Questions of Cash: My 'perfect travel companion' from the Post Office was a waste of money

One reader purchased the Post Office Travel Money Plus Card for a motoring holiday but discovered it can't be used at self-service petrol stations or autoroute toll booths

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Q. I was attracted to the Post Office Travel Money Plus Card after reading on a leaflet that it was "a perfect travel companion". It said the card could be used "wherever MasterCard is accepted".

So I bought one and loaded it with £800 in euros. The card's terms and conditions stated it could not be used at self-service petrol stations. This made me suspect it could not be used at autoroute toll booths, which was confirmed by a call to its customer services.

I bought the card for a motoring holiday. For us the card is not "the perfect travel companion". We feel deceived. Are these restrictions common to all pre-paid cards? To add insult to injury, having used my HSBC Visa credit card to pay for my travel card I was astounded to find I was charged interest for this. MG.

A. You were charged interest on the transaction as it is treated by the card issuer as a cash withdrawal. As you have discovered, pre-paid cards have restricted use. Specifically, they can be used only where the payment terminal has an online connection, which enables the vendor to know that the card holds sufficient funds for the transaction.

The Post Office tells us that toll booths and self-service petrol stations sometimes use offline terminals for card payments. A spokeswoman explains: "The vast majority of card terminals around the world are online. However, some retailers have offline card terminals, which means they are unable to check the balance of the pre-paid card on the spot.

"The Post Office has no choice but to decline these transactions. The card can be used inside petrol stations but not at self-service petrol pumps … or at some toll booths. Our advice is always that people take a mix of cash and plastic to cover all eventualities." It is happy to cancel the card you bought and provide you with a full refund if you wish.

The same difficulties apply with other pre-paid cards. An AA spokesman comments: "Pre-paid cards work in a slightly different way to debit or credit cards in that they have a finite resource to make payments. Therefore when a transaction is made, the system has to confirm that funds are available to make the payment." He said this blocks their use at "remote toll booths … some self-serve fuel pumps … and [this] can very occasionally happen at an ATM ... particularly old ones." He added that his experience, and that of his colleagues, was that pre-paid cards are usually accepted by toll booths, for example in France and Austria.

Why is this transfer taking so long?

Q. My wife has applied to transfer £1,060 of her unused income tax personal allowance to me [through the new Marriage Allowance]. She has had two HMRC emails saying it is processing it. But so far, nothing! What's going on? SG.

A. A spokesman for HMRC says: "Marriage Allowance is one of the new government services being delivered online by default. We expect most people will want to apply online because it is quick and easy, and can be done at a time most convenient to them. As Marriage Allowance is a new digital service, we are inviting people who have registered their interest to use the service gradually, to ensure that it works really well for everybody before the service opens to the public in the summer.

"Rolling out the service gradually has allowed us to act on feedback in the first weeks by making changes to the service. Everyone who has registered their interest will receive an invitation to apply, and will get the full financial benefit of the transfer no matter when they apply. Your reader should look out for an email from HMRC, which will contain a link to take them to the application service."

Feeling blue: sky upgrade is a no-show

Q. We are Sky customers, and have used it for home phone, broadband and TV for nearly two years. We pay a lot of money (the bills are around £110 a month).

I phoned Sky in March to say we were out of contract and we wanted to leave. Sky offered to reduce our bill to £86 a month, including an upgrade of our broadband to Sky Fibre Pro with 78mb of data, in place of the standard fibre we were on.

We have still not received this upgrade more than three months later. I have phoned countless times, spoken to many Sky representatives – some have been very unhelpful and not bothered to call us back. Sky's one helpful operative told us he had spoken to numerous departments and submitted several "fault forms", which also have not achieved anything. I'm at the end of my tether on this. WH.

A. Sky failed to process the agreed upgrade due to a technical error. It accepts the issue should have been resolved much sooner. Your account has been credited with the amounts overpaid as a result of the delay in making the changes, and these will be deducted from your bill. A spokeswoman says: "We're very sorry for the inconvenience. [The reader] is now receiving the right fibre package and we've made sure his agreed offer started from the day he was connected."

We expressed surprise to Sky at the size of your monthly bill. It said this was because of the wide range of service extras delivered on your account, including Sky Sports and Sky Movies. It adds that it has provided a number of discounts to bring down the size of your bill.

Questions of Cash cannot give individual advice. But we'll do our best to help if you have a financial dilemma. Email us at: questionsofcash@independent.co.uk

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