How to Carry It, How Much to Budget
Counter-intuitively, we suggest that you bring some cash.
Cash presents several advantages, though of course it has to be carried carefully. Your fellow travellers can provide emergency money-changing at night or on weekends but only if you have cash. You can also avoid currency exchange transaction charges by using cash for small exchanges, shortly before crossing a currency border, for instance. And, increasingly, it can be the least expensive instrument to carry, as banks continuously increase their fees for foreign credit card use.
One suggestion: if you decide to bring, say, half of your spending budget in cash, use most of that half first. This lessens the risk of a significant loss in the event of a picked pocket.
If you are passing through our Paris office, you can exchange cash with us.
This service must be reserved in advance, as we do not normally keep large amounts of cash in the office. We charge a 3% commission on the midmarket exchange rate at the moment of the exchange, no fee.
It is generally cheaper to buy foreign currency once in your destination country / zone, and often easier to predict how much you will need.
However, it is comforting to have some foreign cash in your pocket when you first set foot in a foreign country, and airport exchange rates are notoriously poor on both ends of the flight.
In North America, a company called “International Currency Express” provides reasonable exchange rates and 2nd day delivery of foreign currencies (longer if you pay by check, which is cheaper). Look at www.foreignmoney.com, or call 1 (888) 278-6628. We don’t know these people, and accept no responsibility for their service. But occasional comments from guests who use it suggest that it functions as advertised.
ATM / Bank / Debit Cards
ATM / bank cards can be the most convenient method of obtaining foreign currency while travelling. However, the costs for using ATM cards can be high, are tending to increase over time (especially in the US), and these charges are buried deep in your specific card agreements, in print so small that you would think it was an anti-forgery measure. Break out your magnifying glass. The worst we have seen is $20 US per transaction, plus a 5% commission.
Additionally, you should use ATM machines attached to banks, during banking hours. You want to be able to get the machine opened and to get your card back should there be an electronic glitch which causes the machine to eat your card (this happens with unnerving regularity).
Finally, be sure to inform your bank that you intend to use your card in Europe, before you set out. The number to call is on the back of the card. Even if you do, the card may not work the first time you try to use it. Most banks have security mechanisms that kick in (and stop the card from functioning) when any withdrawal is attempted outside of a usual pattern (so, for instance, in Europe, when you generally make your withdrawals in New Zealand). The bank agent you spoke to should have removed it... but did s/he? When you warn your bank of your plans, also obtain a contact number which you can dial from abroad in case of difficulty.
Traveller’s Cheques / Checks
Though they have become an anachronism, consider traveller’s cheques for emergency funds.
At the risk of sounding like an ad, hunt down American Express cheques. They are easier to replace if lost or stolen: Amex’s service is a notch up from anything else you will find in the field. If you don’t use them, you can redeposit them to your bank account when you get home. Get cheques in your home currency, not in euros: they are paradoxically easier to turn into cash. But do not bring these as your only funds: they should really be an emergency cushion.
Personal Checks / Cheques
We also recommend bringing a few personal checks, if you have an account in €uros, or in US or Canadian dollars.
They can be surprisingly useful (with fellow travellers, or with us). For instance, you can pay for rental equipment with one. And they are light.
European credit card acceptance is wide, but you will find many circumstances in which using your card is difficult or not advantageous.
- Often the least expensive merchants for a given service do not take plastic. Being tied to your credit card may mean that you wind up frequenting establishments a notch up from what you really want, just to use the card. That’s all very well, until you get the bill....
- Many merchants only accept it for purchases above a certain amount (typically 15 - 25€). How many liters of orange juice do you really need?
- Splitting restaurant checks is not widely done in Europe, where merchants pay a fixed fee per credit card charge. You may face the passive resistance of your hosts (that is, wait an hour to settle your tab) if you put down three separate credit cards.
- You must pay for your evening beverages in cash, as your coordinator cannot collect via your credit card.
- Some countries have passed legislation allowing merchants to pass on credit card commissions, and banning credit companies whose merchant agreements do not allow the practice. The strongest legislation is in Denmark, where a 5% surcharge applies to most purchases made by foreign credit card.
- A special cautionary note regarding Austria: credit card acceptance is unusually low. Many, many merchants are not equipped to take cards. Trying to live exclusively by card will have a real incidence on your budget.
Bottom line: do not plan on spending the bulk of your funds via credit card.
Generally, Visa and Mastercard are more widely accepted than American Express, though this also varies country-to-country. However, using Visa or Mastercard may cost you up to a 6% foreign exchange commission on every purchase (typical bank charges for Visa or Mastercard use are 3 or 4%). Read your member agreement carefully, and choose the cards you put in your wallet accordingly. Amex charges 3%.
At this writing, Capitol One (North America, U.K.) is the only bank we know of which charges significantly less than 3% (1% at last word). If anyone knows of any others, we would love to hear of them.
Finally, as with ATM / bank / Debit cards, be sure to inform your bank that you intend to use the card in Europe before you set out. The number to call is on the back of the card. Even if you do, the card may not work the first time you try to use it. Most banks have security mechanisms that kick in (and stop the card from functioning) when any withdrawal is attempted outside of a usual pattern (so, for instance, in Italy, when you generally make your withdrawals in Scotland). The bank agent you spoke to should have removed it... but did s/he? When you warn your bank of your plans, also obtain a contact number which you can dial from abroad in case of difficulty.
How Much Should You Budget?
Depending on your spending habits, we recommend that you carry your currency’s equivalent of 30 - 40€ a day spending money.
Expenses usually limit themselves to lunch daily, laundry, gifts, and drinks, and bicycle repair if you are bringing your own bike. (Bike care is usually at our expense for our bikes. While you are responsible for the bike and its accessories, we cover any maintenance that results from routine wear and tear. You only fund repairs that result from riding full tilt through corn fields, or down the Eiffel Tower stairs, or over train tracks at 40 mph. Also, you cover the cost of the new pump to replace the one you left on the ground when you cycled off in the morning. Budget 7 € for this.)
Admissions to clubs, musical events, museums, et cetera should fall within this budget.
The beverage budget is the biggest variable. Allow extra if you are a wine connoisseur, especially a wine-lover travelling in a wine region. While the local produce is generally less costly at equivalent quality than that which you would find at home, that turns out to be precisely the problem. The temptation to capture the bargains is strong.
Also allow extra
if you can't get by without three soft drinks at dinner. Coca-cola is expensive in Europe, and ordering Diet Coke (“Coca Light”) is like wearing a money machine disguise. Local soft drinks cost less, but how do you feel about mint soda?
The least expensive drinks are local “table” wines and beers. Water is always available, always drinkable, and free, but you will have trouble convincing a harried waiter that you need a gallon and a half just for you. Of course he wasn’t on a bike all day.... Hydrate before you go to the table.
People have told us that they were perfectly happy on 20€ / day, or conversely, that our guess at 40€ was low. We speculate that it depends on how you live. Extras like skiing in Zermatt and gift shopping are not included in these estimates.