill and not sweat the small stuff.
But being informed about what’s going on behind the scenes when you’re using debit and credit cards in Italy just makes good sense, and it’s stuff you can control even before you set sail.
Please comment — what’s your favorite “I got gouged” travel memory? We all have one! (Mine is Mexico, 1996.) Let’s laugh now that the dust has settled. Add your story below!
Thanks for checking out our blog!
Are you interested in travelling to Italy with us on a day trip?
We’d love to see you in Italy!
Image Credits: Leela Cyd