This is the fourth installment of a week-long series documenting Emily’s experiences with plastic in Europe.
Sky-high credit card minimums
In America, it’s not uncommon to visit an independent business requiring you to spend at least $2 or $3 in order to use a credit or debit card. While that is not allowed by Visa or MasterCard, some merchants do it anyway. I’ve tolerated that practice because it usually can’t hurt to spend another $1.50, but in Europe, where there is currently controversy over interchange fees, plastic minimums are cripplingly high and extremely frustrating.
In one instance, I tried to use my credit card at a store (can’t remember which country) when I was told that the minimum purchase was 10 euro. I had no cash, and when the cashier saw my look of exasperation, she said, “Well, something around 8 euro would be OK.” My purchase was still too low, so I had to dig up enough coins.
Another time I was not so lucky. It was the eve of my return to the States and I was in Paris, so I decided to visit the Eiffel Tower at night for my last hurrah. As I approached it, I saw that it was lit up bright blue and sparkling with white fireworks (my photo of it is to the right). I saw a nearby cafe and decided to order a snack while absorbing the view.
The cheapest non-dessert item was a 9-euro bowl of vegetable soup. It was mediocre and large enough for eight people, but the view while eating it was incredible. When the bill came, I gave the waiter my credit card — it was my last night and I’d just run out of cash and coins. He said they don’t accept plastic.
I was shocked. It was a cafe around the corner from France’s largest tourist spot and had a menu with English subtitles. How could they not accept credit cards? But then he pointed out some itsy bitsy fine print on the menu. The minimum purchase for a credit card was 16 euro. SIXTEEN EURO? I told him I had no cash and he shrugged and walked away. He had previously brought me the wrong dish and was very inattentive, so leaving him a 7-euro tip was out of the question.
When he returned, I asked him if there were any nearby ATMs, and he said there was one around the corner. It wasn’t with a bank associated with mine, but I needed to pay for my dinner, so I sucked it up and used my debit card to withdraw a 10-euro bill. I paid for my soup and forgot about it — until a few days later when I checked my bank statement. After currency conversion, that 9-euro meal ended up being nearly $15 (the exchange rates are miserable right now), and because the ATM was not associated with my bank, I paid a $5 fee, in addition to a 50 cent currency conversion fee. That bland, oversized bowl of soup cost me just over $20. In retrospect, I wish I’d enjoyed the view from a park bench instead.
Moral of the story? Always, always, always carry some cash while in Europe, or at least find out a business’s credit card policy beforehand. Not doing so could cost you a small fortune.
Overcharged for mentioning referral service
I used a Web site called Venere.com, which is much like Hotels.com, to find and book my hotel in Paris. I liked the site because it has gazillions of reviews of very reasonably priced accommodations. The site recommends printing your confirmation sheet and bringing it with you, so if your hotel tries to charge you different rates than what you signed up for, you can challenge it. Thinking I was being a smart cookie, I brought the confirmation sheet downstairs with me to check out.
I set the sheet on the side of the counter, but said nothing since the hotel appeared to be charging me the correct prices. The hotel owner, who was about to give me the bill to sign, looked over and saw the paper. “Oh, you used Venere.com? Then I have to charge you more,” he said. He added about two euro to each of the three nights. I asked him why he would do that, and the grumbling Frenchman gave me a meager explanation: “We have to charge extra when you use that site to find us.”
Was he taking advantage of me because I was a young woman, alone in a foreign country? Was this revenge for my earlier decision to stay at the hotel only three nights instead of five? (I changed plans upon arrival and narrowly escaped the cancellation fee.) The difference was very small, and I had a flight to catch, so I didn’t even bother to fight it (though now I sort of wish I had). At least now I know: Don’t reveal how you found the hotel unless they explicitly ask. And if they ask, find out why they want to know. If it appears that they are merely trying to find an excuse to squeeze a few extra bucks out of you, keep it zipped.
See related: Credit card postcards from Europe: Vol. I, Credit card postcards from Europe: Vol. II, Credit card postcards from Europe, Vol. III