My Road Worrier column on when credit cards go wrong travelling overseas attracted a lot of interesting comments. Here's some further thoughts on the topic, based around my own recent experiences travelling in Europe
Picture by andresrueda
I still think Tesco's blanket refusal to accept a credit card in Britain because their own systems couldn't handle validating overseas chip and PIN systems was a ridiculous position to take (and, as one reader pointed out, a potential violation of its own merchant agreement). However, the responses from readers emphasised one crucial point: it's always sensible to have more than one card with you, just in case something doesn't work. That won't always help -- two Australian credit cards in the UK's biggest retailer were no more use than one -- but it's not too hard to organise.
Even with that precaution in place, you never know what kind of response you're going to get, especially in a country you haven't visited before. Between Italy, Switzerland and France over the past week, I've seen a range of different responses to Australian PIN-enabled cards, ranging from a no-worries acceptance of the PIN to allowing a transaction without even seeking a signature.
Italy surprised me the most. When I helped a cousin organise a train trip to Italy a couple of years ago, the Trenitalia site was completely incapable of completing a booking against an Australian credit card, and the company's phone booking service couldn't manage it either. Attempting to use it in an actual railway station didn't work; a call to his bank gave the remarkable response that the Italian railways was such a source of fraud that all payments were routinely blocked.
Things seem to have improved dramatically since then. Booking a train ticket at Milan airport, the credit card reader accepted the card and the pin without a problem. Every time I used a card during the visit, it was accepted, and only a handful of locations required a signature rather than a PIN (in the UK, while Tesco was the only company that refused to accept a PIN-free card, everywhere I went wanted a signature to verify transactions). All that suggests that Italy has gone from next-to-useless to performing better than the UK. It was a similar story during a brief sojurn in Switzerland, where every machine encountered accepted a PIN number without problems.
France offered a more mixed experience, though again with no outright rejections. Many retailers required a signature; and one coffee house, disturbingly, required neither PIN nor signature but simply accepted the transaction. That hardly represents best-practice security, and suggests a certain laxness on the part of the card providers in terms of enforcing policy.
Obviously, multiple factors play into whether a card will be accepted and how closely it will be scrutinised, including the banking provider used by the merchant, the age of their equipment, corporate policies and what sort of mood the counter staff are in. Overall, using a credit card in Europe has been mostly trouble-free, but it still seems to me that global operators like Visa and Mastercard should be able to enforce security in a more efficient and consistent manner.
Got your own tips on which countries accept or reject signatures or PINs? Share them in the comments.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman thinks credit card companies are irritating for travellers, but at least they're nowhere near as incompetent as Vodafone. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.