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Using a credit card in Europe
Credit cards are widely accepted across many European countries – however it's best to travel with some cash on you as well.
Cash is still king in many European countries. While credit cards are widely accepted in some nations, their acceptance definitely does not compare to our constant use and reliance on them in Canada.
Depending on where you’re going around Europe, it’s best to travel with both credit cards and cash.
Read these tips to learn how your card can be used abroad.
Compare credit cards for use in Europe
Consider which country you’re going to
Credit card acceptance isn’t uniform throughout Europe. In some countries, you can use credit cards pretty much wherever you go, while in others you’ll have to get by mainly on cash.
- In such European countries as the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark, cashless transactions rule. Some retailers may not accept cash, even if you want to use it.
- Other countries — Germany and Italy, for example — heavily rely on cash, so you should make it a point to carry some at all times.
For Europe in general, you’ll typically rely on cash for everyday spending at markets, on public transportation and at small cafes and restaurants. Be sure to carry enough cash to get you through each day — but don’t be afraid to use your credit card whenever you can.
A few credit card fees to avoid
Using a credit card overseas can be expensive. Here are a couple of fees to watch out for:
- Foreign transaction fees. A foreign transaction fee is charged when you use your card overseas, and it’s typically around 2.5% to 3% of each transaction (although it can be more or less, depending on your card). Most credit cards have foreign transaction fees, however there are a couple of cards on the Canadian market that charge no foreign transaction fees.
- Currency conversion fees. A foreign merchant may offer to convert your bill into Canadian dollars instead of charging you in the local currency. This is called a dynamic currency conversion (DCC), and it’s expensive because you pay a currency conversion fee for it, as well as receiving a poor exchange rate. If a merchant offers it, decline and pay in the local currency.
Should I use my credit card to get cash?
You’ll definitely need cash in Europe. Unfortunately, it can be very expensive to get cash using your credit card. That’s because your card provider will charge you a cash advance fee as well as a higher interest rate for cash advances. The interest rate is usually charged from the day you withdraw the funds – unlike a purchase interest rate, the cash advance interest rate offers no grace period.
Of course, credit card ATM withdrawals may also be subject to foreign transaction fees. The implication is clear: don’t use your credit card at ATMs.
Instead, pick up a no-fee debit card
Instead of relying on your credit card to get cash, always try to use your debit card. While most overseas ATMs will charge a fee to withdraw cash using your debit card, it is possible to find a debit card provider that belongs to an international alliance of ATMs. These alliances, such as the Global ATM Alliance Scotiabank is a member of, allow you to use specific brands of ATMs around the world for no fee.
Is it safe to use my credit card in Europe?
As with all destinations, there’s the possibility your credit card information or your physical card could be stolen. Here are a few ways to avoid it.
- Keep your PIN safe. Whenever you enter your PIN, use your other hand to cover the screen. This helps cut down on spying — from both hidden cameras and people looking over your shoulder.
- Be careful about which ATMs you use. Avoid decrepit ATMs and those in isolated locations. Instead, use ATMs attached to banks.
- Cancel your ATM transaction if anything seems off. Don’t use an ATM if your card doesn’t slide smoothly into the card slot or if the keypad is difficult to press. The machine may be compromised by a credit card skimmer — a device that steals credit card information.
- Avoid letting your credit card out of your sight. Out of view, someone can easily take a photo of your credit card. At restaurants, consider paying for your meals in cash so that servers won’t have to take your credit card elsewhere. While most European restaurants often use portable card readers that servers bring directly to you, you can simply use cash if need be.
- Keep your card physically safe. Thieves don’t just steal credit card information by recording your card number — they can also steal the card itself. Pickpockets in many European cities heavily target tourists. The bigger the tourist destination, the more pickpockets there tend to be. Consider keeping your credit card hidden away in a money belt. This is a fabric pouch that you wear around your waist and hide under your shirt.
How should I prepare before my trip?
Before going overseas, ensure that you can use your credit card with no problems.
1. Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. Foreign transaction fees can be a downer on vacation, but they’re easy to avoid if you pick the right card. Travel with at least one credit card that charges no foreign transaction fees.
2. Consider getting a Visa or Mastercard. These brands are more likely to be accepted abroad. While you may be able to use American Express cards at some locations, you’ll find that many merchants don’t accept it.
3. Give your card provider a heads-up. Always notify your bank or credit card provider of your travels overseas. To avoid declined charges, let your provider know where and when you’ll be travelling.
4. Know who to call if you have a problem with your card while travelling. Your card might get lost or stolen while you’re travelling. You’ll need the right number to call for a replacement card – but make sure the number is local to your destination and toll free.
5. Know where you’ll get cash once you arrive. So you don’t waste time, plan out beforehand where you’ll get cash. See if your bank has international partnerships that allow you to use some ATMs for free.
Before you head to Europe, answer these questions:
- Which credit cards will I take? Consider taking at least two different credit cards with you. Make sure at least one doesn’t charge any foreign transaction fees.
- Do I understand the fees I might encounter? Knowledge is power — and it can save you a lot of money on your travels.
- Have I called my credit card provider? Keep your card provider or bank in the loop, and know what number to call if you run into trouble overseas.
- What’s my plan for cash? Have a debit card ready, and know which ATMs you’ll be able to safely and easily get cash from.
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