Tuesday 26 Apr, 2016

Time Machines and ATMs in Rome

Bobby is a Principal with a background in History and Social Studies. He first traveled with EF Educational Tours in 2010 to Rome and Paris, and now leads a student tour every summer. He believes that young people should experience life outside of their communities, and that understanding other cultures is imperative to solving global challenges.

Getting access to cash on tour is really no more difficult than taking money out of an ATM at home. However, there are a few things that need to be done beforehand to ensure everything goes smoothly while on tour.

Tip #1 – Notify your bank or credit card company that you will be traveling overseas. They will likely ask for the countries you will be visiting and the dates you will be gone. If you do not do this, it is possible that your bank will deny your charges, leaving you unable to withdraw money from an ATM or use your card for purchases.

Tip #2 – You will be charged a small fee by the bank operating the ATM that you use in Europe, as well as by your financial institution back home. If you are traveling in multiple countries that use the same currency, it would be wise to make one large withdrawal as opposed to several smaller ones at the start of the trip, to avoid these charges as much as possible.

Tip #3 – Practice currency conversions with your students prior to going on tour and prepare them for more expensive prices. It is not uncommon in most of Europe to pay anywhere from 2-5 Euros for a can of Coke. This equates to roughly $2.50-$6.00 a can. Also, students need to know that the 50 pound jacket they “can’t live without” in London is really going to cost them close to $75.

Tip #4 – Be sure to check with each traveler prior to departure to see what kind of card they plan on using while on tour. Have they notified their bank? Do they know their PIN number? What is their backup plan if they lose their card? As the following story will illustrate, you never know what will happen and can never be too prepared.

Each year my student-travelers are always mystified by a few things before heading to Europe: Overcoming the language barrier, having to pay for a public toilet, and exchanging/withdrawing money. Of all of these things withdrawing money is easiest to explain because the process is no different than taking money out of your local ATM. The key is what must be done before your trip. There are really only two things that should be done before traveling internationally—notifying your bank/credit card company that you’ll be traveling overseas (and when and where you’ll be traveling), and checking that your card has a numerical pin that will be useable in Europe. This is pretty simple and something that I regularly remind my travelers to do. And when I say I remind them regularly, I mean I remind them every single time we have a meeting. Outside of having a valid passport, having your money situation figured out is perhaps the most important part of planning your trip to Europe. It’s needless to say that not having money in Europe might complicate things a bit.

On my first trip, during the first night in Rome I felt assured that all of my travelers had taken the necessary steps before leaving and that we were ready for a full day of touring. Luckily, ATMs are plentiful and generally conveniently located. For us, there was a bank ATM just a block or two from our hotel. Our Tour Director led us to the ATM and we each took turns withdrawing Euros for our trip. When my turn came, I maneuvered the screens without much issue, took my money, and joined my group back at the hotel. Satisfied that everyone had retrieved their money we held a brief group meeting and made our way back to our rooms for the evening.

We were all a bit jet-lagged and decided that we needed a good night’s sleep, but right before I was about to get in bed I heard a knock at my door. This wasn’t unexpected on the first night and I assumed someone was having trouble calling home. At this time most of my students were using phone cards to make the trans-Atlantic connection back home and entering country codes and long pin numbers oftentimes confused the kids. Opening the door I was greeted by one of my students.

Opening the door our conversation went something like this:
“Hey Josh, what can I do for you?”

“Well…I need some help getting my money.”

Relieved that this was an easy fix, I said, “Oh, you didn’t take money out with everyone else? No problem, all you need is your PIN number and card and I’ll walk you down to the ATM.”

This is where it got interesting.

“That’s the problem; I don’t have a PIN number”

A bit puzzled, but assuming he had forgotten his PIN, I asked, “You mean you don’t know the PIN number?”

“No, I mean I never was given a PIN.”

At this point I started to get a little worried.

“Let me see your card.”

Upon looking at Josh’s card I quickly realized he had essentially put $1,000 on what amounted to a grocery store gift card. To make matters worse the card wouldn’t work overseas so there was no way for Josh to access his money. Keep in mind that this was the first day of a nine day trip; an ominous start indeed.

Doing my best to remember that I was this kid’s teacher and therefore shouldn’t get too upset, I offered to be helpful.

“There’s not a lot I can do for you. Let’s give your mom a call and see if she has an idea.”

Josh, who was now standing inside my room, began to shift from foot to foot.

“Josh did you hear me? Let’s call your mom.”

“Well, you see, that’s another problem. I don’t have any way to call home.”

At this point I was doing my best to keep my head from exploding. Two of the three things I talked about constantly with my group prior to departure he had seemingly missed. Fortunately for Josh, I had a phone card and we made contact with his parents. Working with my wife who was back home in the States, and Josh’s parents, we devised a way for Josh to get access to money. Josh’s mom would meet my wife with some money. My wife would then in-turn deposit the money into our checking account. I would then use my card to withdraw money for Josh. Easy enough, problem solved. That’s what you might assume anyway.

Our plan was to withdraw money for Josh the following evening after returning from our day of sight-seeing. I floated Josh some money that day for lunch and after a great day (including seeing the Pope give a blessing in St. Peter’s Square) and dinner at a nearby Tratorria, we made our way back to the hotel. I dropped my things off in my room and Josh and I then made the one block walk to the ATM. We were both in high spirits after an exhilarating first day of touring. It was shaping up to be an excellent trip and I was sure that this small set-back would be the worst thing we’d have to worry about. All was good with the world. Clearly, I had spoken to soon.

People in Rome

Arriving at the cash machine, I inserted my card and punched through the correct screens while Josh and I continued to talk about our day. Now in the United States there generally are two types of ATM machines. One in which you swipe the card quickly in and out and go on with your business, and the type where you insert the card and at the conclusion of the transaction it will, rather obviously, spit the card back out to be retrieved. In Europe, what seems to be the norm is some maddening mixture of these two things. Rather than make it obvious your card is waiting to be taken, the cash machines in Europe, slowly, almost covertly dispense your card back out. Not enough to make this process obvious mind you, but just enough of your card to put your greasy olive oil covered fingers on the end of it.

Now remember our setting—it’s getting dark, we are a block from our hotel, we are on an adrenaline high from our day of seeing Rome, and probably most important, we aren’t paying attention. At some point in our conversation my debit card had been, ever so quietly, pushed back out for me to take. However, being as engrossed as we were in our conversation neither of us saw it. After realizing that something was amiss I picked up on the faint “dinging” of the cash machine. As if processing this in slow motion it registered with my brain that this dinging must be something important, like, I don’t know, a warning perhaps?

Yes, a warning of some sort….my card! I recall the whole incident vividly. I turned toward the cash machine, arm outstretched just in time to see my card disappear back into the tiny slot it had only moments before been sitting. My debit card had just been eaten by a cash machine in Rome. I was not happy.

Knowing I was a bit upset by the whole ordeal, the kids suggested we go out for gelato that evening. I certainly was not in the mood, but not wanting to let my personal issue ruin the evening for the group I went along. The kids, as they often are, turned out to be right. After overcoming a rather large language barrier with the man at the gelateria we walked the neighborhood taking in the beautiful Roman evening. With my spirits lifted, I was determined to get my card back in the morning. How that was going to happen, I did not know.

Rising early the next morning, I dressed, ate my fill of the rather tasty hotel breakfast and made my way to the bank. A new wrinkle had added itself to my already complicated equation. Our bus left that morning at 9:00 AM and we would not be returning. Our itinerary called for us to be in Florence by nightfall which meant if I didn’t get my card that morning, it was likely I would not be getting it back at all. Arriving at the bank I was surprised to not find doors, but rather a circular pod that looked like a time machine. Opening the sliding door, I stepped inside this strange, futuristic portal…and stood there. I didn’t know what to do. There were various buttons and instructions but they were obviously all written in Italian. Hoping that someone inside the bank would see this dumb American stuck in the “doorway” I coyly waved my arms at the people inside. After a few seconds I realized this was futile and decided I better leave before the Roman Carbinieri was called. Resigned to the fact that I would be without a debit card the rest of the trip I made my way back to the hotel.

Dejected, I walked back into the breakfast room where I encountered our Tour Director, Simone.

“Bobby, your students said your debit card was eaten by the ATM. Were you able to get it back?”

Sheepishly, I responded, “No, I tried going to the bank but wasn’t even sure how to get into the building!”

Laughing, the suave Italian from Torino put on his designer Italian sunglasses and said, “Follow me”

I was relieved and a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t thought about asking our Tour Director for help. The Tour Director is your best source of help and information on any trip. They should always be your go to when in a pinch. As we hurried down the sidewalk I felt confident I would get my card back. Our only challenge was that we only had approximately 30 minutes until our bus left.

Navigating the space capsule entrance (which simply required us to push a button to be buzzed in) Simone found someone in charge and in less than 15 minutes I had my card back in hand.

I learned several valuable lessons from this experience. First, I always require students to show me their debit/credit cards prior to departure so that I can ensure they are useable overseas. I also make sure that they have and know their PIN numbers. In the end everything worked out well as Josh was able to withdraw some money and enjoy the rest of his trip.

Your first tour with EF is a life-changing experience. Everything is new and fresh and every day truly is a new adventure. So when you arrive in Europe for the first time, remember that all of the oddity and uniqueness of your temporary home is part of the fun of traveling. And most importantly, when hitting up the cash machine for the first time, be sure to get your card back.

Plan an educational tour to Rome and experience the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Sistine Chapel and more with your students!