Monday, August 27, 2012

Traveling - Credit Card and ATM Woes

Some Boring Practical Stuff....

Updated 2015
Updated 2013

I'm a dinosaur.

I grew up watching snub nosed Karl Malden warning us not to ever "leave home without American Express travelers checks". And back then American Express was a major worldwide company with customer service offices in major cities around the world. If you traveled with an AE gold card you could always cash a check worldwide. It was very comforting.

News flash, almost all American Express' worldwide offices are now closed. Today an AE card is really just another Visa or Master Card with a fancier name.

And today if you try to use a traveler's check you will simply get a very confused "what is that thing?" look from most merchants.

Visa, MC, AE Cards 

Like a good global hopper before this trip I notified credit card companies of travel plans and switched my Visa card out for the Marriott one with no foreign transaction fees. I requested a PIN (they always ask for a PIN in Europe) and was assured "no worries" in Europe your card will require no PIN.

But....on my 2012 trip, when we pulled out the old Visa, MasterCard or American Express card we were waived off.

The Barcelona Airbus shuttle? Nope.
The delicious and overpriced Lisbon gelato? Nope.
Entrance to the Segrada Familia? Nope.
All but the most expensive restaurants? Nope.
Metro tickets? The few ticket machines with Visa logos, all mysteriously "out of service".

The notion that American banks are integral members of the global banking network is a myth. Accept it. Unless equipped with a chip, only hotels, airport shops, big department stores, and a few museums still welcome standard US issued credit cards.

This was pretty striking to me.

Four years ago in Tokyo we came to realize that the days of worldwide reverence of the American Banking industry were over. Almost no one took our AE, Visa or MasterCard.

Three years ago in Spain, our credit cards were golden.

February of 2011 in France, Belgium and the Netherlands we noticed a few more rejections.

Summer of 2011 in Italy even more merchants and restauranteurs waived them off.

In, 2012 in Spain and Portugal we found American issued credit cards being rejected more often than being accepted.

The rule is this. If the meal, or the item to be purchased is high ticket - they take the US issued card without a PIN. Any smaller day to day transaction, they will ask for the PIN and you might as well keep the card in your wallet, since presently NO American cards have the PIN they re asking for. We are issued PIN's but on an American card the PIN is strictly to make a cash withdrawal. 

Update 2013
In anticipation of this years trip, I had an informative chat with the folks at Marriott Visa. I use this card because it is one of the few that offers a version with no foreign transaction fees. 

I asked why we could not get a card with a european PIN. They explained that the US is well behind the rest of the world in implementing the specialized high security cards with chips and linking transactions to PIN readers. 

They said the change is coming to US cards, but it will likely still be a couple more years before our cards will have both the added chip and PIN needed to assure worldwide acceptance.

We used to love the ease of which we collected euros from ATM's. If you saw a Visa or MasterCard symbol you knew your ATM card would work. Now half the time they don't work. And when they do they now charge a service fee and high foreign transaction fees.

This trip (despite bearing Visa logo's) most of the bank ATM's I tried (including ALL of the ATM's in the Madrid airport) simply barfed out my ATM card.

The exceptions were Banco Popular (based in Puerto Rico) and Barclays Bank.

On that earlier mentioned Tokyo trip, once we realized our credit cards were near worthless, we took solace that we'd be able to get cash from ATM's. Wrong! 

We abruptly realized that Japanese banks view US ATM cards simply as a slice of worthless plastic. We were literally told that American banks are "not honest" and not honored in Japan. I couldn't say I disagreed, but it was hard to swallow. Only at the end of the trip did an expat clue me in that the exception was the ATM's at 7-11's (found on almost every corner!)

Update 2015
I no longer rely on ATM's when traveling. Now, despite the risk, I convert a reasonable amount of money before I go. 

Here's why. 

Recently when I checked into foreign currency transactions with my bank (Wells Fargo), I found out that they offer their customers a direct conversion with no service fee and no foreign transaction fee. That is a screaming deal.

So I convert my money before I go. Then just like the locals, each day of my trip I load up my wallet with just what I think I'll need for that day, leaving the rest of my foreign travel cash in my hotel safe. 

When I return from a trip I go to the same bank and convert back what I did not use. 

I still register my ATM and credit cards for the dates of travel, so if need be I can supplement my cash reserves at local ATM's.  But this means I no longer have to rush to an ATM in the airport upon arrival to get cash for shuttles and subways etc.

Main thing is do this at your bank, not at the "Conversion" booth at the airport. They charge every fee imaginable.

I also bring a little US cash. Which I also leave it in the safe in your hotel room.

If you find your ATM card being kicked back, you will be happy you have some cash to convert (at ridiculous rates of conversion.)

If you don't need the cash, great, take it home, where It will still be good at full face value.

Oh for the good old days when overseas Marriott's would cash a small daily check for Platinum members.... That benefit quietly disappeared a long time ago.

Roadboy's Travels © 2012

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