Travel Tips

Getting Cash On The Go

“A big travel problem these days,” writes Intrepid Correspondent Paul Terhorst, “is paying and getting cash.

“Visa and MasterCard have so restricted card use that, unless you’re careful, you can run out of money abroad. Arrive at the airport, plug your card into the ATM, and more than likely you’ll see ‘Transaction Denied’ or some other vague comment. Your card issuer seems to prefer that you rely on the kindness of strangers.

“A friend traveled to Mexico recently and found both his debit cards blocked. Vicki and I arrived in Malaysia recently and found our main debit card blocked, too. One card issuer told me they prohibit ATM usage altogether in some countries, and apparently Malaysia is one of them. Note that the above were all clean cards–that is, without history of loss, unauthorized transactions, theft, or disputes.

“Capital One Bank recently blocked a US$29 online charge on my Visa card for Indian train tickets. The India IRCTC train site could test the patience of the Dalai Lama. I had spent hours and hours trying to book and pay for the tickets. When I finally got it right and clicked on payment, Cap One refused the charge, even though I’d told them I was traveling to India.

“In other cases, I’ve found that banks approve charges but make you call them afterward to verify. So, either way, either before or after the charge, no matter how small, if you use a card overseas, you have to call the bank.

“Two years ago, Vicki tried to pay for groceries at an Argentine supermarket, again with a Cap One credit card. The bank blocked the charge and then blocked my online access, all without warning. I called the bank–very difficult to do from the Argentine countryside–to find out what happened. I was told I needed to call the bank before traveling overseas.

“I pointed out that we’d been charging at this supermarket for years. I pointed out that Vicki and I travel overseas virtually all the time. Did my bank want me to call every day?

“‘That would be fine, sir,” came the response. “Let me give you a toll-free number.’

“The new paradigm: Call now, call later, call often. You can choose to spend your travel time calling your banks. This Cap One agent loves to hear from us. But your whole purpose in travel is to get a life.

“Calling a bank on Skype or a cell phone, often with a lousy, unsecure connection, distracts from that life. Instead of enjoying the travel experience, you spend large chunks of time making calls.

“What to do? After the India train charge was blocked, I switched to another card. So far, no good. The first transaction on the new card was approved, but the bank made me call afterward. I needed to confirm the transaction, or the card would be blocked.

“I can tell you that e-mail rarely works. That is, I can e-mail the bank and tell them I’m traveling to China or wherever. But I’ve found that banks block transactions anyway. They insist on a call, no matter how unsecure, no matter how awkward.

“In one case, the anti-fraud agent I talked to gave me his direct e-mail address. ‘Now that I know you,’ he said, ‘just send an e-mail to let me know where you’re going. I’ll do my best to permit the transactions from my end.’

“I thought that was exceptional client service, and so far the system has worked. Give it a try next time you travel, next time you’re blocked and trying to recover.

“For sure, get yourself a fistful of debit and credit cards. Cards expires, countries get blocked, charges get blocked. You need more flexibility than ever.

“In the end, we may have to stop using cards altogether. Last year Qantas sent me a promotion for great fares from Bangkok to Sydney. I went to book the trip, only to find that Qantas refused credit card charges online. According to Qantas, I had to fly to Bangkok, make my way across town to the Qantas office, buy the Sydney ticket, then fly back home to Chiang Mai. All those payment costs made the trip to Sydney too expensive.

“I complained to Qantas, and asked them to make an exception. ‘Sorry, no credit cards on line for travel from Bangkok.'”

Kathleen Peddicord