Accessing & Managing Our Money From Our Motorhome in Europe

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Wednesday 17 December 2014

Accessing & Managing Our Money From Our Motorhome in Europe

Having traveled in Europe on our previous adventures we've tried lots of ways of accessing cash, even using travelers cheques on our first adventure way back in 2002! However, over the years we, like most people, have gotten increasingly used to just using our debit and credit cards wherever we happen to be. However, like most people we were also sick of getting stung with poor exchange rates/fees plus foreign currency loading fees, all for the privilege of accessing our own money from outside of the UK. So, when planning to set off on a longer adventure outside of the UK we knew we had to find a better solution.

Finding a way to access our cash without fees was a lot more than a matter of principle, it was also vital for staying on a sensible budget. For example, on our 2013 Pyrenean Way Adventure we found that using our previous current account cards for cash withdrawals were costing around 5% on each transaction (obviously these fees vary from bank to bank). At that rate, based on our planned motorhome budget, we estimated that it could be costing us an additional £50 a month just in fees. (based on our monthly outgoings of around £1300, of which around £300 are UK based 'overheads' leaving a cash expense on the road of around £1000 a month).

Even based on these simple sums we knew we had to find a fee free way of accessing our cash on our adventure, so before we set off I did a bit of Google searching to see what options were available. At first I read a little about pre-loaded cash cards, which you 'charge up' at a fixed exchange rate and then spend the money in local currency just like a debit or credit card. However, despite the 'accepted everywhere' claims I still felt nervous about signing up to something unfamiliar and worried how extensive that coverage really was. The last thing we wanted was to get stuck unable to pay for something. Or, have the money stuck on a card and not be able to use it.

Therefore, we decided to stay with more 'standard' bank accounts and fortunately discovered 2 accounts, one current account and one credit card, both of which claimed to be free to use outside of the UK.

Current Account - Norwich & Peterborough Gold Account
Although this current account pays no interest, it was the only current account I could find that doesn't charge any foreign transaction fees whatsoever for either cash withdrawals or card payments anywhere outside of the UK. The only requirement for using the account is that we have to pay in at least £500 each month or pay a £5 account fee. However, this hasn't been a problem as we simply set up a direct debit to make sure the minimum payment was made each month. The application process was done online in just a few minutes and a few days later our account documents, new cards and internet banking details etc. arrived in the post. 

The result - well so far this has worked perfectly for us and we've been able to withdraw our cash and make card purchases without incurring any fees and getting only very slightly less on the exchange rate according to the Bank of England.  

Credit Card - Halifax Clarity Credit Card
As with current accounts, this was the only credit card I could find on the market that allowed free usage outside of the UK. Generally speaking we had tried not to use a credit card in the past, but wanted a backup in case there were any problems with the N&P account. As with the N&P current account the application took just a few minutes online and within a week all of the account paperwork, internet banking setup and the credit cards arrived in the post. No hassle at all really.

The result - success! The Mastercard card has been accepted almost everywhere we've been and we've been charged no fees on any transactions.  On checking the statements, the Halifax card has again given us a very good exchange rate, sometimes better than the N&P (although only marginally, see below).

Credit vs Debit Card - Which is 'cheapest'?
Both of the accounts we are using on our trip, the N&P and the Halifax, have easy to use internet banking.  We decided to switched off all paper statements and just check our transactions against our receipts once a month online.

Each transaction on the statements shows the exchange rate at the time of transaction and by comparing transactions made on the same day we have been able get a sense of which is better, if any.
Our opinion is that the MasterCard (Halifax) gives a marginally better exchange range than the Visa Debit (N&P) so recently we've tried to use this a little more when we can, although the difference adds up to pennies each month.

Managing our Money Remotely
It's probably no surprise that we manage all of our finances using internet banking, including a couple of savings accounts which we use to transfer the minimum N&P payment from and pay off the credit card each month. We just make sure we log in at least once a month to check all the payments match our receipts and that the direct debits are working as they should.

The only issue/policy we have had is that we make sure never to log into our internet banking using a shared or free internet connection (such as at a McDonalds or unsecured an campsite connection). Instead we only log in using a more private connection with our own data sim card. Either we purchase a local sim card with some pre-loaded 'data' credit that we can use in our unlocked WiFi device or as a backup we also have a UK data sim card that we can charge up, although that's a lot more expensive. Internet access from the motorhome is something we have to find a better solution for in future.

Where it hasn't worked
Outside of the EU, in Switzerland for example, we found that the local cash machines levied a fee of at least 3% on cash withdrawals wherever we went. This is charged by the local bank rather than our own. But it was still very annoying. The same was true in Andorra apparently (although that was based on what someone else has told us).

We also found that some shops in Switzerland still only accept Maestro cards so we had to go looking for a cash point at very short notice while holding up a long queue of angry Swiss! 

This is just our experience and what we have used for our trip.  If you have any questions or suggestions please leave a comment below.

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