Abroad Perspective: Paper or Plastic?

Everyday actions such as paying for lunch or using an ATM suddenly require some more thought when vacationing abroad. Get used to checking what the available payment options are before dining, taking a taxi or buying groceries.

Buying a packet of gum at a gas station and swiping your credit card to pay for it may be common practice in the US, but don’t rely too heavily on your usual way to pay. In Europe cash still talks, but many places prefer a debit card with PIN over a credit card. This means that every debit card transaction requires a PIN code, unlike here in America, where a signature is usually sufficient. 

Transaction Tips

  • Withdraw reasonably large amounts of cash at the ATM. This may seem counterintuitive since you are walking around with more cash in your pocket, but you won’t have to pay transaction fees as often. Try and budget your expenses in advance so you know which places or activities only accept cash. Only bring the cash with you that you need for that day and leave the rest in a safe place.
  • Exchange kiosks usually charge higher fees than what you would end up paying at the ATM. You could exchange your currency before your trip, but it’s better to wait until you’ve reached your destination. Look for bank branches with ATMs at stations or outside the arrival hall at airports for the best rates.
  • Notify your credit card company that you are traveling abroad. Doing this in advance saves you the headache of having to clear a block on your credit card because of suspected fraud. Make sure you have a contact number for your financial institution in case your card does get lost or stolen.
  • In Europe credit cards are best used for major expenses, such as hotel stays, plane tickets or for online purchases.
  • Don’t rely on a single form of payment. MasterCard and Visa are widely accepted in Europe, with the former being slightly more popular. American Express and Discover are not as useful or as well-known there.

I have to admit that drive-up ATMs have grown on me. Not being familiar with those in Europe, I was pretty excited when I stumbled upon them here in the states. I was used to stand-up ATMS and having to deal with potential “shoulder surfers.” I had to master enrolling friends and family to be human shields to protect my PIN. Either way, you will lose the tunes and your comfortable car seat when you withdraw cash in Europe.

Don’t be alarmed if your payment card seems to be hidden from view for the entire transaction. One of the first things I noticed when I started using my American debit card is that ATMs almost seem allergic to our cards. You enter the card, enter your PIN and the card comes out before you’re done. Well, European ATMs generally hold on to your card for the entire transaction. Take your money first and then your card. Make sure you don’t forget it.

As a Dutch American, I am well aware of cultural differences. In my series, Abroad Perspective, I will tackle the challenges of international travel.

Feel free to share your cultural shocks with us in the comments below and your idea could be featured in the next blog!

Ray originally hails from The Hague, Netherlands and one day showed up at Global Discovery Vacations’ doorstep. When he is not traveling or writing, you might find him engaged in playing ping pong, swimming or planting tulips.