In North America, we’ve gotten into the habit of using our credit and debit cards for just about everything we purchase from our morning coffee to a new flat screen tv. The trend hasn’t quite caught on in Italy. What does this mean? For starters, you’re going to have to get used to carrying cash. By cash I mean Euro cash, not American, not Canadian, not Hong Kong dollars, not Galleons, Ducats, Florins, Knuts or Sickles. Euros. (You’d be amazed at the amount of people who think you can use American money in Italy). But why all this fuss about contanti (cash)?
Because you’re not allowed to pay for small purchases with a credit card. In some places, even for larger totals, restauranteurs and store-owners will tell you a flat out “no”when you show them your card. Then they’ll patiently wait for you to crack open your wallet to the side with the paper in it, not the plastic. This isn’t just something they do for tourists, so don’t feel like you’re being scammed. In general, Italians don’t use their credit cards very often. I actually don’t think I’ve seen an Italian pay for anything (other than business expenses) with a credit card. Cash it is, and cash you will use. Get used to it.
In general, VAT/IVA taxes are included in the prices shown. If a gelato is listed as 2 euros, it’s 2 euros. If a hotel room is 60 euros, it’s 60 euros (plus probably a very nominal city tax, depending on where you are). If your restaurant bill doesn’t come out as high as you’d like to be, check out my Tips on Tipping in Italy.
Next, remember that your Canadian/American debit card won’t work at stores in Italy. You can’t go buy a leather jacket with your debit card. Non funziona. It doesn’t work. You need cash, (if I haven’t already made that abundantly clear). Where your debit card will work, however, is to take money out of an ATM/Bank machine, which in Italy are called Bancomats. There’ll be a limit as to how much you can get out at a time (200 or 250 euros probably) and only the larger banks will accept international cards. Look for banks that have names you recognize in them: Roma, Firenze, Venezia, Siena, Milano, etc. And if you try one Bancomat and it won’t read your card, don’t give up! This is Italy! Try another one. It’ll work, trust me.
I also find using a Bancomat is the easiest way to “exchange” in a sense, money in Italy. When you go to a cambio, or exchange place, they ask you for ID even if you’re looking to exchange 50 euros! Much less hassle just to make yourself familiar with the Bancomats and extract your foreign money out from them. If you set it up ahead of time, your bank might even have an account that waives the foreign fees. If not, you’re probably looking at between a $1.50 and $5.00 service charge every time you take money out in Italy.
Regarding traveller’s cheques, (what are those?) I don’t think anyone uses them anywhere anymore. I’ve never tried to use them in Italy but I can make a good guess that they’re probably a big hassle. Don’t go there.
Sidenote: It amazes me the number of people who ask if they should exchange some money before they get to Italy, or if they should opt to arrive in a new country without any local currency, jet-lagged, disoriented and grumpy from bad airplane food. Wrap your head around that one for a moment. Now tell me the smart answer…. GET SOME LOCAL CURRENCY BEFORE YOU LEAVE!
What’s the big deal? Well, to change money at the airport will probably leave you victim to the highest exchange rates and charges there are. Don’t bother. Also, if something happens (as it always does in Italy) and you can’t change money right away, what are you going to do then, huh?
Think about this: in some places in Italy, you have to pay a nominal fee to use the bathroom. I say again: you have to pay to use the bathroom. There are turnstiles and metal bars and the grumpy gremlin of a gabinetto (bathroom) guard won’t let you in until you pay the toll. You yourself are grumpy, grimy, jet lagged, and, to top it all off, you have to pee. Now you have to beg someone (in a language you don’t know, by the way) for a 1 euro coin just so that you can avoid peeing your pants during your first hour in Italy. You’re dragging your suitcase, trying to keep track of your travel companion(s), trying to read signs, trying not to get pick pocketed, and doing the pee-pee dance all because you didn’t take the time to change some money before your departure. It’s like Mr. Bean goes on vacation. A situation I’d try to avoid, if I were you….
Last thing to remember about money and finances when you travel to Italy: let your bank and credit card company know you’re going to be away so they don’t block your cards when they see them being used across the pond. Seriously. I booked a plane ticket once from Spain to Italy and VISA was on the phone to me in 10 minutes flat telling me someone had lifted my credit card number and was making fraudulent charges. The call certainly reassured me that VISA was taking good care to watch that I wasn’t being scammed, but it was unnecessary because I had bought the ticket myself – they just weren’t aware of my plans.