Using Credit Cards, Debit Cards and ATMs in Europe

02.15.23 by Travelex Insurance
Image credit: Getty Images

With all the payment options out there, it can be tough to know what’s the best and safest choice when you're traveling to Europe. You’ll save yourself a lot of headaches by understanding the pros and cons before you get to the airport. So before you go, let’s brush up on what you need to know about credit and debit cards while traveling in Europe.

Using credit cards in Europe

First, call your credit card company before you leave to let them know you’ll be traveling in Europe. If you don’t, they may put your account on hold to protect it. While there are many credit cards to choose from, if you’re traveling abroad you’ll almost certainly want a card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees and has an EMV chip. Check with your credit card company about this and to see if you should have a PIN while traveling to Europe. Make a copy of the front and back of your credit cards so you'll have the info you need in case they're lost or stolen.

Not sure what credit cards are the best to use currently? Here you’ll find tips on the most beneficial options. You may decide to seek out a better credit card than the one you currently have, so you benefit from cash back and/or travel perks like airline miles.

Helpful tips for using credit cards in Europe

  • Be aware of foreign currency conversion fees. Check with your credit card company to see what fees you can expect, if any. Remember, even little fees can add up.
  • Avoid using debit cards when making purchases. Debit card numbers are too easy to steal and are tied directly to your checking account. Use them only at ATMs, so you don’t risk a thief draining your account. With a credit card you have a certain level of protection from fraud, can dispute charges you didn’t make, and even close the account if necessary.
  • Bring more than one credit card. That way, if one is stolen, you have a backup. Be sure not to carry them in the same place on your person. Always have some cash with you as well, for those places that don’t take credit cards.
  • Steer clear of credit card cash advances. You’ll pay high fees plus interest for the convenience. Use your ATM card instead.
  • Speak up if you’re unsure. Be sure to tell local merchants to charge you in the local currency, not your home currency (or US dollars). You’ll typically avoid being charged a percentage fee. While it may sound like a sweet deal to be charged in US dollars, it’s not.
  • Be mindful of possible surcharges. Some locations may charge an extra 2-3% for using credit cards. Don’t be afraid to ask if there are any fees.

Using debit cards and ATMs in Europe

You may want that local street food, so having some cash on you is a must. ATMs can be found all over Europe, with most having an English language option. Using an ATM, you’ll be given the exact current exchange rate. Each country may call the ATM by a different name, so look up your destination country’s lingo before you travel. Know what the local currency is before you go. Always plan to have some cash on you, as some places may not take foreign cards. For safety tips on carrying cash, check out our recent post on how to hide cash while traveling.

Helpful tips for using your debit card at ATMs in Europe

  • Make sure you know your 4-digit PIN . Machines in Europe won’t accept longer numbers and don’t have letters. You must have — and protect  — your code.
  • Don't use your credit card at the ATM. This will be considered a cash advance with the huge fees that come with it. Only use an ATM or debit card.
  • Use the right kind of card. Make sure your debit card has the Cirrus or Plus logo on it. Cards with one of these logos should work all over Europe. When possible, stick to ATMs that are owned by major banks so as to avoid higher fees.
  • Bank fees apply internationally. Fees will either be a flat fee and/or a percentage of the withdrawal. If your bank charges a flat fee, you may want to withdraw a larger amount, reducing fees over time.
  • Request an odd amount. When you take out cash, request an amount that isn’t typical so you avoid getting large bills some businesses won’t accept. If you do end up with larger bills, head to a bank to exchange for smaller ones.
  • Know your withdrawal limits. Check with your bank concerning fees and limits. Each US bank has a different limit on daily cash withdrawal. With some banks, you can request an increase in the daily limit for a given period of time. Be aware that some European ATMs themselves may have a withdrawal limit.
  • Always have a backup! Whether lost or eaten by a machine (yes, it happens), cancel the card immediately. Have a credit card with you just in case.
  • Use ATM best practices. Use common sense when withdrawing cash. Avoid secluded, low-light locations. Cover the keypad when entering your PIN. If the machine is inside a building, don’t let people in behind you.

More money tips for traveling in Europe

  • Use a smartphone app that'll show you the current exchange rate, or research and write it down before you leave.
  • If you have other major credit cards, skip pre-paid debit cards. They typically have more fees.
  • Traveler’s checks are, practically speaking, going the way of the dinosaur. It can be difficult finding a place that'll accept them.
  • Avoid exchanging money at the airport or train station. Look for local banks in the city you’ll be visiting, as the rates there will be better. When you do exchange money, always count it before you leave to keep everyone honest. Also avoid sketchy looking currency exchange offices. Trust your gut on this one. Never exchange money on the street. You’ll almost certainly get ripped off.

Now that you know the basics, it’s time to get planning and packing! With these tips, you’ll be well on your way to making wonderful memories and safe travels on your European vacation.

Want to protect your upcoming vacation to Europe? Get a quote for travel insurance today.

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