Don't let hotels and restaurants charge you in dollars

Posted by TheYank at 10/5/2009 1:33 PM EDT

It's time for more free travel advice.

Back in May I offered the opinion that the travler's checks of years past are no longer necessary. I recommended that you use your ATM card to get cash (depends on the charge for using your ATM) and your credit card wherever you could. That's still true, but after Saturday night's experience I want to amend my credit card advice.

On Saturday night my wife and I went out for a meal. All was fine right up to the moment it came time to pay. I decided to use my Capital One US$ credit card rather than my local euros credit card. Why? I don't know, every so often I wonder what it's like to behave like an American tourist.

Using the American credit card puts two issues in play and I wanted to see how this establishment handled them. The first is that lack of a chip on the American cards. Over here the credit cards have a small microchip that adds layers of security to our credit/debit cards (so we're told) and requires a PIN in order to use it. We don't sign for credit card purchases these days, but rather enter a PIN at the checkout.


The gold 'chip' can be seen on the left hand side above the card number.
I've heard of a few retailers who won't accept the American style, chipless cards, but I had no trouble on Saturday night. I doubt any retailer that deals in American visitors would refuse a chipless card. That would include hotels, restaurants, visitor attractions, car rental companies, etc.

The other issue is more odious because it's a semi-hidden extra charge that some hotels and restaurants are adding to Americans' bills. On Saturday when I presented my card the waitress took it away and came back a few minutes later with a slip for me to sign. Only the price of my meal had changed from euros to dollars. I wasn't asked if I wanted this done so I was surprised when I saw the change to dollars.

This is really annoying because the exchange rate that the hotels and restaurants are using is - in my experience - much worse than you'll get if you just let the credit card company handle the exchange. Now on my meal it wasn't a huge deal - maybe $3 or so - but if you're spending a week or two at a hotel that difference would be huge. And, even if it's only $5 on a meal, why should you pay it?

The key is to NOT let them charge you in dollars. (And this goes for car rental companies too, although I'm not sure if they do this sort of thing or not.) At a minimum they should ask you if you'd like the final total in dollars. If they ask, say 'No'. If they don't ask and they present you with a bill in dollars ask them to refund the purchase and redo the sale in euros, although you may lose money on the purchase and refund*.

* Your credit card company may use two different rates for the purchase & refund, which would mean you'd lose out on the refund. I'm not sure how you might get that lost money back, but I'd have no problem asking the hotel/restaurant to refund that difference when you've established what that is.

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