The shopkeeper was smiling, but suspicious as he handed back my credit card and a slip of paper that read “charge not authorized.”
Fortunately, I still had enough Euros in my pocket to pay cash for my hotel and a cab to the airport after I got the news I wasn’t creditworthy at the end of my recent trip in Europe.
But what the hell? I’d paid off my credit card balances before the trip and given my card companies an outline of my itinerary. How did I suddenly end up being someone that even my own bank won’t trust?
It turns out it was simply an embarrassing lesson in the new rules of money, that seem to be changing by the day. Here’s an update on what you need to know about cash and credit on the road:
1) Alert Your Card Company—and Be Very Specific
I found out the glitch was because of a charge I made in a place that wasn’t included in the travel itinerary I gave my card company. As I do with any trip, I’d told MasterCard details of our cruise around the Baltic. We were going to be on a cruise visiting ports in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Russia and the Baltic States on the trip. The mistake was I hadn’t listed Estonia by name. A charge I’d made there was what got me cut off as my bank’s computer flagged the sale as suspicious.
We’re in an age of worldwide internet connectivity, where computers track your every move. Not only do your purchases get posted instantly to your credit card account, but fraud programs scan for any purchase outside the predictable pattern. It’s all impersonal and you can end up automatically on a no-charge list.
Instead of saying “Baltic States,” I should have spelled out Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and every other country where I might potentially use the card.
The situation got even more embarrassing after I’d called MasterCard when we returned home and verified the charge. I was assured the card was good to go, but a local grocery store in Toronto told me once again my car was blocked.
Another call to MasterCard revealed I’d said I would be on a cruise, but hadn’t specified the exact cruise line and ship. The MasterCard computer clearly didn’t know or care that Crystal Symphony is a cruise ship.
Nor, apparently, does the computer try to help card users clear up problems that occur on the road.
We’d been blackballed four days before the end of our trip, but received no e-mail alert or call from a help line that could have tipped us off. Instead, the bank’s computer generated a form letter– that we received by mail four days after we returned from the trip.
Thanks, but that’s a total fail. When you’re travelling, you’re not getting your home mail. We would have faced even more embarrassment and expense to clear up the situation if we had been continuing our trip in Europe after the cruise and tried to use our credit card for hotels and meals.
Lessons learned: Expect an impersonal Big Brother to be on your case even more diligently in the future. And carry an alternative credit card as a back-up.
2) Cash and Credit Options
On the financial front, it’s easier to travel in Europe now that everyone takes the Euro—even countries outside the Euro zone. On a recent river cruise leaving from Budapest, we didn’t even get any Hungarian florints while we were there, because everyone in shops takes dollars or Euros and will happily charge purchases on Visa or MasterCard and to lesser extent American Express or Diners Club. (For some reason MasterCard seems to be the most popular in Eastern Europe. I think they got in to the markets quicker after the Soviet Union fell.)
In cash, merchants in Europe won’t give as good a rate on U.S. dollars as they will on Euros, which they can spend immediately and not have to exchange at a bank.
3) Thank Heavens for ATMs
Pretty much anywhere around the world, all you have to do to locate a bank machine is ask for an ATM, (except in Quebec and parts of France where it’s GAB, guichet automatique bancaire.)
We usually get a couple hundred Euros at a bank at home before we leave and then top up cash using ATMs in our destinations. I take the option to withdraw the money from my checking or savings account, because a cash advance from a credit card might come with additional fees.
Look for ATMs from big banks that have a list of inter-bank services, such as Interac, they’re connected to. Some cash machines in Europe are set up by smaller banks for people with local accounts.They won’t have international connections to your bank.
If at all possible, avoid the money exchange offices you see in cities because they charge high fees. Even when they say they’re commission free, their exchange rates aren’t as good as bank rates from ATMs.
4) More chips please
Those little metallic squares on credit cards called RFID chips have been standard in Canada for at least three years. Most stores in cities are getting tap-to-pay readers rather than requiring customers to insert a card or swipe it in a card reader. The chip-embedded cards are becoming common in Europe too. There, you often push the chip end of the card into a reader and put in your pin code and the receipt gets printed out.
RFID chips are only now becoming standard in the United States. I noticed when we recently travelled in Michigan and Minnesota that tap-to-pay readers have yet to be installed in stores. It’s one area where the States has been slower to adopt than the rest of the world.
5) Know How to Hold ‘em
RFID stands for radio frequency identification and that means the chips broadcast signals that can be picked up by other devices, potentially including scanners used by data thieves.
I keep my cards in a waist wallet that helps thwart pickpockets, but add an extra layer of security in the form of a card that contains a chip designed to block transfer of data from an RFID chip.
There’s debate on the issue. Credit card issuers say their chips are built with encryption to protect information and are supposed to send one-time use codes for each transaction that don’t include the card number. However, researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that it’s possible to remotely skim cardholder names and card numbers from RFID credit cards in public places.
While it’s the companies that are on the hook for fraudulent charges on cards, the fact that a charge was made while you still had the card in your possession makes it tough to know until later that an unauthorized charge was made. And the crook might still have your name and credit info.
To protect against fraud, a number of wallets with metal barriers and various RFID blocking cards are being marketed to interfere with surreptitious skimming of information.
I find that they’re worth the investment for peace of mind.