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August 19, 2009

Plastic Panic: Credit Card Snafus for Americans Abroad

Don't try your card here:
Crashed ticket machine
at Gare du Nord.

Photo: acb on Flickr
using Creative Commons

by Barbara S. Peterson

In June I spent a week in Paris--hard to complain about that--but one thing has been bothering me ever since:  I almost didn't make it home when my supposedly no-brainer plan to get to Charles De Gaulle International Airport (CDG) via one the city's enviably quick rail links got derailed by a piece of plastic. 

Before I get into the somewhat arcane explanation of all this, a warning:  a lot of American travelers are facing similar frustrations as Europe moves to the "chip-and-pin" cards that will render our old magnetic stripe cards obsolete overseas.

Here's what happened: I arrived at Gare du Nord with my bags and enough euros and time to get me a ticket to CDG, about a 20-minute ride.  (Taxis weren't a good option--it was Friday afternoon and they're expensive.)  I was prepared for the self-service thing: I'd traveled every day on the Metro. I'd also already had my American Express and MasterCard rejected by ticketing machines, but in each case I was able to use euros. 

No such luck this time.

The sole information booth I found was empty and the machine accepted neither my cash  (I had mostly bills, and not enough coins) nor my credit card.  I searched for someone to help or someplace to change money, and as the minutes passed with no success I started to panic--it was now  getting  too late for other options.  Finally, I threw myself on a lone woman who looked friendly and, in my halting French, related my tale, persuading her to purchase a ticket from the machine with her European card in turn for my euros. (Obviously, I wouldn't recommend this as your fallback plan. I did give the woman my contact information, though, and told her I'd take her to dinner when she came to New York.)

I filed away all of this for future reference until I heard a public radio segment that detailed similar stories like mine. The WNYC segment  included the troubling suggestion that masses of Americans will soon find their cards rejected by everything from restaurants to department stores (hard to imagine, though, that the stores will stand by and let that happen!). 

So, readers, has this happened to you?  Have any suggestions for how to get around it?

Further reading:
* U.S. magnetic stripe credit cards on brink of extinction? (
* Europe Prefers Chip and Pin, Not Swipe Credit Cards (WNYC)
* Velib: "Using an American Credit Card for the Paris Bike-Share System" (The New York Times' In Transit blog)
* Dinda Elliott had a far nicer experience in Paris than mine--and she's got 5 tips for your next trip there


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