After the overall itinerary has been finalized and hotels, guides, transfers, and restaurants have been booked for trip planning clients, we usually have a conversation about a money strategy for their trip. Most travelers want to know:
- How much cash to bring, and in what currency?
- Is an ATM card a reliable solution for getting cash in Italy?
- Are credit cards accepted everywhere?
- Are traveler’s checks worth bringing?
The answers are: it depends; yes; no; and in my opinion, no. To expand on that, here’s my advice.
First, understand that Italy is a very cash-oriented society, so make sure you never end up with zero cash in your wallet. To buy small things, like coffee, you’ll need cash. You’ll also need cash at all outdoor markets, for most taxis, and at many restaurants. That said, you don’t want to carry too much cash on you either – flashing a wad of bills every time you open your wallet is a bad idea for obvious reasons. In order to have enough cash to get you through your trip, but not too much on your person at once, I recommend having a Plan, a Backup Plan, and a Backup To The Backup Plan. To keep things simple, I’m going to use USD as the example currency below.
Plan to use your ATM card to get Euros from Italian cash machines, and use your Visa or Mastercard to pay for hotels and other items where possible (American Express is not as widely accepted, but if it’s your favorite card, bring it as an additional card, just not as your only card). I know plenty of people who arrive in Italy with no Euros, use an ATM card to get cash as needed and use a credit card where possible and have no problems – and I have done this on many trips. NOTE: Italy (and much of Europe) is moving away from signatures on credit cards and instead they use a PIN number, so in some cases (like at train station automated ticket machines) use your debit card + PIN rather than credit card.
In order for this to work, you should:
- Call your bank and tell them the dates you’ll be abroad, so that your credit cards or ATM card don’t get blocked (or worse, swallowed by the machine) because your bank has flagged a suspicious transaction.
- Before you go, ask your bank what the fees are for using your ATM card abroad. You may have fees from both your home bank and from the local Italian ATM every single time you withdraw money. Fees are usually inevitable, but if for example, you know you’re getting charged a flat fee and not a percentage of the transaction, you’d want to take out larger amounts of money less frequently to keep charges lower. For longer trips, consider getting an ATM card with no fees worldwide.
If locating a currency exchange in the airport makes you feel better than counting on an ATM, then by all means bring USD and exchange it in the airport. I walk off the plane and look for an ATM, but there’s nothing wrong with bringing a few hundred dollars in cash and exchanging it when you arrive to get you started. But after leaving the airport or train station, finding an ATM may be easier than finding a currency exchange.
One additional tip: if you happen to have friends who have returned from a Euro country before you leave for Italy, ask if they’d like to sell you their Euros.
The Backup Plan
Let’s say your ATM card gets eaten, or your Visa card gets frozen, or your bag with your entire wallet gets lost or stolen — what then? Revert to the Backup Plan: bring another credit card (my backup is my Mastercard) and a second ATM card – from another account if possible, because if your account is frozen, another ATM card for the same account won’t work either. Put these backup cards in a different yet safe place, like in your passport holder, your camera bag, your computer bag, or the hotel safe. Just keep the backup cards separate so they don’t get misplaced or stolen at the same time as the original ones.
The Backup to the Backup Plan
My husband thinks this is overkill, and so far (touch wood) I’ve never had to use this, but, I always bring a couple hundred USD in cash and keep it in a safe place but not with my main wallet, in case I need to exchange it. You could also exchange it to EUR at the beginning of the trip and if you haven’t used it, spend it the last couple days of your trip. The point is to have some emergency cash separate from your main wallet. Note: when exchanging money in Italian cities, it’s often easier albeit much more expensive to do it in a high end hotel rather than successfully locate an open bank. Also, I make sure I get the PIN number for my credit card so I can get cash out using my credit card. It’s an expensive way to get cash, but if I’m using the Backup to my Backup Plan, it means I’m desperate. I find Traveler’s checks more hassle than they’re worth but I’d also put these in the Backup to the Backup Plan.
I’ve been lucky, and have never had to move beyond The Plan, but I’m also careful: I wear a bag with a cross-body strap; I never carry my wallet in a backpack or in a bag without a zipper; I’m aware of my surroundings before pulling out my wallet; and I don’t use an ATM on a dark corner when I’m on my own.
This is my advice but it’s not the only way. Please share your tips in the comments!
photo by Madeline Jhawar
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