Are there any places in the UK where one still can't pay with a card / contactless? Restaurants, campsites, etc.? Is it a good idea to bring / withdraw a few GBP just to be on the safe side, or is it completely unnecessary? I've got an EUR bank account with a Mastercard debit card. My bank doesn't charge extra fees for non-EUR card transactions (other than cash withdrawals, which cost €5 flat).
I live in the UK, and don't use cash very often any more, but wouldn't be without it.
Twice in the last few weeks I've been to takeaway food places that were cash only. One was across the road from a cash machine/ATM but the other wasn't - and the former would have made for some very expensive chips, with a €5 fee for cash. In both cases, they were the last places open without a detour, while cycling, so just choosing somewhere else wasn't realistic (in one case it would have meant a hungry night in the middle of a 600km ride).
Similarly on long rides (that's mainly how I travel these days) I've often stopped at village hall cake sales - more interesting than a coffee shop, but cash only.
Some convenience stores and small shops still have a minimum card spend, which isn't handy if you only want a drink. This includes things like ice creams at campsite reception, when they otherwise like cards.
When going to the beach, cheap privately-run seasonal car parks are often cash only. They may lack enough signal or just not have invested in mobile payment terminals. This is often the sort of place with no ATM nearby. In general, if there are limited options to get dinner, and you really don't want to carry cash, you should probably book somewhere in advance to be sure of getting in at a place that takes cards (the vast majority of pubs and restaurants do, so this is about capacity and opening hours).
Contactless payment terminals are becoming much more realistic for small businesses, even market stalls, to the extent that a coffee stand that was cash-only before covid is now card-only.
As vending machines are still often coin-only (though newer ones take cards), it can be worth carrying coins if you think you might want to use them.
If you don't have a backup card, ideally with another bank, travelling abroad and relying on contactless does put you at the mercy of tripping an automated block on your card - or even cards if they're from the same bank, including joint cards with a partner.
I visited Orkney a while ago, admittedtly a very rural part of the UK, and was in a few situations where I had to pay cash. I don't remember exactly where, but I believe the Italian Chapel was one place, where the entrance fee could only be paid with cash and I had at least one situation in Kirkwall, where a shop usually was accepting cards, but the card service was currently out of order.
Since you especially mention camp sites, that would be a kind of location where I would not 100% rely on card payments.
In my recent travels to England, (I have not been in the other parts of the UK in those trips) I could pay with cards or contactless at all places but one hotel. An other hotel had connection problems on check-in but preferred bank payment later over cash at arrival.
I would still not travel without a few pounds in cash, as connection problems do occur at random times, also when you can not wait till they are sorted.
I have, also before covid, had travel to England in which I did not use cash at all. But I have been in too many situations where cash made life easier.
Just like at home, I can go months without getting cash but then I have a few things to buy where only coins will work like a fending machine which is a bit older, a roadside fruit selling spot, or where all cash is accepted, like the odd market trader who does not do cards or even a butchers or a bike shop only accepting cash.
When I was in London (might not be representative of the whole of UK) a couple of weeks ago, I didn't use any of the cash I had brought (as @Willeke says in her answer, it's good to have), and I even visited one restaurant where the staff told me they only accepted cards (I saw some shops had signs to the same effect).
Now that my UK trip is over, I can add my own anecdotal story. TL;DR: I didn't have any GBP cash on me at any point in time, except for some small coins that my children found and which we took home as souvenirs.
Longer version: I didn't really plan to go cashless, having read all the advice from more experienced travellers and UK residents. However, I kept asking myself every day "Do I need cash for today and tomorrow?" and each time the answer was negative.
We stayed several nights at a campsite near Dover that accepts online card payments. Then we stayed with friends which was of course for free. I researched all car parks in advance and they were all either cashless or free of charge. That is, except for one in Conwy, Wales, where I messed it up and entered a car park in a marina, which cost GBP 3, cash only. Since I had none, I drove away in search of another car park and found one in front of a school, free of carge, of course empty because it was August, and even closer to the town centre and to the Conwy Castle.
Another cash-only situation was a woman selling balloons on a London street. However, the fact that I had no GBP cash was a great excuse that even my children could understand.
Restaurants, supermarkets and petrol stations of course all accepted cards. The only minor inconvenience I encountered was that contactless card payments didn't work above certain threshold. In my home country, if the amount is €50 or less, a PIN is not needed for a contactless payment; if the amount is higher, one needs to enter PIN as well. In the UK, my contactless transactions above a certain amount were simply rejected and I had to stick the card into the reader and enter the PIN, something I haven't done for ages. Not sure how that would work with an NFC payment by smartphone, since I don't use that.
Again, I'd like to stress out that this is just anecdotal and I don't advise anyone to travel around the UK with no GBP cash. It's just something I did, without actually intending it. Maybe if we visited some really remote places like the Scottish Highlands or even some outlying islands, having no cash might have been an issue. The remotest place we visited was the Snowdonia National Park and there we encountered no issues.
On the way back home when we stopped at a local bakery in rural Germany that only accepted cash, it reminded me that the UK is really much more cashless than most other European countries.
I agree that the use of cash has declined dramatically in the UK in the past few years but I find that there are still occasions when you need it.
Donations in churches or museums spring to mind. Many just have a donations tin by the door. Paying for car parking often requires coins in some locations. And tipping. In some restaurants if you pay the tip by credit card (as part of the whole bill) the staff don’t always get it, or at least they don’t get as much. Whereas if you tip them in cash. It’s more likely to go where you want it to go. (So some waiters have told me).
One thing that may be worth not overlooking... public loos (bathrooms).
It did seem between different trips in 2015, 2019, and 2022 that there has been a marked decline in the number of places that charge (especially after covid??). But there still were some, even at one or two medium sized transport locations, parks, and in big cities (TFL for instance has a neat link list of borough by borough sublistings, and some still show as pay).
More definitely take cards or services like Google Pay than in the past, but there are still some that don't.
So a small bit of money can help add a little flexibility, especially when traveling a lot in thrifty ways.
I should put this in as an actual answer, rather than just in comments…
To be safe, you need two physical cards, duplicated to your phone if you can, on two payment methods [VISA/Mastercard etc. Amex is not popular in the UK & you might struggle to use it at all] and £20 - £50 in notes, plus a fiver in coins, for just in case.
The recommendation for duplicating onto your phone, ApplePay etc, is because of the high 'zero check' limit on NFC card payments. Some places it's only £40 but others it's £100 on just a tap, no PIN or any ID check required. That means your card is worth a lot if stolen, whereas your phone is no good without your PIN/fingerprint/face.
Your cards/phone must be capable of NFC, as well as chip & PIN - ATMs, of course, are all chip & PIN. Signature went out 20 years ago & no-one will be able to handle that any more.
London buses, for instance, have no way to pay by cash or regular card on board. It must be NFC. You can buy a pre-paid, auto top-up tourist Oyster card online or from train/tube stations to get round this requirement.
In bigger towns/cities you will find many places, pubs, bars, cafes etc have gone card only since covid. Even the homeless guys on London streets selling the Big Issue magazine have NFC readers these days.
In London I only take my phone with me, but I keep a spare 20 rolled up in a tiny metal case on my keyring, for just in case. [I also have a pound-sized bit of metal for supermarket trolleys on my keyring.] Out in the sticks, I'd have physical cards & more cash as well, possibly up to £100 if I was going to less densely-populated areas. In a large city, you're rarely more than 400 yards from an ATM, but out in the wilds there may not even be one in each village.
As already noted elsewhere, right out in the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands, you may be outside phone reception, & relying on finding some wifi to get your ApplePay working is risky.
[Comments note this may not be such a difficulty. ApplePay apparently works without a phone/net connection.]
Car parks have been covered elsewhere, but just to note, the entire car park system in the UK is a nightmare. Some only take cash; some only NFC, some you need an app or make a phone call to an automated system & give the non-human clerk your card details. Many times you will only find out which when you get there. Systems are being updated constantly & one that was cash last year could be pay-by-app this year. Google Maps isn't keeping up.
I have travelled extensively, including in the UK, and my personal experience is that you should always keep two small cash reserves separate from your credit and debit cards.
One for discretionary spending, such as with street vendors, and for use in situations when you might not want to be seen taking your cards out (A couple of notes in a back pocket, for example), and one in case your cards are stolen.
My experience of the UK is that almost everywhere prefers cards. Visa is the favorite. American Express and equivalents are widely accepted, but not always. This holds true just about everywhere from Taxi and market stands to big tourist destinations.
Some places accept Applepay, some accept Paypal, few accept crypto.
Almost everywhere accepts cash still.
Regardless of how many shops do or do not have a credit card reader, the one thing that you do NOT want to happen in general, and abroad especially, is to find yourself without any mean to pay.
This means that you should be looking for redundancies to cover for extraordinary events:
- Multiple cards, from multiple providers:
- A card can get blocked, or you can trigger the spending threshold.
- Not all providers are accepted everywhere.
- There may no available card reader:
- There's always a few folks who resist credit card; I got to jump the taxi queue once because nobody before me had cash on hand and the driver didn't accept cards.
- A shop near me underwent some renovations for a week, a few times in the morning as they were moving tills they could not accept cards as they were not connected.
- Card readers fail.
For all those reasons, I recommend traveling with at least two cards (Visa & Mastercard are great in Europe) and a few hundred dollars/euros in cash, though perhaps not all in one place, and not all in your person.
And do remember to check what your spending limit/cash withdrawal limit abroad is with your bank, and possibly give them a heads up about your travel plans so they pre-clear your cards and/or raise the limits.
Tour Guides or Tipping
- Cash best
- Splitting payment with 'new' or old friends (easier than card/bank transfer, we don't have Venmo equilivent)
Cash for Parking is helpful
- There are ways to pay by phone but not sure how using your euro card and providing your address via a phone call (though I think EU to UK has free roaming but I'm not sure)
Check your mobile roaming provider/Cash useful if in rural area with no mobile signal
Rural areas don't have great mobile coverage, so a physical card may be best not just one on your phone.
Aka mobile apps won't work if no mobile signal
See: @Dave Gremlin comment above: "In the Lake District there are a lot of cash-only places due to a lack of broadband/mobile connectivity (they don't allow mobile masts just anywhere in a National Park), I've had the same issue in the Highlands and Islands in Scotland."
This is the mobile coverage checker, if you know which network your mobile provider will use. https://checker.ofcom.org.uk/en-gb/mobile-coverage
- Need 1 pound coins or adaptor (For 1 trip, having some change might be worth it. This avoids buying an adaptor unless the UK and EU use the same one which is unlikely...) As mentioned by @Tetsujin
- Trolley Adaptor: @davidbak This is one example: https://www.tesco.com/groceries/en-GB/products/306350899 Keep It Handy Trolley/Locker Coin Though 1 review states: "considering Tesco sell these trolly coins you'd think they'd fit in every single Tesco trolly...but they don't...they only fit in some."