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Using A U.S. Credit Card In Europe

If you are planning for long-term travel in Europe then one of your biggest considerations will likely be how to spend money there. By taking a few precautionary steps and following a few simple tricks, you can avoid the common mistakes quite easily and make your experience that much more enjoyable and stress-free.

Notify your bank and credit card companies.

Before you go away, get in touch with your bank and credit card companies about your specific travel plans to avoid having your account put on hold. International purchases are red flags for fraud detection software that will not hesitate to freeze your account if it suspects foul play. The technology used by some major credit cards to track and analyze your spending habits (kind of scary) leading up to a trip is quite amazing and they may even tell you that it wasn’t necessary to call (American Express recently did this to me). With that being said, I am a firm believer in the "measure twice-cut once" philosospy so I would still give them a call for peace of mind. Also, you'd be surpised how painless most credit card companies have made the reporting process, even the automated ones didn't induce the slightest bit of phone rage.

Find out if your credit cards are accepted internationally.

The symbols on the back of your credit card will let you know if a specific vendor will accept your card. Global cash networks like those run by MasterCard or Visa are what make international purchases with credit cards possible. MasterCard runs the two networks Maestro and Cirrus, while Visa runs the Plus network. You can see the name and symbol on the back of each credit card, as well as displayed by the vendors and ATMs that accept them. Magnetic strip cards also have pin numbers that may be required by the vendor, be sure to set up and test this number before your trip if you haven't already.

Get familiar with your bank and credit card policies.

One surprising way I have saved money while traveling abroad is by simply asking my bank if they had any European affiliations or counterparts that they prefer I withdraw cash from. It turns out, many of the large banks do have these agreements in place where they will limit or eliminate the fees entirely if you use a particular partner bank while you travel. The nice part of using an ATM (even if it is not a partner bank) is that the fees are generally quite low and you will be getting an almost exact currency exchange rate for your withdrawal. I always try to limit the amount of times I access an ATM, however it is in my opinion the best way to access cash. I would suggest steering clear of the currency exchange counters if all you have is a fist full of US cash unless you are in pinch; the rates are poor, fees are high and I can see no benefit to this unless you absolutely need cash and no ATMs are present.

Get to know common European payment methods.

Pin and chip credit card systems are the norm in Europe and can make American cards incompatible at many vendors. Chip and pin credit cards are processed by an electronic chip reader with pin number validation, as opposed to the magnetic strip and signature process used in the U.S. Magnetic strip readers are still used at major retailers, hotels and restaurants but not at automated machines and many smaller vendors. Chip and pin cards are starting to make an appearance in the US market due to the added level of protection for consumers and most credit card companies will tell you they plan on making a complete transition to the system in the near future. Until that happens, it can be a bit aggravating if you are in a situation where that technology is all you can use.

Invest in Metro Passes.

Although not directly part of "How to use a US credit card in Europe"  we think the last part is just a helpul tid-bit that is related. You won’t always want to hop into your car for quick trips, especially if you are staying in a city area for part of your journey. Metro Passes are a smart way to ensure that you have the means to get around without having to continuously purchase fares for mass transit. Depending on how much you plan on using the commuter services, multiple day passes could be an option that will also cut down on the amount of transactions you perform with your credit card and the fees that come with them. Automated metro machines are sometimes chip and pin exclusive, making it more difficult for Americans to purchase tickets on the go.  In cities or situations where passes are not available just be prepared  to carry spare change and small bills .

The best way to approach long-term travel in Europe without getting stuck with fees, stranded without funds, or ending up the victim of fraud is to go prepared. Try to let your bank know how much you’ll be spending and where, avoid disreputable vendors, and always carry enough local currency to get you back to a safe location. When driving around Europe, be sure to carry ample cash or if possible set up a chip and pin card as rural gas stations and markets don’t offer many payment options. One of the more comical memories from our office excursion to Nice, France (related to using a credit card) was when we found ourselves stuck in a parking garage without being able to exit for quite some time.  Not a French soul could be found to lift the gate for us but eventually the reason dawned on us, PIN and CHIP! 

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