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Credit Cards Becoming Less Useful Abroad


Michelle Higgins at the New York Times has a column any prospective Europe traveler should read. "Better pack some cash on your next trip abroad," she writes. "Americans are finding that their credit and bank cards aren't as convenient as they once were while traveling overseas."

The issue is a broad transition to credit cards with embedded chips instead of magnetic strips. Dubbed "chip-and-pin" cards, the new technology is designed to be more secure than traditional magnetic strip cards. With these new cards have come new credit-card readers, which only read chip-and-pin cards, not magnetic strip cards. And therein lies the problem. Americans are finding their cards rejected at gas stations, train stations, parking lots, and other places where plastic-only self-service stations have become prevalent. Higgins cites an American couple in Paris who found themselves unable to rent a bicycle because the rental company only accepted chip-and-pin cards. They wandered the city looking for an alternative, but to no avail.

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Canada also plans to phase out magnetic strip cards, with chip-and-pin becoming the standard by 2015, as does China and most of Latin America.

Making matters worse, there are currently no plans to switch to chip-and-pin technology here in the States. Such a transition would be extremely costly and cumbersome, for starters, and the U.S. apparently doesn't see the same degree of fraud and identity theft as Europe. So what are we to do?

Fortunately, restaurants, hotels, and most museums and attractions still accept magnetic strip cards, and will likely continue to do so. But for other purchases, the obvious choice is cash.

Many Americans, myself included, have grown accustomed to carrying little or no cash when abroad, but that approach may have to change. Cash, of course, can be a hassle, due not only to the inconvenience and expense of exchanging currencies, but also because of the risk. A lost or stolen credit card, after all, can be canceled, and fraudulent purchases can often be recouped. But lost cash is exactly that—lost cash. And as any seasoned traveler knows, busy tourist areas tend to also be popular pickpocket areas. But in many cases, cash may be the only option available to Americans.

Another potential alternative is a pin-and-chip cash card, similar to a gift card, which travelers could load up prior to traveling. But that option is at least a year away.

Higgins also suggests travelers can insist cashiers swipe their magnetic strip cards anyway. Some pin-and-chip readers can read both types of cards.

Interestingly, this is yet another case of American technology falling out of step with the rest of the world (or vice versa), with the obvious other example being cell phones. Many U.S. cell phones don't work overseas, and travelers wishing to use theirs are faced with complicated and sometimes costly alternatives.

Readers, what will you do next time you travel to Europe? Personally, I've carried very little cash on my recent trips (at least while I was in bigger cities), but with another trip to Europe in my plans, I'm not sure what to do. Carry a wad of cash? Cross my fingers and hope I can get by with my old-fashioned credit card? I'm going to have to think about it. Anyway, I'd love to hear what you think, so please leave a comment below. Thanks!

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