Traveling abroad? You better bring cash

By Anthony GiorgianniConsumer Reports

After recently booking a November biking adventure through Namibia, I wondered whether my current stockpile of credit cards would work in the southwest African country.

I knew that many foreign countries have moved to so-called chip and PIN cards, which have an embedded microchip instead of, or in addition to, the magnetic stripe that's common on U.S. credit cards. Rather than swipe a chip and PIN card, you insert it into a card reader and enter a personal identification number. Since neither my American Express nor Chase Visa card had chips, I worried that they wouldn't work in some locations in Africa or even in London, which I was about to visit first. What if I tried to swipe my cards and they got rejected? I pictured myself stranded at some ticket vending machine or metro station or trying to explain myself to some foreign-speaking waiter miffed over my inability to pay my bill.

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So I figured, since PIN-based cards slowly are making their way into the U.S., perhaps the easiest thing would be to get one of those. Maybe my card issuers could help?

My frustrating journey begins

I started by doing my homework, only to be confused by the various types of credit card technologies out there: stripe and signature, chip and signature, chip and PIN. Some work some places; some at others. Did I really have to become an expert on international payment technology just to go on vacation?

I visited the Chase website. But the only chip cards I could find had annual fees, not like my no-fee Chase card.

So I called American Express, the travel experts. My answer had to be there. And it was—or so I thought. Amex promptly sent me an updated card with a chip. Joy! To be doubly sure, I also obtained a no-fee Bank of America Visa card that also had chip. An Amex and Visa! I felt like I had finally beaten this chip thing.

But it was not to be. Sure these cards had chips. But they were the chip and signature variety, not chip and PIN. With further research, I discovered that chip and signature cards wouldn’t work in some far-off places either, such as unmanned petrol stations in small towns in Belgium. This was turning out to be the credit card equivalent of the Twilight Zone.

The Holy Grail

I refused to be beaten. I went looking for the Holy Grail—a true chip and PIN card. There had to be one somewhere in the U.S., the home of big banking, Wall Street, Yankee Doodle! And thanks to the travel expert Rick Steves and his “Low-Down on Chip-and-PIN Cards,” I found one. And it wasn’t a card from Chase or American Express or any of those megabanks. It was the good ol' GlobeTrek Visa Rewards Card from the Andrews Federal Credit Union in Maryland, that’s “Andrews” as in the Andrews Air Force base, now known as Joint Base Andrews. Hey, I’m a patriot; I like to fly. And not only does this card incorporate chip and PIN technology, it has no annual fee, no cash advance fees, and no international/foreign exchange fees. What could be better? Credit card heaven! Voilà! I’m all set, right?  Wrong!

Learn about the best way to spend money abroad and how to send money overseas. And check out our credit card buying guide.

To get the card, I’d have to be a credit union member, which the website said requires me to be part of the civilian or military personnel assigned to Andrews or McGuire Air Force Bases or to military bases in central Germany, Belgium, or the Netherlands. Alternatively, I could be associated with more than 200 employer groups throughout Maryland and New Jersey. Drats! Was the whole world against me?

But then I saw it, another way that I too could be part of the Andrews Federal Credit Union. All I had to do was enroll in a lifetime membership in the American Consumer Council for just 15 bucks! I wondered: what does the American Consumer Council have to do with Joint Base Andrews, the B-1 bomber, or the Netherlands? I decided not to ask questions. The American Consumer Council sounded good to me, being a statistician at Consumer Reports. So join I did. I spent the next two days waiting for my membership confirmation, opening an account at the credit union (I had to deposit $5.), and applying for my very own GlobeTrek Visa Rewards Card.

I had done it, gone where so few American credit card holders had gone before! I was like the stealth fighter, making my way valiantly to the target, despite the odds.

But soon I was to discover yet one more problem. While waiting for my chip and PIN card to arrive, I had to leave for my trip to London. I flew off into the wild blue yonder, armed with those gleaming new America Express and Visa chip and signature cards, hoping they would work anytime and anywhere I needed them. In London, a friend and I went to a local bakery. Crumpets and scones! My fingers were crossed like the icing on a hot cross bun. And would you believe it? The bakery informed me that it had stopped accepting chip and signature cards just three weeks earlier. Imagining myself in Namibia the next month, proudly waving my GlobeTrek Visa Rewards chip and PIN card, thinking about Joint Base Andrews, the American Consumer Council, and the Netherlands, I gave in and paid cash.

My advice? Don’t let those big banks or anyone else force you to bail out. There’s always a solution. Make sure you’re prepared when traveling overseas or doing anything else, even if it means having to don an Air Force flight suit, donate to some charity, or go work for one of more than 200 employer groups throughout Maryland and New Jersey. As for me, mission accomplished.

—Martin Romm

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