Editorial Policy

Credit Card Hiccups I Ran Into Traveling Abroad

Kristin McGrath

May 31, 2013

I just got returned from a trip to Germany. As I wrote a couple months ago, my plans to get a prepaid card to take with me were thwarted — so I planned on using cash for everyday expenses and a card for the bigger stuff (and emergencies) if necessary. Germany is, for the most part, still a cash-based society, so my boyfriend (and traveling companion) and I were prepared to live nearly plastic-free for a week.

Overall, it was smooth sailing — and spending. We had plenty of money for beer while there and for chocolate to take home. We did, however, run into a few relatively tiny card-related snags:

Kiosks at train stations: Because we were spending nearly a week in Berlin, we opted for a seven-day transit pass, which gave us unlimited access to the city’s mass-transit system. Because we were trying to save our precious cash, I intended to buy our passes (26 euros each) with a credit card.

When I got to the underground station near our hostel, however, I found that the kiosk accepted only chip-and-PIN cards, the type of bank card used throughout Europe. It wanted nothing to do with my U.S.-issued magnetic-stripe card. The station was one of the underground system’s smaller ones, so there was no manned ticket booth. Plus, while I had enough cash on me, the kiosk accepted nothing above a 10 euro bill. I had nothing smaller than a 20 euro bill. So I walked the half mile back to the hostel and asked for change at the front desk.

I’m not the only traveler to run into this issue. Jesse Emspak wrote about a similar occurrence in Amsterdam for Discovery News. He learned, as I did, that the Visa and MasterCard logos on the side of a machine don’t always mean your Visa or MasterCard is welcome.

It’s not easy to use credit cards at hostels: We pre-paid our longest (six-night) hostel stay in Berlin. But we stayed in two other hostels for one night each. To conserve our cash, we decided to try using my credit card to pay for our accommodations. The first hostel, in a small town, did not take credit cards, which is common in smaller establishments, according to The New York Times’ Frugal Traveler blog. At the second hostel (where we stayed at the end of our trip), credit cards were welcome — in exchange for a 5 euro fee. We were low on cash by that point, so we surrendered the 5 euros.

Lack of ATMs: My bank partners with Deutsche Bank, meaning I get free ATM withdrawals from any of that bank’s ATMs. We carefully mapped out all of the bank’s locations in the cities we’d be visiting. After finding a Deutsche Bank ATM without a hitch in the center of the first small town we visited, we figured finding others in the two larger cities we’d be in would be no problem. My boyfriend suggested withdrawing extra money at that first ATM we found, but I was uncomfortable with carrying too much cash. That backfired.

We did not see a single Deutsche Bank ATM during the rest of the trip, until, ironically, we reached the airport to go home. Turns out, those Deutsche Bank locations we’d mapped out were bank locations — and not all banks have ATMs. We managed to find one with ATMs (after walking nearly a mile out of our way), only to get there after 5 p.m. The ATMs were locked inside the building.

With our vacation time limited, we decided hunting for free ATMs wasn’t the best use of our time. So we decided to flex our frugal muscles instead and rationed our remaining funds. In a real emergency, we could have pulled out money from one of the many ATMs owned by other banks. Those ATMs, however, would cost 1 percent of the amount withdrawn, a $5 out-of-network fee charged by my bank and a fee of 3 to 5 euros from the ATM itself. I found that cost a bit hard to justify.

During our last two days, we did run low on cash. Luckily, our hostel offered free breakfast and dinner — a welcome surprise that left the staff wondering why we were so excited about spaghetti. We ended our trip with 15 euros to spare.

Fortunately, none of these problems derailed our vacation. We were lucky we didn’t encounter any major, vacation-ruining problems, such as getting caught with no cash and having our cards stolen. If you’re planning on leaving the country with your card, check out this advice on traveling with plastic from around the blogosphere:

Money Under 30 warns about several inconveniences and risks the come with using cards overseas — from being charged extra to exceeding your credit limit.

20s Money points out some of the advantages of taking a card abroad.

Life then Finance lists some of the fees that come with swiping your card in foreign lands.

Nomadic Matt has some tips and tricks that will save you money (or even earn you money) while traveling, from playing with the exchange rate to hunting down free ATMs.