Debit/Credit card fees in Europe
March 19, 2008 8:55 AM   Subscribe

How do I avoid excessive credit card/ATM fees when traveling in Europe this summer?

I'll be studying abroad in Europe for 6 weeks this summer, in 6 different countries. I'm trying to figure out the best way to handle money out there. I know that it's best not to carry cash or use local currency exchanges, but is there any particular credit card or bank that I should apply for to avoid conversion fees and other surcharges? Ideally I'd just be able to get cash out of most ATMs without having to pay an arm and a leg for each individual transaction.

Right now I have a checking account (debit card) with PNC Bank, and a credit card with Bank of America, just FYI.
posted by timory to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It's worth calling to see if your banks offer a "no international fees" option for your account. I know HSBC do, and we used this on our RTW trip when we used ATMs everywhere. They charged us about £5/mo for this option, if I recall correctly.
posted by wayward vagabond at 9:02 AM on March 19, 2008

Capital One is the only credit card company I am aware of that specifically says they do not charge an extra fee for foreign currency transactions. I have a Capital One card specifically for using when I travel overseas.

Otherwise I would just use your ATM card. The exchange rate is so bad now that it has seriously gotten to the point where if you are an american and have to worry about fees like this you probably can't afford to go to Europe anyway. (or put another way: if you can afford to spend 6 weeks in Europe this summer, why are you worried about ATM fees?). :-)
posted by thomas144 at 9:06 AM on March 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

My wife and I spent 3 months in Central America a few years ago and were faced with this issue pre-trip. We ended up putting a surplus on our credit cards and then withdrawing cash from them in-country.

In other words, let's say our credit limit was $2,000. We got the balance to $0 and then sent in extra money resulting in a surplus. If our budget for the trip was $1500, before the trip we would make a "payment" to the credit card company of $1500 resulting in a balance of $-1500. Most credit card companies don't charge fees unless you're actually accessing your credit. Because this is your money, that you've loaned them for the time being, they let you take it back fee-free.

I hope this is clear. If not, just ask and I'll try to explain another way.

Basically, you just pay more than you owe on your credit card.
posted by stuboo at 9:08 AM on March 19, 2008

Look for a "cash back on all transactions" credit card that gives a % back greater than the fee that MC/Visa/AMEX will charge. Then you'll still pay the fee, but you'll get back enough to have come out ahead.
posted by pandanom at 9:13 AM on March 19, 2008

Bank of America is a member of the Global ATM Alliance, which means that if you get a debit card through them you should be able to make withdrawals for free with several banks worldwide. Westpac (my participating bank) has the list halfway down this page.
posted by jacalata at 9:25 AM on March 19, 2008

FWIW, my credit union charges me just currency conversion fees (a few cents, say) on all my ATM withdrawals or transactions abroad, which as an expatriate saves me huge amounts of money. B of A refused to budge on this (which is pretty much why I switched to a CU). I've got the same kind of card as I did at B of A - a Visa-branded checking-account-linked debit card - and the account at the CU cost just a few dollars to open. I've had no problems using it anywhere. Might be worth lokking into.
posted by mdonley at 9:34 AM on March 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Be careful about the scenario stuboo posts, above. Some credit-card companies may not do this. I had a long conversation with my credit card company before my last trip to China. I wanted to do what stuboo said (something I'd done in the past). But they said (via the phone call) that they would not treat my front-loaded money in this way. They would still charge interest on cash that I withdrew. Note: this is not about conversion service-fees for "purchases", but about withdrawing cash from a front-loaded account. Seems to me, that the bank __debit card__ is the best way to go. It reflects one's checking account, and I used it to extract cash overseas, with no fee or interest.
posted by yazi at 9:41 AM on March 19, 2008

Good call. I should have said that some research is required up front. It worked in 2003 for us. It may not work now.
posted by stuboo at 9:45 AM on March 19, 2008

Response by poster: Yazi -
But which bank debit card? I don't think that most banks allow ATM withdrawals overseas on their debit cards without any fees (unless the bank has branches overseas).

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any bank that has branches in all of the places I am going to.
posted by timory at 9:49 AM on March 19, 2008

timory, check with PNC and see if they have a no-ATM fee option. When I signed up for an account in DC a few months ago, they claimed that the no-fee thing applied in the states AND internationally, for all (including non-PNC) ATMs. Worth a shot, if you haven't already checked.
posted by inigo2 at 10:05 AM on March 19, 2008

Can you join a credit union? Our CU's debit card worked fine even in village ATMs and the amount withdrawn from our account for each transaction was close to the daily interbank rate. No extra fees, either.
posted by sevenstars at 10:14 AM on March 19, 2008

PNC returns ATM fees if your checking balance is at least $2000. (link).

You should probably call them up to let them know you're going, though, so they don't freeze your card for fraud suspicion.
posted by that girl at 10:29 AM on March 19, 2008

Yes, when it comes to ATMs, definitely check with PNC about their newer checking plans (Free Checking, Performance Checking, Performance Select Checking). The webpages for Performance and Performance Select even tout:

Free Global ATM Usage - anywhere around the world, at no cost to you

with the fine print: Performance and Performance Select Checking provide automatic reimbursement of non-PNC Bank ATM fees.

Performance checking requires $2,500 in the account to avoid fees, and Performance Select requires $10,000. Free Checking also offers reimbursed ATM fees if you have $2,000 in the account, but the "global ATM usage" is not mentioned on that page, so you'll have to check with PNC if you go with that plan. You can look at the Consumer Schedule of Service Charges and Fees for more information. (Didn't know how to direct link to the PDF, it's next to fine print #2 in that link.)

Now, I have my checking plan from prior to about 2007 when they changed them, and they do not grandfather in old plans. PNC told me for reimbursed ATM fees I would have to switch to a new plan.
posted by ALongDecember at 10:30 AM on March 19, 2008

seven stars: not all credit unions are the same. One CU I used to deal with would actually use a larger bank for foreign exchange transactions, so they had the typical spread (between buying a selling) of around 4%.

To minimize transaction fees, taking out larger cash amounts (say €400-500 at a time). Check with your bank what the limit is on foreign withdrawls and make sure it's at least $1000.
posted by kamelhoecker at 11:24 AM on March 19, 2008

Seconding a credit union for lower global ATM fees, the credit union I used would charge a flat $1.00 fee for any ATM. I also have a Wells Fargo account that waves their own ATM fees if I upgraded to a Premier account.
posted by bertrandom at 1:52 PM on March 19, 2008

try commerce bank -- they charge no fees for withdrawals i specifically opened this account before long stay in europe
posted by jazzybelle at 6:04 PM on March 19, 2008

Response by poster: For all of these banks... no ATM fees are a perk that come with being able to maintain a $2500 monthly average. I'm lucky if I can do $250, so that's not going to be an option. I should have specified.
posted by timory at 6:25 PM on March 19, 2008

I traveled to Europe this winter with the following:

Fidelity esmartCash account

And a captial one credit card.

I didn't get the feeling that European ATMS charged their own fees, and that was the case in Germany on multiple occasions at several different banks, Czech Republic in Prague, France, and Barcelona. (we kept traveling looking for good weather. we found it in the end)

SO, the only fees you need worry about are your own US banks'
Fidelity's smart cash is perfect. It even used to pay a good rate until Mr. Fed cut my cash yields. That didn't help MY economy. Other perks on the mysmart cash: No minimum balance. Spend it till its gone. Refunds on ATM fees in the US. Easy and fast ACH movement from your bank to fidelity. Overall, I have gotten the feeling that Fidelity is in it for the long haul...not like a bank that needs to make it's money off of you by dinging you with fees. Fidelity knows that to keep my retirement assets there, it needs to treat me nice all around. Give them a call, you'll like them (and I don't work for them either)

Keep in mind that ATMs are ubiquitous in Europe, but different countries have different levels of Credit Card use. Germany is where we've spent most of our time and NO one there takes credit cards. Spain and Czech Republic were better, but I always felt better paying in euros anyway...just another way to hide the fact that I'm American.

The one thing you can't avoid is a 1% foreign currency transaction fee on your ATM withdrawals. Captiol One does refund it, and I checked before I left for Europe.

And last but not least...$1 = 1.50 E. Suck it up and go grocery shopping alot.
posted by johngalt at 8:57 PM on March 19, 2008

Don't have one, but Charles Schwab offers a high-yield checking account that claims that they'll pay any ATM fees you incur. However they won't pay for currency exchange fees:
2. Unlimited ATM fee rebates apply to cash withdrawals using the Schwab Bank Visa® Platinum Check Card wherever it is accepted. ATM fee rebates do not include currency exchange fees; fees imposed by merchants for POS transactions; or fees for stamp purchases, balance inquiries, or any transactions other than an ATM cash withdrawal from your Schwab Bank account. Schwab Bank makes its best effort to identify those ATM fees eligible for rebate, based on information it receives from Visa and ATM operators. In the event that you have not received a rebate for a fee that you believe is eligible, please call a Schwab Bank Client Service Specialist for assistance. Schwab Bank reserves the right to modify or discontinue the ATM fee rebate at any time.

ING and some other financial companies will probably offer similar deals.
posted by hobbes at 10:16 PM on March 19, 2008

Keep in mind that very few places in some European countries (Germany) accept credit cards at all (you're not going to be able to use them at the grocery store; you will have to pay cash).
posted by oaf at 9:52 PM on March 20, 2008

Response by poster: @oaf:
i won't be in germany, but any idea about the netherlands/belgium/luxembourg area (benelux!), or italy and austria? my recollection is that any touristy area accepts credit pretty ubiquitously, but i haven't been to these particular places (except vienna).

but thanks for all of your advice. i will definitely be calling up PNC and asking for specifics. barring that maybe i can swing a capital one account (although opening a new credit card is basically impossible for a student with zero income).
posted by timory at 7:24 AM on March 21, 2008

I was just in Barcelona and many of the ATMs there offered the option to be charged in USD, using an exchange rate they gave you on the spot plus a stated fee, or in Euros. I had never seen that before, but it might be worth it to avoid fees.

I didn't see that in the Netherlands or Belgium in November. But it may have changed since.
posted by smackfu at 5:54 AM on March 26, 2008

« Older Please recommend software program for...   |   Help me find a book from my childhood about... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.