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A credit-card-savvy travelers guide to France, Italy
You've bought the airline tickets, found a few charming hotels (breakfast included), and decided that you'd really rather not drive if you can possibly avoid it, thank you very much.
Now, comes the hard part: Figuring out how to use your U.S. credit and debit cards during your European vacation or business trip. Setting aside most of the technical mumbo jumbo ("Chip-and-PIN card? What's a chip-and-PIN card?"), here's a real-time primer for real people.
Full disclosure, the following is based on experiences during late June and early July 2013 in southern France and throughout Italy, but it applies in most regards to virtually all elements of the European Union and to countries in many other parts of the world.
When you use your U.S. credit card overseas, the credit card company (generally, your bank) will convert euros, British pounds, shekels, whatever, into dollars. The conversion rate will not be great (hey, the bank is there to make a profit), but it generally will not be extortionary. Also, most -- but not all -- credit card companies will hit you with a "foreign transaction fee," which is pure profit.
Debit cards -- and buying euros
Debit cards can be really useful overseas, particularly if you have one from a major bank and you want to withdraw cash from a foreign ATM.
First of all, when it comes to buying euros or any other foreign currency, you certainly can wait until you are at the airport (U.S. or foreign) to purchase some foreign cash, but you will pay through the nose.
A much cheaper and easier way is to buy foreign currency online from your U.S. bank, assuming you have an account at a major bank. Bank of America, Wells Fargo, BB&T and many other national banks sell foreign currency through their websites, deduct the cost from your checking or savings account and ship it to you within a few days or even overnight. The exchange rate is quite competitive and, generally speaking, there are no transaction fees, though there may be a modest shipping fee.
If you need to buy foreign currency while overseas, your best option -- by far -- is to use your major bank debit card at a cooperating bank's ATM. Bank of America, for instance, is part of the Global Alliance network of ATMs and has an arrangement in Italy with Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL). Just walk right up to that bank's ATM, insert your BofA debit card, press the button that says "English," enter your regular PIN code, and off you go. Best of all, the exchange rate is within a fraction of the official rate. And there are no fees whatsoever.
But if you use your debit card at the ATM of a foreign bank that is not affiliated with your credit card company, you could get hit with significant fees; be sure to do your research before you leave home.
So, those are some useful tips, and here is one more: Keep those cards in a well-secured money belt, buttoned front pocket or something equally secure. Pickpocketing is something of an art form in Europe and elsewhere around the world.
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