Going to Germany? Don't Forget Your Cash!
We analysts travel quite a bit to different places around the world. As someone who is always interested in what's going on in the payments world, I have a keener eye on my payments experiences than probably most people. I shared some of my observations about those experience on these pages in the past.
Most of the time these days I don't have to think too much about money - my trusted Visa, MasterCard and American Express cards have been serving me well, to the point that I don't even bother exchanging currency before I get on the plane to many countries in Europe, especially Scandinavia, and increasingly, the US as well. During my last trip to Boston, I left London with just over $30 in my pocket and came back with more of less the same. Cards for meals and coffees, and Uber for taxi rides covered the basics, so the only cash I spent was on a few tips in the hotel.
I just came back from a weekend in Germany, in Wuerzburg, a lovely little town in Bavaria, about half-way between Frankfurt and Nuremberg. And I am very glad I had plenty of cash with me!
Some of it was predictable - the main purpose of my trip was a small music festival, and I expected that once inside, I would need cash for most things, including merchandise (vinyl, cds, t-shirts), snacks, and drinks. Incidentally, buying a drink there was an interesting experience in itself, as each drink included a deposit. So, for example, you would pay EUR 3.30 (in cash) and would get a bottle of beer or a glass of wine and a red plastic token. If you take your empty glassware and the token back to the bar, you get 1 Euro back! I know that in some European countries, you can take your empty bottles and cans back to the store and get some money back, so perhaps that was the reason for the somewhat complicated procedure here. Or perhaps it was a creative way to keep the venue tidy? And, by the way, these prices are not illustrative - a large glass of excellent local white wine was indeed less than 3 EUR once you got back your deposit!
What did surprise me was when I tried to buy something in a proper store in town. I asked if they took cards, and the shopkeeper assured me that yes, they took cards, "as long as they were EC." At first, I thought that perhaps he meant EMV, as in "EC = electronic chip", so I tried first my credit, then my debit cards. Only when both were rejected, I realised that he meant they only accepted "EC = electronic cash or EuroCheque", a German payment instrument that is similar to a debit card, but only works locally. This was a relatively small, "mom-and-pop" store, but I also remember having exactly the same experience on another trip to Germany in a much larger department store. That time I didn't have cash, so had to leave the store empty-handed...
I must also say, before I create any false impressions, that my international cards worked just fine in many places, including the hotel and the restaurants. However, that's a typical T&E sector, which is always the first one to accept international payment cards. I do understand the prevalence of local payment methods and the merchants' preference for those, but by limiting choice, these places do run a risk of losing customers or at least individual transactions.
So, what's my travel advice? Do you homework and understand local payment preferences, but if in doubt, take cash! By the way, that process (getting cash) itself is getting a make-over - there have been quite a few announcements recently from banks enabling customers to withdraw cash from ATMs without a card. However, these announcements also highlight the diversity of approaches being deployed. I am in the midst of writing a report on different ways to implement cardless cash withdrawals, so if you are a Celent research client, stay tuned!