In my regular life, I hardly ever have cash on me. I don’t like it. I don’t really believe in it. And I like getting airline miles for purchases I’m going to pay back in full anyway. I wish we lived in a cashless society. Unfortunately, when you travel to many places in the world, cash is still the standard
The Greek Island Way: Cash Only
When I went to Greece several years ago, I expected to have an even balance between places that only accepted cash and those that also accepted cards. I expected this because that’s how it is in most places in Europe. Most mid-size to large stores and restaurants all accept credit cards. But some smaller businesses or bars only accept cash.
To our surprise, almost nothing in the Greek Islands accepted credit cards. It’s a cash only society through and through. For travelers in particular, this poses a few inconveniences.
You have to take a lot of cash with you
One of the reasons I don’t carry cash is because I find it unsafe. I don’t want to put myself in a position to potentially lose $300 if my purse gets snatched or if I drop my wallet somewhere by accident. If you’re going to travel to a cash-only destination, you have to prepare by taking a lot of money. Depending on your spending habits, this could be several hundred dollars. If you’re traveling as a family, you could be taking over $1000 on you.
You pay a lot in ATM fees
When you go to a cash-only travel destination without all the money you intend to spend, then prepare to be gouged by your bank and local ATMs. Unless you have an international bank, there’s a good chance you’ll end up paying a foreign ATM transaction fee, a fee for not using one of your bank’s ATMs, and probably an ATM fee. Especially if you got stuck in a situation when you need to get cash right away and have no choice but to use the Euronet machine.
An important aside:
If you do withdraw money from an independent ATM machine abroad like Euronet, always take out money in the local currency. When you do, your bank will automatically convert it using a fair exchange rate. The ATM may offer you the option to convert the money to dollars or to “lock in or guarantee the conversion rate.” If you choose that option, the machine is going to give you a conversion rate that you’ll lose money on.
Splitting checks becomes a hassle
When you’re traveling with a few people, paying the bill becomes a nightmare if you’re traveling in a cash-only destination. No one is ever going to have the right change. So you either have to ask for change or someone overpays, and you end up with a ledger of mini debts that everyone owes each other.
If you’re not prickly about paying exact amounts, one way to avoid this is for everyone to take turns picking up the bill. But then you have to ensure that you keep track of who was paid what.
The Scandinavian Way: Cashless and Accommodating
Thankfully, some places in the world have progressed past bank notes and coins. Visiting cashless travel destinations is a welcome joy. You can spend an entire week in Sweden and not have to take out cash once, because not only do all places accept credit cards, many of them encourage its use. Some museums and restaurants won’t even accept cash at all.
There are many benefits to this kind of system, especially for a traveler.
You never have to worry about foreign currency
There’s nothing worse than fumbling with a bunch of coins you’re not familiar with and having to read each and every one to make the correct amount of change.
Mercifully, some cashiers will help you count your change. Others will just sit there impatiently while you look stupid.
And maybe the worst thing about carrying foreign cash is that, like glitter, it will be with you forever. When you get home from your vacation, you’ll realize you had more Yen on you than you thought and those will be floating around in your bags for months or years.
Splitting a check is brainless
When you go out to eat with a lot of people, you can all just split the bill down to the last cent and put it on your card. No one has to worry about breaking a $20 or owing someone else a coffee later.
Of course, this is not always true. For example, in the US, even though cards are accepted everywhere, many restaurants impose restrictions on how many ways a bill can be split. It’s arbitrary and useless, and if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you know it’s a meaningless distinction.
But in lovely countries like Denmark and Sweden, you can split your order 18 different ways and no one is going to bat an eyelash. The server will just hand you the credit card machine, where you can input your PIN (or sign), pay, and add tip.
It relieves the minor stresses of travel
Being able to pay with a card for everything severely reduces regular travel anxiety. For example, when you arrive at the airport in a city like Prague, you can’t take the metro without having cash, because the ticket machines only take cash. Actually, they only take coins, which is worse. If you want to take a cab, you often have to have local currency on you or confirm with the cab driver that he can accept credit card payment.
Being able to use a card makes it much more convenient to get where you need to go the moment you arrive somewhere without having to worry about finding cash while you get your bearings.
Preparing for Either Way
Unfortunately, it’s not your choice to make whether a place takes cards or only cash. You can only adapt to it. And the best way to do that is to be prepared so you’re not blindsided. For many reasons, including how much you’ve budgeted to spend on vacation, this is not something you want to find out when you arrive. So read up on your destination and prepare accordingly.