If you happen to drive down the Brenner Autobahn between Austria and Italy this summer, here’s a little advice: Keep a little cash on hand to pay the toll.
When I motored there, not long ago, I failed to do that. Cashless, I steered our rental van into the credit-card payment lane, assuming that my Wells Fargo Visa would be accepted, as it had been on the French toll highways.
But it wasn’t.
Three futile swipes later, I nervously switched to my debit card. Cars started to line up behind me. Nothing. I fumbled for my Navy Federal Visa card. It, too, was rejected. In the resulting confusion, with the automated toll gate calmly issuing instructions in Italian, I dropped the credit card and it blew into a busy traffic lane.
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Don’t let this be you. The truth is, your American Visa or MasterCard works abroad, except when it doesn’t. When you absolutely have to pay for something, no matter where you are, carry a little local currency.
The problem is mostly chip-and-PIN technology. They use it, we don’t. Chip-and-PIN, for the uninitiated, is the common name for the EMV smart-card payment system used by credit, debit and ATM cards in Europe and most of the rest of the world. The systems authenticate your identity by a computer chip embedded in the card and a personal identification number, or PIN.
Most American credit cards use an older credit-card technology that relies on a magnetic strip to verify the customer, also referred to as swipe-and-sign. U.S. credit-card companies have been slower to adopt the technology primarily because of price. It’s cheaper to write off the cost of the fraud resulting from the less secure credit-card technology than to invest in the more secure chip-and-PIN systems, although the United States is scheduled to begin broadly adopting chip technology next year.
Until then, here’s what you need to know: Credit-card problems are more frequent than your bank wants you to think. While an increasing number of banks offer chipped cards, only a few are actually worth carrying.
I won’t make you scroll to the bottom to find out what happened in my family’s chip-and-PINless misadventure. I couldn’t open the van door because the toll booth blocked it, but my 11-year-old son, Aren, bravely slid the back door open and retrieved the card. And after I pushed a button to talk to a person, the gate simply went up and let us through.
Turns out there are plenty of other travelers with plastic problems like mine. Matthew Reames, a doctoral student in Charlottesville, Va., recently tried to use his American credit card to pay for his train fare in Copenhagen, Denmark. The automated kiosks rejected the card because it didn’t have the chip-and-PIN feature.
“I suppose my workaround would have been to go to an ATM and withdraw money,” he says. But he had a better solution: He tried his British ATM card, which worked.
No one knows precisely how many American credit cards use chip-and-PIN technology, or how many of the cards are in circulation, but the number of U.S. cards that use the technology and are worth applying for can be counted on one hand — literally.
Many chip cards carry foreign-transaction fees of between 1 and 3 percent, “which really isn’t a worthwhile price to pay for convenience,” says Brian Karimzad, director ofMileCards.com, a site that helps customers compare credit cards.
There are only five cards widely available with chips, PIN functionality and no currency fees, according to Karimzad: the State Department Federal Credit Union EMV Visa Platinum, the Andrews Federal Credit Union GlobeTrek Visa, PenFed’s Platinum Rewards Promise & Gold Visa, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard and the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MasterCard. (Some banks also issue “chip and signature” cards, which sometimes work, sometimes don’t, at automated pay stations in Europe.)
Of course, this doesn’t mean that your old-style magnetic strip card won’t work on your summer vacation. It will be accepted in big cities, with exceptions for certain transactions such as toll booths and automated ticket dispensers at train stations.
“Once you’re off the beaten path a bit, however, things may get a little tougher,” says Matt Schulz, a senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com. He tried to pay for dinner at an Italian restaurant in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, with his American card recently, but his server said, “Nein, danke.” He settled up with cash.
So do you need a chip-and-PIN card? If you’re headed overseas, and particularly to Europe, you probably do.
“People who frequently travel across the pond should invest in a chip-and-PIN card so they do not risk being cardless while overseas,” says Eric Adamowsky, the co-founder of CreditCardInsider.com. He also likes the Andrews Federal Credit Union card mentioned by MileCards.com’s Karimzad, noting that you can apply for the card as early as a week before your trip and still get it in time for your vacation.
Christopher Elliott is a travel-consumer advocate and author of “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). His column runs regularly at seattletimes.com/travel and in print. Contact him at email@example.com.