Posted by: Jerry Garrett | March 23, 2019

More Tips And Tricks For Using Credit and Debit Cards in Italy, 2019 Version

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Italy: Unforgettable to visit, but mind your wallet (Jerry Garrett Photo)

VENICE, Italy

Just finished reading a very smart blog post from the always very savvy Bianca at ItalianFix, with some suggestions to avoid getting fleeced when using a debit or credit card for travels in Italy. I recommend reading it (and following her blog).

Anyway, she offers five tips, which I would like to expand upon a bit. But first let me back up a bit: Before you go, let your ATM and credit card issuers and your bank know a) that you are going on a trip, b) what countries you are going to, and c) when you are leaving and returning. If you don’t they may put a block on your card – which is all kinds of fun to try and get un-blocked when you are in a foreign country and trying to call collect, or to an 800 number back home that won’t answer in the middle of the night there.

1. Now to her tips: Bianca suggests, “Have 50 euro in cash when you arrive.” Yes, this is a solid idea (for several reasons, which I will expand upon below), but not always as easy to do as you might think. Hopefully, if you travel to Europe often (like I do), you will have left Europe on your last trip with at least 50 euro still on you. Then you are all set when you return. So, plan ahead, if you can.

If you haven’t done this, or it was not an option, you might find it is not worth the trouble and expense to get just 50 euro from your financial institution back home. Think of getting at least 100 euro! And get it from your bank, if you can. You will be charged the best exchange rate, and pay fewer fees, as a general rule. Don’t change money at your departure airport – unless you are desperate. You will probably get fleeced out of a quarter, or more, of your transaction in fees.

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Beware: Not an “ATM”; It’s a Travelex kiosk

2. Get the best exchange rate. Okay, number one: Don’t change money at the airport. We mentioned your departure airport above; but don’t change money at your arrival airport either. It’s probably even worse! There’s a reason those currency exchange booths look so lonely these days: People have, for the most part, figured out what a ripoff they are. But here’s a new trick they try: An ATM in the baggage claim or arrivals area, that looks like a regular ATM – but it is actually a currency exchange machine placed there by those same ripoff artists! They will nail you for the same rate they are trying to clip you for at their kiosk (or worse).

Before you use any ATM in Italy, especially at the airport, train station or downtown in large cities, make sure (as best you can) you understand whose ATM it is. Those specifically tied to banks are the best best. We usually see the reliable ones with a sign that says, “Bancomat”. There are also many with a kind of stylized “3” logo that accept cards affiliated with a group of Italian banks. We’ve had good success with these charging fair rates (or no fees at all, see below).

If you can, when using an ATM machine, try to figure out at least in general terms how many euro your money will net you. (Be at least generally aware of the day’s euro-to-dollar exchange rate.) We’ve been terribly shortchanged (literally) in touristy areas like Venice and Como.

3. Beware the foreign transaction fee. We have two Visa cards from Chase; one charges a foreign transaction fee, the other does not. The difference in the bills we got, when we got home, was staggering. We learned our lesson. (On larger amounts, it’s as high as a 3% commission, plus fees; on smaller amounts, we were charged a minimum fee – which when we were forced to use it for an autostrada toll, for instance, turned a tiny fee into a large one. The best we have found is the American Express Platinum which is, sadly, not as widely accepted as MasterCard and Visa. We also have a Chase Sapphire Preferred. We find people snap to attention when you use an AMEX card, because they are so hard to get in Italy (you must keep a lot of money in the bank as collateral, and so usually only rich people carry them there). Affinity cards we have with Delta and United airlines are not good ones for foreign travel, as a general rule. (All the cards I mention here do earn you frequent flier miles!)

3a. The “dynamic currency conversion fee” is another of those little tricks they’ve come up with to swindle you. Ever been asked, at a restaurant or store, to choose between being billed in euro, or your home currency? That’s them trying to get you to pay their version of a currency exchange fee. Always choose to get your bill in euro. Best to have your credit card company calculate the exchange rate and any fees when they get around to billing you.

I have also seen instances recently in which you are prompted to leave a tip on your bill, with helpful calculations for 10%, 15%, 20% or more. Remember this is another trick; tipping is not generally a thing in Italy. And if you do tip, you want to leave it in cash. And don’t tip too much: “It can send the wrong message,” a pretty waitress advised me.

4. Use a credit card, if you can, rather than burn through your cash, or carry large amounts of it around (A no no!). This is vital: This is how you have some leverage over strange charges that may (often) crop up on your bill when you get back home. Don’t hesitate to contest any such charge. I do. Always good advice. Particularly if you are going to do something like rent a car (a whole other topic!). Also know that if you use something like an AMEX Platinum to charge your rental car, it covers the ghastly “collision damage waiver” upcharge.

5. Please note that it is always a good idea to have a debit card on hand. Certain automated payment kiosks, such as at airports and train stations, may only take a debit card, regardless of what the signs say. I’ve had this problem on autostrada toll booths and for parking meters too. It’s a good backup to have when you start to panic, “None of my credit cards are working!” There’s a reason; Italians get your money faster when they force you to use a debit card.Screen Shot 2019-03-23 at 10.36.46 AM

Bianca also makes some other good suggestions about using a debit card in Italy (beware of fees, and limited acceptance). I will add one of mine, but it is probably not practical, unless you are planning an extended stay. I transferred just under $3,000 (the amount above which starts getting scrutiny from the Guardia di Finanza) from my U.S. bank to an account that I opened at an Italian bank (with the help of my kind landlord). I did this back when the exchange rate was really low ($1.04 to the euro!) and this allowed me to pay my rent, pay my utilities, get cash (from any of those banks with the weird “3” logo) without a transaction fee, and pay anyone without looking like a tourist (and getting asked to opt for tricky stuff like the “foreign conversion fee”). Plus, when the exchange rate tanked in 2017 (thanks Trump), I got a lot of bang for those bucks I had exchanged six months earlier.

Pro Tip: Exchange rates are pretty low again, right now. Might be a good time to take advantage of an idea like this.

Jerry Garrett

March 23, 2019

 

 

 

 


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