PLease help with $ exchange advice while vacationing in Paris
September 5, 2010 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Another Paris question. I want to avoid using credit cards and ATM while we vacation Paris as much as possible. Reason is the fees. Credit card charges 3% for international transactions. I would like to use cash and or travelers checks. The hive is wise and experienced. First hand advice please. Also has anyone receiving me tried the Paris pass museum card?

Currency exchange advice for Paris
posted by citybuddha to Travel & Transportation around Paris, France (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If you have some time before you leave, apply for a Capital One Visa/MC. They eat the 3% visa fee for you. If you have a LOT of time, you could open a checking account at a bank that does the same thing. I happen to know that First Republic does this (and eats all atm fees as well). I'm sure there's others that do the same thing.
posted by Phredward at 8:29 AM on September 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure I fully understand the part about the Museum Pass, but I'll tell you my experience. We bought the 6-day Museum Passes at the airport, where there was no wait to buy them at all. They worked out great. You get right in to museums with the pass, and in many cases avoided long lines by doing so. The Louvre and the D'Orsay, for example had huge ticket lines that we avoided completely, and basically just walked in.

You buy the card, then on the morning of the first day you want to use it, you write the date and your name. Then the card is good for you alone (though they never once checked our passports to verify our names) for either 2, 4 or 6 days depending on which one you bought. The card comes with a small fold out guide to which museums and attractions are included and their hours of operation. Of course, it's only really worthwhile if you plan to see a lot of museums, and it pays to plan out those days when your pass will be valid. It's not a super cheap discount deal, but if you plan to see museums and don't want additional hassle and waiting, it's well worth it.

I highly recommend it if you're interested in the museums listed. We went to the Louvre twice, the D'Orsay, the Middle Ages Museum (Cluny), the Orangerie, St. Chapelle, Rodin and some others. But we had 14 days in Paris so we had plenty of other days to do non-museum stuff. By the way, the pass covers some other attractions that aren't actually museums, so check out the website. Great time.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 8:36 AM on September 5, 2010

You mean this pass, right? Because if I'm understand you right, that thing is amazing. Skipping lines is great. Getting into the museum as it opens and not getting your ticket as it opens is great. Seriously, do it. It pays for itself easy.
posted by theichibun at 8:41 AM on September 5, 2010

The easiest thing to do is to just withdraw cash from the ATMs there. You end up paying fees (for me, it was the standard $1 fee that my credit union charges when you don't use their ATM), but you can minimize this by getting large amounts of cash each time. When you're exchanging currency, there's no way to avoid paying fees altogether, so you might as well make it easy on yourself.

Definitely get the Paris Museum Pass. It may or may not save you money on entrance fees, depending on how many museums you end up visiting. But it will definitely save you time, as there is almost always a separate line for pass-holders. I was able to walk straight into the Louvre in June at lunchtime.

Bon voyage!
posted by donajo at 8:43 AM on September 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Capitol One doesn't charge an international or currency-exchange fee. Ditto, some banks' ATM cards. If you have time, it might be worth looking around. With either of those, you'll get the exchange rate in effect at the time the transaction is processed in the US (not necessarily the time at which you made the transaction), with no fees tacked on.
Most ATM cards have the downside of not having fraudulent-use protection. I reduce the balance in my ATM-card-connected account to only what I think I might need while I'm away, or even to just a few hundred dollars and plan to log in to move more money into it as necessary.
Travelers' checks are always a good backup, if not your primary cash source.
posted by TruncatedTiller at 8:43 AM on September 5, 2010

No matter how you slice it, there are fees for exchanging money. (With some minor exceptions like being lucky that your particular bank doesn't charge them.)

The best deal I've found is using your ATM/debit card in local ATMs to get cash. I'm not sure if this is worthwhile in Paris, but traveling in parts of the world where the dollar goes further, I just make sure to take out the maximum the ATM will dispense so that I'm paying the fewest possible exchange fees.

I would not open a new credit card just because you are going to spend 10 days in Paris at some point. That seems penny wise/pound foolish to me.
posted by Sara C. at 8:52 AM on September 5, 2010

I definitely second the advice about the museum pass. We only had three days in Paris this summer and bought the two-day passes, and it still saved us money while letting us see almost everything we wanted to see in that short amount of time. Just make sure you don't detach the map that comes attached, or the pass is voided. Also, pay attention to which days all the museums you want to see are open. Definitely plan those days out as much as possible.
posted by kaye88 at 8:53 AM on September 5, 2010

Yeah, the museum pass is great, and I've recommended it here loads of times. The big advantage for visitors is jumping the queues and/or using the group entrances: for the Louvre, the Passage Richelieu is the easiest option. It also means you don't feel obliged to "do" a museum in a single visit, and can peek into a place on the list to see if it's worth spending more time there. kaye88's right that you ought to take into account the weekly closing days for the big museums when planning "pass days": for the Musée d'Orsay and the Château de Versailles, it's Monday; for the Louvre and Cluny it's Tuesday.

For currency exchange, it's really a case of working out the best balance of cost and convenience. Plastic will generally give you the Interbank rates, but throw on the fees unless you have a card that waives them, and possibly a per-transaction fixed charge. The Rick Steves-approved advice is to use ATMs, make decent-sized withdrawals, and look after your cash: I'm inclined to agree.

You're not going to escape fees with cash/travellers' cheque exchange, but you may shave them by choosing where to make the exchange. How much cash are you comfortable carrying? How much trekking to banks are you prepared to do? Would you enjoy the task of establishing the daily bank rates, then working out the cost of exchanges with commission for place to place? Also, don't believe the hype and expect to be able to pay with travellers' cheques outside big tourist-trail retailers: shops hate dealing with them, and you'll usually need to cash them somewhere.
posted by holgate at 9:01 AM on September 5, 2010

Bank of America will let you use the BNP Paribas ATMs in France for free. In the US I usually pay for everything with my debit card and it takes some training to take out a lot of cash when I hit the ATM when traveling. Even if your bank does have a deal like BofA has with BNP, sometimes it is hard to find a branch without spending a bunch of time finding it, so you go to one that is convenient.

Part of the pain of the 3% exchange fee is made up in the exchange rate you paid was much better than a lot of retail exchange places. Still, try to do a lot in cash, limit visits to the ATM and using the card and realize that even for 3% more Paris is a great city and worth it.

I'd skip travelers checks because a lot of places don't like them or will charge a surcharge. Waiting in line a bank is not my idea of a fun way to spend my vacation.

On my last trip to Europe a few of the hotels I stayed in offered to settle my bill to a credit card in dollars (at a shitty exchange rate) instead of the euro. Even with the amounts being in dollars, credit card companies will still charge the forex fee because it is coming from a foreign bank. So you get to pay the 3% on top of an already crappy exchange rate. This was in a few big business class hotels where I guess they get American business travelers who are expensing their trip and not worried about fees.
posted by birdherder at 9:07 AM on September 5, 2010

Most places that will change cash or checks for free are just adjusting the exchange rate. Are you confident you can tell if they are off of the correct rate by 3%? The ATM / credit card is a known quantity at least.
posted by smackfu at 9:09 AM on September 5, 2010

You have to read between the lines in the previous responses, but the museum pass is only worth it under specific circumstances: You are there mostly to see museums (not just one or two) and you are going during high season.

We went on a museum trip to Paris in the winter, the off-season, and walked right into both the D'Orsay and the Louvre. So, there's that other side of it.

Regarding the ATMs, I echo donajo. The fee is usually fixed per transaction not amount so you can withdraw a lot of cash with each transaction to minimise the fee as a percentage.
posted by vacapinta at 9:09 AM on September 5, 2010

Get a free checking account with Bank of America, then withdraw cash at BNP Paribas cashpoints in Paris for free.

Alternatively, get a credit card with Capital One and pay for as much as you can on the card. Capital One is the only American credit card I've found that doesn't charge an international transaction fee. It's been an amazing money-saver for me.

These two only apply if you're American, though. (Capital One UK isn't this generous, if I recall correctly.)
posted by Put the kettle on at 9:20 AM on September 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I third the idea of using BofA and BNP Paribas.

One main issue with using credit cards in France is that most of EU has switch to a system with chip. Most american cards will be denied at restaurants and stores, sometimes even hotels. They might be able to punch you CC number, but pretty much every place I tried refused.
posted by brorfred at 9:32 AM on September 5, 2010

The pass is excellent. The best bit about it is being able to do multiple visits, and also checking out stuff you're less obviously interested in and that you'd otherwise be wary about gambling a hefty entrance fee on.
posted by fire&wings at 10:25 AM on September 5, 2010

Everyone above has covered the basics. Capital One is a good card for traveling. The exchange rate they charge is decent and there is no fee. If you add in the 1% cash back they offer, you end up ahead of other cards or cash. Make sure not to allow merchants to charge you in dollars, though, or they will charge their own conversion fee. (You may be asked if you want to pay in dollars or euros - always say euros.)

I didn't have any trouble using my card anywhere in France, Spain, or Iceland earlier this year, except for automated kiosks (toll booths, parking, metro) where chip and pin cards were generally required. It does suck that it's nearly impossible for Americans to get a chip and pin card for traveling. You can set a pin for the Capital One card, which will sometimes allow you to use it at kiosks which have magnetic readers. (Works for gas in Iceland, anyway.)

Cash at the ATM, even for 1%, is a lot more convenient than travelers checks if you don't want to go the Capital One route. I usually travel with enough cash to cover a day of activities, but I always use my card if it is possible.
posted by Nothing at 10:57 AM on September 5, 2010

I live in the UK and have only swipe cards (as opposed to chip and pin cards) and I've only been denied a purchase once. Sometimes cashiers look at me funny but usually they just swipe my card, have me sign a receipt, and that's it. I think this will vary from place to place, but my experience has been that swipe cards are still usable in Europe.
posted by Put the kettle on at 11:04 AM on September 5, 2010

Just get cash at the ATMs and use that. The fee is offset by the preferential exchange rate you'll receive (my AmEx and HSBC debit card were almost exactly the market exchange rate on my recent trip to Spain). Most places don't accept travelers cheques anymore, so it's kind of a waste of time and energy (and more of those pesky fees) to get them.

If you really want to arrive with cash in hand, you can go to your bank (well in advance) and request that they order you some euros. You'll still pay a fee, but you won't have to search for an atm immediately upon your arrival.
posted by melissasaurus at 1:36 PM on September 5, 2010

I got traveler's checks in Euros for my first trip to Europe 7 years ago. The only places that would accept them were currency exchanges that charged outrageous fees. Since then I have always used an ATM card. Regardless of what card you use make sure you inform them about your trip ahead of time. Otherwise they may put a fraud hold the first time you try and use it in Paris.
posted by nestor_makhno at 2:05 PM on September 5, 2010

Museum pass plus plus!

Also, please use it to go to some random interesting museum you may otherwise have ignored because you didn't want to pay extra/wait in line/et cetera.

Most american cards will be denied at restaurants and stores, sometimes even hotels. They might be able to punch you CC number, but pretty much every place I tried refused.

I haven't had this experience recently at all (I live here but use the American card off-and-on). There are some places where the MACHINES will be annoying and reject you: the automated ticket booths for the metro, the automated ordering kiosks at McDs (free internet!). Even then, the places with humans working can usually fix the problem. Most of the hand-held card-swipers now(?) have magnetic swipies too, perhaps. Sometimes you have to explain to them, though, why it is not working: "Il n'y a pas de puce."
posted by whatzit at 2:27 PM on September 5, 2010

Another potentially unhelpful vote for "Get cards that don't charge you fees!".

I'm spending a significant amount of time outside of the US using a Charles Schwab credit card with no fees (and 2% cashback!) and a Schwab ATM card that not only charges no fees on their end, but reimburses me for any fees charged by the ATM owner.
posted by adamk at 4:38 PM on September 5, 2010

Regardless of what card you use make sure you inform them about your trip ahead of time. Otherwise they may put a fraud hold the first time you try and use it in Paris.

This, several times over.

Most american cards will be denied at restaurants and stores, sometimes even hotels. They might be able to punch you CC number, but pretty much every place I tried refused.

Last year, my cards were accepted at point of sale and restaurants everywhere except for one smalltown brasserie deep in the Gers. Everyone else defaulted back to printing out a paper receipt for the backwards American to sign, always nice, never a hassle.

However, the only ATM I could get to work with a US card was the one in Toulouse/Blagnac airport.
posted by gimonca at 5:11 PM on September 5, 2010

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