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Euro chomp

August 19, 2007|Catharine Hamm

Question: In Europe, when is it more economical to get euros at an ATM by using a credit card or a debit card? Which credit-card companies or debit cards give the best exchange rate (from dollars to euros) and/or the best transaction fee?

Orrin Turbow


Answer: These days, we don't often hear "economical" and "euro" in the same sentence. When the euro came into broad use in January 2002, the conversion was easy: If I gave a Spaniard $100, he would give me about 100 euros. But since then, the dollar has taken a beating. Now I give him $100, and he gives me a sympathetic look and about 74 euros.

What makes the pain more acute are currency conversion rates that are tacked on to most credit-card (as much as 3%) and ATM transactions (sometimes a fee as much as $5 by your home bank and sometimes another fee by the foreign bank or sometimes a percentage of your cash withdrawn).

You can't escape the fiscal whipping by converting U.S. dollars when you arrive at your destination or by using traveler's checks; they often carry fees, and the exchange rate may not be as advantageous. But don't cancel the trip to Paris just yet.

A handful of credit and debit cards don't ding you for using them. Check out www Before you apply, make sure you check with the card company because the rules can change as fast as an airfare.

Whatever way you go, here are some rules of thumb:

Consider taking several financial tools. To decide which one to use when, consider their strengths and protections: Credit cards will generally shield you from fraud. A debit card gives you ready access to cash. Traveler's checks generally can be replaced, and plain old U.S. dollars sometimes open doors for you in the most unexpected places.

So free yourself from the tyranny of the "or": "Either I'm taking $6,000 in traveler's checks or I'm using a credit card." Maybe your credit card (wisely chosen from the no-fee list) is your main tool, but you've also tucked a few traveler's checks in your bag and maybe a few U.S. singles and maybe you stop at an ATM at your destination to get some cash for a cab.

Be careful where you transact business. Choose the wrong place to use your ATM card, and you can say "auf Wiedersehen" to your checking account balance. Go to a reputable financial institution. And beware: Some places use "sliders" for credit-card transactions; make sure the carbons are destroyed and your info stays in your hands.

Stick to a budget, but don't be a dope about it. If you see something that speaks to your heart, go for it, based on the theory that you regret only the things you don't buy.

I like what Susan Black, the director of financial planning for, said in an interview: "It's certainly a luxury to travel abroad. . . . When I get a mental break, those are the times I think about, the times I was overseas and the experiences I had. It helps build your character."

In the end, you need both your head and your heart to make the most of your finances -- and your travels.

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