Taking Out Euros for Visiting Spain: ATMs or Travelers Cheques?

What's the cheapest way to withdraw the local currency?

Look out for a Cajero Automatico (ATM) rather than using Travelers Cheques in Spain
••• Look out for a Cajero Automatico (ATM) rather than using Travelers Cheques in Spain. Image: Harris Walker/Creative Commons

Spain has used the euro since 2002, which replaced the old peseta. It is the same currency that is used in much of Western Europe (apart from Switzerland, the UK, Denmark and Sweden). The euro is the only currency accepted in Spain - it is unlikely you'll be able to use anything else, even in the airport. It may be possible to exchange old Spanish peseta notes in a bank, but no shop will accept them anymore.

So how should you get your euros?

There are plenty of ATMs (cash machines) in Spain and they all take foreign cards. That includes VISA, Cirrus, Citibank and American Express (AmEx). The only card type I have had problems with in Spain was with V PAY, which only worked in some machines.

ATM Cash Machine Charges in Spain: Beware the Dynamic Currency Conversion!

ATMs in Spain usually offer you the option to be charged in Euros or your home currency. While it sounds tempting to be charged in your home currency, all this means is that the Spanish bank will choose the exchange rate and fees for you, whereas if you choose to be charged in Euros, your home bank will set the fees and exchange rate. The Spanish bank's offer will invariably be worse than what your home bank will offer - so always choose to be billed in Euros.

The amount you are charged to withdraw money from a bank in Spain is set by your home bank, so you should check the charges with your bank before you leave.

The amount is usually very small (about 1.50FBP/2€/$3), about the same as the commission you would be charged if you were taking the money out of the bank's bureau de change. Unless you are taking very large amounts of money out (say, a couple of thousand euros), the commission will usually stay the same, so it is worth taking out as much as you'll need for a few days.

However, taking out large sums of money obviously leaves you susceptible to thieves.

The exchange rate is approximately as follows:

  • One US Dollar (US$) = 0.90€
  • One British Pound (GBP) = 1.35€
  • One Australian Dollar (AUS$) = 0.65€
  • One Canadian Dollar (CAN$) = 0.70€
  • One Swiss Franc = 0.90€
  • One Swedish Krona = 0.11€

Will I Get a Better Deal from an ATM Than a Bureau de Change?

ATMs always give you a better exchange rate than a bureau de change - it should be the same as your bank back home, plus a small fee. And never, ever get money exchanged at the airport!

Banks that Don't Charge to Withdraw Money Overseas

  • In the US State Farm Bank allow you to take money out of overseas ATMs without charging you for the privilege.
  • In the UK Nationwide and Abbey's Zero account do not charge for withdrawing money overseas or for making credit card transactions in an EU country.
  • In Much of Europe Number26 is an online account that doesn't charge for withdrawals from ATMS anywhere in the world.
  • Anywhere in the World The Mastercard Cash Passport, have the advantage of getting a guaranteed (and very good) exchange rate when you load them money onto the card. They're the modern day equivalent of the Travelers Cheque. And they're free of charge. Just order one from the website and choose a pick-up location (usually you can choose your airport). I found the exchange rate to be excellent when I used mine. You can use this card both in ATMs and in shops.

    If you have two bank cards, leave one in your hotel (or carry it in a different pocket to your wallet) so that if you do have one stolen, you still have another means of accessing your money.

    Are Travelers Cheques Widely Accepted in Europe?

    Travelers Cheques were once the safest and easiest way to bring enough money with you to last your entire vacation. The need to show ID when exchanging them for cash and the ability to cancel them if stolen meant they were a risk free way to travel with large amounts of money.

    However, today Travelers Cheques are no longer the convenience they once were. There are far easier and more widely accepted options available to the visitor to Spain.

    Why I Don't Advise Bringing Travelers Cheques to Spain

    Most Travelers Cheques can be exchanged in Spain.

     But the only shops that will accept them are El Corte Ingles. If you need to exchange Checks for money, you'll need to do so at a bank or a Bureau de Change.

    However, the lines in Spanish banks can often be quite long, and their opening hours are short. In addition, there will often be a fee for exchanging Travelers Cheques for cash. For some reason, American Express Travelers Cheques are even more difficult to exchange.

    Taking Madrid as an example, the American Express Travelers Cheques website says that the only place close to the center, apart from at El Corte Ingles, is a single money exchange place, called Ria.

    With ATMs being so easy to use, bringing Travelers Cheques is usually more hassle than it's worth. Most people bring Travelers Cheques as a safety precaution, just in case their bank cards are stolen. But who is to say you won't have your Travelers Cheques stolen as well?