Archive for the 'travel tips' Category

Credit Agricole – c’est nulle, nulle, nulle

Credit Agricole would have to go out of their way to try to suck worse than they do.  And maybe they do, on purpose, because boy, do they suck.  Add to that the nightmare of French bureaucracy, and you’ve got a clear winner in the loser department.

Two years ago, I discovered that if I was planning on visiting France with any regularity, I needed a French debit card.  There is a whole swath of transactions that can only be accomplished with French cards – specifically, French bank cards with the implanted chip.  Attempting to purchase gas without a human teller on a holiday is just one example, but the one that forced my hand.

Since my father already had a French bank account, we figured it would be easiest to avoid the red tape and open a joint account under his account, with the French credit union Credit Agricole.  I believe this is where things began to go wrong.  In the interest of time and space – and for maximum amusing readability – let me cut to the (goose) chase:

  • My Dad lives in Africa (long story).  I live in San Francisco.  The bank, based in Normandy, sent all my documents to Africa – even after I explained (at the outset) that I needed my documents sent to me in the U.S.  I eventually did start receiving some documents (but never statements) in the U.S.  Notably, a questionnaire asking me about their customer service….
  • I tried logging in to the online system, and I had my online password wrong.  Yes, this was my fault.  After three tries, the bank locks you out completely until you contact them and ask for a password reset.  Ah – they only send the new passwords by mail.  It went to Africa.  I had to contact my parents to get the code.
  • I visited France this last June and I brought my bank card with me.  I used my card for the first time and was given the keypad for my code….. I had forgotten my French card’s PIN (as opposed to the online login password).  No sweat, I thought – I’ll ask them to process the purchase as a credit card.  No deal.  Even though the card says “Visa” on it, I cannot use the card as a credit card (with signature) – at least, if I supposed to be able to, I’ve been refused by stores so far.
  • For the life of me, I could not remember ever even having received a PIN number – which is why I never thought of it in the first place.  (I discovered later that I never did – my parents brought me a bunch of bank mail, which included the PIN).  I went to the nearest Credit Agricole (I was in southern France by then) with my bank card, hoping to reset my code in person.  They looked at me as I had brought them a nose-trimmer.  “We can’t help you with that.  You don’t have an account here.  You have to call your local agency.”
  • I call my actual bank in Normandy.  They could resend my PIN number – by mail.  Hmmm – you can probably guess how excited I was about that prospect.  I asked them to send it instead to my mother’s address, in the south of France, where I would be for the next week.  I should have guessed it would have sounded too fishy – even though I passed all the security tests on the phone, etc, they never sent it.
  • This time around, on our trip in November, I go straight to the bank in Normandy.  First, what’s this new $20 “bank card” fee I’m being charged?  “It’s for the use of your bank card”.  I’ve had this card for over a year now, never a fee.  The assistant manager looks at the screen a moment, then says, “Don’t worry about it.”  I ask if he’ll remove it.  “Don’t worry about it.”  That’s not how we confirm someone will remove a bank charge in the U.S.  It’s “Yes, I will remove the fee.”  I’m suspicious.
  • I wanted to confirm my card would work with my code.  The assistant manager stands beside me as I put the card into the ATM, enter my PIN.  Ah, the code is accepted.  I am able to take out money – or at least, I should say, get to the money screen, after which we cancelled the operation (mistake).  So it works…..
  • C’est vrai?  Non…..  I try to buy gas with the card the next day, on our way down to Lyon, 600 kilometers away from my bank.  No luck – the card accepts the PIN, but then says the transaction is invalid.  The woman looks at the card, and says “Oh, your card is expired.  As of last month.”  I have not received a replacement card (I’m sure it’s in Africa – they were *still* tryng to make my U.S. address stick in their system when I visited them this time).  No one at the bank in Normandy noticed.
  • I go to the Credit Agricole in Lyon.  I have my passport, and I have my check book.  Surely I can get money out that way….  You can guess where this is going, right?  The woman is all accommodating until she sees my checkbook.  On the cover, my dad’s name is printed, first initial and last name.  She says it’s not my name.  I show here an actual check with “G Beuthin” printed on it.  She pauses.  “But that’s not your full name. I can’t confirm this is you.”  Apparently, since “Gregory” is not printed on my checks, she refuses to let he have access to cash.
  • My only solution is to call my bank, and have them wire transfer it to another branch.  But that will take 24 hours, and will cost me $20.  I go through a run-around of calling another branch further south where I will be the next day; making sure it will be open on Saturday morning so I can  actually get the money at that agency; then calling my agency again and requesting the wire transfer.  This all takes over 30 minutes.  What I can’t understand is why, if I can call my bank and have them wire transfer money to someone (anyone, apparently, as long as that person has a passport or formal ID) at another location, can’t I get money out for myself by calling my bank?!!!
  • Finally, just to show that Credit Agricole is not the only bank that is giving me the French red-tape special (but certainly the worst so far), I visited BNP Paribas to finish setting up an account I had opened on my last trip.  The manager was apologetic as he told me the account was refused – he had submitted the request as a resident account (even though I was not a resident) and it had been refused because I did not provide any resident papers.  Yet when I was there over the summer, we had discussed all the supporting paper s I would need form my American banks since I was opening a non-resident account.   The manager even suggested I open an account with a resident family member (like my Dad, perhaps) and surreptitiously use the card with their name on it.  Are you kidding?  I can’t even use a card with my name on it!!!

So the saga is not over.  It’s just less painful when I’m not in France, not dealing with it.

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French car rental follow-up

My brother sent me an email comparing Orbitz’ car rental prices with what I could get with UCar.  Orbitz was cheaper, but I was curious so I did some more sleuthing.  This is what I wrote to my bro:

It might be the way to go (and save $70-$100 odd dollars) if I wanted to use my Mastercard for insurance, but ultimately, I prefer Ucar.  If you check out the small pricing links, you’ll find this one which explains that CDW and PAI are not included; and it looks like you can only use Mastercard Gold or Platinum (i.e. not Visa) to decline the coverage.  You also a) can’t talk to a human, b) specify an automatic.

To reiterate, my experience is that UCar includes all insurance costs in its price quotes.  When you return and pay, you get an immediate bill, and it’s what they said it would be when you walked in the first day (unless, of course, you’ve driven more than their allotted mileage, which is generous).  For a sample of the pricing chart that they display in every UCar store – that includes your liability – you can download their terms and conditions PDF (the link is “Conditions générales de vente” at the bottom of their home page).

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Additional France / Europe car rental resources

ViaMichelin not only provides driving directions, but gives you the option to calculate travel costs based on: whether you select to take the toll roads or not; and the current price of gas!

If you’re curious about the latter, check out Zagaz – click on the map to get a localized listing of gas prices….

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Renting a car in France

I’m planning on returning to France in November, and was looking over some of my travel notes. I realized I had not finished my “France travel-tips” triptych – car rentals in France.

There are a couple of things to consider when renting a car, and my recommendation for a car rental agency:


  • As in the US, car rental agencies make most of their money off the insurance they tack on at the counter. In France you are usually charged for car damage “CDW” and / loss “LDW” (I think they are referred to this way, even in France). There is usually a theft insurance too..
  • Used to be that you could avoid the (astronomical) additional daily insurance charges by using a credit card that would provide insurance instead. However, many places I’ve visited in the last couple of years have wised up to this tactic. Usually what happens is you’ll see a price listed for a car – let’s say 20 Euros a day. OK, you figure you’ll avoid the additional 30 Euros a day of insurance (maybe that’s an exaggeration) by using your credit card….. Ooooh no. That 20 Euros a day is their promotional rate, when you accept the insurance they provide. Otherwise, the price jumps up….

Manual vs. automatic:

  • If you’re like me (sadly), you don’t know how to drive stick. Well, you’re gonna have to find a place that rents automatics. A lot of the bigger agencies (Avis, Hertz, EuropCar, etc) can provide an automatic, in the larger cities and at airports. However… there are “horror” stories of getting there, and the previous renter of their single automatic in the entire fleet has still not returned the car, and you’re out of luck.
  • You could try out AutoEurope, a 3rd party rental broker, which can guarantee you an automatic – depending on the metropolitan region, and guarantee you a price. A lot of Americans like this service because you can call an 800# from the US and set up your reservation; and when you’re done, you know what you’re paying. However, you’re paying the price for these guarantees – i.e. roughly a 30% premium.

Diesel vs petrol:

  • Unlike war-subsidized oil prices in the U.S. 😉 France does not subsidize gas prices. When you see gas at about 1.3 Euros, that’s PER LITRE (multiply by 4 to get a rough gallon price). Yeah, driving costs money, don’t it? That’s a fact the rest of the world is much more intimately familiar with than we are.
  • So your best bet is to rent a diesel if you can. Diesel is about the same price – but are far more efficient (i.e. you’ll be refueling about 1/3 to 1/2 less often).
  • Unfortunately, getting an automatic diesel is like finding a car rental place open during lunch – not impossible, but very difficult. (Remember that when you schedule your car return to coincide with that noon train!)

What I do when I’m in France:
I use UCar

Insurance: The UCar agencies specialize in having a published, inexpensive rate including CDW/LDW insurance (your liability is 500 Euro damages and 1000 Euro theft – not great….). They have big charts in their offices that will show you the exact price you’ll pay, for a certain car, for a certain number of days. When you come back with your car, you leave with that exact amount charged on your credit card (i.e. they don’t send you a racked up bill later). It’s that simple – I’ve done it several times now.

NOTE – A lot of the UCar rates include a specific mileage limitation. This makes it ideal for local exploring, but a bit more expensive for trekking across the country. Their miles are nonetheless pretty generous.

Locations: UCar agencies are everywhere – there’ll usually be a couple in a good-sized town, and then a few more scattered along the villages outside of town. However, these UCar locations are invariably in the middle of friggin’ nowhere. For example, the UCar spot in Avignon is several kilometres outside of the quaint central part of town – you have to take a bus into the Avignon “banlieue” to get there.

Automatics: This gets a little tricky, and again it’s very helpful to be able to speak French. I called the toll number and said I was looking for an automatic in a particular region. The central reservation place in turn called the local agencies to find who had an automatic, and called me back with a reservation. Awesome. Except I needed to enlist the help of another driver with car to get me to that location. (In this example, the Aix-en-Provence UCar is in the commercial section a good dozen kliks outside of town. Yes, you can take a bus, but come on! The best thing about it is there is a great organic store and outdoor restaurant around the corner form the Aix UCar place).

Of course, if you don’t speak French, it’s harder. If you don’t have a cell phone to call back, it’s even harder (I will try to call form the US for this next trip, and see how we can work out the call-back for the reservation).

Nonetheless, one of the great things about UCar is that they all seem to be local owners, and many will get to lengths to help you out (the guy in Avignon drove us to the train station because it was his lunch time, and we were running late).

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Train travel in France

First things first – if you can speak French (or at least understand it well enough) DO NOT use RailEurope for any point-to-point train ticket purchases (they are still the only place to buy EurRail passes).  For example, I was looking for a ticket from Paris to Macon:

  • SNCF / TGV site:  I found a 1.5 hour TGV ticket for 50 Euros.
  • RailEurope:  I found a 4 hour train ride, no TGV, with a transfer, for $120 (about 80 Euros).

You can purchase TGV tickets (or even regular non-TGV train tickets) from the SNCF site, from any point to any point (even the smallest station).  There is a small question at the end of the form that asks your country of residence.  If you say the US, you get punted to RailEurope; however, you can say France – and then select the option to print out your ticket yourself.  International credit cards work fine on the site.

A couple of other things to note:

  • DON’T select any ticket that only allows for a ticket retrieval from a “borne automatique” – a ticket machine.  These require you use your purchasing credit card to retrieve your ticket- and if you’ve spent any time in France, you’ll know that almost every “credit card” machine actually requires the French credit card with the embedded chip (I’ve seen foreign cards – chip and all – fail in these systems too).
  • You can, in general, retrieve your ticket from a human being – just be sure to give yourself enoguh time to stand in lime.  And keep handy the confirmation code number they send you via email.  They can’t do anything about your ticket without it.  I missed a train (see “credit card without chip” above) and had to get re-routed – the agent could not look up my info based on my card nor my name.
  • When you buy a ticket from a human, remember that the train system pricing depends on a rather complicated set of peak and off-peak times that can radically affect the price – and they won’t necessarily offer you the cheapest ticket unless you ask.  They tend to ask when you want to go, and then give you a standardized price based on that time of day and day of week (and season, etc).
  • For what it’s worth – mobile phone use within the cabin is strongly frowned upon.  That’s what those cute stickers of sleeping cell phones all over the cabin mean (go to the area by the bathrooms and exit doors for a phone conversation).

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Mobile phone and SIM card experience in France

[UPDATED 2007-08-17, and read the comments for more info] I expressly bought a triple-band Nokia mobile phone so I could travel to France and use it. The idea was that in the US, I have a regular subscriber account, and the SIM card I have in my phone essentially identifies me and my account. No need to change it, renew it, whatever.

When I landed in France, my phone immediately picked up Orange as the local provider (since it has an agreement with T-Mobile, my US provider). So in an emergency, I could already make a phone call (I forget the rates now, but it’s something above $1/ minute). Instead, what I had planned was to swap out my T-Mobile user account with a basic pre-paid SIM card – the type that you can buy for a certain amount, and you get up to that many minutes. Since I had never done this before, I had a few stutter steps in the process, and I’m listing my “learnings” below:

  • The three main mobile services in France are Orange, Bouygues and SFR (there are others).
  • You can go into any mobile sales center (of any of these services, or an independent shop that sells all of them), and buy a pre-paid SIM card. You get a phone number when you buy the card, and it works immediately. I got an Orange card that cost about 14 Euros for the card, and included about 5 Euros of time – which is only about 15 minutes (turns out my 19 Euro fee was based on a promotional deal – usually the combo can be 30 Euros or more – see below). You can add minutes to this card – but I’m not positive you can add minutes later easily (see below).
  • You can go into almost any bar-tabac or magazine store and buy minutes – for any service (e.g. Orange, Bouygues, SFR). What you get is a receipt with a code and phone number to set up your minutes. However, that’s only usable if you have a SIM card for that service already – even if you’ve run out of minutes on that card. However, these new minutes will change your phone number. Also – I learned the hard way – if you get it wrong (i.e. you don’t tell them the correct service) it is absolutely non-refundable (since you get a secret code number printed directly on the receipt).
  • I was looking for an Orange card, because … well, because that’s what I knew. So I was rather put out that 1) I was standing in front of Gare de Lyon – one of the busiest train stations in the world – and saw no signal (although my phone did work), 2) over 60% of the time I was on the train, going from Paris east to Geneva, I had no visible signal – even though everyone around me had a signal. Apparently, Orange’s network is not the greatest (is my personal experience) my phone sucks. It wasn’t a matter of poor network – my phone picked up other networks on various occasions. I think it has more to do with the fact that I did not have a fancy enough phone (i.e. I only had one of the working bands for France, and not both. Maybe I shoulda splurged for the 4-band phone…)
  • I was not able to send a text message right away. However, after a off-on cycle, it worked fine. (International SMSs never worked…)
  • For what it’s worth, when you are calling inside the country, most numbers in France start with a 0. (I.e. drop the country code (33) and add the zero.)

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