Thanks to recent travels in France, I have a new insult â€¦ â€œas useless as an American Express card in Europe.â€
Yes, I have a lot of experience with using credit cards overseas â€¦ or trying to anyway. Itâ€™s best to treat most of Europe as a cash economy when it comes to basic expenses. That has a lot to do with my companyâ€™s choice in corporate credit cards and the wonders of the magnetic stripe.
The American Express card, despite its magnificent customer service, is barely accepted outside of the United States. Thatâ€™s primarily due to higher merchant fees (same reason itâ€™s not accepted everywhere in the US). Itâ€™s great for hotels and some high-end restaurants, but fairly useless everywhere else. Be prepared to use your VISA card (hello foreign transaction fees), spend a lot of cash (hello ATM fees) and be treated like a stereotypical tourist when trying to use your AMEX card (hello American stereotypes).
So I find it amazing that my latest corporate AMEX card is equipped with the European â€˜chip-and-PINâ€™ system. Thatâ€™s the system used as an alternative to magnetic stripes for increased security. Itâ€™s a great system, but entirely useless when I take the card in countries where itâ€™s not accepted. So in that case the card feels very secure: no one will bother to steal a card that canâ€™t easily be used.
It almost serves as a spending control, since it means my VISA card doesn’t work in many kiosks or store terminals. I felt like a kid in an arcade, sacrificing tons of coins to win a train ticket back to airport (although a stuffed version of the Eiffel Tower would have also been cool).
Fortunately, some US banks offer chip-and-PIN cards â€¦ but not many. Eventually US banks will upgrade their systems, either out of security or as a response to the growth in mobile payments that could threaten their business. It’s not necessarily 100% secure, but neither is carrying hundreds or euros in a country where you lack fluency in the primary language.
I may replace my personal VISA card with one of these travel-friendly cards, especially if they donâ€™t have any foreign transaction fees. But first I need to go through two weeks of cash receipts and Paris Metro tickets. At least I donâ€™t have to spend much time reviewing my AMEX account.