A useful article in today's Times gives UK travellers a good run-down of the pitfalls and problems of using plastic abroad. For several years now, overseas businesses have offered customers the chance to pay in sterling. It may seem that this is helpful but in fact they are almost certainly out to profit from you, by using an exchange rate which is in their favour. Meanwhile your bank are sneaking profits from every transaction you make: hidden ones in the case of credit cards, and visible charges in the case of debit cards. If you travel a lot, it makes sense to obtain one of the few cards with no charges or 'loading' on exchange rates. And getting your currency in advance is better than withdrawing money from overseas cash machines, where your bank is likely to charge you a fee each time.
In Italy we've only been offered the 'chance' to pay in sterling a couple of times; so this trick isn't too common. Remember to say no, you prefer to pay in euros. And before you travel you should check your bank's charges, and consider shopping around: Nationwide currently have the best card to use overseas, and you could end up saving a fair bit of money.
> The holiday credit card swindle
It's always a good idea to monitor your spending on credit and debit cards, either while away or on your return. We've just been charged twice for a hotel stay, which may have been a genuine mistake but still required several phone calls and emails to our bank and the hotel concerned to resolve. Be alert.
In Italy businesses usually prefer cash (as do Italians in general; they're not trusting of plastic or of banks) and some shops, small hotels, B&Bs and many restaurants won't even accept card payments. So travel with adequate cash supplies, and plenty of smaller denominations to satisfy the fussy Italian staff who hate giving change. And of course always check your change. Watch out particularly for the 'slow change' trick, where a shop assistant who owes you, say, €7.50 change will hand over €2.50, then pause to see if you will accept this before - if you stand your ground - slowly producing the €5 note. Shamefully, there is one employee of the Venice transport company ACTV who does this every time we buy tickets. Remember that Italians don't trust each other, and they will respect you for being suspicious! Being furbo - sly, devious, on the make - is seen as a good thing.