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An American cardholder in Paris (and Barcelona and London)

Tony Mecia

When setting off on a two-week trip to Europe last month, I was looking forward to having some questions answered. You know, important international travel questions such as: Would Parisian waiters live up to their snooty stereotypes? Does my Barcelona hotel room have a bidet?

And, of course, there were more practical considerations: Will my credit card work?

An American cardholder in Paris (and Barcelona and London)

Automated kiosks, like this one at a parking lot at the base of Les Baux-de-Provence in France, offer little hope of trying to use your U.S.-issued credit card.

If you’re planning a trip abroad or are a regular reader of CreditCards.com, you probably know that residents of many foreign countries use credit cards with embedded microchips that cut down on fraud. Retailers in those countries have equipment designed to accommodate chip-and-PIN cards.

In the United States, though, less than 1 percent of cards have EMV chips, although the numbers are increasing. Cards with mere magnetic stripes are expected to be phased out here in the next few years. (Readers of FlyerTalk maintain a list of EMV cards available in the U.S.)

U.S. travelers going abroad now, however, face a conundrum: Our magnetic-stripe cards sometimes don’t work on foreign card readers designed for chip cards. Having a card with an EMV chip might help. Or so I had read. But I wanted to test that proposition, and I also wondered just where certain cards would work and others wouldn’t. I had read that automated kiosks — such as ticket machines in subways — could be a particular problem, even with chip cards because many U.S. chip cards require a signature, not a PIN. The kiosks often require a PIN.

An American cardholder in Paris (and Barcelona and London)

At La Vie en Rose, a small pastry shop in Coustellet, France, the cashier was confounded trying to use my magnetic-stripe card on her card-processing machine (above). Magnetic stripe cards should be swiped along the right side, while chip cards need to be inserted at the bottom of the device. The machine eventually accepted a second stripe card, clearing the way for our group to devour delicious tarts and ice cream.

I left with three cards in my wallet, or actually, my money belt: a Chase Sapphire Preferred card (magnetic stripe), a Chase United MileagePlus Explorer card (stripe) and an American Express Platinum card (EMV “chip and signature”). My wife took her Sapphire Preferred (stripe) and a Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve (chip and signature). None of those charge foreign transaction fees. Note that the EMV chip does not come standard on the American Express Platinum, but you can call and request one free of charge, as you can nowadays with an increasing number of cards.

With cards in belt, it was on to the test. We attempted to use credit cards 106 times in 17 days in three countries (England, France and Spain), following our usual points-collecting strategy of charging everything possible and paying off bills each month. In only 10 cases were we unable to use any kind of credit card. Almost all of those were in Barcelona metro kiosks, at toll booths in southern France and with automated machines used to validate parking.

And to my surprise, only once did my chip card work after my stripe card didn’t: at a rest stop in Fraga, Spain, where I was buying a couple ham sandwiches and some Pringles.

I was bracing for much worse results, especially given that my first attempt to use credit cards after getting off the plane in London failed. When I tried to buy tickets on London’s Tube to go from Heathrow Airport to downtown London, the machine refused to accept all three of my cards. Instead, I bought the tickets at a ticket window with a magnetic stripe card. The worker there told me the machines accept American cards, but that they can be finicky.

Here’s what I learned from my credit card experiences in Europe:

  • Carry cash. You might have read about a trend toward a so-called “cashless society,” but don’t bank on it when traveling. Your cards might not work where you want them to, and there are plenty of places that don’t accept credit at all, such as outdoor markets and street vendors. I tried to keep between 50 and 200 euros ($64 to $256) in my pocket at all times.
  • Be ready to help clerks. In some small towns, I found that people working in shops seemed unfamiliar with magnetic stripes. Typically, their card readers were built to be swiped along the right hand side, but cards with chips would be inserted at the bottom (see photo). I had to tell them what to do and, more importantly, since I speak no French, demonstrate the move charades-style.

For instance, at a pastry shop in Coustellet, France, where I was buying tarts and ice cream, the cashier held up my Chase Sapphire card and stared at the back of it, perplexed. I told her, “Swipe,” and demonstrated, and she proceeded to swipe it through the machine very, very slowly — with the stripe facing the wrong way. Even after she turned it the right way, she couldn’t get it to work. The shop didn’t accept American Express so I couldn’t offer her that card, but my United MileagePlus Visa worked just fine.

  • Be aware of card networks. When planning your card strategy for your trip, be aware that Visa and MasterCard tend to be accepted at more places than American Express or Discover, especially at smaller businesses. If you have an American Express card with a chip, that won’t help you if the shop doesn’t accept American Express.
  • Don’t assume your card will work at automated kiosks. As in the United States, machines are accepting more payments, especially at parking garages, toll booths and public transit. Using cards at these places was a total crapshoot, and I was pleasantly surprised the few times the machines actually accepted my card. After being rejected at these places repeatedly in France, I was shocked when my wife’s chip card worked on the first try at a parking garage in San Sebastián, Spain, and later at a toll booth en route to Barcelona. If your cards don’t work, there’s usually an attendant around somewhere who can help, but it’s less convenient.

In the end, I was able to answer whether waiters in Paris were rude (no, actually they were charming and helpful), and whether my hotel room in Spain had what my children came to call a “bottom-washer” (it did).

But beyond the general guidelines above, the intricate whys and wherefores of American card acceptance in Europe remain a bit of a mystery.

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