ATMs Abroad - Travel Tips

  • Tips for Using an ATM in Another Country

    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    Using Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) makes a lot of sense when you are visiting another country. Many machines are tied directly to local banks, which get favorable exchange rates. You'll be able to carry small amounts of local currency to supplement your use of credit cards, which also benefit from those big bank exchange rates.

    It all sounds great. Naturally, there are some drawbacks and danger points.

    It is essential that you speak with your bank or credit card company at least a week prior to departure. You will need to provide some information and discuss at least three important issues:

    1. Provide a list of all potential countries you will visit.

    The first step you'll need to take is the notification of your home bank or credit card company. Use the toll-free number or an internal email on their website. Give dates of travel and potential destinations. Don't worry about whether you have definite plans to visit Bratislava during your stay in nearby Vienna. Alert them to...MORE all possible stops.

    If you take this step, the chance your card will be red-flagged for use that is outside your normal pattern of business is reduced significantly. As a precaution, go through this procedure with two of your cards.

    2. Ask about the fee structures for using your card in another country

    Some credit cards will allow foreign transactions at no charge. But others will charge a fee of one percent and even a currency conversion fee of up to three percent. Sometimes these expenses will be difficult to avoid, but you can minimize the ATM transaction fees by taking out larger amounts of money.

    3. What are the daily limits on withdrawals?

    It is good to know that limit and how the bank calculates the period -- is it per calendar day or 24-hour period? Which time zone will apply?

    Often it is best to stay with ATMs that are connected to a local bank and located just outside a branch office. If you have problems, there is someone nearby to help. It pays to be careful with independent cash machines. They may lack connections to those favorable exchange rates, and they are sometimes prime targets for thieves.

    Criminals target ATMs. Sometimes they'll rob a person who has just extracted cash. Other strategies involve skimming, a technique for stealing the information on your card during a transaction that ends with an error message. If you don't complete your transaction, ask for assistance immediately.

    There will be times when outside circumstances will make ATM strategies difficult. I once had to pay for a convent stay in Rome with cash. I traveled from ATM to ATM only to find they were all empty. A bank strike had prevented the machines from being replenished. Be careful not to become too reliant on ready cash from an ATM.

    Be sure you know the type of currency springing from the machine. That might sound like obvious advice, but it isn't always clear, especially near borders. For example, in Mexico, the symbol for the peso is $, the same as denotes U.S. or Canadian dollars. If you ask for $1,000 in pesos but the machine is dispensing U.S. dollars, you could find yourself in an unexpected mess.

    There are machines that dispense currency in large denominations. Avoid round figures in your transactions so the machine will have to provide at least a few small bills. Be aware that many small businesses don't like to take big bills or break them.

    Finally, a word about airport ATMs. Budget travelers know airport money exchanges are a bad idea. For many years, they'd find the ATM of their favorite bank at the airport and get their first bit of money for the ride into the city. That is changing in destinations such as London, where Bank ATMs are growing scarce in airports. Travelex, the same company that provides over-the-counter currency exchanges, is now installing airport ATMs that advertise no conversion fees. Nonetheless, travelers have found the rate of exchange at these ATMs can be disappointing