Once upon a time, getting money upon arriving in a foreign country was a simple affair. The globalization of major banks meant that your bank likely had ATM’s in other countries and you could simply use your card to get cash on arrival. Low or no ATM fees were in effect, and fair exchange rates promised you almost never lost more than 3% in the transaction. These times have ended.
Today, retail foreign exchange companies have struck deals with most of the major airports in Europe (for now) to establish a monopoly over airport ATM’s. These new cash machines advertise “Free Withdrawal” and that is the case, but what they don’t charge in fees, they make up for in poor exchange rates. You may lose 10 or 11 percent on a transaction as opposed to the manageable 3 percent of days past. When you withdraw a few hundred dollars this can really add up fast.
These “free” ATM’s may use Visa and Mastercard symbols and do in fact take your card, but because they are tied to retail foreign currency exchangers (who make their money off of exchange rates) they will put a sting in your wallet.
The solution to getting cash abroad?
If you’re lucky, you have some local currency on you to get to your hotel. If not, many foreign metro and bus stations, even cabs, will take credit cards. Once away from the airport and in a city center, you should be able to find major bank ATM’s that function like those of the good old days. You may only have to travel a few blocks from the airport, or you may have to travel a mile or two, but most foreign cities will have options that allow you to exchange at a fair rate. Once you get to you hotel, a friendly concierge should be able to help, or you can get online and find a bank ATM. If you have the time, do a little research before landing so you can get cash on hand early in your trip.
- Use your bank’s ATM locator prior to your trip to plan a good spot to get cash, or provided your card is affiliated with Visa or Mastercard, you can use theirs as well.
- You can, through most banks, arrange arrival currency to pick up before you board the plane so that you don’t show up empty handed in a foreign country.
- If you didn’t get to do either of these and you need cash to get to your hotel, only take out a little at the airport ATM. You’ll feel the exchange rate, but can put off making a bigger withdrawal until you find a more favorable cash machine.
The short answer is that the airport is quickly becoming the worst place to get your cash. This is currently true in Europe, but if the model works (and it likely will make a lot of money for the people behind the switch) it will likely spread to other parts of the world as the new standard.
Credit cards are still the safest for big purchases abroad as you have the added security of your issuing company to back you up. Certain credit cards have no foreign transaction fees, which adds to the reasons that they are the ideal form of currency for foreign transactions. We recommend using a credit card abroad wherever possible, but the above advice holds true for obtaining cash when you need it.
While this ATM problem is an unfortunate development, with a little planning and some good habits, getting cash out of the country shouldn’t be a major issue.