Warning to all our visiting friends and family: American credit cards don't work universally! France has been using the chip technology for credit cards for many years and now many of their card readers are of the type where you insert the card partway in to read the chip rather than slide the card to read the magnetic strip. Most American cards don't have the chip and so don't work in these new readers. We've been having trouble this time in France especially trying to use kiosks or automated machines to purchase tickets for transportation or pay tolls on the Autoroute. The other places that we had trouble were paying for gas and paying in restaurants. We have had to start taking out larger amounts of cash to be covered should our card be refused. (So far, ATMs have taken our debit cards without a problem.) In the case of the restaurants, they didn't have an alternative way to swipe the card and could only take cash. For the gas station, we had to move to a pump that didn't have an automatic card reader and then pay inside. What a pain! So moral of the story is: If you can get a card with a chip before you leave, do it. If not, be prepared to have to pay cash (draining your bank account and not being able to postpone the costs into the next month). Bring your debit card for ATM machines as your credit card will consider money taken out as a loan and start charging interest from day of withdrawal. ATMs typically do not have fees at the French end, but your bank probably has an exchange fee at their end, so check ahead of time with your bank to be sure you know what you will be charged. (for us it was $1.42 on a withdrawal of $142, which was the equivalent of 100 Euros)
Some additional notes: After a note from our friend Ron who pointed us in the direction of prepaid chip and pin cards, I've begun to research how to purchase one here. For more information about this, see the Rick Steves article: http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/tips/moneytip.htm Ron suggested that one popular UK company is FairFX. More later as we get more information. Basically the major inconvenience comes when trying to use automated public transportation kiosks where there is no human clerk option and for gas stations whose pumps only take chip and pin cards.
After some additional research, there is a company that will let you buy a prepaid chip and pin card with dollars in the states (and we're hoping at its location at the Toulouse airport and the Lyon airport). The card is loaded with the amount of Euros you specify and can be recharged online. It seems to not have fees as long as you don't let it sit around unused for months. Called Travelex Cash Passport, it would appear that you can buy this card from the states and have it delivered to your home before coming. For my kids who are coming without enough time to have a card delivered (although, you can specify an airport pickup location in the online order form), Dad and I will try to get two cards with some amount loaded that we can all use.