The Hapless American Traveler or Your Debit Card in Peril

December 31st, 2012

Or should I say, helpless? Sometimes it may seem that way but, in the end, truth generally wins out although it helps if you have a working telephone.

Trying to add some vitamin D to my winter health regimen, I headed from London to Gibralter. That left me without a working telephone. Believe it or not, I was told I’d have to purchase a world telephone at considerable cost in order to reach a person from my bank in the U.S. Of A. The new GIB SIM card was a £25 waste. It’s one of the things which spurred my return to the less sunny climes of London a couple of days ago. Computer access was a royal pain to obtain, having gone through five of my own laptops in the past ten years and unable to afford a new one at present. Access is a ‘must’ however, for my research needs.

My time in the Schengen Treaty area on the Spanish side of lovely GIB Island was used up for the next three months. The British side had only two hotel accommodations in my price range, neither of which was optimal for an asthmatic. As I’m finally making excellent progress on several book projects, I’m more than ready to find adequate lodgings and get some of this done! In the meantime, allow me to offer the latest tips on travel gone awry and ways to avoid some problems.


For those of us with low (or no) line of credit these cards are subject to an amazing array of problems. I’ve run into most of them and they can only be managed by meanly insisting upon written proofs of why any single card transaction failed. You’d be surprised at the amount of resistance you might encounter when you ask a clerk why your card failed to deliver the goods.

My main debit card is ‘pinless’ and therefore used in what are called ‘swipe’ transactions. I try not to use pin numbers for it in order for it to be ‘swiped’ less often. As in the ‘stolen’ kind of swipe.

While in Athens, I attempted to obtain a cash advance on my card but a downtown Bureau de ‘Change told me it wouldn’t go through. This put me to the trouble of getting myself to the airport where they have extraordinarily competent staff working that particular window. They need to be – Athens is among the most challenging environments in the Western hemisphere to get the simplest business accomplished. At any rate, the airport Bureau agent informed me that the ‘other’ party likely processed my request as a ‘debit’ and not the requested ‘advance’. She proceeded to take care of it and it seems like the kind of advice one ought to pass along to others.

In Gibralter, not one bank would take a ‘swipe’ card so I had to go to windows where Euros were for sale and jump through a few additional hoops to transform dollars into pounds. Anyway, the monetary arrangements in GIB were expensive but that’s the price of a sunny week in December when in the UK.

YOUR DEBIT CARD usage also involves the GOOD WILL of a competent cashier. In order to find more affordable lodgings as I worked on my books, I headed back to the GIB Air desk at the airport to arrange for a return trip via my current favorite airline, Easy Jet. The purchase failed although I’d just established by pay phone that the funds were present in the account.

“Why?”, I politely inquired. The clerk told me the card had been declined for reasons unknown. I only allowed her to run it one more time before insisting it be returned to me and knowing that a third declination would silence the card forever.

Word to the wise; if this happens to you, make sure you get the card back in your hand immediately after purchase trial #2. Heaven help you should you encounter a particularly enthusiastic cashier who decides to go for broke with that third try.

Knowing yet another call to my State-side bank was upcoming, I requested written confirmation about precisely what went wrong. I wanted to avoid the dreaded ‘crash and burn’ of the bank card on some future try and that is one phrase I prefer not to use inside an airport. At any rate, both the ticket agent and her supervisor refused to supply me with such a record. Apparently the computer system had eaten it prior to sending it to the printer, which apparently had a nervous breakdown upon receiving it.
Teetering on that verge myself, I asked for a verbal report but memory failed them. I guess I’m not the only sufferer of short term memory loss in the world.

It was back to the drawing board. That pay phone which was becoming a valued extension of my right hand (no mobile phone, remember?)

I got through to the bank despite the vagaries of time zones and coinage requirements. After learning that there was absolutely no evidence that anyone had even attempted to run my card for any reason whatsoever during the past 24 hours, it was clear something had gone wrong at my end. No one at the ticket desk was willing to share that secret with me but at least the bank assured me the card was good to go.

I hoped I might be allowed to go with it.

I don’t have a computer of course but wouldn’t have wanted to use one anyway. Airports are notoriously tough on poorly protected personal computers over that mysterious construct known as ‘wi-fi’. ‘Why’, indeed? The last time I tried to book a flight ‘on line’ was at the business center in Athens airport. That booking was hopelessly compromised with the site saying my transaction was in a queue to collect the funds from my bank. Used to such things happening instantaneously, this particular one appeared to be waiting for an invitation to the prom before collecting the cash. If it waits too long, the transaction is automatically is canceled.

Guess what happened? Still needing a plane ticket out of Athens, I established the monies remained uncollected in my account and bought a ticket directly from a British Airways ticket desk. I used cash and sacrificed the savings of ‘on line’ booking. Now it appeared that heading for Gibralter Airport to buy my ticket in person was still going to put me into ‘ticket failure’ Like ‘ticker’ failure, this kind of problem also requires a ‘card’iologist. Having had my bank card resuscitated, the obvious solution was to open a telephone book and locate a travel agency. I always try to obtain (or steal) a telephone book upon arrival in a new locale. Standing in the airport, I located a travel agency back in town and called them using my new pal, the pay phone.

Alan King was right. When traveling, Murphy’s law stands. If something can go wrong, it will. Murray’s law also stands and tells us that Murphy was, in fact, an optimist.

The travel agent at the Elite Agency on Parliament Road was an angel who got me one of the last two seats to Gatwick at a competitive price. That required I give her my credit card number over the phone. The very request prompted the close attention of several passers-by who stopped to listen intently to my conversation.

I’m not too worried about people overhearing my credit card number – that’s easy to learn from many sources. What does matter is the little, bitty security code on the back, crucial to transactions made on-line and over the phone. In a burst of cynical caution, it has becoem my custom to cover those numbers with a bit of colored tape. This way, no one sees under it during any normal purchase situation. A few cashiers have, rather compulsively, picked at it leading me to object rather strenuously. Over the phone it’s hard to avoid but I hedged long enough to enjoy the cheerful news that this travel agent had successfully run the ‘long number’ alone to complete the purchase. Imagine that!

People sometimes ask me why I don’t use a pin on my main debit card. This is because you have to be present in a New York City branch of my bank to obtain a new one if the current one is compromised. And it has happened because nothing is more fragile than a password or a pin number.

I’ve read up on this issue, given the importance of preserving these vital keys to the monetary kingdom. My reading and personal experience indicates that thieves use a remarkable array of visual aids to see a person input numbers into bank keypads. Other sources talk about overhearing us subvocalizing the numbers as we type them – did you know how likely it is that you do such a thing? My take on all this is simply to presume thieves are ‘reading my mind’ and not use them at all when avoidable.

Now back in London for the festive season, I send everyone New Year’s blessings.

Categories: Letters

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