Experiences paying for stuff with cash or credit in Europe, and with Apple Pay back in the USA

Posted by Paul Braren on Nov 4 2014 (updated on Apr 8 2018) in
  • iPhone
  • Productivity
  • Security
  • I learned a lot about money lately, the hard way. Here's 4 money tips that'll help you make payments, the easy way. I feel like 2014 has been a big year for payments systems. Change is in the wind, not in my pocket.

    For me, there's four recent tales to tell here:

    1. How to survive with just an Corporate American Express card that is nearly useless in Europe
    2. How to use retail payment machines in Europe, if your US based credit card has a little visible computer chip
    3. How to avoid getting stuck with spare Euro-change
    4. After a week with my iPhone 6 Plus, how is paying with NFC and a fingerprint working out? (Apple Pay)

    Well, before you leave the US, be sure to:

    a) Call AMEX at 800.528.4800 and determine whether your Corporate and Personal cards are eligible for Chip and Pin. If yes, have the new card mailed to you before you go.

    For me, I had a card set to expire while I was away. That's a problem. So I had to call them anyway. For my corporate card, nope, IBM employees like me not eligible for chip and pin, not yet anyway. For my personal card, yep, they happily mailed me a new AMEX Gold card with my same number, but a new expiration date, and a chip. My current limited understanding is that it doesn't actually mean I can do European style chip-and-PIN transactions, however. Never had the chance to try, actually. The one transaction I did do had me slip the card into a reader slot (rather than swipe), detailed below. Since the transaction was only for $30 Euros, I don't believe a signature was required.

    b) set up a Cash Advance PIN with American Express before you go, and test it while still in the US!
    Testing this PIN at a local ATM in the US gave me the reassurance I'd have access to Euros in cash, while in Europe. I should also note that my US bank's ATM card worked at a Munich Airport ATM, even though nobody seems to use the Cirrus logo anymore.

    c) be sure to have a data plan available on your phone before you go, see also:
    5GB of data in Germany on a prepaid SIM card mailed to me in advance in the US, here’s how
    by Paul Braren on Sep 17 2014

    d) using your smartphone, visit the AMEX ATM Locator:
    to help you locate the nearest bank ATM that'll allow cash advances. This was a huge benefit for me, because most of the small bank ATMs outside of cities did not allow me to take cash advances from AMEX.

    Why so much focus on cash? Well, even if I did have a corporate Master Card of Visa, it's mostly Maestro in Europe. I ran into one gas stations that only took Maestro. Yep, none of my cards in my wallet would do. Time to give the cashier my driver's license, so I could treck about 15 minutes to the nearest ATM to get some cash. Yep, no ATM in the gas station either, nor was there a payment swiper at the pump. So yeah, you'll need to have cash on hand.

    How to use the retail payment machines in Europe, if your US based credit card has a little visible computer chip in there

    This one is easy, but at first, wasn't apparent to me. My 2nd night in Germany, I needed to buy a belt at a local shopping mall. The cashier spoke no English. But when I went ahead and swiped my chip-equipped American Express Gold card to make payment, she politely showed me to insert it into the reader slot instead, leaving it there until she gestured for me to remove it. Lesson learned! If there's both swipe and slots on the reader, use the slot if your card has a chip. Makes sense.

    How to avoid getting stuck with spare Euro-change

    Like most tech dudes, I'd rather not go around with pounds of change in my pockets. Yet, when returning from Germany recently, I had a month's worth of spare Euro coins in a bag. Munich, Germany's airport exchange kiosk wouldn't take anything less than 1 Euro in value. Nor would Newark Airport, back in New Jersey.

    It couldn't have been more clear to me that I messed up. What I should have done was gone to a real European bank with a coin counting machine, the day before heading home. Oops.

    Note also that you pay up to 15% in fees to the exchange kiosks at the airports, see more info here:

    Coins can become worthless when you leave a country. Since big-value coins are common in Europe, exporting a pocketful of change can be an expensive mistake. Spend them (on postcards, a newspaper, or food or drink for the train ride), change them into bills, or give them away. Otherwise, you’ve just bought a bunch of souvenirs. Note, however, that while euro coins each have a national side (indicating where they were minted), they are perfectly good in any country that uses the euro currency.

    After a week with my iPhone 6 Plus, how is paying with NFC and a fingerprint working out? (Apple Pay)

    If there's no visible reader, such as McDonald's drive through, you need to ask the cashier about payment. Biggest lesson here is NOT to ask if they take Apple Pay. Just say you want to pay with your phone. When prompted, hold your NFC antenna close to the handheld device the cashier presents. On an iPhone 6 Plus, that antenna is at the the top edge. Wait a second or two, and  your iPhone will prompt you to use your Touch ID (fingerprint reader), touch it, it'll quickly confirm the payment was made. You're done!

    Apple Pay at Subway on Nov 4th 2014

    I realize security is the first thing you think about here. That said, you do realize you've been giving your credit card number to retailers for decades, and even showing them your driver's license, with your home address.

    Yes, paying with Touch ID is something new. See also The Secure Element description in this tauw article:

    The reality, though, is that Apple Pay is an exceedingly secure mobile payment platform. In fact, it may very well be the safest way to make any type of credit card payment. To understand why, below is a general overview of how the system works behinds the scenes.

    I think a bigger concern for some is actually the US law, see Judge Rules Suspect Can Be Required to Unlock Phone With Fingerprint and Virginia judge: Police can demand a suspect unlock a phone with a fingerprint.

    [Nov 06 2014 addition, see also Steve Gibson's take-away summary on Security Now 480, which includes a workaround at http://pca.st/0O7t, with shownotes here.]

    Having an 8 digit complex password on my iPhones for the past 5 years, about 20-30 times per day, being able to merely touch the home button to unlock my phone is a game changer feature for me. Being able to also pay for stuff, even more expensive stuff that'd require a signature, is another big deal.

    So, who wants to stand behind somebody paying with a bunch of coins at the supermarket? Better yet, a paper check?

    I hope Apple Pay is a catalyst for easy and secure payment systems for all Android, iOS, and Windows Phone users. There's no way I intend to train my folks to fumble for clumsy CurrenC apps (linked to their checking account) at the cash register.

    There's a lot of disengenuous PR charades going all around at Rite Aid, CVS, and Walmart. See also Potential class action over Apple Pay launched against CVS, Rite Aid.

    Read more details about my first experiences with Apple Pay, in my related Google+ thread:

    Yesterday, Wegmans Market in Ithaca NY. Today, McDonalds drive-thru in Cobleskill NY. Yep, Apple Pay worked for me.

    So, with Walgreens and CVS next to each-other in my town, which do you think I'll choose, next time I need to buy something? Hint: https://www.apple.com/apple-pay/

    Your feelings about Android / Apple / Microsoft aside for a moment, I'm really mostly just talking about the idea of not carrying cash around. I feel like I've tasted the future now.

    After spending a month in Germany recently, where most (wonderful and affordable) restaurants don't even take credit cards, I found myself with heavy coins in my pocket each day. Don't like that. I'd love to leave cash behind me. Someday, my wallet too.

    Come to think of it, both the German and the US airport refused to exchange anything less than 1 or 2 Euro coins. So I still have over pound of Euro-change to exchange, somewhere, somehow. Seems so silly now, so last month.

    What do you think?

    Good related segment on TWiT 482 today about CurrentC "security" too:

    Nov 06 2014 Update

    With the benefit of hindsight, here's some take-away tips:

    • I should have asked "Can I use Tap to Pay" or "Can I Pay with My Phone?", instead of saying "Do You Take Apple Pay?"
    • I should have thought ahead and trained Touch ID with my left thumb. Why? You'll notice that the reach to the drive-thru cashier's reader is rather awkward, using my right arm, which is where my right thumb lives.

    Jan 01 2015 Update

    It's going well, with many stores that I frequent accepting Apple Pay, listed below. I even paid a NYC Yellow Cab with Apple Pay, as well as at a hotel vending machine. Very convenient, and reliable.

    My Apple Pay-ment history

    Jan 10 2015 Update

    Report: Apple Pay May Launch Internationally By March

    Since November, the rest of the world has been forced look on with mild annoyance and jealousy as Americans have paid for stuff with fingerprints (and a $600 phone). But according to a report from 9to5Mac, the days of having to key in a PIN - ugh- are numbered.

    May 03 2016 Update

    Looking forward to giving this Apple Pay method a try at my local Home Depot, thank you GuruAidTechSupport!

    Using Apple Pay at "Unsupported" Places - by GuruAidTechSupport on Nov 1,h 2014

    Apr 08 2018 Update

    There's another option for travelers to consider, recently published in this helpful new directory:

    • No Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Cards

      April 5, 2018 - Traveling is expensive enough. Save money with a credit card that has no foreign transaction fee. Whether your sampling local cuisine or shopping online abroad, these cards give you one less thing to worry about. And for even more travel perks, check out our list of travel cards from our partners.