How much cash to bring with you to Italy

A lot of people get antsy about bringing a lot of cash with them when they visit a new country. We explain what to carry and how to get local currency.

Should I get a lot of euros in advance?

bancomat ATM machine - Rome Vacation TipsThe first thing to know is that when visiting Rome, bringing a lot of money with you is a very bad idea.

  1. By buying euros in advance, you will get ripped off on the exchange rate in your home country.
  2. By buying a lot of euros in advance, you will get ripped off exponentially.
  3. By carrying a lot of cash when in Italy, you will make yourself incredibly vulnerable to theft, either from your person, or from your accommodation.
 

On the other hand Italy is a developed country with a modern banking system, and there are internationally connected ATMs on almost every street corner (tip: ATMs are popularly called “Bancomat”). Use them and you’ll enjoy a better exchange rate.

Where’s the best place to exchange cash in Rome?

Nowhere. From the airport to the city center, every exchange bureau is waiting for another sucker. If it advertises “no fee” it means the exchange rate will be absurdly biased in its favor. If it advertises “fair” exchange rates it will impose a huge fee. 

It is far better to start a Wise Borderless account before you leave, open a euro balance, do exchange to EUR within that account – at market rate and a tiny fee – then use the VISA card they provide you with to pay for stuff and withdraw cash from ATMs.

Should I bring US dollars?

No. There is a persistent myth that Italian businesses greedily accept US dollars. This gained currency (pardon the pun) after the war nearly 80 years ago, and persisted during the devaluations of the lira in the 1960s and 70s, but is certainly not true now – and particularly not since Italy switched to using the euro more than 20 years ago: the euro is a strong international currency that is unlikely to be devalued, and dollars have no advantage over euros. In fact it’s a complete pain for an Italian business to exchange foreign cash, and they will also lose a lot of money on the exchange.

Provided they’re part of an international circuit (Visa, MasterCard, AmEx) you can use your home country’s bank’s debit or credit cards all over the country in most businesses and pretty much all ATMs – standalone, banks, and post offices. Just make sure you inform your home bank/s that you’ll be travelling abroad. And provided your bank doesn’t impose crazy ATM fees, it will also likely give you a much better exchange rate than if you used a bureau. Alternatively open a Wise Borderless account before you go.

When do I need cash?

What you do need cash for will be: most taxis, markets, cafés, and small convenience stores. Bear in mind that many of these outlets have problems in breaking large bills (€50s or even sometimes €20s), so preferably carry as many small notes (€10s and €5s) and as much loose change with you as you can. Also handy to have coins if you want to leave a tip. Europeans are used to carrying a lot of coins, so bring them with you – don’t discard them in your hotel room every night.

So how much money should I bring to Rome?

  1. Don’t bring any more cash with you than you’d normally carry with you in your own country on a daily basis.
  2. Bear in mind the increased pickpocketing risk for a tourist in Rome.
  3. When you get to the airport, get one or two hundred euros out of one of the ATMs in the baggage hall just in case (they don’t charge fees). Local hack: it’s better to get an amount like €180 so you force the machine to distribute smaller bills rather than the ‘unbreakable‘ fifties.
  4. Use your credit/debit card whenever you can in stores and restaurants.
  5. Get more cash out from an ATM whenever required.
 

If you are the kind of person who gets uncomfortable about not having some local currency in your wallet before you arrive, then order around €100-200 (in twenties) from your home bank or exchange bureau in your home country and bring it with you so you can use it to pay for a cab or accommodation in an emergency – but you really don’t need any more than that for the reasons outlined above.

Also bring at least one backup credit or debit card, preferably two, and leave it/them apart from your luggage and billfold – in the hotel safe, in a safe box at reception, or just hidden in your suitcase. Don’t forget to inform that bank before you go as well.

Absolute best hack: if you have time, and are in an eligible country, apply for a Wise (formerly TransferWise) account. With this you can apply for a debit card and a ‘borderless account‘, then add a euro balance to your account, and use the debit card at ATMs in Italy. Withdrawing cash incurs zero charges until you hit €300, then it’s 2% after that, but you will still get the best possible exchange rate and there is no fee for paying in stores with the card.

And don’t whatever you do try to hand out wads of US dollar bills. We earn euros, we spend euros – we want euros!

Current USD euro exchange rate

FreeCurrencyRates.com

Now make sure you don’t miss out: plan your visit in advance:

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Photo credit: AFP

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