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Credit card problems in France- real problem PLEASE BE FORWARNED

Hello everyone!
My husband and I just returned from France and had a TERRIBLE time using our credit cards at gas stations. Most stations are self-service and take only credit cards. Not a single one accepted our US magnetic strip cards and there is NO WAY to pay cash at these places. We spent way too many anxious minutes hunting for stations that had a person in a cashier booth, and then they weren't always able to get our card to work. But at least they took cash. And forget the toll roads (peage). There are no attendants on those roads. We only had one problem using the card in a restaurant and no problems at museums. This all was not only super inconvenient but also more expensive as the exchange rate via the credit card was much better than changing cash currencies (and our card doesn't charge fees for foreign purchases). Good luck to everyone!

Posted by
18297 posts

"when is America going to start converting all their cards to chip" When Americans get desperate enough to pay an arm and a leg for it. As I understand it, Chase now has a chip n pin card for about $100/yr. But realistically, I've never heard of ATMs not accepting mag strip cards. As long as you don't rent a car and need toll roads or automated gas stations, you don't need a card. Or, as long as you don't stay in overpriced international hotels, that charge more per night than you can get in cash from the ATM, you don't need a card.

Posted by
2193 posts

I hadn't run across chip-only ATMs either before last month, but the other machines I used in Canada accepted my card no problem...same as on previous trips. I later learned that all ATM transactions in Canada will need to be completed with a chip card by the end of 2012. Perhaps one of our friends to the north can confirm if this is accurate.

Posted by
11450 posts

Lee,, um,, don't know quite what you mean,, its considered an improved SECURITY measure, that saves banks and consumers money,, and for me personally there was no additional cost ,, since less fraud means we all save money., Do Americans not like to save money? Fraud and theft costs are passed on to the consumer somehow right?

Posted by
12875 posts

Betsy, Your experience is absolutely correct and accurate. I was in a rental car near Perpignan, had to pull into a gas station, NO attendant, (you're quite right on that ), the machines did not accept any of our American magentic strip credit cards nor cash. Only one of us had a French chip and pin card, which we were adverse to using but had to because that was the only way to pay. Luckily, we had that one French card. Don't bet on the stations, especially in the villages, to be manned. There's no one present. This was in early July.

Posted by
18297 posts

Pat, you don't understand American banks. Their sole objective is getting more money from their customers. Since new laws have resticted them from some of their traditional sources, they are looking for new sources of revenue. As long as American custromers clamor for chip n pin cards, they're going to take the maximum financial advantage of them, and get customers to pay their cost of converting.

Posted by
2876 posts

You learned the hard way what regular users of this forum (& more experienced travelers) have known for a long time. Especially in France, American magnetic stripe cards invariably won't work at electronic self-service card terminals, such as self-serve gas stations and unmanned toll lanes. European automated terminals want the European-style chip-and-pin card. Most toll plazas in France DO have manned toll lanes. It's not correct to say there are "no attendants" on those roads. (It's true that some lesser-used toll plazas may not have an attended lane.) Bottom line is, when driving the autoroutes in France, it's best to carry lots of euros & plan to pay your tolls in cash. Most French gas stations have a manned cashier booth. Totally unmanned stations are very uncommon. An attendant will always accept cash. When I first started traveling I didn't know any of this stuff either.

Posted by
41 posts

Tom, I beg to differ on your observation that "Most French gas stations have a manned cashier booth. Totally unmanned stations are very uncommon." We traveled from Paris to the Loire Valley (all around the Valley) back to Paris and out to Giverny. MOST stations were totally unmanned; maybe one out of ten stations had attendants. Even stations that had booths were often without human attendants. We totally avoided peage roads--according to our French friends, few had manned booths, so why take the chance of getting on the toll road and not being able to pay????!!!!!

Posted by
2193 posts

I recall reading something earlier this year about prepaid currency cards that are chip-n-PIN enabled through Travelex...can be loaded for Euro or GBP. I'm surprised there weren't attendants at the toll plazas...it's been a few years, but I found the auto routes east of Paris to be well-staffed. . Did you actually have to visit that many gas stations, or did you just notice that 1 in 10 weren't staffed from the road...how do you know this? If you had to stop that much, your car must be in dire need of a tune up.

Posted by
14885 posts

I thought Betsy meant that she passed (or stopped at) about 9 unmanned ones before she found one she could buy gas from.

Posted by
283 posts

The trick is to use the pumps at the Super Marches. I bought gas in the Super Marche outside Troyes recently. Those are always manned, except when the store is closed. It is important to fill up where you can, and remember these Super Marches are closed on Sunday and Monday. Also, there is always a way to pay cash on the AutoRoute stations. Oh, and the Super Marches have the lowest price, normally.

Posted by
11450 posts

A little off topic,, but when is America going to start converting all their cards to chip,, its become common now in Canada to have chip cards, although we still have mag stripe cards, most banks reissue new cards now as chip.

Posted by
41 posts

Yes, Chani, you are correct in what I meant. We had to hunt from one station to another trying to find one with an attendant. I must say I am surprised at the snarky comments on this "helpline!" Really, is it necessary to denigrate my experience by saying "your car must be in dire need of a tune up" or questioning the fact that we had to look hard for attended stations? Also, we were well aware of this chip/pin credit card issue before we left, Tom. But from reading the postings on this "helpline," we were given the impression that it wasn't too much of a problem. But in OUR EXPERIENCE, it was. I am only sharing my story to HELP others.

Posted by
2193 posts

Comments weren't intended to be snarky...it's just surprising that you had to visit 10 stations in order to find 1 that had an attendant. I'm sure that was a real bummer. To Pat's comment – tried using an ATM somewhere in Ontario last month...Hamilton or Burlington or someplace...only accepted chip...had to get cash at another machine later in the day, as my card is the old magnetic strip. Didn't even know chip and PIN only machines were out there.

Posted by
11450 posts

Lee, Thats too bad,, no one needs or wants to spend more then they have to.

Posted by
1107 posts

"when is America going to start converting all their cards to chip" I doubt they will. Adopting the chip & pin system would require every merchant in the U.S. to install new hardware, all for the advantage of the small number of people (relatively speaking) who'd like to use their cards everywhere overseas. This step, obviously, would cost a small fortune. Merchants are already being pressured and wooed (sp?) into installing new hardware to permit Near Field Communication chips in cell phones to connect to point of sale terminals. (NFC is not the same as the chip & pin system.) Adoption of NFC is far more likely to occur before the U.S. adopts the European system. I wish the credit card companies would do something to help fix the fraud issue. We got my daughter a debit card so she could make her own ATM withdrawals on our trip to Europe this summer. She's used the thing maybe a dozen times . . . maybe. Well, an attempt was made to use the account in Bulgaria yesterday. And no, we did not travel to Bulgaria this year. Interestingly, I've read that the requirement to key in your zip code when using a credit card has done more to cut down on fraudulent transactions than anything tried before.

Posted by
11450 posts

but Paul,, I do not agree with your statement that chip cards only are an advantage to those who wish to travel overseas, I maintain that they have been shown to lower fraud,, therefore they save everyone money in the big picture. I am being blunt,, but frankly,, most every other western country uses chip cards, or soon will, and I am sure they convert for more then being advantageous to the few who use them for travel. There is an old saying " penny wise pound foolish".. perhaps Americans should demand they get on with the rest of the world and jump on the chip wagon,, so their banks will stop passing along so many fees etc to them,, those fees incidently is not only how the bank makes money,, but how they cover the losses from card fraud and loss.

Posted by
165 posts

Paul: that zip code thing is useless for travellers to the US. I don't have a zip code so paying at a US pump is out. Last year in France we found our Canadian chip and pin cards never worked the first time in any fuel pump we tried. We'd put them in, the pump would think about it for a while, than spit it out. We'd put it back in, and were good to pump. Go figure. We did have locals offer to use their cards ( in exchange for cash) to help us out, but never needed to.
Canadian banks could teach a thing or two to US bankers about sucking customers dry. And as cash rich Canadian banks are buying up US banks you'll soon feel the bite.

Posted by
21709 posts

,,,,I am surprised at the snarky comments on this "helpline!..... Relax. Your experience just confirmed what has been posted nearly daily on this site. I am surprised you missed it prior to your trip. Afterall you were rather bombastic with ..... real problem PLEASE BE FORWARNED ... it was as if you had found the holy grail. I bet in the last year there has been over a thousand comments on this subject alone. Anyone who has spent more than a couple hours of this board would have been forewarned. You just confirmed it. Thank you.

Posted by
41 posts

Frank-- if you read all the posts here, you'd know that I did read this "helpline" before I left and knew about the mag strip problem. As I said before the impression I got was that it wasn't much of a problem. I posted to warn people just coming onto this site that it WAS a big problem, as Fred backed me up. As a casual foreign traveler, I read this site only when I need it. I have a life and don't spend "1000" of hours reading it during the "year" prior to my trip. Besides what was true last year is not necessarily going to be true today!

Posted by
8387 posts

Hi Betsy, Hope you had a great time at the 2-Chevaux rally. We saw tens and tens of old 2-chevaux driving toward the Loire from Burgundy. The rally was featured on several tv channels and even in our local Burgundy paper. About the cards: if you look back at your original post, you'll see that I said exactly what you just said. It is a problem if you are driving or using train ticket kiosks at unmanned metro or train stations. Since we're usually over for 2-3 months, we solved the autoroute tollbooth problem by getting a Liber-T pass which bills all tolls directly to a credit card. Indeed, many gas stations are unmanned, including at supermarkets, despite what Sue has observed. Those stations which do have booths are swamped by French drivers because not all French drivers have cards to use at the unmanned stations either. Lines at the unmanned pumps are much shorter. As Dina who lives in Fontainebleau remarked that they'll all probably be unmanned in a few years when she responded to my post on the card problem. Our only other problem was using machines for parking in Paris one day when we drove up with specific errands to do. But as our Parisian friends explained, the mayor instigated the difficult to use parking machines to discourage Parisians from using their cars and parking on the streets. With Dina's help, we now leave our car in Fontainbleau and take the train into Paris whenever we have errands or a dinner date. I also agree with you that a comment or two can be a bit--hmmm surprising. Even those who think they'll never have a problem because they eschew automobiles may be unable to buy a train ticket one day.

Posted by
3105 posts

Just to echo Betsy's issues in France, we are currently in northern Italy and I can report that we found practically no manned gasoline stations in the small to medium sized towns we were driving through. Even the large, name brand 24h stations would not take our non pin and chip credit cards nor bank debit card. Some would take cash but would not give change so the first time we got gas it was a big guessing game on our part to think of how much money to feed into the pump before we could extract gas from it... We faced a similar situation on the autostrada, where there were numerous lanes for pin and chip card holders, fast pass holders, cash, but no people manning the booths one day but we saw people (2) on our return trip. Luckily we could zip around and through the 10-15 lanes and find the 1 or 2 that took cash (and DID give back change). I will be glad when we can bring a more versatile card over here with us.

Posted by
800 posts

Betsy-thanks so much for posting this. It has made me decide to get the travelx chip and pin card with a preloaded amount of euros as we do intend to drive in France. And believe me I am one of those who do not believe it is necessary to get euros before hand - i always get them with my ATM card upon arrival. But what you have experienced is different from what I too had heard - which was that you could always ask the merchant to run your card. But we had experienced unmanned gas stations in France long before this and though we will try very hard to keep an eye on the gas tank, I think the travelx card (with it's bad rate of exchange) will be a good investment. If anyone has other suggestions (besides don't rent a car...) I would like to hear them. I understand that even if I wanted to pay for the chase card that at this point they are only being given to certain customers. If I could be guaranteed a chip and pin card I would definitely look into getting one.

Posted by
8387 posts

I have to add that despite what Tom says in the first response, we found no attendants at any small toll exits this year. Furthermore, at the huge toll plazas, there may be one booth with an attendant out of the fifteen-twenty lanes. Try finding the one at 50 kmh, traffic zig-zagging all around you, and you're trying to read the icons looking for the one little human among all the CB and T icons. I just got back last night from two months in France where we used autoroutes from Paris to Burgundy and Burgundy to Normandy and Burgundy to the Riviera. My experience backs Betsy's. Granted this has been coming on for years but as I said in my initial post in June--"Mag cards are a problem"--there's been a huge increase in inconvenience for mag card drivers this year. Whatever someone experienced last year doesn't hold true this year. Snarkiness in certain answers is not becoming. I also think you're doing readers a service for those who may not dig back weeks and weeks to get information that is weeks old.

Posted by
8293 posts

Tut tut, James. Is your digestive system acting up again?

Posted by
41 posts

Thanks everyone for the supportive comments. Before we went, I had read about the Travelex cards and saw them advertised at JFK on our way out, but due to the board's discussion, I didn't think it would be necessary to get one especially since there were high fees associated with them. But if I had to do it all over again, I would definitely get one. Bets--yes, the 2CV meeting was an awesome adventure. About 7500 cars and 22,000 people descended on the tiny town of Salbris. Karen--one thing I'd like to add regarding money in France which probably is a kind of "duh" to most people, but it just slipped my mind that there are no longer bureau de changes in small towns. Plenty of banks and ATMS to withdraw money, but no place to exchange. I forgot this before we left Paris and had to withdraw cash (and accrue $5 ATM fees) a couple of times even though I had brought dollars with us. James- lol!

Posted by
8387 posts

Betsyhere's the answer I wrote to your post on Bastille Day 7/14, which was already a copy/paste of an answer I had given someone a few days earlier. See my first exceptionusing gas stations and paying tolls. ( And I thought my kids were the only ones who never believe anything I tell them! )
' "Here's an answer I gave someone about a related question a few days ago. Although I started a thread with "Mag Cards are a problem" you can still get by without a chip and pin in most instances. You would need a chip and pin card if you will be: driving a lot using gas stations and paying tolls, planning to use the Velib bicycles, or buying train tickets in small train stations that have only automatic machines in place of a human presence. Otherwise our magnetic strip cards still work at ATMs and most stores. I'd load up on cash at ATMs. Because a Travelex card is so expensive, most people would use it on a very limited basis in only the above situations. That said, I hope our banks and credit unions get the message." ' That said, I'm glad this situation is back in discussion. It's time the US came into the 21st century.

Posted by
2065 posts

I must say, I do love this board! The info is great but it's the personalities that keep me coming back...daily, uh actually, several times a day! (and no, I'm not retired!)
FYI: Wells Fargo currently has a trial Chip & PIN card going on. Sure wish I'd known about it so I could have been part of the trial. The reason I heard about the trial is because my card was fraudulently used the day I was flying to Nairobi--grrrrrrrrr!

Posted by
4371 posts

Darcy, you're a personality, too ;-) And Wells Fargo hand-picked which business customers got the trial chip-and-PIN cards...bummer. As to credit card fraud - Europe vs USA - while I'm not going to look it up on my iTouch right now (a pain in the rear), Europe has problems with one type of fraud while the USA has different concerns. It had something to do with physically creating fake cc's vs stealing (electronically) cc info and using it. The point is that each strategy works for its particular country...so the USA WILL drag its feet. I've mentioned before that about 12 years ago the Target stores in my area changed all of their cc terminals to the chip-and-PIN type; of course, they also read mag stripes. They were preparing for the soon-to-arrive chip-and-PIN cards - how exciting! A few years ago, those terminals were unceremoniously replaced with 'swipe' terminals (like everybody else in the USA...). Betsy, I hope that on the whole you had a great trip! **and why isn't everyone spending 1000s of hours on the Helpline?!? ;-)

Posted by
2255 posts

We had no problems in France/Belgium the last two years without a chip and pin card. We had to wait in line to buy an RER ticket at the airport, but that was just a slight inconvenience, and it didn't take that long. After reading this post, I think I will get one of those fee-based chip & pin cards, just to be safe, before we leave in September. So I appreciate your post, Betsy.

Posted by
711 posts

Hi Betsy...Here is an odd question and then I will tell you why I am asking. My French teacher who is a friend of mine lives here in the states, but travels each year to France to see her mother who still loves in Normandy.She also stays in France a month to relax and visit friends. she does all the driving and insists that the unmanned booths on the toll roads have actually 2 slots ...one for short drivers and one for tall drivers where you insert your toll card in the payee slot, the toll comes up on the screen, you put you euros in the place to pay, you get change, and if you press recu you will even get a receipt if you want to keep track of what you paid on the roads. Did you ever try out the unmanned booths? She said that at first she and her husband looked for arms coming out of the booths as they drove up so that they could get a real person, but that then when she went to the unmanned booths it was really easy.The only reason I ask is that we travel a lot to France and are getting ready to go for a while.Also as someone said we always try to get gas at Auchan, but it is good to remember that the booth attendants sometimes take a long,long break at lunch time. We always drive through to see if there is an attendant before we get gas.

Posted by
8387 posts

@jane, It all depends on which toll roads and exits she's using. The autoroutes are of different ages and owned by different private companies. If she's like my bi-national family, she's mostly going to see the same people and places year after year, and mostly on autoroutes she knows well. She'll have nearly the same experience each time, which is the problem with generalizing. For those not using a credit card, and who don't know what configuration the toll booth may have (as they differ according to age and company), nor what the cost of usage is, and who have to carry around a bunch of bills (which may be rejected by the machine) and coins (which fall on the ground or are rejected), this can be a real pain and cause a lot of toll plaza anxiety as you study the machine, frantically feed bills, drop your coins on the ground, and ten cars are lined up behind you. We solved it by getting a toll booth chip pass.

Posted by
41 posts

Because of the warning by our French friends, we never attempted to use the toll roads. We had a enough anxiety with the gas issue that we did not want to go there, besides, we saved a lot of money driving the national (N) roads and smaller roads through the beautiful villages.

Posted by
2876 posts

@Michael - you are right. All toll plazas whether manned or unmanned will accept cash. If unattended, there will be a machine that accepts cash, and it will give change. We usually carry several 10-euro notes when we travel the autoroutes. When you approach a toll plaza, go to the lanes with the green arrow (usually on the right). Don't go through the lanes with the orange "t" or the blue rectangle. Those are for electronic transponders or European credit/debit cards respectively. I might add that all service area gas stations on the autoroutes are manned 24 hours. Service areas are called "Aires"; if you need gas pick an "Aire" with the gas pump logo. Aires are very clearly marked and occur at frequent intervals. You are most likely to run into unmanned gas stations (off the autoroutes) after 10 PM and on Sundays. Least expensive gas in France is at gas stations attached to supermarkets ("supermarches"). Most expensive is on the autoroutes. For more information on French autoroutes, go to: http://www.autoroutes.fr/index.htm Click on the British flag for English.

Posted by
375 posts

I'm afraid I must disagree with Tom's statement that "You are most likely to run into unmanned gas stations (off the autoroutes) after 10 PM and on Sundays". As Betsy, the OP, stated in her second post, they are very common in rural areas. Having lived in Germany near the French border until moving recently to UK, I have driven a fair amount in the Loire Valley where Betsy said she was driving. She is correct that there are very long stretches where the only gas stations are completely unstaffed 24 hours. It doesn't matter if you have cash or not; there is no one there to give the cash to at these stations. There is no "inside" to take the money to. It is true that there are staffed stations on the autoroutes, but I think Betsy was speaking of more rural areas, and she is correct in that.

Posted by
1525 posts

Spent a month in France in 2009 & had a car for three weeks & drove almost 3000 miles encircling the country. Although I did encounter, to a small degree, the same issues you describe, I did not encounter any of the stress. As has been stated here frequently, the best way to pay for anything is with cash and the best way to get cash is at an ATM machine, which almost always take American cards. When using cash, you will accumulate an impressive pile of change. Put this change in your car for tolls. Don't expect all gas stations to be staffed any more than you would expect anything else in a foreign country to be just like home. Having said that, in our experience, most of the places we looked for gas did have conventional service. At only one of the several places we stopped, did we have to leave to find another option. Simply start looking for gas when your tank gets below half and you will pass dozens of stations before you need to start worrying.