How to Buy Things!
There are some cultural and financial things every visitor needs to know about how to buy things in France.
France is part of the Euro zone. It's a very simple system based on 100, identical to the dollar. One euro cent is one/one-hundreth of a euro.
The sign for euros is €. When the euro was hatched, it was supposed to be more or less equivalent to the dollar. This has never really been true.
The exchange rate fluctuates anywhere from $1.10 per € to $1.60. There isn't really any good way of predicting when it will be good for you, (the rate closer to the $), or when it will be advantageous for Europeans to visit America, (when it's at $1.60). This is especially true when you're planning months in advance and have to book your plane tickets. It's a throw of the dice, unless you're an investment banker. And don't we all know how good they are at predicting things involving the stock market?
Don't expect cheap...
When you get here, there is one important thing to remember. The shopkeepers are not trying to earn phenomenal amounts of money off of you all the time.
In France, there is a law that states that every single item for sale must have a visibly marked price on it. This ensures that the price marked is the same price for everyone. It seems obvious that no shopkeeper would have the time to re-price everything just before you walk through the door.
The reality is that life in the Euro zone is rather expensive. You, with your dollar may or may not find this to be more or less true with every variation possible between the two extremes. It's all in the exchange rate, which none of us poor consumers has any control over.
So, please, do not make a show of doing the conversion or making any unnecessary expletives regarding how much that works out to in dollars. The shopkeeper is not at fault. All of his French customers are paying the same amount for his goods, as he's asking of you.
However, you are more than free to look, do the conversion, and choose to leave without buying. Just keep your comments to yourself. It won't change anything. You'll just come off looking like an ugly American.
Bargaining, Not Haggling!
When you're buying something from an open air market, or if you're in an individually owned non-chain-store shop, and have decided to purchase several items, you can ask for a better deal. This is called bargaining. It's always done in a nice tone of voice.
If the shopkeeper agrees, good for you! However, he does not have to agree to your offer. If he does not, do not walk off in a huff muttering nastiness in any language. You can make a counter offer closer to the original price. If this still doesn't work, either politely say, “ok, too bad” and walk away or pull out your money and pay the original asking price.
Most often, and this is a generality-not absolute truth written in gold, you can hope for 10% - 15% off the combined price when you're buying three or more items in the same shop, unless any of these items are already on sale. This is true only in circumstances where the three items you've chosen are of a significant value.
Buying three postcards does not merit bargaining. Three pair of shoes, maybe. Three Paris inscribed sweatshirts, maybe. Six bottles of wine, because six is a full carton, quite possibly.
Haggling is quite another word and describes quite another procedure. It is an ugly word and describes an ugly procedure. “Hag” comes from haggling and nobody wants to be dealing with a hag. Bargain politely with a smile on your face, accept the results like a team player and do not turn into a haggling hag. Your attitude will greatly influence the size of the deal you get. You know the old adage: “you'll attract more bees with honey than with sh#*” It's true.
Cash, credit card or travelers checks?
If you're hoping to get in a bit of shopping in France, you'll have to decide before you leave home, how you'll be purchasing your goodies. Cash, credit card or travelers checks?
I have found that one of the smartest things to do is to travel with some cash and at least one international credit card. This is what I do:
Land in the country of choice. Go to a bank with an ATM machine and withdraw about $100 worth of local currency. ATM machines located in or outside of a reputable bank are less likely to do any scam operations with your card.
Then, go to your hotel and ask the concierge where the best place to change money is. Since you've already got some cash you can give him a tip in his local currency for this priceless information. Go to wherever he suggests and convert your cash once and one time only since you'll have a service charge every time you convert. Why rack up several service charges by changing a little here and there?
Use your credit card for substantial purchases, or paying hotel and restaurant bills. Keep your cash for shopping, paying entrance fees to museums, taxi fares, tipping etc.
If you run out of cash, go to an ATM machine located in a bank and make a substantial withdrawal one more time for the duration of your vacation. Fewer ATM machines used, smaller chance of any problems. Voilà!
The least advantageous place to exchange cash is in the airport at the “bureau de change”. They have bad rates and hefty service charges. Avoid giving them anymore of your vacation money than necessary. Avoiding airport ATM machines is also a good idea.
Travelers checks are a complete hassle. No businesses accept them no matter which well known costly brand name check you use. In France, you can only cash travelers checks at the post office. Not in banks, not in hotels, not anywhere else, irregardless of what the advert on TV says. It's baloney, you can only get them cashed at the post office.
How often do you go to the main post office in your home town? Don't you avoid having to go there if possible? Long lines, surly tellers, and in this instance, surly tellers who don't understand English, insanely inconvenient opening hours, and the necessity for two pieces of picture ID. Why would you want to inflict that on yourself when instead you could be spending time at the Musée D'Orsay contemplating the very round nude bottoms of the ladies in “le Déjeuner sur L'Herbe” painting by Manet?
Thinking you're safer if they get stolen? The ad on TV says you'll be reimbursed immediately. Not so. You'll be back home for weeks before you'll be reimbursed.
And no, you'll never, ever, find a friendly American-Express-Travelers-check-bureau-person happy to dole out cash on the spot to replace your stolen travelers checks simply because you've written down the numbers on a piece of paper. Not gonna happen.
Still want to invest in travelers checks? Go ahead but don't say that you haven't been warned. Seriously costly hassle for no good reason. Your credit card can be canceled over the phone on the dot if it gets stolen. Rethink this old school travel wisdom. Been there, done that, lesson learned.
Sounds dangerous carrying cash and credit cards around on your person? You're absolutely right. It is. So, do be careful about where you put these items as well as your passport, which, in France you must always have on your person. It is a law. The police can stop you anytime for a routine identity check. You must have your passport ready to present to them at all times. It's maybe a stupid law, but nevertheless, it's a law.
Nor is it a good idea to leave your passport and extra cash in your hotel room bedside table drawer. It's the first place the maid is going to look. How can you prove that somebody took money out of your bedside table? You can't.
Carry your passport, cash and credit cards separately, (if you lose one you won't lose everything) in the bottom of your handbag or backpack. Never in your back pocket, or in an exterior zippered pocket or pouch. Make sure that to access these ultra important things, you must open your bag and dig to the bottom. Pickpockets will only have the time to do that, if they've taken your bag from you and run for about a mile with it.
I suggested in the “what to wear” article carrying some cash in your front pants pocket, for use when you're out and about, buying postcards in a busy street vendors stall, or paying for your museum entrance fee. This is a good idea in any area where there is a large concentration of tourists. If you dig around too long and take lots of stuff out before finding the 2€ you need for a metro ticket you'll be doing the well known tourist/turkey thing.
If by a stroke of really bad luck your passport gets stolen, you'll need to report it to the police and receive a paper from them to take to the American embassy located just off the Place de la Concorde in central Paris. In order to get home to the USA, you'll need a replacement passport even if you're traveling around France outside of Paris and the theft takes place 350 miles from Paris. You'll still have to go to Paris for a replacement passport. In order to obtain it, you'll need the paper from the police station in the place where your passport was stolen. No way around it. The embassy keeps pretty tough hours: the passport services are only open in the mornings Monday through Friday from about 9am until noon. They're also closed on every American holiday and every French holiday and there are a lot of those. Be prepared to be patient. They deal with this sort of thing every single day, and they're not particularly open to cutting corners for your special circumstances.
Now, I do not want to cause paranoia about traveling in France. Most of what I've warned about here regarding pickpockets or thievery in general pertains to Paris and a few other large cities like Marseilles or Lyon. Most of this is just good common sense when traveling to any large cosmopolitan city, like New York, Hong Kong or Sydney. Paris is no exception to this rule.
A safe tourist is one who is aware of what is going on around him and has taken some basic precautions to stow away his valuables.
Ladies, it's also kind of obvious that I would also suggest not wearing really visibly expensive jewelery while strolling along the Champs-Elysées. Save your bling for your evening out using a taxi to get to and from your destination.
Nighttime travel is best by taxi in every circumstance. The metro systems and public transportation can become rather seedy after dark. Ask your concierge to call you a taxi, and write the name of your destination down on a piece of paper to give to the taxi driver. You'll be able to have a good time and not have to worry about how you're getting home. Conversely, when you're ready to go back to the hotel have the waiter order you a taxi.
You'll be sure to drive by some lovely lit up monuments, so roll down the window in your taxi and take some beautiful night shots of the Eiffel tower which sparkles for 10 minutes on the hour every hour after dark until about 2am. Amazing sight!
Enjoy, but safely....
Some Practical Links
How to Get a Passport - Your headquarters for US passports, US green cards, and international visas. Get your travel documents here; do not leave home without them.
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