Tom from North Carolina is taking his father to Italy and he asked:
Should I use cash or credit cards when traveling overseas? And what precautions do I need to take when using credit cards overseas?
Tom’s story is really delightful – his father (now 79) was born in Sicily and this is the first time he’s been back in 25+ years. Meanwhile, this is Tom’s 1st trip to Italy! I think they’re going to have a marvelous time and Mom and I are both incredibly jealous as we l-l-o-o-v-v-e-e Italy! (Especially Italian men! tee hee).
Although credit cards are accepted in almost every country, it really is a merchant by merchant decision on whether or not to accept credit, so you should definitely plan on bringing cash with you. In any circumstance there are benefits and disadvantages of credit cards, and this is also the case when travelling overseas. I’ve found “big” merchants such as hotels and car rentals require credit (at least for a deposit), but once you get into the smaller merchants, many either do not take credit or strongly prefer cash (so much so that you may receive a lower price for paying in US dollars or the local currency). Remember credit card companies charge fees and smaller stores will most definitely pass those costs on to the consumer.
Before you Depart
Knowing you will need cash, your quest is to figure out the option that will cost you the least amount of fees (no easy task nowadays). I would start by contacting your bank and asking if they are affiliated with an international institution. If so, find out the cost for ATM withdrawals on both ends – from the bank you’re withdrawing from in Sicily and your hometown bank. There are also some great smartphone apps that can help you find ATMs when you’re abroad. (I suggest you research and download those before your trip, though, so you can avoid high data-usage fees overseas.)
You should also ask your bank about traveler’s checks and their associated fees (including cashing them while in-country). For Tom, he’s staying with family in a fairly remote part of Sicily, so cashing traveler’s checks will be challenging (Note: banks may require you to be a customer before cashing a traveler’s check and hotels may require you be an on-site guest). American Express offers traveler’s checks although before you buy, find a local office in Italy where you can cash them. Although not applicable to Tom, one final option for obtaining cash abroad: if you’re staying at a large hotel, inquire if the staff can give you local currency and add the overseas money transfers to your room bill.
Although it has gotten better in recent years, know that Visa and Mastercard are more readily accepted overseas (particularly with smaller merchants) as their fees are typically less than American Express. The Discover card is pretty much an unknown outside the US (although there are a few exceptions).
I also like to have local currency before jumping on the plane, just in case there’s any sort of delay and I need to buy food (or something else) for Mom and me either en route or shortly after arrival. Your bank can typically order foreign currency although it may take several days for regional banks as they order from larger institutions. In addition, it’s not always possible to order in advance, though, so you may have to wait until you reach your destination before you can change money or pull out local currency from an ATM. For example, I couldn’t get Cambodian riel before I left the US and our only option was once we landed in Phnom Phen. After we exchanged our money, it was a little scary as Mom and I felt lots of us eyes watching us!
One final piece of advice before you depart, I highly recommend informing your credit card companies of your travel itinerary. This is particularly important if you don’t travel a great deal, because an unusual charge on your card may cause the company to assume that someone has stolen your card number—and then disable your card. It can be very annoying and inconvenient when this happens (especially if you are in the middle of a purchase!), but with all the fraud that goes on I can understand why the companies take this course of action.
While on Vacation
Don’t carry all of your cash with you when you go out. Always leave some back in the room in case your purse or wallet is stolen or lost. Keep in mind, too, that flashing a big wad of cash when you’re out can make you a more likely target for thieves. The same is true for your credit cards – leave one card in the hotel safe, just in case your purse or wallet does missing. The speed and ease with which you can get a replacement card quickly depends a lot on where you are, so make sure you have a backup safely stowed in the hotel safe or in your room.
Get (and keep) receipts for all of your purchases. When traveling I always bring an empty envelope with me, and each night I just dump that day’s receipts in there. After my trip, when I check my credit card statements at home, I have all my receipts in one place (and don’t have to dig through all my bags to find them). A little bit of organization up front makes for a quick review of your credit card charges later! It’s always important to make timely credit card payments in order to stop any debt from piling up.
Many travelers swear by money belts that hang inside your pants leg or strap around your waist. They’re pretty secure because they’re completely hidden from view and typically are difficult to steal without your notice. (If you use one of these, though, make sure you get one made in a waterproof material that’s easily wiped clean so it doesn’t start to smell after a long, sweaty day of exploring!) Another option is to keep your wallet in an inside pocket of your jacket or (if it has a button closure) a front pants pocket.
If you’re using your pocket, a fanny pack, or any other storage that’s visible or not worn next to your skin, be especially wary of anyone who comes up close to you. When Mom and I were in Rome, for example, beggars would try to hand us a baby to distract us while their hands explored Mom’s fanny pack (fortunately, they were unsuccessful in their attempts to rob us). It can be quite unnerving to push back against someone who’s trying to put something in your hands, but don’t be tricked into holding anything for a stranger.
Final Thoughts on Cash or Credit Cards when Traveling Overseas
Worrying about money is awful at home let alone on vacation. So have your gameplane together before you go so you can relax and have a good time!
Anyone else have any suggestions from their travels?