03 July 2011

LIFE: Easy Money

SARONNO, Italy - A little more than a year ago, when my best friend was planning her first trip to Italy, her advisor at the local Triple A office tried to sell her travelers checks. “Not a good idea,” I said. “Nobody uses traveler’s checks any more, I don’t even think the banks know what they are.”
 Euros come in all colors and sizes
So she went back to Triple A and told her trip advisor what I had said. The trip advisor then tried to sell her a “euro” pack. A fixed amount of euros, I don’t remember the exact value, at a truly terrible exchange rate with an added Triple A service charge.  When I told her not to buy it, my friend started to suspect my advice.  
 Unicredit is one of Italy's largest banks

I find it hard to believe that U.S. travel agents, Triple A included, don’t know that you can use ATM cards, or a debit or credit cards in Italy to get cash as easily as you can in your own neighborhood, but maybe they don’t.  In my opinion, they are in the business of making money, selling travelers checks and euro packs earns them a nice profit. There isn’t even a language barrier as the international ATM machines have the capability to provide instructions in English. 

It’s easy. You simply put in your American bank card, punch in your password, choose how many euros you want,  and out they come. The only charge, and this is true for Italian banks, is the fee charged by the American bank you are accessing. There is no charge for the service on the Italian side.  It’s that easy, or as my friend Gary says, it’s too easy. Just don’t ask for an ATM machine, especially in Milan where ATM is the public transportation system. You get money from the Bancomat.   
Bancomat at Intesa/San Paolo Bank
Apparently Triple A isn’t the only one who doesn’t know this. A recent article in the NY Times on using American credit cards in Europe prompted a bevy of responses from readers recounting their bad experiences. http://travel.nytimes.com/2011/07/03/travel/credit-card-problems-abroad-readers-respond.html?hpw Some complained about their cards not working at toll booths and ticket machines in the train stations, while others encountered “technological glitches” outside of the major metropolitan areas. 

There were as many suggested solutions as there were problems, including one man who went through the trouble of opening a bank account in Italy so he would have cash on hand when he traveled here. The truth is, there is no need to go through all that trouble for there is a very, and I mean very, simple solution.
 Swiss franc
I don’t use my American card to pay for purchases very often so my experience in that area is somewhat limited, but earlier this year when I was buying my daughter a new winter coat the clerk asked me if I wanted the transaction in dollars or euros. It might have been because we were in Milan and the store was Max Mara, but that was the first time I had that experience in Italy. When she gave me the receipt it showed the total amount spent in dollars and euros. There was a time when I only saw double currency receipts like that in Switzerland.   
Switzerland’s currency is the Swiss franc and they, like England where they still use pounds and pence, never switched to euros. Most of the time the exchange rate between Swiss francs and euros is favorable and with the retail exchange rates competitive with currency exchange facilities, I don’t bother changing money at the train station any more. It’s easier to just pay for my purchases in euros. The only drawback is that your change is in Swiss francs. To avoid coming home with a pocket full of heavy Swiss coins, I carry low denomination euros, nothing over 50 euro bills.  
Shopping in nearby Lugano
You have to give it to the Swiss, they are so accommodating they will even let you use both euros and Swiss francs for the same transaction if you want. It makes no difference to them and all the cash registers show the amount of purchase in both currencies. It’s one of the reasons why I love them. They understand money is money, no matter what color it is. Unfortunately it makes spending it a whole lot easier.

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