I remember when going from European country to country meant changing money to get the local currency. With the advent of the euro, that’s all gone. Ditto for traveller’s checks. Indeed, the American Express office at the Spanish Steps has closed. In this new millennium, most establishments accept credit cards. For the few times you do need cash, ATMs are the way to go.
Before you go
Make sure to contact your credit card (note: VISA and MasterCard are widely accepted, AMEX and Discover less so) and ATM card institutions before you leave home. You want to alert them to the fact that you will be traveling. Their security systems detect in real time that your card is being used in a foreign country and can immediately “freeze” on suspicion your card has been stolen. The last thing you want is for this to happen when buying tickets to the Vatican Museums.
This is also the time to find out whether there are any foreign transaction fees. If you don’t have a card without foreign transaction fees, now may be the time to sign up for one. Also, ask your bank what your daily withdrawal limit is for ATMs. You may want to raise it (see below for further details).
Lastly, ask your bank if they have a relationship with any banks in Rome. Usually, large banks will, but not always. Both the bank that owns the ATM and your home bank will normally charge a fee, but you would be saving on one of those fees.
Do you need to get euros before you go?
Not necessarily. For our guests, we provide complimentary pickup at the airport, and while a small tip for the driver is appreciated, it’s not expected. Same with our guest services manager. So, if the airport ATM is not working, or the line is long, you can definitely wait until you get into the city and locate another ATM. They are plentiful in the area around our apartment.
However, I think it’s not a bad idea to get perhaps 100 euros in advance. You’ll either have to get it through your bank — which may take a few days, and there may be a charge — or at your local airport. This will definitely not be the best deal, which is why I recommend you only get a small amount. Then, I’d pick up more euros at an ATM after you arrive.
ATMs and Cash
You’ll find a number of ATMs (Bancomats) in the Spanish Steps area. Fees are almost unavoidable at Italian ATMs but still far less than the mark-up you’d face exchanging cash. Since each transaction may incur a fee, you may want to take out the maximum amount, versus multiple smaller withdrawals. One tip: if the ATM rejects your card, try asking for a smaller amount, as you may be hitting your daily limit. As always, be vigilant about protecting your PIN and securing your cash.
Always try to keep some small bills and coins handy. While many places in Rome take credit cards, small vendors often do not. But again, the number of cash-only places is diminishing. You’ll occasionally encounter the taxi driver who “can’t” break a 20 euro bill when your due is 13 euros. Even places that take credit cards often will not let you put the tip on the card.
Places can, and often do, charge extra for table service. For example, it’s expected at coffee places that there is a higher price for service when using a table (tavola), versus standing at the bar (banco) and throwing back your shot of coffee like a real Roman.
In case you’re familiar with it, the “bread and cover charge” (pane e coperto) is no longer mandatory — the government passed a law that it could not be mandatory several years ago. If the bread basked arrives, you can say no thank you and wave it away, and there should be no charge. But if you eat the bread, and the charge is noted on the menu, you should pay for it.
This is a big departure in thinking for many of our guests. Tipping is not required. Romans frequently leave no tip, just round up the bill, or might leave a few coins — seriously, I’m talking one or two euros for a pleasant meal. This is because many of the people we’re used to tipping at home because they depend on tips for a living, such as restaurant servers, instead have a much better salary in Italy. They don’t depend on tips for their livelihood. Romans don’t tip taxis except for exceptional service, and you do not need to.
Even when someone tells you “service is not included,” this does not mean you are required to leave a tip unless there is a requirement for a service charge indicated on the menu. Let me say this may be tried on tourists but not on locals. Some restaurants do have printed in small font somewhere on their menu that there is a percentage service charge. But if it’s not on the menu, they should not be able to charge you.
Yes, they do happen. Indeed, we’ve been ripped off by the place across the alley from us — didn’t notice until we looked at the bill days later (and we’re not fans of the food or service either). Our advice: always check your bill, and if something doesn’t match the prices on the menu, make a fuss.
And, you are supposed to always get an itemized receipt, a ricevuta fiscale. This is a legal requirement. If they don’t give you one, ask for it (never had this happen, but it does occur). Otherwise, state that you will report them to the Guardia di Finanza. Their public help line phone number is 117.