Tuesday, February 08, 2005


I can remember the first time I came to Europe. It was 1985, and I had been waiting and saving and dreaming about going to England since 1964. I was lucky to be able to go with my good friend Beth who had been to England several times before. She knew how to catch the train and what area of town to stay in. She knew how to find a hotel room and what do to about money.

These were the days before the internet. The days when you had to mail a letter requesting hotel availability months in advance so that you would have time to receive a reply and send a deposit. Normally the deposit was paid with traveler’s checks…credit cards were not commonly accepted by the smaller places I stayed.

Although today many of the smaller hotels throughout Europe still don’t accept credit cards, this is becoming rarer. Of course most of those small places that do accept credit cards are more than happy to give a discount for payment in cash. Nevertheless, accessing money to pay for things during a vacation in Europe is much easier than it used to be.

I hate to start off sounding like some old woman reminiscing about the old days, because I’m only talking about twenty years ago, but there have been a lot of changes in those twenty years. Credit cards are accepted in many more places than they were twenty years ago, and ATM’s, or bancomats as they are called in Europe, have changed the way we get our cash.

For my first trip to England, it was necessary to have enough cash to pay for all of my lodging and 99% of my meals. I also needed cash for odds and ends, and for those places that didn’t accept credit cards. This meant I needed to have a pretty good idea of just how much cash was “enough”, and then go to the credit union or to AAA to get traveler’s checks. I could get them at the credit union or AAA for free, but normally there was a fee for these, so you didn’t want to get too many…and you certainly didn’t want to get too few and risk running out of cash in a foreign country.

As the years went by, traveler’s checks would change considerably. When I first started traveling, they were as good as cash, both in the states and in England. Exchanging traveler’s checks in dollars for British pounds required a trip to the bank or exchange office, but those places were easy to find. Later, banks would only exchange checks which had been issued by their bank, and if you had American Express traveler's checks, you had to find an American Express office.

Once American Express came out with traveler’s checks in foreign currencies, it was possible to buy them in British pounds and save the trip to convert the dollar checks into pounds. Most stores accepted these checks as cash, just as American Express advertised. This made things a lot simpler and saved time. Then things changed again.

At some point stores didn’t really want to accept traveler’s checks as cash. They looked at me suspiciously when I tried to use them, and some smaller stores wouldn’t take them at all. While traveling in Germany, I was charged a fee to use the checks, even though they were issued in German marks. It became clear that something would have to change.

Once the internet began taking over our lives, credit cards became more acceptable. I could find and book a room in London or Frankfurt or Florence with the click of a mouse and use my credit card to guarantee the room. Upon arrival I usually had the option to pay in cash and get a small discount. I could access my cash through a bancomat, at first by making cash advances from my credit card, and later by using a PIN number to withdraw cash from my checking account. As with credit cards, the exchange rate was good. Withdrawing cash this way meant that I didn’t have to worry about bringing enough cash for the whole vacation with me. I could simply withdraw as I went, and the bankomats were easy to find, even in the smallest of towns.

This is how we access our money now that we live in Italy. Art’s pension checks are automatically deposited in our U.S. bank account, and as we need cash to pay bills, we simply make a withdrawal from the local bancomat and deposit the money into our Italian account. To say that we get a good exchange rate is relative at this point. Yes, it IS a good exchange rate, considering that the dollar is so weak right now. Maybe I should say that the exchange rate is the best we could hope for under the circumstances.

Credit cards are accepted in many more places in Italy than they used to be. We understand that COOP, the large grocery chain, has only taken credit cards within the past few years, and Cristina tells us that the COOP in her area still doesn’t accept them.

The change to the euro has also helped the average European traveler. No longer is it necessary to have francs and marks and lira. No longer is there the worry that you’ll end up with $100 worth of francs just as you’re about to leave France. Trying to time the local currency to run out just as you crossed the border was never easy.

There are several more countries scheduled to make the switch to the euro in a few years. Eventually Britain will have to make the switch too. Switzerland may be the lone holdout in Europe, but maybe the pressure will get to them too.

I don’t foresee the world ever existing on a universal currency, but with the availability of bancomats and the increasing acceptance of credit cards, we should have the next best system. Now if only someone would do something to bring the dollar back to its former glory, our money would actually be worth getting! With the value of the dollar at $1.30 per euro, our house payment that was set up to be less than $500 per month is now just over $600. Or, to put it more simply, if we withdraw $2000 per month for living expenses, we receive about €1548! That extra $452 vanishes somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, never to be seen again! At least we don’t have to stand in line at the American Express office anymore!


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