A while ago, I was asked by a member of my community whether to use a credit card or cash when travelling in Italy.
It’s a great question and one I see asked a lot in travel groups. There are some things you need to consider when using either option.
I posted the question in my Facebook Group, Inspired Travel, and it seemed most members use cash predominantly, paying for more substantial expenses with a credit card.
This post is about my personal experience and what payment methods I use.
We all have different levels of comfort. So, my advice is to take the information in this post as a guide and tweak it to suit you.
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Before Leaving Home
I exchange money before my trip, always.
I live in a small village, so my only option to exchange currency is to order it from Australia Post. I can order it one day and receive it the next, but I like to give myself a couple of weeks before my departure date to make sure I have it.
Depending on where you live, you may have more options, which will also allow you to find more competitive exchange rates.
I like cash much better than using a credit card. I find that I track my spending a lot better using cash, and I have never had any trouble carrying it or stowing it in my room.
I exchange money before I go so that I have cash on me when I arrive. I ensure I have smaller denominations so I can easily buy coffee at the airport or pay for a cab.
From experience, I know that large notes (like €50 and €100) are hard to change, and a lot of businesses won’t or can’t change them.
I travel with carry-on luggage only and disperse my cash through my crossbody bag. I divide it between my travel wallet, so I always have cash on hand at the airport, a small purse/pouch I take travelling instead of my normal purse and the rest goes into a secure pocket in my bag.
Each day I only take what I will need and lock the rest away either in a hotel room safe or my lockable suitcase.
I prepay significant expenses like tours and train reservations online with my credit card before I leave.
Actually, I don’t use a Credit Card, I use a Visa Debit Card, which works like a credit card. It can take a while for purchases to appear on my card, which makes tracking my spending difficult.
Check with your Financial Institution what fees you may incur using a Visa Debit Card when travelling. Mine charges a fee each time I withdraw, so I try and limit my withdrawals.
I have used a Travel Card in the past – CashPassport Travel Money Card. They work like a credit card, although at the time I used one (2010) there were quite a few places in Italy that would not accept it because they did not recognise it. That may have changed now.
Check the fees associated with this type of cards and the restrictions and requirements. From memory, there was a fee each time we withdrew money, and we had to apply to refund the remaining money on the card after our trip.
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Upon Arrival at Your Destination
A lot of travellers like to use the ATM at the airport on arrival at their destination to obtain cash in the local currency.
I personally don’t want the hassle of finding one, using it and then having to hide my money when I am travelling solo, or even if I travelling with another person, especially after 22+ hours of travelling.
I am impatient and want to get going as soon as I arrive. I try to be aware of my surroundings at all times when I am travelling, particularly using an ATM. I can’t guarantee that when I am exhausted.
There is a lot of debate over the safety of carrying cash versus carrying and using a credit card. Personally, I have never had an issue taking and using cash.
I am also a planner and suffer from anxiety. So, for me to have my money already on me is comforting. What if the ATM is out of use? I like to be prepared.
I was so prepared when travelling to New York that I had an envelope ready with the taxi fare, including tip (it’s a set fare from JFK to Manhattan) so that all I had to do upon arrival at the hotel was hand it over! A bit over the top? Maybe, but for someone who gets very anxious in unfamiliar situations, this meant one less thing I to think about.
Using a Credit Card
- Credit cards can be replaced if lost or stolen; cash cannot. If you do lose your card, you make a phone call and cancel it. Ensure you have a backup (see below) so that you can keep travelling. Make sure you let your bank know you are travelling, you don’t want your card flagged for suspicious activity.
- Credit cards are easier to carry on your person or hide in your bag.
- Exchange rates can be better using a credit card.
- Check preferences. In some countries, cash is king. In Italy I find most places – cities and country towns alike – prefer to deal with cash. Before travelling, do your research. Find out what the preferred method of payment is and adapt. There is nothing more frustrating, for you and the vendor, if there is ongoing angst every time you pay for something.
- Always take two credit cards. Always. I take two Visa Debit Cards and have a third option I can access if I need to.
When travelling, you should always have access to enough money in case of an emergency. Nothing is more unsettling than not being able to access your money, or not having enough while travelling.
While travelling in New York (and back in the day when Credit Cards had a magnetic strip on the back) my only credit card stopped working. It happened on the second last day of our trip, and I had no more cash and no credit card.
Thankfully, my travelling companion covered everything for the last day, and I paid her back when we returned home. But lesson learnt in a big way and never again will I make that mistake.
An ATM might swallow your card, or you might lose one. It is better to be prepared than find yourself in a foreign country with no money.
- It is easier to stay on track with your travel budget using cash. It is easier to track what you are spending if you only travel with what you need for the day.
- Cash is more readily accepted the world over. There may be times you can negotiate a better price on goods by paying cash.
- You can shop at places like farmer’s markets where a lot of stallholders don’t accept credit cards.
- Withdrawing cash from an ATM might attract a higher exchange rate.
- Cash can be easily lost or stolen. You need to be more careful with money.
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Regardless of what you decide to use, you need to be diligent when you travel.
I prefer to use cash when I travel. I am careful, and I have never had an issue. But you need to stay safe and create strategies for yourself that make you comfortable.
You can read how in 10 Ways to Stay Safe When Travelling. You will find excellent information on how to keep safe while travelling with cash.
Always plan ahead. Don’t make the mistake of working it out as you go. Research your destination and find out what is preferred. Above all organise backups for credit cards. Use something like our Travel Planners to record prepaid components, what will need to be paid in cash or with credit card (e.g. hotel and taxes which can only be paid in cash) and calculate a travel budget you are comfortable with.
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