Even as some merchants favor cashless transactions, can't one still get by in Europe with good, old-fashioned cash? Many Americans who work and travel abroad say yes.
"Paris is still old world—almost everyone takes cash," said Colette Davidson, a Paris-based American journalist on a recent afternoon in the Marais, a trendy district where shoppers flock on Sundays while most Parisian stores traditionally remain closed. "Plenty of places still don't take cards at all."
Those whose Parisian fantasy involves bicycling while carrying a fresh baguette under one arm should be forewarned: while cash will suffice for the baguette, the bike may be another story. One exception to Paris' cash-friendly ethos remains the city's hugely popular Velib public bike rental system, used by residents and travelers alike. Without a smart chip card, you'll be out of luck. The Paris Metro doesn't take magnetic stripe credit cards either, but it does still take Euro coins.
If negotiating the business of smart cards sounds so complicated that you're considering trading the plane tickets to Prague for a cruise with the in-laws, some good news: several U.S. banks are finally offering new chip and PIN options to cardholders. The Wells Fargo Propel World American Express card is one new option; the steep $175 annual fee is waived in the first year. From Barclaycard, two new chip and PIN cards are the Arrival Plus and the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard, both carrying an $89 annual fee. USAA members can request a Chip and PIN version of the Platinum World Mastercard, which offers a 1 percent foreign transaction fee but no annual fee.
JPMorgan Chase Bank has also offered a variety of smart chip cards to cardholders in recent years. Yet though the bank has recently added chip and signature capabilities to several new cards, a JPMorgan spokesman said by email that the bank has no current plans to introduce PIN-enabled smart cards.
After lagging behind for so long, when will U.S. banks fully commit to joining the rest of the world on the practically unanimous migration to smart cards? While American Express and Wells Fargo are among a growing group of financial institutions that offer chip and signature cards by request, a looming deadline will soon mean that more banks must follow suit. By October 2015, banks and merchants will be required to adopt EMV technology or risk liability for fraud.
Yet with no requirement for these cards to be PIN-enabled, renting a bike in Paris with your credit card may still prove more difficult than learning to correctly pronounce je voudrais louer un vélo, s'il vous plait (I would like to rent a bicycle, please).
—By Sarah Chandler, Special to CNBC.com
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