Your ATM debit card can be an easy, cheap way to get cash in Europe. Bank exchange rates (1 percent to 3 percent) and transaction fees (up to $5) can be far lower than using credit cards or traveler's checks. But there are other reasons: European ATMs are easy to use and there are lots of them. According to Retail Banking Research, Western Europe has 350,000 ATMs alone.
Travel guru Rick Steves, who writes guidebooks and hosts TV travel shows, hasn't used traveler's checks for years. He gets his cash from ATMs and says debit cards are now a standard way for travelers to get money. And Edward Hasbrouck, author of "The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World," agrees.
"ATM cards are preferable over credit cards," says Hasbrouck, who has been to more than 50 countries. "It's a free, instantaneous way of accessing money."
The trick is assessing overseas bank charges. SmarterTravel.com columnist Ed Perkins searches out ATM cards with the cheapest transaction and exchange fees. And he recommends Bank of America, which is part of the Global ATM Alliance. The draw, he adds, is that you can withdraw no-fee money from other Alliance members, including Barclays Bank in the U.K., BNP Paribas in France and Deutsche Bank in Germany.
Perkins warns, though, that co-branded ATM cards -- those with Visa or MasterCard insignias -- do charge the same high rates as credit cards, about 3 percent in exchange fees. And even ATM debit cards aren't exempt; some banks charge 3 percent for some currency exchanges. "It's still a lot less than using traveler's checks, where you lose anywhere from 5 percent to 10 percent in conversion fees and charges," says Perkins. "And with credit cards, you get hit with charges and fees when you take cash advances."
No card is foolproof, though. That's why it can be smart to take a credit card, too. Perkins, like other travel experts, uses his ATM card for day-to-day expenses and his credit card for big expenses like hotel rooms and flights. "I carry two cards, just in case there's an unexpected layover," says Hasbrouck.
Here are five more reasons why using your ATM card in Europe makes sense:
1. Few cash withdrawal feesSome large banks, like Citibank and Bank of America, don't charge fees for withdrawals made within their network. But withdrawals outside the network can set you back up to $5 per withdrawal.
2. Mostly lower bank exchange ratesSome banks, like Bank of America, charge minimal exchange fees; others don't. For example, JPMorgan Chase charges a 3 percent conversion fee when changing your money into euros, pounds or the like. Then it pays to withdraw larger amounts, says Perkins.