With free lodging, many things already paid for and a credit card that doesn’t have foreign transaction fees, our vacation to Europe in July didn’t require having much cash on hand. Still, it’s smart to always have some local currency in your pocket when traveling, and a local ATM is the best way to get it.
Or so I thought.
ATM fees added up during our trip to nearly $200, mainly because I erred in figuring out which banks in Europe had a relationship with our bank in the U.S. That’s not a ton of money lost in fees, but it’s annoying because I thought I could get away without paying much in ATM fees.
ATM fees added up
Before getting into the ways I learned to get around ATM fees — beyond just using a no-transaction fee credit card during the entire trip — it’s worth quickly explaining how they work. There are different charges by different parties when you use an ATM:
- Your U.S. bank will charge a flat fee of $5 or so each time you use a foreign bank’s ATM. This can be avoided by using a partner bank.
- The foreign bank will charge a percentage fee on the amount withdrawn. I was charged from 3-8% in transaction fees, though when using a bank affiliated with my U.S. bank, the fee was 3%.
- The foreign ATM sometimes charged a $5 fee also.
- A $5 fee was also charged when using my U.S. debit card at a grocery store.
Starting at Bank of America
Months before our trip, I sat down with someone at a local Bank of America branch and asked for a list of ATMs in France, Belgium and the Netherlands that BoA had partnerships with so I could avoid ATM fees. My first sign that something was wrong was when she told me she didn’t know Belgium was a country.
She gave me a list of BoA partners in Europe, but it only listed a bank called BNP Paribas that’s based in France. Without knowing where to check, she assured me that it should have ATMs in Belgium and the Netherlands, too.
Not true. While BNP Paribas has plenty of ATMs in France, it’s not so widespread elsewhere. As a security guard at a BNP Paribas investment center in Amsterdam told me (which I had mistaken for a bank), the Netherlands doesn’t have such a great relationship with the French and doesn’t allow its banks there.
I was charged the low 3% transaction fee by BNP Paribas in France, but at two of its ATMs in Belgium, the fee rose to 8%. Bank of America also added its $5 fee outside of France.
The only good news here is that through a BoA app on my phone, I could see the bank fees adding up each day. So at least I quickly knew how much each ATM move was costing me, giving me time to try to figure out something else.
I had few options. The one that I thought would work — using a BNP Paribas-affiliated bank outside of France — didn’t work.
I also tried using our debit card for cash back at a grocery store a few times, but was charged a $5 fee, along with the exchange rate that made paying in U.S. dollars more expensive than I thought it would be.
Our best solution was to use our credit card as much as possible because it didn’t have a foreign transaction fee. So unless the merchant charged extra for using a credit card — which no one did, thankfully — then we paid no extra fees with a credit card. The exchange rate through the credit card seemed fair, and changed daily.
Before leaving for Europe, I bought about 600 Euros from Bank of America — a process that was relatively pain-free except for the lousy exchange rate it gave me. But it helped us have some cash when we landed in Paris so that we didn’t have to hunt for an ATM or pay a high exchange rate at the airport upon arrival.
During our month-long trip we used an ATM about once a week to take out enough cash for small, daily transactions. Cash was easier to deal with in small restaurants, and especially when spending €2 or so on a bottle of water or something. Paying the ATM fees was mostly worthwhile to get some carrying-around money.
Another solution that I didn’t do but may try next time we go on vacation is to do a cash exchange with the family we’re exchanging homes with. As I’ve written before, we took this trip mainly because we did a home exchange with a family in the Netherlands.
If I would have left $2,000 or so in U.S. cash in our house, and they would have left the equivalent in Euros in their house for us, then we would have had a fee-free cash exchange.
None of these solutions completely get around using ATMs in Europe. Avoiding a $5 BoA fee for using an ATM affiliated with a partner is a good start, but still requires paying at least a 3% fee for each withdrawal. Using a credit card often also helped save us some money, and having some Euros on us when our plane landed in Europe got the trip off to a good start.
What will I do next time I’m in Europe and need to use an ATM? I’ll probably walk away and use my credit card at wherever I’m shopping.