Experienced travelers find that ATM cards are the best way to deal with getting money in Europe. In general, getting cash from an ATM machine is cheaper than getting it from travelers checks (and much faster), and is usually cheaper than charging your small purchases on a credit card.
You can (and should) get information on what your ATM card charges for foreign monetary transactions from your bank right before you go. Charges to look for: foreign exchange fee (usually expressed in %) and charges for "foreign" ATM use (a per transaction charge for using an ATM not associated with the bank). You should also find out and write down phone numbers for contacting your bank from outside the US.
But don't get hung up on "No Foreign Transaction Fees!" Banks often make it up on exchange rates. There's a lot of ways to squeeze money out of you, and Banks have thought of them all.
Here's a little hint as well: Banks often impose higher rates for foreign currency transactions over weekends when the banks are closed, hedging against monetary movement by events occurring over the tree days until markets open on Monday. So you might want to save a few cents by not getting money on Fridays.
Banks change these charges frequently, so double check with the bank before applying for any of the cards we might recommend.
Since numbers are available, why test cards under real-world conditions? Well, some nasty surprises concerning "security" may just mangle your vacation plans. If we hadn't brought along many ATM cards to test, some questionable "security" procedures in the US would have brought our vacation to a total halt.
Four US ATM Cards were tested in Italy in 2007, where there was a 250€ limit on daily withdrawals. Below are the comparisons, with the highest recommended ATM cards on top. Note that all the cards listed here exchange at rates close to the interbank/wholesale exchange rates published in newspapers. The information is a little dated, so check before you take the plunge.
Everbank is on online-only bank rated "best of the web" by Forbes and "Best Checking Account" by Kiplinger's. Operation of the card in Italy was flawless. Everbank charges a low 1% international service fee, and we never incurred a foreign ATM charge. All this from a free checking account that pays a bonus 6.01% interest for the first three months, and a rate that varies with account balance after 3 months (check website). Highly recommended.
World Savings Free Checking ATM card should have been as good as Everbank's. In terms of charges, it was better. We were charged a 1% foreign service fee and didn't incur foreign ATM charges, but were refunded $2 for each foreign ATM transaction anyway (World Savings automatically rebates $2 for AMT transactions up to 3 times per month). But security was the issue.
Before we left for our trip, we were told by tellers of the bank that we didn't have to notify anyone in advance of the use of the card in Italy. Yet, after the third use of the card the bank evidently telephoned our number in California and tried to leave a message asking if we were using the card in Italy. Of course, since we had turned the machine off before our 2 month trip, we didn't know what was going on until we could no longer withdraw money using the card and emailed the bank to ask why.
It is quite illogical for a bank to call your number in the US to request authorization for the current use of an ATM card in Europe. After all, there is no way to receive an affirmative reply--if you're in Italy you probably aren't answering your phone in the US. So they stopped the card. Once we figured out how to contact them via phone (World Savings doesn't have a special number for calls outside the US, and doesn't discuss security issues over email), everything was straightened out and the card has been working fine since.
But the disaster didn't just end there. The whole account had been locked. Automatic payments we had been making for months without question were terminated without our authorization. Things were a mess for a while.
This Wells Fargo PMA account requires $25,000 minimum investment, but your IRA counts toward this minimum. Wells Fargo assesses a $5 fee for ATM cash withdrawals made outside of the United States. The fee was more than the one percent fee on a 250 Euro withdrawal, the highest available withdrawal amount in Italy, but would be a good deal if you were exchanging a larger amount of money. (Note that regular Wells Fargo ATM cards add a 3% foreign currency conversion fee, which is waived with the PMA account.)
We got a Citibank account when Citibank did not charge foreign transaction fees at a Citibank ATM overseas. This is no longer the case, which is why you should try to contact a bank before you make a final decision on what ATM card to use in Europe. Current fees: There is a foreign exchange fee of 3% (waived for Citigold clients).
Before You Travel With an ATM Card in Europe
- Notify your bank via the 800 number on the back of your card that you'll be using your ATM card in Europe.
- Write down the foreign phone numbers to contact your bank in case of problems (800 numbers, as are reported in the back of your ATM card are seldom free in Europe).
- If you are depending on the ATM card for all your cash needs, make sure you have two of them, and that the PIN number is four digits, no more.
More Foreign Credit, Debit and ATM Card Resources
Bankrate offers a limited but frequently updated list of Currency Conversion Costs. Many folks are fans of Capital One's current low fees.
Bancomats - ATMs in Italy
For more on using your ATM in Italy, see Italy for Visitors: Using ATM Cards in Italy