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Things you need to know about using your credit card in Europe

Your credit's good, you should be able to buy anything, right?

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Martha and I were shopping for some furniture in Italy. It was her turn to pay for the small truckload, so she slipped her trusty VISA card into the saleslady's palm.

Whir, click, bingity-bong went the machine. Rejected.

"Hmmm," that's odd, it's always worked in the US," she said as she offered up another card to the hungry machine.

Whoosh, bonk--rejected again.

"It's not that there's anything wrong with your card. It happens all the time to foreigners," the saleslady said.

Luckily we had an Italian bank and could write a check. But the question is, "why didn't these perfectly good credit cards work in Italy?"

We researched the question when we got back home. It seems that these days many credit card companies are quick on the trigger to reject transactions outside of the normal activity they usually see. So when you use that card for the first time in Italy at a furniture store for a truckload of stuff, there's little chance that transaction won't be questioned.

To complicate matters, my credit card worked flawlessly, even for buying furniture. But I had used a different pattern of charging: I had charged some hotel rooms first, so the company knew I was probably in Italy as a tourist and weren't so worried once the bills for the $800 fake brass bed came in.

What can you do to make sure your vital credit cards work while you're in Europe?

First off, especially if you're planning to make major purchases, or think you might buy some major art, call your credit card company and tell them where you plan to be. There's usually an 800 customer service number on the card. Give the dates you're planning to be overseas, and the countries you're planning to visit.

If you forget to call, it may help to make a few small charges in your normal ranges, say a night or two in a hotel, before making a major purchase. My Master Card representative said it wouldn't have made a difference in the fraud department's monitoring of the card, but yours may be different.

Postscript

When we got home there were two messages from the two credit card companies Martha had tried to use. One of them had a very dangerous system for "helping" the customer.

When Martha replied to the message, the mechanical voice on the other end said something like, "Was it really you who tried to use your credit card to make a purchase in Sarzana, Italy? When she answered "yes" the mechanical voice rang back with an ominous, "Thank you, purchase authorized."

Yipes! That meant, of course, that the purchase was now paid for twice. And a representative of the company said there was nothing we could do but wait until the charge went through and dispute it. What a system! It didn't allow for the fact that the honest answer, three weeks after a transaction was rejected, might cause the monumental problem of paying for a large purchase twice.

So be aware, and call your credit card company before you go. By the way, an informant told me the same thing happens to people from the UK when trying to make large purchases in Italy, so it's not just us non-Europeans who suffer this magnitude of rejection.

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