The Euro began circulation on January 1, 2002. Of the twenty-eight European Union member countries, eighteen have adopted the Euro: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain and Latvia.
Most businesses in France accept credit and debit cards as payment. Generally speaking, the best way to go is to withdraw cash from an ATM machine (“un distributeur”), located outside of most banks and post offices. The majority of them will have instructions in English as well as French. Debit cards will incur fewer fees than credit cards, so try not to rely solely on a credit card for your cash needs. Be sure to remember your PIN number! This method of withdrawing funds is far more convenient and less expensive than cashing travelers' checks.
Before your departure, be sure to notify your bank as well as your credit card company in order to prevent a hold being placed on your card when foreign transactions appear, and to find out what kind of overseas fees they charge. Most likely there will be a 1-3% withdrawal fee per transaction, so you might consider withdrawing larger amounts less frequently and keeping the funds stashed at your apartment or well concealed in a small money belt under your clothing.
Some companies offer lower international fees than others — and some don’t charge any at all. If you’re going on a long trip, do some research and consider taking out a card just for international purchases. Capital One has a particularly good reputation for no-fee international transactions on both its credit cards and its debit cards linked to a checking account.
If possible, consider bringing more than one major bank card, from different banks, because sometimes an approval for a purchase by credit card will be inexplicably denied, while a credit card from another bank is accepted for the same transaction. Also, different credit card companies charge different fees. Online banking will help you be able to keep track of the fees being charged to you, as well as the exchange rate you're getting.
French credit cards use a microchip. To make a purchase with a chip-and-PIN card, the cardholder inserts the card into a slot in the payment machine, then enters a PIN (like using a debit card in the US) while the card stays in the slot. The chip inside the card authorizes the transaction; the cardholder doesn’t sign a receipt.
American-style cards have been rejected by some automated payment machines in France. This is especially common with machines at train and subway stations, toll roads, parking garages, luggage lockers, bike-rental kiosks, and self-serve gas pumps. For example, after a long flight into Charles de Gaulle Airport, you find you can’t use your credit card at the ticket machine for the train into Paris. Or, while driving on a Sunday afternoon, you discover that the automated gas station only accepts chip and PIN cards.
In most of these situations, a cashier is nearby who can process your magnetic-stripe card manually by swiping it and having you sign the receipt the old-fashioned way. Many payment machines take cash; remember you can always use an ATM to withdraw cash with your magnetic-stripe debit card.
Most restaurants and shops that serve Americans will gladly accept your US credit card. During the transaction, if the merchant refuses your card or seems to have trouble, ask them to swipe your card, or point out the magnetic stripe and indicate that you will have to sign for the charge. “Avec cette carte, je dois signer”. Or: “C’est une carte étrangère, il faut une signature”.
It is always a good idea to have some cash in the local currency. For the best rates, wait till you can withdraw cash from the local distributeur rather than at foreign exchange kiosks at travel locations.
Tipping in France isn’t as automatic and generous as it is in the United States, but tips are appreciated nevertheless. As in the US, the proper amount depends on your resources, tipping philosophy, and the circumstances.
At restaurants service is included in the price, tips are a small bonus for the waiters, you can choose to leave 5 to 10% or less, but again this is not mandatory. At a café or in a taxi round up to the next euro, unless it's a long drive in which you should round up to the nearest ten euros.
Using your cell phone in France
When wifi is available, smartphones can be extremely useful for pulling up maps, using skype to make long-distance calls, checking museum schedules or finding a nearby restaurant quickly, among other things. The majority of France: Homestyle’s apartments in Paris are now equipped with wifi.
See this article on how to use public wifi in Paris.
Be aware that international data roaming is prohibitively expensive and you should be very careful about using your device to make calls or browse the internet. The safest way to go is to switch off data roaming and put your phone in airplane mode as soon as you leave the US.
Switching to an international plan will lower your per-minute charges, but they may still be pricey. Contact your provider before you leave to inquire about their specific packages and verify that your phone is unlocked, equipped with GSM and "tri-band", or compatible with European bandwidth. Then you can switch out the SIM card for a local European SIM card that will allow you to make calls at local rates. Just remember that friends and family who call you will be paying higher international rates.
Offline apps such as this Paris guide and this Metro navigator are effective tools and you won’t run the risk of overspending.
Buy One There
Basic cell phones are inexpensive (around €30) in France. You may purchase a SIM card locally at a newsstand, mobile phone store, or large stores with electronics departments such as FNAC and Darty.
Remember to check your remaining credit balance regularly!
Cars & Driving
Credit card use on freeways and highways
Although your card may be accepted at some tollbooths, be prepared to pay for tollways with cash. Oftentimes foreign cards, which lack the microchip present in French cards, will not be accepted by toll machines. Get into any lane at toll stations except those in orange marked “télépéage”. They are for daily commuters using a prepaid monthly card. There are a lot more ordinary lanes for everyone else than for commuters. The other lanes take cards or cash.
At an intersection, always give priority to the car on your right unless otherwise indicated. This basic rule applies in the USA but is strict on French roadways. It is the one rule French people observe consistently, perhaps because there are fewer Stop signs, and Four Way stops do not exist there.
Another basic rule, stay in the right lane on freeways except to pass. If you see an impatient driver in your rear view mirror, don’t worry, just maintain your driving speed and let them over-take when it’s safe. Don’t take it personally, they have no idea you are American.
Paying for Gasoline
When filling up your car, be prepared to pay with cash in case your card is not accepted. In order to pay for gas with your card, you may need to enter the gas station store to do so in person; plan ahead if you anticipate needing gas after stores are closed in the evening. Consider going to a Hypermarché or similar large supermarket, usually on the edge of town; you can save up to 5% this way.
Car Rental Tip: Car rental upgrades may not be a good idea. The vehicle will be of larger proportions and harder to negotiate through some of the tiny roads and parking spaces you are likely to come across. Many French families travel in vans but they are familiar with their itineraries and limitations. Do note that the majority of rental cars in France are operated by manual transmission.
Rail in France and Europe
Travel by train is one of the most popular and efficient ways to get around Europe. The Paris/Nice route only takes five and a half hours by TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, which means “High Speed Train”). Travel times by TGV:
- Paris - Lyon: 2 hours
- Paris - Avignon: 3 hours
- Paris - Marseille: 4 hours 30 minutes
- Paris - Nice: 5 hours 30 minutes
- Paris- Bordeaux: 3 hours