Cash or Credit?

On our home exchange last summer in Stockholm, we quickly learned that Sweden is moving toward a cashless society. For just about everything you buy—even a bottle of water or a cup of coffee—credit cards are accepted and preferred. We withdrew some kronas when we arrived and we never needed them—we gave them to Mark to try to spend in the airport before his flight home.

But for a side trip during that same home swap, we visited Berlin. We were only there for a couple of days, so we didn’t bother getting euros from an airport ATM. That turned out to be a mistake. Cash was preferred just about everywhere, and some places only accept it. We had to hunt down an ATM.

To get an idea of what’s typical before you travel, you can search online for “are credit cards generally accepted in” and add the country or city you plan to visit.

Even though credit cards are becoming more universally accepted, we’ve run into situations where none of our cards work and we’re stuck. That happened in Rouen, when we told the kids we would rent bikes, but the machines wouldn’t accept our credit cards. They were not happy.

It happened again when our overnight flight landed in Paris, but we couldn’t buy train tickets to get into the city from machines. We ended up waiting in a long line to buy tickets from an employee.

And even in places where credit cards are widely accepted, small stores and restaurants might be cash-only. We just got back from a trip to Barcelona, and on our last night there we stopped in a little tapas place for octopus and sangria. We didn’t have enough cash to cover our bill, so Paul headed out to find some. That turned out to be a 30-minute process—he had to try three ATMs and walk quite a distance before he found one that was working.

It’s not a bad idea to bring some euros (or whatever the local currency is) with you on your trip. We try to come home from every trip to Europe with some cash that we tuck away with our passports and carry with us the next time.

If you don’t have any euros on hand before your trip you can get some either at your bank or at a currency exchange counter at the airport. You’ll have to check the rates and fees, but you’ll probably get a better deal from your bank.

If you’re not able to get some euros ahead of time, just withdraw some money from an ATM. Look for one in the airport, since you might need cash for your taxi. In Dublin last fall we didn’t have cash and we found out that only some taxis take credit cards, so we had to wait for one equipped with a credit card reader.

And as for credit cards, you’ll want to use one that doesn’t add foreign transaction fees. We mainly use our Costco Visa, which doesn’t have these fees and also gives us 3 percent back on travel purchases.

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