First off, the dollar has strengthened slightly against the euro, which is good news. When we left, it was about $1.33 to the euro, and now it's $1.29. Let's hope it continues along that trend. We were so spoiled in China, where one dollar bought eight RMB!
One issue we've dealt with since settling in to Antwerp is how to handle money. Is it better to use traveler's checks (NO--we didn't even bring them...apologies to Dad who is an AmEx retiree) or cash or VISA or a VISA debit card?
Cash...where to get it? Fortis Bank, the main bank near us and one with many ATM's throughout Antwerp, does not accept foreign cards in its ATM's. Last week, we ran perilously low on cash. We wondered how our students would access their own accounts. For a while there, we thought we might have to take a train across the border into The Netherlands just to get cash from an ABN-AMRO or a Rabobank! Ultimately, we even considered opening an account at Fortis Bank, when we discovered a Citibank ATM near the Belgian National Bank on Frankrijklei. The flip-flip-flip of currency in the machine was music to our ears! Our credit union did charge a "foreign transaction fee" as well as $1 for using an out-of-network machine, so that's the downside. Best to make fewer, larger withdrawals.
The advantage of cash is, of course, it's universally accepted. If rates are good, you also lock in the exchange rate at the time you withdraw. If rates improve, well...tough luck.
On to the VISA network. Credit and VISA debit cards are treated equally here, so it's really your choice which to use. Upside? For me, if I have cash I'm too likely to spend it. At home I hardly ever carry cash. Downside? Too many stores, including some groceries, are not on the VISA system. Also, that foreign transaction fee shows up for every debit card purchase.
For the length of time we'll be here, a new bank account doesn't really make much sense. If we were going to be here any longer, though, it would be a really appealing option, and the JMU staff member who moved here last year said it's a piece of cake moving funds around between U.S. and Belgian accounts.