Friday 21 October 2016

Consumer Champion: Heading off on hols soon? Here's how you can avoid a nasty debit card bill

Picture posed
Picture posed
A student prepares for exams
A carer and her client

If we enjoyed the recent sunny weather all the time, none of us would ever need to go anywhere else, but sadly it's unreliable and we want constant sunshine on our holidays.

With many now booked and paid for, thoughts will turn to other aspects such as paying for stuff while we're away.

If you're travelling within the Eurozone, purchases on debit and credit cards are straightforward and charge-free.

In other words, paying for a restaurant meal will simply go through as a transaction in exactly the same way as it does here. With the introduction of the Visa debit system replacing the old Laser card, there's hardly anywhere left that won't accept your card.

But it's a different matter when you use it to withdraw cash at an ATM or are travelling farther afield. This week I'm looking at currencies and charges and helping you to avoid coming home to a bill for bank fees.

Thanks to the ECB's quantitative easing programme and Greek crisis, the euro has slumped in value, especially against key currencies such as sterling and the US dollar. This day last summer, €100 would have bought you $135 or £79.78; now it's just $109.52 or £70.67. That means your purchasing power is far less.

Add to that the huge fees banks (locally and at home) charge you to use their services and you could quickly find yourself over-budget. Withdrawing cash abroad can cost several euro each time, even in Eurozone countries, as local banks can charge for the service even if yours does not.

Using your credit card to do it is even more expensive, and you'll pay much higher interest rates than for purchases, so avoid that. In the States, for example, some credit cards charge up to 4.25pc of the amount withdrawn on top of currency exchange fees.

Some have partner banks, which cuts costs. For example, if you're an Ulster Bank customer, using RBS/NatWest ATMs in the UK will avoid transaction fees, but you'll pay 2pc otherwise (min €3, max €12), according to Bonkers.ie.

AIB, Bank of Ireland and PTSB also charge for sterling withdrawals (2.5pc to 3.5pc). In AIB's case it's uncapped, while the others are up to €11.43 per withdrawal. Ouch!

Bringing cash can be unsafe, but best to withdraw it in large enough sums to last you a few days at least.

Another option outside the Eurozone is to buy an FX card from An Post. This is great for people who don't have (or don't want to bring) a credit card.

It's a pre-loaded Mastercard with its own PIN number and not linked to your bank in any way.

It offers commission-free, charge-free transactions in US, Canadian and Australian dollars and sterling, and is bought over the counter in main post offices. There are charges for withdrawing at ATMs, but they're lower than banks'. You won't tip into debt because you're only spending your own money on it.

An Post also has commission-free foreign exchange, but its rates tend to be lower than banks, so shop around before buying cash.

For senior citizens, AIB and Bank of Ireland offer commission-free exchange up to €2,000, as does ICE foreign exchange in Dublin airport. Many credit unions also offer this to customers.

Housing's just as tough as exams

With the Leaving Cert out of the way for almost everyone, students looking forward to a long summer break will now be worrying about their results, college places and, just as pressing, accommodation.


Without knowing what course they've landed, it's difficult to plan, but those who'll be living away from home won't be reassured by Daft's latest rent report. It shows price increases of 8.2pc since last year, with a two-bed flat in Dublin city at €1,360 pm. In university cities Cork (€911), Limerick (€718) and Galway (€889) it's not much better. Most landlords expect a 12-month lease, so you're paying un- necessarily in the summer months.

Many colleges offer campus accommodation for first-years over the nine-month academic year, but supply is tight and securing it isn't much cheaper than going out on your own.

One option is to find digs, especially in first year. A home-from-home, you can get five-day accommodation for a lot less, with meals and laundry thrown in.

The popularity of the Rent-A-Room relief scheme for families makes it tax-efficient to offer a room to a student. Websites to check are rent.ie, collegecribs.ie, getdigs.ie along with student services like USI (home.usi.ie) and Spunout (spunout.ie). Also, it's not too late to apply for a SUSI maintenance grant towards accommodation (studentfinance.ie).

Free-in for carers is a great move - let's see more of it from businesses

Omniplex has introduced a scheme offering a free ticket to carers who accompany their clients to the movies.


The offer runs from Monday to Friday and they need to show their carer's card.

Omniplex joins Odeon Cinemas who were the first to do this for any carer, along with other places including the National Aquatic Centre and Tayto Park.

It's great to see firms taking the lead like this. It means those with carers can enjoy the same activities as the rest of us without it costing them on the double.

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