Traveling around Europe with an American credit card can be difficult for travelers who can't handle rejection.
Here's a typical situation: You're ready to buy your RER ticket to get in from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. You line up behind your fellow travelers at the boxy ticket machines and watch them effortlessly touch-screen their way through their purchases. You step up, follow the onscreen instructions in English, insert your credit card and...
"CARTE NON LUE"
Hmmm. It didn't read the card? The machine spits the card back out (in slowmo). You reach for another card and...
"CARTE NON LUE"
(pause for suspense, and then, in red letters)
No matter how many times you try, it won't work. Hopefully you have cash (and coins, too, if your machine doesn't accept bills). If not, you'll probably be spending the next hour waiting in a line in the ticket office behind travelers hearing about all of their TGV options.
Ironically, your card will work in the ticket office. So why the rejection?
In most European countries, credit cards have been equipped with chip-and-PIN technology for nearly a decade. The cards literally have a small computer chip in them and require the user to input their PIN code into a keypad to make a purchase.
It makes perfect sense and makes our magnetic strip-and-signature "technology" looked rather antiquated.
While American cards will be accepted from most human tellers (for example, paying for a purchase in a store, restaurant or hotel), you may well run out of luck when it comes to paying from a self-service kiosk or ticket machine.
And it's usually when you really want to pay for something and get moving that your card is NON LUE. For example:
• Train stations. French ticket machines make it easy to buy short- and long-distance train tickets -- if you have a chip-and-pin card. If not, use cash or wait in line in the ticket office.
• Paris Metro tickets. Ditto with those ticket machines -- head for a teller or use cash.
• Vélib'. Paris' bike-share program is open to visiting Americans, but the kiosks probably won't take your card. Sign up online and you'll be given an access code to use when taking out a bike.
• Pay-at-the-pump gas stations. Driving around rural France on a Sunday? I hope you have a full tank, because you'll be hard pressed to find a gas station off the autoroute that will accept credit cards without a chip-and-PIN.
I've given French examples as I'm most familiar with PIN frustrations à la francaise. However, you'll run into similar situations throughout Europe.
While there are a few American credit cards that now offer the chip-and-PIN technology, most seem to be for high rolling corporate business travelers, and the banks charge dearly for it.
My advice is to be prepared for your card to be declined anytime you try to pay at a kiosk or machine. Bring cash. Have coins ready. And be prepared to wait.
And don't be afraid to improvise...
While driving around Normandy on a Sunday a few years ago, I tried in vain to find a gas station with a human teller. The only game in town was a closed Leclerc superstore with a pay-at-the-pump gas station.
I spent a pitiful 15 minutes at a pump, inserting and re-inserting my card in an act of delusion and desperation. Finally, a very kind man at the pump across from me asked if he could help. I paid him cash and I watched, with smart-card envy, as he tapped in his code and filled up my tank.
We didn't become friends, but hey, I got a story out of it. I guess a little rejection can be good for you.
Want to read more? Here's additional advice for Americans using credit cards in Paris, tips for buying Metro and RER tickets with cards and questions Americans should ask their banks before leaving on a trip.