I never use cash in the United States, paying for everything large and small with a credit card (they are universally accepted without fees for practically all purchases). Can I expect the same as a tourist in Denmark, Germany, and Iceland? How common is credit card use? Do all establishments accept Visa "chip and PIN" credit cards or do I need to carry the local currency in these countries for coffee shops, restaurants, attractions, shopping, transport, etc.? I'm concerned because I'm only in each country for a few days and all the use different currency. I've no need for ISK, DNK, or Euro currency after my trip, so using a card would be much easier.
I have been in Iceland, Denmark as well as Germany and usually pay with a mix of cash, bank card and credit card. I do not remember ever having been asked to pay in a different way in any of the countries unless there was a fault in the connection with their bank.
Iceland has card payments on almost everything, even the hotdog stand at the harbour and the smallest shops and coffee corners. But not all of Iceland has easy access to telephone connections and in those cases cards will not work.
Specially if you go off the #1 road, there may be problems with card acceptance. Here it depends on location, if you stay in Reykjavic and the areas that are covered by short tours from there, you will likely be OK without cash.
Denmark used to be less covered than Iceland when I was there last, but it might have more coverage now. In one of the other answers a local indicate that is can be 100% coverage now, at least as long as you select your locations.
Germany is less 100% covered in acceptance but more closely in telephone services, so it evens out. Most shops that deal with bigger amounts are happy to accept cards, but not all. In most towns and cities there will be ATM around the corner and even many villages have them, but you should still have some cash on you.
I mostly try to keep one days worth of cash with me at all times, like enough for the last hotel bill, so I have enough for any restaurant if they do not accept cards or their machine fails.
In all three countries shops prefer debit cards on the local bank system, can be foreign cards as well, due to the lower costs. Credit cards do have higher fees for companies. Sometimes they will ask the customer to pay the fee, other times they just do not accept them.
This can result in only some cards being accepted, but those companies working for the tourist trade will mostly accept credit cards.
Supermarkets are more likely not to accept credit cards as are small restaurants mostly used by locals.
Cards on the Visa and the Mastercard system with chip and pin have a very wide acceptance, other credit cards and debit card systems are less known or not known at all.
Cash or no cash at all?
I personally would never travel without cash, I would get enough out for the last night hotel bill and keep that as money for when the cards do not work.
As you are less wanting to hold cash, are there only for a few days and are likely to visit places that tourists use, you can have less cash or evey dare to travel with on cash at all, but in that case you will have to ask every place you want to spend money whether they accept your card before you commit. So in a restaurant before you sit down.
If you only carry one kind of money
In all three countries they use their own money but if you have some euro left over after Germany, it is certain that the airport shops accept it instead of the local money, (also as a part payment and the rest on your card,) and it is more likely that smaller shops in town accept it rather than US dollars, and at a rate closer to the official exchange rate.
So if you take our advice to travel with some cash but do not want to carry all three, euros are the best bet.
Most major Train stations (Hauptbahnhof) in Germany have an ATM to pick up Cash. The Fee will be between €2-5. A lot of shops in Germany accept credit cards but few accept a credit card that does not have an EMV Chip. I do recommend though keeping cash with you here in Germany.
I do not know anything about Iceland or Denmark.
As a dane I haven't touched hard currency in years (except for when my grandma sends me a birthday card) and I'm not exaggerating here, nor am I a basement dweller that never leaves my house.
Card useage is close to 100 %. I've personally had more trouble in the US and other countries with stores not accepting cards than I've had here. Flea markets and "hobby stores" being the exception. (Farmer Bobs produce stand by the side of the road, Aunt Annes flowers that she sells out of her garage, etc.)
If you do find a store that doesn't accept card payments then you have to go hunting for an ATM as they're typically not inside stores like I've seen a lot of in the US. You have to find a bank (which in danish is called "bank" so that should be easy to spot in the cityscape). Some major stores may have an ATM inside, including shopping malls/major attractions like Tivoli.
In regards to card fees then that varies from store to store and from card to card. By law stores are permitted to charge a fee for CREDIT CARDS, not debit cards/debit transactions (Source in danish). It is very unlikely though as the public hates those fees with a passion and there have been major uproars whenever some major chain said they wanted to introduce a transaction fee, which they have had to roll back because people boycotted them.
By law you can at most be charged the same fee that the store have to pay to the card providers for the transaction itself.
Just make sure you have a 4 digit pin code for your card as most terminals doesn't accept signatures for authorization. Signing transactions/cards without a pin-code are not a thing here (not talking about contactless payment, that is a thing here although less widespread).
I've never been to Denmark or Germany, but in Iceland, the locals use credit cards almost exclusively. I don't think I went anywhere that did not accept my Visa card. (Nobody accepted Discover, one place did not accept MasterCard and since I have neither AmEx nor Diners Club I don't recall the acceptance rates of those networks.)
Of course, everyone also accepts cash for the most part, and since they do they'll have cash on hand to make change, etc. But generally it was only tourists I saw paying cash. Even stopping into a coffee shop for a drink was paid for by card.
Additionally not all of my cards are chipped, and the places I used them were able to handle them. To be safe I recommend carrying a chipped Visa or MasterCard since these are the most widely accepted networks in my experience.
General, non standard but useful european-wide payment tips i always give to americans:
- Expect every non VISA or MASTERCARD credit or debit* card not accepted**.
- Expect every non PIN-based card not accepted***.
- Expect any purchase under 10€ in non-major or non-chained ( not fnac, MediaMarkt, starbucks, aldi, lidl, carrefour,mcdonalds, bking...) stores and restaurants not to be accepted by card.
- Expect VPT's (Vendor Point Terminals) to fail. always have backup cash.
- Do not expect a tip line or space in a credit or debit card ticket. tips, if accepted****, are in cash.
*Debit cards are not accepted in some toll speedways of france, belgium, and germany. just press "help" if you only have those, and they'll open the barrier for you.
**AmericanExpress,DinersClub,Etc... cards have a very low to non-existant card coverage in Europe.Here we like to standarise things, and things overseas are non-standarizable. even if some places might accept them, it's better to not count on it at all.
***Pin-based accreditation ( or the newly standarized nfc/nfc+pin already working in most of europe's big stores ) is the most widely accepted form of payment. Magnet + signature is sometimes ( more often than it should be) not accepted, mostly because banks love to cut expenditure on VPT's, and most stores rent just-pin (or just-pin + nfc) VPT's nowadays.
****Tips, generally in europe, are small extra cash given for an extraordinary service ( or because customers hate smallchange), given either directly to the server with a "this is for your awesome service"-like comment, or in the cashier "for that super nice boy/girl that served us". Tip lines on credit tickets are not only generally inexistant, there is 80% chances they can't do that in their Paying Terminal Software, because products have a stablished price so does the services offered, and extra cash entering could give tax problems, making the servers stay overtime counting every bill and every card payment ticket to find out "what client paid for an extra, un-annotated, unkown serving / plate / wine bottle ".