Hello! (or bonjour as I’m now accustomed to).
Paris has a place in my heart, and has since my lovely professor Mme. Gronhovd at Gustavus basically gave me a wake up call and said, “you really can’t be a French major and not go to France!!” To which I reluctantly signed up for a semester abroad (gosh I’d miss my senior year homecoming, fall football and the beginning of the hockey season… I wonder how much of that would still reside in my heart today if I’d stayed around for it.)
That was twenty years ago now.
I really wanted to share my favorite place with my favorite guy, Neighbor Dave… one would think that would be a great place to get engaged (vs now-our, then-my back door entryway) or have a honeymoon (vs the night, the wonderful night we spent at the Chambers hotel in downtown Minneapolis since he couldn’t be away from work for more than three consecutive work days). It took me two years of marriage to chip away at Dave and finally visit Paris for the first time together in 2009, for ten days!
(I found out that the best way to get him to agree to my weird ideas is to wait til he’s between 2 and 4 beers in at Lyon’s Pub on a Friday.)
While he’s been learning over the past 5 years of marriage that my crazy ideas sometimes aren’t half bad, I’ve been learning how to gently ease him into said crazy ideas. One method is to tie a “known” to an “unknown”- for example saying “Bruce Springsteen (the known) is going to be doing a concert in Paris (the known only once, closer to the unknown scale) in Paris in July. We should go!”
He agreed (this may have taken a few tries at Lyon’s Pub on different nights, and then again a few weeks of gentle hints, and the actual purchase of Springsteen tickets- before the flight purchase and before the living arrangements were made).
Now that we were going, I needed to spend some time planning. You would think having the airline ticket and the apartment rental would be the hard parts, but actually those were pretty easy. It was the money that was difficult, and I’ll tell you why as well as note some tips (if you want to go someday, or especially if I go again someday since it’s better for my poor French/Spanish/English mixed up head to have things written down!)
We were fine, money-wise; able to buy everything we wanted and needed in France. But it could have been better. Now a “What I did” vs “What I should have done” list…
- I didn’t order traveler’s checks. This was good, because it seems checks everywhere are no longer common. It would have been difficult to get by with just traveler’s checks.
- Of the short list of credit cards we planned to take to Paris, I called those companies to tell them we were planning to travel abroad.
This was the right thing to do, as the fraud detection practices have become much more robust even in the past three years, and credit card companies will freeze your account in the event of even the slightest hint of indiscretion.
- I assumed we could use our credit cards in Paris at any machines, for any transaction, and at ATMs to get cash.
We found that our cards were only sporadically accepted in Paris. US Credit cards are a bit of an issue, as written about in this article by Rick Steves.
We learned very quickly (within minutes after landing, at the first public transportation we attempted) that the public transportation machines in Paris did not accept our credit cards; nor do the “Information Offices” located at most Train, RER & Metro stations actually sell anything anymore. We had to use some of our precious cash to purchase train tickets at one of the subset of machines that accept cash (they are orange colored and have a bill collection slot.)
Luckily this problem did not inhibit us too much, and we did find ATMs that accepted our cards which kept us cash-flowing just fine. Thank god Dave manages our cash because:
- I thought I knew my (not very often used) credit card PIN number to get cash, and that if I didn’t I could change it with my credit card company in a day or two.
In fact, if you don’t know your existing PIN number, you can’t change it without receiving a written and mailed confirmation of your current PIN number which takes 10 days to receive. I found this out the hard way and was not able to change my PIN number before leaving… so if you don’t know your PIN but want to use your card to get cash, do something about it at least two weeks before your departure.
- We exchanged some US money for Euros at our bank the day before we left.
Thank goodness we did, as that cash got us from the airport to our apartment. In general, bank rates are more favorable than exchange kiosks at the airport (although you can change money there too). It’s much easier to do almost everything in your native language, and in Paris the service providers are the most curt (people in glass boxes are probably crabbier everywhere, right?)
Our bank has international currency at only a couple of locations, and their hours are a bit different than the normal part of the bank… best to look it up and not leave it til the last minute.
When we went to get our cash the bank asked us if we were planning to use our Debit card in France, and when we confirmed “yes,” they suggested we set up a parallel temporary account with a finite amount of spending money in it to protect our regular, normal account from fraud. We did exercise that option (it took about 30 minutes to do so) and even left with new, temporary debit Visa cards with new PINs. In hindsight I would have done this a few days in advance at a minimum to be able to test and use the cards before leaving the country- luckily, our cards worked and it was nice to know that our entire account wasn’t at risk. (I of course had to call and let the powers-that-be at the bank that we were planning to use our account in France. Given that there was no previous account activity, it was a bit more challenging to do so but it must have worked because we used our cards to get cash and buy dinners.)
- Cash is king.
The French don’t seem to be as particular or hell-bent on avoiding paper money, compared to what I remember from 20 years ago. The Euro makes things “beaucoup plus facile”- much easier- in terms of traveling through Europe. Cash was always welcome, never a problem, and while carrying cash has its own risks I think I’d certainly plan on using cash almost exclusively for our next trip.
Now that we have the money, stay tuned for the next installment, where we start spending it on some of our favorite things (beer, wine, coffee, croissants, coq au vin, and more!)