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The experience of an unprepared American driving in France

Dallas, Texas
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The experience of an unprepared American driving in France

I thought I knew what to expect before I went to France last week, but I was wrong. So in case this might help someone else, I thought I should share my experience.

Having a brand new credit card doesn't at all mean you have a chipped credit card. I didn't really grasp what that was before I left. I called American Express before I left to tell them I was going to Europe. They wanted me to take a platinum card to avoid foreign transaction fees so I agreed to take it. They never said a word about maybe I'd need a chipped version of that card, and the one they sent me didn't seem to be chipped. Also, not many places outside of major cities take American Express so you actually can leave home without it. I haven't yet called to get a chipped credit card but I certainly will before I go back to Europe. I'd also notified my bank I was leaving for Europe and they never suggested my bank mastercard wasn't chipped, but it wasn't.

I was not able to use any of my visa/mastercard/amex credit cards at toll booths.

There are a lot of toll booths with expensive tolls on the autoroutes. The highest toll I paid at one time was €10.60.

The toll booths aren't staffed. They're automatic. So you can't just look for the lane that has a booth with a person inside of it. At least not at any of the toll locations I went through.

If they do take bills, said bills can't be larger than €20. I'd come prepared with cash money, but all €50 bills. It wasn't fun to find out the hard way I was at a toll booth that wouldn't take such a large bill nor would it take any of my credit cards.

Some toll lanes won't take paper bills. Also not fun to find out after making sure I was "prepared" with plenty of low denomination euros but not a lot of coins. In Aix, at least, you can't get any coins from a bank, and stores don't have a lot of spare coins to let you have either. Some lanes take both bills and coins but you have to pick the correct lane if you don't have a chipped credit card. They have signs above each lane with symbols for coins, paper bills and credit cards, depending on what that particular lane can accept. Until you learn the hard way, you might think that a symbol for coins just means cash period. It doesn't. Some lanes took only coins and cards. Some lanes took coins, cards and bills. You have to be in the correct lane.

Parking places in parking garages are teeny, teeny, tiny. I rented a BMW 3-series which isn't a huge car but it was sometimes challenging to park it between other cars and poles. I surely wouldn't have wanted a car any bigger than that. BTW, I rented at the Nice airport from Sixt. They were very easy to deal with coming and going. I'd requested a manual transmission since that's all I ever drove for 25 years. Upon pickup, the man I asked me if I'd rather have an automatic transmission. I said no. I don't know if he'd intended to raise the price of the rental if I'd said yes, but the car he gave me had an automatic transmission and a navigation system. I'd brought my gps with me so I actually hadn't needed either of those things but they were nice to have. I played the car's navigation system in French while simultaneously using my own garmin in English. It wasn't necessary but it was a nice crosscheck. Also, I was never offered the option of renting a toll tag. If that option does exist, I'd recommend getting it.

All of this may be very obvious to a lot of people, but it wasn't to me. Hope it helps someone else.

Ottawa, Canada
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1. Re: The experience of an unprepared American driving in France

Glad you survived! Sorry you didn't read up more on toll booths and chipped cards here on TA beforehand but hopefully your experience will help others.

Now... how about telling us about what you *did* find fun... especially driving a nice BMW? ;^) That must have been fun!

Edited: 03 November 2013, 17:17
Los Angeles...
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2. Re: The experience of an unprepared American driving in France

Never had a problem with chipped vs. unchipped credit cards (Amex, gold or platinum, Citi Master Charge) in France and never really knew about them until I read it here on Trip Advisor. It will be easier second time around.

Chicago
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3. Re: The experience of an unprepared American driving in France

There aren't yet many issuers of chipped cards in the US and those that do tend to issue chip and signature as opposed to chip and pin. If you do a forum search you can find oodles of threads with that info. I doubt it's even on the radar of the people you talked to when you called to notify them about your trip, I would not expect my bank to give me info like that anyway. Really a problem mainly with automated payment machines.

And you did learn not to take bills larger than a 20 if you can help it, I don't carry larger bills here either though.

I hope the rest of your trip was great, do tell us about it!

Nice, France
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4. Re: The experience of an unprepared American driving in France

The US just kept dragging its heels on 'chip and pin'. Nobody knows why. It's been like that for so many years now. But I did hear last year that it was going to convert finally.

Another example about how out of step North America can surprisingly be. I always tell my Canadian credit card people where I'm going abroad before I leave. But this time, I was going to be in the EU for 18 months at least and could have ended up anywhere had things not panned out for us in France first off. The bank made me name and spell for its rep all 27 EU countries. It wasn't set up to recognize the EU as a destination. That's equivalent to having to name all of the US' 50 (or 51?) states just because one's planning a long road trip and can't say for certain exactly which states he may get to or not.

Sydney, Australia
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5. Re: The experience of an unprepared American driving in France

The point made in reply #3 is important and is often not realised by US banks. Some US banks are moving to chipped cards, but many are chip-and-signature and these cards are no more useful in France than the mag stripe cards. A chip-and-PIN card is necessary.

You can quickly tell if a card has a chip: it is visible on the left side of the front of the card. See the illustration at http://www.nickbooth.id.au/Tips/ChipCards.htm

Maine
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6. Re: The experience of an unprepared American driving in France

I had read a lot years ago here on TA to plan ahead for the many possibilities of getting into a fix, rules of the road, how to get on when paying for the toll roads, parking meters, as well as small resto checks, marches, etc. As an American, it isn't smart to have just a little cash and your credit card. American cards will not work for tolls, or unmanned gas stations- also impossible to buy train tickets at kiosks -one has to go to a window to process the transaction-all TA comments were essential for us to plan ahead. I learned that you need a lot of cash for just about everything. You have to carry cash- just be safe - wear your documents and cash. Today, we still put euros into the console for tolls. But-also 10 years ago I had read there was another way to pay yet we never tried it- a prepaid cash card from one of the stores in France- we never tried this- is that acceptable at a toll booth, in the cash line I assume?

Perth, Australia
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7. Re: The experience of an unprepared American driving in France

Having a chip and pin card is only part of the story - be aware that for most unsupervised transactions using an automatic machine the credit/debit card actually has to be issued by a French bank. I use an Australian credit card when I visit France and we've had chip and pin for years, but it's still no good. Train/local transport ticket issuing machines, unstaffed gas stations, autoroute tolls, prepaid SIM card top-ups - no can do. The exception is ATMs where there isn't a problem.

Sydney, Australia
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8. Re: The experience of an unprepared American driving in France

My Australian chip-and-PIN cards work as chip-and-signature in France, and so cannot be used in unattended machines. Every other European country I have visited, the cards work as chip-and-PIN.

Perth, Australia
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9. Re: The experience of an unprepared American driving in France

If you can use your card in an French ATM then you are using the chip and pin function, not the chip and signature. Non-French chip and pin cards will work in ATMs without a problem. The problem is the other automated machines that have been specifically programmed to only accept cards from French banks. I have heard Belgians complaining that their cards won't work in France, and they're right next door. :D

Sydney, Australia
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10. Re: The experience of an unprepared American driving in France

I don't think ATMs use the chip. I think that in an ATM the card functions as a mag stripe card with a PIN.

The card functions as chip-and-signature even when I am buying in a shop or paying a hotel bill.

Edited: 04 November 2013, 06:15