First-time international travelers' question
July 19, 2017 2:57 PM   Subscribe

We, two Americans, will be taking a group trip to Israel this fall, our first time overseas. When we buy souvenir-type items, what do you experienced travelers recommend we use to pay for them: U.S. dollars, American credit card, Israeli shekels, or something else? My completely uninformed preference is credit card. The places we visit probably won't be very far off the beaten tourist path.
posted by davcoo to Travel & Transportation around Israel (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have never been to Israel but....

-Credit card is generally fine, so long as you have a chip-and-pin. Be sure to call your credit card company (and your bank) to inform them of your travel plans before you go. Some countries are more credit-card-friendly than others, however, and someone who has been to Israel could probably give you advice here.

-Even if credit cards are widely accepted, carrying some cash is probably useful. And by cash I mean local currency. There is no reason to buy things with U.S. dollars when traveling abroad. Very, very few places will accept them (because why would they?), and the ones that will tend to be heavily geared towards A Certain Kind of Tourist and offer awful exchange rates.

So, credit card is OK, augmented by shekels as needed.
posted by breakin' the law at 3:06 PM on July 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

You should be able to use your debit card to withdraw money. English is one of the official languages, so there should be options for it at atms.
posted by brujita at 3:16 PM on July 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Credit cards generally offer the best currency exchange rates and have built-in fraud protection- if your credit card gets stolen, it's inconvenient, but won't cost you much; if cash gets stolen, it's gone. Just make sure your credit card doesn't charge foreign transaction fees; the main reason I got a Capital One credit card years ago is because of its lack of foreign transaction fees. Withdraw some local currency using your ATM card when you're there to have some walking around money, but pay with credit cards wherever you can.
posted by Betelgeuse at 3:30 PM on July 19, 2017

Mostly shekels, sometimes cards. Never USD.

If you use credit/debit cards, keep in mind that you'll be using the currency conversion rate and any foreign transaction fees from your bank. Depending on the specific type of card, this can be expensive or a deal. It can go both ways.

When I travel, I almost always convert into local currency. Not only will smaller stores be more likely to be cash only, using cash will help you better understand local prices and costs.
posted by suedehead at 3:33 PM on July 19, 2017

Using a credit card or ATM withdrawals will generally get you a reasonable exchange rate. For credit cards, take one with no foreign transaction fees, because paying that 3-5% STINKS.
posted by janell at 3:56 PM on July 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'll second the suggestion to call your credit card/debit card company in advance of your trip. Otherwise, they might decline the transaction. I'd also suggest bringing two credit cards, in case one doesn't work.

If you can pay with a card, there's not really a reason not to. And you don't need to carry a ton of cash. You'll be able to use your debit card to withdraw local currency from ATMs.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:19 PM on July 19, 2017

It really depends on the exchange rate. If you get a better exchange rate at a currency exchange, then by all means, take that. But in general, your card will probably have a better rate.

I don't know about Israel, but some places in Europe will charge the card in USD rather than the local currency, which is usually a good option if it's offered.

And yes, by all means, absolutely inform your card issuer before you leave that you're going abroad.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:28 PM on July 19, 2017

In Israel -- I was there about 18 months ago -- you'll have no problems using a "regular" American credit card, with or without chip, no PIN required. The ATMs were easy to use and IIRC they all have an option to switch the screen to English. English is really used everywhere, and you're not going to have any trouble communicating.

I used my credit card for the most part, but did withdraw some cash because it was good to have for small purchases, moments of tipping, etc.

Have a great trip!!
posted by BlahLaLa at 4:29 PM on July 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

On a group tour to Israel every place you go will happily take your credit card and as long as you have a no foreign fee cc , that's usually the best exchange price. For shkalim, the best price will be from an ATM. Your bank website should have a foreign page telling you which international banks have no fees to use them.
posted by atomicstone at 4:33 PM on July 19, 2017

I don't know about Israel, but some places in Europe will charge the card in USD rather than the local currency, which is usually a good option if it's offered.

It's usually not a good deal in my experience - on a recent trip, I chose to be charged in Euros every time, and the dollar charge to my credit card was always less than the amount quoted (my credit card gives me phone alerts when I make charges, so I could see the actual charge within a minute or so of seeing the number on the credit card machine.

This was with a Capital One card, though, which is generally very good for travel - other cards might work out less well. And it might be worth being charged in USD just so you know what you're going to get charged if you're in a country with a particularly unstable currency.

My general order of preference would be:

1) US credit card with good exchange rate and no overseas fees
2) Foreign currency withdrawn from an ATM using your US ATM card (preferably a card with good exchange rate/no overseas fees)
3) US credit card with less-good exchange rate and overseas fees
4) Foreign currency purchased at a currency exchange establishment
5) US dollars
posted by mskyle at 5:34 PM on July 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

some places in Europe will charge the card in USD rather than the local currency, which is usually a good option if it's offered.

This is almost always a bad option. First, the rates are often horrible (they have absolutely no incentive to give you a good rate). Second, if you do this, many credit card issuers will still charge their usual fee on the transaction, but as a "foreign transaction fee" instead of a currency conversion fee. So you pay twice.
posted by grouse at 5:44 PM on July 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Because I haven't seen this exact information in above comments, I add:

For credit transactions:
Credit Cards - often have foreign transaction fees of 3%. Capital One is a known card to have no foreign transaction fees and set a good exchange rate. (Note: for CREDIT cards, it is the Credit Card company that sets the exchange rate.)

For debit (cash from machine) transactions:
Capital One 360 is one debit card that has no foreign transaction fees. For reference, two large regional banks where I have accounts by-default charge $5 PER TRANSACTION PLUS 3% of the withdrawal (or cash advance as they like to say) plus pass through any banking fee charged by the local bank machine. With a higher tier account, I can avoid the transaction flat fee and a large portion of the local bank machine fees but not the foreign transaction percent fee. (Note: for debit cards, it is the machine's company that sets the fee so in London, for example, we've been cautioned to only use major UK bank branches and not unknown bank branches that may set less-favorable exchange rates and possibly also charge a fee. The major UK banks do not charge machine fees per transaction.)

In sum over a few weeks even a few thousand dollars will net you only so many dollars of fees. However, if you like to avoid the fees, then consider looking into a no foreign transaction fee credit and debit cards for your travels.

For our purposes, we'll carry the (Capital One) credit card for major transactions as well as any transaction that keeps the card in our sight (not given to a waiter to take into the back out of our sight) and then use the (Capital One 360) debit card to keep us in local cash for cash transactions.

Note - I don't work for Capital One in any way - I signed up for a Capital One 360 Debit Card online in about 5 minutes, received the card in less than 5 business days and am all set to withdraw foreign-transaction-fee-free local cash internationally.
posted by RoadScholar at 6:37 PM on July 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm not 100% sure that all of the little stalls in places like the souks and the old city of Jerusalem take credit cards. I don't know, maybe they do these days. Also, Israel is weird about tipping and even though they aren't as big on tipping as the US, leaving a small tip in restaurants is considered a nice thing to do but many places don't let you tip on a credit card.

So the net result you'll probably want some shekels. My go-to place to get them at the best exchange rate is the ATM at Ben Gurion on your way in.

Your USD will likely not be very useful. The only place I've ever been able to pay for anything in USD in Israel is stuff that is 100% marketed to tourists, like group tours.
posted by phoenixy at 10:18 PM on July 19, 2017

When I went, we converted to shekels there. Look at your group tour materials to see if they have a plan for this. We used cash for most transactions. Read the fine print or FAQs on your credit card, too, so you know about fees, and have a plan if electronic wonkiness happens. Let your credit card company know about your travel dates so you don't get declined based on location.
posted by childofTethys at 4:13 AM on July 20, 2017

Also, practice your negotiating skills, never accept the first price in the marketplace. Back each other up if you are shopping together.
posted by childofTethys at 12:28 PM on July 20, 2017

Nthing that you always ask to be charged in local currency and that you have some local cash available. My bank sells foreign currency at some but not all of its locations. Go to your bank's website and search for foreign currency.

The other good option for cash is a debit card, but make sure you have a 4 digit PIN. Some US debits allow longer PINs, but I was told that may not work in foreign ATMs. I have never been required to enter a PIN when using my Chip and Signature credit cards in Europe. Sometimes a ticket machine will not accept the credit card without a PIN, but a live person has always been okay with a signature.
posted by soelo at 2:09 PM on July 24, 2017

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