Using plastic in France

This item appears on page 28 of the May 2011 issue.

I stayed 3½ weeks in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France, in June ’10 with my children and grandchildren, ages 13 to 50, mostly visiting the smaller towns in Provence.

In advance, so that I could access cash, no matter what, I got a prepaid Cash Passport debit card in euros from Travelex Currency Services (No. Am. headquarters in New York, NY; e-mail It had a magnetic stripe only and needed a PIN. I got the card from my bank in St. Paul along with several hundred dollars worth of euros in cash.

From my local AAA office, I got some American Express Travelers Cheques, sold with no added fee. AmEx has a website for locating banks that will exchange them. In St. Remy, it listed Banque BNP Paribas, but there I was told they would not exchange them. Post offices in France with the sign “La Banque Postale” will cash most any amount of travelers’ checks for a fee of €4.50. They also have ATMs.

Anticipating possible problems, I also took a variety of credit cards: American Express, two different Visa cards and a Capital One MasterCard. The lack of chip-and-PIN technology on these cards wasn’t a problem, but using the cards became a game of Russian roulette, wondering which one would work at any given time.

My prepaid Cash Passport worked well at all the ATMs I tried, but the only purchase that I was able to use it for was in the duty-free store as I was departing France.

At a Monoprix department store in Uzes, I attempted to buy a sweater with the Cash Passport, but the cashier said, “It won’t accept it.” That was when I began presenting all of my cards to the cashier whenever purchasing something, saying, “Maybe this one will work,” and something always did.

The best two were my Capital One MasterCard (no foreign transaction fees — I used this card at restaurants, for buying gifts, etc., having set it up for autopay from my checking account), which was almost always accepted, and American Express, which worked many times. Even though shops had signs on the doorways showing Visa acceptance, my Visa cards rarely worked.

The clerks were very willing to try all the cards I pulled out of my ’round-the-neck carrier. Once or twice I had to pay cash.

In the end, I did not try the Cash Passport very often. Incidentally, I had understood that my Cash Passport receipts would show my balance, but they didn’t. I kept all my receipts and wrote down the store, date and purchase info on each to have some idea of how much cash was still on the card.

In France, the toll roads (peage) are privately owned by different companies and each has its own rule of card acceptance. The machines may say “Visa,” but at least one wouldn’t take my Visa card. American Express was good for most of them as well as for paying for parking in Avignon and at the TGV station. No people staff those machines, so cash was not an option.

On the toll road out of Cassis, along the Mediterranean, I paid with my American Express and the card wasn’t returned. An unmanned machine! What to do? I parked, returned to the barrier and read (I speak some French) that the red button was to be pushed in an emergency. I pushed it.

A man answered on a speaker phone and I told him that the “machine a pris mon carte AE” (“machine has taken my AE card”). He said that someone would come in about 10 minutes. It took a little longer, but I got my card back. (Some tour group leaders advise using a bank’s ATM only when the bank is open.)

Coping with cards and store hours is something you must learn. Gas stations may sell gas 24/7, but if the station is closed, you can’t buy gas unless you have a chip-and-PIN card or a Carte Bleue (a type of chip-and-PIN debit card).

By the way, I have fueled up at Intermarche and Carrefour pumps because they seemed to have the best prices for gazole (diesel fuel). Intermarche has lots of good food choices but on Sunday is closed or only open half a day. When I used my Capital One card and they asked for identification, they accepted my Minnesota driver’s license.

A friend who spent a week with us wanted to just use cash. Rather than carry a thick wad of euros, she opted for 500-euro bills. No bank or post office would exchange them for smaller bills. She used one to pay for dinner for our group of eight and we all reimbursed her in smaller bills. At week’s end, she was stuck with several of the large bills.

Mahtomedi, MN