Paying for a room with a view: Italy offers culture, fine food and sun. Andrew Bibby looks for the best way to pay

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The Independent Online
YOU MAY need a few thousand lire in cash in your pocket to tip the gondolier, but British visitors to Italy will find that the spread of plastic cards has generally made holiday money much easier to organise.

Unusually, MasterCard has a slight edge over Visa in Italy. It claims that about 250,000 outlets take its card, and MasterCard (including Access) holders can draw cash from about 5,400 cash machines. Visa claims about 160,000 outlets and a similar number of cash machines.

While most larger British banks offer both Visa and MasterCard, the transaction charges when cards are used abroad are calculated differently by the two networks. If you have the choice, MasterCard often works out marginally cheaper.

Cash withdrawals normally attract a further 1.5 to 2 per cent fee. The exception to this rule applies to Link cardholders lucky enough to have chosen one of the small number of issuers that have joined the international Plus network. Many larger Link issuers do not participate. But building societies such as Chelsea, Coventry, Derbyshire, Dunfermline, Norwich & Peterborough and Yorkshire provide cash cards that will obtain money from about 700 cash machines in Italy free of additional charges.

EuroCheques are another possibility, although the annual fees levied by banks ( pounds 4- pounds 9) for EuroCheque cards tend to make this a more expensive option. You can use EuroCheque cards in more than 8,000 cash machines in Italy or write cheques from your current account. Each transaction is subject to commission (typically 1.6 per cent) and may also be liable to handling and minimum charges. Midland, for example, charges pounds 7.50 a year for the card and 2 per cent per transaction, with a minimum pounds 1 in each case.

If you are keen to pay for your holiday direct from your bank account, debit cards may work out simpler and cheaper than EuroCheques. Visa debit cards are accepted as widely as Visa credit cards. Switch, however, is a British- only facility. NatWest and Midland offer Switch customers the option of joining the international Maestro/Cirrus network.

Barclaycard and American Express cardholders have access to a 24-hour emergency cash service. Barclaycard will arrange replacement cards for travellers with at least two more weeks' holiday ahead. Holders of other cards are less well looked after. It may be worth joining a card protection scheme, such as those run by CPP and Sentinel Card Services.

Traveller's cheques in Italian lire are not available from the main issuers, but sterling cheques can be exchanged at Italian banks, stations and airports. This summer, American Express offers one of the best deals for traveller's cheques, provided you buy them from Amex's offices (1 per cent commission, no minimum or buy- back charges). High commission or minimum charges make it worth steering clear of Thomas Cook, Barclays and NatWest.

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