When I was general manager of a large performing arts festival in Italy, I spent a great deal of time before the trip talking to everyone about their money. Nothing can bring your trip to a grinding halt faster than losing your cash flow.
One of the questions I’m asked often is about safety and theft. Is it safe in Italy? Will I get robbed?
The two most important things to remember while traveling when it comes to your money are (1) be aware and (2) be prepared.
I’ve been traveling to Italy for 17 years, and I have never once had any of my things or money stolen. Why? I was paying attention. To me, this is the most important aspect of keeping yourself and your things safe while traveling.
If you don’t want to be a target to thieves, be aware of what’s going on around you.
This means: don't walk around with your face buried in your phone/map/guide book. Walk with purpose and look around at what's going on.
The other part of the equation is being prepared. Let's learn from the mistakes of those I've had to help over the years. Your future self will thank you for time spent enjoying your hard-earned trip rather than days on the internet and on the phone trying to sort out money matters.
Here are 11 steps you can take to keep your dinaro safe (and also your sanity) on your next trip.
Don’t bring large amounts of cash. Once I had a student who brought a couple thousand dollars (what?!) in cash with her. She left it on her nightstand at the hostel and...you can guess what happened. So aside from the obvious - and the fact that once cash is gone, it’s gone - you will get horrible exchange rates on said cash. Even if you’re bringing a wad of euros vs. dollars, the exchange rate at banks for converting cash is terrible. You’re better off bringing a little to get you started (€150 should be enough to get a cab, a coffee, and a decent bite to eat) and using the ATMs the rest of the time.
Put your head in the clouds. Take pics of the front and back of the cards you're taking, and store them securely in the cloud, such as Google Drive, iCloud, or DropBox. If your cards are lost or stolen, all you'll need to do is look in your phone (or log in to the website from a computer) for the relevant info to get things right again.
Call your bank before you leave. Let them know that you’re leaving and check on the daily withdrawal amount. You don’t want it too high (your account gets cleaned out if the card is stolen) or too low (you don’t have enough to go about your day) - I recommend around $200/day.
While you’re on the phone with the bank, check on foreign transaction and withdrawal fees. Some accounts have NONE of these if you keep a certain balance. This is not a well-known fact and you’ll have to do your homework before trying to open one of these accounts.
If when you use an ATM and your card seems to be rejected, try a smaller amount. With the exchange rate you may be exceeding your daily withdrawal amount.
ATMs tend to give out really large bills that no one wants to take. To avoid this, I take out amounts that will guarantee me at least a small bill or two, like 60, 70, 80, or 120.
Call your credit card companies before you leave and let them know you’re traveling. My Amex will already note this if I’ve bought a plane ticket with said Amex, so that’s a nice little timesaver. While you’re at it, check on foreign transaction fees. Again, there are cards that have none (like some Amex cards, Chase Ink and Capitol One Venture), and other cards that have pretty hefty fees that can add up really quickly.
Don’t bring traveler’s checks. They’re a complete pain in the ass to cash (I once spent HOURS with a student trying to accomplish this) and no one wants to take them...because they’re a pain in the ass to cash.
Protect yourself from card cloning. Use only an ATM that is associated with a bank, and check that the card reader is flush to the machine (thieves sometimes stick a cloner right on the machine). Don’t use machines that are stand-alones at special events, or in convenience stores, etc., as they may be there for the sole purpose of cloning. Cover the keypad while you input your PIN. And speaking of PINs, if you use letters instead of numbers, you should figure out what the corresponding numbers are, just in case.
Money belts. I personally don’t use them, but through business and life, I am somewhat embedded in Italy. I don’t necessarily stand out until someone hears my accent. Many people stand by money belts, and if they will give you peace of mind, use one. I’ll say this again: I think that paying attention to your surroundings is key over money belts. Thieves target those who don’t seem aware of what’s going on around them.
While traveling, keep at least one extra credit card and - if possible - one extra debit card separate from your wallet and the rest of your cards (also when you’re flying - extras in checked luggage; the rest on your person/in your carry-on). That way if your wallet/purse/backpack, etc. is lost or stolen, or if your debit cards gets eaten by a machine or demagnetized, you won’t be without money until you can get it all sorted out. I’m writing this as someone who has had to lend money to people whose cards were lost/stolen….not that I minded at all, but those people were completely stressed until their new cards arrived.
BONUS: Clean out your wallet before you leave. Don’t take more credit cards than you think you need, and take out your membership passes, loyalty cards, etc. That’s just more to deal with if you lose your wallet.
BONUS 2: Whatever time it takes in the US to get something resolved, multiply it by 10 in Italy. For example: I’ve had people desperate for a new credit card to arrive from the US. They thought since it was sent Next Day, they would actually get it Next Day. Well, in Italy and with customs, “Next Day” probably actually means “Next Week.”
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