"Is it best to get some euros before we leave or get them when we arrive?" a reader asked as he prepared for a trip to Rome. Are credit cards or debit cards best, he wanted to know. Filling your wallet (or your money belt) for a trip overseas can be nearly as confounding as winding your way to the hotel on the ancient streets of Rome.
Not a bad idea to get a few hundred dollars' worth of euros for taxis and other incidentals upon arrival. (If you wait until you're at the airport exchange booth, you'll face high fees because they have a captive clientele and high airport rent.) Shop around for the best rate: Some local banks offer exchanges (I've used the Travelex inside the US Bank at the IDS Center in Minneapolis). AAA members can order foreign currency to be mailed to their home by calling 1-888-626-2027.
Once overseas, it is usually best to resupply at ATMs. You're likely to be subject to fees, but credit card companies and banks accessed via debit cards generally offer better exchange rates than currency exchange offices.
What are those fees? There are two kinds you're likely to face overseas when using either debit or credit cards. When getting cash at an ATM, you'll pay a small fee akin to using an ATM unaffiliated with your bank here. Foreign transaction fees are the big bullies, generally running 1 to 3 percent on the amount of each transaction, whether it's a hotel bill or ATM withdrawal.
The good news is that plenty of cards don't charge foreign transaction fees. To see if your current card is one of them, call your credit card company or bank. Then go to NerdWallet.com, which lists cards that charge no foreign transaction fee at http://tinyurl.com/88dgzdw. (Note that most have an annual fee, which should be part of your equation.)
Send questions to Kerri Westenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow her on twitter @kerriwestenberg.