Money: Plastic not fantastic

Don't let your flexible friends become enemies abroad, warns Paul Slade

PLASTIC CARDS are becoming more and more important as a source of holiday money for Britons abroad. The big card suppliers boast that they will always be there to bail you out if you run into trouble while overseas. But even cards from a major company such as American Express can let you down just when you need them most - as I discovered for myself while I was holidaying in Texas last month.

When I started to run low on traveller's cheques in Fort Worth, I called at the local AmEx Travel Services office to try to arrange a cash advance of $200 or $300 on my AmEx gold card. I knew my card account was in good order, and imagined that this would be a simple enough transaction.

But the lady working there said she could not help, as her particular office, "does not have that facility". She explained that there was another AmEx office a few miles away which "might" be able to help, but offered no further information. Then, having been thoroughly unhelpful, she and her colleague suggested that I "have a nice day", at which point I gave up.

I didn't have a car, so getting to the other AmEx office was not a practical proposition, which was just as well as it turned out. I was able to fund the last few days of my holiday by piling as much of my spending as possible on to the AmEx card itself, and using my few remaining dollars only when there was no alternative. But why had AmEx refused to help me out?

Atalia Da Silva, the company's London spokeswoman, says: "US banking regulations don't allow American Express or other non-banking organisations to give cash advances on card accounts. If you need cash, we can always do emergency cheque-cashing, but it's not as convenient."

That wouldn't have been much help in my own case, as I would have needed to have my UK cheque book with me. So, far from explaining the true situation at the time, the AmEx office in Fort Worth had instead directed me to an equally useless office a few miles away.

Ms Da Silva's guess is that the Fort Worth staff didn't understand the banking rules themselves. If I had pressed the matter, they would probably have been able to organise a transfer of funds from my UK bank account, she says.

The upshot is that although I could not get any cash on my AmEx card, using a Visa card or a Mastercard at any one of the nearby banks would have been fine. "Visa is a banking organisation, whereas AmEx is simply a card issuer," Ms Da Silva explains.

Another alternative would have been to use one of my credit cards to withdraw cash from a Fort Worth ATM. This too was impossible in practice, as I never use these cards for cash withdrawals in the UK, and had no idea what the relevant PIN might be. Of course, I can hardly blame the card companies for that.

My trip also produced a hiccup with my traveller's cheques. One bank, this time in Memphis, refused to cash my AmEx cheques because they had an exclusive deal with Visa. This was only a tiny inconvenience, as there was another bank across the street which cashed my AmEx cheques quite happily, but it did make me wonder what might have happen if I'd been holidaying where only one bank was available.

Ms Da Silva says: "There are a couple of US banks that have those exclusive deals, but it's very rare."

A Visa International spokeswoman, Selina Carter, says her organisation has 14,437 member banks in the US, all of which accept Visa cheques. But she cannot say how many of these turn down competitors' cheques.

As it turns out, I could also have used my own bank's cash machine card with my existing UK PIN (which I do know) in both Memphis and Fort Worth, although that option never occurred to me at the time.

My cash machine card has a Cirrus logo on the back, identifying it as part of Mastercard's cash machine operation. Apparently, there are about 200 Cirrus-badged ATMs in the Fort Worth area, so it seems safe to assume that I could have found one within walking distance of my hotel.

Richard Tyson-Davies, of the Association of Payment Clearing Systems, says: "The other logo that you'll find on ATMs around the world is Plus, and that's linked with Visa. These are the creatures of the two international card schemes. You may see machines badged Mastercard and Visa, but you're more likely to see Cirrus and Plus."

The lesson would seem to be that not only should you take more than one means of spending when abroad - cash, cheques and plastic, say - but you may also have to take more than one brand of each. It will also help if, unlike me, you can remember more than just one PIN.

To find a nearby Cirrus machine while in the US, call 1-800-4-CIRRUS. Calls are toll-free. You can reach the same service from the UK by calling 001-800-4-247787, in which case calls are charged at international direct- dial rates

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Arts and Entertainment
The Vienna State Opera
opera
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'
musicLilly Wood and Robin Schulz bag number one single
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
    The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

    The fall of Rome?

    Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
    Glasgow girl made good

    Glasgow girl made good

    Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
    Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

    Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

    Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
    The landscape of my imagination

    The landscape of my imagination

    Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories