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How to Avoid this Uncommon Travel Mistake

File this one under "You're never too old to learn something new."

You would think that after more than 20 years of extensive travel, I would have encountered all the possible things that can go wrong on a trip. There have certainly been some unfortunate incidents, all of which I learned from and thus have thankfully not repeated. A few examples:

  • Getting pickpocketed in a Paris Metro station on my very first trip to Europe when I was 15 years old.

  • Becoming violently ill after eating street food in India.

  • Having my jewelry and cell phone stolen from my suitcase in a hotel room.

  • Getting swindled by a corrupt cab driver in Lithuania.

There are many, many more stressful and unpleasant situations that, for the most part, could have been avoided with better preparation and more experience. But, in spite of my extreme attention to detail and overall years of accumulated travel savvy, I recently encountered a new-to-me travel hiccup.

This past April, after 17 sleepless hours of international travel, I landed in Sofia, Bulgaria, excited to commence a four-month-long Central and Eastern Europe exploration. After collecting my checked bag, I proceeded to the nearest ATM, only to have my request for leva, the local currency, denied. The screen said "CARD INVALID." In my fatigued state, I couldn't comprehend why my card would not work. I've used it to travel all over the world and never had a problem. In fact, I was just in Central America in December and thought I had used it to withdraw cash. So what could be wrong? There were no other ATM machines in the airport, so I tried this one again. The same blaring message appeared on the screen. I retreated, a bit of panic starting to settle in. I had decided not to carry any cash when I left the U.S. and I only had two credit cards and no other debit cards with me. Finally, I closely examined the card in my hand and discovered that it had expired last year. How did this happen???

generic debit or credit card

Normally, if you have an active account, most banks will automatically issue you a new card just before your old one is set to expire. In my case, Charles Schwab did issue a new card, but mailed it to my old address. I had moved a full year before and had logged into all of my accounts to change my address immediately. However, this particular card is tied to a joint checking account so only my husband had logged in to change our address. I have a different log-in and my debit card has a different card number and expiration date, even though it is tied to the same source of funds. Unfortunately, this is why my new card was sent to the old address. It was not returned to Schwab nor was it ever activated. My husband and I had traveled out of the country recently and, while I was carrying my Schwab card as my primary access to cash, we ended up using my husband's card for ATM withdrawals. That's why I wasn't aware that mine had expired, because I don't use this card for regular transactions at home, only when I travel.

woman with cell phone

I discovered all of this when I used my mobile phone to call the bank from the airport in Sofia. Thankfully I had recently switched to an international plan with T-Mobile which included free calls over wifi and only $0.20 per minute roaming. It took about 15 minutes on the phone with Schwab to get a full picture of what had happened and why, as well as to understand my options.

Next I called both of my credit card companies to verify the fees associated with a cash advance. If I used my Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select Mastercard to withdraw money from an ATM, the Citibank cash advance fee would be $10 or 5% of the amount of the cash advance, whichever was higher. Plus I would have to pay the ATM fee set by the machine's issuer. By comparison, my Schwab account is automatically reimbursed for all ATM fees. Finally, the interest rate of 26.24% (equal to a daily periodic rate of 0.071%) would be charged on the same day as I withdrew the money. In my situation, knowing it would be at least one week or more before I would have a new ATM card, I calculated that I needed to withdraw around 330 Bulgarian lev (BGN) equivalent to roughly $200 US dollars. If I did that as a cash advance with my Citi card, it would cost me $10 for the cash advance fee plus the ATM fee (let's assume it was $3). So I would withdraw 330 BGN and my new Citi account balance would be $213. That same day I would be charged the daily periodic rate of 0.071% so my new balance would be $213.15. The next day, my balance would be $213.30. Each day the interest would continue to accrue on the new, higher balance (this is called compounding) until I paid it off.

using a credit card

I decided I did not want to incur those fees just yet so I walked to the adjacent metro station and paid for a one-way ticket with my Barclaycard Arrival World Mastercard, which does not charge foreign transaction fees. Then I walked the few blocks to my hostel, where I had booked a dorm bed for three nights. The hostel only accepted cash so I explained my situation and asked if they could help, possibly by loaning me some money for 24 hours until I sorted everything out. The sole employee who was on site did not speak much English and was not willing to give me any money; in fact, I had to surrender my passport as collateral for a place to sleep.

By that time it was already around 4:00 p.m. I had been awake almost 24 hours. Still, I had to start thinking about alternative ways to get cash. There were no other English-speaking travelers in the hostel at that time, so I didn't have any options there. The Schwab representative had suggested I go to a local bank to find out how to do a wire transfer. There was a UniCredit Bulbank head office a couple of blocks from the hostel, so I walked there. Again, out of the dozens of employees working the floor, only one of them spoke some English. I explained my situation, but she said I would have to open an account in order to receive a wire transfer. Too complicated!

checkout cashier station closed

I returned to the hostel and called Schwab again, this time to discuss the logistics of shipping a new debit card. Printing the card would take 24-48 hours. Shipping the card created another level of complexity. First, I did not have a set plan for my travels beyond Sofia and thus had not booked any other accommodations nor had I even decided where I was going next. Schwab needed a physical address where someone could sign for the delivery. Also, the package would have to clear customs, which could cause unpredictable delays. Their estimate was five to seven business days total for printing and rush shipping. There was no way I could come up with an itinerary and book accommodations in my exhausted state. I told Schwab I would call them back once I had a contact name, phone number and shipping address.

Shortly after I got off the phone, I was sitting in the hostel's kitchen researching what to do for the next few days and resigning myself to the fact that I would probably need to get the cash advance on my credit card. Then, a new hostel guest checked in. Megan, a twenty-something Canadian from Calgary, Alberta had been backpacking around the world for eight months. We chatted about her journey and my trip to Alberta last year, and then I asked if she could help me. She didn't hesitate to say yes! After confirming that she still had an active PayPal account, she withdrew the Bulgarian lev I needed with her ATM card, then I immediately sent her the money via PayPal. The only fee I incurred was $4.67 because I had to send the money in Canadian dollars and PayPal charges a transaction fee on foreign currency.

USA and Canadian flags

Less than eight hours after discovering that my debit card had expired, I already had enough cash to last me for a couple of weeks or more in Bulgaria. I thanked Megan profusely and went to bed with my mind mostly at ease, even if I still had to figure out where to have the new card shipped.

I finally received my new debit card in Skopje, Macedonia nine days later. Thankfully, the owner of the hostel I had booked in Skopje spoke English and went out of his way to help me by actually picking up the package at the local FedEx office. I called Schwab to activate the card, then tested it at an ATM machine a few hours later. Success!

In the end, I was lucky that this mistake incurred minimal cost and only a few hours of time lost. I also made a new friend, whom I ended up meeting for dinner one evening and we had a wonderful time talking about life and travel while sharing some delicious local specialties. Of course, I insisted on paying for her meal! In budget-friendly Bulgaria, a substantial dinner for two including two drinks apiece cost only $8.32. To their credit, Schwab did not charge me for shipping the card, which cost them more than $50.

Bulgarian specialties of chicken livers and shopska salad

How could I have avoided this situation?

The most obvious way is to include "Check expiration dates of all forms of i.d. and bank cards" on your pre-trip to do list or your packing list and to actually test any cards you plan to carry at an ATM machine and/or to make a purchase prior to traveling.

Another great option is to set a reminder for all i.d. and bank card expiration dates on your Google Calendar. Be sure it alerts you at least one full month prior to the actual expiration so you have plenty of time to request a new card. In the case of passports, set the alert for at least three months prior to expiration so you'll have plenty of time to renew. Note that many foreign countries require your passport to be valid for a minimum of six months after your arrival, so if you're going to be traveling internationally near to the time of expiration, you should plan to get your passport renewed before you depart.

passport page filled with stamps

I'm sure I'll experience "new" mistakes in the coming years as I continue to explore the world. Hopefully they'll all work out as well as this one did. No matter what, I promise to share my lessons learned with you so hopefully you can avoid making the same mistakes I have.

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