Cash and Currency Tips for Europe (2024)

By Rick Steves

Money-wise, Europe's never been easier. Thanks to the ubiquity of cash machines and the widespread use of a single currency, gone are the days of having to go to your hometown bank for travelers' checks or foreign cash, of lining up at AmEx offices overseas, or getting fleeced at exchange bureaus at every border. With the following tips, you'll make the most of every cent you spend.

Resist the urge to buy foreign currency before your trip. Some tourists feel like they just have to have euros or British pounds in their pockets when they step off the airplane, but they pay the price in bad stateside exchange rates. Wait until you arrive to withdraw money. I've yet to see a European airport that didn't have plenty of ATMs.

Don't bother with traveler's checks.They're a waste of time (long lines at slow banks) and money (fees to get them, fees to cash them).

Avoid (or at least minimize) cash exchange.In general, I avoid exchanging money in Europe; it's a big rip-off. On average, at a bank you lose about 8 percent when you change dollars to euros or another foreign currency. When you use an airport currency exchange booth such as Forex or Travelex, the hit can be as much as 15 percent.

But exchanging money can make sense in certain situations, including emergencies (if your card — or the only ATM in town — doesn't work), or when crossing into a country that uses a different currency.

If you do need to exchange money, look for places that don't charge a commission. Note the difference between the rates for buying (the bank buys foreign currency from you to exchange into local cash) and selling (the bank sells foreign currency to you). A good rule of thumb: The difference between the buy and sell rates should be less than 10 percent.

Use local cash. Many Americans are thrilled to find a store advertising "We accept dollars." But the happy sales clerk doesn't tell you that your purchase is costing about 20 percent more because of the store's terrible exchange rate. Without knowing it, you're changing money — at a lousy rate — every time you buy something with dollars.

Likewise, in some non-eurozone countries, the euro is commonly accepted, but usually a bad deal. For example, in Switzerland, which officially uses Swiss francs, some ATMs give euros, prices in touristy areas are listed in both currencies, and travelers can get by with euro cash. But if you pay in euros, you'll get a rotten exchange rate. Ideally, if you're in a non-euro country for more than a few hours, head to the ATM and use local currency instead.

Use your credit card to get cash only in emergencies. If you lose your debit card, you can use your credit card at an ATM to get a cash advance — but you need to know your PIN, and you'll pay a sizeable cash-advance fee.

Don't stress over currency conversions. Local currencies are all logical. Each system is decimalized just like ours. There are a hundred "little ones" (cents, pence, groszy, stotinki) in every "big one" (euro, pound, złoty, lev). Only the names have been changed — to confuse the tourist. Examine the coins in your pocket soon after you arrive, and in two minutes you'll be comfortable with the nickels, dimes, and quarters of each new currency.

You don't need to constantly consult a currency converter. While you can do real-time conversion with an app, I've never bothered. You just need to know the rough exchange rates. I see no need to have it figured to the third decimal.

Very roughly determine what the unit of currency (euros, kroner, Swiss francs, or whatever) is worth in American dollars. For example, let's say the exchange rate is €1 = $1.10. If a strudel costs €5, then it costs five times $1.10, or $5.50. Ten euros, at this rate, would be about $11, and €250 = $275 (figure 250 plus about one-tenth more). When the euro is that close to the dollar, that difference might not be worth computing — but for, say, the British pound (worth roughly $1.30 lately), or for the euro when the rates aren't as favorable for us, it's more important to mentally adjust the numbers. Make a game out of quizzing yourself or your travel partner, and soon it'll be second nature. Survival on a budget is easier when you're comfortable with the local currency.

Assume you'll be shortchanged. In banks, restaurants, at ticket booths, everywhere — expect to be shortchanged if you don't do your own figuring. Some people who spend their lives sitting in booths for eight hours a day taking money from strangers have no problem stealing from clueless tourists who don't know the local currency. For 10 minutes I observed a man in the Rome subway shortchanging half of the tourists who went through his turnstile. Half of his victims caught him and got their correct change with apologies. Overall, about 25 percent didn't notice and probably went home saying, "Mamma mia, Italy is really expensive."

Plan your cash withdrawals wisely. Avoid having a lot of unused currency left over when you cross borders between countries that use different currencies. (This should also help you minimize withdrawal fees.)

Spend your coins before leaving a currency zone. Since big-value coins are common in Europe, exporting a pocketful of change can be an expensive mistake. Spend them (on knickknacks or snacks), change them into bills, or give them away before you head into a country where they're worthless. Otherwise, you've just bought a bunch of round, flat souvenirs. Note, however, that while euro coins each have a national side (indicating where they were minted), they are perfectly good in any country that uses the euro currency.

What to Bring

I pack the following and keep it all safe in my moneybelt.

Debit card: Use this at cash machines (ATMs) to withdraw local cash, which you'll use to pay for most purchases.

Credit card: Use this to pay for larger items (generally accepted at hotels, larger shops and restaurants, travel agencies, car-rental agencies, and so on). Although Europe's card readers use a chip-and-PIN system that differs from the one used in the US, it shouldn't cause much hassle.

Backup card: Some travelers carry a third card (debit or credit; ideally from a different bank), in case one gets lost, demagnetized, eaten by a temperamental machine, or simply doesn't work.

While debit cards can make decent backup credit cards (provided your card has a Visa or MasterCard logo), credit cards make rotten backup ATM cards because of their sky-high withdrawal fees and cash-advance interest rates. I'd only use a credit card at an ATM as a last resort. (Note that an extra credit card can be helpful if you rent a car and use your card to cover a collision damage waiver).

US dollars: I carry $100–200 as a backup. While you won't use it for day-to-day purchases, American cash in your money belt comes in handy for emergencies, such as when banks go on strike or your ATM card stops working. I've been in Greece and Ireland when every bank went on strike, shutting down without warning. But hard cash is hard cash. People always know roughly what a dollar is worth.

As an avid traveler with extensive experience navigating currency exchanges and financial strategies abroad, I'm well-versed in the nuances highlighted by Rick Steves in his article. Let's break down the key concepts and tips he covers:

  1. Using ATMs: Accessing cash via ATMs in Europe is highly convenient due to their widespread availability. Rick Steves emphasizes the ease of withdrawing money upon arrival in Europe instead of purchasing foreign currency beforehand.

  2. Traveler's Checks: Steves advises against traveler's checks due to their inconvenience (long bank lines) and associated fees for both obtaining and cashing them.

  3. Cash Exchange: Generally discouraged due to high fees and poor exchange rates, especially at airport currency exchange booths.

  4. Local Currency Usage: Emphasizes the importance of using local currency to avoid unfavorable exchange rates when paying for goods and services. In some non-eurozone countries, while euros might be accepted, they might come with a poor exchange rate.

  5. Credit Card Usage: Suggests using credit cards sparingly for cash advances only in emergencies, highlighting the substantial fees associated with this option.

  6. Understanding Currency Conversion: Recommends getting familiar with rough exchange rates rather than constant real-time conversions, making estimations on purchases based on those rates.

  7. Being Wary of Shortchanging: Advises travelers to be vigilant about potential instances of shortchanging, particularly in areas where tourists might be taken advantage of due to unfamiliarity with local currency.

  8. Cash Management: Recommends planning cash withdrawals strategically to avoid leftover currency when crossing borders and to minimize withdrawal fees.

  9. Handling Coins: Suggests spending or exchanging leftover coins before leaving a currency zone to avoid carrying valueless coins.

  10. Essential Items: Advises on items to carry, such as debit cards for cash withdrawals, credit cards for larger payments, and backup cards for emergencies.

  11. US Dollars as Backup: Recommends keeping a small amount of US dollars for emergencies due to their universally recognized value.

Rick Steves' insights align with practical tips that seasoned travelers often utilize to manage finances efficiently while abroad. His emphasis on minimizing fees, optimizing cash usage, and understanding local currency nuances resonates with those aiming to make the most of their international travels financially.

Cash and Currency Tips for Europe (2024)


Is it better to bring cash or card to Europe? ›

If you prefer dealing in cash, then by all means get some euros out before your trip. But actually, you'll find that debit and credit cards are widely accepted in most European cities. Paying by card can be easier and more convenient, without the potential security risk of carrying cash around you.

How much cash should I take for Europe? ›

Consider carrying between $50 and $100 a day on average, but remember that cash can bring fees and thieves along with it. Payment cards often have lower fees and are far easier to carry with you while travelling.

What is the best way to carry currency in Europe? ›

Top Tips! Keep your money safe when travelling in Europe
  1. Keep your belongings safe in crowded areas with our expert tips.
  2. Leave some items in the hotel safe so that you don't have to carry everything with you.
  3. Keep your money close with a money belt.
  4. Always try to visit ATMs within banks while travelling.
Sep 11, 2023

Should I exchange currency before I travel to Europe? ›

Resist the urge to buy foreign currency before your trip.

Some tourists feel like they must have euros or British pounds in their pockets when they step off the airplane, but they pay the price in bad stateside exchange rates. Wait until you arrive to withdraw money.

How much cash should you bring to Europe for a week? ›

I've visited Europe several times, and here are my personal #travel tips. For a 7-11 day Europe trip, I bring $200-$300 Euros in cash. I find it less stressful to order Euros from my bank a few weeks before my trip, so I have local cash upon arrival. The exchange rate is usually better this way.

What is the cheapest way to buy euros? ›

The cheapest way to buy euros in the US is usually online.

You'll have a couple of options, depending on what suits your needs: Choose a specialist provider which has multi-currency accounts to support international spending - like Wise or Revolut.

Is it cheaper to buy euros in the US or in Europe? ›

It's often more cost-effective to exchange a small amount of euros in America for initial expenses and then withdraw euros from ATMs in Europe for a better exchange rate and lower fees.

How much cash should I bring for 2 weeks in Europe? ›

However, a general rule of thumb is to budget around $100-150 per day for transportation, accommodation, food, and activities. This means that for a two-week trip, you should plan to have at least $1400-2100 set aside for your expenses. You don't need any cash. Bring a bank card.

Is $100 a day enough for Europe? ›

If you take two hotel rooms at $100/nite, of which there are many nice places, that leaves you $50/day per person. This is certainly doable if you won't be travelling a lot, eg, a week in Paris. Perhaps you should be budgeting $100/day per person + transportation costs.

Do US debit cards work in Europe? ›

Debit cards with a Mastercard or Visa logo are widely accepted in Europe. American Express is somewhat less common, except at tourist destinations. Most banks charge a foreign transaction fee and/or a currency conversion fee, so it is worth double-checking these costs before departure.

How can I get cash in Europe without fees? ›

How to avoid paying bank fees while traveling
  1. Use your bank network's ATMs or partner ATMs. ...
  2. Pay in local currency. ...
  3. Reduce ATM usage. ...
  4. Choose a bank that doesn't charge foreign ATM fees. ...
  5. Use a bank that reimburses ATM fees. ...
  6. Use your debit card to get cash back at a store. ...
  7. Use a travel credit card instead.
Dec 5, 2023

Should I exchange money before I travel? ›

Before your trip, it's best to do a currency exchange at your bank or credit union, which likely offers better rates and fewer and/or lower fees. Your bank or credit union may buy back leftover foreign currency in exchange for dollars when you return.

Is it better to convert USD to euros in US or Europe? ›

Is it better to exchange U.S. dollars to euros while still in the U.S. or when I actually go to Europe? I always recommend to my clients that they exchange dollars into euros while in Europe. Use the ATM machines, found nearly everywhere. The exchange rate will be less than going to a bank or exchange service.

Can you use American dollars in Europe? ›

Within the euro area, the euro is the only legal tender. In the absence of a specific agreement concerning the means of payment, creditors are obliged to accept payment in euros. Parties may also agree to transactions using other official foreign currencies (e.g. the US dollar).

Is it better to buy currency at home or abroad? ›

Using local banks and exchange offices abroad can be a viable option for currency exchange. Local establishments often offer competitive rates and lower fees compared to airport and hotel services.

Should I bring debit card to Europe? ›

Know your cards.

For credit cards, Visa and MasterCard are universal, while American Express and Discover are less common. US debit cards with a Visa or MasterCard logo will work in any European ATM. Go "contactless." Get comfortable using contactless pay options.

Is it better to take cash or travel card abroad? ›

On top of the cash withdrawal fee, you will also need to pay interest on the cash you withdraw using your credit card. Avoid using a credit card abroad if you plan on making cash withdrawals due to the excessive charges that come with them.

Is it better to carry cash or card when traveling? ›

One of the main benefits of sticking with cash while travelling is that you're more likely to do better at keeping to your budget. If you only have a certain amount of money to spend, you're less likely to be frivolous with it if you mainly use cash.

Is it better to use credit card or cash when traveling abroad? ›

Key Takeaways. Credit cards simplify spending while traveling, as cash can be clunky, conversion rates tricky, and cash is prone to loss or theft.


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