Changing Money or Cashing Travelers Checks: French banks usually won’t change currency, so you are limited to Change Bureaus or your hotel. Change Bureaus have by far the better rates, especially if you look for ones that advertise ‘no commission’. You can find two change bureaus near the bottom of Jean Medecin, one on the corner across from Galeries Lafayette (tram stop Massena), and another just up the street across from McDonald’s. The only American Express office is at the Airport in terminal 1.
How to get the Best Rate: Forget Travelers Checks, forget change bureaus… you’ll get the best deal—that day’s bank rate—using your debit card in an ATM. Forgot your pin? You can get cash with your card, passport and signature (and a bit of patience) inside the bank.
The Best U.S. Debit Card to use in French ATMs: If you use your Bank of America debit card in a BNP Paribas cash machine, you won’t be charged a transaction fee on either end; they are part of the same banking network. Here is a list of BNP ATMs in Nice. Credit Union cards also don’t charge transaction fees.
Why Your Old-Style U.S. Credit Card Won’t Work in French Ticket Machines: American credit cards are the magnetic ‘swipe’ type whereas everywhere else in the world credit cards work with a chip and pin system. Businesses and cash machines can handle both types, but ticket machines (like at train stations, toll booths, parking garages, parking meters, tram ticket machines, and the Velo Bleus) cannot swipe. For this reason it’s a good idea to upgrade to a new chip and pin credit card before your trip… but remember, to work in French machines, it must have a chip and a 4-digit pin code.
Another quirk of French credit card machines is that you can’t add a tip in restaurants. Again, have a few coins in your pocket… 2-5% is fine.
Which Credit Cards to Bring: Nobody has ever heard of Discover or Diner’s Club here, so leave those two at home. MasterCard and Visa are widely accepted, and American Express somewhat less so, but usually accepted at mostly higher-end establishments… again, if you can, upgrade that card to the chip-and-pin variety… you will be glad you did!
Best Credit Card: Most credit cards charge an international transaction fee, but Cap One is the big exception with no fee. Other newcomers to this ‘no fee’ bandwagon include American Express (Platinum and Centurion only) and Chase Mileage Plus. Credit Union cards are the next best thing, as they usually charge only 1%. Here is a list U.S. banks with their fees so you can check your card in advance.
And finally, if your cards are lost or stolen, here are the French phone numbers to cancel your cards.
Photo credit: Fergoweb, licensed under Creative Commons
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