It's worrisome to receive reports from North American tourists (both U.S. and Canadians) that they are having difficulty in Europe when they attempt to use their credit cards. For this to happen just when other conditions for such tourism have improved (the euro and the British pound have declined substantially in value) is particularly galling.
The problem usually involves just a few minutes of discussion with the managers of the restaurants and shops where you attempt to use your card, establishing your identity as the rightful owner of the card. Usually, showing various means of identification will suffice to have your card honored. In other cases, such as at automatic ticket machines in railroad stations, Americans must take an appeal to an actual live official, and if no one is about, then board the train without a ticket.
Now, what's the reason for these problems? It's because the Europeans — in a breathtaking advance that virtually wipes out the practice of stealing credit cards — have adopted so-called chip-and-pin cards, which are European-issued credit cards that include a computer chip, and that require a PIN to be used. When their credit cards are presented for payment, they also must punch in a four-digit number that establishes their bona fides. The thief who is unable to do that is unable to use a stolen credit card.
It's all breathtakingly simple, and it's a scandal that U.S. banks haven't adopted this technology (the Canadians are on their way to doing so). Their failure to do so is causing depression among many tourists.
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Now the credit-card problem will require some advance planning, possibly even the use of that old standby, the traveler's check. If you know you'll be spending a significant amount on a hotel, call ahead to confirm your method of payment will work. When you're shopping, either have enough cash or check with a salesperson before you get to the cash register. And when traveling by train, take advantage of print-at-home tickets prior to your departure to avoid having to use unmanned electronic kiosks where pin-and-chip cards are required.
I also should point out that the ATM cards that most of us possess are already programmed to work only with the inputting of a four-digit PIN. And thus, trans-Atlantic tourists have no problem using the many ATM machines (they're sometimes called "Bancomats") found in virtually every European city. By constantly acquiring cash for payment at restaurants and shops, you can still travel in Europe without too much anxiety (except for losing that cash). And you will find that if you check in advance with the hotel at which you stay, informing them of the kind of credit card you'll be carrying, that they will usually be willing to accept your old-fashioned card.
So the credit-card problem shouldn't prevent you from enjoying — in fact, from exulting in — the new debased value of the euro ($1.21) and British pound ($1.46). Currency developments have considerably improved the picture for trans-Atlantic tourism.