Europe travel guide: money and currency


How to get the best cash rates, which ATMs and cards to use, and why the Euro will get you further in some countries than others.


Which countries use the euro?

Not all countries in Europe use the euro - in fact not all countries in the European Union use it. The euro is legal tender in 19 out of the 28 EU countries: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain.

Some non-EU countries and territories also use the euro in agreement with the EU. These include: Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, Vatican City, Kosovo and Montenegro.

All other countries in Europe use their own currencies.

What's a euro worth?

The euro doesn't necessarily have the same buying power wherever you go. Prices still fluctuate between euro countries. For example, €10 will get you a lot further in Slovakia or Greece than it will in Finland or Austria, where the cost of living is much higher.

What's the best way to spend Australian dollars in Europe?

You'll probably get the best exchange rate in Europe simply by withdrawing money from an ATM. Banks tend to have better exchange rates than money changers, and in EU countries those rates are regulated.

Important: Tell your bank about your travel plans two weeks before you leave. Card activity in a foreign country could be mistaken for fraud and you could find your account frozen.

ATMs

ATMs are widely available in Europe and almost all will accept foreign cards and offer instructions in English.

  • Look for official bank ATMs and try to avoid cash machines labelled Travelex, Euronet, Moneybox, Cardpoint, and Cashzone. These independent ATMs have higher fees and can offer up a confusing choice of conversion options which could cost you more.
  • If an ATM offers you the choice of paying in Australian dollars or local currency, always choose the local currency. Likewise, if asked to "lock in" or "guarantee" your conversion rate, choose "proceed without conversion".
  • Don't use your credit card to withdraw cash. It'll be treated as a cash advance and you'll be charged high fees.
  • ATMs aren't called ATMs in Europe. Ask for a "distributeur" in France, a "cashpoint" in the UK and Ireland, and a "bankomat" almost everywhere else.
  • As well as the foreign bank's fees, your Australian bank will charge you a withdrawal fee and a foreign transaction fee. If your bank's withdrawal fee is a set amount, rather than a percentage of the withdrawal amount, it's more cost-effective for you to withdraw large amounts of money at a time.
  • Westpac customers can avoid withdrawal fees by using Global ATM Alliance partner banks (a 3% foreign transaction fee still applies):
    • Barclay's Bank in the UK, Portugal and Gibraltar
    • Deutsche Bank in Germany, Spain and Poland
    • BNP Paribas in France and Italy

Credit cards

MasterCard and Visa are widely accepted in Europe, American Express is less common.

  • Always have some cash spare, as credit cards may not be accepted in smaller shops, taxis and in rural areas.
  • Remember you'll be charged a foreign transaction fee by your bank when paying with a credit card, and the vendor may add a surcharge too.
  • Credit card surcharges are banned in EU countries, but some vendors may 'reinvent' those extra charges as 'booking' or 'service' fees.
  • Talk to your bank about the best card to use overseas - some offer credit cards for travellers with no, or low, fees.

Money changers

You'll find money exchange counters such as Forex or Travelex at airports and in most tourist areas, hotels, banks and some post offices.

  • You'll generally get a better exchange rate at banks and ATMs than with money changers.
  • You're unlikely to get a good rate changing cash before you leave Australia, but if it makes you feel safer to have a few euros (or pounds, krone etc.) in your pocket when you land, go ahead. Otherwise, the airport ATMs are usually your best bet.

Travellers' cheques

Travellers' cheques aren't as popular as they used to be. They're becoming harder and harder to cash, and the fees are often much higher than for using credit or debit cards. If you like to use travellers' cheques for the money security, consider a travel money card or cash passport. They can be pre-loaded with foreign currencies, cancelled at any time if lost, and used just like a credit or debit card (although the fees may be higher).

Tip: Carry at least two cards and more than one currency (euros, pounds etc). Split your money and cards between separate bags. That way if you lose one, you have a back-up.

Have you bought insurance yet? Check our free, comprehensive and independent travel insurance reviews to find out which policy is best for you.

VAT

VAT (value-added tax) applies to goods and services in most European countries. This tax should be included in the advertised price. Foreign tourists can reclaim the tax paid on some goods, depending on the country and the circumstances. You'll usually need to shop in specific stores that can give you the right paperwork (look for signs reading 'Tax Free'), then use the paperwork to apply for a refund at the airport.

Tipping

Tipping practices vary from country to country. Generally a tip at a hotel or restaurant is appreciated, but not compulsory. It's best to tip in cash rather than as an add-on to your credit payment - that way the server is sure to receive it.

For more advice on overseas spending, see our travel money guide.

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