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So I'm gearing up for a roughly 6-week trip to Europe early next year (Poland and one so-far undetermined eastern/central European country), but there's one big thing I'm still trying to figure out: how to carry around spending money for that time without hanging a giant sign on myself saying "mug me, please!".

The scenario is this: I haven't got a credit card, and only have a Canadian bank account. Ideally, I'd be able to use my Canadian debit card to make purchases (it's EMV, which I know is widely-accepted in Europe), but I also know that this may not be an option. Given that I'm going to be gone for roughly 6 weeks, and living out of my backpack for a good chunk of that time, it's been recommended that I bring anywhere between 1000 and 2000 euro with me, and I feel extremely uncomfortable carrying that much cash on my person (or storing it somewhere I don't trust, like at a hostel - and I can't afford hotels).

One thing I've been considering is only carrying a small amount of it and periodically topping up at ATMs, but that depends on how much I'd pay in ATM fees - are there any BMO Bank of Montreal customers out there who know how much I'd get dinged for using a European ATM? I know I paid a comparatively hefty fee when I had to go to the States and use an ATM there.

Are there alternate solutions? Given that I'm only going to be gone for 6 weeks, opening a European bank account isn't really practical (even though I also have Polish citizenship).

If it matters, my debit card can be used on the Cirrus, Maestro, and Interac networks - how many PoSs in Europe actually support these? I know that, in Canada, support for Interac is almost universal at retail endpoints.

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    What does this mean: "I also know that [using the Canadian debit card] may not be an option"? Are you worried that your card might not work, or are there some personal circumstances which could mean you couldn't bring your card to Europe/use it while there, even if it would otherwise be an option? If the former, don't worry: you'll almost certainly be able to withdraw money from ATMs with a Maestro card no problem. – Urbana Sep 30 '16 at 16:35
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    Poland doesn't use Euro so your 1000 or 2000 euro will be useless. – kukis Sep 30 '16 at 18:07
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    Does your bank card feature a VISA, Mastercard or Maestro logo (which is almost certain considering your claim concerning EMV-compatibility)? Those are by far the most widespread payment systems in Europe. So far I haven't encountered any ATM or PoS here that distinguished between credit and debit like in North America. Only the payment provider matters. (…As it should be – I don't understand why an or PoS should care about the type of account backing a means of payment.) – David Foerster Oct 1 '16 at 9:13
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    @kukis: For a foreigner from outside Europe, Euro is not useless in Poland. It has the advantage of being easy to change in most countries. OP may have trouble obtaining zlotys at home but will have no trouble buying Euros at home and using those Euros to buy zlotys in Poland. That's the #1 important use. – hippietrail Oct 1 '16 at 12:40
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I travel for much longer durations than your planned trip. This is what I do in basically all countries:

  • Have at least two cards that work on one or more of the Cirrus, Maestro, Mastercard, Plus, or Visa systems. More systems is better. More than one bank can be better. If you have cards from the same bank make sure they are linked.
  • Primary card is a debit card, backup card may be a credit card.
  • Withdraw each time the maximum amount you feel you could lose without devastating you or your plans. For me that's around $300-$350 and/or enough money to last two weeks.
  • Purchase things with the cards whenever possible, but only when there is not an extra fee for using the card.
  • Take some money to get from the airport to the city in case of ATM trouble at the airport. This may be local money you got from a currency exchange at home, your home currency if you know it's easy to convert at your destination, or a third-country currency that is easy to convert both at your home country and at your destination. This could be between about $20 to $100.
  • Before you leave home, find out if your bank has any agreements with any banks in your destination countries that will allow you to use ATMs there with no fees or reduced fees.
  • Google online about which ATMs have the lowest fees for foreign cards. If your Mastercard or Visa card is a true credit card rather than a debit card this will usually be the most expensive as it is classed as a "cash advance" and those attract very high interest rates typically with no interest free period.
  • Avoid using private ATMs when possible. These usually have higher fees than bank ATMs. Learn the names of the local banks because some ATMs inside petrol stations, shopping malls, and convenience stores will be private ATMs and some will be bank ATMs.
  • Try to use ATMs at banks during business hours. Things go smoothest in this case if the machine swallows your card. Some countries have ATMs in post offices, which is OK too.

Do no take huge amounts of cash if it can be avoided. Usually it can be avoided. If you were going to Iran then it would be unavoidable.

Others have mentioned the kind of cards that you put money on at home. I believe they go by several names. I personally have yet to try these because usually they have a set number of currencies and my trips are a bit random such that I don't really know which countries I'll be in. Also it seems they changes their rules and fees a lot and the fees only ever go up and the rules only ever get more subtle/confusing. However, if you're only going to two countries, this may well be the ideal solution in your case. You should ask your bank if they provide such a thing.

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Since you're Canadian, maybe this is an option:

CIBC Smart™ Prepaid Travel Visa* Card

Seems you can preload it with Euros and use it as you would any Visa branded card, including ATM.

You might still be subject to ATM fees, but that would be the case with nearly any card unless you can find a no-fee ATM.

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    He said he doesn't have a Credit Card but would like to use an ATM style card. "I haven't got a credit card, and only have a Canadian bank account. Ideally, I'd be able to use my Canadian debit card to make purchases" – Johns-305 Sep 30 '16 at 14:44
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    A debit card is not a credit card, nor is it a visa debit card. – blackbird Sep 30 '16 at 14:46
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    @blackbird a prepaid card is also not a credit card. – phoog Sep 30 '16 at 14:50
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    Unfortunately, this isn't an option because, as far as I can tell, you have to be a client of that bank to use it. It's a cool idea, though. – Sebastian Lenartowicz Sep 30 '16 at 14:57
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    But Poland doesn't use the Euro... – David Richerby Oct 1 '16 at 18:18
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Although you do not want a credit card you can get a prepaid card which acts like a credit card for purchases yet lets you spend only the fund you load it with and does not accrue interest like credit cards do.

TravelEx, the currency exchange company, sells a Cash Passport Mastercard with a chip and pin so that you can use it in Europe. You can use it as you would a credit card, or you can use it to withdraw cash at ATMs.

The traditional way to carry money for travel is Traveler's Cheques which are more-or-less certified checks which you cash while travelling. The difficulty in using them is that you must find a bank which accepts them while you are travelling and you must wisely choose the denomination in advance. This makes it hard to know who much you will actually get since banks can charge a percentage or fixed fee which may end up taking a significant portion of your Traveler's Cheque.

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    Does anyone really still use Traveler's Cheques ? – blackbird Sep 30 '16 at 20:19
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    Those few I met who did regretted it. It was almost impossible to use the cheques, those few shops that did accept them did charge big fees, 5% of the money, and only main branch offices of banks would handle them outside that. – Willeke Sep 30 '16 at 21:13
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    Exactly, that's why I said traditional. I should have said legacy ;) That's my point, we were charged 25 euros per cheque... which on a $100 cheque is pretty bad. Never used such things again! That being said, I do have 5 credit-cards having closed 2 recently! – Itai Sep 30 '16 at 21:27
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    Travelers Cheques? These are only used in movies. The last time I used these was in 1999; I don't even think you can get these anymore since cards are so prevalent .. and easy to use. – Burhan Khalid Oct 1 '16 at 3:23
  • It depends the country. I certainly no longer use them, I still see signs on stores and banks about them from time-to-time. – Itai Oct 1 '16 at 3:50
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BMO has a prepaid travel MasterCard which does seem expensive but offers what you're looking for.

It's not a credit card so there's no interest, but there is a $6.95 annual fee and a 2.5% conversion fee for foreign currency. There's a flat $5 cash advance on ATMs outside Canada, plus whatever operators will charge you.

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If you want to completely avoid credit or debit cards, sending money by international transfer systems may be an option for you.
Yes, I mean sending money to yourself by small portions, which is very convenient and which helped me a lot somehow.
Many transfer systems allow that (e.g. Western Union, TrabsferWise, WorldRemit), and many allow sending payments without specifying office of receipt, i.e. you can get money in any city of your route. Some of the systems also allow to set up recurring payments with predefined frequency.

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I'm not Canadian, but according to the BMO website (section Additional Services & Fees, category Access through Non-BMO Channels):

Outside Canada and U.S. (Cirrus and Maestro networks) $5.00

So you'd pay $5 per withdrawal. I'd withdraw something like 100 euro a time to not make the fees stack up TOO much, and pay as much as possible through your debit card.

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    There could also be a fee imposed by the operator of the ATM. If that's €2, then the transaction costs would be around 7% to 8%. For $2000, that's $140 to $160. Surely there's a more economical solution. – phoog Sep 30 '16 at 14:48
  • @phoog Good point. I didn't think of ATM operator fees. I still think it's the best solution though, just pay as much as possible through direct debit and just have something on hard for places that don't accept it or where it doesn't work. – EMotion Sep 30 '16 at 14:50
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    I wouldn't get too many Euros out, since you won't be able to spend them on anything. – Lightness Races with Monica Sep 30 '16 at 18:49
  • These are the fees you can get charged: ATM fee, Bank fee, ATM network fee, FC (Foreign Currency) charge, Issuing Bank Fee (that's the $5). It is very unlucky if you are charged all of them, but it does happen. The best tip I can offer you is withdraw the maximum amount allowed. – Burhan Khalid Oct 1 '16 at 3:26
  • @BurhanKhalid: As an Australian I have become accustomed to wasting up to $17 AUD per withdrawal when overseas on withdrawals in the $300 to $350 AUD range. That is the worst case with all possible fees and percentage on currency conversion. It sucks! – hippietrail Oct 1 '16 at 12:46
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If you don't want to carry a card and you don't want to carry gobs of cash you have a couple of options.

  1. Use Travelers Cheques. This was a relatively common thing when I was younger and still a viable option. The gold standard are the ones issued by American Express.

  2. Setup a schedule where you have a family member send you money at predefined places and times. This will let you carry the amount of cash you need only for a leg of the trip at a time. Due to the various "desperate traveler" scams out there I'd probably make sure you have some sort of plan to authenticate yourself to your family member if you need to vary from the schedule.

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    How does the cost of traveler cheques compare to the cost of using his bank card abroad? And how much more do you lose for left over cheques? (And how often do you need to pay to get your money for your cheques, as most companies do not accept them anymore or only at a fee.) – Willeke Sep 30 '16 at 20:08
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    @Willeke It is true that travelers cheques are less convenient than plastic but they are an option for those who don't want to carry plastic. Any fees for cashing the cheques will vary with where you go to cash them and may be zero. As for unused cheques the OP could turn them in at home in an American Express office for full value, they aren't a black hole like a prepaid card which are notorious for their predatory fees. – Erik Sep 30 '16 at 20:37
  • A lot of places have stopped accepting travelers' cheques due to fraud (among other things). They may still be acceptable in Europe, but in SE Asia they were pretty much useless. – Roddy of the Frozen Peas Oct 1 '16 at 12:53
  • @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas I agree they're less fungible than they were during their heyday but they aren't totally obsolete AFAIK. I probably wouldn't try to use them directly in shops. Banks or the issuer of the cheque are good options. – Erik Oct 1 '16 at 15:32
  • Travellers cheques just aren't a good option, these days. Even fifteen years ago, it was easy to spend a morning wandering around looking for a bank that would accept them; now, it must be even worse. – David Richerby Oct 1 '16 at 18:21
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Your question is a bit vague, but I'm a Eurofag in the UK and when we visit Europe we get stung just as badly as you guys with ridiculous fees, so, maybe I can offer something useful. Having never visited Poland, I can't be certain this applies but as you have citizenship I assume you know people there and could get some advice from the locals. My experience is predominantly around Spain.

For the most part, if we use our Santander current account debit cards in Spain we'll be subject to fees (given Santander is a Spanish bank, that seems rather odd, but it's technically a "non-GBP currency fee" or similar. Most banks here do the same sort of thing. We get the same sort of fees using credit cards, and as such it ends up costing a fortune (we like to buy lunch out a lot and it's always easiest to pay by card to avoid being short changed or whatever, and most places accept card payment gratuity which is nice).

The solution we found is to use pre-paid visa gift cards. You buy one for however much, and just use it like any local would. Usually cash withdrawals and purchases are free, if not covered by very low fees. You can probably find the equivalent thing for Maestro / Mastercard or whichever brand you prefer, since they are universally accepted in at least UK (my residence) and Spain (my holiday destination). I imagine Poland is the same since they are very global brands. Read the terms and conditions of whichever card you look at before buying, and check if you can buy one specifically with Polish currency (I assume they are still using PLN), that way you will avoid bad conversion rates and fees for currency conversion at each transaction.

  • This is no help to the OP, but since you (like me) are in Cambridge, take a look at Metro Bank. There's a branch on St. Andrew's St., near the Post Office, they're a pukka bank, and both their debit card and their credit card are fee-free for ATMs and over-the-counter transasctions inside Europe (not just the Eurozone). I've been very happy with them, not least because of that. – MadHatter supports Monica Oct 1 '16 at 11:19

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