For our summer holidays this year the Outsider and family journeyed to Germany. One reason for this is son #1′s pursuit to visit what seems like every natural history museum in Europe, and Stuttgart had one of the best in Germany, he said (we did Berlin last year).
To avoid spending all our time a big city we decided to spend a few days first in picturesque Heidelberg. Arriving by train (Eurostar, ICE and S-Bahn), a long but interesting and smooth journey, we bought a two-day transport pass at Tourist Information. ”Cash or credit card?” the very friendly and efficient assistant asked. ”Cash” we replied without thinking too much, after all we’d brought plenty, even allowing for the really awful exchange rate between the pound and the Euro.
It turned out the Tourist Information kiosk was one of the few places that accepted our credit cards. We carry both Vias and Mastercard, credit and debit cards. Having had difficulties in France some years ago when they were still using their pre-standard chip and PIN system, we hedge our bets these days. What we were not prepared for was the almost complete lack of shops and restaurants that accepted any of our cards. The Outsider was used to travelling to Germany quite often when still working, and never had much problem using plastic then.
In the UK we have become used to being able to use credit and debit cards almost anywhere. Even the smallest of restaurants and shops seems to have a chip and PIN machine, even market stalls and craft traders in the middle of fields. We’ve become used to cards being taken anywhere, and we rely on them. If our cards were going to be useless in Germany, we were going to have to be very careful with our cash reserves. Suddenly using cash for that purchase of our travel passes felt rash.
We did spot some people using a type of card in the local supermarkets, but those same supermarkets wouldn’t take our cards. The Outsider didn’t find out what cards these were, maybe they were pre-payment cards, popular with shops as the risk of fraud is low, at least for the shop.
Some shops sported the Eurocheque logo. Eurocheques were once quite popular across Europe, particularly before the days of the European common currency (the Euro). They could be written in a variety of currencies and then converted back into the user’s own currency by the banking system. But they were withdrawn in 2002 (coincidentally when the Euro was introduced) when cheque guarantee cards were withdrawn. Whether this meant the shops still accepted Eurochques (at their own risk presumably), or whether they just hadn’t taken down the logos we never found out.
Fortunately for the Outsider’s family our fortunes changed when we moved to Stuttgart for the second part of our holiday. For some reason there were more places that would accept our cards, even the supermarkets we used, so the pressure on our cash reserves eased. When we asked in the Stuttgart Tourist Information kiosk they were at a loss to explain why the two towns were so different.
Maybe we were just unlucky. Maybe it was just the particular shops we went in, and the restaurants we visited. Maybe they were not so interested in the tourist trade (hang on, that’s Heidelberg we’re talking about). Whatever the reason, we’re going to do our research before visiting Germany again, and make sure we have the right plastic.