Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Get Credit for Foreign Travel

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I recently returned from a fabulous trip to the South of France. One of the best parts of staying in Nice is that the train runs along the coast, so it’s easy to visit the many beautiful villages on the Côte d’Azur. One of the worst parts is waiting in the long lines at the station’s ticket windows. 

photo of Villefranche
It's easy to visit the villages near Nice. 
If you don’t have time to spare, there are machines that dispense tickets for the regional trains if you have a basket of change or a credit card. The problem for most Americans, though, is that they usually can’t come up with enough coins, and the machines won’t accept their credit card.

While the U.S. is known for advanced technology, we are way behind when it comes to credit cards. The chip and PIN cards, which are standard in Europe, are virtually unknown here. Chip and PIN is supposed to be more secure because like the name says, there is a small chip on the front, and users must often key in a security code to complete the purchase. Foreign merchants still do accept American cards, so don’t worry if you want to use yours overseas. However, be aware that standard cards aren’t accepted in certain cases, like at the ticket machine and at toll booths. You might also come across some people who don’t know how to process your card, as I did. Luckily, her boss was able to handle it because I would have been really disappointed if I had been unable to buy that cute top.

Knowing the difficulty I would face when paying at certain places in Europe, I was pretty excited when I heard that Bank of America introduced a card with chip technology this summer. I had to learn more. When I spoke to the sales rep, he told me that the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card offers some other nifty benefits. There is no foreign transaction fee and unlike British Air’s chip card, there is no annual fee. While the card doesn’t offer the PIN that European cards do, I decided to take my chances.

The third weekend of September is the weekend of patrimony in France, meaning that most of the cultural institutions offer free admission to encourage the French to discover their culture. You can also buy a Carte Isabelle train ticket valid for travel all day throughout the region for a mere 5€; it’s usually 14€. That Sunday, my friend and I had decided to take the train to St. Raphael, where we would take a ferry to St. Tropez. With the line for the ticket agents stretching out the door, I crossed my fingers and joined the line at the machine. When it was my turn, I punched in my request for two aller-retour tickets, inserted my credit card and held my breath. Accepted! I was ready to go. Unfortunately, the train wouldn’t leave for another hour, and we’d have to wait another hour for the ferry, but at least we spent that hour relaxing in a café rather than standing in line, so I was glad for my card.

This is not an endorsement of Bank of America, nor any of its credit cards, and I have received no compensation from any credit card company for this article. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Leaving on a Jet Plane, Didn’t Know When I’d Get Home Again

Old Town Nice

Like all good things, my dream vacation in the South of France had to come to an end. As it turns out, however, my journey lasted longer than I had anticipated. On Monday morning, I bid adieu to my charming little hovel and the old couple who used to call “bonjour madame” from the window below my apartment when they saw me leaving, which made me feel like a regular part of this vibrant quarter of Vieux Nice. I dragged my bags full of French books, chocolate and savon de Marseille onto the bus and gazed at the sea like a convict headed to prison as the vehicle made its way to the airport.

When I arrived at the British Airways desk to check my bag, the perky agent informed me that my flight to London would be very late, but if I could wait for a bit, she’s check to see if there was room on the prior flight. A few minutes later, just as cheerfully as she had offered to help find me another flight, she informed me that it was full, so she’d  just check me in for my original flight and I could speak to Customer Service to figure out my options.

Next stop: Customer Service. After waiting for some other disgruntled customers from my flight, I put on my best polite French voice and asked the agent how I could get back to Baltimore since I’d probably miss my connecting flight. This woman was not so cheerful. She told me I’d just have to take the later flight to Dulles because after all, it’s still Washington.   

I guess someone with a long line of tired, frantic customers who has never been to DC doesn’t understand, or more likely just doesn’t care that when you live in Baltimore, flying to Washington-Dulles instead of Baltimore-Washington Airport is just as inconvenient as going to Philadelphia, New York or Atlanta. I tried to explain that you just can’t land at Dulles at 9:00 p.m. with no prior planning and expect to find your way back to Baltimore in fewer than several hours and for less than hundreds of dollars. She was already tired of me, and she told me to just ask British Air to get me a taxi when I landed. Clearly she done with me, so I figured I’d just wait for my flight to London and hope for the best. Maybe they would hold the plane for me in London or pick me up in an airport vehicle and rush me to the runway like they do in the movies.

Two hours after my scheduled departure time, I boarded the plane. A very nice Brit who had permanently traded in the grey skies of London for sunny Cannes told me it was in the pilot’s hands now. I figured he was right, so I stopped worrying and started taking note of his opinions on the economy and tips for buying property on the Riviera. Investors beware: Avoid the super exclusive area of Cap Ferrat, which is now overrun by Russians building garish houses designed to show off their wealth.

When we landed in London, I rushed off the plane ten minutes before the gates were due to close for my flight to Baltimore. There was nobody waiting for me, so I rushed to fast track at passport control only to learn that the flight was closed. My heart sank. The agent directed me back to the connecting flights desk, where I waited for what seemed like an eternity while an African lady yelled repeatedly in French at a companion and the agent that she knew a better schedule for getting to Marseille through Paris. My head was screaming and all of the calm that I had found in France was gone for good.

When it was finally my turn, I explained my problem to the next British Air representative, who told me she could put me on the flight to Dulles. Here we go again. I recalled the words of the Brit on the plane telling me to get what was best for me. Dulles was not the best option, not even close. Trying to be work with the agent, I explained that I had no way of getting home from Dulles, and I suggested booking me to New York because surely there must be a flight to New York, where there should be a flight to Baltimore. Sure enough, there was a flight to New York and to Philly as well, but nobody was flying to Baltimore that night. With £3.70 in my wallet and no authorization to use my credit or debit cards in England, I started to panic at the thought of wandering the streets of London until I could get on a flight the next day. Luckily, Sandy, the only helpful British Air employee I had met that day came through for me. Not only did she give me a voucher for a place to spend the night, she put me up at the Sofitel luxury hotel connected to the airport and gave me vouchers for breakfast and dinner. She even provided an overnight kit with a t-shirt to sleep in and toiletries since it looked like I wouldn’t be getting my suitcase that day – or ever if somebody didn’t figure out that my flight had changed.

So off I went to my hotel, which had the comfiest bed I have ever slept in and the most sparkling bathroom I have ever used. I had a pasta dinner served by a Polish waitress who asked me if I needed help reading the menu as if I didn’t understand English because I didn’t have a British accent.

It was strange to be in another country on an unplanned visit while none of my friends or family knew where I was. With no financial resources, I couldn’t go out on the town, but I figured out that I could use American dollars to buy a small bottle of wine in the airport and enjoy a drink in my room. I started to enjoy my little adventure.

The following morning, I made my way down to the restaurant, where I was treated to a huge English breakfast, although the Middle Eastern host was so hard to understand that I had to ask someone in the restaurant what my breakfast voucher entitled me to eat. I was starting to wonder if I had been away from the States for so long that I was forgetting how to understand English.     

After breakfast, I gathered my few belongings and checked out of my hotel, almost sorry to leave. On a side note, I noticed a sign by the elevator indicating the location of the “Victorious Ryder Cup Press Conference.” Is it me, or does adding the word “victorious” make it sound a little arrogant? Seriously, every station in England was going on about this amazing comeback by the Europeans. Anyone attending the press conference should have been prepared enough to know who won the tournament.

No time to worry about golf tournaments when I only had five hours until takeoff. Instead, I watched cricket while I waited, and in all that time, I couldn’t figure out the game. Sorry fans, it seems like baseball for sissies to me. I’m sure that match went on long after I left London, too.

So now I’m back in the US of A and my house feels like a palace compared to my hovel in Nice. Still, I miss my tiny flat and the funky neighborhood that was my home during a most extraordinary trip. I wish that everyone could experience the beautiful villages of the South of France, and in my next few posts, I will share practical details on how to reach these towns and tips to make your euro go further should you care to make the trip.