Credit Cards, ATMs, and Changing Money

Fanned out 100 euro billsUsing the wrong ATM in Europe can cost you hundreds of dollars!

Here is the inside scoop on the best cards to use in Europe, which ATMs to avoid, and how to not get ripped-off when changing money.

First major tip:  If the European card terminal or the ATM asks you if you prefer to do the transaction in euros or in your home currency, always choose euros.  Even if it shows you the two amounts, don’t be fooled, you’ll get a much better rate by choosing euros.

How to get the Best Exchange Rate

Forget Travelers Checks, forget Change Bureaus…  you’ll get the best deal—that day’s bank rate—using your debit card in an ATM.  Forgot your pin?  You can get cash with your card, passport and signature (and a bit of patience) inside the bank.

Best Debit Card to use in French ATMs

This is required reading before your trip: Using the Wrong ATM in Europe Could Cost You Hundreds of Dollars.

The tldr gist is to only use official bank ATMs not private network ones often located outside shops, and to get the free Revolut prepaid debit card, which has no-fee ATM withdrawals and uses the lowest interbank exchange rate for ATMs as well as purchases.

Otherwise, if you have a Bank of America debit card and use it in a BNP Paribas cash machine, you won’t be charged a transaction fee on either end as they are part of the same banking network.  Here is a list of BNP ATMs in Nice.   Credit Union cards also don’t charge transaction fees.

Here is a list of U.S. debit card foreign transaction fees so you can check your card in advance.

Which Credit Cards to Bring for Purchases in Europe

Contactless cards and ApplePay are widely accepted, and the easiest way to pay, especially with ticket machines.

Nobody has ever heard of Discover or Diner’s Club here, so leave those two at home. Mastercard and Visa are widely accepted, and American Express somewhat less so, but usually accepted at mostly higher-end establishments.

Again, even for purchases, the Revolut prepaid debit card mentioned above has no fees and the best exchange rate.  But if you don’t have the cash to preload your trip on a debit card, and want to do the trip on credit, check ahead to see if your card charges an international transaction fee (most do!) which can really add up.  There are a few credit cards, like Cap One (which is the one that I use) that don’t charge this fee which is a big savings.

By the way, if a card terminal gives you the option of doing the transaction in euros or dollars, always choose the local currency and let the bank do the conversion.

US credit cards have finally gotten on the chip bandwagon, many still don’t have a PIN.  Most European card machines are able to deal with this, but some still seem confused, so if you are paying with a card that doesn’t have a PIN, and it asks for your PIN anyway, just hit okay or enter and the transaction should proceed.

How to Add Restaurant Tips on Credit Cards

A quirk of European credit card machines is that you can’t manually add a tip in restaurants once your card is processed.  You can add a tip to the credit card but only if you let the waiter know before the transaction is entered.   Just in case, have a few coins in your pocket… 2-5% is fine.

And finally, if your cards are lost or stolen, here are the French phone numbers to cancel your cards.

Best Ways to Change Money or Cash Travelers Checks

Fanned out fifty euro billsFrench banks won’t change currency, so you are limited to Change Bureaus or your hotel.  Change Bureaus have by far the better rates, especially if you look for ones that advertise ‘no commission’.  In Nice, you can find two change bureaus near the bottom of Jean Médecin, one on the corner across from Galeries Lafayette (tram stop Massena), and another just up the street across from McDonald’s.  The change bureau with the best rate, however, is on rue d’Italie, behind the Notre Dame church (tram stop Jean Médecin).  The only American Express office is at the Airport in terminal 1.

Photo credit: Euro photos by Best of Nice

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