It’s Easier Than Ever to Travel Abroad Without Cash

On a recent trip to England, Andrew Dodson, 35, and his wife, Erin, 32, who live in Traverse City, Mich., had an unexpected problem: No matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t spend the 700 British pounds they’d brought along.

“We traveled all around the country, including many small towns in the Lake District and the Cotswolds, and even the tiniest of pubs took cards,” said Mr. Dodson, a content marketing manager for TentCraft, a manufacturer of customized tents and accessories. “Many wouldn’t even accept cash. As we approached the end of our trip, we went to a nice dinner at this Indian restaurant where we hoped to spend off some of the cash we converted, only to be told they don’t accept cash anymore.”

Finally, their London hotel let them pay their balance with cash so they wouldn’t have to bring the pounds home and reconvert them to dollars.

For American vacationers, traveling overseas used to involve the ritual of obtaining local currency, whether from a bank at home before heading off, or from an ATM or currency exchange at their destination. But in a transition hastened by the pandemic’s preference for contactless payment, increasing you can travel abroad and barely ever handle a physical bill or coin, whether pounds, kroner or euros.

“I’ve had the same 10 euros in my purse for weeks,” said Julene English, 62, a Fairfax, Calif., retiree on her first international trip since the pandemic, a three-month sojourn with her husband in Italy, France and Britain.

Consumers and the travel industry are both playing a part in the trend toward cashless trips. Travel suppliers and service providers have “adopted technology to facilitate online transactions and payments,” while consumers have become “more familiar and comfortable with contactless payments,” said Charuta Fadnis, a senior vice president for research and product strategy at the travel industry research firm Phocuswright. “Paying with a tap of their cards or phones is a behavior that is expected to persist.”

Of course, the move to cashless travel didn’t start with the pandemic. The increased use of digital payment options and mobile wallets is a long-term trend that’s been going on for the last 10 years in Asia and the last three years everywhere else, said Michael Orlando, the chief operating officer of the global payments company Yapstone.

“But there’s no question that the pandemic helped shift that trend into high gear,” said Matt Schulz, the chief credit analyst at LendingTree, the online loan company. Not only did consumers start ordering more things online and by cellphone when the pandemic started, but there was an aversion to handling physical money, especially early on when less was known about how the virus spread. “People just felt more comfortable handling over their plastic or using things like QR codes and mobile pay apps than using cash,” he said.

If you’re heading abroad this summer for the first time since the start of the pandemic, here’s what you need to know about when you’ll need cash (tips, restrooms), when you won’t (shops, restaurants), and how to optimize your credit card, bank card and digital payment options.

These days, many vendors outside the United States only accept contactless cards. On his trip, Mr. Dodson said he kept trying to “insert the chip or even swipe on a mobile card reader that the waiter would bring by, only to be reminded that ‘You must tap.’”

Ben Soppitt, the CEO of Unifimoney, a digital wealth management platform, said contactless technology has been the “de facto standard for almost a decade” in many places outside the United States. Indeed, Mastercard reports that half its transactions worldwide are now contactless.

Check your cards before you head overseas and if they don’t have the contactless payment symbol (a series of four curved lines), call your credit card company for a replacement before you travel.

Make sure any card you take abroad waives foreign transaction fees, since you don’t want to replace the currency exchange commission with an even higher credit card fee, which can run as high as 3 percent of every purchase. If you need a new card to avoid fees, Nick Ewen, the director of content at the Points Guy, a website that covers reward travel and related issues, said the Capital One VentureOne is a good choice.

And if you’re asked whether you prefer to be charged in local currency or in American dollars, choose local currency to avoid paying “steep conversion fees,” counsels Max Jones, a travel adviser with the Virtuoso Network and owner of the concierge agency Change Travel.

An added benefit with contactless cards is that they can be used for bus and train fares in many places (including New York City). No more paying extra for a transit card, no more guessing how much money to load on it, no more navigating confusing instructions at a kiosk. Combine the ease of contactless fares with directions from an app, and you’ll be using public transit like a native.

Nicole Gustas, 51, of Somerville, Mass., the marketing director for International Citizens Insurance, which sells travel and other overseas insurance, said she was “caught flat-footed more than once” in New Zealand and Australia because her credit cards weren’t contactless and merchants couldn’t process them. To get around the problem, she installed Google Pay on her phone.

In fact, it’s not a bad idea before your next trip to set up a digital wallet (like Google Pay or Apple Pay) connected to your bank account or debit card and become familiar with how it works in case you need a credit card alternative.

Jenny Ly, 29, a California-based blogger for the travel guide site Wanderly, said she was surprised to find “we don’t accept cash” signs on a trip to South Africa this year. “Many countries were already heading toward a cashless world before the pandemic, but Covid has expedited the usage of contactless payments via QR codes at checkout,” she said.

Once the QR code is scanned via your phone’s camera, you complete the payment with a digital wallet or by entering credit card information. But be careful, Ms. Ly said: “Malicious QR codes can be used to divert money, steal sensitive information and install malware.”

Despite the ubiquity of cashless payments, you may still end up needing some physical currency. “It really depends how far from the beaten path you’re going,” Mr. Jones said. “If you’re in a city, in London, for example, or if you’re on a group tour, you should be 100 percent OK relying on a card. But if you’re backpacking or going to small stores, small restaurants, no matter where you are in the world, there’s a decent chance you might have to use some cash.”

It also varies by country. Germany was a mostly cash economy until the pandemic, Mr. Jones said, but many previously cash-only vendors there now “have signs out that say ‘We prefer contactless payments.’” In contrast, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand have “been super pro-card in the last 10 years.” Spain and France, like Germany, remain a mix, he said.

And having some loose change on hand can be helpful. To use a restroom in the train station in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, Hana Pevny, 60, who owns the Waldo Emerson Inn in Kennebunk, Maine, was “forced to get euros out of an ATM” on her otherwise cashless trip to that country, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Using a car can also trigger a need for cash. Toll roads don’t always accept US debit or credit cards, and parking may require coins. Theola Tinny, 28, a co-founder of the tech start-up VinPit, who lives in New York, recently traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Credit cards were widely accepted in restaurants and stores, but when she and her family drove outside Kuala Lumpur, they had to “withdraw money and buy a can of Coke in order to get small change for the parking ticket.”

Another use for cash: “There might be some places where tips are very much appreciated, where you can only do it in cash, so it’s important to have $100 in small bills for the maid in your hotel room or somebody who helps you with your luggage,” said Pauline Frommer, the editorial director for Frommer’s guidebooks and websites.

In case you do end up needing an ATM abroad, find out in advance “if your bank has any international partnerships that will waive ATM fees,” said Mr. Ewen of the Points Guy. “Bank of America has partnerships with banks around the world, for example.”

Mr. Jones advises his clients to open a free Charles Schwab account, deposit a few hundred dollars, and use Schwab’s debit card for ATM withdrawals abroad. Schwab reimburses ATM fees, and this way you’re protected against bigger losses if your data is stolen by an ATM skimmer.

Beth Harpaz is a copy editor at the Forward, a Jewish news site.