When I started my career as a global warrior, way-back-when, arriving everywhere lugging an overstuffed backpack with a ridiculously-cheap bottle of red wine and a stinky, smashed wedge of brie inside, the only thing one needed to make sure one had were traveler’s checks, which were easy-to-buy and widely accepted no matter where one went. You’d simply waltz up to any change booth (well, maybe not waltz, since you’d get a funny look doing that on a sidewalk in Paris), cash ’em (after paying a commission), then walk away with a wallet-full of the local currency. But times have changed and the advent of ATM machines, where you can access money directly from your bank account back home, have changed everything. And credit cards, which most of us migrated to, which offered the best exchange rate, are now socking people with large fees, so they do have their drawbacks too.
So here’s my tips for getting money when visiting in Paris.
Your bank, credit card company, or credit union, may have a good deal and if so, you can share it with others in the comments sections. And remember that rules change often and without notice. Policies seems to change more frequently than currencies and it’s best to telephone and seek information from your particular financial institutions well in advance of your trip.
And speaking of calling financial institutions, always carry the numbers to contact your credit card companies and bank with you. Especially if they have overseas numbers. But even though they have toll-free numbers which you can supposedly access from abroad, you need to go through a foreign telephone operator, like AT & T, to get connected, so have those numbers too.
In addition to carrying those numbers, if you use a web-based email service, like Hotmail or Yahoo! Mail, email yourself those numbers so you can access them from any cyber café in Paris. Scan and email yourself your passport in case it’s lost or stolen, too. Then you can print it from anywhere in the world, which will make it easier to replace if necessary.
Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted, but few merchants or restaurants will accept them unless the amount is over 15€. Otherwise you’ll need to have cash. Rarely do taxis take credit cards, and not so many places take American Express due to the commission, so you should bring another card along as back-up.
One frustration to guests, which happened to a whole group of mine just yesterday (of 9 people), you’ll find your US-based credit cards denied for no reason.
You can prevent this by calling your credit card company in advance and telling them your travel plans. But sometimes it just happens and your card gets denied for absolutely no reason at all. (Usually it’s when there’s 6 people lined up behind you at the supermarket.) And in those cases, it’s good to have a second back-up card, or cash.
If you use your credit card to pay in restaurants, should you wish to leave a little extra for a gratuity, leave it in cash on the table instead of adding it to the credit card receipt.
Always call your bank before you leave and let them know you’ll be traveling. My US-based bank requires you to call only within 3 days of your departure, no further in advance, for some reason. (As if you don’t have enough to do three days before you leave on your trip…)
Virtually all US-based credit cards add 3% or more points to purchases made abroad, called a “currency conversion fee”. It used to be included in the conversion and not shown on your statement, but a lawsuit forced them to separate it out, and it shocked many consumers to find out they’ve been getting hammered by fees. But you’re on vacation, and it may be worth it for you to pay a little extra for the safety and convenience. So even though you may be chasing miles, unless you have a special deal (like double miles) consider if it makes sense to use it. Many travelers use Capitol One credit cards since, at the time of this writing, they don’t charge any percentage points for foreign transactions.
If your wallet is stolen, it’s often recovered with everything intact sans the cash. That’s because there’s less credit card fraud in Europe, since it’s illegal to sell personal financial information about you (unless it’s negative) and credit cards in Europe use a puce, not an info-loaded magnetic strip. A friend had her purse rifled by a neighboring diner at a restaurant, who hurried out afterwards. Moments later she realized he lifted her wallet, but it was found on the ground just outside the restaurant intact (sans the cash, mais oui).
Although you might think Paris is a popular, world-class tourist destination, anyone who’s arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport knows what a nightmare that place is; I sometimes think I’ve landed in a third-world country by accident! Unlike other cities, getting cash there is often a dicey proposition since cash machines (les guichets automatiques) are surprisingly scarce, broken, or just don’t work.
Don’t believe me?
Here’s an account from a travelers bulletin board I read recently:
“… we tried to get cash…our ATM cards didn’t work at the only ATM in the arrivals area. We then went to the departures area – same story. We ended up buying euros at the American Express desk, but even there, we had problems – my Amex card and my husband’s Visa card were both rejected. My Visa worked. So, now with some cash, we made our way to the RER to catch the train into Paris. We decided to buy a 5 day Paris Visite pass – now we find that both our Visas are rejected, but my Amex card worked. Go figure.”
Most banks, on both ends, take a hefty chunk when making ATM withdrawls.
But you can do a few things to soften the blow: Check with your bank to see if they have an affiliated bank in Paris. Bank of America, for example, has a deal with BNP Paribas and Barclays so you don’t pay ATM fees. Also asking if your bank will raise your cash withdrawl limit means you’ll need to make fewer transactions and can save some fees, although you may feel uneasy traveling with a large amount of cash.
There are ATM’s on just about every street in Paris, and at La Poste, which in France, serves as a bank as well. But note that most European PINs don’t use letters, just numbers. So if your PIN is in letters, have it changed before you leave. And be sure to try your new PIN out before you leave since once you’re here, there’s not much you can do if it doesn’t work except get a costly cash advance from your credit card company. And in French ATM’s, you get three tries: Should you fail, the machine eats your card and you get to experience the famous bureaucratism de France for yourself. Also, I recommend using ATM’s during bank hours; in case there’s a problem and your card gets eaten, you can go inside and (try to) retrieve it.
Unlike credit card fees, ATM fees are fixed. See if your bank will increase your limit, since you’re paying the same amount to withdraw 20€ as you pay for 200€. Some banks will let you take out up to $1000 per day. The downside is having that much cash on hand, so you should weigh saving money against the peace-of-mind. The other thing to know is that even if your US bank says you’re entitled to $500 per day, the bank here may not allow it. That’s especially true in heavily-touristed areas, which often limit the amount of withdrawls to protect themselves from fraud. Yet in another neighborhood, you may be able to get your maximum.
Like your credit card, call your bank and let them know you’ll be traveling. I went to London recently, made and ATM withdraw one day, went back the next, and found out my card was ‘blocked’ by the bank.
It’s hard to find places to cash travelers checks anymore since many European countries adopted the Euro. The places that are still around to change them charge commissions (in addition to the percentages your financial institution may charge to get them in the first place) so they’ve fallen out of favor. So if you plan to use them, having them in Euros will make them easier to use, but check the exchange rate before purchasing them outside of Europe. There is an America Express office in Paris at the Place de l’Opera, but the lines are long and they’re not winning any awards for their efficiency.
Recently introduced is the Travelers Cheque Card which allows you to load money onto a card, then use it like a debit card, although American Express doesn’t recommend them for French travel for some reason. You can find more information on their handy chart.
Cash Before Arrival
While there are ATM’s at the airports in Paris, they’re few and far between (see above). And just like the decrepit elevators, out-of-service bathrooms, and filthy, broken chairs at Charles de Gaulle Airport, most of them seem to be eternally broken. So you may want to have cash when you arrive. You can get euros in advance from various sources, although the exchange rate is likely to be lousy. Still, it’s comforting to arrive with some cash in your pocket. Order it well in advance since it can take some time to arrive if you do it by mail.
Lastly, although it’s tempting to try to spent all your money before departing, I advise keeping some extra cash at the end of your trip for the next time you come.
Or leave it with me, for safekeeping…