Changing money in Italy
How to exchange your dollars for euros at the best rates (and lowest fees) possible
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Exchange offices and booths abound—like this one in Venice—but you'll get a far better deal going to a bank. Before you change your first dollar for euros, know this: You will get a far, far better exchange rate (roughly 9%) paying by credit card than you ever will using an ATM to get cash (let's not even talk about the crummy rates you get exchanging traveler's checks or using a commercial exchange office rather than a bank).
A study in June, 2011, showed that the exchange rate you get by using a credit card was, on average, 8.9% better than that charged by U.S. banks to get cash out of an ATM (coupled, in some case, with fees).
That's like tearing up a $10 bill for every $111 withdrawn from a foreign ATM.
The actual bank-by-bank numbers ranged from 4% worse than credit cards (at Northern Bank) to 14.25 worse (way to top the charts, U.S. Bank!). The only thing worse than a bank was using the exchange service Travelex (where you take a 14.7% hit).
How to change money in Italy
Always exchange money at a bank (or, if you're a cardholder, an American Express office), and always use your ATM card to withdrawal euros from your home bank account. This is how you will get the best rates and pay the lowest fees or commissions.
Businesses emblazoned with "Exchange! Cambio! Wechsel! Change!" are exchange booths, and all of them—from venerable Thomas Cooke offices all the way down to the shady guy named Luigi who hangs around the bus station—offer a worse rate and/or higher commission than banks and should only be used in emergencies.
That's really all you need to know. If you want to know why this is the best advice, dust of your math hat and continue to read on for some dry, but important, technical stuff about exchange rates and commissions. (For more on rates—which is even more boring than the commissions stuff we're about to discuss—scroll down.)
Shopping for the best deal: Rates, commissions, & fees
How much is a Euro worth?
Currently (early 2011), this rate hovers between $1.30 and $1.40 to the €1. The lower this number is, the better off you are, since it costs you less to buy each Euro. Let's say, for whatever reason, you aren't using your home bankcard to get money out of an Italian bank's ATM (I reiterate: that is the fastest, cheapest way to get money abroad), and instead you need to exchange cash or traveler's checks for euros. Now you need to find the best deal out there.
Most Italian banks display a chart of the current exchange rates they're offering, either in the street window (these days digital and constantly updated) or on a sheet of paper taped up at the international teller's window inside. Make sure you're looking at the rate the bank is buying, not selling, U.S. dollars (if, as usual, there are two columns of numbers next to each currency, the "buy" column is the lower amount).
When comparing rates bank to bank, what you want is the bank whose chart shows the highest number in the "buying dollars" column. This will be the best rate. However, unless you’re using the ATM, you must also factor in the commission fee. Sometimes this is a flat rate equal to a few dollars; sometimes it's a percentage (anywhere from 1% to 10%) of the amount being exchanged.
Occasionally, a slightly less attractive exchange rate coupled with low or flat fee commission can cost you less in the long run than a great-looking rate that's hiding a whopping commission in the fine print. Of course that depends on how much you change. Yes, this is going to involve doing math on a foreign street corner in two currencies.
Avoid these bill-to-bill changers like the overpriced scams they are. One warning: Near some major attractions you may see multinational bill-to-bill changer machines that look like giant, slightly antiquated ATMs (pictured to the left).
You feed it dollar bills; it spits out the local currency. Sounds great, but it's a scam. The exchange rates at these (perfectly legal) swindle machines is...well, why don’t you just save us all the trouble and simply flush your cash down the toilet.
An even bigger warning: On the rare occasion that someone approaches you on the street with a rate too good to be true, it is. That shyster's got black market currency, and if his bills aren't counterfeit, his sleight-of-hand method of counting them out certainly is. Also, you can get arrested.
The current exchange rate (in February 2011) is 1.37. That means it costs $1.37 to buy €1 (conversely, $1 is worth €0.73). The lower this number, the better the exchange rate for you, since it means it costs you less to buy each euro. Over the course of 2010, the exchange rate has bounced from a low of 1.19 to a high of 1.45, with the average of 1.33.
Now all those numbers represent the official interbank rate, which is what most newspapers print in their business sections. However, this only represents how much it costs banks to exchange money with each other—and it's a rather better rate than you'll ever get.
Other papers, especially in travel sections, print the rate (2% to 4% below the interbank rate) you're likely to receive when exchanging money. When you exchange cash or a traveler's check, you generally get a rate that is 4% "worse" than the interbank rate. This is known as "+4%." It is also known as a "rip-off." If you exchange at any agency besides a bank or AMEX, you'll probably do even worse.
On top of this, any place will charge you a commission—either a flat fee (in which case changing a lot of money at once is cheaper) or a percentage of the total changed (in which case you're bleeding needlessly no matter how much or little you change).
Luckily, in the past few years computerized banking has ridden in on its white overcharger to save the day—or at least a few bucks for you. If you bypass the outdated and outmoded traveler's checks and steer clear of dealing with actual people, you can shave a few percentage points off. It’s called an ATM, and it works just like it does at home. If you take money out of a cash machine—either using your own bankcard linked to your personal checking account, or with a cash advance on a credit card—you will get that favorable interbank rate.
Creeping bank fees
I have heard that some American banks have begun charging a higher fee for international withdrawals and, sadly, many U.S. banks are also now charging an additional "foreign exchange" fee for withdrawing money abroad—even though it doesn't cost them a single cent (or euro) extra; it's just a way of stealing more money from you. Ask your local bank before traveling to avoid a nasty surprise.
You can get much more on this (and other financial issues) at the excellent financial planning site BankRate.com (bankrate.com) and at this wiki on FlyerGuide.com.Or at least, you should. In reality, you often don't. You get about 1% to 2% below that prime rate—still better than exchanging cash or traveler's checks, but not the best possible. Luckily, for now, most Italian banks do not charge that "ATM usage" fee that almost all U.S. banks have jumped on to nickel and dime us to death a bit more.
But if your home bank charges you for withdrawals from ATMs that are "out of network" (and yes, Italy is waaay out of network)—and its usually a steep $1 to $4 fee each time—you're still paying a commission of sorts.
I actually shopped around for a bank that doesn't do this (though that bank recently turned evil on me and began charging, so I need to find a new one), and they are out there. Credit unions are usually a good bet. www.bankrate.com does regular surveys of ATM fees and other such financial fine print details.
Checking exchange rates
Oanda (www.oanda.com) - I like this one because it lets you check several different versions of the going rate. The "+4%, cash rate" represents the best you'll find if you exchange travelers checks or cash at a bank. The "+2%" rate is usually what you'll get if you use a credit card to make a charge or get a cash advance.
Universal Currency Converter (www.xe.net) - An alternative to Oanda. Use whichever interface you prefer.
- Finding ATMs
- Using credit cards in Italy
- Using traveler's checks
- Cold hard cash
- Wiring money to Italy
- Rip-offs & scams
- VAT taxes
- U.S. Customs
- Money-saving tips
This material was last updated February 2011. All information was accurate at the time.
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