Saturday, September 10, 2016

Paper or Plastic… Spending Money in Europe

Europeans tend to use cash for their day-to-day spending much more than the run-of-the-mill American does. In fact, most Europeans carry lots of cash in their pockets on a daily basis.  When it comes to paying for dinner, drinks, coffee, subway and bus tickets, newspapers, theatre tickets and the like, cash is king.  A recent article at PYMNTS.COM suggests that paying with cash in Europe is on the rise.  Last year, there was over 2.2 trillion in European cash transactions and that’s up from the 2015 record of 2.1 trillion.

From a cultural perspective, it makes sense for a traveler to blend in and adapt to the local customs, especially if you are looking for an authentic travel experience.  I am a firm believer in trying to “do it the way the locals do” so paying with cash makes perfect sense. If I wanted to “do it like we do back home”, I’d stay back home! 

I recall a wonderful lunch at a small roadside cafĂ© in rural France (you can read about this adventure herethat does not accept credit cards.  I’ve taken my groups to the place for years and get nothing but rave reviews for the food, ambience and atmosphere.  Had I skipped this place the first time because they did not accept plastic, I would have missed out on a wonderful dining experience and friendships that have lasted decades.   

How to get CASH so you can live like a local

Using your debit card from your local back home is still the best way to get cash while traveling in Europe.  There are ATM machines (often called Bankomats) everywhere and you treat them just like those in the United States.  Simply insert your card, type in your PIN code and choose the cash amount. The machine makes some noise and then spits out cash in the local currency.   

I have written a detailed article on the topic of acquiring local cash for your trip abroad.  In it I discuss everything from buying travelers checks and paper notes at home to charge cards and debit cards.  Be sure to read it before striking out on your next adventure

How to spend your cash like a local

Having a bit of the local cash in your pocket makes for an easier and sleeker travel experience because you’re not having to worry about where credit cards are accepted or when you might run across an ATM again. So the next time you walk into a bar for a coffee you’ll be able to slap down your coins, drink it and be on your way in no time.

Get to know the currency, both notes and coins.

Paper currency (notes) are very easy to identify and all European countries.  They all have a number in the corners denoting the value of the note.  To make it even easier, European notes are different sizes and different colors for each denomination.  A €50 note is larger than a €5 note in addition to being a different color.  This holds true no matter whether you’re spending UK sterling, EU euro or any other currency.  Other than it looking like Monopoly money, you should have no trouble working with paper currency.

I like to carry a daily supply of banknotes in my front pocket, secured with a money clip.   Each morning I take inventory of my banknotes and load up with what I think I might need to spend during the day.

The remainder of my stash of cash (and passport and credit cards) goes in my money belt tucked neatly and safely inside my pants.  Now of course I know this is not living like a local but it does give a peace of mind knowing that in unfamiliar circumstances, I don’t have to worry about my important stuff being taken from me.

You’ll use a lot more coins in Europe than you do here at home. It’s a good idea to do a little homework before your trip and study up on the different coin denominations, colors and sizes.  Here are some hints:

I like to lay all the coins out and do a mental and physical quiz each time I arrive in a new country.

Here is how I begin this quiz in the European Union.

Here is how I begin this quiz in the United Kingdom.

I like to use two pockets to sort out my coins; one for small coins under €1/£1 and another for large coin over €1/£1.

Before going into a shop, I take inventory of the coins in my pocket so when the merchant gives me the total, I’ll know if I have enough coins to make the purchase or need to pay will bank notes.
Gone unchecked, coins can be overwhelming.  It is a good idea to use many coins as you can on a daily basis.  

After you trip, spend or cash in the coins before leaving the airport.  Since many European coins are high-value, it can be expensive flying home with a pocket full of change.  Before heading home, spend them, trade them in or give them away.

Plastic Credit Cards 

Europeans don’t make a distinction between credit cards and debit cards. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever had anyone ask “debit or credit”. I tend to use my plastic (credit card) for larger purchases such as hotel bills, airline tickets, car rental and other big ticket items.  It makes perfect sense to use a credit card for online and telephone purchases.  Credit cards also come in handy for purchases at unattended self-service machines in train and bus stations and at those unmanned European gas stations. Unfortunately, you’ll most likely need a chip-and-pin card for these.  See my chip-and-pin card article for more information.

 American credit cards work throughout Europe and are widely accepted at major hotels, stores and attractions, especially in tourist-oriented areas.   In smaller towns and mom-and-pop operations credit cards may not be accepted because the merchant must pay the credit card company a hefty fee for the “privilege” of accepting credit cards.  Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted.   The American Express card, although a well-known name in the travel industry, is less widely accepted due to the higher transaction fees the merchants must pay American Express.

Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) is a service offered to credit cardholders that offers to convert a foreign transaction at the point of sale into the home currency of the cardholder.  This is never a good idea for the consumer because it comes with inflated exchange rates that benefit the merchant.  An unsuspecting cardholder can lose up to 7% by opting in to this feature. Since DCC works against the purchaser, never say you would like your purchases to be converted to dollars. (read more about this in my article: Dynamic Currency Conversion: Just Say No!).

Finally, remember that plastic often places barriers between you and an authentic down-to-earth travel experience.  A small B&B or family-owned restaurant may only accept cash. I was recently in Croatia and many merchants did not accept or highly discouraged credit cards. It was only at American hotels, such as Hilton or Radisson, that credit cards were accepted in the way in which we are accustomed. 


In this article I explained that Europeans use paper a lot more than they do plastic for their day-to-day purchases.  Tourist who want to fit in and immerse themselves in a cultural travel experience should adapt to the local customs and use the local currency, but first they have to get some. Using a debit card at an ATM machine is the cheapest and quickest way to acquire local funds.  Finally, I suggested several ways to spend your cash like a local.

If you found this article informative, please share it with your friends, family, coworkers and associates. If you have something to add, just leave a comment in the box below.

Do you want to learn more about traveling to Europe? There is a wealth of information and special discount pricing on my tours at

David McGuffin is Founder and CEO of David McGuffin’s Exploring Europe, Inc., based in Middleburg, Florida. You can connect with him on  Twitter,  Facebook,  Google+,  LinkedIn and YouTube. David spends his time in Europe organizing and leading small group and independent tours to European destinations. In business since 2001, David has provided exceptional travel opportunities to several thousand satisfied customers. You can find out more about David and his European tours at his website,


  1. If you don't want to come off as the ugly American, it makes sense (or is it pence?) to learn the local customs when traveling abroad. Of course, it also halps to have a tour guide who knows the ropes to keep we Americans from coming off as uncultured. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge.

  2. Its interesting how different we are in America from our Europeans counterparts. I guess the big pond is more than just lots of water separating us.

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